Henry Dawkins was always a bit of a scoundrel. In the spring of 1776, he finished a long prison tenure and was let back onto the streets. Although free, he was not a changed man. Dawkins continued committing crimes. His knack for law breaking, however, inadvertently saved the USA.
After leaving prison, the ex-con rented a room on Long Island. He told his landlords, Isaac and Israel Youngs, that he was going to start a printing business. (He left out what he’d be printing—counterfeit money.) The brothers loaned Dawkins some dough for a printing press. Dawkins bought the machine under a fake name and hid it in the Youngs’ attic. In mid-May, Dawkins asked his friend Isaac Ketcham to buy rolls of currency paper. Ketcham purchased the paper, and a suspicious salesman reported him to the authorities. Days later, Dawkins was back behind bars. This time, Ketcham and the Youngs brothers were with him.
Ketcham was assigned to a cell brimming with loyalists—Americans who supported the monarchy. Ketcham befriended some of the Tories and eavesdropped on their conversations. The prisoners treated him to the freshest British intelligence, and he learned about multiple plots to capture Manhattan.
Ketcham was desperate to get out of jail, and he knew that digging up dirt on the Brits could be his ticket out. He secretly petitioned the Provincial Congress—the same people who convicted him—and asked to be freed. “I…have something to [tell] to the hounorable house,” he said. “It is nothing concerning my own affair, but entirely on another subject.”
Congress took the hint. Ketcham was quickly called in for questioning, but was sent right back to jail. This time, however, he wasn’t there as a prisoner. He was now a spy.