Friday, March 28, 2014

A Real Female Spy of the Revolution


For the past few days I’ve been reading George Washington’s Secret Six: The Spy Ring that Saved the American Revolution by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger. The authors cover in detail the activities of the Culper Spy Ring, which operated in New York City beginning in 1778.

Area of Culper Ring's Operations

Although I’ve run across this important spy ring before while researching the series, this is the most detailed account of their activities I’ve read. Crucible of War ends about a year before the Culper Ring began operating, and I’m especially intrigued to discover many similarities between agent 355 and my fictional character Elizabeth Howard. Elizabeth’s family ties, activities, capture, and imprisonment aboard one of the prison ships in New York Harbor at the end of Crucible of War and the beginning of Valley of the Shadow mirror agent 355’s history, although her eventual fate was much more dire than Elizabeth’s will be. I wasn’t at all familiar with this agent, which makes the similarities in their stories all the more striking.

Agent 355 was clearly a courageous and resourceful woman who did our new republic a great service. It’s truly a tragedy that she didn’t survive to enjoy the rewards of her contributions. The following account is taken from the National Women’s History Museum website.
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It is believed that “355” was a member of a prominent Tory family, a position that would have allowed her virtually unrestricted access to British political and military leaders operating in the New York area. For her part, “355” helped expose Benedict Arnold’s treasonous role in the surrender of West Point and neighboring military outposts, an act that earned him a £20,000 gratuity from the British government.

She also facilitated the arrest of Major John André, the head of England’s intelligence operations in New York, who was eventually hanged as a spy on orders from General Washington. While in New York, the debonair André kept company with any number of beguiling and available women. Taking advantage of this, “355” worked the parties he gave and attended, paying careful attention to what he offered during conversations that were often plied with considerable quantities of ale. Any substantive information “355” gleaned from these indiscretions, such as the deal to hand over West Point for payment, was surreptitiously passed by way of the Culper Ring to an appreciative George Washington.

It is believed that “355” was actually Robert Townsend’s common-law wife, with whom he had a son. When the junior “Culper” learned that his prized operative and lover was to bear his child, he pleaded with her to forgo her dangerous espionage work. She refused, believing, and rightly so, that the information she was providing was of the highest value. “Three-fifty-five’s” days were, indeed, numbered, thanks, so the historical reflection goes, to the traitor Arnold, who gave her up once he had defected to Great Britain following the arrest of André.

In October 1780, “355” was captured and ordered held in fetid conditions aboard the prison ship Jersey, which was moored in the East River. While incarcerated, she gave birth to a son, whom she named Robert Townsend, Jr., after the Culper Ring operative. She died shortly thereafter.

To new intelligence service hires, “355” is often cited as an inspirational example of a trusted field agent, who has retained her anonymity even 222 years following her death. The young woman’s contributions to America’s War for Independence did not go unnoticed by the head of the fabled Culper Ring, Abraham Woodhull, who wrote that she “hath been ever serviceable to this correspondence” and could “outwit them all.”