Nathan Hale: The Life and Death of America's First Spy


"Few Americans know much more about Nathan Hale than his famous last words: "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country." But who was the real Nathan Hale?" In this well-researched biography, M. Williams Phelps separates historical fact from long-standing myth to reveal the life of Nathan Hale, a young man who deserves to be remembered as an original American patroit.
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Nathan Hale: The Life and Death of America's First Spy

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"Few Americans know much more about Nathan Hale than his famous last words: "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country." But who was the real Nathan Hale?" In this well-researched biography, M. Williams Phelps separates historical fact from long-standing myth to reveal the life of Nathan Hale, a young man who deserves to be remembered as an original American patroit.
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal

This is the first full-length biography of Hale in several decades. Hanged by the British as a spy, Hale is most famous for the phrase attributed to him, "I only regret that I have but one life to give my country." Phelps (If Looks Could Kill), best known as a true crime author, brings his reporting skills to this history. He does well with the story of Hale's short life and disturbing death after being caught behind enemy lines seeking information on British troop movements. Relying as much as possible on primary sources, Phelps writes of Hale's years at Yale, which he attended in his early teens. He was an excellent athlete, handsome, charming, with a large number of friends. After graduating in 1773, he began life as a teacher, but in those pivotal times, he left teaching for the Connecticut militia. Some of the most powerful parts of this biography are those in the words of Hale's brother, Enoch, who was sent by the family to find out how Nathan died and to bring back his body. This book would serve well as a staple for high school American history students, as well as college readers and all history buffs. Highly recommended for school, undergraduate, and public libraries. [Warner Bros. has optioned the film rights to this book.-Ed.]
—Suzanne Lay

Kirkus Reviews
A new look at the Connecticut preacher's son who became an icon of patriotic sacrifice. True-crime specialist Phelps (I'll Be Watching You, 2008, etc.) delves deeply into the comportment and character of Nathan Hale (1755-76). Covering his studies at Yale and his fulfilling early career as a schoolmaster in the bustling port town of New London, the author shows an amiable, intelligent, athletic and well-educated young gentleman. Hale's dedication to his Christian faith was soon to be matched by his passion for the cause of his "injured, bleeding country" in the throes of rebellion against its colonial masters. But he also had moments of boredom and self-questioning, relieved by any number of romantic dalliances or an occasional bout of serious boozing with former Yale classmates and other friends. He was swept into military service first in the militia, then became an officer in George Washington's army, with which he participated in the siege of Boston in 1775. After Washington's forces withdrew from New York City and the English occupied it, Hale volunteered for a mission behind enemy lines on Long Island to gather information on the British high command's resources and possible strategies. The rest is history, and Phelps makes no real inroads on the major questions: Why was Hale so easily tricked into revealing his mission to Robert Rogers, a well-known British military man? Where exactly in New York was he hung from a tree after uttering those famous sentiments about having "only one life" to give? (Sentiments that were probably paraphrased for posterity.) Where was his body buried in an unmarked grave? Could Hale have actually started the fire that devastated lower New York? Allmysteries still. Phelps provides useful perspective on 18th-century mores that made spies like Hale initially reviled by both sides, but his narrative could use more depth. Agent:Peter Miller/PMA Literary & Film Management
Nathan Hale is a secular saint of American patriotism. Facing a British gallows for spying during the Revolutionary War, he supposedly uttered these immortal words: "I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country." Phelps has written an informative, interesting biography of Hale that effectively reveals the flesh-and-blood human behind the iconic image. Clearly an admirer of Hale, he has written nothing that detracts from Hale's reputation; instead, he has provided a nuanced portrait of a deeply religious, idealistic young man whose short life was dedicated to various forms of public service. Hale was raised in rural Connecticut, attended Yale at the age of 14, and graduated with honors. Upon graduation, he worked as a schoolteacher, and after Lexington and Concord, joined a Connecticut militia. He seemed to approach service to the Patriot cause as a passion, not merely a duty. Phelps, using Hale's own correspondence, clears up some of the murky details surrounding Hale'

— Jay Freeman

From the Publisher
“Nathan Hale is a secular saint of American patriotism. Phelps has written an informative, interesting biography of Hale that effectively reveals the flesh-and-blood human behind the iconic image.”—Booklist

“Phelps has brilliantly taken Nathan Hale from the faded memory of history and reintroduced us to a vibrant young man . . . who steps across the line to act for his country.”—Joseph J. Trento, author of The Secret History of the CIA

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781611687675
  • Publisher: University Press of New England
  • Publication date: 3/3/2015
  • Pages: 320

Meet the Author

M. WILLIAM PHELPS is an award-winning veteran journalist and the author of twenty-six nonfiction books. He lives in Connecticut, near the Nathan Hale Homestead.
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Read an Excerpt

Prologue Thunder of Heaven

FROM THE WESTERN FRONT of the green facing Yale College’s Connecticut Hall, a three-story, redbrick building, one could look to the east and manage a squinted glimpse of Long Island Sound and, just over the horizon, the magnificent Atlantic Ocean. Settled in 1638 as Red Mount, New Haven was a thriving colony, steeped in maritime aesthetics and deep-seated Christian values, established by its founders on the principles of community, education, economics, and, of course, religion. It was here, in the thick of the city near Chapel Street, that two teenage classmates left the Yale campus on a summer day in 1772 en route to New Haven harbor.1

