Skip to main content

Only One Life, But Three Hangings

May 2024
3min read

In September a statue of Nathan Hale, martyr-patriot of the Revolution, is to be unveiled near the main entrance to the CIA headquarters in Washington. A similar statue has stood for some years next to the headquarters of the FBI, and there are other copies of it in New London and Bristol, Connecticut, and at Phillips Academy, Andover, Massachusetts. Hale was hanged by the British in New York in 1776 while on a behind-the-lines espionage mission for General Washington. It has been claimed that he was betrayed by his first cousin, a Tory—and a Harvard graduate.

In 1914 the original of this statue was erected in front of Nathan’s college dormitory, Connecticut Hall, on the Old Campus at Yale, where he received his H.A. degree in 1773. Created by the noted American sculptor Bela Lyon Pratt, the stylized, slightly larger-than-life-size design was based on contemporary descriptions of Hale, of whom no portrait existed. For more than a half century the patriot stood in heroic dignity watching over the passing generations of Yale students. Then, in June of 1969, he suddenly disappeared from public view.

Leaping to the conclusion that he had been removed in order to quiet student protests against the continued display of a symbol of militarism, angry alumni and townspeople sent irate letters to university authorities and to the local press. A lady from a nearby town, having visited the campus and found the statue missing, wrote that it was “impossible NOT to attribute the ‘burying’ of Nathan Hale by Yale to the demonstrations & disorders at Yale against Vietnam, the draft… and the demonstrations against the ROTC .” She also stated that she would “appreciate a direct, unequivocal answer” as to where Nathan was.


Actually, except for an occasional graffito chalked on the pedestal, the statue had generated no manifestations of protest, even in times of maximum antiwar activism. And far from being politically inspired, Nathan Male’s removal had been merely a matter of housekeeping. For a long time the statue had needed cleaning, especially since, about ten years earlier, a tinsmith working above on the eaves of the building had spilled a can of muriatic acid, a quantity of which had hit Nathan squarely on the head and given him the appearance of having had milk poured over him. Estimates had been obtained for having him cleaned, but each successive year’s budget had carried too many items commanding a higher priority than Nathan’s refurbishing.

In order to make a copy of the statue to stand in front of Nathan Hale House, a new dormitory at Phillips Academy, the Renaissance Art Foundry of South Norwalk, Connecticut, had borrowed BeIa Pratt’s original plaster model from the Lyman Allyn Museum in New London. After the new statue was made and sent to Andover, the plaster cast was destroyed in a fire at the foundry. Renaissance asked Yale for the loan of the original statue so that the model could be reconstituted for the museum. In return the foundry offered to clean and refinish the bronze.

When, in June of 1969, the men from Renaissance came to the campus to take Nathan away, they decided that the only practical way to lift him from the pedestal was to put a noose around his neck and hoist him with a power winch. After the statue was removed, I discovered a vertical hole in the center of the pedestal and in it a bronze canister. Because of water seepage and freezing, this had burst open, disclosing a pulpy, illegible mass—the remains of the papers that had been deposited there when the statue was dedicated in 1914. I later found a list of these papers in the library archives.

While the statue was absent New Haven schoolboys attending summer programs on the campus amused themselves by climbing up on the pedestal and posing for passing photographers. In the meantime I had a newbrass canister made and selected for it a number of contemporary items, such as newspapers, catalogues, and pictures—one of which showed Yale geologists studying Apollo 11 moon rocks, the first to reach New Haven following man’s initial lunar landing. Another photograph showed Amy Solomon, a freshman, registering as the first female undergraduate student in Yale’s history (she received her B.A. on June 4—exactly two hundred years after Nathan received his). Also encapsulated was a copy of the list of the contents of the original cylinder.

On September 30—the fifty-fifth anniversary of its first installation—about two hundred people gathered to see the refurbished statue rededicated. I gave a brief history of the sculpture and told of its recent travels. Then university president Kingman Brewster, Jr., dropped the new “time capsule” into the hole, and Nathan, protectively swaddled, was once again hoisted with a noose (his third hanging) and restored to his customary place of honor. Those who pass Connecticut Hall or look out through its windows can once again read Nathan Hale’s legendary last words around the base of the statue: I ONLY REGRET THAT I HAVE BUT ONE LIFE TO LOSE FOR MY COUNTRY.


We hope you enjoy our work.

Please support this magazine of trusted historical writing, now in its 75th year, and the volunteers that sustain it with a donation to American Heritage.