Ebenezer Smith Platt: An American In Newgate Prison In 1777

In the early summer of 1775, South Carolinia patriots outfitted the schooner Liberty (formally the Elizabeth) as what historian Charles C. Jones called as the first privateer of the American Revolution. They gave command of the ship to Oliver Bowen and Joseph Habersham of Georgia for the mission of intercepting a cargo of munitions coming on an expected British gunpowder ship due in Savannah, Georgia.

On July 9, while flying a white flag bordered in red that read “American Liberty,” the schooner’s crew mistook the Philippa, a merchant ship with several tons of munitions, for their prey.[1] Unaware that royal authority in these colonies had been supplanted by the American rebels, the ship arrived at Savannah, Georgia. The Liberty chased the Philippa out to sea before using the threat of ten cannons and numerous swivel guns to force it to nearby Cockspur Island.

Three hundred rebels, flying their red and white flag, used two barges provided by South Carolina to board the ship. The Philippa‘s captain, Richard Maitland, protested, although the previous year he had nearly suffered tarring and feathering for trying to import banned British tea into South Carolina.

The rebels presented their orders from George Walton, secretary of the Georgia Provincial Congress and later a signer of the Declaration of Independence. They seized the cargo of powder and a large quantity of small arms and shot. The Georgia Provincial Congress ordered the vessel brought up river to Savannah, where a committee of Mordecai Sheftall, Joseph Spencer, and Ebenezer Smith Platt took charge of the ship and its cargo.[2] Georgia and South Carolina eventually sent 10,212 pounds of the powder and six kegs of the lead to the Continental Congress. The munitions supplied the Americans at the siege of Boston and in the invasion of Canada.[3]

Ebenezer Smith Platt could not have known the ramifications of his presence on the ship. Born in 1753 in Smithtown, Long Island, New York, he came from a prominent family. His uncle, Judge Zephariah Platt, founded Plattsburg, New York and served in the Continental Congress. Ebenezer’s brother Richard served as an aide de camp to Gen. Richard Montgomery in the ill-fated American invasion of Canada in 1775. In his arms, Montgomery died.

In March 1775, Ebenezer Smith Platt, by then a New York watch and clock maker, went south to Savannah on behalf of his father Jonas with a cargo of merchant goods and instructions to purchase a plantation. With the goods, he bought some 5,000 acres of land. His father soon joined him and they began a venture to import slaves from Africa when Georgia joined the Continental Association and closed trade with Britain. His father died shortly thereafter, as did his mother.[4]

In November 1775, Ebenezer started the firm of Cuthbert & Platt and involved himself in local politics. Savannah’s rebels elected him to their newly created Parochial Committee that met at Tondee’s tavern. He actively worked to enforce, sometimes violently, the ban on trade with the British. Years later, Georgia’s restored Loyalist colonial government placed his name on its list of traitors.[5]

The following January, Platt and his partner Mordecai Sheftall loaded two ships to take to St. Nicholas in Haiti to trade goods for more munitions. A storm separated the two vessles in a storm and just short of their destination. The British warship HMS Maidestone then captured Platt’s vessel. Taken to Jamaica, Platt obtained the release of his ship as English property but with the requirement that he sell his cargo there.

Platt then encountered Captain Maitland He had captained the Philippa to there after leaving Georgia. They spent eight weeks together in Jamaica. During a drunken party, Platt left rather than drink to “damnation to all Americans.” In his absence, Maitland told of Ebenezer’s involvement in the Philippa affair. The governor ordered an interview with Platt but then had the Georgia merchant released.

As Platt tried to sail away from Jamaica in March 1776, however, crewmen from a vessel of the Royal Navy boarded the ship upon which he had taken passage. The King’s men had Platt and his black servant seized. The prisoners found themselves confined on the British ship HMS Antelope for Platt having aided the rebels. British Vice-Admiral Clark Gayton had Platt’s vessel sold and predicted that the Georgian would be tried and hanged in Jamaica.

