Let history record that a Black woman prevented the assassination of George Washington, the father of our country…

Let history record that a Black woman prevented the assassination of George Washington, the father of our country…

It was early June 1776. General George Washington, commander-inchief of the newly formed Continental army, had just arrived at his summer headquarters in Richmond Hill, New York. Congress, outraged bv the news that King George III was sending 12,000 German mercenaries to put down the colonial rebellion and “to bring the traitors to justice,” had absolved all allegiances to the British Crown and declared that “the United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, Independent States.” Congress then authorized Washington to get 13,000 troops from New England, New York and New Jersey and establish a flying camp at Amboy, New Jersey. The troops, together with volunteers from Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland, gathered at this site, opposite Sir William Howe, the British general encamped on Staten Island.

Washington was worried. British naval power, the most formidable in the world, haunted him. And the Tories, those who were loyal to the British, surrounded his Richmond Hill headquarters. Washington could feel conspiracy not only against his cause, but also his person in the heady atmosphere of the birth of the nation. The safety of New York, with its vital control of the Hudson River, was uppermost in his mind. The British Navy had already taken Falmouth (now Portland), Maine, and Norfolk, Virginia, stopping vital shipping.

Governor William Tryon of New York, a known Tory; would stop at nothing to defeat independence. Conspiring with the British, Tryon planned to kill Washington and trap and defeat the Continental army. The mighty British Armada of 700 ships commanded by Lord Admiral Richard Howe was to sail into the Bay of New York and there join the 30,000 men of Howe’s younger brother Sir William, the much venerated leader of the British victory at Bunker Hill. A massive internal uprising of the Tories was to occur at the same time, giving Washington three fronts upon which to fight. Having been successful in New York the Tories and their British friends planned to sail up river, cutting the colonies off from each other and thus defeat the uprising. General Washington and his staff were to be either murdered or sent to England to stand trial for treason. But Washington’s death, they figured, had to be handled in a special way and herein lay the plot’s weakness.

An Irishman, Thomas Hickey, one of Washington’s bodyguards, was persuaded to join the Tory conspiracy. Hickey had some time ago taken a black mistress named Phoebe Fraunces, the General’s housekeeper. Her father, called Black Sam, a West Indian, had come to New York and established the Fraunces Tavern in 1759, one of the most important hostelries in the colonies. George Washington was a frequent visitor to Fraunces Tavern, and throughout the years of their association Fraunces, who until 1776 called himself Francis, did many favors for Washington and was appreciated and commended.

Hickey had decided to poison Washington, with plans to have Phoebe put the poison in her boss” favorite dish, green peas. Pretending to go along with the plot until she had further details, the young black woman encouraged her lover to give her more and more information about his intentions, which she later told Washington.

The evening came when Washington was to die. Hickey gave the poison to Phoebe and watched her mix it into the green peas. He stood silently, this bodyguard of Washington, while the dish was served. Suddenly, astonishment crossed Hickey’s face. Washington threw the peas out the window and watched as the chicken greedily pecked at them, then fell over dead.

Arrested and tried by court martial, Hickey was condemned to death by hanging. On June 28, 1776, in a field just east of the Bowery, Hickey’s sentence was carried out, with 20,000 onlookers witnessing the first military execution of this nation.

Thus history records that Phoebe Fraunces, a young black woman, helped prevent the assassination of George Washington by gathering enough evidence so the would-be assassin could be caught, convicted and executed.

Postscript: On November 24, 1783, the British left New York. Following their departure, a festive parade was held, with everyone later gathering for a lively reception and banquet at Fraunces Tavern.

Washington also chose Fraunces Tavern as the place from which he delivered his famous farewell address to his officers on December 4, 1783.

Copyright Crisis Publishing Company, Incorporated Jan/Feb 1999

Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning Company. All rights Reserved.