It is common to name streets after Revolutionary War heroes, but what about a traitor and highwayman who met his end at the end of a rope?
Such would seem to be the case of the Sandy Flash Drives in Ridley Creek State Park and Kennett Square, in an area rich in colonial history south of Philadelphia. A reader, Steve Lippe, inquired about the name through the Curious Philly portal, where you pose the questions and Inquirer reporters try to answer them.
“Sandy Flash” is a moniker, much like a Mafia nickname, attached to James Fitzpatrick, son of Scots Irish immigrants. But that appellation, like so much in his story, was an embellishment that came as a legend grew around him long after he was in the grave, and fiction merged with fact.
Fitzpatrick’s story, details of which remain suspect, sheds some light on an overlooked aspect of the Revolutionary War: how divided loyalties rived the fledgling nation.
When Fitzpatrick was born is not clear, but Pennsylvania State University historian Rosemary Warden writes that the towering redhead — he was more than 6 feet tall — was likely in his late 20s when the Revolutionary War broke out.
Before that, he lived with his mother — his father had left when he was a boy — on the Passmore farm in Doe Run, West Marlborough Township, where he was an indentured servant working in the fields and as a blacksmith.
After joining a Pennsylvania militia, Fitzpatrick is said to have fought in the disastrous Battle of Long Island, was flogged for a violation of military discipline, and deserted, supposedly swimming the Hudson River before making his way home to a life of crime.
At least two attempts to return to military service failed, once when he falsely promised to rejoin the militia to get out of Philadelphia’s Walnut Street Jail and the second in a daring escape at gunpoint.
In September 1777, a year after the Battle of Long Island, the British invaded Chester County and Fitzpatrick joined them, fighting at the Battle of Brandywine and serving as a guide until Gen. William Howe’s army occupied Philadelphia.
After that, the highwayman fashioned himself as Captain Fitz.
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As Warden notes, the people of Chester County, which then included what is now Delaware County and was home to many pacifist Quakers, were in no way united over the Revolution.
That lack of support ranged “from passive neutrality to outright loyalism," Warden writes in her article, “The Infamous Fitch: The Tory Bandit, James Fitzpatrick of Chester County."
“Only a small number actively supported the Revolution or the British cause; most were neutrals or passive loyalists, refusing to vote, to hold office, or to serve in the military,” Warden said, noting that Revolutionary recruiters often faced open, sometimes violent, opposition from the populace.
Against that backdrop, the fact that Fitzpatrick’s favorite targets were militia officers and tax collectors would not have been amiss among many in the county, where the government had collapsed because of divided loyalties.
“Fitzpatrick’s record of almost reckless hostility toward Whigs [the rebels] was matched by his reputation for refusing to rob the poor, and for his gallantry toward women,” Warden writes. Still, she adds, “Fitzpatrick was not the Robin Hood figure that some historians have described.”
After the British left Philadelphia in 1778, a warrant was issued for Fitzpatrick and a $1,000 reward put on his head.
His downfall came when he tried to rob a home in Edgemont, where militia Capt. Robert McAfee (or McPhee) was having tea with his parents. Fitzpatrick got into a struggle with the captain, and McAfee, with the assistance of a servant identified as Rachel Walker, overpowered the intruder. The captain and the servant split the reward.
Tried and convicted, Fitzpatrick was hanged in Chester on Sept. 26, 1778, after two failed escape attempts.
“Difficult to catch and difficult to hold, Fitzpatrick also proved difficult to hang,” Warden writes.
“His executioner failed to allow for his unusual height. When the cart was pulled out from under him, his feet dangled so low that he was able to relieve the pressure of the rope by standing on his toes. Seeing this, the executioner jumped on Fitzpatrick’s shoulders … and, in fact, strangled Fitzpatrick to death.”
The name “Sandy Flash” does not appear until 1866, when it shows up in a novel by Bayard Taylor, The Story of Kennett, for a character modeled on Fitzpatrick, said Douglas Humes of the Newtown Square Historical Society.
The name makes another appearance in 1922 in a novel called Sandy Flash, the Highwayman of Castle Rock, by a Capt. Clifton Lisle, said Humes. In that book, set in the area of Ridley Creek State Park, Sandy Flash is identified as being one and the same as James Fitzpatrick and Capt. Fitz.
“The later novels gave him a Robin Hood-type character; and from this distance it is somewhat difficult to separate the man and the myth,” Humes said.
That conflation was evident in the naming of the main road through Ridley Creek State Park when it was created in 1972.
“‘Sandy Flash’ is an unusual name, and there is a story behind it, as it commemorates a colorful character in this area’s past," according to the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources management plan for the park. “William Potter, park manager during the construction phase of this park, was delighted with the legend of ‘Sandy Flash’ and decided to name the road for this local character.”
Sandy Flash Drive in Kennett Square is attached to a relatively new development down Woodale Road from Lavender Drive, named after Betsy Lavender, another character in The Story of Kennett, notes Lynn Sinclair of the Kennett Heritage Center.
When fiction merges with fact, which predominates? That question will indicate whether you believe the Sandy Flash Drives are named after a traitor or a Robin Hood figure in Chester County literature.