To passersby, the students blended into the milieu of the city as if they had lived in New Haven all their lives. But neither scholar had grown up in town. One of the boys, Nathan Hale, the son of an affluent deacon and farmer, lived sixty miles north in the hills of Connecticut. Having spent the past three years studying at Yale, Nathan held an idealistic view of the city; its tradition of political discourse and fidelity to Christianity fell right into what he—indeed, nearly all colonists—had been raised to believe: that in God all things were possible.2

Still, beyond a visit to the house of the school’s resident physician, Dr. Eneas Munson, the local tavern, or a shop keeper nearby, Nathan rarely ventured beyond the surrounding neighborhood, keeping the majority of his socializing confined to campus.3

Nathan and his classmate Isaac Gridley were headed to New Haven harbor, a bustling seaport, situated along the jagged coastline between Stamford and Saybrook. There, merchants sold colonial goods—mainly sugar, pewter, nails, timber, fishing gear, compasses, sextants—and coopers and shiphands loitered about the docks in search of work, while businessmen kept tabs on their coastal offices and ware houses. The first Puritans to settle in New Haven 150 years earlier felt there was great value in such a sprawling seaside community and hoped to monopolize what they viewed as a prominent commercial port on the East Coast. The problem became, however, that New York was but a half day’s sail south, Boston a day’s sail north. Both were larger cities, with much more to offer seafaring merchants and importers. Yet even though their immediate plan for financial success failed, the harbor prospered and sustained a growing economy over the years, providing a viable tract of land and a tenable backdrop for the "neatly painted frame houses of many of the town’s influential families" dotted about the ribboned countryside overlooking the harbor.4

It had turned cloudy by the time seventeen-year-old Nathan and his fifteen-year-old classmate reached the shoreline. Undeterred by the gray skies above, they pushed a sloop out into the water and, with their backs to the wind, jumped aboard for what they assumed was going to be an afternoon of leisurely sailing.5

But soon after their voyage began, the weather turned volatile and violent. Waves crashed up over the bow of the small sloop as Gridley, certainly worried they wouldn’t make it back to shore without being swallowed up by the choppy waters, looked to Nathan for guidance and comfort.

With the confidence he had acquired while becoming one of Yale’s top thirteen scholars, Nathan said, "I will never be drowned."6

To Gridley, Nathan appeared too sure of himself, as if he knew—and firmly believed—that dying in the midst of a storm at sea was not in God’s plan for him. Nathan’s words did little to suppress Gridley’s trepidation; it thundered and lightning cracked in flashing bolts around them.

Maneuvering the vessel back to shore, Nathan explained why he was so certain they would make it in safely. He pointed to a blemish on his neck, beckoning Gridley to have a closer look.

A childhood friend of Nathan’s, Asher Wright, who would become his close ally and camp attendant during the Revolutionary War, later described Nathan’s pockmark as "a large hair mole on his neck." A mole on one’s neck was a sign of bad luck. If one had a hair growing from that mole, it further indicated that death by hanging was in your future.7 Reflecting back on his life with Nathan, Wright added, "In his boyhood, his playmates sometimes twitted him about [the mole], telling him he would be hanged."8

Apparently, Nathan Hale believed it to some extent—because as he and Gridley, surely drenched from the heavy rains, pulled the boat ashore, Nathan spoke of it again. He pointed to the slightly elevated mole on his neck and again said he knew he wasn’t going to drown. Gridley wanted to know how his friend could be so certain.

"I am to be hung," Nathan lamented.9

Chapter One

Chapter 1 The Righteous and Patriotic Man

THE FIERY COLORS OF leaves burst around New England during the fall of 1769. Fifteen-year-old Enoch and fourteen-year-old Nathan straddled their horses and began what was a sixty-mile journey to New Haven. They had been lectured by their father, Richard Hale, regarding the vices of living in a city far from his supervision. Richard probably told the boys to mind their studies and seek guidance in the word of God while away from home. For Nathan and Enoch, it was the first time they had left home alone, beyond a brief visit to their uncle Strong’s in Salmon Brook, or a trip into Hartford, Norwich, or Windham for supplies with their father.

Richard Hale had little to worry about. He had raised well-behaved, mindful, disciplined children. Richard had lofty religious morals and expected no less from members of his family. He could trust that when confronted with the pressures of college life, Nathan and Enoch would make the right choices. The Hale children were said to have been brought up under "the fear of God," drilled by their father on the particulars of right and wrong. In colonial Connecticut, "church and state were not separate." Attending church was not a right—but a requirement of the law. Richard understood that God was the source of all life. Without putting the Lord’s word first, nothing else was possible; and what ever happened in life, he told the children many times, was God’s plan. Never question His Divine Word.

