Anthony Wayne is generally remembered as one of the more successful fighting generals of the American Revolution. He served at Brandywine, Germantown, Valley Forge, Stony Point and the Savannah Campaign of 1782, among others. However, his post-war campaign in the Northwest Territories (now Ohio and Indiana) against the Indians in the 1790’s, when he held an independent command, may have been his most important assignment.
Born in 1757, James Wilkinson was well educated and at 16, was sent to the medical school in Philadelphia to become a doctor. There he studied, “anatomy and surgery, the supporting sciences of chemistry, botany, and pharmacy, as well as the critically important field known as materia medica, which included diagnosis of ills and prescription of cures.” In April 1775, Doctor James Wilkinson set up his practice in a little Maryland town.
The Revolutionary War was just beginning and war had more appeal to the young doctor than did the practice of medicine. He enlisted in July and headed for Boston.
Wilkinson was blessed with natural grace and charm. His rapid promotion to a brigadier general at twenty was due in part to his military skills but largely to his use of people to his own advantage. He was always paying attention to his own interests and betraying his mentors to reach a bit higher was never a concern to him. He gained the reputation as being slick and not trustworthy. However, his charm and manners made it very hard for people to believe ill of such a well-spoken and energetic man. Even people who had been badly treated by Wilkinson often could not help but like and forgive him.
After the war Wilkinson moved west of the Alleghenies to the Kentucky district where he strived to make friends as well as keep up his contacts in the nation’s capital, Philadelphia. He became immersed in real estate and was a leader in the effort to separate Kentucky from the territory of the United States.
In 1787, Wilkinson embarked on a new quest. The Mississippi River was within Spanish territory and only Spanish vessels were permitted to travel on it. Wilkinson took a cargo of goods to New Orleans, virtually talking his way past Spanish forts. There, he negotiated an agreement with the Governor of Louisiana, Esteban Miró, to grant sole trading rights to Wilkinson in exchange for information about civil and military matters in Kentucky and the back country. Wilkinson, claiming to speak on behalf of other Kentuckians, discussed whether Spain would be interested in Kentucky leaving the United States and attaching itself to the Spanish territory. This venture to separate the western territories of the United States, orchestrated and led by Wilkinson, became known as the “Spanish Conspiracy.” While his name is not familiar, as is that of Benedict Arnold, Wilkinson’s treason is not a theory but a long established fact; his written communications with the Spanish have been discovered.
The Conflict Between James Wilkinson and Anthony Wayne
In November 1791, General Arthur St. Clair’s army was surprised and suffered a very bloody defeat at the hands of a coalition of Native American tribes near what is now the Ohio/Indiana border. A month later Secretary of War Henry Knox proposed creation of a professional army of 5120 officers and men. James Wilkinson assumed that he would be given overall command of this new army and wrote to his Spanish handler, Esteban Miró, that “it is most probable that I shall be promoted [to] the chief Command.” Congress approved the formation of the new army and left the choice of commander to President George Washington.
Washington chose Major General Anthony Wayne over Brigadier General James Wilkinson. Wilkinson was embarrassed and angry that he had not been selected for command. He was, however, chosen to be second in command and would serve under Wayne until Wayne’s death in 1796.
Baron Hector de Carondelet replaced Miró as the Spanish Governor of Louisiana. Wilkinson sent Carondelet the first report for which he was paid by the Spanish in December of 1792. He no longer was providing information to the Spanish to benefit his own trade ambitions, he was now being paid in cash and had become a spy. To make his treason complete he also asked Carondelet to be given a commission in the Spanish army. He received his commission and was paid a yearly “pension” in exchange for information. For an officer who had sworn an oath of loyalty in the US military to take a commission in a foreign military and accept money in exchange for information the penalty was clear. From this time onward Wilkinson faced death if his activities were discovered.
Wayne assigned Wilkinson to Fort Washington, outside present day Cincinnati, while Wayne trained the Legion of the United States prior to bringing this new army westward. Throughout this period, Spring 1793 to Spring 1794, Wilkinson sent reports to his handler in New Orleans.
