Mere days before the Declaration of Independence was signed in July 1776, 20,000 spectators gathered in a field where Manhattan's modern-day Chinatown lies. All together, soldiers and citizens alike, they amassed the largest crowd to watch a public execution in the colonies at the time. Two days earlier Thomas Hickey, a member of the elite guard responsible for protecting George Washington, was convicted of mutiny and sedition, and on the morning of June 28, 1776, was hanged for his crimes.
Although he was the only one executed, Hickey, it turns out, was part of a much larger scheme, one concocted by British loyalists to assassinate Washington, who at the time was commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. This bit of lost history lies at the center of Brad Meltzer's new book The First Conspiracy (co-written with Josh Mensch). Meltzer rose to the top of the bestseller lists with his political thriller novels including Dead Even. In advance of his first non-fiction book, which hits shelves this week, the thriller writer spoke with Smithsonian.com about the intricate and dramatic plot to kill Washington, how the episode gave rise to the U.S.'s counterintelligence efforts and what we can learn from it today.