Richard had instilled these ideals in his children at every opportunity. During the Sabbath, for example, the Hales would not have had a fire burning in keeping with Richard’s rule of respecting the sacred day (in winter months, a fire would be "banked," the massive granite cooking stone kept warm, but cooking was not allowed on Sundays). As a child, Nathan liked to play the board game morris, which is similar to checkers, with his brothers, but Richard, "thinking the diversion might lead to evil," disallowed it. Once, while reading, Richard fell asleep with a candle burning in his hand. Nathan and his siblings, who had waited for their father to doze off, huddled like campers and played the game in the candlelight around the chair.1

Both Enoch and Nathan were prepared for Yale by Dr. Joseph Huntington, who held classes at his home, two miles from the Hale family farm. Huntington was not only a friend and neighbor of Richard Hale’s, but a well-respected minister and renowned scholar in the small community of Coventry. "The two boys were fortunate in their preceptor," Hale family expert George Dudley Seymour said of Huntington, "urbanity in an ‘Age of Homespun,’ a classic scholar."2

Nathan became an exceptional student and enjoyed being tutored. His manners were honed by Huntington, who taught Nathan how to truly study the Gospels and also encouraged him to read biographies of Cyrus the Great and Philip of Macedon. Only thirty-three years of age when he tutored Nathan, Huntington, "a man of solid learning and exemplary piety," wrote historian Robert Waln Jr., had received a "liberal education" from a line of distinguished relatives and siblings. His brother Samuel would sign the Declaration of Independence in the coming years and serve in the Continental Congress. Licensed as a reverend on June 20, 1763, Huntington took over the Congregational Church near downtown Coventry a short while later.3

"[Reverend Huntington] found his parish," Franklin Bowditch Dexter wrote in 1896, "on his settlement, in a somewhat disorganized state; and was able to unite the people to an unexpected degree, though the entire period of his ministry was one of spiritual declension."4

When Huntington’s first wife died at twenty-nine after just a brief illness, he married into the Hale family, taking the hand of Elizabeth, a relative of Richard’s from Glastonbury. As far as Richard Hale could discern, he could not have found a better scholar to educate his children and prepare them for college. People were attached to Huntington, and Nathan and Enoch, studying with him day in and day out, cared deeply for the man and carried on in his image.5

The Yale College Nathan and Enoch came upon after their forty-eight-hour ride was a stunning sight for two kids accustomed to the confines of a farming village such as Coventry. The boys’ conception of a large body of water, for instance, had, until then, been Lake Wangumbaug, a 373-acre basin—known as the Great Pond—north of the Hale farm near the center of town. In contrast, the Yale campus was a short walk from the Atlantic Ocean, where the New Haven common housed two Congregational churches alongside one Episcopal, which surely set the tone for Yale’s Christian curriculum.

Richard had secured bonds for each of his sons to cover the college’s quarterly bills. Tuition was twelve shillings per year for each boy, an amount Richard couldn’t come up with immediately in cash, but could certainly afford, based on the earnings of his farm. Enoch and Nathan already had a broad knowledge of Cicero, Virgil, and other classical writers, as well as a complete understanding of the New Testament in Greek. Among the tutors Nathan and Enoch could look forward to studying under were John Trumbull, the painter and son of future Connecticut governor Jonathan Trumbull Sr.; John Davenport, whose father was one of the founders of New Haven; Timothy Dwight, who would become Yale’s president; and Dr. Nathan Strong, a Hale relative from their mother’s side.6

Yale was a fairly modernized school, structured after—albeit in competition with—Harvard. There was room to board sixty students, most of whom had enrolled to study theology, inside thirty-two bedchambers. Connecticut Hall, where Nathan and Enoch would spend the better part of the next four years, was a three-floored building on top of a large, spacious cellar. Several of the floors inside the structure were "devoted almost exclusively to dormitory space," with sixty-two rooms designated for study.7

After finding a stable master near campus to put up their horses for the night and return them to Coventry the following day, Nathan and Enoch settled into their rooms inside Connecticut Hall.

Any notion the boys might have had of an easier life at Yale was soon removed. Much to their dismay, the prayer bell rang at 4:30 A.M. the first morning (during winter months, students were afforded an extra hour’s sleep). The bell’s tolling before sunrise reminded students that, before anything else, scholars were expected to greet the day by dropping to their knees and connecting with God. After a brief time of private prayer, it was off to the chapel next door for daily service. Then they marched in rows into the courtyard and down to the College Commons for breakfast. Many students routinely complained the food there was overpriced and bland.8

A day’s studies consisted of courses in Greek, Latin, and, occasionally, Hebrew. "Some attention was given to logic and rhetoric," Charles Swain Hall wrote in his biography of Benjamin Tallmadge, one of Nathan and Enoch’s close friends and classmates, "but many of the subjects were oriented to provide a preliminary training for the ministry."

That goal inspired Enoch to endure the often strict guidelines of the school’s religious policies and class structure. Nathan, however, was thinking of tutoring as a profession, but had left the door open to anything— that is, except the ministry. In a world of males bred to be involved in church leadership, his turning his back on religion as a vocation gave him a reputation, whether he wanted it or not. Yale College was organized under a rigid rule of discipline, Henry Sheldon wrote in his study of colonial student life and customs, "particularly the relation between professor and student, [which] likewise made for some strong form of association.... Like its English prototype, the colonial college was pervaded with a strong ecclesiastical flavour."

