Today in History: September 22

He was an unlikely spy. Perhaps the best spies are supposed to be “unlikely,” unsuspectable, but Nathan Hale probably was too honest to be a spy. Sent by the Continental Army to Lower Manhattan to track and report on British Army movements, he was caught within days of his arrival. Arrested on September 21, 1776, he was executed by hanging the next day.

Not one contemporary account has an exact description of the scene on the gallows, because the hanging, which did not follow a trial, was not a public event. All of the contemporary accounts, all written by the British, describe the calm composure of the 21-year-old spy as he faced death, however. What he said was close enough to, “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country,” that that may indeed have been what he said 240 years ago today. (Some millennials have offered this as America’s first-ever mic drop.)

Hale was given very little to work with to do his spying: “no secret ink, no code or cypher, nor was he given any training.” When he was captured, the maps he had drawn had been drawn in regular ink (invisible ink was available during the Revolutionary War) with clearly written information in English. His cover story depended on acting skills he perhaps did not possess: he was to pose as an unemployed Dutch schoolteacher (indeed, Hale was a schoolteacher but he was not foreign), and his cover story would have required an element of luck to prevent anyone who knew him to not run into him while he was in Manhattan. Luck was not on his side: a cousin, Samuel Hale, worked for the British, was a local tavern keeper, and saw him.

Others who knew him saw him as well, and at the worst moment: as he was being arrested. While in British custody, “several persons knew him and called him by name; upon this he was hanged as a spy, some say, without being brought before a court martial.”

It is unknown exactly how Nathan Hale was discovered by the British as a spy working for the Americans. A contemporary account by a Tory with the great name of Consider Tiffany was discovered in the early 2000s and published by the Library of Congress. In his account, a British spy (a professional spy) named Robert Rogers noticed a fair-haired and tall young man that he had not seen before in a tavern, sidled up to him, drank a toast to the Continental Army, and Hale thought he was speaking with a fellow Continental spy, so he told Rogers everything. He was only 21 after all.

* * * *
The Peace Corps Act was passed by Congress on September 21, 1961, and signed into law by President John F. Kennedy 55 years ago today.

* * * *
Charlie’s Angels, the television show, debuted on ABC 40 years ago tonight.

* * * *
Cy Young earned the 511th—and last—victory of his baseball career on this date in 1911.

* * * *
Irving Berlin died on this date in 1989. He was 101. Dorothy Lamour died 20 years ago today. George C. Scott died on this date in 1999. Edward Albert died 10 years ago today. Marcel Marceau died on this date in 2007. Eddie Fisher died on this date in 2010. Yogi Berra died one year ago today.

* * * *
Rosamunde Pilcher is 92 today. Tommy Lasorda is 89 today. Lute Olson is 82. Art Metrano is 80. Toni Basil is 73 today. Paul Le Mat is 71. David Coverdale is 65. Shari Belafonte is 62. Debby Boone is 60. Johnette Napolitano is 59 today. Nick Cave is 59. Joan Jett is 58. Andrea Bocelli is 58.

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