Remarks to the Friends of Beaufort Library's Books Sandwiched In speaker series
Jan. 26, 2015
Thank you for that introduction. I’m very pleased to be here, but I feel I should begin with an apology. I was speaking with some folks in the lobby beforehand, and it has come to my attention that there has perhaps been a misunderstanding about the topic of my book, and some of you might have better things to sandwich this afternoon. So if you came here believing I was going to tell you about George Washington and his Secret SEX, I’ll pause for a moment and allow you exit.
It’s OK, m’am. You can leave if you’d like. No one will think the less of you.
OK, so this is what we’re left with. I’m quite relieved. I was afraid that might empty the auditorium.
So, “George Washington and his Secret SIX: The Spy Ring that Saved the American Revolution.” By show of hands, many have read the book? You’ll be relieved to know, I have as well. I searched and searched for the Cliffs Notes, but couldn’t find any, so ...
Now, by show of hands, how many of you knew about the Culper Spy ring before you came here today or before you knew what today’s program would be about?
Notice I did not raise my hand this time. I suppose I might have at some point in my life heard of passing references to this ring, but I cannot recall ever learning about it in a history class — whether in high school or college. So how did I come to be the presenter for this particular book? What got me interested?
Well, I was told to get interested by a Books Sandwiched In organizer.
Actually, that’s not exactly true. Tim Johnston of Short Story America, with whom I’m sure many of you are familiar, recruited me to the program and suggested this title. Frankly, it’s not one I would have picked for myself. I tend to read a lot of non-fiction — a little history, but a lot of politics and economics.
But I liked Tim’s suggestion because I’m a pretty big fan of George Washington, who could have been our country’s first monarch about as easily as he could have been our first president.
It was more about colonists who believed parliament was denying them their rights as British subjects — the whole taxation without representation thing. When the war was over and we were trying to figure out our system of governance, some whispered in Washington’s ear or proposed during the Constitutional framing that we have a president for life and that Washington be that president. Of course, we all know that Washington indeed became our first president, but he ascended by vote of the Electoral College, rather than divine ordinance.
However, even without any formal Constitutional mandate to do so, he refused to seek a third term. His precedent was followed until FDR, and of course, irked by such audacity, now there IS a constitutional prohibition on a third term.
So I have long had a profound respect for Washington the president — in my view, inarguably the best leader this nation has ever known if for no other reason than for his restraint and humility after being handed power he could easily have sought to expand.
But this book was a chance to get to know Washington the general, who I admired for other reasons — the winter at Valley Forge, the Delaware crossing, etc. — but knew much less about.
Indeed, had there not been Washington the general, there almost certainly would not have been Washington the president. And without the Culper Spy ring, Washington the general quite possibly would have been a failure, given the rag-tag army he commanded and the vast naval inferiority the colonists suffered.
The Patriots did have the advantage of defending familiar territory … sort of. The fact is, there were quite a few resident loyalists in addition to the British army and the mercenary Hessians in British employ. So the rebels still needed tactical advantages and intelligence that would allow them to make informed decisions, as well as best use of scarce manpower and armaments.
Now, there were several spying efforts throughout the war, including some that pre-dated the Culper Ring, which was formed in the summer of 1778. Some of those were spectacular failures — including one in particular that we’ll talk about in a little greater depth in just a moment. The Culper Ring was arguably the war’s most successful spying efforts — I say “arguably” because I’m simply not an expert on the subject and there might be other such efforts that I’m just ignorant of. For that matter, historians might be ignorant of them, as well, given the secrecy espionage demands.
The ring was formed out of Washington’s fervent desire to retake New York City after he was driven from it in August 1776. That defeat — just weeks after the passage of the Declaration of Independence and months after a spring that had been marked by Patriot successes — threatened to end the Revolution almost as quickly as it started. Somewhat ironically, the intelligence ring focused on a recapture of New York arguably had greater impact in other geographic areas, inasmuch as Washington’s triumphant return came about seven years later, as the larger war effort had really already turned in the Patriots’ favor.
It turned, however, in no small part because of the Culper Ring, which had at least four smashing successes:
Early on, the ring uncovered a British counterfeiting scheme that almost certainly would have wrecked the colonial economy by inflating the value of its currency.
It helped prevent an ambush of the arriving French navy, which helped turn the war after the American diplomatic effort convinced France to ally with the revolutionaries.
It smuggled a British naval codebook into Yorktown that greatly aided the French fleet and led to the surrender there of Gen. Cornwallis.
It helped uncover Benedict Arnold’s betrayal and thwarted his plans to surrender to the enemy a key outpost on the Hudson River, Fort West Point — and possibly even Washington himself.
These are momentous events in the Revolution, and three of the four — the lone exception perhaps the counterfeiting ring — are part of American common parlance. So why is the Culper Ring unfamiliar to our ear?
