FRONTLINE: Retrospect

Standing on Sandy’s Shoulders
When James Fitzpatrick was hanged, did officials enjoy it a bit too much?



Standing on Sandy’s Shoulders
When James Fitzpatrick was hanged, did officials enjoy it a bit too much?


A hanging kills but, officially, isn’t vindictive. The goal is to finish the job, nothing more. Drop, snap, done. But sometimes the powers-that-be can’t resist savoring an execution.

During the Revolutionary War, James Fitzpatrick was executed at Chester in a hanging so unpleasant it may have been deliberate. An American deserter, Fitzpatrick had gone over to the enemy. Later, he specialized in robbing patriot officials while humiliating those trying to capture him. However, he never killed or permanently harmed anyone.

Meanwhile, the Founding Uncles who ran Revolutionary Pennsylvania weren’t above using their authority against those they hated. They hated Fitzpatrick.

Born in West Marlborough to a Scots-Irish father and a Quaker mother, Fitzpatrick is best remembered as “Sandy Flash,” the nickname used in Bayard Taylor’s 1866 book, The Story of Kennett. Taylor changed most names, but Sandy Flash is one to which Fitzpatrick might actually have answered. According to a 1940 article in the Kennett News & Advertiser, he was occasionally seen galloping home from parties in the early dawn with his long, red hair streaming—as a local farmer described it—“like a sandy flash.”

Fitzpatrick’s father disappeared when he was young. In 1762, at age 14, he was apprenticed to John Passmore, on whose Doe Run farm he lived in a two-story tenant house with his mother. When the apprenticeship expired on Fitzpatrick’s 21st birthday, he was six-foot-four, blue-eyed and, according to one source, “very Hercules in build and Apollo in looks.” A skilled blacksmith himself, he worked at several Chester County forges.

In the spring of 1776, Fitzpatrick joined the Pennsylvania Flying Camp, a militia unit organized to reinforce the small Continental army. (No militias were drafted before 1777, so Fitzpatrick enlisted voluntarily.) Chester County contributed a 2,000-man battalion, which marched to New York in July with Fitzpatrick in the ranks.

That August, Fitzpatrick participated in the Battle of Long Island, a poorly planned battle in which Washington tried to push the British, under Gen. William Howe, out of New York—and was instead pushed out himself. Fitzpatrick was wounded and, soon after, deserted. It wasn’t the war; it was the officers.

“Never subordinate in the best of times, Fitzpatrick refused to perform some menial task assigned to him by a superior in camp,” wrote historian Phil Magitti. “As a consequence, Fitzpatrick, not fully recovered from his wound, was flogged for insubordination.” This was an era in which each officer was entitled to one soldier—or slave, if he owned one—to use as a personal servant. Possibly, Fitzpatrick had told the man to polish his own damn boots.

He swam the Hudson at his first opportunity and reached Philadelphia, where he was recognized and imprisoned until he promised to return to the ranks. He promptly deserted again. The following summer, Fitzpatrick was mowing hay in Passmore’s field when two Continental soldiers appeared to arrest him. Until that moment, his desertions might still have been forgiven; the army needed men. But what came next sealed his fate.

Fitzpatrick asked permission to pack clothing and say goodbye to his mother. It was given. “When they reached the dwelling,” related the Chester Evening News in an 1881 article, “Fitzpatrick opened the door and grasped his rifle from behind it, leveled it at the soldiers and swore he would kill them if they did not leave immediately.”

Then Fitzpatrick returned to his haying. In late August, Fitzpatrick turned up at the camp of Howe’s army, which had landed in Maryland. Fitzpatrick became its guide and may have been the man who volunteered that the Brandywine could be forded north of its Chadds Ford crossing. The British used that information at the Battle of the Brandywine; Washington’s army barely escaped when the enemy in his front turned out to be also at his rear.

With Howe in Philadelphia, Fitzpatrick staged raids into Chester County, confiscating property from known patriots and identifying himself as “Captain Fitz.” When the British departed in 1778, however, he faced a choice: formally join the British army—whose discipline was nastier than the Americans’—or continue his own freelance war. He and a partner chose the latter. “They made their headquarters near a point known as Hand’s Pass, near the present town of Coatesville,” reported the Chester News, “and rendered their names a terror to the Whigs of that neighborhood.”

