Biography: Nathan Hale: The Life and Death of America’s First Spy

by M. William Phelps

Other than a few children’s authors, no one has published a definitive biography of Nathan Hale for decades. M. William Phelps has now stepped in to fill the gap. Using his investigative research skills, honed as a true crime writer, Phelps has combed the archives to find any and all of the information currently available about the life of Nathan Hale. That is not an easy task, as most of the primary documents come from British sources, who, understandably, were biased. Most of the secondhand sources were provided years after Hale’s death in 1776, and the tendency at that time was to glorify and romanticize.

In this book, Phelps has pulled together all available, credible documentation, and presented the information in an interesting format that blends fact-based fiction (vignettes from Hale’s life) and hard data. Hale’s upbringing, early stint as a schoolteacher, and fateful career as Revolutionary War soldier, are critically examined and brought to life. Hale is portrayed as an earnest young man who, like many of his contemporaries, saw the war for independence as a chance to prove one’s belief in and devotion to the ideals of liberty and equality. Perhaps the most intriguing section deals with the possible ways in which Hale was identified and apprehended as a spy, as the mythology swirling around that event has long been debated. Did Samuel Hale, Nathan’s Tory cousin and an officer on the staff of British General Gage, betray his kinsman? Did the infamous Robert Rogers entrap him? What about the patron of the tavern Nathan was said to frequent?

It will probably never be possible to determine exactly how and why Nathan Hale became the “martyr spy” of the American Revolution. Evidence clearly indicates that he wanted to do something heroic and memorable, and that indeed is what happened. Did he really say,”I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country” just moments before his death by hanging? I think he did. Read Phelps’s Nathan Hale and draw your own conclusions.

(This review is based upon the reading of an uncorrected advanced reader’s copy. The book will be released September 16, by Thomas Dunne Books, ISBN 0312376413.)



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