John Howe, British Spy

In 1827 a Massachusetts printer named Luther Roby published The Journal Kept by Mr. John Howe while He Was Employed as a British Spy. It told the story of John Howe, a man said to have been a British spy during the Revolutionary war before switching sides to become an American soldier, then a settler, a frontier trader, an Indian preacher, and finally a smuggler.

Howe was long accepted as an actual historical figure. As late as 1976, the historian Robert Gross referred to Howe in The Minutemen and Their World as a "quick-thinking English civilian-spy." The 1983 biographical dictionary American Writers Before 1800 contained an entry about Howe. But the writer of the 1983 biographical entry, Daniel Williams, realized, upon investigation, that Howe was fictitious and exposed the hoax, 165 years after it had been perpetrated.

Williams concluded that Roby (or someone he hired to do the writing) had created the character of Howe based on a real figure, Ensign Henry DeBerniere, who had spied for General Gage. Roby essentially Americanized the character of DeBerniere, making him craftier and more representative of the American ideal of the self-made man. Roby's motive was probably financial. He recognized that readers would be more interested in the adventures of a supposedly real Revolutionary war hero than a fictional one.
Links and References
  • Williams, Daniel E. "Specious Spy: The Narrative Lives - And Lies - Of Mr. John Howe". Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 1993 34(3): 264-286.


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