by Charlene Weigel
On a chilly Saturday, The Historical Society of Tarrytown and Sleepy Hollow was alive with visitors in search of a dead man. Not just any man. He had to have charm and wit, but be honest to the core. Cultured. Handsome. Schooled in the arts. Massively charismatic. Perhaps a bit full of himself, but with good reason. Hints of a tragic love triangle were a plus. Above all, he had to be a spy and an enemy.
They found him in the Society’s Captors’ Room in a portrait drawn by Major John André. If you’ve seen AMC’s TURN: Washington’s Spies, or had a passionate history teacher, you have heard of André. He was the British intelligence officer who befriended Peggy Shippen, beautiful daughter of a wealthy Philadelphia family. While unclear how far that friendship went, it is certain that Peggy later married Benedict Arnold. Arnold met André through Peggy, and transformed from George Washington’s trusted general into a traitor who defected to British Commander Sir Henry Clinton.
Arnold’s treachery was discovered when John Paulding, Isaac Van Wart and David Williams captured André near today’s Sleepy Hollow High School. Arnold had secretly weakened West Point. Documents to assist a British attack were hidden in André’s boot. If André had reached New York City, the British may have gained control of the Hudson River, split the colonies physically and economically, and possibly changed the course of the War. It’s not surprising that the three young captors earned the gratitude of the Continental Congress, and a statue in Patriot’s Park. It’s remarkable, though, that a spy has captivated his enemies for over 230 years.
The rules of patriotism dictate that Americans hate André. Not so. “First of all, my little heart just popped out of my chest when you said his name,” shared Dawn O’Creene, one of many who visit the Historical Society in search of André. O’Creene’s interest was piqued by a scene in TURN when André treated Abigail, an enslaved woman, as an equal. “I thought, ‘I’ve got to keep an eye on this guy.’”
Professionals agree. Historian Roberta DeCenzo observed, “André got the short end of the stick. He was too honest.” DeCenzo continued, “André is asked whether he had a flag of truce, which would have qualified him as a prisoner of war. He responds that if he had one, he would have ‘left the same way I came.’ Here’s a guy who has everything to lose and could have just said, ‘Yeah. I had one. I lost it.’” An honest spy? David Neilsen, local storyteller, author, and actor who portrays André in a one-man show, explained, “He didn’t think he was doing anything wrong. He was doing his orders for the purpose of state, and he happened to be caught by the other side.”
Arnold persuaded André to travel in civilian clothes, sealing his fate as a spy. But a beloved spy. The CIA’s file on André quotes Lafayette in the Board of Inquiry saying, “All the court … were filled with sentiments of admiration and compassion for him. He behaved with so much frankness, courage and delicacy that I could not help lamenting his unhappy fate. This was one of the most painful duties I ever had to perform.”
Sara Mascia, Executive Director of The Historical Society, explained André’s ongoing attraction. “You’ve got the traitor. The young spy. The wife who may or may not have been involved with both of them. Arnold skipped, and André was left holding the bag. It’s a dramatic story with a lot of romanticism.” O’Creene likens André to a “military Snow White. Everywhere he went, a trail of people admired him.”
One of those admirers, Alexander Hamilton, wrote “Never, perhaps, did a man suffer death with more justice, or deserve it less.” Upon seeing the waiting gallows and realizing that he was to be hanged as a spy and denied a “professional death” by firing squad, Hamilton quoted André saying, “it will be but a momentary pang.“ Hamilton describes, “… a composure that excited the admiration and melted the hearts of the beholders… in the midst of his enemies he died universally regretted and universally esteemed.”
The three young militiamen became heroes. Arnold became infamous. André failed as a spy, but succeeded in humanizing the enemy in a civil war. As DeCenzo said, “War is ugly no matter how you put it. But sometimes the idea of wrong is just a matter of perspective.”