This essay was originally published as part of the History Department's essay series, "Clio Speaks: History Today." Read more essays here.
During this period of the Coronavirus pandemic, I have been staying with my parents in Old Tappan, New Jersey, working really remotely, 2,900 miles away from Seattle. My parents have been living in this area for the last forty years, whereas after high school I have been mostly away and visiting several times a year. Normally, a big appeal of this suburban area is the proximity of New York City, 17 miles away, with its supersized cultural and economic prowess. These days, however, going into the city is not an option. New York and New Jersey are the two states with the highest number of cases and deaths in the US, with New York City half of all the reported cases in New York State. In the five weeks I’ve been here, I’ve only been to supermarkets and pharmacies, where wearing a face mask is mandatory. Another of my favorite things to do here, swimming, is also not possible, as gyms are closed. State and county parks are also closed. But it is permitted to take walks. I take a long walk every day. I’ve been becoming more familiar with the suburban layout and architecture of this area than I had ever imagined. Other people walking or jogging wave and smile, while strictly keeping a distance.
Today, while on a walk, I saw a building with a parking lot full of cars, something I would never have noticed before the pandemic, but now a rarity. It must be a building for some “essential work,” I thought. I learned from googling my location on my phone that it is a nursing home. I was reminded that some nursing homes in New Jersey are hit particularly hard by the virus, and that visits by families are banned. While walking, I was documenting traces of the current crisis, by taking photos of signs, both handmade ones with rainbows on windows and ones on lawns thanking healthcare workers and other frontline workers.
Then eventually I came upon a woodsy hill that stood out in singular ways from all the surrounding areas. The streets were narrow. The buildings looked much older. One of them was decrepit. Trees looked very old, too. How charming and different, I thought. Suddenly I felt transported. Then I saw a street sign: Andre Hill. How unusual, I mused. I had just been walking on very typical wide suburban streets with typical street names like Central Avenue, Wildwood Road, Oakwood Drive, and Chestnut Avenue. And the vast majority of street names end with Street, Road, Avenue, Drive, Lane, or Court. And here is a street named Andre Hill. I walked on the hilly street, intrigued and admiring the houses. There was no one about. It was silent, except for birds singing, and branches swaying in breezes. Then I heard whistles of a train. When I reached the end of the street, I saw a sign with an arrow, put up by New York State: “ANDRE MONUMENT. On the hill south is the site of the gallows where Major John Andre, British spy, was hanged, and buried, on Oct. 2, 1780. State Education Department 1932.” I was stunned. Major John André, the famous spy! He was hanged and buried here?! I walked back up the street, looking for the monument. I didn’t see it. Just then a man with a dog appeared. I asked him if he knew where the monument is. Right there, he pointed. I had walked past it. There is a granite monument with inscriptions, on a round patch of grass, surrounded by a green railing. The monument, in Tappan, NY, is yards away from the New York/ New Jersey state border.
In 1780 John André was on a secret mission to General Benedict Arnold to arrange the surrender of West Point to the British. But he was captured, in civilian dress with the plans of West Point in his boot, in Tarrytown, NY. He was taken across the Hudson River to Tappan and held at the Old 76 House. Had I walked further nine minutes, I would have gotten to it. Built in 1668, this building is known as “the oldest bar in America” where George Washington surely drank, as his headquarters at the time was the nearby DeWint House.[i] It is believed to be haunted.[ii] I had passed by it a few times but never on foot. André was tried at the Dutch Reformed Church by a military tribunal of fourteen generals.[iii] Yes, I’m embarrassed to say there is a whole Tappan Historic District.
The site of the hanging and a shallow grave was left unmarked. In 1821, André was exhumed with a great ceremony, for his body to be transported to Westminster Abbey in London. The British consul James Buchanan found support for the plan among the clergy and the well-to-do residents of Tappan, and he mollified protesters by buying them all a drink.[iv] In 1879, a century after the execution, the businessman Cyrus W. Field decided to put up a stone monument at the still-unmarked site. A man over ninety years old showed him the exact location, saying that he was present when the grave was opened in 1821, and that “the roots of an apple tree [...] were twisted about the head of the coffin.”[v] The monument turned out to be controversial as some saw it as an insult to Washington. It was vandalized and was twice blown up with dynamite in the 1880s.
