Wednesday, November 21, 2007

History Does Not Repeat Itself...

The truth can be found in many places. For example I recently found it on a "Coffee Games" insert in a newspaper that seems to have some connection to the Foxwoods Casino here in Connecticut.

I found the tabloid abandoned on a table at our local Chinese takeout place. The one page tan colored amusement section was stuck in the centerfold. Among its contents were several quotations - some amusing, some not. Most were too wordy to fit into the fortune cookies that normally dispense wisdom in this establishment. So I read through them hoping to find a deeper truth than could be contained in a thinly folded piece of dough - and came upon:

"History does not repeat itself, - historians merely repeat each other."

A few months ago I would have blown right by this notion without giving it a second thought. History was not and had never really been an interest of mine. Mars and I did join the Wethersfield Historical Society when we retired. But we were more in search of some engaging volunteer opportunities and a chance to socialize with interesting people, than in increasing our knowledge of bygone events.

Then our good friend John, a history buff and member of the society's Board of Directors, told me about some research that a now deceased previous volunteer (Wes Christensen) had done on our town's role in the Civil War.

Long story short - the work was in need of some organization and a means of presentation and now, through the efforts of Mars and myself, it has become the first article in a newly created "Member Articles" section on the society's website.

This project got Mars interested in learning a little more about the Civil War. So we attended an Elderhostel at Gettysburg and added a photo of the Connecticut monument to the website. And that was the extent of our immersion in history until another Elderhostel - this time a golfing one at Penn State University.

"I noticed on your nametag that you're from Wethersfield Connecticut. Do you know about Thomas Hickey?" The speaker's ID said "Sol Henner" and he said that he was a "retired Revolutionary War Historian".

"No I don't. What should I know about him?"

"Well he was a well known Revolutionary War traitor who lived for a short while in Wethersfield."

"I guess then that we wouldn't have any streets named after him."

"No, I would think not. Actually he was a traitor twice - once from the British to the Americans and later on, when he became convinced that the English were going to take back the country he went back to the British. He was a member of General Washington's Guard in New York and was involved in a plot to assassinate him. There is a book called "Traitors, Turncoats and Heroes" [by John Bakeless] that tells about him. You might find it interesting."

"Thank you. Actually we volunteer at the Wethersfield Historical Society so I will check this out when we get back home."

Sol spoke as if, in historical circles at least, this was a familiar story. So I figured after I got a little background info I would stop in at the Historical Society where I assumed this story was equally well known, although possibly consigned to the "Dirty Little Towne Secrets" part of the research library. Then perhaps I would write it up in some relatively entertaining way and post it on the society's website.

I quickly found the story on the Internet in a website devoted to New York history. The outline was pretty much what Sol had told me. Hickey was a member of the Commander-in-Chief Guard who "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] 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."

The article also mentioned that Hickey was a former British deserter but said nothing about his Wethersfield origins. This was not totally surprising since the focus of this particular site was New Yorkers. What was surprising was when I Googled "Thomas Hickey Wethersfield" and got no hits.

Still I figured everything is not yet on the 'net so no big deal. But when I went to the Wethersfield Historical Society, (a) there was no "D L T S" section, and (b) instead of a huge folder of property deeds, birth announcements, etc. relating to Thomas Hickey (or any of that surname) all that I found was:

(1) One entry in the accounts of a Wethersfield merchant of that time
"February 25 1775
The settled all just accounts with Mister Thomas Hickey as written our hand
Thomas Hickey
Samuel Hanmer"

(2) An article published in a local newspaper in 1967 about "Thomas Hickey - listed in the old histories as a resident of Wethersfield [who] almost succeeded in assassinating George Washington."

(3) A letter of inquiry to the Wethersfield Historical Society dated May 9, 1958 from John Bakeless (the author of the book to which I was referred by Sol Henner) seeking "any local records that might list him, tax lists, lists of householders, or anything of the sort".

The newspaper piece however talked about a different treasonous crime - an attempt by Hickey to poison Washington using tainted peas (apparently a favorite dish of the General) as the reason for Hickey's execution. As source material it referenced Hickey's account-book signature at the historical society, and a work by Benson J. Lossing called "History of the American Revolution".

The Bakeless inquiry did not have any response on file and, when I later researched his book, I found that it had no references at all to Hickey's Wethersfield connection. The book also calls into question, without disproving, Lossing's poisoned pea story - the facts of which Bakeless says Lossing got "from one W.J. Davis, who had them from Peter Embury, of New York, who knew [The housekeeper who Hickey allegedly attempted to involve in the plot] Phoebe Fraunces."

Longer story shorter.

I got the Lossing book and there are no sources cited for any part of the Hickey story, Wethersfield included, other than the above-mentioned W.J.Davis.

I also looked at a number of other historical works that mention Hickey's Wethersfield connection - none with any sources other than Lossing, most with none. I also determined that at least one of Lossing's Hickey facts - that he was transferred from Knowlton's Rangers (a Connecticut regiment) to Washington's Guard - is incorrect since the Rangers did not exist as a unit until three months after Hickey's execution.

John Bakeless died in 1978 so I can't ask him - but I'm thinking that his omission of any mention of Wethersfield in his Hickey story indicates that he could not find enough direct proof to convince him of its truth.

Me neither!

But I am still going to write my piece for the Member Articles section of the website. It will relate the frequently told and widely accepted story of Wethersfield's most notorious traitor. And will talk about the fits and starts, and successes and frustrations of my research. My conclusion will be that it is possible that Thomas Hickey, the convicted attempted kidnapper of our nation's first President, was (however briefly) a resident of Wethersfield Connecticut - but extremely unlikely.

One of my pet peeves with the Internet and email is the speed with which false information can be distributed. The cause of this problem is not however the technology, but instead the eagerness of the disseminators to be a part of the story by passing on unverified information. As a result I've assigned myself the role of fact-checker before Mars or I forward on such electronic epistles.

The truth can be found in many places - but not if "historians merely repeat each other."

P.S. Fittingly enough the truth-shedding quote that I found is a slight distortion of one by Phillip Guedalla - an English barrister, author & popular historian. His actual statement was "History repeats itself; historians repeat each other."

Photo by Mars

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