Behind The Spy: Nathan Hale (And Those Famous Last Words)

by | Feb 13, 2018 | Heidi's Updates

One character my readers are introduced to in my upcoming release, “The Hidden Side,” is Revolutionary Spy Nathan Hale. When fictionalizing real historical people, I always feel an extra responsibility to stay as true to life as I can. That means research—and lots of it!

Nathan Hale was born in Coventry, Connecticut in 1755, the sixth child in a large family. His mother died when he was twelve, and it was her side of the family that took charge of his education. At the young age of fourteen, already a devout New England Congregationalist, Nathan attended Yale, where he met his friend, Benjamin Tallmadge (who would later become instrumental in the running of General Washington’s Culper Spy Ring).

After graduation, Nathan entered the world of teaching. It seems that at this time, Nathan fell in love with a woman named Alice Adams, but his desire to join the Continentals and fight for the Patriots came first. This is the major point in Hale’s biography where I take my license as a writer of fiction, and play around a bit. ☺ In “The Hidden Side,” there is no Alice Adams. Instead, Nathan falls in love with Mercy Howard, childhood friend of Benjamin Tallmadge.

(Above is the route Nathan Hale took from Connecticut to New York, in his attempt to gather information for General Washington. Photo courtesy of The Three Village Historical Society.)

I have attempted to keep all other aspects of Nathan’s life historically accurate, up to and including his unfortunate death in New York on September 22, 1776, where he was denied his only request of a Bible for the comfort of his last hours on earth, and hanged as a spy.

On Hale’s famous last words: more than likely, before he hung, Nathan did not utter the words, “I only regret that I have one life to lose for my country.” These words were actually taken from Joseph Addison’s play Cato, of which Hale was a fan. What he truly said was written in the diary of a British captain: “He behaved with great composure and resolution, saying he thought it the duty of every good officer, to obey any orders given him by his commander in chief; and desired the spectators to be at all times prepared to meet death in whatever shape it may appear.”

After talking with my editor, we decided to cite the last words that so many associate with Hale in “The Hidden Side.” Even if he didn’t truly say the words, they do fit what we know of his dynamic personality. They also have their place in propelling Mercy along in her journey. Again, the beauty of fiction writing!

Hale’s death would haunt General Washington and cause him to rethink how he would use spies in the future (hence the development of the Culper Spy Ring and using spies who already had a reason to be in British-occupied territory).

Though “The Hidden Side” was already written, I was on my way home from a writing conference in Connecticut on a beautiful Sunday afternoon, when I spotted a sign on the highway that said, “Nathan Hale Homestead.”

I couldn’t resist. And though the place was deserted and I couldn’t glimpse the inside, I will always remember this beautiful place, and imagine little Nathan running in these very fields, now filled with peace and golden sunshine.

I hope you enjoy learning more about the fascinating Nathan Hale in my upcoming release!

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