By Donald N. Moran
By all accounts Isaac Ketcham was truly a scoundrel. What little history has recorded of his activities confirms that, although completely unintentional, and for the worst possible motives, he saved the Continental Army from certain destruction.
His story begins with another rogue, one Henry Dawkins, an English born New Yorker of less then sterling quality. For reasons unknown today, Henry was in the New York City Jail when the war broke out, and was released in 1776. Shortly after his release, Dawkins, an engraver by trade, decided to enhance his fortune by counterfeiting the new continental paper money. He enlisted the support of two brothers, Israel and Isaac Youngs. Henry convinced them to buy him a printing press and conceal it in the attic of their home, where he intended to set up his illegal operation.
There was still a problem. Even in Colonial America, the government realized that you could limit counterfeiters by using special paper. To secure the proper paper Henry turned to Isaac Ketcham. Ketcham went to Philadelphia, then the best source of printing paper, to secure the needed supplies. In normal times a purchase of specialized paper would not arouse suspicions, but this was 1776 and nothing was usual. The vendor notified the authorities and in May, Ketcham was arrested. He was charged with attempted counterfeiting. Henry Dawkins and the Youngs brothers were also thrown into the city jail. In the jail they encountered other prisoners guilty of far more serious offenses. The combination of these events, and the only motivation, the preservation of his own skin, Ketcham would be the salvation of the Continental Army.
The Tories of New York made up a large portion of the population. Among them were most of the city’s leaders. They had developed several plots to assist the anticipated British invasion. Of those which can be documented today, one includes the raising of a substantial Tory force that would secure Kings Bridge, the only land route from Manhattan, capture and destroy the Continental Army storage depots in Westchester County and the Hudson Highlands. If successful, this action would trap the entire Continental Army on Manhattan.
The second plot was a conspiracy to capture the American Commander-in-Chief, George Washington and as many of his personal Guards as possible. This was detailed by David Matthews, the Tory Mayor of New York City. After the war, Matthews testified before a Royal Commission, seated in London, “I formed a plan for the taking of Mr. Washington and his Guard prisoners but which was not effected. ”
A third plot, the famous plot to poison General Washington, which was firmly believed in New York at the time, and is still believed to this day, is very suspect. The British very much wanted to bring the arch rebel, George Washington, to trial in London. Why have him poisoned?
As unlikely as the plots may seem today, they had a reasonable chance to succeed in 1776. The Royal Governor of New York, William Tryon, was in New York Harbor, safely abroad the H.M.S. Duchess of Gordon, a ship of the line, mounting 74-guns. Boats from and to the warship were constant. Even after the Continental Army arrived and fortified New York City, the sailors on this ship, and H.M.S. Asia and H.M.S. Rose, also in the harbor, sent their shoes to the city for repairs!
Then, something went wrong. According to Matthews, “an unfortunate discovery was made”. In the City’s jail, Isaac Ketcham overheard some of the other prisoners talking about the conspiracy to secure Kings Bridge and the American Army’s supply depots. Ketcham saw a way out of his personal dilemma – warn the patriots. So he sent a letter to he Provincial Congress, telling them of what he had heard. He ended his letter with “Sir, I the subscriber hath something to observe to the honorable house if I could be admitted. Its nothing concerning my one affair but entirely on another subject. ”
The Provincial Congress reacted almost immediately, and on the bottom of Ketcham letter someone had added “The application of Isaac Ketcham and the memorandum which finally ended in the execution of Thomas Hickey for High Treason.” Unfortunately the memorandum alluded to has been lost or was deliberately destroyed. It probably detailed the entire plot. Ketcham was brought before the Speaker of the New York Provincial Congress and then returned to jail. Ketcham became a informant for the Patriots, operating in the confines of the city jail.
Back in prison, Ketcham made friends with two new prisoners, both soldiers. Sergeant Thomas Hickey, Irish born and a deserter from His Majesty’s Army, and Private Michael Lynch, both members of the Commander-in-Chief Guard. They had been arrested for passing counterfeit money. From them Ketcham learned more about the plot to kidnap General Washington.
The Provincial Congress received further information from a patriot businessman from Orange County, New York, William Leary. A former employee of his, James Mason, was in the pay of the British and involved in the plot. Mason was arrested and admitted his guilt and named Gilbert Forbes, a gunsmith in the City and Thomas Hickey. He also named two more members of the Commander-inChief Guard, William Green, a drummer, and James Johnson, a fifer.
General Washington was informed of the conspiracy and he immediately dispatched Captain Caleb Gibbs and a party of trusted members of the Guard, who arrested all the known conspirators.
Ketcham testified at the Court Martial of Hickey, helping to send him to gallows. On July 28th, 1776, Thomas Hickey, by order of General Washington, with the concurrence of Generals Heath, Spencer, Green, Lord Sterling, Muffin and Scott, was hanged before a gathered crowd of 20,000, including four brigades of the Continental Army.
Strangely, no record exists regarding the fate of the other conspirators.
What is historically interesting is that the charges brought against Hickey involved a plot to poison General Washington, yet Ketcham and others clearly were talking about a plot to kidnap the American leader. The records of the Court Martial exist, but upon examination and comparison with other records, it would appear that George Washington and other ranking American Officers realized the danger of allowing the truth to be known. If the rank and file American Soldiers feared being trapped on Manhattan Island, the odds were there would be mass desertions. The same theory would apply to the plot to kidnap the General. If the Tories were strong enough to accomplish that, what other mischief could they do? It was in the best interest of the American cause to ‘invent’ the plot to poison General Washington.
The impact of Isaac Ketcham’s information is obvious. Notwithstanding Ketcham’s motives, which were probably completely selfish, he did a great service for his fledgling Country.