John Henry (spy)

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John Henry (c. 1776 – 1853) was a spy and adventurer of mysterious origins. He sold fake documents called the Henry letters to the United States suggesting treason by Federalists on the eve of the War of 1812 with Great Britain.

Early life[edit]

It is reputed that he was born to a well to do Protestant family in Dublin, Ireland, probably between 1750 and 1775. As a younger son, Henry was not entitled to an inheritance and left for the United States to join an elderly uncle named McGillivary.

Henry came to Philadelphia about 1793, and edited a newspaper, Brown's Philadelphia Gazette.

Military service[edit]

When his financial prospects soured, Henry obtained a commission as a captain in the United States Army, on June 1, 1798. This was during the Quasi-War with France, when the Army was undergoing a great expansion. Henry commanded an artillery company, under Brigadier General Ebenezer Stevens of the New York Miltia, while he served as commanding officer the fort on Bedloe's Island in New York Harbor.

He married Elizabeth Sophia Duché (born on September 18, 1774 in Philadelphia), the daughter of Jacob Duché - a prominent Episcopal priest, on May 23, 1799 in Philadelphia. She bore him two daughters, Elizabeth Duché (b. 1799) and Sophia Blois (b. 1802), prior to her untimely death on December 11, 1808 in Montreal.

Henry was re-assigned to Fort Wolcott in Newport, Rhode Island and was the first commander of Fort Adams, also in Newport, when the fort was opened on July 4, 1799. He later served at Fort Sumner in Portland, Maine and resigned from the Army at the end of 1801.

Political intrigues[edit]

Henry settled on a farm in northern Vermont, and also studied law. Here he remained five years studying law and, occasionally, writing articles for the press against the republican form of government.

These attracted the attention of Sir James Craig, then Governor-General of Canada, who employed him in 1809 to find out the extent of the reported disaffection to the U.S. government in New England. Henry spent three months in Boston in this employment, living at the Exchange Coffee House. He reported constantly to Craig by letter, and at one time thought that in the event of war between Great Britain and the United States, Massachusetts would take the lead in establishing a northern confederacy, which might, in the end, ally itself with Great Britain.

Craig promised Henry office in Canada, but died soon afterward, and the spy's efforts to obtain his reward in London, meeting with no success, he returned to the United States. En route to the United States in September 1811, he made the acquaintance of one Comte Edouard de Crillon who Henry took into his confidence and explained his whole affair to. De Crillon suggested that Henry sell the correspondence to President Madison as Madison was seeking grounds on which to declare war on Britain.

Henry, on February 2, 1812, sold the forged documents , called the Henry letters to President James Madison, who paid him $50,000 for his information, the other $40,000 of his reward to be guaranteed by the deed to an ancestral estate of de Crillon's.

Henry sailed from New York for France aboard the USS Wasp on March 9, 1812. The estate in Gascony granted by the "Count de Crillon" did not exist, as Crillon proved to be an impostor - possibly in the employ of Emperor Napoleon to help distract the United Kingdom in a war with the United States prior to his invasion of Russia.[1]

His disclosures, although totally fraudulent, were believed by President Madison and his Republican Party. They were made the subject of a special message to Congress, and created much excitement throughout the country. Some Federalists alleged that it was all a political trick that had been devised by the President to cause war with Great Britain. Historians have been sharply critical of Madison. Richard Leopold writes, "In buying sight unseen, in February, 1812, the worthless Henry letters at the cost of a badly needed frigate in order to expose the supposed intrigues of the New England Federalists, Madison and Secretary of State Monroe looked like fools as well as knaves." [2]

Later life[edit]

The last known report of Henry was that he was employed in 1820 by King George IV to spy on the king's wife, Caroline of Brunswick, while she was living in Rome. George was eager to divorce Caroline because of her suspected adultery of which proof was needed to obtain a legal divorce. Details of Henry's later life are few, but he is believed to have died in Paris in 1853.

See also[edit]


  1. ^
  2. ^ Richard W. Leopold, The Growth of American Foreign Policy: A History (1962) p 63


  • American State Papers, Foreign Affairs Vol. 3. pp. 545 - 554.
  • Adams, Henry. "Count Edward de Crillon" The American Historical Review. Vol. 1. No. 1. October, 1895.

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