Here’s a rhetorical question for you, fellow TURNcoats: Why make a show about Revolutionary War espionage when the spy technology you focus on most is from the 15th, 19th, and even 20th centuries?
You might reply: “Well… because it’s fun. And I can make a cool story out of it.” Great! That’s certainly a fair answer. But in that case — why would you try so hard to convince people that your story is fact-based and “authentic” to the 18th century when that argument is pretty much impossible to support?
I found myself asking these very questions while updating the TURN Historical Timeline to reflect the events portrayed in the last few episodes (thought admittedly not for the first time). We had to reconfigure the location of a few things on the Timeline this week in order to fit in more events at the tail end of it – two which occurred in the 19th century and one that even occurred in the early 20th century, well over 100 years after the end of the Revolutionary War! (You can check out the updated version by clicking on the image below, or visiting the Timeline page for additional information.)
“Nice gadgets you have there. But what happened to the 18th century?”
Historians might ask themselves “What year is this supposed to be again?” while watching TURN for a multitude of reasons (issues with clothing, uniforms, other material culture, language, false historical claims, premature character deaths, etc.) — but for this post, we’re focusing on intelligence history, which is what TURN is supposed to be about. Heck, they even changed the official name of the show after Season 1 to clarify that the show is all about “Washington’s Spies”! Thus far, however, TURN’s treatment of Revolutionary War espionage has been erratic at best.
When it comes to spycraft, Season 1 of TURN definitely started off in the right place, featuring period-correct techniques like Cardan grilles and even the original Culper Spy code — exciting, cunning, and historically-accurate stuff! And TURN’s opening credits have been teasing us for over a year with a silhouette of the Turtle, the world’s first military submarine that actually debuted in 1776. (I’m saving a fuller discussion about the Turtle for later, in hopes that we’ll see it in the show soon.)
We’ve also seen the occasional use of invisible inks (or, as they were often called in the 18th century, “sympathetic stains”) – but even that element of Revolutionary spycraft has been given a strange and uneven treatment in TURN. Instead of focusing on the state-of-the-art chemical compound developed by James Jay for the use of Washington’s spies (which is a fascinating true story) the show seems near-obsessed with the novelty of writing invisible messages through the shells of hard-boiled eggs – a centuries-old technique that the Culper Spy Ring never actually used.
In his book Invisible Ink: Spycraft of the American Revolution, John Nagy sums up the origins and functionality of the “egg method” we’ve seen so often in TURN:
In the fifteenth century Italian scientist Giovanni Porta described how to conceal a message in a hard-boiled egg. An ink is made with an ounce of alum and a pint of vinegar. This special penetrating ink is then used to write on the hard boiled egg shell. The solution penetrates the shell leaving no visible trace and is deposited on the surface of the hardened egg. When the shell is removed, the message can be read. (Invisible Ink, p. 7)
It’s a fascinating technique, and leads to quite a few dramatic (and highly amusing) moments in TURN. The only problem is that, according to the historical record, the Culper spies ever used the egg method — and neither did anyone else in the Revolutionary War, for that matter. There is no record of the technique ever being used by either side.
But if Season 1’s use of Revolutionary War spycraft was fairly solid with a few aberrations, Season 2 is just the opposite — with anachronistic techniques far outnumbering the period-correct ones thus far. Nathaniel Sackett’s “spy laboratory,” with its vials and beakers and fantastical super-weapons, is better suited to a steampunk movie than anything resembling the 18th century. (So is the bearded, blunderbuss-carrying, leather-trenchcoat-wearing version of Caleb Brewster, but that’s a whole other post in itself.)
Now, in terms of making a storyline easy to follow, creating a centralized place as a sort of “spy headquarters” might make sense for a work of historical fiction, even if such a place never actually existed. However, nearly everything we’ve seen featured in Nathaniel Sackett’s anachronistic “spy lab” is from the 19th century – or even later. Besides the never-actually-used egg method discussed above, both of the most prominent examples of spy technology showcased in Season 2 so far were both invented long after the American Revolution was over:
1) John Hawkins’ letter-copying machine, or “polygraph,” which Tallmadge uses to forge a letter in the episode “False Flag.” Patented in 1803 – twenty years after the end of the Revolution – Hawkins’ machine greatly facilitated the arduous tasking of letter copying. Thomas Jefferson bought one for himself which visitors can still see today at Monticello. Jefferson was a huge fan of the innovative device, and he later said “the use of the polygraph has spoiled me for the old copying press the copies of which are hardly ever legible.” Before the late 19th century, the term “polygraph” was used to described copying devices like this one. You can read more about Hawkins’ polygraph machine in the Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia.