On Mondays, students were expected to summarize sermons from Sunday. Tutors and Yale’s president, Naphtali Daggett, dressed in customary gownlike black robes and powder-white wigs. The wigs were not at all that shocking to Nathan or Enoch. Back home, Richard would don his familiar gray hairpiece on special occasions.9

For the next four years, aside from a few brief visits back home to Coventry, Yale would be Nathan’s home. Unbeknownst to him, he would never return to Coventry to live again, but would leave Yale a distinguished scholar. Before then, temptations of mischief during his formative years of college life would ultimately get the best of him.

Two years after settling in Coventry in 1744, twenty-nine-year-old Richard Hale married seventeen-year-old Elizabeth Strong. If Richard had wanted to marry into a respected, wealthy, and established family, the Strongs were certainly one of the more affluent. Elizabeth’s father, Captain Joseph Strong, had been a justice of the peace, leading townsman and treasurer, and represented Coventry in Connecticut’s General Assembly for sixty-five sessions. He displayed a lively outlook even at an advanced age, chairing town meetings well into his nineties.10

Richard’s great-grandfather, Robert, had set sail with family members from Kent, England, to America during the early 1600s, shortly after the Mayflower landed. Robert Hale settled in Charlestown, Massachusetts. Both he and his wife, née Joanna Cutler, were "among the original members of the First Church of Boston." Robert held many jobs throughout his life, which his descendants, as they began to journey into Connecticut and northern New England, carried on through generations: blacksmith, deacon, carpenter, and surveyor of the many new "plantations" being bought up throughout the Northeast.11

The earliest Hale most often highlighted by his contemporaries in literature, although often misrepresented, was Richard’s grandfather, who established his family in Beverly, Massachusetts. The Reverend John Hale, at fifty-four, served as a chaplain, "despite the protests of his congregation," during an "ill-fated New England expedition into Canada in 1690," during which time he was captured in a roundup of suspected rabble-rousers one day and thrown in prison. Released two years later, John returned to Salem, Massachusetts, to find the town embroiled in a witchhunt. John was in attendance for many of the trials, "participated in the religious exercises," and sanctioned—at least during the early days—many of the executions. At first, John believed he was doing the work of God and his community. But as the trials continued, it seemed some women in town were pulling people they didn’t favor out of their homes and accusing them of witchcraft. The Reverend John’s sentiment changed for good when his wife, Sarah Noyes, was herself dragged in and charged as a witch. The accusations in town were unrelenting, and although her case never came to trial, Sarah’s reputation took an enormous blow.

Before his death on May 15, 1700, the Harvard-educated reverend wrote a book about his Salem witch-trial experiences, A Modest Inquiry into the Nature of Witchcraft, published a year after his death. In it, he noted, "The object sought unto is the devil, or another God... some of the Heathen did not [s]eek to the devil, as a devil, that is, as a malicious, wicked, and unclean spirit; but as to their God whom they thought ought to be worshipped by them." Reading John’s various papers on the Salem witch trials, one gets a sense that he was speaking from a rather progressive standpoint for the time. He believed the "possessed" victim was influenced by the devil, not that the witch had impregnated these specters in the victim by casting spells.

The subject of Sarah’s part in witchcraft was a "terrifying but fascinating topic in Deacon [Richard] Hale’s own house hold," Hale family expert George Dudley Seymour wrote in his 1933 history of Nathan Hale and Major John Palsgrave Wyllys. In Seymour’s opinion, Nathan and his siblings "thought it something of a distinction to have had a great-grandmother accused of being a witch." Today’s historians, with a clearer understanding of the Hale house hold, would disagree with Seymour, however. "I don’t think the Hale family would have wanted it discussed," Linda Pagliuco later noted. "They were very religious—and many of those who believed in witches were religious. I think they would not have wanted to discuss Sarah outside of the family, and doubt that they even knew the facts [of her case] as they are known today."12

Nathan’s eldest sister was Elizabeth Rose Taylor. Her second husband, John, had studied to become a minister, but was never able to find a parish that would accept him. Thus, John opened a tavern in downtown Coventry. Elizabeth ended up spending a majority of her time at the tavern and may have worked as a barmaid. "Richard Hale is said to have hated it," Pagliuco added. "Thus, if Richard was that bothered by his daughter working in a tavern, they probably weren’t going to brag about having a great-grandmother... accused of being a witch."13

A branch of the Hale family tree was closely connected to the founding of Yale. Sarah Noyes’s brother, the Reverend James Noyes, was one of Yale’s original trustees, along with his brother Moses, both Harvard men who were "influential in the founding of Yale College."14

