TURN origins

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).


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!)

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.

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!



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.



“TURN: Origins” Online Comic

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Greetings, fans! Today we’re taking a peek at the TURN: Origins online comic, which was unveiled on the official show website last week. I recommend breezing through the comic yourself before reading the commentary below – it’s a quick read and won’t take long.

In recent years, a handful of cable television shows have produced graphic novels as bonus online content for fans (including Burn Notice on USA and Falling Skies on TNT). It looks like TURN is following suit, although it’s unclear at the time of this post whether this comic issue is a one-time promo or we’ll be seeing more in the future.

As a whole, the comic’s heavy-handed, rough style seems to complement the action and dramatic tension found in its pages (and leaves little for us to discuss about material culture, since the heavy pencil lines obscure most tiny details). Overall, the story drives two very important points home: 1) The future members of the Culper Spy Ring share a deep friendship that started when they were youngsters growing up together in Setauket, and 2) the American Revolution was a civil war that divided families and communities, sometimes to the point of turning on each other.

However, there’s good reason to believe we shouldn’t read too much into the comic as a representation of TURN’s approach to historical accuracy. For one thing, there’s a pretty glaring anachronism on the cover that’s not in any of the show’s promotional footage. (Besides Caleb Brewster’s pirate-y facial hair, that is… but that’ll be covered in a future post.) Can you spot it?

comic - origins cover

Is there a vexillologist in the house? Because the British flag that takes up the top half of the page is, quite frankly, the wrong one. The diagonal red stripe, representing Ireland, was not added to the British flag until 1801. In the 18th century, the British flag (commonly known as “the King’s Colours”) would have looked like the flag below:

“The King’s Colours”

Having the “wrong” Union Jack flying is a common error in historical movies, even though it’s a pretty basic fact to check. (See Pirates of the Caribbean, Disney’s Pocahontas, and 1776 the Musical for starters). But few of those big-budget historical productions tried to lay claim to the mantle of historical accuracy as much as TURN is. I have to admit – after seeing the comic book cover, I stopped everything and re-watched some of the TURN trailer footage for a quick flag-check:

TURNscreencap - kings colors

Thankfully, in footage from the various trailers and featurettes available on the TURN website, we can very clearly see the King’s Colours flying. (Phew. That would have been kind of embarrassing.)

Okay, so there are evidently discrepancies between the online comic and TV show. Which is rather strange, especially since the writer LaToya Morgan is the show’s Executive Story Editor, but these things happen, I suppose. Because of that (and time/space constraints), I’ll only mention a few other big pointers here.

comic - thomaswoodhullHere’s an example of a pretty big issue: On pages 4-5, we see Abraham Woodhull’s older brother Thomas donning a British uniform and going to fight “the rebels,” only to be killed either during or soon after the battles of Lexington and Concord. Pretty major plot device, from the looks of it. It’s also a pretty major fabrication on behalf of TURN’s scriptwriters, because Abraham didn’t have a brother named Thomas. Even according to Washington’s Spies, the book used as the basis for TURN, no such brother ever existed. (See page 304, note 48.) Abraham did have two older brothers, but they died in 1768 and 1774, respectively – long before the beginning of armed hostilities between American colonists and the British army. But having a martyr for the British Empire in the family sure adds a heck of a lot more drama, doesn’t it? Hmm…

Colonial colleges: On page 5, Abraham Woodhull says “I left for King’s College.” (Some historical trivia for you: After the American Revolution, King’s College changed its name to Columbia College, the precursor to today’s Columbia University.) He never attended King’s College… not as a student, anyway. Maybe he left to go sell them some vegetables from his farm? Admittedly, it’s a convenient fib that supports the grand narrative of the circle of friends growing up and going their separate ways.

comic - yale panel2Benjamin Tallmadge did go off to Yale College, where he joined the class of 1773 alongside Nathan Hale and several other notable troublemakers. However, I doubt he was familiar with the sight of Yale as it appears in the first panel of page 5, unless he accidentally stepped through a wormhole and ended up in the 20th century. (The iconic Harkness Tower seen in the comic wasn’t completed until 1921.) Okay, I know, I know – that’s not really a big issue. It’s one panel. Yale in the American Revolution happens to be a topic that’s pretty near and dear to me (thanks, grad school!) and so it leaped off the page at me. For what it’s worth, if you’re interested in what Yale really DID look like in the 18th century, you can check out this period image of it.

Let’s see – aside from the story’s references to “bluecoats” (a popular anachronism that we’ll talk about later), the “Family Tree” of characters on page 18 has a few head-scratchers, most of which have to do with historical chronology and are unlikely (by my guess) to translate to the show. For example, Major John Andre isn’t appointed as the head of British intelligence until 1779, and Benjamin Tallmadge outgrew the rank of Captain by the end of 1776, so those two “statuses” wouldn’t occur at the same point in time. Robert Rogers’ descriptors are all over the place, chronologically speaking (as is his outfit, but that’s another discussion). We’ll have to wait and see if any of these chronological errors play out in the actual tv episodes.

Finally, Page 20: I don’t even know what to say about this one, guys. The outlandish artwork, the inaccurate style of wine glass, the outfit the man is wearing… not even CLOSE to 18th century standards. What was AMC thinking?!

(Yes, I’m kidding about that last one.)

So what’s your two cents on the TURN: Origins comic? Obviously there are liberties taken with the history, some larger than others. But on the other hand, it seems to hammer home major plot points pretty successfully. Feel free to leave your own comments below while I enroll myself in “Remedial Blogging, Part 1: Concise Blog Posts.” (I’m pretty sure I can find a free online course about that. Right?)

Til next time!