Wilkinson was also writing to friends in Congress, and even to Knox, praising himself and undermining Anthony Wayne. Wilkinson encouraged dissention among the officers and sympathized with those who found fault with Wayne. It was not long before the officers were divided into two groups – those who supported Wayne and those who supported Wilkinson. Wayne was in the dark about these subversive activities as Wilkinson was polite and cordial in his dealings with Wayne.
As part of his efforts to discredit Wayne, Wilkinson wrote an article signed “Army Wretched,” which was sent to the Cincinnati newspaper, which described Wayne as drunken, incompetent, wasteful, and known for playing favorites.
After the major victory over the Native Americans at Fallen Timbers in August 1794 Wayne praised Wilkinson and Colonel John Hamtramck in his report to Knox. Wilkinson even found fault with this, insisting that Hamtramck had not contributed as much to the victory as Wilkinson had. Wayne, wrote Wilkinson, had no knowledge of what happened, which was typical of his “feeble & improvident” leadership.
Wilkinson wrote Harry Innes, his lawyer, friend and Spanish Conspirator, in December 1794 describing Wayne as “a liar, a drunkard, a fool, the associate of the lowest order of Society, & the companion of their vices, of desperate Fortune, my rancorous enemy, a coward, a Hypocrite, and the contempt of every man of sense and virtue.” He asserted that Wayne’s Fallen Timbers campaign “presents us a tissue of improvidence, disarray, precipitancy, Error & ignorance.” Wilkinson claimed that the victory was due to the “injudicious Conduct of the enemy” rather than any military skill on the part of Wayne.
Wilkinson’s campaign in the media and through his congressional friends was more devious than meets the eye. Wilkinson’s harping at Wayne’s incompetence and the needlessness of such a large army strengthened the anti-Federalists who did not want a large standing army. If the size of the army were reduced it would be smaller than regulations would allow a Major General to command and therefore it would be commanded by a Brigadier General. Wayne would be forced into retirement and Wilkinson would assume command.
To further his goal of removing Wayne, Wilkinson twice wrote Knox, demanding a court of inquiry into Wayne’s alleged incompetence. Trying to be a peacemaker, Knox replied privately, suggesting that Wilkinson give up the demands and reassuring him that Wayne had not criticized him. Knox, of course, did not know that it was essential for Wilkinson’s plans, and personal safety, to have Wayne removed. Knox did send Wilkinson’s complaints to Wayne in January of 1795. This was Wayne’s first knowledge that Wilkinson was conspiring against him.
Wayne’s response to Knox was explosive. He replied, referring to Wilkinson as a “vile assassin” and “that worst of all bad men,” and “I have a strong ground to believe, that this man is a principle agent, set up by the British & Demoncrats [sic] of Kentucky to dismember the Union.” Wayne wrote that “Charges accusations & imputations against me: are as unexpected as they are groundless: & as false, as they are base and insidious.” To Wayne, Wilkinson was “as devoid of principle as he is of honor or fortune.” At this stage Wayne mistakenly thought Wilkinson was in league with the British rather than the Spanish.
Unbeknownst to Wayne, Wilkinson’s treason came within a whisker of being discovered during the fall of 1794. Wilkinson had sent a man by the name of Owens to New Orleans to pick up over $6,000 in silver coins which was Wilkinson’s payment from the Spanish for his services as a spy. The man was advised that the money was Wilkinson’s profits from his tobacco business.
On the way upriver Owens was killed by one of the Spanish boatmen. One boatman returned downriver and told the Spanish of the murder and the loss of Wilkinson’s money. The Spanish notified Wilkinson. Meanwhile the remaining boatmen were arrested in Kentucky. Fortunately for Wilkinson the judge was his friend and co-conspirator, Harry Innes. Innes informed Wilkinson and sent the men downriver claiming that the Spanish had jurisdiction. The boatmen and their guard were stopped on the river by a patrol ordered by Wayne to be on the alert for suspicious men or craft on the river.