The naval officers, however, had not arrested Platt; they had impressed as an able-bodied seaman as an excuse to seize him. A Jamaican court ordered him released but Admiral Gayton, supposedly fearing a lawsuit from Platt, kept him imprisoned. The local attorney general argued that, as Platt did not commit crimes in Jamaica, he had to answer to charges in England.

Ebeenzer Smith Platt stood in danger of becoming the American Revolution’s equivalent of the “man in the iron mask,” forgotten and unable to be released until he died. Still in chains, Platt found himself moved from ship to ship to prevent his release by an attorney using a writ of habeas corpus. He sold his servant to pay for his necessities. Platt even spent time in a British warship in New York harbor. Eventually arriving in England, he used a writ of habeas corpus to force his transfer ashore for trial on December 4, 1776. By then, he had spent eight months at sea in chains.[6]

After spending two days in London’s Clerkenwell Prison, Platt found himself before Sir John Fielding and Sir William Addington, justices of the peace of Middlesex County, on January 23, 1777. Witnesses brought to England to testify against Platt fled custody but the authorities recaptured two and, with the newly arrived Captain Maitland and his officers, they made depositions in private against Platt. Addington ordered the prisoner held for treason in Newgate, the 500-year-old prison that served Middlesex, London, and all courts above local jurisdiction.

Ebenezer did not realize the depth of his troubles as he passed beneath Newgate’s nude statutes of “Justice,” “Mercy,” and “Truth.” Newgate Prison’s reputation for brutal and unsanitary conditions still finds a place in the annals of the world’s worst prisons, especially for inmates without money and influence. Escapes from the prison frequently occurred but not by men held in chains. A committee that raised money to help Americans incarcerated there described it as a den of “thieves, highwaymen, housebreakers, and murderers” without any allowance for food or clothes. Prisoners had to pay to have chains removed and for food other than the standard inadequate fare. They survived by staying perpetually drunk on gin and some of them committed suicide. Platt “must have perished but for private benevolence.”[7]

Ebenezer Smith Platt stood before the English judicial system as an English citizen guilty of treason or as a civilian prisoner of war.  What would be the consequences in America for loyal British subjects and for Americans later taken as prisoners? Were his actions on the Philippa acts of piracy against a commercial vessel or of a bystander engaged in legal political descent? Did his seizure represent a legal arrest, impressment, or an act of piracy and kidnapping by the Royal Navy?[8]

Platt petitioned the Lord Mayor of London for trial. The court in the adjoining Old Bailey courthouse, however, ruled that it had no authority to try, release, or grant bail to Platt. Platt’s attorney argued for trial before the appellate court of the King’s Bench. The judges of that court refused because if they had Platt hanged, the Americans would retaliate against British subjects. A trial of Platt threatened to expose that the Royal Navy had secretly received orders in Jamaica to prey upon American commercial shipping months before Parliament legalized such seizures.

American rebels had already begun to torture and even execute other Americans for remaining loyal to the British government. The British military, in turn, only with great reluctance avoided treating American prisoners as common criminals and traitors. Parliament limited the power to grant habeas corpus only to the King’s Privy Council for persons held for treason. Platt’s attorney argued unsuccessfully that this act exceeded the authority of Parliament.[9]

Without a legal means to force his trial or release, Platt risked staying an occupant of Newgate indefinitely. Growing economic and social unrest in England, made worse by the failing fortunes of the British military in America, did not offer him any hope of sympathy from His Majesty’s increasingly inflexible authorities. Had Platt remained long enough in Newgate, he might have found release with the other prisoners liberated when the Gordon Riots, in protest of the Papist Act of 1778, resulted in the destruction of Newgate on June 6, 1780.[10]

Platt’s situation drew powerful allies to his aid, however. British and American gazettes described him as the first American civilian held for treason rather than as a prisoner of war. Hundreds of thousands of Americans had also provided aid to the rebellion and could theoretically suffer the same fate. The Georgia delegates to the Continental Congress petitioned to have Benjamin Franklin, the American representative in France, work for Platt’s release.[11]

