Contingencies, Capture, and Spectacular Getaway: the Imprisonment and Escape of James Moody

The War Years (1775-1783)

November 24, 2020
by Kevin A. Conn Also by this Author


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One of the most famous or notorious of Tory partisans in the American Revolution was the New Jersey soldier and spy James Moody. Moody had tried to stay quietly neutral at the beginning of the war, but his refusal to sign a loyalty oath to the Patriot government of William Livingston had enraged his Patriot neighbors near the town of Hope in Sussex County, today part of Warren County. Moody had withstood verbal harassment and threats, including one occasion when rebel neighbors had waved tomahawks around his head, but when local Patriots actually tried to ambush and kill him as he walked his grounds with a Loyalist friend, Moody left his family in April 1777 and joined the New Jersey Volunteers, a Loyalist regiment raised by the last Royal attorney general of New Jersey, Cortlandt Skinner. Serving first as a volunteer, then as an ensign and after 1781 as lieutenant, James Moody spent most of the war detached from his unit. Skinner recognized his charismatic qualities and skills at intelligence gathering and guerrilla warfare, and Moody rapidly became one of Britain’s ablest agents, recruiting Loyalist soldiers, spying on the movements of the Continental army, and conducting raids into Patriot-held areas.

Beginning in 1776, New Jersey became one of the most hotly-contested regions of the entire Revolution. With the British conquest and occupation of New York in the fall of 1776, many inhabitants of New Jersey accepted British protection, swearing loyalty oaths to the Crown. They were disheartened, however, when the Continental Army won stunning successes at Trenton and Princeton in the winter of 1776–1777, leading British forces to retrench and retreat to New York City, Staten Island, and a toehold in New Jersey at a few points such as Paulus Hook (present-day Jersey City). Although the region was generally spared from large-scale clashes in the campaign season of 1777, that certainly did not mean that peace returned to New Jersey. Resurgent Patriot forces regained ascendancy over Loyalists and sought revenge and retribution for their treatment when British forces had the upper hand. Washington returned to New Jersey after the winter of 1778 and moved his army into central New Jersey, where he could harass British foraging efforts and shadow British forces in New York City and on Staten Island, screened by the Watchung Mountains. Both armies foraged and plundered in the region, epitomizing the rancorous civil strife that characterized the Revolution to a much greater extent than many traditional histories have admitted.

In this atmosphere of shifting loyalties, partisan raids, and internecine warfare, James Moody thrived. Employing his family connections and a sympathetic network of Loyalist neighbors and acquaintances, Moody made a name for himself in 1778 and 1779. He was a thorn in the side of Patriot authorities, as he recruited soldiers for Loyalist units, spied on the dispositions of Continental troops, and coerced Patriot officials into swearing oaths of loyalty to the Crown. He also raided into Monmouth County along the Jersey shore, capturing five Patriot militia officers, several privates, and supplies worth nearly five hundred pounds in a June 1779 raid on Tinton Falls.

An Attempted Kidnapping Becomes Instead a Jail Break

The year 1780 brought Moody some of his most famous exploits, but also some of his most humiliating failures. At the beginning of May, he received instructions to abduct New Jersey Gov. William Livingston, whose zeal in the cause of American independence Moody characterized as “cruel and oppressive to the loyal inhabitants of New Jersey.”[1] With a small party of four men, Moody returned to Morris County, but on learning that Livingston had gone to meet the legislature at Trenton, he took his men to Sussex County. There disaster struck, as Cpl. Joseph Lowery, one of Moody’s men, was captured by a Maj. Robert Hoops, a Continental officer, during a tryst with a local woman. Threatened with death, Lowery gave up details of the planned abduction, warning Livingston and raising the alarm.[2]

Casting about to see if he could salvage the expedition by achieving another purpose, Moody contemplated blowing up the powder magazine at Succasunna, New Jersey, but he learned that due to news of his being in the western part of the state the guard had increased to more than one hundred men. Instead, he and his followers, augmented by several escaped British prisoners, headed to Newton, the county seat of Sussex County. He heard that prisoners were held there and at least one, a British soldier named Robert Maxwell, faced death, accused of robbery and murder on slim evidence.[3]

