culper spy ring

Abraham Woodhull and Anna Strong Revisited

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Greetings, TURNcoats new and old – abeanna1and 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).

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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!)

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Admittedly, for a 38 year old mother of seven, Anna looks AMAZING.

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.

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Here we see Abraham Woodhull pictured with two very good reasons NOT to get involved with espionage.

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!

 -RS

 

A Tallmadge or Woodhull by any other name: TURN historical family trees

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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.

NathanialTallmadge_gif1 NathanialTallmadge_gif2

Benjamin Tallmadge outlines his immediate family tree, which includes the proper names of his father and brothers, on page one of his Memoirs. Click to enlarge.
Benjamin Tallmadge outlines his immediate family tree, which includes the proper names of his father and brothers, on page one of his Memoirs. Click to enlarge.

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.

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Genealogical information on Judge Richard Woodhull and his children (Abraham and his siblings). Click to visit the full page. Source: longislandsurnames.com
Woodhull_LIS_abraham
Genealogical information on Abraham Woodhull and his children. Click to visit the full page. Source: longislandsurnames.com

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”

tumblr_n5sya9ZUe41tygvn9o1_500While 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.)

-RS

Benjamin Tallmadge: Washington’s Spymaster (Courant.com)

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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!)

tallmadgearticlescan

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.

-RS

Spycraft: The Cardan Grille System

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One of the most exciting elements of the TURN premiere is the debut of 18th century spycraft in the form of a shiny copper grille used by Abraham Woodhull to decipher a secret message hidden within a British letter.  Not only is it a dramatic signal of Abraham’s decision to become involved in intelligence gathering — it’s also an authentic, documented method of spycraft used during the American Revolution!TURN01 - spycraft_4  TURN copper grille

 

 

 

 

 

This particular method of secret  message writing is known as the Cardan system, and the copper plate is a version of a Cardan (or Cardano) Grille, named after Girolamo Cardano (aka Jerome Cardan), who invented it in the 16th century. John Nagy, in his book Invisible Ink: Spycraft of the American Revolution, provides a handy description:

[A] Cardano Grille [was] a sheet of stiff material with irregularly spaced rectangular holes which was placed over the writing paper. The secret message was then written in the holes, the grille or mask removed from the writing paper, and a harmless message was filled in around the secret message to camouflage its being there. To read the message, an identical grille or mask was placed over the writing.(Invisible Ink, p3)

When executed successfully, the “dummy” or cover message would be unremarkable enough to avoid raising suspicion that a secret message was contained within it.  A letter authored by a British or Continental officer full of broken or awkward sentences would almost certainly be scrutinized for secret meanings if intercepted by the enemy.  Even then, it’d be nearly impossible to discern the secret message without possessing the matching grille, which makes the Cardan system a fairly secure one.  You need both pieces in order to decipher the real message.

TURN01 - spycraft_1The system was not without its weaknesses, however. The presence of the grille itself is almost guaranteed to arouse suspicion – as we see in the pilot episode when Abraham pulls the copper grille out of its envelope. Only after discovering the grille does he look around for something to match it with.  (For that matter, the grilles were usually stiff paper or cardboard, and not shiny copper sheets that would attract attention and be more difficult to conceal. Paper grilles are much easier to create, and can be folded or rolled up for easier transport.) Abraham was also pretty fortunate to have discovered the correct orientation of the grille on the first try – since there are four possible ways to position a rectangular grille like the one we saw in the show. There’s a slight chance that the reader might take away an incorrect message if they position the grille incorrectly.

Some people expand the definition of the “Cardan system” to include all shapes and forms of message masks, but Cardano’s original method used rectangular cutouts exclusively. Sir Henry Clinton — the British general who appointed John André as his Chief of Intelligence —  used numerous Cardan grilles and message masks in both personal and official correspondence, even as early as 1776.  Many of them still survive in the Clinton Papers which are housed at the University of Michigan’s Clements Library.  The contents of that collection strongly suggest that we’ll see other variations of “masked” messages in future episodes of TURN — so I won’t discuss those just yet.