2) Nathaniel Sackett’s bogus “lie detector” from the episode “Sealed Fate.” I’m not even sure where to begin with this one. For starters, the modern-day polygraph or “lie detector” wasn’t invented until 1923. Italian scientists (who always seem to be at the forefront of spy technology!) started experimenting with measuring physical responses to lying and truth-telling in the late 1870s – which is still 100 years ahead of TURN’s Revolutionary War storyline. TURN’s version of Nathaniel Sackett must have been a true visionary to be able to throw together a prototype of a machine that wasn’t invented until after World War I. Too bad they decided to kill him off thirty years too early in the show. (Or as another viewer said on Twitter: “If only Sackett had lived. The Continental Army may have had tanks by 1781.”
Even if the bizarre machine wasn’t supposed to be taken seriously, Tallmadge’s use of the faux-polygraph as a form of psychological torture in order to extract information is just as historically inaccurate as the machine itself. We’ve covered the topic of torture extensively here in the blog. If you haven’t read the original post, you should, but to make a long story short: Torture was very rarely used as a means to obtain intelligence in the Revolutionary War, in sharp contrast to what we’ve seen portrayed multiple times in TURN.
Now here’s the frustrating thing: The American Revolution DID have plenty of awesome and innovative spycraft of its own – from creative concealment techniques to cyphers, masks and grilles, invisible ink, flamboyant messengers, and even “strange but true” experimental technology like the Turtle. It’s not as if the writers of TURN are starved for real-life examples of 18th century innovation. (I’d like to point out that John Nagy’s book referenced above, which only deals with Revolutionary-era spycraft, is nearly 400 pages long. There’s a LOT of historical material to work with.) It’s disappointing to see a show that was supposed to focus exclusively on Revolutionary War espionage morph into an anachronistic drama that has little regard for the time period in which it takes place — especially when the series started off on a much stronger footing.
Returning to our updated timeline: Season 2 seems to have left the 18th century behind in several other ways as well. In addition to using “futuristic” spy technology, we’ve recently seen real historical characters killed off decades too early and King George III turned into a drooling, raving lunatic long before his first recorded bouts of mental instability. For all you viewers who were devastated at Nathaniel Sackett’s untimely death, you’ll be pleased to know that in reality, Sackett survived the Revolution intact, dying at age 68 in 1805. Indeed, he served the contributed to the cause of American independence in a number of different capacities — in addition to his covert operations for Washington, he also was an active member of the Congressional Committee of Safety and later served as a sutler (merchant) for the Continental Army.
Like we’ve said many times before, here at the blog we understand the necessity of shuffling around some historical events in order to present a dramatic narrative that’s easier to follow. Plenty of events in TURN are off by only a year or two, which is reasonable by most people’s definitions. But as the episodes roll on, we’re finding we need to plot more and more events at the extremes of the historical timeline — including major events that play a central role in TURN’s unfolding storylines. Regarding intelligence history — which is what the entire show is supposed to be about — the most prominently-featured spy techniques of TURN’s second season were never used in the Revolutionary War at all. The evidence strongly suggests that the writers and producers of TURN are increasing their disregard for the historical record as Season 2 progresses. That’s not to say, of course, that there’s no hope left — indeed, my personal favorite episode of the entire series, chock-full of excellent historically-informed intrigue, occurred after the halfway point of the first season. (Episode 6 of Season 1, “Mr. Culpepper,” for the record.) So while the show is in the midst of a rather disappointing trend, there’s still plenty of time left in Season 2 for things to turn a corner. Here’s hoping the 18th century makes a comeback, and soon!
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!
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!
There has been an awful lot of suspicious silence circulating through the TURN community lately. For example, If your only means of following “TURN to a Historian” is through this WordPress blog, you may have wondered if the historians have TURNed to hibernation, or if this blog was another shocking casualty of the TURN Season Finale. (Don’t worry — we’re not going anywhere! More on that in a moment.)
More curious, however, is the deafening silence surrounding the renewal of TURN for a second season. While showrunner Craig Silverstein has talked at length about his big plans for season 2, there is still no official word from AMC about whether they’ll renew TURN at all. I’m no TV industry insider, but it seems very strange that there’s no official word from the network two weeks after the season finale aired. (TV/film buffs: Is this standard operating procedure for 21st century TV shows? Feel free to chime in!)
