Thomas Painter inhaled sea water. As he struggled to recover from the “draft of Salt Water” that flooded his mouth and throat, he was inundated by another wave. Unable to catch his breath, he floundered in the darkness as waves crashed around him. As he fought to keep his head above the “heavy tide ripple”, his legs hung straight down below him, his feet pointed downward into the depths that threatened to swallow him.
Painter, of West Haven, Connecticut, had just embarked on a daring nighttime escape from the British prison ship Good Hope, moored between New York City and Paulus Hook at the mouth of the North (Hudson) River. Painter had been serving on a whaleboat commanded by Capt. Elisha Elderkin in Long Island sound. Captured by the Royal Navy while trying to take a sloop, both men had been confined on the Good Hope. Realizing he risked contracting smallpox while on board—as the deadly disease was notoriously rife on prison ships—Painter immediately conjured an escape plan and enlisted Captain Elderkin to help execute it.
Together, Painter and Captain Elderkin saved their daily allowance of rum until they had managed to fill a bottle. Permitted on deck one night at about 10:00 p.m. to fill their cups with water, the two men instead filled their cups with the hoarded rum. In his memoir written decades after the war, Painter recalled that he and Captain Elderkin generously “invited the Sentinels to partake with us.” The guards “readily accepted, and repeated their drinks, until they became so happy as to wholly neglect their duty.”
The alcohol so impaired the guards’ judgment that they released all of the prisoners from the Good Hope’s hold and allowed them on deck “without any Restraint, which caused much noise and confusion. Some were about making their Escape by swimming on Shore.”
Having not anticipated this uproar, Painter fretted that his moment to escape would be lost. Soon, the guards had called an alarm and were chasing down prisoners “a part of the way down the Cable, and some in the Water, some on the Wales and some Elsewhere.” Unable to find Captain Elderkin in the tumult, Painter could wait no longer—cloaked by the dark of night, he shimmied down the Good Hope’s cables and plunged unseen into the turbulent waters of the Hudson River.
Thrashing frantically and starting to slip beneath the surface, Painter finally remembered the oar. Having planned to steal a boat during the escape attempt, Painter had tossed an oar to a prisoner who, having also seized the moment to escape, was already in the water. But in his urgency, Painter had neglected to grab an oar for himself. Now “in a drowning state” Painter called for the other prisoner to pass him the oar. Painter clung to it, steadying himself until he was able to continue swimming. Eventually, the two men separated. Painter recalled swimming alone to the New York shore and lying down to rest by “an Old Breast work, which had been built by our people, and partially covered myself with bushes, clods, &c to keep off the mosquitoes.”
Thomas Painter had defied the odds—he had successfully escaped from a prison ship. Of the thousands of American prisoners confined on British prison ships in the New York area during the war, only a small number managed to break free of the confines of the filthy hulks.
From the Horrors of Imprisonment to Freedom
The prison ships churned through prisoners like grist mills—devouring men who once enjoyed the warm sun on their backs and felt the fresh sea breeze on their faces—and spit their corpses from the hold every morning. Sewn into blankets, the bodies would be tossed in a pit on shore and carelessly covered with a few shovelfuls of sand.
Men’s bodies and spirits withered as the rancid, scant food allowances on board reduced them to “walking skeletons.” They subsisted on starvation rations, eating raw, spoiled pork, wormy bread, foul water—and even the lice on their shirts—in a desperate effort to stay alive. Smallpox and other dread diseases festered in the close confines of the ships, felling men with the efficiency of a scythe through a wheat field. Locked overnight in the hold, prisoners suffering from the bloody flux lost control of their bowels and evacuated where they stood, soiling themselves, the floors and even fellow prisoners with waste.
Escape from the hellish confines of a prison ship must have felt exhilarating—at first. While he swam northward away from the Good Hope, the salty waters of the Hudson would have cleansed Painter’s body of the prison ship’s filth. Painter could inhale the pure air of the countryside rather than the noisome stench of the hold. He could luxuriate in the sensation of fresh earth under his feet and drink in the sweet fragrance of grass. During their imprisonment on the rotten and stinking prison ships, men yearned for such simple, natural indulgences.
Imprisoned on HMS Jersey in 1782, Capt. Thomas Dring of Rhode Island described returning to the ship after a brief excursion on shore to bury fellow prisoners.
A return to our pestilential confinement was truly distressing to us, particularly as we had experienced . . . the exquisite pleasure of breathing the sweet air of our native soil . . . we implored permission of our guards to permit us to bathe or wash ourselves for a moment, but it would not be complied with. . . . I believe I was the only one among the prisoners who had at this time a pair of shoes on. I well recollect the circumstance of my taking them off my feet that I might have the pleasure of feeling the earth, or rather the sand. . . And when we reached a spot where there was some sod, we tore up pieces of it and by permission were allowed to take it on board for our comrades to smell of. It was . . . passed around like a fragrant rose among them.
Yet despite the great triumph of escape and the delicious abundance of fresh air, earth and water, Painter’s travails were far from over. From the moment of escape onward, a prisoner’s journey home was fraught with danger as he faced a whole new set of problems.
Though free from the stench and starvation of the prison ships, an escaped prisoner had to traverse miles of unknown, possibly hostile countryside as he made his way home. Some wore only rags—Painter wore little more than the collar and shoulders of his shirt and the waistband of his trousers. His near-nakedness necessitated he stay completely out of sight while he traveled.
Hour after hour, minute by minute, an escaped prisoner endured the fear of parties of British soldiers around every bend in the road and the constant dread of re-capture. Lacking in provisions and attire, men were forced to call at unfamiliar houses to ask for food and clothing, throwing themselves upon the mercy of unknown occupants of unclear political allegiance. The escapees navigated unfamiliar territory, sized up situations and people instantly, and made split-second decisions. A single error in judgment or an unlucky break could send a man back to the disease, squalor and starvation of the prison ships.
Thomas Painter’s First Days of Freedom
After spending his first night of freedom on the New York shore sleeping against the abandoned breastwork that had been built by American soldiers before the island came under British control, Painter set out the next morning to find a safe place to spend the day. He finally found a large bramble bush and hid beneath it.
Later that night, after leaving the bramble bush, Painter contemplated swimming out into the Hudson River until a boat picked him up, but the wind was forbidding and he decided against it. “Went down to the River, in order to swim off and try to obtain a boat among the shipping. But the wind being fresh from South West, and considerable sea, I became discouraged.” He ended up back at American breastwork, and spent another night “without tasting any food or Drink Since leaving the Ship.”
The next day, Painter tried to walk to Harlem with a design to reach Connecticut. But he encountered British soldiers’ encampments along the way and was forced to turn back. He spent the remainder of the day hiding among brush wood on a hilltop, and then slept on a heap of hay.
He spent the entirety of his third day of freedom in hiding. “Here, I seemed to feel tolerably safe from my Enemies. But, Oh! Hunger, and Thirst, they would find me, and it seemed as though I must perish by starvation, having had no food since leaving the Ship.” Formerly imprisoned on the Good Hope subsisting on prisoner rations, Painter was now imprisoned in New York with no provisions at all.
Thomas Painter’s triumphant escape from the ship was rapidly devolving into an “awful situation.” He had not managed to put any appreciable distance between himself and the Good Hope. He sank into despair and recalled that he spent the entirety of the next day sitting in the hot July sun, “diligently Employed, in thinking of my present situation, of my willingness to meet Death, and whether I was prepared to meet my Judge in peace.” That night he lay down on the ground to sleep. His mind worked feverishly, formulating then dismissing various avenues of escape from New York. “But finally I could see no possible way, unless I could swim the North River, and reach the Jersey Shore.”
Daunted by the prospect of swimming the Hudson River, Painter lamented, “But Oh! miserable Employment for me, to think of my Empty Stomach, my pinched up frame . . . then to look at the distance to the Jersey Shore, and the yawning gulph between that and me, and then to think of gaining the other side by swimming.” But he had no choice. In order to escape New York, he knew that he must swim the Hudson. “I began to blame myself, for not having made the attempt before, as I had now been without food, for such a length of time, I thought my strength must be nearly gone.”