The Cardan Grille is one of several 18th century methods of spycraft referenced in the TURN opening credits.
The Cardan Grille system is one of several 18th century methods of spycraft referenced in the TURN opening credits.

During the Revolutionary War, the Americans preferred other forms of cryptography (secret writing) over grilles and masks. The Cardan Grille system is more accurately described as a form of steganography: a specific subset of cryptography that involves concealing a secret message within a larger, unrelated message.

This method of secret writing is an ancient one: both the Cardan grille and the usage of the word “steganography” date back to the 16th century. Just because it’s old, however, doesn’t mean it’s obsolete. Steganography is finding new life in our modern age of computers, with messages being subtly slipped into lines of computer code, or even into the arrangement of pixels in a digital image. (And you might even remember an especially amusing example of steganography that went viral and made headlines earlier this year.)

So there’s no denying it — some forms of 18th century spycraft are still alive and well today. I’m definitely hoping to see more excellent examples embedded into tonight’s new episode of TURN.  Stay tuned for another “First Impressions” post after the debut of Episode 2, and don’t forget to follow @spycurious on Twitter for some live tweets during the show!

-RS

Another example of the Cardan Grille system. (Click to enlarge. Source: Wikimedia Commons.)
Another example of the Cardan Grille system. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

 

 

First episode: First Impressions

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pilot final scene

The premiere of TURN is now in the history books! But how much did it actually differ from the history books?  There’s definitely lots to process from tonight’s super-sized 90-minute pilot.  Initial thoughts are below, but since I have an insurmountable affinity for checking historical sources, it’ll be tomorrow (at the earliest) before I’m able to post anything properly analytical.  Overall, I think the premiere was a success — AMC is known for its intricate character-driven drama and TURN fits that mold extremely well.  Any more than that — well, I’m going to sleep on it first, though my half-eaten bag of jellybeans is a pretty fitting indicator of how glued to the screen I was. 😉

cardano grille

The Good: Heavy emphasis on divided loyalties, tension between neighbors, and civilian resentment toward British occupation — all of which muddle the “black and white” myth of the American Revolution, which is a very good thing.  I enjoyed the panoramas of Setauket as a small, agricultural, coastal cluster of colonial buildings. Loved seeing the first hint of spycraft — a Cardano Grille, pictured left. (More on that in a later post.)

The Bad: The Queen’s Rangers take first place in this category.  Material culture issues (ranging from clothing to beards to architecture) ranged from passable and fairly innocuous to cringe-worthy. What bothered me more, however, were the really major chronology issues. Most of the events depicted in this episode didn’t occur until late 1777, 1778, or even 1779.  The Culper Ring wasn’t even formed until 1778, and John Andre doesn’t enter the picture until 1779.  So why pick 1776 as the date for the pilot episode?

The Complicated: While the Revolutionary War was a messy affair, and brutal atrocities were committed by both sides, I’m not sure the uber-violent scenes (and especially the revenge-driven bloodlust) shown here were historically appropriate, and got the impression they were there simply to give the show a more “edgy” feel.  The 18th century was an heavily honor-bound culture; “waterboarding”-like torture is definitely out of place here.  The whole “Bluecoats” vs “Redcoats” dynamic is a out of place for this time period, but I understand why the showrunners chose to portray the opposing armies that way — American uniforms were a confusing mess across the board in 1776.

Oh, and remind me not to enter the stock market anytime soon: My Nathan Hale prediction was a total bust!  I’m actually very disappointed.  If this episode was really supposed to take place in 1776, there were plenty of opportunities to bring up Hale — especially, for example, when Tallmadge was berating his officer about the need to invest money and effort into obtaining proper intelligence.

 

So what are YOUR thoughts on the pilot episode of TURN?  If you’re a history buff, were you satisfied? Or mortified?  If you’re a new viewer with no special background in history (which is perfectly okay, thank you very much!), did the show hold your interest?  Don’t be shy — your comments will help determine the topics that get covered first in this blog!  (All right, if you’re a LITTLE shy you can always submit an anonymous question or comment via the Ask Page.)

-RS

 

Last-minute Premiere Prep

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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:

premierebookpic2

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!

-RS

 

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.

-RS