We’ll post notice of TURN’s renewal (or non-renewal) as soon as we hear official word from AMC – both here on the main blog and on the other Spycurious social media sites. (I’ve been working on a long retrospective about TURN’s inaugural season, but have been holding back on publishing it, since the news of the show’s renewal/cancellation will definitely affect the tone of that post.)
And just in case you needed another reason to follow @spycurious on Twitter (or tumblr, or Facebook): if your only subscription to “TURN to a Historian” is through the WordPress blog, you likely missed this very interesting exchange on Twitter regarding the ratings for the TURN season finale:
— Joe Waters (@joewaters) June 10, 2014
Like I said before: I’m a historian, not a TV industry insider; since I don’t know how to interpret the information linked above in its proper context, I’ll let these numbers — and opinions — speak for themselves. Clearly some people think the finale numbers are cause for concern, while Alexander Rose (who is not an official spokesperson for AMC, despite whatever inside information he may have) sounds quite optimistic. Only time will tell!
In other news: Hopefully this blog’s little post-season hiatus provided enough time for everyone to digest the craziness that was the season finale (a.k.a. Episode 10: “The Battle of Setauket”). The writers certainly crammed an impressive amount of dramatic plot into a mere 60 minute timeslot, that’s for sure! For all of you who have been aching for some historically-accurate input on the real Battle of Setauket, you’re in luck: Loyalist scholar Todd Braisted is in the middle of writing a multi-part series on the Battle of Setauket, including some much-requested commentary on the occupation of Setauket and everyone’s favorite law-abiding Loyalist Major Lieutenant Colonel: Richard Hewlett.
One of the primary reasons for the post-season blog hiatus was that the site manager was temporarily “detached for special service” on Long Island, which included attending an event that was less than two miles from the historic Setauket Village Green. I’ve visited Setauket many times before, but managed to snap a few fresh photographs of a couple of historic sites last weekend. I plan on going back to Long Island in the near future to take some more professional-grade photos of the many sites that have a historic connection to Revolutionary war espionage. This summer — time permitting — I hope to start a new site project which will feature pictures, histories, and visiting information for these — as well as others in Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey — under the heading of “Spy-curious Destinations.”
In conclusion: We’re back! I’ll post a little more about these “Spy-curious Destinations” and other ambitious summer plans for “TURN to a Historian” soon. For now, enjoy the small sampling of first-run photos below! Click on the thumbnails to see the full images with their respective captions.
There seems to be quite a bit of confusion surrounding TURN’s curious habit of misnaming “real” historical characters throughout Season 1 — especially family members immediately related to the show’s protagonists. This post is intended to straighten out the issue with the help of some handy charts and other primary sources, since we’ve received so many questions about it. (If you’re not familiar with the rather tedious ins and outs of genealogy, you might want to grab a shot of espresso before reading on.)
Episode 9 of TURN, “Against Thy Neighbor,” introduced yet another example: The good Reverend Nathanial Tallmadge, fiery patriot and dutiful father to our favorite dragoon major. His refreshingly straightforward character is pretty much impossible not to like. If his speech from Episode 9 doesn’t rouse your inner American Revolutionary,
you’re probably a Loyalist then I don’t know what will.
However, if you’re a viewer who is interested in historical accuracy (and you likely wouldn’t be here if you weren’t), you might be surprised to learn that Benjamin Tallmadge’s real father — who was indeed the pastor of Setauket’s Presbyterian church and opposed the loyalist occupation of his town — was also named Benjamin Tallmadge. (Benjamin Tallmadge Senior, of course.) In fact, there is no “Nathanial Tallmadge” in Major Tallmadge’s immediate family tree.
Thankfully, Benjamin Tallmadge himself clears things up for us on the very first page of his memoirs (pictured at right). In a similar case of mistaken identity, it was actually Benjamin’s eldest brother William, not his brother Samuel, who perished as a prisoner of the British Army in 1776.
The Tallmadges, however, aren’t the only Long Island family that might look funny to any genealogists who happen to watch TURN. The Woodhull family tree is also beset by a number of identity (and existential) crises. While Abraham Woodhull did have an older brother who died just before the Revolutionary War began, his name was Richard, not Thomas. Similarly, when Abraham finally did get married and have children (which wasn’t until 1781, as seen on the Historical Timeline), he did have a son, but he was named Jesse, not Thomas. There is no Thomas Woodhull anywhere in Abraham’s immediate family tree.
The two charts below contain biographical information about the branch of the Woodhull family tree that’s of most interest to TURN viewers. Note that there’s no “Thomas” to be found anywhere. The images are screencaps from longislandsurnames.com, a site I highly recommend to any TURN fans who want to investigate the family histories of Long Island revolutionaries for themselves. You might want to bookmark the site if you’re trying to keep track of the multiple families mentioned on TURN.
