The Gang That Couldn’t Spy Straight

(A continuation of the thread beginning with On His Majesty’s Secret Service)

When Captain Justus Sherwood dispatched forty-seven secret agents to Vermont in 1782, confident that their deeds would bend hearts and minds toward the British cause, he glowingly described them as “a race of heroes.”  When all their various plots fizzled and conspirators began spilling the beans and shifting blame toward each other, they must have appeared more like a confederacy of dunces.  

One of their number, Col. Thomas Johnson, may have acted as a sort of double-agent.  Johnson used a disagreement over the best time to storm Joseph Bayley's house, to try to talk the team out of kidnapping the General altogether.  After failing to convince them, Johnson decided to tip off the intended victim.  

On the appointed day he wrote out a message on a slip of paper and had his brother-in-law drop it in a field where Gen. Bayley and his sons were plowing.  While the message gave away no one’s identity nor any other specifics of the plan, it was a warning which Gen. Bayley would instantly comprehend.  The slip of paper read, “Samson, the Philistines be upon Thee.”  Bayley, who already knew that a plot to kidnap him was in the works, picked up the note, read it, hopped on a horse and galloped away to Haverhill.  

Johnson’s impromptu scuttling of the kidnapping was the only thing that would go right all week.

The spies and secret agents working for Capt. Sherwood and the British Crown were understandably anxious that the messages they carried might fall into the wrong hands.  Unfortunately those wrong hands included members of their own spy network.  Joseph White, while on a mission from Sherwood to deliver a letter to a contact in Vermont, saw fellow spy Benjamin Patterson riding toward him and panicked.  White did not trust Patterson, believing him to be not only a secret Whig, but a fraudulent businessman on the run from criminal prosecution.  White hurriedly tossed the letter aside and was never able to locate it again.  Patterson demanded to know White’s business and where he was going.  White, who apparently hadn’t worked out a cover story in advance, seemed flustered, replying that he was on personal business but had no idea where he was going.

Even Capt. Sherwood was wary about confiding in Patterson, after hearing White’s suspicions.  When Patterson demanded that Sherwood reveal White’s destination to him, Sherwood declared that White “was not gone on secret service, but was really hunting moose.”  

Sherwood and his spies seemed unable to tell a convincing lie, even to each other.

When he prepared reports on the operation, Sherwood included copies of letters from two of his agents, Col. Taplin and Thomas Chamberlain, assuring his superiors that the copies had been “wrote & spelt in a bad manner to prevent discovery if taken.”

Mere sloppy writing wasn’t a sufficient safeguard for Col. Timothy Bedel, whom Sherwood touted as “one of the most subtle, cunning geniuses in that part of the country…”  Bedel came up with a pen name for himself and fellow spy Asa Porter of Haverhill, announcing that when he sent information to Sherwood he would “sign himself John Mountine without a cross on the tee.  Colonel Porter will sign himself John Mountine with  a cross on the tee.

They were, in the end, ordinary farmers, businessmen and petty officials playing at being spies with all the savoir faire of little boys wearing fake mustaches while passing coded messages written in lemon juice.

However, the secret agents crisscrossing Vermont in 1782 did not trust each other, lied to each other, argued amongst themselves at the last minute over details of their plans, and sometimes worked to sabotage their own operations, all while trying to avoid the suspicion.  No wonder it all ended badly.

Most of the spies had been recruited by a standard method:  Arrested in Canada or captured in Vermont and spirited away to Canada, they would be paroled and sent home after promising to keep an eye on their neighbors and do the occasional little favor for Capt. Justus Sherwood and his handlers.

One prominent resident of Newbury who had been detained in Canada very early in the war was Col. Nehemiah Lovewell.  He had traveled north to help arrange a prisoner exchange when a British officer decided to ignore Lovewell's flag of truce and clapped him in prison for several months.  There is no record of anyone accusing Col. Lovewell of collaborating with his captors (at least no record in American archives).  There is only that one mysterious account of his meeting in the woods outside Col. John Taplin’s house with Tory conspirators Joseph White and John Cross, following their bungled kidnapping attempt.  It’s the meeting where Lovewell cryptically remarks that “we had a friend that we made use of with two coats,” perhaps referring to Thomas Johnson without naming him.

Col. Taplin was by that time hightailing it to Canada where he would sit out the remainder of the war.  If his son John Taplin, Jr., had accompanied his father, he would soon return to oversee the family estate at Newbury with his wife Catherine at his side.  Catherine Taplin was Col. Nehemiah Lovewell’s daughter.  Nehemiah’s daughter Betsy was married to Col. Taplin’s son Mansfield Taplin.  Three of Nehemiah's sons were married to Taplin girls.  He had all sorts of reasons for visiting the Taplin household that night.  His reasons for insisting on a conversation in the woods with two Tory spies will have to remain his secret.  

As Frederic Price recorded in his 1902 history of Newbury, Vermont:

"Our town records are strangely silent upon the subject of the revolutionary war."

Silent, perhaps, but it’s not all that strange.

(For an earlier account of what we know of Nehemiah Lovewell’s military record, use the link below)

© Dale Switzer 2023