They were held at Fort Massac located near the mouth of the Ohio River for questioning. As luck would have it there were no Spanish speakers at the Fort. A request for a translator was sent to New Madrid. The Spanish sent Thomas Power, a secret messenger of Wilkinson’s, to Fort Massac to act as translator. Power knew the information the boatmen had and when he translated for them he left out any reference to Owens carrying Wilkinson’s Spanish payment. The men were sent back to Judge Innes for trial. Innes decided that as there were no witnesses the case could not proceed and had the boatmen sent back downriver to Spanish territory thus ending the case. Wilkinson could breathe easier again.
The Spanish were keen to keep Wilkinson as an active spy. They were so eager they volunteered to pay Wilkinson $9,640 to more than make up for his losses due to the murder of Owens. Carondelet also gave pensions to some of Wilkinson’s friends involved in the Spanish Conspiracy. In addition, he slyly alluded to a prize that would make Wilkinson’s mouth water. As a joining of the Northwest Territory, Kentucky and Tennessee would need a president Carondelet delicately phrased a dream for Wilkinson, “And G.W. [General Wilkinson] can aspire to the same dignity in the western states that P.W. [President Washington] has in the eastern.”
In December 1795 Wayne returned to Philadelphia. He was long overdue for leave and he was needed to testify before Congress about the military and diplomatic situations in the west. He left Wilkinson in charge. However, taking the advice of Secretary of War Timothy Pickering, Wilkinson was given very specific instructions and emphatically told that he must not deviate from them.
Before Wayne left Philadelphia on his return to the west, Secretary of War James McHenry showed Wayne the administration’s intelligence reports on Wilkinson. Wayne was now convinced that Wilkinson was in league with the Spanish and that Thomas Power was the link between Wilkinson and his Spanish handlers. Wayne was determined to find proof.
On July 28, 1796, Wayne wrote McHenry, “It however does not require any great degree of penetration to discover the real object of the malignant and groveling charges exhibited by that worst of all bad men, to whom I feel myself as much superior in every virtue – as Heaven is to Hell. The fact is, my presence with the army is very inconvenient, to the nefarious machinations of the Enemies of Government & may eventually prevent them from dissolving the Union.”
Timing could not be worse for Wilkinson. His $9,640 payment from the Spanish was due to travel upriver in the summer of 1796 and Wayne returned in mid-July. Wayne ordered the commander at Fort Massac, Captain Zebulon Pike, to be on the lookout for Thomas Power. Pike was also instructed to search for documents concerning Wilkinson.
A river boat being rowed by 10 oarsmen was stopped between Fort Massac and Louisville on August 8, 1796 by a patrol operating under Captain Pike’s orders. Thomas Power was on board with a cargo he claimed to be trade goods. Power argued that he was a simple merchant, sailing under a Spanish flag, and that to interfere with him would create an international incident. A crewman later claimed that if the patrol had “looked into a bucket on the top of the boat, containing old tobacco, he would have found papers enough to hang Wilkinson himself.” However, the barrels were not searched and the boat was allowed to continue. Power wrote Carondelet that he gave his men extra rum to keep them rowing as fast as they could in case the patrol came after them, “because, had I fallen into his hands for a second time, I was lost.” James Wilkinson had just slipped through Anthony Wayne’s fingers. However, it was a such a close call that Wilkinson must have been highly alarmed.
Wilkinson, fearing that too many people were involved in the Spanish Conspiracy and far too many knew of his involvement, wrote Carondelet, “For the love of God, my friend, enjoin greater secrecy and caution in all our concerns… Never suffer my name to be written or spoken. The suspicion of [George] Washington is wide awake.”
On September 22nd, Wilkinson wrote Carondelet advising him, “my views at Philadelphia are to keep down the military establishment, to disgrace my commander, and to secure myself the commandant of the army.” Three months later his commander, Major General Anthony Wayne, was dead.
Illness and Death of Anthony Wayne – Poison & Murder
Wayne’s medical history is not extraordinary. During the Revolutionary war he was wounded a couple of times. While campaigning in close proximity to swamps during the Savannah Campaign of 1782 he contracted a severe fever, probably malaria, which caused him a great deal of distress for many months. In fact, a year later, in October 1783 he wrote he had gone to bed with “agues” [malarial symptoms of alternating fever, chills and sweating] and “bilious vomiting” He mentioned he had been “confined for seven weeks i.e. forty two days” by the “damned fever.” He recovered slowly and would suffer recurrences throughout his life.
In December 1783 he had a new affliction – gout. In modern times gout describes the arthritis-like pain and inflammation of joints caused by too much uric acid in the body. In the 18th century the term “gout” covered a very wide variety of maladies far beyond today’s usage.
In the Spring of 1788, in Savannah, Wayne experienced “gout attacks” and malarial agues. These symptoms returned in July through October of 1791.
Wayne described having a “cruel fit of vomiting…. so as almost to incapacitate me” in 1792. This is his first mention of stomach or intestinal problems. In December of that year he had “a most serious and alarming attack of the most violent flux (diarrhea) & bilious vomiting that I ever experienced, nor has it been in the power of the Physicians to check it or relieve it. Three days since I threw up a green seated jelley from my stummach.” As laudanum had no effect Wayne took some Tarter emetic (a potentially poisonous compound of potassium antimony, used to produce sweating and vomiting) which helped the pain in his chest. He also took quinine (an anti-malarial), which soothed his stomach and bowels. He described himself as being “very weak, & my spirits rather low” on Christmas Day 1792.
He was able to ride a horse but only for a couple of hours per day. However, within a short time he had recovered and tolerated “fatigue and hardship with a fortitude uncommon for a man of his years (Wayne would have been 47)… sleep on the ground, like his fellow soldiers, and walk around the camp at four in the morning, with the vigilance of a sentinel” according to a witness, one Captain William Easton.
In September 1793 an influenza epidemic swept through his army. Many officers and men, including Wayne and Wilkinson, suffered from fever, chills, vomiting and aches.
In August 1794 Wayne was injured in the left leg and ankle when a tree fell onto his tent.
A week later Wayne was confined to bed with severe pain in one of his feet. A few days later the pain was in one knee. These symptoms would be consistent with the modern definition of gout. To alleviate the pain Wayne wrapped his arms and legs in bandages before putting on his uniform.
In January 1796, less than a year before his death, Wayne traveled a thousand miles across the country while suffering from gout. While uncomfortable he clearly was not incapacitated.
While in Detroit in early September 1796, three months before his death, Wayne wrote to a Doctor Nicholas Wray of Philadelphia, saying that a “slow lingering fever” was troubling him and that he had “made free use of the Peruvian bark” (a source of quinine for treatment of malaria), but the fever continued.
Wayne’s final illness is best described by Captain Henry DeButts in a letter written to James McHenry, Secretary of War, on December 15, 1796, the day Wayne died.
It is with extreme concern I discharge the melancholy duty of announcing to you the death of Major General Anthony Wayne, who, after an exceedingly painful visitation of the gout, expired this morning between the hours of 2 and 3 o’clock.
This disorder attacked him about the 17th ultimo [Nov. 17, 1796], during a very favourable passage from Detroit hither, where we arrived on the evening of the succeeding day – It by turns affected his feet, knees and hands, with considerable inflammation and a great degree of pain, until about the 30th; when the violence of both beginning gradually to abate, inspiring flattering hopes of his speedy recovery; but alas! these were of short duration; for on the morning of the 3d inst. [Dec. 3, 1796], it appeared that the gout had taken possession of his stomach, where it remained with unconquerable obstinacy and extreme torture, until it put a period to his existence. His remains will be interred to-morrow within this fort with military honors.
Anthony Wayne’s death may be explained by natural causes. His history of fevers, some of long duration, abating and recurring, would be consistent with malaria. His stomach upsets may have been related to over use of the Peruvian bark or quinine causing symptoms similar to that of a peptic (stomach) ulcer. The severe abdominal pain and fever, in December 1796, could be due to a rupture of an ulcer in the stomach or intestine, causing peritonitis (inflammation/infection of the peritoneum, the thin membrane that lines the abdominal wall and covers the abdominal organs) which resulted in his death.