In both of these family cases, the relatives in question “did” exist, which makes TURN’s naming conventions even stranger. Benjamin’s clergyman father, Benjamin’s brother who died in British custody, Abraham’s son, and Abraham’s older brother who died prior to the start of the war were all real people in the historical record. But for some reason, the names for all these “real-life” characters have been swapped out for fictional ones in the show.
As the keeper of this blog and all the social media accounts connected with it, I often get asked why the writers and showrunners of TURN would alter history in the ways that they do. (For example: “Why would they change the names of real people like Benjamin Tallmadge’s father?”) In the case of the martyred ‘Samuel’ Tallmadge, the show implies (in Episode 6) that he was the inspiration for the first half of Abraham Woodhull’s “Samuel Culpeper” alias, so that’s likely why the writers swapped the names of the Tallmadge brothers. As for the others… well, since historical accuracy is evidently not a factor, your speculations are as good as mine!
Nor do I know why Abraham Woodhull’s alias is named “Culpeper” in the show, and not “Culper,” which was obviously the real name at the heart of the eponymous Culper Spy Ring. Since it was Washington’s suggestion in the show, it might have to do with his connection to Culpeper county, Virginia. Either way, I’m assuming that will be changed/explained in a future episode. Perhaps these other naming conventions will be, too. Hey, even MORE reason to call for a second season!
Bonus: “Abe and Anna”
While we’re on the topic of real-life genealogy of TURN characters, I’d like to take the time to gently remind viewers of the historical ages and marital situations surrounding Abraham Woodhull and Anna Strong, who have become quite… involved on screen. (Several blog followers via Twitter and email have asked about this issue as well!)
Both the TV show and the TURN Origins comic imply that Abe and Anna as roughly the same age and grew up as children together in Setauket. In reality, Anna was ten years older than Abraham. She married her husband Selah in 1760, when she was twenty and Abe was just ten years old. (Needless to say, there was never any promise of marriage between the two.) Anna was pretty well invested in her marriage, too: by 1776 she and Selah had six children, with more to follow soon (some of whom had fantastically patriotic names, as seen on Anna’s family page).
Of course, it’s no surprise that TURN (or any TV drama, for that matter) is chasing after sexual tension in hopes of pleasing a modern-day audience. But just in case there was any lingering doubt: the on-screen romantic relationship between Abraham Woodhull and Anna Strong has no historical basis whatsoever.
Well! There’s nothing like hard genealogy if you’re looking for a cold dose of historical reality. On a more exciting note: there’s only a few more days until the TURN season finale! Coming up soon: a short, reader-requested post on jewelry and accessories in the late 18th century. (Fewer charts; more sparkly things.)
Talk about sneaky: If you’re a Connecticut resident who makes a habit of reading the newspaper, you may have had a spy-curious encounter this morning without realizing it!
The Hartford Courant, as part of its 250th anniversary celebration, published a special section on “Connecticut at War” in today’s newspaper, which contains numerous articles about both the people and innovations of “the Provisions State” involved in the past few centuries of American conflict. One of those articles is about everyone’s favorite Dragoon commander-turned-spymaster, Benjamin Tallmadge. The article, written by Jessica Moore, features quotes from an interview with Rachel Smith of the Connecticut State Historian’s office (who is also the webmistress and primary author of TURN to a Historian). She tweeted the following image and link to the article earlier today:
The full article is posted in a rather irregular format on Courant.com’s website, appearing as a ‘caption’ for a slide show despite its nearly 1000-word length. I’ve posted a (somewhat) high-res scan of the physical article below just in case the current link to the article changes in the future. (Fair warning to TURN viewers who are trying not to get ahead of themselves: since this is a biographical article, it contains plenty of “spoilers” about Tallmadge’s later life and military career!)
If you’re a Connecticut resident and history buff, I highly recommend picking up your own physical copy of today’s paper if you can get one, which contains large, gorgeous imagery and a beautiful, full-color timeline of Connecticut’s military innovations (including submarines, Colt revolvers, gatling guns, helicopters, and more) in addition to a slew of articles covering famous war veterans from the past 250 years. I’m delighted to have been able to help with their efforts to commemorate notable Connecticut war veterans (especially since Tallmadge happens to be one of my favorites)!
Enjoy the article, and don’t forget to tune in tonight for an all-new episode of TURN at 9:00pm Eastern! I’ll be live tweeting @spycurious and tumblring (if that’s what the kids are calling it these days) at spycurious.tumblr.com.
Last Sunday’s episode of TURN (Episode 8: Mercy Moment Murder Measure) included a dramatic dueling scene that had plenty of viewers wondering “Did people really do that sort of thing back then?” In today’s guest post, Todd Braisted answers with a resounding “yes” as he shares four fascinating stories of Revolutionary affairs of honor, pulled straight from the historical record. Yet another reminder that truth is often stranger – and more colorful – than fiction. Enjoy! -RS
“The vindictive spirit of malice and revenge”:
Dueling in the American Revolution
by Todd Braisted
When last we saw TURN’s Captain Simcoe and Abraham Woodhull (a.k.a. Jamie Bell and Samuel Roukin), they were facing off with pistols against each other over the fair Anna Strong (Heather Lind.) While the real Simcoe never dueled anyone (that we know of, anyway), duels, while perhaps not everyday affairs, were frequent enough during the Revolutionary War to be deadly to more than a few participants. And while duels were officially outlawed by both armies, the nuances of honor in the late 18th century virtually demanded that they take place.
This is not to say that the practice was universally approved — far from it. Continental Army Surgeon James Thatcher, on 30 August 1780, after two officers had been killed in duels over the past 24 hours, lamented in his journal:
“…two valuable lives been sacrificed within two days, to what is termed principles of honor, or rather to the vindictive spirit of malice and revenge. Is there no remedy for this fashionable folly, this awful blindness and perversion of mind, this barbarous and infernal practice, this foul stain on the history of man!”
The duel the day before involved two cavalry officers of the 4th (Continental) Dragoons, one can be identified as Lieutenant Thomas Overton, the other only as “Mr. P.” Again, according to Thatcher’s journal:
“I learned that a duel had just been fought between Lieutenant O. and Mr. P., both of Colonel Moyland’s [4th] regiment of dragoons, and both of whom were yesterday on the most intimate terms of friendship. Mr. O. killed his antagonist on the spot, and received a dangerous wound in his thigh. When I visited him, his wound had been dressed, and I was astonished at the calmness and composure with which he related all the particulars of this melancholy and murderous catastrophe, and the agonizing state of mind of his late friend in his dying moments. The duel originated in a trivial misunderstanding, which excited these close friends to assume the character of assassins, and to hazard life for life. Nor did O. discover the least sorrow or remorse of conscience for having sacrificed the life of a friend and valuable officer to the mistaken points of honor!”
“Points of honor” concerning a woman’s virtue were the rationale behind Simcoe’s and Woodhull’s on-screen duel. Duels between officers and civilians were rare, if not unheard of. However, there are several recorded cases of two officers seriously disagreeing over a woman, for numerous reasons.
When a drunken Ensign Murdoch McKenzie of the [British] 79th Regiment threw a bottle in a tavern in Jamaica, striking a black woman in the head, a fellow officer, Captain William Townsend of the 88th Regiment “in the presence and hearing of the Officers in the Coffee House, [said] that he was surprized such people (meaning Murdoch McKenzie) were allowed to wear His Majesty’s Cloth, and then desired him…to blindfold himself and go out of the Coffee House, for that after such behaviour, neither he Captain Townshend or any other of the Officers would keep any further Company with him.” The two, attended by their seconds, ended up in a pistol duel at a race track, where the captain was shot in the hand. McKenzie was tried by general court martial for sending a challenge and “assault” on Captain Townsend. He was cashiered but recommended to King George III for a pardon. His Majesty pardoned the intemperate ensign, but not without noting his express disapproval:
“His Majesty cannot however pass over without reprehension the very inconsiderate and unwarrantable Conduct of the Said Ensign McKenzie, and which appears to have been the source of the Quarrel between him and Captain Townshend, in wantonly throwing a Glass bottle at a number of negroes, who were innocently assembled, neither committing nor meditating any outrage, whereby a Negroe Woman received a considerable (tho’ happily not a dangerous) hurt on the head; and His Majesty has… [signified] His royal pleasure, that this animadversion upon the Conduct of the said Ensign McKenzie be notified in Public Orders.”
Evidently, His Britannic Majesty was not a fan of dueling, either.
