King George III
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 – and Happy Patriots Day!
Still recovering from the highly-anticipated 2-hour premiere of TURN: Washington’s Spies last week? So are we! The Season 2 premiere – which was technically two separate episodes played back-to-back – covered an awful lot of historical ground. The show’s timeline has leaped ahead several months to the fall of 1777, and viewers quickly learn that several major events of the Revolutionary War have already passed them by, including the Battle (technically, “Battles” plural) of Saratoga and the start of the British occupation of Philadelphia. And most Americans have at least heard of how King George III went “mad” later in life – but was he really starting to lose his marbles in 1777?
To help clear things up, we’ve updated the Historical Timeline feature with several events that will be especially interesting to TURN fans trying to sort out the events referenced in the Season 2 premiere. You can view the full-size Timeline by clicking on it below, but I recommend visiting the full Timeline page for even more useful information – including informative links!
Re-watch the Season 2 Premiere on AMC.com
For a limited time (of course) you can watch the Season 2 premiere of TURN on AMC.com for free with no cable subscriber login required. Better hurry — as of this posting, the free premiere (technically Episodes 1 and 2 of the second season aired together) is only available for 9 more days!
No doubt about it: TURN: Washington’s Spies has captured quite a lot of people’s attention. The heavily-promoted season premiere garnered its fair share of reviews, which range from excited and positive (IGN) to cautiously optimistic (AV Club and Wall Street Journal, who wins the ‘Best Review Title’ award) to unimpressed (Variety). Most reviewers have noted that AMC dramas have a habit of starting off very slowly, only to conclude with riveting, fast-paced drama at the end of each season – which was certainly true of Season 1 of TURN.
My favorite review, however, was written by a fellow Early American historian (shocking, I know). More specifically, written by J. L. Bell, a prolific historian of Revolutionary Boston who also covered Season 1 of TURN at Den of Geek.
While we here at TURN to a Historian opt out of episode summaries to, among other reasons, save space (our posts are lengthy enough already), Bell aptly summarizes the on-screen drama while simultaneously providing insightful commentary from a historian’s point of view. There are lots of excellent takeaways in his latest review, but the quotes that caught my eye were the ones related to the ongoing issues of historical accuracy in the show:
“…The differences between Turn’s king and the real George III, Turn’s sculptress and the real Patience Wright, are significant. Despite its producers’ claims to remaining true to the past, the series veered away from the historical record immediately and continues to follow its own path.
[In conclusion,] You can’t rely on Turn for accurate history, and you can’t read ahead in history books to know exactly how this season will play out.”
These passages hit upon one of the strangest idiosyncrasies of TURN. The show is supposed to be based on Alexander Rose’s book Washington’s Spies — and yet, because the show plays so fast and loose with historical fact, reading Rose’s own book won’t tell you anything about the direction the show will ultimately take. I’m often asked “What’s going to happen to [X character] in TURN?”
In short: when following the historical record is option, there’s no way for a historian to tell. For example, producer Craig Silverstein has said in several interviews that he originally planned on killing off Simcoe in the circa-1776 pilot episode. You’d never find that in any history book, because it never happened.
Bell also suggests an excellent prescription for peace of mind for any Revolutionary War history buffs or historians watching the show:
“As I’ve written before, it’s best to think of the history of the Revolutionary War and Turn as two separate continuities, like the Marvel Comics universe and the Marvel movies universe.”
I couldn’t agree more! I’ve often referred to TURN as “alternate universe” myself on this blog. Frankly, this kind of attitude is standard operating procedure for most period dramas. In most cases even the most nitpicky fact-checkers understand the need to bend the truth in order to tell a compelling narrative – as long as it’s acknowledged to be fiction! It’s a shame that the writers and producers of TURN continue to adamantly promote their show as “a true story” and try to claim the mantle of authenticity and “historical truth” when an abundance of evidence (most of it basic, Google-able facts) handily proves otherwise. If only they’d embrace the fact-bending nature of their historical fiction, they’d get a lot more love from history-loving viewers who are hungry for excellent period dramas but cringe at the misrepresentation of the Revolutionary War on TV.
Thankfully, there’s still plenty of time for that, since Season 2 is just getting started. And there have already been some notable improvements in historical accuracy – including, as you can see in the Timeline above, more 1777 events actually happening in the show’s version of 1777. Chief among the material culture improvements are Simcoe’s transition to a green-coated Loyalist uniform and Robert Rogers’ freshly-shaven visage. Let’s hope the momentum continues as Season 2 gathers steam!
Oh, and for you social media-savvy folks: Don’t forget to join us on Twitter during tomorrow night’s new episode! I’m live-tweeting at @spycurious and the hashtag to follow is #TURNamc. It’s always a rollicking good time!
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: