James Fenimore Cooper published his wildly popular second novel, The Spy: a Tale of the Neutral Ground, in 1821. The book tells the story of Harvey Birch, a Patriot spy operating in the “Neutral Ground,” an uncontrolled region north of New York City that included Westchester County. Not long after Cooper published his novel, a former spy and justice of the peace named Enoch Crosby announced that he was the real-life inspiration for Harvey Birch. In 1826, H.L. Barnum published Crosby’s account in The Spy Unmasked: or the Memoirs of Enoch Crosby, alias Harvey Birch. Barnum even dedicated the book to Cooper in a cheap, patronizing effort to link Crosby and the fictional Birch, as it was Cooper’s “fascinating pen that first immortalized the subject of the following memoir.” In the book’s introduction, Barnum even wrote that Cooper himself “frequently assured” that Enoch Crosby was his inspiration. If this is true, Cooper never stated it publicly. Given the tendency for modern historians to credit Crosby as the inspiration for Harvey Birch, however, Barnum has been somewhat successful, though the debate rages on.
Most of the The Spy Unmasked is dramatized, exaggerated, and filled with an unrealistic dialogue that Barnum admitted to fabricating, although he insisted that the book’s substance was reliable. Several events do not require rigorous analysis to be debunked outright, such as an escape through a swamp while being fired upon by Patriot prison guards and an encounter with a Tory who had built a secret lair underneath a haystack that could hold forty people. The memoir is often used as a source for Crosby’s actual service, but as it was written with the explicit purpose of garnering fame, it must be questioned. One can hardly blame the historian who uses the memoir as a source for research because it does contain modicums of truth and there are very few contradictory sources. Naturally under the circumstances of espionage, the paper trails left behind are scarce. For posterity’s sake, Crosby’s paper trail consists of more than just the memoir. It reveals a man who repeatedly risked his life for the United States, employed a unique skillset, and took some liberties to establish his reputation.
To decipher Enoch Crosby’s service during the American Revolution, there are three main sources: the memoir, the Minutes of the Committee on Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies in the State of New York, and Crosby’s pension deposition. The deposition is, by far, the most straightforward account of Crosby’s service. Former soldiers applied for pensions to be financially compensated for their services, not to seek fame. They were expected to be as precise as possible in their testimonies and usually had to provide corroborating witnesses. It follows that if the pension and memoir contradict each other about a particular event, the pension is the more credible source. A few of the claims made in Crosby’s deposition are also mentioned in thecommittee’s minutes, which lends them even more credibility.
The details of Crosby’s early life need no debate. He was born in Harwich, Massachusetts in 1750 and moved to the town of Southeast in Putnam County, New York, at a young age. In April 1775, Crosby enlisted in Danbury, Connecticut, in Col. David Waterbury’s regiment of militia. Under the command of Gen. David Wooster, he took part in the American invasion of Canada, witnessing the surrender of British forces at Fort St. Jean on the Richelieu River and the fall of Montreal in November 1775. With the end of his enlistment approaching, Crosby did not fight in the American loss at the Battle of Quebec in December, but instead returned to Albany where he was discharged after serving eight months.
Crosby next enlisted in Col. Jacobus Swarthout’s militia regiment in August 1776, but he never served any time in the unit. While traveling through Westchester County en route to Swarthout’s militia at Kingsbridge, Crosby ran into a traveler who inquired if he was going “down,” meaning was he traveling to New York City. Crosby replied that he was, but the stranger probed further, asking if he was afraid of traveling due “rebels” located along the way. This made it clear that the man was a Tory who believed Crosby was attempting to join the British. The man gave his name as Bunker, showed him where he lived, and revealed that a company of Loyalists was preparing to join Crown forces in New York City. Bunker even divulged that men named Fowler and Kip would be the captain and lieutenant of the company. In a move that was perhaps as audacious as it was conspicuous, Crosby told Bunker he would not wait any longer to reach the city and continued south by himself. That night he stopped at the home of Joseph Young, a known Patriot, and told him of his encounter with Bunker. Young revealed to Crosby that he was a member of Westchester County’s Committee of Safety and wished for him to testify before the Committee in White Plains the following day. According to Crosby, the Committee declared that he should not travel to join his unit. He could better serve his country by becoming a spy.
In such a contentious region, the Committee had to know that Crosby’s appearance before them would be known to the locals. If he was released, Tories might assume he had made a deal to perform some form of service to the Patriot government, so he was imprisoned under the guard of Capt. Micah Townsend and his rangers. That night, Crosby wandered out into a cornfield beyond sight of his guard and slipped away into the night. Later he arrived at Bunker’s home and told him of his arrest, his appearance before the Committee, his imprisonment, and his subsequent escape. The next morning Bunker brought Crosby before the company and assured them of his Tory credentials. Crosby spent the following days befriending the men; successfully infiltrating a fledgling Loyalist unit for the first time.
One night, he appeared at Young’s house where he briefed Capt. Townsend on the situation before returning to Bunker’s house. That same night, Townsend and the rangers captured the Loyalists, thirty in total according to Crosby. The following day they were brought to White Plains and stayed there for one week before moving to Fishkill where they were kept in a hatter’s shop under the guard of Capt. William Clark and his detail. No other primary source besides his pension application mentions Crosby’s role in this operation, but his story was corroborated by Jabez Berry, who acted as a sponsor for Crosby’s pension. Berry was a sergeant in Captain Clark’s company of rangers in 1776 and was sergeant of the guard at Fishkill when “the said Enoch Crosby was brought there as a prisoner with many other persons.” The makeshift prison used by the rangers was a hatter’s shop, as Berry remembered. Likewise, it would be foolish for Crosby to claim something in his pension that could be easily disproved by consulting committee minutes, though the Westchester Committee’s minutes have been lost to history.
While in Fishkill, Crosby began working with a new organization: the Committee on Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies. Founded on September 21, 1776, the day before the execution of Nathan Hale for spying, the Committee centralized the task of uncovering Tory plots in the region north of New York City. Under the direction of John Jay, William Duer, Zephaniah Platt, and Nathaniel Sackett among others, the Committee proved effective. They reviewed allegations of loyalism, forced disaffected citizens to make public oaths to the revolution, and deployed agents throughout the Hudson Valley, usually under assumed names or pretenses, despite the clear message sent by Hale’s execution. The Committee dissolved in February 1777, but their interactions with Crosby and others reveal the challenges they faced due to the varied allegiances of Hudson Valley citizens, and how they exploited this fact for intelligence purposes. Given Crosby’s success while working with the Westchester Committee of Safety and his knowledge of the region, he was an ideal agent for the new Committee. It would not be long before he rewarded them for their faith.
His first mission under the Committee’s direction was to travel to the Wappinger’s Creek home of a vigilant Patriot named Nicolas Brewer. Brewer transported Crosby across the Hudson River to the home of a man named Russell near the town of Marlborough, New York. Russell employed Crosby for roughly ten days, during which time he infiltrated another “neighborhood of Loyalists.” He learned that several locals were raising a company, but did not have enough men to join the British just yet. Following his orders, Crosby delivered all of the intelligence he had collected thus far to Zephaniah Platt, who provided him with the date and location of the next meeting.
Forcing Crosby to travel to and from the group on which he was collecting intelligence on must have aroused some suspicion. Intelligence operations conducted later in the war, such as the Culper Ring, mitigated this risk by utilizing a courier system that also allowed agents to more quickly relay reports and to maintain continuous surveillance on their targets. Despite the dangers of the committee’s procedure, Crosby navigated through the neutral ground with ease, demonstrating that adept interpersonal skills applied within a politically ambiguous region could ensure safety.
After meeting with Platt, he returned to Russell’s neighborhood, and before long, he was introduced to the would-be commander of the company, James Robinson. Stereotypical for a Hudson Valley Loyalist, Robinson lived in a cave in the nearby mountains. He invited Crosby to stay with him, but after nearly a week, Crosby created an excuse so he could meet the committee. He suggested that the company sleep in separate locations at night so they could not be taken all at once. Despite his scheme, Crosby still did not have enough time to reach the committee at Fishkill. Instead he went to the home of a local Patriot named Purdy, who promised he could quickly deliver Crosby’s message to Fishkill, and Crosby returned to Russell’s house for the night.
The next evening Crosby and the rest of the company, thirty men by his count, traveled to the home of Bush Carrick and lodged in his barn after a few drinks. When they awoke they found themselves surrounded by Capt. Melancton Smith and his company of rangers, who were accompanied by William Duer of the Committee. Smith brought the prisoners back to Fishkill and confined them in a stone church. After only one day in prison, the Committee released Crosby because, as he stated in his deposition, any suspicion of his “secret service” might “prove fatal to him.”
Berry supported Crosby’s account once again, stating that Crosby was brought to Fishkill as prisoner a second time that year, and was kept in a stone church shortly before he was released. The Committee’s minutes corroborate Crosby’s deposition by citing the same town and key leaders, though not mentioning the event in detail. On November 8, 1776, roughly the same date Crosby alleged in his pension, the minutes declare that Jacob Russell, among others, had been arrested for being “traitorously concerned in inlisting men for the service of the enemy.” A little over a month later, a local militia captain captured three Loyalists from Marlborough, “who had been privy to a treasonable Conspiracy formed by James Robinson, Jacob Russell, and others against the Liberties of the United States.”
This event is greatly dramatized in the memoir, which states that it was not Melancton Smith and Duer who captured Crosby and the company, but Captain Townsend, who apparently held a grudge against Crosby for escaping his guard two months prior. This was clearly an attempt to create a distinguishable and recurring foil for Crosby, who admitted in the deposition that his first escape and the capture of Fowler’s Loyalists was coordinated with Townsend. According to the memoir, Crosby did not stay in a church, but instead was brought to Captain Townsend’s temporary headquarters—John Jay’s home. The memoir quickly descends into absurdity by stating that Crosby escaped that evening with the help of housemaid who fed Townsend copious amounts of broiled chicken and Jay’s finest brandy laced with opiates. One cannot imagine why Crosby would not have claimed this in his pension.
The memoir claims that Crosby then took refuge in nearby West Mountain with the aid of local Tories until he could travel to Duer’s home to receive another mission. According to the more reliable pension, however, the Committee told Crosby to leave Fishkill after his release, but remain close enough to be called upon if needed. Crosby resumed his trade of shoemaking at the home of a nearby Dutch farmer and sent word to Nathaniel Sackett of his location. After a week, he received a letter instructing him to meet someone from the Committee at the home of Dr. Cornelius Osborn. Crosby went to Dr. Osborn’s to await the committee member, soon revealed to be John Jay. Sensing that their meeting was too visible, Jay whispered to Crosby that he should return to his work and await further instruction. Two days later the Committee gave Crosby instructions for an operation and provided him with a horse. On December 24, 1776, the Committee’s minutes record that Crosby should “forwith repair to Mount Ephraim [in present day Vermont] and use his utmost Art to discover any designs, Places of Resort, and Route, of certain disaffected Persons in that Quarter.” To aid with this task, the Committee resolved that “Crosby be furnish’d with an Horse and the Sum of Thirty Dollars,” validating the claim in Crosby’s deposition.
Using the alias Levi Foster, Crosby traveled to Mount Ephraim, then to Bennington, and eventually to Wallomsac, where he met a known Tory named Hazard Wilcox. In his pension, Crosby recalled that he did not uncover any plots in the region, but that Wilcox unknowingly provided him with a list of trusted Loyalists throughout New York. Crosby stated that he worked his way down the list, but found nothing of value until he reached the home of a Dutchess County doctor named Prosser. For the third time, Crosby utilized his gift of sociability to gain the trust of a Tory by telling him he wanted to go to New York City, but feared for his life. Doctor Prosser told Crosby that Joseph Sheldon planned to raise a company, and that he should wait in the neighborhood until they were ready. Sheldon was away receiving his commission from the British in New York City.
In the meantime Crosby successfully infiltrated yet another Loyalist community and waited for a chance to deliver his report to the Committee, which he did in the first week of January 1777 through Nathaniel Sackett. In a meeting at the home of Col. Henry Ludington, a local militia commander, Crosby provided Sackett with details on the company’s intentions and agreed to meet again when he discovered their departure date for New York City. Sackett informed the Committee that Crosby obtained “useful intelligence,” and that he urged them to arrest Doctor Prosser and his cohort after they captured the company. By the time Crosby learned the date, however, it was too late to meet Sackett. Instead, he brought the intelligence to Col. Andrew Morehouse, who lived within three miles of the house from which the company planned to march.
Crosby’s pension application and the Committee’s minutes agree about what happened next. Colonel Morehouse and his unit captured Sheldon’s company just as it prepared to march from the location Crosby provided. From Crosby’s telling in his pension, two of the Loyalists informed Sheldon that men were gathering near Morehouse’s home. Sheldon realized that there must be traitor among them and began questioning soldiers one by one, but Morehouse’s troops interrupted him with cries of “Stand, Stand!” Several of Sheldon’s men tried escaping out a back door, but found themselves surrounded. The Loyalists were tied together two by two and forced to march while Crosby was carried on the back of Morehouse’s horse to the colonel’s house. Morehouse then released Crosby, who made it to Colonel Ludington’s by the early morning. From there Crosby went back to Fishkill to the home of Dr. Theodore Van Wyck where he met John Jay and provided him with the details of the previous night’s raid. Jay told Crosby to testify before the Committee the following day, which he did just after Colonel Morehouse gave his own account.
Morehouse testified that he captured Joseph Sheldon, John Finch, William Wing, Thomas Briggs, Roger Cutler, Daniel Crane, Nathan Sheldon, Enoch Hoag, and Jacob Hoogeboam at Enoch Hoag’s house on February 26, 1777. He said that an “Immisary,” undoubtedly Crosby, provided him with intelligence that “these persons were to assemble there at that Time with an intent to go off to the Enemy.” That same emissary also told Morehouse that Sheldon had been to New York and returned to see “who would turn out as Volunteers.” Sheldon denied every charge against him, claiming that he was only at the house that evening because he sought refuge from the rangers and had no knowledge of the group’s plans to join the British.
Crosby’s testimony recorded in the minutes is a detailed account of his activity during the month of February while waiting for Sheldon to return from New York. He claimed to yet again infiltrate the Loyalist community, staying for days at a time with several different families and inquiring when the company planned to depart. Given the number of people he sheltered with, it is clear that Crosby earned the trust of almost everyone he encountered. Many of them unwittingly revealed information that ultimately led to their imprisonment, which confirms Crosby’s skill at elicitation. Doctor Prosser and another Loyalist, Silvester Handly, were arrested several days after Crosby’s testimony, just as he advocated.
Aiding in the capture of Sheldon’s men was Crosby’s last significant intelligence operation during the war. According to the deposition, the Committee sent him to Albany County to gather more information on Loyalist activities, although he found nothing of importance and returned in April or May 1777. He next appeared before a Fishkill commission led by Melancton Smith, Jacobus Swarthout, and Egbert Benson, who decided that Crosby’s identity was too known to continue serving clandestinely. This is a more plausible end to his spying career than given in the memoir, which claims that Crosby went into hiding, was shot at on the second day of his “retirement,” and nearly beaten to death by vengeful Loyalists several days later.
Crosby served in the “secret service” for nine months in total, contributing to the capture or discovery of three separate Loyalist companies and dozens of Tories. All of the missions he claims in his pension are at least partly reinforced by a sponsor, Jabez Berry, or by the Committee’s minutes. The same cannot be said of the claims made in the memoir. Is it possible that Crosby simply remembered the names of known Hudson Valley Loyalists to bolster his pension application? This is conceivable, but unlikely, given that the committee entrusted Crosby with important and dangerous assignments, as verified by the minutes. The Committee did receive unsolicited reports from local Patriots, but unless they gave missions to unvetted and unproven agents, Crosby must have proven to them that he was a capable spy beforehand.
Washington bestowed the task of intelligence collection in New York City in February 1777 to Nathaniel Sackett partly because of his success in running agents like Crosby with the Committee and because of William Duer’s recommendation. He described Sackett as a “Person of Intrigue, and Secrecy well calculated to prosecute such measures as you shall think conducive to give Success to your generous Exertions in the Cause of America.” In this new role, Sackett tried duplicating the same procedures he used while on the Committee such as planting agents within communities and expecting them to deliver intelligence reports themselves. Sackett did not last long in the position. He failed to provide anything of value for Washington, despite a generous budget of $500. His poor intelligence output after he left the Hudson Valley and no longer had Crosby’s help as an agent, demonstrates the region’s favorable environment for spying and gives credit to Crosby’s individual skills.
After a two-year hiatus, Crosby served once again as a uniformed soldier, this time as a sergeant during two different terms of enlistment in 1779 and 1780. Though he saw no major action, he was, ironically, the sergeant-of-the-guard in Tappan on the day of Maj. John André’s execution for spying, though he did not witness the hanging. He returned to his home in Putnam County after his enlistment ended and lived there for more than fifty years. The court granted Crosby a pension in 1832, deeming his testimony to be valid, though he was able to enjoy the benefits for only three years. He died on June 26, 1836, at the age of eighty-five. He may have aided Barnum in producing an exaggerated and dramatized memoir, but his bending of the truth should have been expected. After all, it certainly reflects the way that Crosby survived and succeeded as a spy in the Hudson Valley.
Minutes of the Committee and of the First Commission for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies in the State of New York: December 11, 1776 –September 23, 1778, Vol.1, New York(New York: Printed for the New York Historical Society, 1924), xiii-xiv.