Found guilty of high treason and sentenced to die in a multitude of nasty ways, William Prendergast had just a month to live. His wife, Mehetibal, had already made plans to save her husband’s life.
Immediately after the trial, which took place in early August 1766, Mehetibal met in private with Chief Justice Horsmanden. He advised her that Governor Sir Henry Moore was the only one who could save William. The Governor could stay the execution while a letter of request for pardon was sent to the King. However, Governor Moore was leaving on a long journey, and it was already too late.
Mehetibal first warned a small crowd of angry farmers outside the courthouse in Poughkeepsie not to attempt any action involving her husband until her return. She rode to Beekman where her wealthier, older sister Abigail lived. Mehetibal borrowed Abigail’s most elegant dress, retrieved a lantern, and gathered food. With these in hand, she mounted her horse and struck out for New York City, 80 miles away.
This was not a trip an unaccompanied 28-year-old woman would lightly take. The roads were extremely dangerous. She could meet thieves or wild beasts along the dark road. The moon was only four days past new and provided very little light. Rocks and fallen trees would not be easily seen. Mehetibal rode down the King’s Road past Fishkill and the waters of the Oscawanna Creek, then past Tarrytown.
The road wound through the dark, terrifying forests made infamous by a century of stories about haunted burying grounds, bridge trolls, and other ghouls. These were the same forests later made famous by Washington Irving in the Legend of Sleepy Hollow. She even rode past Philipse Manor Hall in Yonkers before reaching the bridge over the Harlem River at the top of Manhattan Island.
She covered the full length of Manhattan Island in just two hours. Mehetibal had made it to the doors of Fort George and was told the Governor had retired for the night. He needed rest for a long trip in the morning and could not be disturbed. She explained why she was there. This was the first news anyone at the fort had heard about the outcome of Prendergast’s trial. She was then granted an audience with the Royal Governor of the Province of New York.
Despite her lack of sleep, Mehetibal’s eloquence, logic, and persuasion were not diminished. According to the Wing family archives, she told Sir Henry her husband’s story as she strode up and down in front of him wearing her sister’s best blue-and-white striped linen dress. She explained that, while her husband was impetuous and headstrong, he always did what he thought was right. She also explained that if her husband were executed, all of his supporters would lose any hope for justice. There would be no peace in the Hudson Valley unless there was justice. She was so convincing that the governor exclaimed through tears, “Your husband shall not suffer.”
Moore wrote a reprieve to suspend the execution “until His Majesty, King George III’s pleasure should be known.” He then helped her write a petition for a royal pardon. With the reprieve in hand, Mehetibal mounted her horse again and rode back to Poughkeepsie in the greatest haste. She knew Prendergast’s followers would attempt to storm the jail at some point. This would destroy all hope for a pardon. Going on four days without sleep, and having ridden 160 miles, Mehetibal was nearly incoherent when she gave the document to the Sheriff and headed for the courthouse jail. She told William the news, and she along with William convinced his supporters not attempt a release until the results of the pardon became known.
Note: The final chapter of “The Heroine of Quaker Hill” will appear in The Pawling Record on October 26. To read previous installments of “The Heroine,” visit PawlingRecord.org online and click on “Lifestyle.”
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