The Characters in 355

Although many legends surround Elizabeth Burgin, not much is actually known about her, including whether or not the prisoners she rescued were indeed aboard the prison ships. In 1779, George Higday was mentioned in a Culper Ring letter from Washington to Benjamin Tallmadge. Higday was subsequently arrested, and in a letter written in November of that year, Burgin wrote “Higday had carried out 200 American prisoners for me.” Higday’s wife, in an apparent plea to lessen her husband’s sentence, gave Burgin’s name to the British authorities. They went to her residence to arrest her, but, upon finding that she had fled, offered 200 pounds as a reward for her capture. She hid in an unidentified place for a month on Long Island before making her way to Philadelphia in a whaleboat, all the while being chased by the enemy. After securing a pass, she returned to New York City under a flag of truce to collect her children and found that her property and remaining clothing had been seized by Loyalists.

General Washington himself appealed on her behalf in early 1780, stating in a letter to the Continental Congress “From the testimony of different persons, and particularly many of our own Officers who have returned from captivity, it would appear that she has been indefatigable for the relief of the prisoners and in measures for facilitating their escape. For this conduct she incurred the suspicion of the British, and was forced to make her escape under disturbing circumstances.”  Finding it still hard to get by a year later, Elizabeth petitioned Congress, altruistically asking to be paid for “cutting out the linen into shirts…for the army.”  Instead of a seamstress job, Congress then awarded her a pension, making her one of the few women of the Revolutionary War to receive the annuity.

As you can see, we know from her letters and petitions that she helped the prisoners, but they could have been prisoners of the sugarhouses in New York City or even paroled officers living on Long Island, and not necessary of the, admittedly infamous and foul, prison ships. It is not unlike the legend of Molly Pitcher, who most likely was never a real person.  

While there is no evidence that Elizabeth Burgin was directly involved with the Culper Ring, she most certainly had connections to Washington’s Secret Spy Ring. The mention of Higday, which prompted his arrest, occurred in a letter in which Washington wrote of C—-r (Samuel Culper, Jr. aka Abraham Woodhull) and his successor (presumably Samuel Culper Jr., real name Robert Townsend). This letter was captured by the British in a raid. It did not have Culper’s full alias or real name but it did have George Higday’s name spelled out. In addition, the letter had a vague mention of Bergen County- perhaps this was a veiled reference to Elizabeth Burgin.

At any rate, Washington’s particular praise toward Congress and the promise of approval from many of the soldiers she presumably rescued proved that Elizabeth was deserving of receiving a pension from the newly formed American government, a rarity for women in those days. In addition, even though Elizabeth found it hard to survive as a widow with three children in an alien city, she never regretted the act she performed for her country that got her banished there. To quote Elizabeth herself: “Helping our poor prisoners brought me to want, which I don’t repent.”