Nathan’s mother, Elizabeth, was a fifth-generation Strong, born in Coventry in 1727. Many viewed Elizabeth as a woman of "high moral worth, with strong Puritan faith and devoted to the religious culture of her children." She was by all accounts beautiful and had an "uncommon strength of character." For Nathan and the other Hale boys to head off to Yale would be no surprise to Elizabeth, who had been born into a family with over a dozen Yale graduates. When Nathan grew up in Coventry, there would have been no shortage of Strongs around to instill in the boy the Christian moral values expected of him as he grew into manhood. The Reverend Nathan Strong, Elizabeth’s second cousin, presided over the meeting house in Coventry for five de cades as first minister. From his early sermons, a respect for the colonies and the Puritan way of life emerges. Nathan Strong, a man of "solid judgment" and "acute penetration of mind," was widely viewed as an innovator within the growing structure of local churches joining together pre-Revolution. He often "quiet[ed] disturbances in sister churches" before they became public nuisances. As a child, Nathan listened as the minister "espoused the cause of his country, in the War of the Revolution." Even before war broke out, the reverend spoke harshly of the king’s mandates, not to mention the attempts to put a stranglehold on colonial businesses with taxes. He let his congregation know God’s will included standing up and speaking openly about what they believed.15

The Strongs and Hales were joined in marriage at the turn of the eighteenth century. The Strong family name carried authority throughout New England. Like the Hales, their ancestors had landed on colonial soil after sailing from Kent, England, and were among the first Puritans to incorporate outer Boston. Soon after crossing the Atlantic in 1630 aboard the Mary-John, John Strong settled south of Boston and helped found the town of Dorchester. From there, the family spread throughout Connecticut and Massachusetts. In 1659, John helped to establish Northampton, a neighboring town in the mountains of western Massachusetts that Enoch would one day call home. Elizabeth’s brother Elnathan Strong settled in Coventry some years later, while Joseph established his family northwest in Salmon Brook.16

As soon as they were married, Richard and Elizabeth Hale got busy right away building what would be a sizable home on an initial 240 acres of fertile land in South Coventry, a few miles from where Elizabeth had been born. Within a few years, Elizabeth gave birth to the first of what would be a total of nine sons and three daughters. A son, Jonathon, and one of the daughters, Susannah, died at birth, leaving her with only two daughters to help with the cooking, cleaning, and tailoring.17

A large section of the Hale farm was devoted to harvesting feed corn and grain for Richard’s cattle business. He also set aside plenty of acreage for flax, used for making cloth. During the French and Indian War, colonial New England lived under a law that mandated farmers to reserve a certain amount of acreage for the production of flax in order to help outfit the army. For the Hales, however, it was also essential to the family. Though each of the boys owned three outfits (at best), because they spent sunup to sundown playing in and working the fields, they went through clothes quickly. Hemp was another important commodity. As far back as the mid-1600s, early colonial governments legislated colonies to grow as much hemp and flax as they could, putting "servants and children to work spinning yarn in their idle hours," historian Margaret Ellen Newell wrote, and offering "bounties for finished linen and cloth." Later, when the Revolution drew closer, England made it clear that it did not want colonists to make their own cloth; Americans were supposed to buy English products. The Hales supported any colonial effort to break from England and did their part by harvesting extra crops of flax to sustain the colonial army’s needs.18

The sixth child in the Hale family, Nathan was born on June 6, 1755, while Richard was out working with his men. While they tilled the fields, the anxiety over his baby got the best of Richard as he periodically dropped his tools and snapped orders. Throughout the morning he had been taking "frequent trips" back to the house as Nathan’s mother, Elizabeth, lay on her back struggling through the birth. But when it at last happened, Richard was said to be "bending over a furrow." A woman servant helping Elizabeth inside the house suddenly "ran... from the kitchen down the long slope" in the back of the house and reported to Richard. With the news, he addressed his men, "The Lord be praised for the mother and the child. Let him be a worthy servant," before cutting them loose for the day to "do as you will with your time." As Richard and the servant rushed back to the house, the servant asked him if he was going to name the child a junior. "He shall be called after that righteous and patriotic man, my kinsman Nathan, and I shall be well pleased if he have as high a sense of duty," answered Nathan’s proud father.19

Nathan "was feeble in body at the beginning of his life," Benson Lossing wrote. Despite being born underweight and, in subsequent days, given "very little promise of surviving the period," he surprised everyone and grew into a brawny, muscular child. During that "critical second year," Lossing noted, Elizabeth’s fifth son rebounded into a "robust child, physically and mentally."20

Two months before Nathan turned twelve, the first of many tragedies struck the Hale house hold. The Hale’s twelfth child, Susannah, was born in February 1767, but died a few weeks later. Then, on April 27, 1767, Nathan’s mother, Elizabeth, lost her life due to the complications from giving birth to Susannah. Although the family "revered the Bible as the voice of God" and perhaps viewed Elizabeth’s and Susannah’s deaths as part of the Lord’s plan, Nathan was overwhelmed by both losses, his mother’s probably more so than that of a sister he had never really known. He and Elizabeth had been close. She had sat and told Nathan many stories about Yale, from her many family members that attended the school. Because Nathan had struggled with life early on, he and Elizabeth had, by merely spending so much time together, bonded. But now she was gone. And just like that, Nathan and his siblings were motherless.21

At the time of Elizabeth’s death, Richard Hale had eight small children to raise (two were grown) and a farm to manage. Nathan’s slightly older sister, Elizabeth, picked up several of her mother’s duties and helped where she could, but Richard needed a woman to run the house hold. He couldn’t do it alone. It was customary in colonial New England to mourn the loss of a spouse for two months, then quickly find another, more out of necessity than love. But Richard had cherished Elizabeth’s company deeply, and their relationship was unlike most Puritan marriages; it would take him several years to recover.

