Hints of Nathan Hale

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In case you haven’t heard, at least part of the pilot episode of TURN will take place in 1776, according to multiple sources (including the online comic book discussed below). Does that mean we could see an appearance from Nathan Hale, the most famous spy of the American Revolution?

Nathan Hale by Don Troiani
“Nathan Hale – September 22, 1776” by Don Troiani

Since it’s all speculation at this point, I’ll say yes, I think Nathan Hale WILL make an on-screen appearance. My three reasons are:

  1. Historically, his mission significantly influenced both Benjamin Tallmadge and the overall attitude of the Continental Army toward espionage.
  2. He’s already shown up in some of the TURN promotional online content.
  3. One of TURN’s executive producers is apparently a huge Nathan Hale fan.

Even though Nathan Hale was never a member of the Culper Spy Ring that is central to TURN’s storyline, it makes sense to acknowledge him. To most people, the story of Captain Nathan Hale is the only thing they DO already know about Revolutionary War espionage. The brave and selfless American patriot who volunteered to spy on the British army in New York during one of the Revolution’s darkest hours – only to be caught and hanged without trial. If that still doesn’t ring any bells, you’ll probably remember his attributed last words, from somewhere deep in your grade-school memories: “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”

Nathan Hale was executed in September of 1776, nearly two years before Benjamin Tallmadge started forming the Culper Ring in the summer of 1778. Had he been alive, however, there’s a fairly good chance he could have been a part of it. Nathan Hale and Benjamin Tallmadge were both part of Yale College’s class of 1773, and their friendship remained strong even after parting ways after graduation. One of the central (and historically well-informed) arguments that TURN makes is that the success of the Culper Ring laid in part with the strong bonds of friendship its members forged when they were younger. Nathan Hale, one of Benjamin Tallmadge’s closest and most trusted friends from college, would have fit right in.

Samples of correspondence between Nathan Hale and Benjamin Tallmadge. The original letters can be found at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.
Samples of correspondence between Nathan Hale and Benjamin Tallmadge. The original letters can be found at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale University.

Last I heard, TURN isn’t planning to bring Nathan Hale back from the dead. (If they are, this historian’s going to need a pretty big brown paper bag to hyperventilate into.) It was unlikely we would have seen Hale as anything more than a figure in a flashback scene if TURN began its story in 1778, although the show could always allude to the friendship between Hale and Tallmadge, and how the latter was influenced by Hale’s execution, regardless of the year.  But now that we know the first episode will take place (at least in part) in 1776, the possibility of seeing Nathan Hale “alive” is a very real one.  (“Alive” meaning “as an active part of the episode plot as it unfolds.”)

Another strong indicator that Nathan Hale will show up in the TURN pilot is that we’ve already seenhim on the official TURN website, though you may not have realized it. Take another look at the first four panels of Page 11 of the TURN: Origins online comic:

comic - hale reference
The “voiceover” in this vignette is Benjamin Tallmadge, explaining to Caleb Brewster why the need for a secret spy ring is so important. Nathan Hale isn’t mentioned by name, but for those who are familiar with his story and his connection to Tallmadge, there’s no doubt he’s the “untrained spy” in these four panels.

This is actually my favorite part of the comic, both because of how well the silhouetted style conveys the sense of a “dark” flashback, and how it so neatly sums up the important lessons Hale’s contemporaries learned from his sacrifice. At the time, the story of Nathan Hale was a tragic and cautionary tale: when one of the brightest and most promising young officers in the Continental Army was hurriedly sent behind enemy lines without any training or support, both the mission and the man suffered a disastrous fate. Several historians (myself included) have argued that Hale’s death played a major role in both Benjamin Tallmadge’s decision to participate in intelligence gathering and how he went about creating and managing the Culper Spy Ring. We already see that through Tallmadge referencing Hale’s story in the online comic – it’s only reasonable to expect at least as much in the TV premiere.

Finally, perhaps the most fun and unexpected reason to anticipate a Nathan Hale showing has to do with the following excerpt from the Washington Post’s advance review of TURN:

Barry Josephson, one of “Turn’s” executive producers, says he was itching for years to do a movie about Nathan Hale, the Continental Army soldier who was caught spying and executed by the British, barely two months after the signing of the Declaration of Independence. Instead, Josephson said he found himself absorbed by [the story of the Culper Spy Ring].

I think that quote speaks for itself, don’t you?  I mean, an Executive Producer is a huge Hale fan?!  It’s taking every ounce of self-restraint I have to keep from clapping my hands in nerdy glee.  (I’m kind of a big fan myself, in case you haven’t heard.)

So, between Nathan Hale’s historical relevance to the Culper Ring, his appearance in the TURN: Origins comic, the fact that one of the Executive Producers is a huge fan, AND that part (if not all) of the pilot episode will take place in 1776, odds are good that we’ll see the famous ‘Martyr Spy’ make some kind of appearance on screen — though how big or small an appearance is anyone’s guess.

So speaking of guesses, anyone else care to venture forth any thoughts or theories on a possible Nathan Hale cameo?  (I know you’re out there, fanboys and fangirls. It’s okay! The Executive Producer is one of us!)  What are your expectations for an on-screen Nathan Hale?  Only three more days until we ALL find out what happens.



One thought on “Hints of Nathan Hale

    […] As far as Hollywood mythbusting goes, this is one of the most open-and-shut cases I’ve ever seen. It’s this simple: Abraham Woodhull was not the first American spy to go behind enemy lines.  He wasn’t even close to being first. There were likely dozens of agents who preceded him, only a handful whose names we know. Among them is a young man nearly every American kid heard about in grade school by the name of Nathan Hale. […]

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