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!
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!
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!
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.
The 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.
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!
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. 😉
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.)