america’s first spy ring
In case you missed it on social media: AMC released two TURN-related goodies last week. The first was confirmation of TURN’s new airtime and premiere date: Monday, April 13th. You can read the finer details in the official press release, but the takeaways are:
- TURN is moving to Monday nights. This means no more audience competition with blockbuster Sunday night shows like “Game of Thrones.” (AMC has also been experiencing excellent ratings with ‘Better Call Saul’ on Monday nights and is hoping TURN will follow suit.)
- Season 2 will be 10 episodes long.
- The April 13th premiere will be a 2 hour long event (just like the Season 1 premiere). Time to bring back the ‘Next Episode’ countdown clock!
The second item was a thirty second “trailer” for Season 2 of TURN – the first official TV spot of the new season. It definitely merits a look if you haven’t already seen it:
(You can also view the trailer on AMC’s official TURN page.)
Personally, I’m a big action-adventure fan myself, and thought the commercial was a big success in portraying TURN as a “period thriller” TV show. Fast pacing, quick clips of guns firing/people jumping/people shouting, building tension, dramatic music – it grabs your catches your attention, that’s for sure.
But I’m also a historian. And so, unfortunately, the excellent action pacing of the commercial was irredeemably marred by the accompanying text. IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, no less.
Yikes! This does not bode well for the historicity of Season 2.
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.
That’s not to say Woodhull wasn’t a good or effective spy, of course. But this “first spy” claim is truly baffling. It’s not even remotely plausible – anyone with the ability to undertake a thirty-second Google search can debunk it for themselves. (We’ll discuss that in further detail soon — see below.) But it doesn’t make any sense internally, either. Even within the alternate historical universe of TURN, Abraham Woodhull wasn’t the first American spy to go behind enemy lines. In one of the last scenes from Episode 6 of Season 1 (“Mr. Culpeper”), George Washington pulls Benjamin Tallmadge aside and tells him the following anecdote:
Washington: Following our retreat from Brooklyn Heights, I tasked an agent to reconnoiter enemy encampments around Long Island and seek out contacts friendly to our side. His name was Nathan Hale, and he was captured while on a mission for me. He was hanged as a spy.
So there you have it: An American spy predating Abraham Woodhull is mentioned by George Washington — the head spymaster himself — halfway through Season 1. Even within the show’s own timeline the “first spy” claim would rank as a continuity error on IMDB’s “Goofs” list. The anecdote is an important one, too — it shows that Washington is evolving in his role as spymaster as a direct result of the experiences of previous agents like Hale. (Which is well-grounded in historical fact, I might add.)
So what is going on with the Season 2 trailer?
Normally I’d entertain the idea of chalking this up to an overzealous marketing team that didn’t do its homework, but unfortunately, the rather shoddy historical track record of Season 1 makes me think that painting Woodhull as “the first American spy behind enemy lines” is a deliberate call from higher up in the TURN chain of command. What makes this even more troubling is that the showrunners (and marketing team) are trying harder than ever to convince its audience that it’s grounded in meticulously-researched history. Heck, they even changed the name of the show to double-down on its connection to Alexander Rose’s “Washington’s Spies” book. And now, they’re making BOLD HISTORICAL CLAIMS IN ALL CAPS. A claim that happens to be completely false.
The question you’re REALLY waiting for
Finally, for those of you who are wondering, “Well, if Abraham Woodhull wasn’t the FIRST American spy ever, who was?” — stay tuned! Even before AMC released TURN’s Season 2 trailer last week, there have been plenty of dubious claims about the designation of “first spy” flying around, both online and in print. And what about the Culper group being labeled as “America’s first spy ring?” We’ve got the answers on deck here at the blog — right after a short digression on the fifty shades of historical fiction that we’ll post by week’s end.
And did you know that John Graves Simcoe and Benjamin Tallmadge are, in fact, birthday twins? You would have if you followed TURN to a Historian on Facebook or Twitter! Both men were born on February 25th, only two years apart from one another (Simcoe in 1752, Tallmadge in 1754). We’ve got plenty of reading material on both brilliant officers if you’re feeling celebratory — click the links above or search the subject tags on the sidebar to the right, and enjoy!
T-minus 4 hours and counting until the premiere of TURN on AMC! (Alas, my little countdown widget in the sidebar appears to have crashed.)
