On this day in 1776, American soldier and spy Nathan Hale is hanged near the Dove Tavern in Manhattan. Hale had been spirited into New York City after its capture by the British under General Howe, in order to report on troop movements to General Washington and the retreating Continentals.
Born in Coventry, Connecticut in 1755 to Richard Hale and Elizabeth Strong, at 14 Hale and brother Enoch were sent to Yale College. Nathan was a classmate of fellow patriot spy Benjamin Tallmadge, and the brothers joined the Linonian Society of Yale, which debated topics in astronomy, mathematics, literature, and the ethics of slavery. Nathan graduated with first-class honors in 1773 at age 18 and became a teacher, a once-hallowed profession.
After hostilities commenced in 1775, Hale joined a Connecticut militia and was elected first lieutenant within five months. While his militia unit participated in the Siege of Boston, Hale remained behind, torn between his teaching contract, a solemn promise in its day, and his desire to fight. Eventually inspired by Tallmadge to take his leave, Hale accepted a commission as first lieutenant in the 7th Connecticut Regiment under Colonel Charles Webb of Stamford.
Lurking in the city after the patriots’ retreat, an account of Nathan Hale’s capture shelved in the Library of Congress holds as follows. Major Robert Rogers of the Queen’s Rangers saw Hale in a tavern and recognized him despite his disguise. After luring Hale into betraying himself by pretending to be a patriot himself, Rogers and his Rangers apprehended Hale near Flushing Bay in Queens, New York. A competing version states that his Loyalist cousin, Samuel Hale, was the one who revealed his true identity.
According to the standards of the time, spies were hanged as illegal combatants. On the morning of September 22, 1776, Hale was marched along Post Road to the Park of Artillery, next to a public house called the Dove Tavern, at modern-day 66th Street and Third Avenue, and hanged; he was 21 years old.
While exact accounts differ, it is generally agreed that just prior to his demise, Hale defiantly declared “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.” Prescient words, as five years later with the British defeat at Yorktown, Hale was indeed a hero for his newborn country; these United States.