AMERICA’S FIRST CELEBRITY SPY

Spy Sites of New York; A Guide to the Region’s Secret History by H. Keith Melton and Robert Wallace with Henry Schlesinger chronicles espionage history in America’s leading city. During the Revolutionary War battles between the British and the Patriots for control of New York created stories about spy master George Washington, spy hunter John Jay, and Culper Ring organizer Benjamin Tallmadge. These unfairly obscure the daring operations of another Patriot spy Enoch Crosby, the spy who inspired James Fenimore Cooper to write America’s first espionage novel.

 

 

AMERICA’S FIRST CELEBRITY SPY

By Henry Schlesinger and Robert Wallace

 

Long before James Bond or Jason Bourne, there was Harvey Birch, a daring Revolutionary War spy, created by James Fenimore Cooper. Every bit as cunning as the fictional spies who would follow, Birch is America’s first hero spy who operated in the Neutral Ground, a hotly contested area of Westchester County just north of New York City.  Birch’s adventures are those of classic of wartime espionage with exploits every bit as daring as modern spies.  He not only captured the public imagination, but rescued an aspiring writer from literary obscurity.

In 1817 James Cooper and new wife, Susan, left Cooperstown, New York, a hamlet named for his family that would later become home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum.  The couple settled into a small house on a section of Westchester property owned by her prosperous family, located at what is today the site of the Scarsdale Middle School, 134 Mamaroneck Road, Scarsdale, New York. Cooper called the  cottage and parcel of land, Angevine, after the previous tenants.

Significantly, the location was not far  the home of Founding Father John Jay’s, home, 400 Jay St, Katonah, N.Y., where the elder statesman lived in comfortable retirement with his son, William. William and James became lifelong friends beginning in their days under the tutelage of Rev. Thomas Ellison at St. Peter’s Church in Albany, New York. James was a welcomed guest at the stately home where the Founding Father regaled him with tales of the Revolutionary War. Although primarily known from history books as the First Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court, Jay had multiple critical roles in America’s early years, including President of Congress, Governor of New York, and Secretary of Foreign Affairs. He also served on the wartime committee for detecting and defeating conspiracies with counterintelligence responsibilities.

In re-telling stories of wartime espionage, Jay planted the seed  of a spy tale with the young author. Cooper had published a novel, Precaution (1820), a two-volume novel of complex British domesticity and manners that has been unfavorably compared by critics to Jane Austen. The book sold poorly and, now as a young family man who had already spent a substantial inheritance, he was under pressure to find a more reliable vocation.

Cooper had already dabbled in farming and the military but found no suitable career in either. No doubt his expulsion from Yale under circumstances labeled “misconduct” — according to one story he planted a homemade bomb outside a fellow student’s door – did not set minds in either family at ease. Fortuitously, in the Founding Father’s tales of espionage, Cooper found the subject for his second novel based on the true-life exploits of Enoch Crosby, a Hudson Valley shoemaker and farmer.

Cooper recast Jay’s stories with a protagonist named Harvey Birch, and titled it The Spy: A Tale of the Neutral Ground (1821).  Unable to find a publisher because of the lack lustser showing of his previous book, Cooper assumed the printing costs himself. Initially issued anonymously by Wiley & Halsted, which would also publish works of Washington Irving, Herman Melville, and Edgar Allan Poe, the book became a bestseller in the U.S., and then England, and France.

As America’s first espionage novel, the story features Birch operating as a double agent, pretending to spy for the British while providing intelligence to the American Patriots side. With this success, Cooper became a popular author of other adventure books, such as The Last of the Mohicans (1826), The Deerslayer (1841), The Sea Lions (1849) and a collection of five novels known as The Leatherstocking Tales followed.

Enoch Crosby, living in Brewster, New York, eventually published an account of his wartime espionage exploits titled, The Spy Unmasked: or the Memoirs of Enoch Crosby, alias Harvey Birch (1828). In a lengthy introduction by its publisher, H.L. Barnum, the book is dedicated to Cooper’s work but failed to gain the wide readership of The Spy. Nevertheless, Crosby’s memoir may qualify him as America’s first “literary spy.” Four decades later, the memoirs of many Civil War spies, with widely varying degrees of accuracy, found broad appeal among the reading public.

Proceeds from The Spy enabled Cooper and his family to move to Europe for a decade, before returning in 1833 to a stately New York home at 6 St. Marks Place (since redeveloped) where he became one of city’s literary celebrities. Cooper eventually moved to Cooperstown and the family mansion, Otsego Hall, which had stood vacant for years and fallen into disrepair. Following renovation and remodeling the large home,  Cooper spent the remaining years of his life on the estate.

Spy Sites of New York: A Guide to the Region’s Secret History presents more than 200 stories of New York espionage like this from the Revolutionary War to today. The book is available at amazon.com and from local book sellers.

Meet the authors: Keith Melton and Robert Wallace will be at the KGB Espionage Museum, 246 West 14th Street, New York, on March 5 beginning at 6:00 Eastern time. Tickets, which include a copy of the book and a tour of the museum, are available at https://www.eventbrite.com/e/book-launch-spy-sites-of-new-york-city-tickets-94191149263?aff=ebdssbdestsearch

Posted in True Crime.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *