• Nathan Hale Was Hanged Here

    April 5, 2024
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    Credit: staff photographer

    On an otherwise nondescript block on the Upper East Side, a legendary American patriot was hanged. A small bronze plaque commemorates the sad but proud end of Nathan Hale's young life.

    Hale was high born. His extended family are a virtual "who's who" of early American settlers:

    He was a great-grandson of Reverend John Hale, an important figure in the Salem witch trials of 1692. He was also the grand-uncle of Edward Everett Hale, a Unitarian minister, writer, and activist noted for social causes including abolitionism. He was the uncle of journalist Nathan Hale, who founded the Boston Daily Advertiser and helped establish the North American Review.


    Hale was sent to Yale at 16, and graduated with high honors. Hale was a classmate of Benjamin Tallmadge, who went on to be critically important spy for General George Washington. Before the Revolutionary War, however, Hale was a teacher in two Connecticut towns. He was named the state hero of Connecticut in 1985.

    Credit: staff photographer

    American Revolutionary War

    Hale enlisted in the Connecticut militia in 1775, quickly earning the rank of first lieutenant, but it wasn't all smooth sailing. Early in his enlistment, Hale stayed behind one night when a raid party had been assembled. It was his Yale classmate Tallmadge who gently upbraided Hale, writing, "Was I in your condition, I think the more extensive service would be my choice. Our holy Religion, the honor of our God, a glorious country, & a happy constitution is what we have to defend."

    Hale took the advice to heart, so much so that he was the sole volunteer when a spy was needed to go behind enemy lines. Hale's mission: to determine the British position prior to the invasion of Manhattan.

    Statue of Captain Nathan Hale (Public Domain).

    Hale's capture, like much of his wartime history, is uncertain. One account points to a British soldier who recognized Hale, another names Hale's cousin Samuel Hale, a Loyalist to the crown, who betrayed his kin.

    Death, And Immortality

    As remarkable a young man as Hale was, he would almost certainly have been forgotten if he had died on the field of battle. Instead, his alleged final words defined the "spirit of '76". The American forces were righteous, God-fearing men willing to lay down their lives to protect America in her infancy. Hale served, and still does, as a testament to the lengths men were willing to go to defend not just land, but the very idea of a free people, and a government that served them, not the other way around.

    As happens with oral history, many accounts exist of what Hale said on that somber Sunday in September of 1776. While it seems clear that Hale said more than his famous line, a final speech rather than a final line, several accounts agree that some form of the famous words, "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country" were indeed spoken.

    The USS Nathan Hale (Public Domain).

    Further, these accounts agree that Hale lived his final moments with calm dignity.

    Statues and busts of Hale abound around the country. A stamp was issued bearing his face, a long list of academic and military buildings are named in his memory. A nuclear submarine, the USS Nathan Hale, prowls the seas in the defense of Hale's country.

    Today, at the site of his hanging, a TD Bank office stands. Residential high rises pepper the avenue, the homeless beg for money. American citizens and illegals walk the streets. One wonders what Hale would say about the state of his beloved America today.

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