Patience Lovell Wright, American wax worker (an artist who made busts), spy for the rebels, and high-ranking socialite (she referred to the King and Queen by their first names) worked on behalf of Platt. With her help, Platt published a pamphlet calling for his release. She started a fund to help all American prisoners held by the British, although Platt appeared as the only named beneficiary. Wright wrote to her friend Benjamin Franklin with letters on Platt’s behalf. By Platt’s own admission, the governor of Newgate treated him well but even the powerful politician John Wilkes failed to have Platt’s chains removed.

American papers that carried the news of Platt’s arrest also reported on British attempts to have Franklin arrested and extradited to England. Except for French intractability, Franklin might well have joined Platt at Newgate. Aiding Platt started Franklin’s efforts at obtaining the freedom of all American prisoners.[12]

Under great pressure from Wilkes and the public, the King’s Privy Council allowed Platt a release on bail. He married Patience Wright’s daughter Elizabeth on March 26, 1778. She had regularly visited him in jail while accompanied by her mother, and she helped in winning Franklin’s help. The couple fled to France, where Franklin gave them thirty guineas with which to return to America. John Adams hosted a dinner in their honor. They left Bordeaux, France aboard the brig New Friends of Charlestown on June 6, 1778, a ship intended to take salt and dry goods to Edenton and Charlestown.

A British privateer, however, captured that ship on June 14, 1778. The Platts spent several months in Scotland, where they were allowed to move about on liberty as prisoners on parole. By the end of the 1778, they finally reached Philadelphia, where Platt unsuccessfully petitioned the Continental Congress for 100 pounds he had heard that they had voted him as compensation for his troubles.[13]

Platt’s story did not end well. In 1783, while the Platts lived in Philadelphia, his captain stole his ship and his money. Platt moved to New York for a time and signed a document witnessed by the famous Aaron Burr before, in 1785, his legal ward reported him as having “absconded.” Ebenezer returned to Georgia briefly before moving to Kentucky in the late 1780s where, by 1792, he worked as a clock and watchmaker in Lexington.[14]

Elizabeth, who had been a prominent wax worker in New York since 1787, died in Bordentown, New Jersey in 1792 leaving a will that made no mention of her husband. Ebenezer Platt may have remarried, either to Lucy Jett in Madison County, Kentucky, on January 9, 1791, or to Ann Foulger in Clark County, Kentucky, in 1794. He served under George Rogers Clark in a campaign against the Indians and likely participated in Clark’s failed scheme to capture Natchez from Spain. By 1799, Platt disappeared, leaving the famous Daniel Boone holding a bond for the property he took.[15]

By 1804, Ebenezer Smith Platt faced bankruptcy. Three years later, by then a resident of Baltimore, Maryland, he unsuccessfully petitioned Congress for a pension based upon his months of imprisonment.[16] He unsuccessfully filed another petition from Philadelphia in 1809.[17] His date and place of death remain a mystery.

Historians published the tale of Platt’s imprisonment but he is largely forgotten in the present. Even a plaque in Savannah that commemorates the capture of the Philippa by the Liberty makes no mention of the man made to pay for that victory.

 

[1] For the history of the ship Philippa, see Sheldon S. Cohen, “The Philippa Affair,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 69 (fall, 1985): 338-54.