That’s primarily because the participants’ identities were very closely guarded both during and after the war. The former obviously served the cause of the rebels. Spies must be unknown to be effective, right? But the participants — only two of whom were uniformed combatants — also shied from recognition or said outright they did not want their identities ever to be revealed even after the war.
So it wasn’t until the 20th century that details of the spy ring were mined from the historical record, and even then, the Culper Ring has been mostly the dominion of academics and historians. I know of at least two other books about the Culper Ring that predate “Washington’s Secret Six,” but only a few years:
“George Washington, Spymaster: How the Americans Outspied the British and Won the Revolutionary War.” By Thomas B. Allen, 2004. Touches on other Revolutionary spying operations and doesn’t focus solely on the Culper Ring.
“Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring.” By Alexander Rose, 2007. Provided the basis for an AMC miniseries, “Turn: Washington’s Spies,” which aired in April 2014.
George Washington’s Secret Six was published in 2013. It authors:
Brian Kilmeade: One of the hosts of the Fox News morning show, “Fox & Friends” and a syndicated radio host. He lives on Long Island, and has long been interested in tales about the Culper Ring because much of the action unfolds there. Several online sources indicate he has been researching this subject since 1990. He previously wrote two books, both sports-related. (He broke into broadcasting in sports talk radio.)
Don Yeager: A prolific ghost writer based in Florida, he is author of more than two-dozen books, including seven New York Times best sellers.
So I suppose it is incumbent upon me, as reviewer, to tell you what I think about the book. Well, let me start with what I didn’t like.
The prose is a bit stilted, as one might expect in a book written by a broadcast journalist. (Sorry. Couldn’t resist. I promise this will be my last catty remark about my broadcast brethern.)
Whenever I read non-fiction, I want to see annotations and end notes. As a journalist, attribution is tantamount to veracity for me, so when I don’t see it, I reflexively have doubts about the accuracy of what I’m reading. I always suspect the authors are taking liberties.
With this book, that suspicion is heightened by an admission Kilmeade and Yaeger make in an author’s note ahead of the preface: Much of the dialogue is fictional, but supposedly based on conversations that did take place.
At certain points, this liberty morphs into mindreading. For example, the authors attempt to speculate why Peggy Shippen of a welltodo loyalist family would marry the older, mercurial Patriot officer Benedict Arnold. We are told that QUOTE “she may have realized just how much power she could wield over such a husband. He would, in essence, be her slave, bending to her will out of fear that she might cuckold him if she didn’t get her way.” END QUOTE
I love the word “cuckold” as much as the next guy. But the word choice “slave”? Abominably sophomoric.
Moreover, the prose gets weaker where the facts get stretched.
All of this said, I enjoyed the book and was able to tolerate these historical hedges by acknowledging what seems to be the authors’ larger goal — bringing this story to a wider audience. And it is indeed a story worthy of that wider audience.
As a piece for mass consumption, you can imagine why Kilmead and Yeager would seek an unhalting narrative and how footnotes and strictly-by-the-record accounts devoid of dialogue would defeat that end.
In other words, I forgive them.
And they do offer a list of 25 sources, including the two aforementioned books. So certainly, they do take pains to “show their work,” so to speak, although this book seems to me predicated less on original research and more on a synthesis of previous work — which I intend merely as an observation, not as a jab.
Let’s begin a closer look as this compelling subject matter with an introduction to the Culper Ring’s participants.
Benjamin Tallmadge (code name John Bolton): The son of a Presbyterian minister born in Setauket, N.Y. He was 19 when the war started and not long out of Yale — where he was a classmate of Nathan Hale, who we will talk about momentarily — when he enlisted in the Continental Army. One of two uniformed members of the ring, he impressed Washington with his intelligence and tenacity. Accordingly, he rose quickly in rank and was a colonel by the time Washington appointed him chief intelligence officer.
Abraham Woodhull (code name Samuel Culper Sr.): A merchant and farmer, and the youngest son in a prominent Setauket family. A childhood acquaintance of Tallmadge, Woodhull became heir apparent of his family’s estate when his two older brothers died unexpectedly. Long believing he’d never have to fulfill such a duty, he had eschewed higher education in favor of more practical experience in business and agriculture. Woodhull was a confirmed bachelor — important in that spying gave him no pause for concern of a spouse. However, he had a sister who lived in New York, and his business often took him there, giving him the perfect cover for his spying.
Robert Townsend (code name Culper Junior): A quiet, unassuming member of a prominent Quaker merchant family based in Oyster Bay. Recruited to the ring by Woodhull, he joined on the condition that his identity never be revealed. He was the chief intelligence-gatherer, but his involvement in the ring was not confirmed until 1929, when a noted historian and archivist matched the handwriting from his papers to Culper Ring correspondence. In addition to being rather nondescript, he found work as a reporter for a Loyalist newspaper in New York, which provided an excuse to ask probing questions of British authorities in New York.
