Thursday, March 29, 2018
Hanged As A Spy
War is hell, and some of the hell of war seems almost beyond belief. In the case of a Ridgefield man convicted of being a spy during the Revolutionary War, some of the story of his final moments may well be beyond belief.
Edward Jones had immigrated to the United States from his native Wales and had settled in Ridgefield in around 1770. Since he had so recently left his native land, it was not surprising that when the war broke out, he felt a loyalty to King George III.
While there were quite a few Tories in Ridgefield, the majority of the town had voted to support the Continental Congress (though not as quickly as other area towns). Loyalists were often harassed and sometimes even attacked. Jones was probably concerned for his safety, and after the British took control of New York City, he moved there and became a butcher for the British army.
According to later testimony, he was sent one winter day in 1779 into Westchester County to buy cattle to supply meat for the British forces but was discovered behind continental lines in Ridgefield. He was arrested for spying on the operations of General Israel Putnam’s encampment in nearby Redding.
Jones claimed he had gotten lost and did not know he was in Connecticut.
According to Redding historian Charles Burr Todd, General Putnam had been angry over both “desertions, which had thinned his ranks, and Tory spies, who frequented his camps, under every variety of pretext, and forthwith conveyed the information thus gathered to the enemy. To put a stop to this, it had been determined that the next offender of either sort captured should suffer death as an example.”
On the espionage front, Jones was that next offender.
Jone’s court martial was convened Feb. 4, 1779, and, “pressured by Putnam’s desire to return discipline to the ranks, was not inclined to believe that he had innocently wandered into the state, especially in the area around Ridgefield that he knew well, and he was sentenced to death,” wrote Daniel Cruson in “Putnam’s Revolutionary War Winter Encampment,” published in 2011.
After the verdict, Putnam ordered Jones executed late on the morning of Friday, Feb. 12, “by hanging him by the neck until he is Dead, Dead, Dead.”
“From the orders, it is clear that there was to be no question of his physical state after the sentence was carried out,” Cruson said.
On the same day, John Smith, a teenaged Continental soldier who was caught fleeing to British lines, was also sentenced to be executed. However, as a deserter, he would be shot instead of hanged. (Smith was the basis of the fictionalized character, Sam, in the acclaimed 1974 young adult novel, “My Brother Sam Is Dead,” which described life in the Revolutionary War period in this area and has been read by countless Ridgefield students over the years.)
Both Jones and Smith were jailed in a house on Umpawaug Hill in West Redding. Often, locals would show up outside the house and taunt the prisoners. That prompted General Putnam on Feb. 10 to issue an order that no one be allowed near the prisoners “as frequent complaints have been made that they are interrupted in their private devotions by people who come for no other reason than to insult them.”
It seems a very humane order. Yet one account of the execution portrayed an event anything but humane.
John Warner Barber’s book, “Connecticut Historical Collections,” published in 1838, reported that the hangman had disappeared from camp on the day of the execution, possibly because he found the task distasteful.
A makeshift gallows was set up that required its victim to climb a 20-foot ladder and stand on top with a rope tied from his neck to a cross-beam. The ladder would be jerked away, and the condemned man would fall to his death.
With no executioner at hand, General Putnam reportedly ordered Jones to jump from the ladder — in effect, committing suicide.
“No, General Putnam,” Jones is said to have replied. “I am innocent of the crime laid to my charge; I shall not do it.”
Barber’s account says that Putnam then ordered two 12-year-old boys who were somehow part of the audience to knock over the ladder on which Jones stood.
“These boys were deeply affected with the trying scene,” Barber wrote. “They cried and sobbed loudly, and earnestly entreated to be excused from doing anything on this distressing occasion. Putnam, drawing his sword, ordered them forward and compelled them at the sword’s point to obey his orders.”
The boys then followed the command, and Jones was hanged.
Barber said the account of the execution came from “an aged inhabitant of Reading [Redding], who was present on the occasion and stood but a few feet from Jones when he was executed.”
Other histories, including Lorenzo Sabine in his 1864 “Biographical Sketches of Loyalists of the American Revolution” and Todd’s 1906 “History of Redding,” repeat this story.
However, Todd points out that G.H. Hollister, in his “History of Connecticut,” disputes the account, and cites eyewitnesses, including the Rev. Jonathan Bartlett.
In 1855 at the age of 90, Bartlett “well remembers the Revolutionary encampment at Redding and frequently visited it. He is sure that the story in Barber’s ‘Historical Collections’ about Putnam’s inhumanity at the execution of Smith and Jones is incorrect.
“Though not present himself, he has often heard his father relate the incidents of the occasion; and furthermore he once called the attention of Colonel Asahel Salmon (who died in 1848, aged 91), who was a sergeant in attendance upon the execution, to the statement, and he declared that nothing of the kind took place.”
The Rev. Thomas F. Davies, another historian, also pooh-poohs the account. “Mr. Barber must have been misinformed,” he said in 1839. “Reading is my native town and from my boyhood, I have heard the history of the proceedings on the occasion referred to, and was much surprised at the statements in the ‘Historical Collections.’ The Rev. Bartlett, whose father was chaplain on that occasion, informs me that General Putnam could not have been guilty of the acts there charged.”
Finally, James Olmstead of Redding, who died in 1882 at the age of 89, wrote in the Danbury News that his father, “being an officer himself and well known to some of the officers on duty, was one of the few who were admitted within the enclosure formed by the troops around the place of execution and able to witness all that there took place….He was within a few feet of the scaffold when Jones, pale and haggard, was next brought on, his death warrant was read, and he seemed to recognize some few of his old friends, but said very little except to bid farewell to all, and his last words, which were, ‘God knows I’m not guilty,’ and was hurried into eternity.
“My father had a pretty good general knowledge of General Putnam and his eccentricities, and had there been any unnecessary hardships or severity used in the treatment of the prisoners, he most certainly must have seen and known something of it, but in all I ever heard from him or anyone else, no allusion was made to anything of the kind, and in view of all the circumstances I think it may be safe to infer that no such thing occurred on that occasion.”
Tradition was that those hanged at the gallows were buried at the structure’s foot, and it’s believed that both Jones and Smith were buried at the execution site on what is today known as Gallows Hill. It’s just east of today’s intersection of Gallows Hill Road and Whortleberry Drive in Redding.
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