Friday, May 1, 2015

Ensign Asher Levy - Jewish Patriot, Loyalist Spy (or Double Agent)?

From September, 1777 to June 14th, 1779, Asher Levy was first a cadet and later an Ensign in the 1st New Jersey Regiment of the Continental Line.  The name is spelled variously on muster return as Asher/Asser/Ashur and Levy/Lewis, but they all refer to the same person.   His pedigree is clear and he holds the distinction of being the only Jewish officer known to have served in the Jersey Line during the Revolution. 

His otherwise unremarkable service is noteworthy for being called to testify at the court martial of his commanding officer,Colonel Matthias Ogden, in early Spring 1779.  Colonel Ogden was acquitted on all charges but "the pernicious vice of gaming." Levy resigned his commission shortly thereafter, but not before adding his name to a petition from the line officers of the 1st NJ to the Governor to redress grievances about inadequate officer pay and provision. 

Asher Levy also holds the distinction, after leaving the army, of twice being imprisoned in 1780 as an enemy agent and  "notorious villain."  The minutes of the Supreme Executive Council of Pennsylvania from February 22, 1780, include the following seemingly damning reference to Asher Levy:

"A letter from Lieutenant Colonel De Hart [of the 1st New Jersey Regiment] was read, informing the board that one Asher Levy, a person of disaffected Character, was in this City, and there was great reason to believe he was a spy."

We also have two tantalizing descriptions of him from each of his two jailbreaks that add color, if not clarity, to his story.
"One Thousand Dollars Reward

Made his escape last evening over the gaol wall of Burlington, a certain ASHER LEVY, who was committed as a spy from the enemy, and also for high treason.  He is about five feet seven inches high, about twenty years of age; has short black hair, but wears a false tail: Had on a light colour'd knap great coat, lined with green baize, and a red velvet cape; a white broadcloth jacket, and black knit breeches.  Whosoever secures said villain, and delivers him to me, shall have the above reward paid by

March 25 [1780]                       Joseph Burnes, Gaoler

- New Jersey Gazette Vol. III No. 118, March 29th, 1780

 After his subsequent recapture, Levy escaped once more, this time making his way to New York.

Burlington August 10th, 1780

Broke out of Burlington gaol last night, two notorious villains:  The one named Joseph Heighton, about 5 feet 8 or 9 inches high, about 24 or 25 years of age; had on a lightish coloured jacket without sleeves, a pair of striped overalls and boots; had no coat or hat: the other named Asher Levy, about the same age, about 5 feet 5 or 6 inches high; had on a fashionable hat, brown broadcloth coat, jacket and breeches, a pair of new shoes without buckles.  It is supposed they are gone towards Amboy in order to make their escape to the enemy.   Whosoever takes up and delivers them at the gaol aforesaid, shall have Four Hundred Dollars for each, paid by
J. Phillips, Sheriff.

- New Jersey Gazette Vol. III No. 138 August 16th, 1780

Joseph (Hayden) Heighton's concurrent escape with Asher Levy may have been coincidental.  He and his brother Richard Hayden were counterfeiters, and yet another brother Samuel Hayden lead a party of King's Rangers and Loyalist refugees in a raid on Woodbridge, NJ in June 1780 to kidnap some of those who had given evidence against his kin.  Joseph and Richard Hayden ended up in British occupied New York, and in November, 1783 were arrested by the Crown and imprisoned for stealing a horse and chaise.  Villainous company, to be sure, but with no other known connection to Asher Levy after he and Joseph Hayden made their escape from New Jersey.

Levy is described in both newspaper accounts as a young, well dressed man, with estimates of age that comport with his known year of birth (1756).   Asher Levy later married Margaret (Mary) Thom(p)son in occupied New York on May 22nd, 1782 and died just a few years later in Philadelphia.

What are we to make of his reversal of allegiance?  Was he a mere turncoat, or was he something more?  Could he have been a double agent?  We will probably never know, but it is worth delving deeper into what is known about his background to see what it may reveal about his chosen path.

