A miserably bungled plot to kidnap George Washington and assassinate his chief officers led to the hanging of one of his special guards, the jailing of the mayor of New York, and a stepped-up search for Loyalists on Long Island.
One of these Loyalists was 18-year-old George Smith, who in June 1776 took a Patriot musket ball through the chest while hiding out in a Hempstead swamp two months before the Battle of Long Island. His was the first blood of the Revolution spilled on Long Island.
Smith was a mere foot soldier in the Loyalist cause. There were almost a hundred plotters, including one of Washington’s hand-picked Life Guards, and they reached high into Tory circles.
One was William Tryon, the colonial governor of New York, who so feared the city’s Patriot rabble that he took up residence on a British merchant ship, the Duchess of Gordon, anchored in the harbor. Another was New York Mayor David Matthews, who would wind up in jail. A third was one of Long Island’s more prominent Loyalists, 64-year-old Richard Hewlett, of what today is East Rockaway, who fled into hiding to save his skin until the British could rescue him.
The conspirators went into action shortly after Washington arrived in New York from Cambridge, Massachusetts, on April 13 and began making plans to defend the city from the British, whose ships were expected during the summer. The Patriot hold on the area was precarious, because Loyalist sentiment was strong, especially in the city and in Queens County. The plotters were laying the groundwork for an insurrection that would help the British take control of New York.
“The general report of their design is as follows,’’ read an unsigned letter to the Pennsylvania Journal published on June 26. “Upon the arrival of the British troops, they [the American Loyalists] were to murder all the staff officers, blow up the [ammunition] magazines, and secure the passes of the town.’’
(An apocryphal story making the rounds of the taverns where carousing Tories drank regular toasts to the king was that someone tried to get rid of Washington by poisoning his green peas. The general’s housekeeper, suspecting foul play, threw the peas out in the yard, where the chickens who ate them promptly died.)
A weak link in the plot, however, was one of Washington’s trusted Life Guards, an 18-year-old private named Thomas Hickey, who has been described as “a dark-complexioned man of five feet six, well set ... an Irishman and hitherto a deserter from the British Army.’’ Hickey was himself jailed by American authorities for attempting to pass counterfeit notes, and he unwisely talked of the plot with a cellmate, another counterfeiter named Isaac Ketcham, who was from Cold Spring Harbor.
Ketchum, seeing an opportunity to be set free, squealed on Hickey. The ex-guard was court-martialed and found guilty of mutiny and sedition. On orders of Washington, and with 20,000 Continental soldiers as spectators, Hickey was hanged on June 28 in a field near Bowery Lane. (“We are hanging them as fast as we find them out,’’ a correspondent wrote to a friend in Boston.) Although other Life Guard members were also implicated, Hickey was the only one of the plotters to be executed.
On the morning of the execution, Washington wrote to the president of the Congress:
“I am hopeful this example will produce many salutary consequences, and deter others from entering into the like traitorous practices.”
With Hickey’s revelations fresh in the air, a contingent of militia from Jamaica, Queens, was ordered to round up a list of Loyalist sympathizers hiding out in the woods, brush and swamps of Hempstead. At the top of the list was Richard Hewlett.
The militiamen marched along the trail that is now Merrick Road, heading toward what is today the eastern portion of Lynbrook. On June 22, they came to the home of one of the Loyalists, Isaac Denton, near the intersection of Merrick Road and Ocean Avenue. But he — like many of the Loyalists they were looking for — had disappeared. The militia decided to look in the nearby swamp, not far from today’s Tanglewood Preserve. Nineteenth-century historian Henry Onderdonk Jr., in his book, “Revolutionary Incidents of Queens County,’’ related this story:
“1776, on Saturday, June 22, party of Whig soldiers went to Hempstead swamp (at the head of Michael DeMott’s mill pond) to take up some Tories who were hiding there. They made some resistance, and fired on the soldiers in the woods. The soldiers returned the fire, and wounded George, son of William Smith. They then called for quarter. The soldiers took six prisoners and put them in Jamaica jail.”
Onderdonk said of George Smith:
“He was attended by Dr. James Searing, from June 22 to 29, whose charge for dressing the wound, bleeding, basilicon [ointment], a plaster, cathartics, ivory tube to suck out the blood, and nine visits was 1.17.6. [One pound, 17 shillings, sixpence.] He recovered from the wound, but not from the fright. To the day of his death he would now and then start up in his sleep, and cry out: They’re a-coming!”