John Rattoon Full Biography
I was born in Perth Amboy in 1744 and married Isabella, daughter of Elijah and Mary Dunham of Perth Amboy in 1768 when I was 24 years old. When the Revolution broke out I was in my early thirties and, among other economic interests, I owned a tavern in South Amboy. I did not openly advocate for one side or the other in the conflict, but was able to stay on friendly terms with everyone. I was reputed to be “a man of infinite tact” and by legend was able to entertain both British and American officers in my tavern at the same time, without either knowing of the presence of the other. What people at the time did not know about me was that I was a spy and secret courier, code named Mercury, for the British military. I provided the British with intelligence, arranged for guides to help spies reach their destinations, and took messages across the British and American lines.
The most famous event I was secretly involved with concerned the correspondence with Benedict Arnold when he was negotiating his reward for committing treason against the Continental Army in the summer of 1779. Arnold recruited Joseph Stansbury, a Loyalist in Philadelphia, to help him communicate with the British authorities through Major John Andre. Stansbury teamed up with Reverend Jonathan Odell, a New Jersey Loyalist living in New York City because his property had been confiscated. Odell helped with coding and decoding the many messages needed to arrange the deal with Arnold. The letters between Arnold and Andre, using code names of course, sometimes contained coded messages in invisible ink or stated things obliquely so that they resembled ordinary business matters. I was chosen as a trusted courier to take these letters through the American lines and rowed a boat on many a dark night between my tavern in South Amboy and an armed British vessel stationed at Prince’s Bay, Staten Island. The captain of the British ship had orders to forward the letters I delivered to the British authorities at New York City. My tavern had a dock located about a half mile away across a salt marsh so anyone wanting to secretly traverse from the bay to my tavern, or vice versa, was hidden from view by the marsh.
It wasn’t easy leading the secret life of a British agent. Once, I was “detained by some embarrassments” when carrying a letter from Arnold in July. The British trusted me completely and Odell told Major Andre that he was more confidant of my faithfulness than in that of any other agent. This confidence was not shaken even though George Washington received a note from a “Mr. Ratton” of South Amboy providing information on the British fleet sailing for Chesapeake Bay, British troop movements on Long Island, and information on Loyalist plans to raid Patriots. No one knows whether this letter was sent to protect my cover or was actually from another South Amboy Rattoon, perhaps Robert. Travelling so often to New York did bring suspicion on me so it was important that I didn’t spend too much time there.
After the Arnold treason I assisted British agents sent to negotiate with the mutineers of the Pennsylvania Line in January 1781. The British wanted to capitalize on the Arnold treason by enticing numbers of Continental soldiers to return to British loyalty. However, the two agents were taken into custody by the mutineers and hung. I actually delivered the message about their deaths to Jonathan Odell. I never was seriously suspected of aiding the British and was always considered a fine, upstanding member of my community during and after the war.
Ironically, in May 1783, six months before the British finally evacuated New York, I was mentioned in a Bordentown stagecoach line advertisement as providing travelers with a boat from South Amboy to New York. The war was really over, so no more secret messages were involved. I was still a respected citizen after the war and served as mayor of South Amboy between 1796 and 1808. My son entered the college at Princeton in 1784 and delivered an oration on religious liberty when he graduated in 1787. I was also a judge of the court of common pleas between 1796 and 1806. I served as a vestryman at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church from 1782 until 1789 and then as warden from 1790 to 1801 and again from 1809 to 1810. I also became an investor in real estate and in April 1794 I acquired ownership of the Proprietary House, the former Royal Governor’s mansion in Perth Amboy. The house was in ruins with extensive fire damage, but I purchased the property anyway, repaired the fire damage, and sold the house and land in 1808. I died at Perth Amboy in October 1823, “esteemed and regretted.”
The Pennsylvania Packet or the General Advertiser, May 20, 1783, page 4
National Advocate, New York City, October 31, 1823, page 2 – obituary
Ratton to Washington, May 22, 1779, George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799. Online atwww.memory.loc.gov.
Flexner, James Thomas, The Traitor and the Spy: Benedict Arnold and John Andre, Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1991.
Nagy, John A., Invisible Ink: Spycraft of the American Revolution, Yardley: Westholme, 2010.
Nagy, John A. Rebellion in the Ranks: Mutinies of the American Revolution, Yardley: Westholme, 2008.
Van Doren, Carl, Secret History of the American Revolution, New York: Viking, 1951.
Whitehead, William A., Contributions to the Early History of Perth Amboy, New York: Appleton, 1856.
Woodward, Ruth L. and Wesley Frank Craven, Princetonians, 1784-1790: A Biographical Dictionary, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991, 217-218