There were plenty of disagreements between officers about women in more intimate (and scandalous) circumstances, too – although such disagreements did not automatically lead a duels. One example would be within the Queen’s Rangers (which, as we’ve mentioned earlier, Simcoe would command later in the war). After the British occupied Philadelphia in late 1777, the Rangers formed part of an expedition into Salem County, New Jersey. Not making the trip however was Lieutenant Nathaniel Fitzpatrick, who stayed behind to receive a “cure” for a “violent venereal disorder.” This did not stop him from sleeping with one Mary Duché, the live-in girlfriend of Captain James Murray of the same corps. He promptly transmitted the disease to her, who in turn gave it to the unknowing captain upon his return from New Jersey, thereby “disordering” him as well. Fitzpatrick privately acknowledged to Murray that he slept with Mary, though he mentioned nothing about being “poxed,” which he left for Murray to discover in due course. Since the captain “had many private reasons for wishing that the matter might not be made publick,” he begrudgingly “forgave Lieutenant Fitzpatrick.” Simcoe, however (perhaps somewhat resembling his TURN character) thought the whole matter outrageous and ordered Fitzpatrick to resign his commission over the incident. When the lieutenant refused, Simcoe placed him under arrest, telling him he was “not sensible of the Injury he had done to his own Character and to the Corps in General.” Tried for “behaving in a Scandalous infamous Manner such as is unbecoming the Character of an Officer and a Gentleman,” Fitzpatrick was acquitted, upon condition of apologizing to all the officers of the Rangers. (You can read the transcribed court martial documents, if you feel so inclined, here.)
Finally, there perhaps is no better example of poor judgment combined with liquid courage than when the boastful Ensign John Moffet, also of the Queen’s Rangers, spent one cold January 1780 night drinking in a tavern and making disparaging remarks against another corps in garrison there, the New Jersey Volunteers. When an officer of that battalion, Ensign John Lawrence, took exception, the two took to blows, hurling each other from table to table until both were placed under arrest by a superior officer, Lieutenant Allan McNabb. Several hours later, McNabb sent each officer back his sword and told them to settle it like gentlemen – meaning, of course, to either apologize or shoot lead balls at each other from close range. Moffet believed himself the aggrieved party and immediately penned the following note to Lawrence:
Richmond [Staten Island] 13th Jany. 1780
In consequence of your behaviour last night to me (when totally intoxicated) request that satisfaction due by one Gentleman to another. Mr. McNabb sends you your side arms, and wishes that you should not consider yourself longer under an arrest by him. I now call upon you as a Gentleman and a Soldier with your Sword & Pistols to wipe off any Odium I might have received by your Ungentlemanlike treatment to
The two met on that frigid January day with their seconds, marked the distance at six yards (as opposed to the 4 yards distance requested by Moffet), and fired simultaneously. Moffet’s ball barely grazed Lawrence near the right breast, not even breaking the skin. Lawrence’s shot however went true, straight into the Ranger’s stomach. Moffet was killed, as he was good enough to tell his second, Lieutenant George Pendred, looking up at him and declaring “My dear fellow I am killed” upon which he immediately died. Moffet was eventually buried at Richmond Church, where he presumably remains today. The burial was delayed several days because of an incursion of 2,700 Continental troops onto Staten Island. This forced Moffet to take one last tour of the island, his corpse taking a sleigh ride from tavern to tavern until the island was secured.
Lawrence was tried for murder but made the defense all such officers and gentlemen in similar circumstances made. Appealing to the court’s sense of honor, Lawrence related how he had been challenged, and had to accept, stating “I considered myself bound by the Laws of honor, to give him the Satisfaction he demanded. My reputation as an Officer and a Gentleman, in short my all was at stake—had I omitted meeting him in the manner he requested, I must ever after been treated as a Rascal and Coward…” The court agreed, acquitting him by reason of self-defense.
We don’t know what will become of TURN’s Simcoe and Woodhull in future episodes, but we can only hope we don’t see either looking up at the camera and exclaiming “My dear fellow I am killed…”
Todd W. Braisted is an author and researcher of Loyalist military studies. His primary focus is on Loyalist military personnel, infrastructure and campaigns throughout North America. Since 1979, Braisted has amassed and transcribed over 40,000 pages of Loyalist and related material from archives and private collections around the world. He has authored numerous journal articles and books, as well as appearing as a guest historian on episodes of Who Do You Think You Are? (CBC) and History Detectives (PBS). He is the creator of the Online Institute for Advanced Loyalist Studies (royalprovincial.com), the largest website dedicated to the subject. Braisted is a Fellow in the Company of Military Historians, Honorary Vice President of the United Empire Loyalist Association of Canada, and a past-president of the Bergen County Historical Society.