The two men targeted tax officials, whose jobs included collecting the punitive extra taxes applied to those who refused military service or to swear loyalty to the new government. On one occasion, Fitzpatrick was walking down a lonely road when he fell in with two collectors armed with muskets. Had he seen Fitzpatrick? (No, replied Fitz-patrick.) As they walked along and the officials boasted how they would capture the thief, they suddenly found the stranger pointing his gun at their heads. Fitzpatrick took their money and, from one—a Capt. McGowan—a sword, pistols and a watch. (He returned the watch when told it was a family heirloom.) Fitzpatrick then tied and whipped both men, but not before clipping off McGowan’s prided queue, the braided ponytail worn by 18th-century men. The incident became a local ballad:

“Some he did rob, then let them go free;
“Bold Captain McGowan he tied to a tree.
“Some he did whip and some he did spare;
“He caught Captain McGowan and cut off his hair.”

Fitzpatrick’s brazenness and good luck infuriated and perhaps intimidated the patriots. He was shot at several times but escaped. In Kennett Square, he walked into a tavern where more than 20 men were planning his capture. Fitzpatrick ordered and downed a drink before he was recognized, then drew his pistol, backed out the door and reached the woods. Still another time, he disguised himself to attend another meeting called to form a posse. “A young militia captain had a great deal to say about how he would seize him,” wrote Penn State historian Rosemary S. Warden. “The unarmed Fitzpatrick told the unsuspecting young man that if he would come outside with him, he would show him how to catch the robber.”

Outside, Fitzpatrick fooled the man into thinking a candlestick was a pistol, then took his watch, tied his hands and pushed him back into the meeting to share what had happened.

Not All Bad
Fitzpatrick’s gallantry was admired. He returned some eggs to a woman who protested that she was poor and needed them to sell. Another time, he identified himself to a Newtown Square blacksmith but still paid the full bill for re-shoeing his horse. Patriot officials, in contrast, seemed both incompetent and mean: A militiaman turned over Fitzpatrick’s mother’s house searching for him, and broke her spinning wheel in the process.

He was captured, of course. Pounced on by an Edgmont homeowner and his servant girl when Fitzpatrick laid down his pistol in the midst of trying on the owner’s shoes. The homeowner, militia captain Robert McFee, shared the state’s $1,000 reward with Rachel Walker, but later paid with the loss of his barn, burned by a Fitzpatrick sympathizer. (The McFee home, on West Chester Pike, was bulldozed in the 1990s for the Edgmont Square Shopping Center.) Fitzpatrick was convicted in a one-day trial at which, wrote Taylor, “he looked around the court-room with his usual defiant air.”

Patriot officials preferred to treat men like Fitzpatrick as criminals, rather than as prisoners of war. Congress had decreed in 1777 that all native-born individuals serving the British should be turned over to their states for punishment. In Pennsylvania, Chief Justice Thomas McKean ruled that anyone who chose the British side before February 1777 was a prisoner of war.

McKean’s ruling wouldn’t have saved Fitzpatrick, who had deserted in 1776. But patriot officials would evade the ruling to punish their enemies. In 1780, the Americans captured Lt. Samuel Chapman of Bucks County, who had been in the British service since 1776. Patriot officials tried to bring a charge of treason against Chapman, whose real crime seems to have been that he defeated American Gen. John Lacey in a 1778 skirmish. Lacey was a member of Pennsylvania’s ruling executive council. McKean invoked his earlier ruling and Chapman was eventually exchanged.

Fitzpatrick, however, was hung from a tree at Edgmont and Providence avenues with a rope several feet too long.

“When the cart was pulled out from under him, his feet dangled so low that he was able to stand on his toes,” wrote Warden. At this, the executioner leaped forward and—depending on the account one reads—either pushed down or stood on Fitzpatrick’s shoulders. Those in attendance, who included many officials and Fitzpatrick’s mother, were allowed to see him slowly strangle. In 1906, in a similarly botched execution in Minnesota, this took 15 minutes.

Couldn’t they have measured the rope? Or did they?

E-mail comments to Mark E. Dixon at mark.dixon@att.net.

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