André has had a remarkable afterlife. Born in London into a wealthy Huguenot family, he was handsome, intelligent, and generally highly regarded. When he was arrested on charges of espionage, it was thought out of the question to spare his life, because the American spy Nathan Hale had been executed by the British four years earlier. From the moment he was sentenced to death at the age of twenty-nine, sympathy began to build for him among certain segments of the American public. George Washington himself referred to André, in letters he wrote seven and ten days after the execution, as “He was more unfortunate than criminal” and “an accomplished man and gallant officer.”[vi] These quotations are inscribed on one side of the monument. Stories about his dignified conduct at the gallows, and the public’s reaction to the execution, spread widely and were embellished into myths and legends. A story had it that after André was laid in a coffin, local women covered him with garlands and flowers, and that locals planted two cedar trees by the site. It was said that a crowd of 2,000 people formed long lines to respectfully view the body, and that from a peach given to André by a girl, a peach tree grew at the head of the grave.[vii] Historian David Vinson writes that André’s performance at the gallows affirming his self-identity as an officer-gentleman served to mitigate the view of him as a spy and “occasioned in public memory his status as a model of patriotic virtue”[viii] and that he was “appropriated as a hegemonic apparatus” by both the U.S. and Britain “to mask national anxieties and to perpetuate hegemonic values” “regarding national identity, masculinity, and sensibility”.[ix]
In Britain, the heroization and romanticizing of André began immediately after his death. In Westminster Abbey, a monument to André erected in 1782 is topped by a mourning Britannia and a lion, symbols of the empire and nation. An inscription notes that he was “universally Beloved and esteemed by the Army in which he served and lamented even by his FOES.”[x] On the monument in Tappan, an inscription by Arthur Penryn Stanley, Dean of Westminster, reads (in all capital letters):
Here died, October 2, 1780,
Major John André, of the British Army
Who, entering the American lines
On a secret mission to Benedict Arnold,
For the surrender of West Point,
Was taken prisoner, tried and condemned as a spy.
Though according to the stern rule of war,
Moved even his enemies to pity;
And both armies mourned the fate
Of one so young and so brave.
In 1821 his remains were removed to Westminster Abbey.
A hundred years after the execution
This stone was placed above the spot where he lay,
By a citizen of the United States, against which he fought,
Not to perpetuate the record of strife,
But in token of those better feelings
Which have since united two nations,
One in race, in language, and in religion,
With the hope that this friendly union
Will never be broken.
The TV series Turn: Washington’s Spies (2014-17) reaffirms and elaborates on André’s honorable, gallant, and romantic officer-gentleman persona, as portrayed by the fine actor J.J. Feild. The series is a critical success. I only watched the first episode and decided that it wasn’t for me, because watching it was somewhat stressful due to frequent scenes of violence accompanied by noisy sound effects. Also, it did not seem historically accurate at all for the reason that everyone in the series seems so twenty-first century. Perhaps I will give it another try.
What can I conclude from my experience today? It might sound callous or strange, but I must say that stumbling upon a site where someone was hanged 240 years ago made this a wonderful day. It inspired me as a historian. I felt stunned, awed, thrilled, and humbled by the presence of this historic monument in my neighborhood, and the unique atmosphere of that site. I keenly felt the gravitas of a human life ended, one among many lost in the vast theater of the American Revolution. It made me want to learn more about André’s life and the Revolution. I feel like I had a proper adventure, a most unexpected discovery during a daily walk. It’s likely I would never have come upon this monument, a 30-minute walk away from my parents’ house, hadn’t it been for the Coronavirus crisis, because I would be busy heading to New York. There was something very reassuring about the way I stumbled upon the monument through meandering, helped by a tangible sign on a street put up by the New York State Education Department, and via an old-fashioned way of asking a stranger about its location. In a period when we seem to be living much of our daily lives through Zoom and other virtual means, it makes me doubly appreciate tangible, physical traces of the past, present, and future.
Andre Monument, Tappan, NY. Photograph by H. Hazel Hahn.
H. Hazel Hahn is Professor and Chair of History at Seattle University. She is the author of Scenes of Parisian Modernity: Culture and Consumption in the Nineteenth Century (2009), co-editor of Architecturalized Asia: Mapping a Continent through History (2013), and editor of Cross-Cultural Exchange and the Colonial Imaginary: Global Encounters via Southeast Asia (2019).
[iv] David Vinson, The Extraordinary Afterlife of Major John André, the "Common Spy" Eighteenth-Century Studies, Vol. 52 No.1 (Fall 2018), 106.
[v] Isabella Field Judson, Cyrus W. Field, His Life and Work [1819-1892] (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1896), 300.
[vi] “He was more unfortunate than criminal”: from a letter of George Washington to Comte de Rochambeau, 10 October 1780; “An accomplished man and gallant officer”: from a letter written by Washington to Colonel John Laurens on 13 October 1780. Cited in Benson John Lossing, The Two Spies: Nathan Hale and John André (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1910), 115.
[vii] Brian Richard Boylan, Benedict Arnold: The Dark Eagle (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1973), 247-54; Vinson, 99.
[viii] Vinson, 102-3.
[ix] Vinson, 95.