CONNECTIONS: The tale of the honorable traitor
About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.
This is one of my favorite Berkshire stories. It was first told by Timothy Dwight almost 200 years ago in “Travels in New England and New York.” It’s high time for retelling. All good stories require the willing suspension of disbelief, but Dwight claimed this story was told to him by a witness and key player. He said it was unembellished and therefore, to be believed — even if wondered at.
It was the summer of 1777. A man from Hancock set out for Bennington to fight, but not on the side of the American militia. This man was a Tory seeking to fight with the King’s men.
Richard Jackson, the Tory from Hancock, was stopped at Hoosac (Williamstown) by the militia. Too honest to deny it, Jackson readily admitted his sympathies and his intentions. He was immediately arrested for high treason. The court and jailhouse were in Great Barrington from 1761–87; therefore, Jackson was taken to the jail in Great Barrington.
At that time, Gen. John Fellows of Sheffield was High Sheriff of Berkshire County, so the jail was in his charge. Once Jackson was locked in and had a look around, it became clear to him that the jail was in such bad repair that breaking out would be a very simple matter. However, breaking out was “in no way consonant with his sense of right.” Instead, Jackson appealed to Fellows to allow him out each day to work so he would not “waste time and lose money.” If he were allowed out each morning, he faithfully promised to return to jail each night. Fellows considered Jackson’s character as it had been revealed to him so far and agreed to the plan. Jackson was a prisoner with work-release privileges for nine months from August 1777 to May 1778. Each day except the Sabbath, Jackson left the jail to work and, every night, he returned to sleep in his cell.
In May 1778 Jackson was due in Springfield where cases of high treason were heard. There he would be tried and, if convicted, hung. Fellows was making preparations to conduct Jackson to Springfield when Jackson suggested that the sheriff save himself the extra expense and trouble by allowing Jackson to go alone. Based on Jackson’s behavior to date, Fellows agreed. Jackson set out, true in his course, though death by hanging might be his journey’s end.
Along the way, in Tyringham, Jackson met another traveler bound for Springfield. They decided to go on together. As travelers do, Jackson told why he was bound for Springfield and what awaited him there. “[I go] to Springfield, Sir, to be tried for my life.”
Amazed at this man’s tale and certain that no other prisoner had ever or would ever again be allowed to travel alone for such a purpose, he sought more details. So rapt was he in Jackson’s story that he never managed to tell his story: who he was or why he was going to Springfield.
Jackson arrived at Springfield and surrendered himself to the sheriff of Hampshire County. He was tried. It was observed that “the case was perfectly clear: the act alleged was unquestionably high treason, and the proof was complete (resting almost entirely upon Jackson’s own admission).” Jackson was convicted. As he awaited the hangman’s rope, an appeal was filed on his behalf.
The Council at Springfield was at that time the supreme executive of the state with full power to grant pardons. Jackson’s case was presented: “Shall Richard Jackson be pardoned?” The Council was amazed: here was a clear case of guilt with no basis for appeal. If Jackson were pardoned on no apparent grounds, it would set a dangerous precedent and everyone in Springfield jail could be pardoned on a whim. Clearly the appeal process was going against Jackson when Timothy Edwards spoke up.
It was Edwards, a member of the Council, who had been Jackson’s traveling companion, and it was he who filed the appeal. He recited the strange tale of Richard Jackson, simply and without embellishment. He concluded that, in this new country of ours, honest and honorable men were needed. Jackson had demonstrated that he was both. Certainly it would be a waste to send such a man to the gallows. Edwards won the day; the pardon was granted and Jackson was released. Ten months after he had set out for Bennington, Jackson returned to Hancock.