Urban Legends and Hoaxes:
Nathan Hale - Bad Spy, Good Patriot

Nathan Hale is famous for his Revolutionary War spy attempt, and for his execution on September 22, 1776. Did he really say those famous words, I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country?

Born on June 6, 1755 in Connecticut, Hale was part of a large farming family. His family were devoted patriots and all of the children helped the effort in one way or another. Nathan graduated from Yale University in 1773, then taught school for 2 years before joining the Continental Army in their quest to gain American independence.

Nathan's soldiering experiences were relatively quiet up until August 1776, when General George Washington was mired in Manhattan, while the British were plotting in Long Island. Needing to know what the British were up to, Washington asked for volunteers, and up stood Nathan.

Around Sept 12th, Hale took a small boat across the Long Island Sound. Reaching the other side, he left behind his military outfit and put on civilian clothing. He was spotted almost instantly by Robert Rogers, an experienced scout for the British side. Rogers befriended Hale, pretending to be a fellow spy. Hale merrily told Rogers of his task, and the two went for dinner at Roger's house. While there, the British troops easily took Hale who had documents and drawings on his body proving the spy charges to be true. Confronted with the evidence, Hale confessed everything to the British.

Hale asked for a priest and Bible, but received neither. Instead, he was hung the next morning at somewhere near 66th Street and Third Avenue. A newspaper the following year says Hale's final quote was: "if he had ten thousand lives, he would lay them all down, if called to it, in defence of his injured, bleeding country." A newspaper story 4 years later changed it to "my only regret is, that I have not more lives than one to offer in its service." Memoirs by Hale's friend William Hull had the words as, "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."

All of these mirror a famous play of the time, put out in 1713 by Joseph Addison. The quote from the play was:

"How beautiful is death, when earn'd by virtue!
Who would not be that youth? What pity is it
That we can die but once to serve our country!"

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