[2] Charles C. Jones, Jr., The History of Georgia, 2 vols. (Boston: Houghton, Mifflin and Co., 1883), 2: 181-82; John A. McManemin, Captains of the State Navies During the Revolutionary War (Ho-Ho-Kus, NJ: Ho-Ho-Kus Publishing, 1984), 39; petition of Ebenezer Smith Platt, Petitions and Memorials, 9th Congress (1805-1809), HR 9A-F1.1, Records of the U. S. House of Representatives, Record Group 233, National Archives and Records Administration (hereafter NARA); depositions of Samuel Burnett and Richard Scriven, January 10, 1777, OB SP 1777 /4a-b, Greater London Record Office, Corporation of London; Richard Maitland to Henry Laurens, July 28, 1777, in Henry Laurens, The Papers of Henry Laurens, ed. David Chesnutt et al. (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 1964-), 10: 250-51; Sheldon S. Cohen, “The Odyssey of Ebenezer Smith Platt,” Journal of American Studies 18 (1984): 259; deposition of Richard Maitland, September 22, 1775, in Allen D. Candler, comp., “The Colonial Records of the State of Georgia,” (unpublished typescript, Georgia Archives, Morrow, 1902), 38, pt. 1-B, pp. 606-16.

[3] Georgia Gazette (Savannah), July 8, 1784, p. 3, c. 2-3; Lilla M. Hawes, ed., “The Papers of James Jackson, 1781-1798,” Collections of the Georgia Historical Society (Savannah, GA: Georgia Historical Society, 1995), 11: 14; Jones, History of Georgia, 2: 181; William Bell Clark, ed., Naval Documents of the American Revolution, (Washington, 1964) 1: 730-31, 856, 931-32; Laurens, The Papers of Henry Laurens, 10: 221, 230; John Drayton, Memoirs of the American Revolution From Its Commencement to the Year 1776 (Charleston, 1821), 1: 268, 304.

[4] Rita Susswein Gottesman, comp., “The Arts and Crafts in New York 1726-1776,” in Collections of the New York Historical Society 49 (New York: New York Historical Society, 1938), 159; Charles Coleman Sellers, Patience Wright: American Artist and Spy in George III’s London (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan, 1976), 105; Ebenezer Smith Platt, The Case of Mr. Ebenezer Smith Platt, Merchant of Georgia (London, 1777), n. p.

[5] Genealogical Committee of the Georgia Historical Society, Early Deaths in Savannah, Georgia 1763-1803: Obituaries and Legal Notices (Savannah: Georgia Historical Society, 1993), 21; “Genealogy Department,” Georgia Historical Quarterly 12 (winter 1928): 195; Allen D. Candler, comp., The Revolutionary Records of the State of Georgia (Atlanta: The Franklin Turner Co., 1908), 1: 76; idem., “The Colonial Records of the State of Georgia,” vol. 38, pt. i, 464-65, pt. ii, 32, 34; Robert S. Davis, comp., Georgia Citizens and Soldiers of the American Revolution (Easley, SC: Southern Histrical Press, 1979), 68.

[6] Laurens to William Maine, December 25, 1775, in Laurens, The Papers of Henry Laurens, 10: 558; Ebenezer Smith Platt to Commissioners of the United States of Ameri­ca, April 21, 1778, Adams Trust Manuscript, Massachusetts Historical Society, Boston; Cohen, “The Odyssey of Ebenezer Smith Platt,” 262-64; Platt, The Case of Mr. Ebenezer Smith Platt, n. p.

[7] Francis Abell, Prisoners of War in Britain 1756 to 1815 (London: Oxford University Press, 1914), 11; Diana Preston, Paradise in Chains: The Bounty Mutiny and the Founding of Australia (New York: Bloomsbury USA, 2017), 226.

[8] For a discussion of the problems between the British military and civilian prisoners, see Frederick B. Weiner, Civilians under Military Justice: the British Practice since 1689, especially in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967).

[9] King vs. Ebenezer Platt, Treasury Solicitor’s Papers, TS 11/4710, British Public Records Office, London; petition of Ebenezer Smith Platt, NARA; supplementary Material: Ebenezer Smith Platt, 19th February, 1777, Proceedings of the Old Bailey Ref: 017770219-1, oldbaileyonline.org. For treatment of civilians and soldiers in the American Revolution, see Holger Hoock, Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth (New York: Crown Publishers, 2017).