Abigail Adams (not to be confused with President John Adams’s wife of the same name) had grown up in Canterbury, a twenty-mile trip east of Coventry. After meeting through mutual acquaintances, within a few months of courtship Abigail and Richard Hale married a week after Nathan’s fourteenth birthday on June 13, 1769, about eight weeks before Enoch and Nathan left for Yale. Abigail was the widow of Captain Samuel Adams, with whom she’d had two daughters. Daughter Sarah moved into the Hale house with Abigail; while Alice, who had gone to live with her uncle in Canterbury, visited when she could. With hazel eyes and "jet-black hair," Alice was a beautiful, diminutive girl, who would become known in her elder years as "one of the brightest ornaments of [her] society." She and Nathan became close almost immediately as she began to visit. As friends, they adored each other’s company.

Contemporary historians and writers, and even Abigail’s family, have indicated that Nathan and Alice corresponded regularly while he was away at school, building on a friendship (and many suspected romance) they had started before he left. Yet none of those letters between them—if they ever existed to begin with—remain. Alice moved into the Hale house after both Enoch and Nathan had left. At fifteen, she became linked romantically with Elijah Ripley, a respected, wealthy Coventry merchant ten years her senior. A year later, on February 8, 1773, sixteen-year-old Alice married Elijah.

From a journal Alice kept later in life, a portrait of her thoughts emerge. She did not want to be married to Elijah, but in spite of what some nineteenth-century biographers of Nathan might have hoped, it had little to do with a quixotic love she had for Nathan. Instead, her melancholy demeanor developed after her father passed: "How oft have I wished," Alice wrote, "and even prayed that this mighty affair [she was speaking then about her third marriage to a Hartford man] might be wholly left to ye will of providence?—and ’tis certainly by the divine institution that this change had been wrought—heaven only is my witness of the doubts & fears struggles & anxieties of mind which I have suffered."22

Throughout her life, Alice Adams would struggle with depression. Soon after she married Elijah, she bore him a child. Both offspring and father would die inside the next few years. Within several years, Alice had lost her father, child, and first husband. "A heavy gloom hangs upon my mind—O the pilgrimage of this life is infinitely troublesome & perplexed by all trials & afflictions that I meet with here... may I be brought nearer to god and divine things & whenever the blessed redeemer shall resume that life he gave me I shall resign it into his hands without sorrow and without fear."23

Unlike Alice with her unfortunate future marriage, Richard Hale and his new bride were quite happy in Coventry. They were building a life for themselves after early deaths had taken each of their spouses. By then, Richard had been elected to the General Assembly of the state. As Enoch and Nathan prepared for a life at Yale, Richard and his new family were getting along well and keeping the farm running without difficulty.24

In the years following the American Revolution, the Hale family would refer to an acre-sized lot out in front of the north side of the family mansion, where roadways intersected to form a triangular plot of land, as Holy Grove. David Hale Jr., the son of Nathan’s younger brother David, planted a large formation of rock maple trees in between the dirt roadways and South Street, the main thoroughfare leading up to the farm. The trees had been sowed like rows of corn, standing perpendicular to one another like a line of fence posts. The area was said to be named Holy Grove after neighborhood open-air prayer meetings were held underneath the canopy of trees.

Generations earlier, during Nathan’s days on the farm, one would be lucky to find a small throng of trees anywhere in town. When Coventry was incorporated in the early eighteenth century, its settlers cleared large tracts of land, stripping away much of the town’s natural forest for fuel, building materials, and cropland. Standing on the second floor of the Hale mansion, one could see twenty miles on a clear day in any direction.

Before and during the Revolution, the Hales raised beef cattle. When it was time for the cattle to go to market, Richard and the kids drove the herds into Norwich, a port town twenty-three miles southeast of Coventry. In Norwich, the cattle boarded a riverboat two by two, arklike, and set sail for New London, where they were grouped onto schooners and merchant ships headed to the West Indies and England. In the late 1760s, as the tensions between the British and the American colonies rose and a rebellion seemed imminent, Richard Hale’s farming business was partially disrupted. Many of his customers were English. Part of the colonial drive for independence was based on American opposition to British taxation laws, but also to the export to England of goods manufactured and farmed in the colonies. As it seemed more and more likely war was the only option the colonists had left, Richard was appointed to head a provisions committee in Coventry that would eventually sell beef cattle and other items to American forces. So while talk of war seemed to put a damper on the Hales’ business at first, the Hale farm—like thousands of others throughout New England— prospered.25

In 1769 colonial New England, it was unusual for a house hold to send even one child to college. Hardworking Richard Hale was able to send three. So he was sure to check in on his latest investments from time to time and let Enoch and Nathan know what he expected from them. As a dedicated Christian, Richard hardly ever talked or wrote to Nathan without encouraging him to continue studying God’s word. He was likely upset that his son wasn’t following in the family tradition by joining the ministry. Instead, Nathan leaned toward following one of his uncles into education and becoming a tutor and schoolmaster. Although Nathan was devoutly religious, he realized that teaching future scholars was his passion. Still, his father took advantage of every opportunity to make sure Nathan understood that without God he could expect nothing out of life.

A few months after Nathan and Enoch settled in New Haven, Richard sent a letter addressed to both. It was a day after Christmas 1769. Richard had received a letter from one of the boys on December 7, in which they noted how "well suited with living in college" they had become. Richard responded clearly:

I... would let you know that we are all well through the Divine goodness, as I hope these lines will find you. I hope you will carefully mind your studies that your time be not Lost and that you will mind all the orders of College with care and be sure above all forget not to Learn Christ while you are busy in other studies.

Richard explained that he wanted to send the boys money, but he had been waiting to entrust it to a neighbor who was heading into New Haven as soon as he returned from a tenure on the circuit court. Richard obviously missed his sons immensely. He expressed a desire for the boys to visit home, noting, "If you can hire Horses at New Haven... without too much trouble and cost, I don’t know, but it is best and should be glad to know how you can hire there and send me word."

At the end of the letter, he explained that if he had not heard from them by May 6 the following year, 1770, he would send horses for a trip home— that is, if their Yale tutors allowed them a leave. "Your friends are all well," he concluded, "...from your kind and Loving Father, Rich Hale."26

During his years at Yale, Nathan grew into an insightful and outspoken contributor to the college culture. As he and Enoch entered their sophomore year, Enoch was chosen for membership in Linonia, a secret fraternity founded in 1753. Nathan became a member two weeks later on November 20, along with his new friend James Hill house. Labeling Linonia a "secret society" makes membership sound more romantic than it actually was. Primarily, it was a literary organization, a group of scholars who met once or twice a week to discuss, in no specific order, slavery, astronomy, literature, women’s rights, and other important social and academic issues. Yale scholars worked themselves to the bone. Linonia was one way, certainly, for some to further their studies, while enjoying a bit of social intercourse among future leaders and members of the communities they were headed for. Late nights and weekends at Yale were not a time for frat parties, heavy drinking, and promiscuous sex. According to Benjamin Tallmadge, Fridays and Saturdays were devoted to students—"in small groups"—appearing "before their tutors to recite in the three classical languages." Saturday afternoons were built around supplementary study of theology.27

Nathan held several positions within Linonia, including the office of chancellor, and became one of its primary members, choosing many of the books for its growing library. Inside that tight-knit group Nathan developed a commitment not only to education as a career, but to debating politics and popular issues of his day. For the first time, his opinions were put before a group of his peers and discussed. He began to see the benefits of a democratic system, if only on a small scale.28

As fellow students James Hill house and Nathan became closer through their membership in Linonia, it was obvious to both that they viewed American politics and colonial life similarly. Six months older than Nathan, Hill house had an academic look about him, with his dark hair, sharp features, and serious eyes. Born into a long line of Northern Irish immigrants, Hill house grew up in Montville, Connecticut, just outside New London, a town Nathan would eventually call home. He and Nathan saw a common bond between them in their views on contentious issues of the day. A revered candidate for Nathan’s friendly affections, Hill house was sent from his home as a boy to live with his uncle in New Haven, who promptly adopted him, so he could be closer to his studies. He grew up an only child, which afforded his parents the opportunity to help him focus his studies on law. Hill house would go on to spend fifty years as Yale’s treasurer and, as one historian later said, "did more for New Haven than anyone else of his generation."29

Linonia was primarily a debating society, "exalted and warmed by friendship and nourished by books," George Dudley Seymour later wrote. It was, for Nathan, one of the first times in his life where his remarkable skills as a leader began to stand out.

As Nathan’s class took over the society, members tailored its structure to fit the political community and scientific needs of the day. It was decided that instead of a member giving a closing speech after each session, "a Dissertation on some branch of the Sciences" would be more appropriate. Books were collected and Linonia started its own library, which Nathan, if he didn’t suggest its inception, immediately began to manage. Members were allowed to "take out Books on Saturday at two o-clock in the after Noon, that no one might keep a Book longer than a Week without returning it."30

Enoch was mentioned in the society’s minutes first, on October 31, 1770, along with Stephen Keyes, Ebenezer Williams, and Noah Merwin, all of whom would befriend Nathan, look up to him, and correspond with him in the coming years. Nathan was admitted into the society along with nine other scholars. With Nathan’s input, debate topics changed from meeting to meeting. One question would be "What is the Reason that the Moon is not always Eclipsed every Opposition of the Sun and Moon?" And then a day later, "How do you solve Questions, when the unknown quantity has several Powers in one Equation, and only the first Power in the other Equation?"

Nathan kept detailed minutes and asked questions that would later mesh with his character as a humorist and patriot. In one, he wrote, "What thing is the most delightful to Man in the World?" Answering his own question, a bit of irony leapt from Nathan’s quill: "It is much as the Parson is, if he... delights most in what he ought most to be ashamed of—Virtuous Men will take the greatest Delight in Virtuous Actions, but what is most delightful to most Men, is getting Money."

Athletics were prescribed, in part, to relieve Yale scholars from a stressful seven-day study week. Wrestling, a sport Nathan would excel in, was a common way for scholars to bond and, as with youth of every era, assert an aspect of their masculinity. Because of his size, Nathan surpassed most others in the sport. In a testament to his athletic ability, honed while at home working long days in the fields, legend says that no other student among his class could best Nathan in the long jump—and a record Nathan set on the green of New Haven was "pointed out" and "preserved" well into the nineteenth century. However successful he might have been, whenever kicking a ball around or wrestling with peers became dull, Nathan passed what little free time he had by getting involved in another traditional Yale pastime: mischief.

On a clear and cool night in March 1771, Nathan, Enoch, Benjamin Tallmadge, and a few fellow classmates roamed around campus looking for something to keep themselves occupied. Fueled by the tedium of such a structured curriculum and possibly also by an evening at the local tavern, the boys went out and broke several windows around campus. Later, Tall-madge excused his misbehavior by writing, "Being so well versed in the Latin and Greek languages, I had not much occasion to study during the first two years of my collegiate life, which I have always thought had a tendency to make me idle."

Nathan would never make valedictorian or any other distinction at Yale beyond honors. Jared Sparks, who was friends with many of the scholars Nathan mingled with, summed up perfectly, perhaps, Nathan’s early years in New Haven: "Possessing genius, taste, and order, he became distinguished as a scholar; and endowed in an eminent degree with those graces and gifts of Nature which add charm to youthful excellence, he gained universal esteem and confidence."

Sparks further explained that the habits Nathan picked up at Yale developed in him a "high moral worth," which lent to a remarkable "gentleness of manner [and]... ingenious disposition."

As he immersed himself in college life, Nathan began to realize how serving the needs of his fellows was possibly more important to him than his own selfish needs. "No young man of his years," Sparks wrote, "put forth a fairer promise of future usefulness and celebrity; the fortunes of none were fostered more sincerely by the generous good wishes of his superiors."31

Richard Hale knew his sons’ characters as well as he knew the contours of the land of his farm. He was well aware that Nathan, who was inherently more outgoing than Enoch, tended to succumb to the temptations of peer pressure. Nathan’s classmates would later say he adored card playing and drinking, not to mention window breaking and chasing the young maidens around town. In that respect, when Richard wrote to the boys as they headed into their second full year, he advocated once again his firm belief that if they needed answers while away and found letter writing too fleeting, a good place to turn was the Scriptures:

I have nothing special to write but would by all means desire you to mind your Studies and carefully attend to orders of College. Attend not only Prayers in the chapel but Secret Prayer carefully. Shun all vice, especially card playing. Read your Bibles a chapter a night and morning. I cannot now send you much money but hope when Sr Strong comes to Coventry to be able to send by him what you want.32

What Richard would find out later was that part of the money Nathan and Enoch demanded was for the fines they had to pay the school for the broken windows.

Nathan wasn’t about to question his father’s words; he cherished Richard’s dutiful advice and certainly had no trouble seeking comfort in the Bible. A passage he made note of in his personal Bible: "In my father’s house are many mansions, and I go to prepare a place for you."

On August 13, 1771, Richard wrote again. Both Enoch and Nathan had come down with a terrible case of the measles, which had spread throughout their class of thirty-six. They had been bedridden and horribly lethargic for weeks. Through "Divine Goodness," Richard wrote, he first let them know the family was doing well. "I have heard that you are better of the measles. The Cloth for your Coat is not Done. But will be Done next week[,] I hope the furthest."

To save on materials and money, Richard had the boys take one common measurement between them and send it home. Instead of sister Elizabeth Rose making two suits, she tailored only one, which they were asked to share. "I know of no opportunity we shall have to send it to Newhaven and have Laid in with Mr. Strong for his Horse, which if he can get Leave and have your clothes made at home.... I am told that it is not good to study hard after the measles—hope you will use Prudence in that fare."

Richard sent the boys eight pounds in cash and said he hoped they could do without new clothes until after commencement. The garments would have to be quite durable—commencement was two years away.33

Excerpted from Nathan Hale by M. William Phelps

Copyright © 2008 by M. William Phelps

Published in 2008 by St. Martin’s Press

All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher

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Table of Contents

The Righteous and Patriotic Man
Most Intimate Friends
From Boys to Men
A Born Patriot
Talk of War
Free from the Shadow of Guile
A Sense of Duty
Band of Brothers
Siege and Counterplot
Of Thee I Sing
Independence Day
A Necessary Purpose
Brave Resistance
Thrown into the Flames
Pretended Friend
The Will of God
Without Ceremony
Swing the Rebel Off
A Brother's Search
Gloomy Dejected Hope
The Search Ends
Personal Bravery
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