There were fewer than 3,000 Jews in the American Colonies at the outbreak of the Revolution and they maintained close business and family connections.  Asher Levy's family origins and alliances offer potential clues to his behavior during the Revolution.

Levy came from a prosperous Ashkenazic Jewish family with deep roots in North America.  A collateral
Moses Lev y (1665-1728)
was Asher Levy's Grandfather
ancestor and namesake was among the first Jews to settle in New Amsterdam in 1654 and the only one who remained there at the end of Dutch rule despite Peter Stuyvesant's efforts to drive them from the colony. His Grandfather Moses Levy had two marriages and many of the oldest Jewish families in America come from these lines. 

By the mid 1700s, Asher Levy's nearer relations were well established in Pennsylvania.  His Uncle Nathan Levy, in partnership with his cousin David Franks, owned the ship which delivered the Liberty Bell to Pennsylvania in 1752. Asher Levy's father Isaac Levy died in Philadelphia in 1777.

In order to secure even the lowest officer's commission in the 1st NJ, a candidate needed connections.  Ensign Levy appears to have had a very good connection through his sister Esther (Henrietta) Levy's marriage to Matthias Williamson, Jr. (1752-1836), a New Jersey militia Assistant Quartermaster in 1778 but more significantly the son of militia Brigadier General Matthias Williamson of Elizabethtown New Jersey (and coincidently one of my ancestors).  Both Ensign Levy and Matthias Williamson were called to testify in Colonel Ogden's court martial in Elizabethtown in 1779, and as shall be seen, Matthias Williamson Jr. was one of the executor's of Asher Levy's will in 1785.

Oliver De Lancey, Jr.
On the other hand, Asher Levy's Franks relatives included several clear Loyalists.  1st cousin Phila Franks eloped and secretly married non-Jewish Oliver DeLancey, Jr., who would become the senior Loyalist commander during the Revolution.  Her brother David Franks was twice imprisoned in Philadelphia and finally sent through the lines to New York until the end of the war.  His daughter Rebecca Franks was the belle of numerous British balls in occupied Philadelphia during the winter of 1777-1778, and later while in exile in New York married Lt. Col. Henry Johnson of the 17th Foot.

Asher Levy was able to leave New York before the final Peace was ratified and moved to Philadelphia.  If he were truly a "notorious villain", one wonders why a clear patriot, his brother-in-law Matthias Williamson Jr., would have deigned to be an executor of his Will.  Yet here is the summary of Asher Levy's Will, drafted in the fall of 1783 and proved in August 1785.  His wife Margaret (Mary) Thom(p)son, is listed as a witness, and both his sister Esther and brother-in-law Matthias Williamson were his executors.

LEVY, ASHER. Phila. Gentleman.
September 25, 1783. August 12, 1785. T.183.
Sister: Esther [Otherwise called Henrietta].
Exec: Brother-in-Law Matthias Williamson and Sister Esther Levy.
Wit: Margret Thomson, Richard Mount, Callaghan McCarthy.

A couple of months later, the Pennsylvania Packet posted the following notice:

If a certain Asher Levy, son of Mr. Isaac Levy, of the city of Philadelphia, deceased, will apply to the
                 Printer hereof, he will hear of something to his advantage." December 9, 1783

This was in reference to his father's will of 1777, the estate of which remained unsettled as late as 1785.  By then, Asher Levy himself had died.

It is possible that Levy really was a disaffected person, but it is also possible that Lt. Col. De Hart's letter naming him as such was an elaborate cover.  As part of an extensive merchant family he had connections throughout the Western Atlantic from Nova Scotia to Jamaica.  There were plenty of spies managed by the officers of the 1st and 3rd New Jersey Regiments and Levy could have been one of these.  Then again, Colonel Ogden may have been looking for a chance to get rid of him after the court martial testimony.  Until more data comes to light we can only speculate, but there is room for reasonable doubt that his story should be taken at face value.

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