[10] Cohen, “The Odyssey of Ebenezer Smith Platt,” 264-65 and J. H. Baker, “Criminal Courts and Procedure at Common Law, 1550-1880,” in J. S. Cockburn, Crime in England, 1550-1800 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1977), 26, 35; Frank McLynn, Crime and Punishment in Eighteenth Century England (London: Routledge, 1989), 234. For conditions at Newgate, see W. J. Sheehan, “Finding Solace in Eighteenth Century Newgate,” in Cockburn, Crime in England, 229-45.

[11] Virginia Gazette (Purdie), May 2, 1777; Virginia Gazette (Dixon & Hunter), May 9, 1777; Sellers, Patience Wright, 117.

[12] Sellers, Patience Wright, 117; Catherine M. Prelinger, “Benjamin Franklin and the American Prisoners of War in England during the American Revolution,” William and Mary Quarterly Series III, vol. 32 (1975): 265-66.

[13] William Cutter, ed., “A Yankee Privateersman in Prison in England, 1777-1779,” New England Historical and Genealogical Register 31 (1877): 285; Cohen, “The Odyssey of Ebenezer Smith Platt,” 266-71; K. G. Davies, comp., Documents of the American Revolution 1770-1783 21 vols. (Shannon: Irish University Press, 1973-1979), 13: 321; Sellers, Patience Wright, 105-7, 111, 117-18; petition of Ebenezer Smith Platt, NARA; statements concerning the capture of the New Friends, July 3, 1778, Treasury 1/541/5818, National Archives of the United Kingdom, Kew, copy in 76.1969.1-3, North Carolina Archives, Raleigh.

[14] Pennsylvania Gazette (Philadelphia), July 23, 1783; Ebenezer S. Platt, indenture, October 7, 1784, Fuller Collection of Aaron Burr (1756-1836), Manuscripts Department, Rare Books and Special Collections, Princeton University, Princeton; Ebenezer Smith Platt to John Copp, October 7, 1787, Chatham County Deed Book F (1787-1789), 41-43, microfilm library, Georgia Archives, Morrow; Elizabeth Kilbourne, comp., Savannah Georgia Newspaper Clippings (Georgia Gazette) (Savannah: E. E. Kilbourne, 2000- ), 3: 146, 155; Kenneth Scott, ed., Records of the Chancery Court Province and State of New York Guardianships, 1691-1815 (New York: Holland Society of New York, 1971), 41, 45; John Montgomery et al, promissory note in favor of William Wells, December 4, 1786, Papers of the Continental Congress, National Archives microcopy M247, reel 85, i71, vol. 2, p. 514, NARA; Karen Mauer Green, The Kentucky Gazette 1787-1800 (Baltimore: Gateway Press, 1983), 60, 74, 221, 224, 246; James Rood Robertson, Petitions of the Early Inhabitants of Kentucky to the General Assembly of Virginia 1769 to 1792 (Louisville, KY: John P. Morton & Co., 1914), 219.

[15] Karen Mauer Green, The Kentucky Gazette 1801-1820 (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1985), 38; Sellers, Patience Wright, 226; Kentucky Marriage Records (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., 1983), 477; Elmer T. Hutchinson, “Calendar of New Jersey Wills, Administrations, etc.,” Archives of the State of New Jersey Series I, vol. 37 (1942): 286; Cohen, “The Odyssey of Ebenezer Smith Platt,” 271-73.

[16] Petition of Ebenezer Smith Platt, NARA; and Laurens, Papers of Henry Laurens, 10: 220-21.

[17] House Journal, February 12, 1807 and March 1, 1807, Senate Journal, January 10, 1809, A Century of Lawmaking for a New Nation, memory.loc.gov; petition of Ebenezer Smith Platt, NARA. An E. Platt only appears in Philadelphia city directories as a grocerer in 1809. W. Platt, however, appears as a baker in the directories for 1808 and 1810 but not in 1809. Jack Gumbrecht, Historical Society of Pennsylvania, to author, February 1, 2006.

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