Nathan Hale

TURN Historical Timeline updated for Season 3

Posted on

Still reeling from this week’s Season 3 finale? How about a healthy dose of TURN-related history? We’ve updated the Historical Timeline with events mentioned and/or depicted in TURN Season 3. In a slight change from previous timeline updates, all the Season 3 events are labeled with dark green text, to more easily distinguish this seasons’ additions from the events mentioned in Seasons 1 and 2. While the timeline itself is embedded below, don’t forget to visit the full Historical Timeline page for a chronological listing of events, including external links to relevant history websites. Enjoy!

TURN Historical Timeline, version 3.1. Events mentioned in Season 3 are listed in green. Click to enlarge.
TURN Historical Timeline, version 3.1. Events mentioned in Season 3 are listed in green. Click to enlarge.

There’s no doubt that Season 3 of TURN began slowly, and with very few connections to actual historical events (see our previous post lamenting this fact). Evidently the writers were saving all of the spy action and historical precedent for the last few episodes, which drew heavily upon the well-documented Andre-Arnold affair of late 1780.

Most of the new timeline events deal with Benedict Arnold, since a large part of Season 3 revolved around the dramatic buildup of his infamous defection — and John Andre, who ends up paying the steepest price for Arnold’s actions. You’ll see Arnold’s court-martial, defection, and marriage to Peggy Shippen all plotted on the updated timeline.

Another event that was prominently (if very briefly) mentioned in the Season 3 finale was the execution of Nathan Hale — an event that was first mentioned in TURN Season 1 and has been on the Timeline ever since. For some bizarre reason, the show announces Hale’s execution date as October 22, 1776, instead of September 22 — a bizarre and seemingly unnecessary factual error that provides no benefit for the show’s storyline development. It’s no surprise that a Hollywood history show deviates from a 100% perfect chronological unfolding of historical events, of course — that’s why we made the Timeline in the first place!  Some deviations, however, are much easier to explain than others.

Think there’s a historical event missing from the Timeline? Is there some ingenious reasoning I’ve missed behind TURN moving a semi-obscure historical date around by a mere 30 days? Leave a comment below (or tweet me, or email via the Ask page) and let me know!



TURN announces its move to Monday with a dubious trailer for Season 2

Posted on Updated on

TURN premiere banner
TURN makes the weekday leap to Monday nights starting this April

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.

1stspy gif


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:

1x06 - Washington and Tallmadge
The “Nathan Hale” scene from Season 1, Episode 6.

WashingtonFollowing 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.

There is definitely a disturbance in the (historical) Force.

The question you’re REALLY waiting for

Finally, sneakyabewoodhullfor 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!



First episode: First Impressions

Posted on

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.)



Last-minute Premiere Prep

Posted on

T-minus 4 hours and counting until the premiere of TURN on AMC!  (Alas, my little countdown widget in the sidebar appears to have crashed.)

AMC is soliciting shots of people’s “Premiere parties” on social media, using the hashtags #turn, #turnAMC, #AMCturn, and #PledgeDefiance, so I thought I’d hop on the bandwagon with the following pic:


Real-time shot of my living room floor, after nudging various books and bags of candy closer together with my foot.  I know — Starburst Jellybeans are a completely inaccurate 18th century snack, but I’m going to need 21st century fuel for the 21st century task of watching TV, taking old-fashioned paper notes (okay, call me old-fashioned), and syncing a second or third screen in order to try and keep up with tweets and Facebook posts in real time. (Phew.)

For all of you who are second-screen savvy, AMC is pushing its “TURN Story Sync” experience here — though I might be stretched in too many directions at once to enjoy Story Sync myself.  If you try it, let me know what you think!

The books and pamphlets seen in this picture run the gamut from excellent to problematic to downright cringeworthy.  Most of them will eventually be reviewed here in the blog, and the best will end up on the Reading List found on the Resources page of this website.  Why do I even bother holding onto “cringeworthy” history books?  Well, to be fair, without training and a lot of practice, it can be hard to differentiate a “bad” history book from a good one — it requires extensive analysis of citations, bibliographies, and lots of other technical stuff.  Consultants for TV shows like “TURN” might grab any old spy-related book off the shelf and, without fully realizing they’re holding an problematic book in their hands, use it as justification for what might end up being a historically inaccurate portrayal.

Anyway, I hope you’re all comfortably situated for tonight’s premiere.  Since it’s a full 90 minutes, it might take a while for me to gather my initial thoughts into a blog post, but I hope to have something substantial by Monday evening.  There will definitely be PLENTY to talk about!  In the meantime, don’t forget to join the conversation on Twitter (@spycurious) or Facebook and take advantage of tonight’s pretty awesome #PledgeDefiance hashtag.  Enjoy the show!



Hints of Nathan Hale

Posted on

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.