Postscript (by Rachel Smith)
Benjamin Tallmadge also had very strong feelings about dueling. In fact, he felt so strongly about it that he devoted the two very last paragraphs of his memoirs (written decades after the Revolutionary War) to the subject. Dueling didn’t fade away with the advent of the new American republic: in fact, it became even more widespread and infamous in the tumultuous first years of the 19th century, epitomized by the fatal duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr in 1804. Anyone familiar with Tallmadge’s personal history knows that he himself harbored plenty of bravado and (occasional) impetuousness while serving as dragoon commander and spymaster during the American Revolution. Nevertheless, here are his final thoughts on dueling, in his own words:
218 121, readers! With the debut of the (soon to be “Culper”) code book in last Sunday’s episode of TURN, we can now discuss the real code book here in the blog. Best of all, we’ve got scans of an original copy for you to use for your own personal correspondence, passing of notes in class, Facebook status updates, and other highly important covert operations. (Can you tell I’ve been waiting for this day since early April?)
Thanks to the wonderful folks at the Library of Congress who have digitized a massive amount of George Washington’s papers, anyone can download an original copy of this particular code book and encrypt messages a la Culper to their heart’s content.
These four pages also provide a fascinating glimpse into 18th century American vocabulary. Obviously, the words included in the code book were words Tallmadge thought the spy ring would use most often in its correspondence. If you use the Culper code to encrypt your own 21st-century letters, you might be surprised at the amount of common words (common to us, anyway) that are not included.
This is just one of multiple original copies of the Culper code book, written in Benjamin Tallmadge’s hand. I should also point out that “Culper code book” is a modern, not contemporary, title. Tallmadge, with the same obliqueness he used regarding anything related to espionage, referred to the code book simply as a “numerical dictionary.”
Click on one of the four pages below and then click “view full size” for the largest available size. All images courtesy of the Library of Congress, where this copy of the code book resides. You might want to keep it readily available for future episodes of TURN… or if you’re feeling REALLY ambitious, you can try to decode one of many original Culper code letters found in the LOC’s online collection of George Washington papers.
For those of you who haven’t spent hours in an archive familiarizing yourself with 18th century chicken-scratch, a very handy transcription of the entire code book can be found on the Mount Vernon website. If you ARE, however, feeling confident about your paleography skills, you might try to decipher 277, 617, and other smudged or damaged parts of the manuscript. (Obviously this ‘numerical dictionary’ was well used!)
- A Note on Codes vs. Ciphers
In certain contexts, the words “code” and “cipher” are often interchangeable, and can carry all sorts of metaphorical meanings. But when it comes to spycraft, their definitions are a bit more black and white. The Language of Espionage glossary on the International Spy Museum’s website contains the following simple definitions:
Cipher: A system for disguising a message by replacing its letters with other letters or numbers or by shuffling them.
Code: A system for disguising a message by replacing its words with groups of letters or numbers.
In other words, ciphers usually involve simple substitution — swapping one letter out for one number, letter, or symbol. Codes are usually more complicated (e.g. one number could represent an entire word, name, or phrase) and require a code book or other device in order to interpret them. The Culper code book contains both a code (first three and a half pages) AND a cipher (the simple alphabet cipher used to encrypt words that are not included in the code dictionary).
If you love the nitty-gritty details of spycraft, don’t forget to check out our earlier post on the Cardan system and steganography, featuring the beautiful copper grille seen in the pilot episode of TURN. ipdqs!
Happy Tuesday, readers! I’m just starting to put a dent in the backlog of questions and comments that suddenly poured in over the last week and a half – here’s a quick pair of reader-submitted questions for you while I finish prepping a new post on General Lee. (The Revolutionary War general, not the car.)
- In “Mr. Culpeper” (TURN Episode 6) General Scott and Ben Tallmadge witness the hanging of John Herring. The scene seemed to have a lot of specific details… did this really happen?
Yes, it DID really happen! The sentencing and execution of John Herring is mentioned in the Continental Army General Orders issued on October 23, 1778:
Moses Walton and John Herring soldiers and Elias Brown Fifer of His Excellency the Commander in Chief’s guard were tried for breaking into the house of Mr Prince Howland on or about the 3rd instant and robbing him of several silver spoons, several silver dollars, some Continental dollars and sundry kinds of wearing Apparel to a considerable amount…
The Court (upwards of two thirds agreeing) do sentence John Herring to suffer Death.
So as you can see (and as I’m pleased to report), most of this brief scene was based on the historical record. Like most of the “real life” events we’ve witnessed in TURN so far, it happened later in the historical timeline than the show’s “current” date of 1777 — but the scene is still very appropriate, since discipline was a constant problem throughout the war’s duration for the Continental Army. These same General Orders are rife with criminal offenses both great and small, including stealing, “swearing and unsoldierly behaviour,” fistfights and harassment (“John Smith did call Corporal Wingler a Hessian Bougre”), and vandalism.
The American army was still very young in 1777, especially when compared to the professional armies of Europe, and its officers often struggled to find the proper balance between enforcing a necessary level of discipline while championing the cause of liberty and independence. (Quite the existential conflict, if you think about it.) To the 21st-century viewer, John Herring’s punishment might seem excessively harsh – and Washington’s unflinching reaction excessively cold. However, that aspect of the hanging scene is also historically accurate. Near the end of this very same document we read:
His Excellency the Commander in Chief approves these sentences—Shocked at the frequent horrible Villainies of this nature committed by the troops of late, He is determined to make Examples which will deter the boldest and most harden’d offenders—Men who are called out by their Country to defend the Rights and Property of their fellow Citizens who are abandoned enough to violate those Rights and plunder that Property deserve and shall receive no Mercy.
Well, when you put it THAT way things make a little more sense, right? The dialogue in the show is directly lifted from the above paragraph — which, I might add, makes historians and history buffs absolutely giddy to see in a historical drama. (SOME of us, anyway.) If anyone tells you that historical accuracy is boring, or doesn’t work in a TV show, save your breath and show them this scene. (Or pretty much the entire John Adams miniseries from HBO… but I digress.) In no way did the accuracy detract from the drama of the execution. In fact, I would argue that the drama is enhanced for most viewers upon discovering that this event DID actually happen, unlike several other storylines in the show thus far. Fingers crossed that this happens a lot more often in future episodes!
And speaking of documentation: Shortly before the execution scene in Episode 6, we see Washington striding through camp, dictating a letter to his aides addressed to General Howe regarding the “cruel treatment” of American prisoners on British prison ships in New York harbor. Guess what? The dialogue from that scene is ALSO directly lifted from a letter Washington wrote to Howe on January 13, 1777. You can rewatch the scene for yourself and read along with the original letter:
Pretty cool stuff. I can say with confidence that this latest episode (“Mr. Culpeper”) is by far my favorite episode of TURN yet, in no small part because it had a much more even balance between artistic license and the historical record than any other episode thus far. It seems (I hope) that the show has turned a corner and will start to focus more clearly on documented history instead of anachronistic fiction (some of which we’ll mention in the forthcoming post on Charles Lee).
- While watching episode 3 (“Of Cabbages and Kings”) I noticed that Benjamin Tallmadge’s uniform buttons all had USA on them. Is that historically accurate? I’m not sure when “USA” would have come into common enough use as an acronym to be on uniforms. It seems like a bit of an obscure question, but I’m a hobbyist needleworker interested in historical techniques and clothing, so it caught my eye. Thanks!
I’m not surprised that a needleworker would be so eagle-eyed! Those are indeed pewter USA buttons on Benjamin Tallmadge’s uniform in TURN. USA buttons were common throughout the Continental Army during the middle and later years of the Revolutionary War, and came in a number of variations. (You can view some of them on this website, which features several images of original Revolutionary War buttons. Heads up: there’s a media player at the bottom of the site that plays music automatically upon loading!)
Your hunch is right about the timing – 1776 is a bit too early for these buttons to make their debut. The earliest extant (i.e. surviving original) USA buttons are dated to mid-1777. Many things about Tallmadge’s dragoon uniform are a couple years too early. Some of the most iconic elements of the uniform, including the blue regimental coat with white facings and the brass dragoon helmet, aren’t documented until 1778-1779. (Even the very existence of Tallmadge’s Second Light Dragoons in autumn of 1776 is too early, as you can see by glancing at the historical timeline.)
I hope to have the opportunity to discuss the Second Dragoons in much greater detail once they make another appearance in TURN. But in the meantime, if you’re a fan of Revolutionary War buttons, you can check out another impressive collection of extant buttons on Don Troiani’s Historical Image Bank website. And if you dabble in sewing and/or other needlework and are interested in making historical reproductions of 18th century clothing, I recommend trying to find as much documentation as possible before you start — there are plenty of helpful, well-researched tailors and seamstresses out there who are happy to point you in the right direction. Like I’ve said before on this blog: regardless of who you talk to, make sure they can show you historical documentation for the items they’re selling and patterns they’re using! It’s the best guarantee you’ll have against making inaccurate (and potentially expensive) mistakes. Good luck!