Summoning all of the strength his “pinched up frame” could muster, Painter beat the odds again. In a feat of herculean endurance, he swam across the Hudson River and reached the New Jersey shore. He had set out shortly after sunset and to his “unspeakable joy” his feet struck sand at two or three in the morning. He climbed a hill and “took a last look at the little city of New York.” Close to one week after escaping, he was still within eyeshot of the Good Hope. Now headed for the safety of the American lines, he turned and “set out on a quick pace, through the Woods and bushes, Endeavoring to avoid all roads and highways.”
After his surge of superhuman strength had carried him across the Hudson, Painter’s body finally began to fail. He felt himself succumbing to the physical punishment of the journey and lack of food.
All at once I began to feel my feet and legs to be very sore, and when I came to search them, I found they were much cut with Scratch Grass and Briars. My strength also began to fail me, and my back, to smart, by the Blisters, which had been made by the Sun as my clothing was little more than the collar, and Shoulder Straps of my Frock, and the Waistbands of my trousers . . . I seemed to be gone in Every part, and was obliged to lie down by the Fence, and it seemed as though I never could get to a house, although there was a number in sight . . . So I tried to get along by walking a little way, and then lying down, to try and gain strength, and then walking again &c.
The Man And His Scythe
Escaped prisoners traveled in a constant state of heightened awareness, forever on the alert and unsure who to trust. Surveilled by unfriendly eyes from the doorways and windows of houses along the road, escapees had no way of knowing who would prove hostile and turn them in to the British. But driven by hunger and thirst, escaped prisoners approached strangers out of sheer desperation. Trusting that he had traveled far enough away from British lines to enjoy a friendly reception, Painter approached the father and sons in the field. “[The father] immediately looked at me with a stern, and unfriendly look, and demanded to know where I came from.” Painter answered that he had recently escaped from a prison ship and had swam ashore.
The man advanced toward Painter, still holding his scythe, with a “much more angry countenance than before,” and stated that he did not believe Painter. The man again demanded to know where Painter came from, “with a severe caution to tell the truth.”
Mere moments before, Painter had been staggering along the highway, sinking with exhaustion. But he recounted that, “as my fright increased, by the appearance of danger, my strength and activity increased also, so that I felt no more of my late weakness, and sores but perfectly able, for almost any contest, be it ever so formidable, and fully determined never to be taken alive.” Now electrified by fear, Painter retreated from the man and his scythe and ran back to the highway.
Upon seeing Painter’s panic, the man’s tone of voice and face instantly changed. He called to Painter that he was a “friend” and claimed that he had been afraid that Painter was a spy for the British, sent to “deceive and Ensnare him.” The man explained to Painter that if he was seen assisting him, “it might serve as an Excuse for the British who were his neighbors to come, and strip him of Every thing he had.” Painter stopped retreating, but remained wary. Despite the man’s assurances that he was a friend, Painter recalled that he “could not get rid of the fright he had given me.”
The man offered Painter a drink and invited him to his house for some food. Still cautious, Painter asked which house was his. “He pointed me right towards the Enemy’s lines, and I refused to go that way.” The man told him that he would walk with him to the house. Unsettled, Painter reluctantly walked with him. “On our way, he asked me if I could talk Dutch. I told him, I could not. As soon as we got to the House, he, and his Wife began to gabber away in Dutch, at a great rate. This again, made me more fearful, that I might soon see the Enemy Enter the Door.”
Although still skittish and unsure if he should trust the man, Painter stayed in the house. The man provided him with some suppaun (a bland boiled milk and cornmeal dish), explaining that more substantial fare would probably kill him due to the starvation he had endured. After Painter finished eating, the man gave him a new shirt, waistcoat, and trousers which Painter changed into, throwing away his lice-ridden “collar and waistband.” Packing bread and cheese in a bundle for Painter’s journey and giving him two dollars, the man intimated that the area had “an abundance of Tories, horse thieves.” He cautioned Painter that he was “in great danger of being taken up and carried back.” Painter still felt wary of the man. “For strange as it may appear, after all this kindness, I could not get entirely clear of the fright he had first given me, and I felt very anxious to be on my way.”