Moody and his party of six approached the Newton Court House, the lower floor of which served as the county jail, in the middle of the night. When telling the jailer that they had a prisoner—one of Moody’s men—did not induce the jailer to open the door, Moody declared his identity with a threat, and his party began whooping like Indians, frightening many of the inhabitants of the small town into the woods in fear of an attack and quashing any organized resistance. Moody managed to climb through a window and into the jail. Compelling the jailer to give him the keys, he rescued Robert Maxwell, who had actually remained asleep through the commotion and initially thought upon waking up that he faced nocturnal execution. Moody disabused him of his fears, however, and he liberated the prisoners.[4]

On his way back to New York, Moody took the opportunity to capture a number of militia officers, judges, and committeemen, thirteen on the night of June 23, and eighteen in all. Not being able to watch or care for these prisoners, Moody administered paroles until properly exchanged or oaths of neutrality to them, whichever they preferred. There was an immense hue and cry through New Jersey, and Livingston ordered a manhunt in groups of up to forty men, concentrating solely on capturing or killing the ensign. Evading his pursuers by hiding out in caves and swamps, Moody made his way back to the blockhouse at Bull’s Ferry, his numbers swelled by other escapees to thirteen.[5]

Captive in Patriot Hands

Having eluded Livingston’s manhunt, Moody suffered an ironic capture at the moment he tried to enter the British lines. He had the misfortune to return to Bull’s Ferry on July 21, just as a detachment of General “Mad Anthony” Wayne’s men attacked the fort. Moody and nearly all of his party fell prisoner to New York troops under Capt. Jonathan Lawrence.[6] The New Jersey Journal, a Patriot paper, exulted in his capture on August 2, 1780:

We have the pleasure to assure our readers, that Ensign Moody, a refugee from Sussex to the British army, and who was lately sent from New York with a party of ruffians for the purpose of burning Sussex gaol, of taking or assassinating Governor Livingston . . . and of inlisting our inhabitants in the service of the British tyrant, was lately captured himself . . . as to the famous or infamous Ensign himself, the great taker of Governors and general gaol deliverer of Sussex, he is at present safely lodged at West-Point; and if he has justice done him, it is generally supposed, as our correspondent observes, that he will be hanged for a spy.[7]

Bad as this news was for Moody’s friends, it actually held a ray of hope, for the one member of Moody’s party who had made it to British lines by swimming the Hudson River had reported that Moody and all his companions were dead. Captured in uniform, with a commission in his pocket and a letter authorizing him to abduct, but not assassinate, William Livingston, Moody was initially unconcerned, for he believed the Continental Army would treat him as an officer captured as a prisoner-of-war.[8]

While the treatment of prisoners on both sides was appallingly bad throughout the war, there were some protections afforded to military prisoners. British forces did not accord Rebel soldiers official prisoner-of-war status, as that implied that the United States was a sovereign nation, but on a practical level they generally followed the conventional codes of the eighteenth century. For his part, Washington was keenly aware of the propaganda value of appearing humane, and urged humane treatment of prisoners captured in battle. Exchanges, particularly of captured officers or leading officials, took place throughout the war, as in the case of Gov. William Franklin in 1778, and in general, for both propaganda and practical reasons, the treatment of captured British officers was often better than captured Patriots could expect.[9] Loyalists, however, generally received worse treatment than did British troops. Patriot governments considered them rebels against their own rebellion, and treated them as traitors. The retaliatory and irregular nature of much of the civil warfare in New Jersey, with bands of militia and partisans attacking and plundering the civilian population, made the situation even worse, and both legal and extrajudicial brutality and executions of those alleged to be spies or banditti occurred with regularity.[10]

After briefly being held at the New York militia camp at Tappan Sloat, Moody was sent to West Point and then Fishkill. Initially, he was treated as a gentleman, and allowed to give his parole, allowing him a good deal of liberty. That changed as news of his capture spread and Governor Livingston became involved. Seething at Moody’s previous defiance and likely scared at the threats, if not to his life, then to his person, Livingston and George Washington discussed Moody in their correspondence, with Washington telling Livingston of his intent to try Moody on charges of spying, saying,“I have appointed the 1st of Septemfor the trial of Moody at this place. If your Excellency knows of any material Evidences aghim; be pleased to direct them to attend.”[11] Livingston’s reply to Washington, on August 21, 1780, made clear his animus against the Loyalist:

I think I shall be able to procure Evidence from Sussex of Moody’s having inlisted our people, which I presume must be fatal to him. Whether it will be of any use to prove that he compelled one of our Justices to take the Oath of Allegiance to his Brittanic Majesty, I know not.[12]

Obviously, Livingston regarded Moody not as a British officer, but as an illegal recruiter and spy. Moody was closely confined, with sentinels in his room, shifted around to several prisons until returned to West Point, and then shackled in handcuffs and leg irons. Moody complained that the inside of the irons was ragged and lacerated his wrists and legs. He blamed Gen. Benedict Arnold, who had recently taken over the fortress, for the harsh treatment; whether the scarifying effects of the irons was deliberate or simply a matter of what was on hand is impossible to determine. Arnold had passed the Rubicon of betrayal by the summer of 1780, and he plotted to betray West Point even as he kept Moody in a cell that Moody described as wretched:

dug out of a rock, and covered with a platform of planks badly jointed, without any roof to it: and all the rain which fell upon it immediately passed through. and lodged in the bottom of this dismal mansion. It had no floor but the natural rock: and the water, with the mud and filth collected, was commonly ankle-deep in every part of it. Mr. Moody’s bed was an old door, supported by four stones, so as just to raise it above the surface of the water. Here he continued near four weeks: and. during most of the time, while he was tormented with irons in the manner mentioned above, no food was allowed him but stinking beef, and rotten flour. made up into balls or dumplins, which were thrown into a kettle and boiled with the meat, and then brought into him in a wooden bowl which was never washed, and which contracted a thick crust of dough, grease, and dirt.[13]

Bad as these conditions were, the psychological pressure was worse. Moody’s jailers refused to take the irons off him, citing the risk of his escape, and pointed out to him a gallows on which they prophesied his death and threatened to hang him. Moody’s remonstrances to Arnold went unanswered, and Moody blamed Arnold for his harsh conditions. Arnold had, in fact, ordered Moody’s irons removed, but his jailers did not do so and Moody never heard of Arnold’s order.[14]

On September 1, 1780, the original date Washington had fixed for his trial, Moody was moved to Washington’s encampment and jailed in a hut near the camp’s Liberty Pole. Here a sympathetic Alexander Scammel, Washington’s adjutant general, saw the suppurations on Moody’s legs and ordered his leg irons removed. This humanity, ironically, gave Moody the means to effect his escape, for a Patriot colonel finally informed Moody on September 16 of his upcoming trial, which Washington and Livingston had postponed in hopes of gaining more evidence. The charges included spying, unlawful enlistment of Loyalists, and murder of the two Patriot officers who had died in the action at Tinton Falls. “You have been, and are likely to be. so mischievous to us. that, be assured, we are resolved to get rid of you at any rate. Besides, you cannot deny, and it can be proved by incontestable evidence, that you have enlisted men, in this State, for the King’s service, and this, by our laws, is death.”[15] Told that the governor would act personally as prosecutor and had hand-picked the members of the court to ensure a verdict of guilt, Moody became desperate in his bid to escape.

Desperation and Success

Although he no longer wore chains on his legs, he still was handcuffed, and there was a sentinel posted inside his cell, as well as one outside the door.[16] Moody saw that there was a post half-buried in the ground, with a hole in it. On the night of September 17, he begged a watch-coat, as the night was cold and raining, and employed the coat to conceal his attempts to use the hole to bend and break off the bolt of his cuffs, in which he succeeded.[17] When the sentinel inside the room was inattentive, Moody jumped past him through the door, seized a musket from the guard outside the door and fled the building. He was temporarily free, but he was in the middle of Washington’s army, with the hue and cry raised. Rather than attempting to flee, he shouldered the musket he had grabbed, and marched deliberately and purposefully through the camp, evading his pursuers’ notice. Although he nearly blundered into the outer chain of sentries, he happened to hear the men passing news of his escape and crawled through the lines undetected. From there he made his way over the next fifty-six hours through the woods, chewing a few beech leaves to stave off hunger, until he reached British lines at Paulus Hook on the 21st.[18]

Despite the harrowing experience of capture, threatened death, and escape, Moody was not yet finished with his career as a partisan. He continued to gather intelligence throughout 1781 and 1782, capturing several of Washington’s dispatches to Congress, for which he received promotion to lieutenant, and even participated in a failed attempt to steal the papers of Congress from Philadelphia. This expedition resulted in the capture and hanging of his brother John and yet another narrow escape for James Moody. Leaving New York for London with Sir Henry Clinton in 1782, Moody and his family spent several years in England. His Narrative of the Exertions and Sufferings of Lieut. James Moody, in the Cause of Government since the Year 1776, Written by Himself, written shortly after his arrival in London to bolster his application for a pension, made him a minor celebrity in England, and his exemplary services to the Crown netted him compensation for most of his financial losses, as well as the half pay of a captain, although his highest rank during his service had been lieutenant. Moody eventually joined many of his fellow Loyalists in Nova Scotia, Canada, where he lived as a shipbuilder and colonel of militia until his death in April 1809. Largely forgotten today, he was one of the Revolution’s most daring and romantic figures; an honorable partisan in a dirty civil war.