AMC is soliciting shots of people’s “Premiere parties” on social media, using the hashtags #turn, #turnAMC, #AMCturn, and #PledgeDefiance, so I thought I’d hop on the bandwagon with the following pic:
Real-time shot of my living room floor, after nudging various books and bags of candy closer together with my foot. I know — Starburst Jellybeans are a completely inaccurate 18th century snack, but I’m going to need 21st century fuel for the 21st century task of watching TV, taking old-fashioned paper notes (okay, call me old-fashioned), and syncing a second or third screen in order to try and keep up with tweets and Facebook posts in real time. (Phew.)
For all of you who are second-screen savvy, AMC is pushing its “TURN Story Sync” experience here — though I might be stretched in too many directions at once to enjoy Story Sync myself. If you try it, let me know what you think!
The books and pamphlets seen in this picture run the gamut from excellent to problematic to downright cringeworthy. Most of them will eventually be reviewed here in the blog, and the best will end up on the Reading List found on the Resources page of this website. Why do I even bother holding onto “cringeworthy” history books? Well, to be fair, without training and a lot of practice, it can be hard to differentiate a “bad” history book from a good one — it requires extensive analysis of citations, bibliographies, and lots of other technical stuff. Consultants for TV shows like “TURN” might grab any old spy-related book off the shelf and, without fully realizing they’re holding an problematic book in their hands, use it as justification for what might end up being a historically inaccurate portrayal.
Anyway, I hope you’re all comfortably situated for tonight’s premiere. Since it’s a full 90 minutes, it might take a while for me to gather my initial thoughts into a blog post, but I hope to have something substantial by Monday evening. There will definitely be PLENTY to talk about! In the meantime, don’t forget to join the conversation on Twitter (@spycurious) or Facebook and take advantage of tonight’s pretty awesome #PledgeDefiance hashtag. Enjoy the show!
Greetings, fellow fans!
Whether you’re a fan of early American history, epic television dramas, or both, I’m glad you’ve stumbled upon this humble historian’s dusty corner of the internet. I hope you’ll stick around and join the conversation here as AMC’s new show about the Revolutionary War unfolds over the next few months!
Even though the premiere of TURN is still over a week away, there’s already plenty to talk about. The TURN team at AMC has been busy these past few weeks, releasing trailers, cast and set photos, behind-the-scenes featurettes, and even an online comic book! I encourage you to check out their entire horde of goodies on the official show website.
As a historian of Early America with a special focus on the American Revolution, I find myself in a curious situation in these final days before TURN’s official debut. I know what should happen in the show; I’ve studied the history; I’ve written and spoken about it at museums and academic conferences across the US. But since TURN is an artistic dramatization of historical events and not a documentary, it’s anyone guess (including mine!) as to how faithfully the “real story” of the Culper Spy Ring will ultimately be represented in the show. Unlike other blogs and press websites, this one has no connection with AMC whatsoever — no “courtesy” screenings or advance access to scripts, episode synopses, or other privileged information. “TURN to a historian” a completely independent, third-party site, and so you’ll find historical analysis here that you won’t get in officially sanctioned press releases or pre-approved blog reviews. After each episode airs, I’ll be able to help make the line between historical fact and Hollywood fiction clearer without feeling obligated to tone things down or pull any punches.
I hope you’ll have as much fun reading this blog as I know I’ll have writing it. There’s an infinite number of directions that Hollywood can (and often does) take with factual history, and since AMC is hoping that TURN will be its next big hit, I wouldn’t be surprised to see them crank the drama up to 11 whenever they have the chance. Stay tuned!
Now to all of you who are wondering “All right, enough stalling… when are you going to get to the GOOD stuff?” Mary Woodhull and I have one word for you:
The above picture is one of the many cast photos available on the official TURN website, and rest assured, we’ll be discussing it in full in the near future — both the good and the bad. (Holy Civil War beards, Batman!)
For the past couple of weeks, as this blog has slowly taken shape on the internet, I’ve been wondering where to begin, since there are no episodes of TURN publicly available yet. Earlier this week, AMC unveiled a new online graphic novel claiming to illustrate the origins of the Culper Spy Ring, and it looks to be a prime target of discussion. While I’m busy gathering down my own analytic take on it, you can read the comic for yourself here. And what an interesting comic it is! So check back soon for more updates — and don’t forget to TURN in for the show premiere on April 6th!