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!
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!
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!
Two blog posts in less than 18 hours? This is MADNESS!!
Okay, so this is more of an “announcement” than a full-blown post: The Timeline page has been updated! Now, usually an update to the Historical Timeline won’t merit a blog post of its own — the Timeline should be updated a day or two after each new episode airs with new events that were mentioned in that episode. However, there is now a list of all the events featured in the main infographic, with links (when applicable) to blog posts and/or external sites where you can learn more about each event. Check it out!
I’ve also had several people suggest that I should make an “Alternate History Timeline” to accompany the one above that depicts real historical events. The Alternate Timeline would contain events that occur only in the TURN universe (in other words, events seen in the show that never really happened at ANY point in time). Viewers could then easily discern, by glancing at both timelines, whether an event in the show was real or fabricated. I think it’s a great suggestion — thanks to those who brought it to my attention, and please keep the good ideas coming!
In the meantime, enjoy the (relative) plethora of posts!
Greetings, readers! Despite the relative silence of the past several days (on the blog, anyway — fun things are always happening on tumblr), things have been quite busy here behind the scenes at TURN to a Historian. After much deliberation on how to best address the curious chronology of the TURN universe, I decided to add a Timeline feature to the site — as evidenced by the new “Timeline” button on the site main menu.
Many viewers of TURN who already possess some background knowledge about the American Revolution have already noticed a large number of “temporal anomalies” in the show so far. People and events are showing up in the first two episodes of TURN that, historically, shouldn’t be there in 1776. These “anomalies” run the gamut from small details (e.g. uniform details that are several months premature) to major plot devices (the Woodhull family tree) central to the show.
To be fair, it’s not unusual for movies and TV shows to heavily adapt a real-life timeline of events to fit their own goals and time constraints — after all, since TURN is a historical drama and not a documentary, the showrunners’ primary concern is creating an entertaining story or narrative arc. Historical timelines are often compressed or shuffled around in order to create a more dramatic pace suitable for a modern audience. Therefore, it’s reasonable to expect that a show like TURN will contain some “chronological flexibility.”
What really came as a surprise upon viewing the pilot episode, however, was the executive decision to set the beginning of the series in 1776, instead of 1778. Most of the early promotional descriptions of TURN described the series as taking place in 1778 – which would have made a lot more sense from a historical standpoint. Several critical events depicted in the show don’t actually happen until well after 1776, including:
- The existence of Tallmadge’s (Second Regiment of) Continental Dragoons (first fielded in early 1777)
- The imprisonment of Selah Strong (end of 1777)
- The capture of John Graves Simcoe (1779)
- The involvement of John Andre in British intelligence (1779)
- And even the very creation of the Culper Spy Ring (1778).
You can see the proper plotting of these events on the historical timeline above. We’ll likely go into more detail about each of these events in future blog posts.
However, you might also notice that the last few episodes of TURN have increasingly mentioned topics that are appropriate for mid to late 1776, including: the creation of the Queen’s American Rangers under Robert Rogers, the fall of Forts Washington and Lee, and the capture of General Charles Lee — and in the preview for next week’s episode, “Epiphany,” we see scenes foreshadowing Washington crossing the Delaware. Clearly, the showrunners have made some very deliberate chronological compromises in order to include iconic events that pre-date the 1778 creation of TURN’s Long Island-based spy ring. (The scene depicted in the GIF at left, taken from the TURN opening credits, also hints at an innovative event that happened in late 1776. If you’re not already familiar with the scene, I won’t let the cat out of the bag just yet.)
The new Timeline feature is this site’s humble attempt to untangle the curious chronology of the TURN universe. On it, you will see events that have already been mentioned in the show plotted on a historically accurate timeline. Some of the “real” dates might come as a shock! The timeline will be updated every week to reflect the major historical events depicted in the show as each episode airs — meaning that graphic will be pretty darn full by the end of this first season.
Is there something mentioned on the show that you want to see plotted on the timeline? Suggestions for timeline additions are welcome, as long as they are events that have already been discussed in the show! Eventually, on the Timeline page, I plan to add a (text) list of the historical events mentioned with links to primary and reliable secondary sources for those who want to learn more about each one. There’s also a long-overdue update of the Links and Resources pages coming, and another Reader Request post in the works. No doubt about it — I’ve swapped out my gray cap for a hard hat this week, metaphorically speaking. Stay tuned!