However, to accept Wayne’s death as due to natural causes one must also accept that the timing of the death was simply a matter of chance even though it was so welcome to Wilkinson and the Spanish Conspiracy. Consideration must be given to Wayne’s words of July 28, 1796, five months before his death, “my presence with the army is very inconvenient, to the nefarious machinations of the Enemies of Government & may eventually prevent them from dissolving the Union.” His presence was indeed preventing the dissolving of the Union. That presence made him a target for murder. In addition, there is Wilkinson’s September letter to Carondelet where he says he will “…secure myself the commandant of the army.” Wilkinson made a statement about an event, his assumption of command, that was very uncertain, at best. Or was it?
After Wayne’s death, despite the doubts of both Washington and McHenry, Wilkinson was given Wayne’s old command.
Wayne’s medical symptoms, and death, may be explained by the presence of poison. Poisons may mimic natural medical conditions. Arsenic, for example, could account for vomiting, diarrhea, convulsions, stomach pain and death.
When a murder is committed the murderer has the difficulty of making sure that he is not associated with the crime. To disguise the murder as a naturally occurring death so the death is not even recognized as a crime would of course be ideal. The knowledge of a physician, while not essential, would greatly increase the likelihood of a successful poisoning. James Wilkinson was a trained physician, knowledgeable in the effects, and use of, various drugs and toxins.
Unlike a knife in the back the use of poison allows the murderer to operate at a distance. He need not be present as the poison may be administered by a well-intentioned innocent party such as a cook or caregiver while the murderer is elsewhere. Wilkinson had many friends within the military and the public. He had managed to separate the officers into two groups, those who favored himself and those who stood with Anthony Wayne. One of these men, or someone acting on this behalf, may have been the agent who actually administered a poison at Presque Isle.
Wilkinson had a powerful motive for murder. He was aware that Wayne was hot on his trail and might soon be able to prove Wilkinson’s treason. George Washington was suspicious as well. The Spanish were also being lax about their use of Wilkinson’s name and allowing more and more people to know of Wilkinson’s involvement. Wilkinson may have feared that Wayne knew more than Wayne actually knew. The exposure of Wilkinson’s treason would not simply mean dismissal from the service, the foiling of his plans for advancement in a new western territory or a jail term. Exposure would result in his death, either by hanging or firing squad. Wilkinson’s life was in very serious jeopardy. And, he knew it.
It must be remembered that Wilkinson knew that Wayne had incriminating information, and was seeking more. Wayne’s growing knowledge of Wilkinson’s traitorous activities made Wayne a target as Wayne stood on the verge of discovering information that would put a rope around Wilkinson’s neck. The death of Wayne would solve Wilkinson’s problems connected with the potential exposure of his treason.
As an added benefit the death of Wayne would leave Wilkinson as the commander of the Legion of the United States. He could then work with the Spanish far more safely. It was only three months before that Wilkinson wrote his handler of his desire to “secure [for myself] the commandant of the army.”
Motive, Means, and Opportunity. Wilkinson had them all. He had the best of all motives – the preservation of his own life. He had a trained doctor’s medical knowledge which would provide the know-how to kill effectively. Wilkinson also had the opportunity, perhaps through the use of his loyal followers or unknowing caregivers who could administer a fatal poison.
While the suggestion of murder and the identification of Wilkinson as the murderer cannot be conclusively proven the circumstantial evidence could be enough to convict.
If one does not accept that Wayne was murdered then one must accept that his natural death was one of the most extraordinary coincidences in history as Wilkinson would almost certainly have been exposed as a traitor had Wayne lived.
 Richard C. Knopf, Anthony Wayne: A Name in Arms, The Wayne-Knox-Pickering-McHenry Correspondence (Pittsburgh, University of Pittsburgh Press, 1960), 383; Wayne to Knox, January 29, 1795; Nelson, Anthony Wayne, 276, Linklater, An Artist in Treason, 142, quotes Wayne to Knox January 25, 1795.