Greetings, TURNcoats new and old – and a special welcome to the scores of new spy-curious readers that found this site after binge-watching Season 1 on Netflix! The hardest part about finishing a good TV show binge is waiting for new episodes to start airing again — but thankfully, you won’t have long to wait. The two hour premiere of TURN Season 2 airs in less than a week from today!
Thanks in no small part to TURN’s debut on Netflix, I’ve recently received an avalanche of queries (either through the ‘Ask a Question’ feature, via Twitter, or via search engine click-throughs) about the historical accuracy of the on-screen romance between Abraham Woodhull and Anna Strong. For obvious reasons, it’s one of the most frequently-asked questions surrounding the show. Now, we did feature a short discussion about Abe and Anna last season, but it was tacked onto the end of a much longer blog post, which means it’s easy for new readers to miss. And given the amount of questions we’ve received on this single topic, it seems like readers are hungry for more details than a simple “Nope, didn’t happen.” Ask and ye shall receive! (No, really, go ahead and ask us a question! The submit feature had some issues during the off season, but those should be fixed now. Ask away!)
A whole lot of “shipping” going on
Not to be confused, of course, with Shippen (although there will definitely be a whole lot of Shippen going on in Season 2, according to AMC).
For readers who many be unfamiliar with the latest in internet slang, I refer you to the definition above. In the context of TURN, “shipping” is an especially appropriate term to use for Abraham Woodhull and Anna Smith Strong, because their forceful on-screen romance is completely lacking any basis whatsoever in historical fact.
(For the record, I’ve tried to find some kind of proper “ship” name for Abe and Anna, but just can’t make it work. Neither “Abeanna” or “Annabe” has a lot of staying power, and if I start dropping references to “WoodStrong” all over the place, the internet is definitely going to get the wrong impression about this blog.)
So, in the TURN universe (which really does read like historical fanfiction, now that you mention it), both the TV show and TURN Origins comic (pictured below) claim that Abe and Anna, roughly the same age, grew up together as neighbors and best friends in the village of Setauket. But even that simple description of their childhood background is misleading. A little basic biographical information should help set the record straight. (Nearly all of the genealogical info cited in this post is freely accessible by searching longislandsurnames.com.)
Anna Strong 101: A Primer
Let’s start by addressing the simple premise above. Yes, both Abe and Anna were Setauket born and raised – but in reality, Anna was ten years Abraham’s senior. Born on 14 April 1740, she would have just turned 35 years old when the first shots of the Revolutionary War were fired at Lexington and Concord in 1775. (Interestingly enough, Heather Lind – the actress who plays Anna Strong – is currently 32 years old, making her pretty close to the age of the historical Anna at the beginning of the war.)
Anna married Selah Strong, another Setauket native, in November of 1760, when she was 20 and he was a month away from his 23rd birthday. Abraham Woodhull was only ten years old at the time. (While the Woodhull family likely participated in the wedding festivities, I doubt little Abe had much to drink that day, even after taking colonial America’s lax attitudes toward alcohol consumption into consideration.) Needless to say, there was never any kind of engagement or betrothal between Abraham Woodhull and Anna Smith. Anna was happily married and the mother to a handful of children before Abe even hit puberty. In fact, by the time the historical Culper Ring began its operations in 1778 (two years later than the fictional date of 1776 given in TURN), Anna had given birth to seven children, and would have yet one more before the war’s end. (And just in case you had any doubts about where Anna and Selah’s historical loyalties lay, check out some of the names they gave their children!)
Abraham Woodhull: Single, Married, or “It’s Complicated”?
Next, let’s examine Abraham’s side of the equation. Obviously there’s no historical evidence for any kind of romantic attraction between him and Anna – but in addition to that, in TURN he is a not-so-happily married man with a young son. We’ve already pointed out in previous posts (and the Historical Timeline) that Abraham Woodhull didn’t marry until 1784, after the conclusion of the war. (Nor did he ever have a son OR an older brother named Thomas, but we’ve already covered that, too.) In the alternate universe of TURN, the fact that Abraham and Anna are married makes their affair even more dramatic, naturally. But prematurely “marrying off” Abe cancels out one of the most interesting and significant common factors between most members of the Culper Ring: their bachelorhood.
In Season 1 of TURN, we were introduced to Abraham Woodhull, Benjamin Tallmadge, and Caleb Brewster: three major participants of the Culper Spy Ring. These three men did marry and have families of their own… eventually. But while they were active members of the Culper Ring, they were all young bachelors with nothing left to lose, relatively speaking. They had no wives; they had no children; no one who depended on them for survival. None of them were settled and established as the head of a prosperous business or farm, or even as the head of their own independent household (which was not uncommon for unmarried men in the Northern colonies in their early 20s). For obvious reasons, unattached young men like Tallmadge, Woodhull, and Brewster made much more attractive recruiting targets for intelligence activities that, in the case of failure, often led to death or financial ruin. To put it plainly: single men “only” put their own lives and fortunes at risk, whereas family men incurred more casualties. This rather cold and calculating fact still carries a lot of weight in the intelligence communities of today – both actual and fictional. (Spy movie fans might recall M’s blunt remark to James Bond in Skyfall: “Orphans always make the best recruits.”)
Obviously, giving Abraham Woodhull a wife and son multiplies the level of dramatic tension and nail-biting suspense in the show on both the espionage and romantic fronts. But historically, that’s exactly the kind of family situation that would have likely ruled him out as a participant in the Culper Ring in the first place.
Finally, I should emphasize that none of our favorite young spies had any kind of aversion to the institution of marriage itself — rather, in all likelihood, they solemnly realized that a stable and secure marriage was incompatible with their wartime line of work. In fact, 1784 was quite a banner year for the old Setauket gang, with Woodhull, Tallmadge, and Brewster all tying the knot! The timing seems to underscore their awareness of the dangers of espionage: they were only ready to settle down after they were convinced that the War of American Independence was truly over and that their services would no longer be needed. (The Treaty of Paris that officially ended the war was signed in September 1783.)
In conclusion: The romantic drama between Abraham Woodhull and Anna Strong seen in TURN may be totally made up — but that’s not to say the real Culper saga is lacking in historical romance!