Was there ever a plot to poison the food of the father of our country? Some historians say yes and others no, as the problem is a lack of corroborative evidence and a surplus of colorful stories steeped in legend. Nevertheless, one soldier named Thomas Hickey did hang for his part in a conspiracy that may or may not have happened, making this a story of note, worth retelling, and reconsidering in these modern times.
George Washington was in New York attempting to fortify his bedraggled and outnumbered troops against an expected British invasion. A British ship sat smugly in the harbor, so certain of its supremacy that crew members blatantly rowed back and forth to shore for provisions. Plots among Patriots and Loyalists flourished and Nathan Hale lost his life attempting to pass through enemy lines.
A man named Isaac Ketcham was serving jail time for counterfeiting colonial currency. While incarcerated, he overheard talk of Loyalist plots and wrote to the New York Provincial Congress. Unfortunately, his correspondence has been lost, but historians believe it contained two elements: a subversive cabal to sabotage the patriots’ New York position and a deadly plot to murder George Washington.
Here is where historical truth and legend are tightly meshed. Phoebe Fraunces was the young daughter of Samuel Fraunces, owner of the tavern where Washington bid farewell to his troops. Washington was fond of the family and drank there often. As the story goes, a solider named Thomas Hickey was smitten with the young Phoebe and was a regular patron of the tavern. After a few strong brews, Hickey supposedly confided in her there was a plot afoot to poison Washington with his favorite food, pea soup.
Phoebe told her father and when Washington was served the soup he quickly took it away and told him the peas might be poisoned. He then threw the soup into the yard where his chickens promptly gobbled it up and died instantly. Historically, the earliest mention of this incident occurred on March 14, 1832 in The Poughkeepsie Journal, but there is no mention of Phoebe or Thomas Hickey, just a Mrs. Smith who had hired two young drummer boys, William Green and James Johnson, to poison the soup.
According to the Wethersfield Historical Society, “history does not repeat itself, but historians continue to repeat each other.” The Phoebe story and the Thomas Hickey plot have the same issues historically; much is based on hearsay and legend with little direct documentation. However, in some regard something must have happened as Hickey was executed before 20,000 spectators on June 28, 1776 for sedition, mutiny, and treachery.
Trial records indicate several of his accomplices testified against Hickey, sealing his fate. One of them was William Green whose name Hickey muttered just before he was hanged. Chaplain Reverend Jacob Corwin who was present at his execution corroborated this fact.
In 1860, Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington, a book written by George Washington Parke Custis, grandson of Washington’s wife Martha, tells the story of Samuel Fraunces and Thomas Hickey and mentions a daughter, but not by name.
The dearth of actual evidence will always give rise to doubt about this thwarted plot to kill George Washington. It is, however, quite plausible Samuel Fraunces, who considered Washington a friend, would have stopped at nothing to intervene in a plot to kill the father of our country. Sadly, assassination has reared its ugly head too many times throughout America’s history, but this time at least, it wasn’t successful.
Do you believe in the possible plot to assassinate President Washington? What other presidential assassination plots, which weren’t successful, do you know of? Share your thoughts with us.