Painter’s fears that the British would crash through the man’s door at any moment and force him back to the prison ship proved unfounded. Painter was soon on his way again. “I then proceeded . . . keeping the highway and carrying a substantial Hickory Cane, or Club, for my staff, meaning to use it if I was seriously interrupted.” Although initially giving Painter a fright, the man proved to be trustworthy—providing aid and fortifying Painter for the continuation of his journey. Not everyone that Painter encountered on the road, however, would prove to be so friendly.
Two Very Inquisitive Men
Much later that day, toward nightfall, two “very inquisitive” men fell into step alongside Painter on the road. One of the men walked disconcertingly close to him, almost up against his left side. The other man hung back and walked behind them. The man on Painter’s left asked where he was headed. Painter confessed that he was an escaped prisoner and was heading toward the American lines. The man said that they would accompany him as they were headed that way, too, and that the quickest way to get there was by leaving the road and cutting across some lots. Painter acquiesced and the three started making their way across a lot.
After walking with the two men just a short distance, Painter stopped and told them that he preferred to walk on the highway due to his sore feet. He turned and headed back to the road. The men followed him, and said that as he was a “stranger,” they would be his “Company round.” But by this time, Painter had started to feel a vague sense of alarm about the two men and their insistence on remaining so close to him. The three were back on the road, walking in the same formation as before—the talkative one very close to Painter on his left, the other trailing behind. Painter was carrying his hickory walking stick in his right hand when the man on his left asked to have it. Painter refused.
“On my refusal, he told me, he must take me up, and that I must go no farther, and on my Stepping a little farther off, he caught a stake out of the fence as handily as appeared to me, as if it had been put there on purpose, and ordered me to stop, or, he would knock me down. The other man (his companion,) singing out to him all the while “Knock him down! Knock him down!”
Painter made the lightning-quick calculation that he was just out of the reach of the fence stake and took off with blazing speed, racing away from the two men on sore, scratched, road-weary feet. The two men instantly gave chase, “one crying out, Stop! Or, I’ll knock you down; the other saying Knock him down; Knock him down.”
Sprinting away, Painter left the two men in his wake. Now on high ground, he spied a swamp in the distance, with woods beyond it. Hoping to reach the woods, he crashed into the swamp, and was trying to make his way across it when exhaustion forced him to stop and rest. After calming his ragged breaths, he continued across the swamp. As he got close to the other side, he had a disturbing thought. What if the two men had been able to close the distance between them while he rested, and were, at this moment, on the other side of the swamp, waiting for him to come out?
He stealthily emerged from the swamp. “I therefore came out very still, looking carefully Each way, to see if I could discover them.” Suddenly his eyes lit upon the two men “standing still, by the side of the swamp, a listening.” Like predators stalking prey, the two men stood silently surveying the swamp and waiting for him. Without a sound, he turned and slipped back into the swamp. Evading the two men, he headed back to the road. They never caught sight of him again.
In addition to the relentless physical demands of the journey from prison ship to freedom, an escaped prisoner was accompanied by an ever-present, gnawing uncertainty—who could he trust? The father in the field had acted threatening at first, but proved to be a friend. The two men in the road had acted helpful at first, but proved to be dangerous. Luckily, Painter did not have to grapple with the anxiety of not knowing who to trust for much longer. That night, he reached the American lines. He set out for his hometown of West Haven the next morning.
“My friends, on my arrival, appeared almost as much surprised, as if one had rose from the dead, as they supposed my Escape to be next to, utterly impossible.” Finally, Thomas Painter was among friends again. He knew exactly whom he could trust.
Thomas Painter, Autobiography of Thomas Painter: Relating His Experiences During the War of the Revolution (Washington, D.C.: privately printed by Mrs. Lewis Clephane, 1910), 25 archive.org/details/autobiographyoft00pain.
Danske Dandridge, “The Narrative of Captain Alexander Coffin,” in American Prisoners of the Revolution (Charlottesville: The Michie Company, Printers, 1911), 313, books.google.com/books?id=vy5ozMZfT28C&dq=American%20Prisoners%20of%20the%20Revolution%20By%20Danske%20Dandridge&pg=PR1#v=onepage&q&f=false.
Christopher Hawkins, The Adventures of Christopher Hawkins (New York: Privately Printed, 1864), 71, archive.org/details/adventureschris00bushgoog/page/n90.