[1]James Moody, Narrative of the Exertions and Sufferings of Lieut. James Moody, in the Cause of Government since the Year 1776, Written by Himself (New York: Charles Bushnell, 1865), 21,

[2]William Nelson, ed., Documents Relating to the Revolutionary History of the State of New Jersey, Volume IV, Extracts from American Newspapers Relating to New Jersey, Nov. 1, 1779 – Sept. 30, 1780 (Trenton: State Gazette Publishing Company, 1914), 435-436, Moody, Narrative, 21-22. Susan Burgess Shenstone, So Obstinately Loyal: James Moody, 1744-1809(Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press. 2000), 73-75.

[3]Moody, Narrative, 22. Harry M. Ward, Between the Lines: Banditti of the American Revolution (Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2002), 91-92. Coincidentally, the murdered man was the father of Continental Army Gen. William Maxwell. Ward asserts that there was little evidence to convict the prisoner, but the trial judge would not allow defense counsel and spurned all attempts to exonerate him.

[4]Moody, Narrative, 22-25. Unfortunately for Maxwell, he was recaptured and hanged a short time later.

[5]Moody, Narrative, 27-28.

[6]Shenstone, So Obstinately Loyal, 80-81. Loyalist expert Todd Braisted has pointed out that Moody was captured approximately three miles north of the Blockhouse near English Neighborhood (near present-day Fairview, or Ridgefield, New Jersey, the sites of English Neighborhood Park and English Neighborhood Reformed Church, respectively), as reported by Lawrence and testified by Pvt James Quackinbush. Englewood and Englewood Cliffs were also originally called English Neighborhood, but both Lawrence and Quackinbush asserted that the capture was “near the Enemy’s Blockhouse.” Jonathan Lawrence toWilliam Livingston, July 22, 1780, New York Public Library: William Livingston Papers; “Testimony of James Quackinbush, September 9, 1836,” United States National Archives, Collection M-804, Pension and Bounty Land Application Files, No. S15200.

[7]New Jersey Journal, August 2, 1780, inWilliam Nelson, ed., Documents, 551-553. Also Moody, Narrative, 81-82. Shenstone, So Obstinately Loyal, 80-81.

[8]New Jersey Journal, August 2, 1780, inWilliam Nelson, ed., Documents Relating. . ., 551-553. Also rpt. In Moody, Narrative, 80-82. “From George Washington to William Livingston, 12 January 1782,” Founders Online, National Archives, Shenstone, So Obstinately Loyal, 80-82.

[9]Holger Hoock, Scars of Independence: America’s Violent Birth(New York: Broadway Books, 2018), 181-186, 201-203, 207.

[10]Alan Taylor, American Revolutions: A Continental History, 1750-1804 (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2016), 217-218, 225-226. For the term “banditti,” see Ward, Between the Lines, ix-x.

[11]George Washington to William Livingston, August 17, 1780, Founders Online,

[12]Livingston to Washington, August 21, 1780,Founders Online,

[13]Moody , Narrative, 33-34.

[14]Moody , Narrative, 32-33Shenstone, So Obstinately Loyal, 87. Shenstone asserts that Arnold had followed Washington’s orders to allow Moody better food and to remove his irons, unless he tried to escape. Ward, Between the Lines, 94. Ward speculates that Moody gave Arnold Clinton’s cipher, which he used to communicate secretly with André, but Moody said nothing of the sort in his Narrative, something he would likely have mentioned in his attempts in London to gain sympathy for restitution and a pension, so Ward’s contention remains speculative, at best.

[15]Moody , Narrative, 36. Italics original.

[16]Moody , Narrative, 34-36.

[17]Moody, Narrative, 36-37. John Bakeless, Turncoats, Traitors, and Heroes(Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1959), 140, Bakeless discusses at least two other occasions in which British prisoners managed to break Patriot handcuffs and free themselves, so either the practice was a common literary device to conceal actual methods of escape, or there was something about the manufacture of manacles of the period that made them relatively easy to break.

[18]Moody, Narrative, 37-39.

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