James Rivington: The respected, British-born publisher of the Rivington Gazette, the loyalist newspaper that employed Townsend. His newspaper also frequently published poetry by British Major John Andre, a spymaster for the Red Coats who was executed after his capture helped foil Benedict Arnold’s treason. In addition tot he newspaper, Rivington owned a tony coffeehouse frequented by British officers. How good was Rivington’s cover? Early in the war, the Sons of Liberty hanged him in effigy. Not the sort of fellow the British would suspect of espionage.
Austin Roe: A tavern owner who doubled as a spy-ring courier, secretly relaying its messages across the 55 miles that separated the operation's two centers of operation — Setauket and New York City, both occupied by the British. Clearly this made his work quite dangerous. Nonetheless, he is known to have, on a few urgent occasions, bypassed Tallmadge and delivered intelligence directly to Washington’s camp.
Caleb Brewster: A brash, young longshoreman who made a living running goods in his whaler past British ships in Long Island Sound. Brewster not only carried messages across the sound to and from Tallmadge, the ring's organizer; he also made some direct reports to Washington concerning naval activities in the New York City area. The second uniformed member of the ring also served under Tallmadge and saw occasional combat duty.
Agent 355: A woman whose identity remains unknown but seems to have moved freely in New York’s upper-class society and among British officers stationed there. What is known is that she at some point had contact with Major John Andre and Benedict Arnold and is believed to have played a major role in exposing Arnold and in the arrest of Andre. She was likely recruited to the ring by Townsend, and she likely was familiar to Woodhull before her involvement.
So how did the spy ring work?
Townsend and Rivington gathered information in Manhattan. The historical record indicates there were other free-agent or sub-agent intelligence gatherers, although Kilmeade and Yeager mention their work only in passing.
Roe and Woodhull would receive Townsend’s intelligence in Manhattan, courier it to Setauket, add their own observations along the way and hand it off to Brewster in a hidden cove off Long Island Sound.
Brewster, also adding his observations, and his men row across the sound between or around British ships to Connecticut, which was in Patriot hands. Tallmadge would receive it there.
Tallmadge would help decode information and relay it to George Washington, who was typically no more than few days’ ride from Connecticut.
If you look at the map and notice New York City’s proximity to Connecticut, this would seem a rather circuitous route. However, it offered a few advantages. First, it allowed for collection of additional intelligence as reports were moved to Washington; second it allowed the intelligence to move through friendly territory once across the sound.
Now, at this point, there’s little need to summarize for those who have already read the book, and it would be downright rude of me to spoil it for those who have not.
So instead, what I’d like to do is provide some additional context to complement the book and reinforce what I believe to be the greater aim of Kilmeade and Yeager, which is to foster an appreciation for the bravery and innovation of the ring’s participants. Remember, only two of these folks could be classified as combatants, and only one directly served the ring in that capacity. But as you’ll see, they certainly risked their livelihoods — and indeed, their lives — in service of the Patriots’ cause.
So I give you Six Facts That Explain the Culper Ring’s Significance.
1. New York was a strategic linchpin of the Patriot cause
As I mentioned, much of New York fell to the British not long after the signing of the Declaration. The New York and the New Jersey campaign was a series of battles for control of New York and the state of New Jersey between British forces under Gen. William Howe and the Continental Army under Washington. This campaign was waged in 1776 and extended into the winter of 1777. Howe successfully drove Washington from New York, but over-extended his reach into New Jersey, and ended the campaign season in January 1777 with only a few outposts near the city.
So what you end up with is the British firmly in control of New York City, which then was limited to the southern tip of Manhattan Island, and firmly in control of some areas of Long Island, including Setauket. There were Patriot strongholds relatively nearby — in other areas of New York state and in Connecticut, for example — furthering Washington’s belief that his army might eventually recapture the city.
In the meantime, the British now had a valuable base for expeditions against other targets — Philadelphia was particularly vulnerable — and New York was important for other reasons, as well.
At the time, it was the second most-populous city in the colonies, next to Philadelphia.
It was an important center of commerce.
Strategically located in a “middle state,” the port there was both a hub of transatlantic trade and as a gateway to the Hudson River, which in turn meant great leverage in controlling access to Canada. It also provided a foothold for transporting supplies and troops up and down the Atlantic seaboard. This would make it important to either side, but particularly to the British.
The British needed this access point, as they had retreated from another important port, Boston.
By holding New York, the British created a geopolitical divide between northern and southern colonies. Kilmeade and Yeager say it prevented a “cross-pollination” of revolutionary thought.
British officers enjoyed a pretty good life in New York. High society remained mostly intact, even though the city was pretty filthy and dependent upon agricultural goods from outside the city. That is one reason someone like Abraham Woodhull could move about without arousing inordinate suspicion. New York was also a gathering place for loyalists who had been driven from other sections of the United States.
Washington wanted New York back in the worst sort of way, for both its strategic and psychological importance. However, by the end of the initial New York-New Jersey campaign, the Continentals were out-manned and out-gunned. He knew he would need intelligence, to help make highest and best use of limited resources and to have any chance of reclaiming the city.
For reasons that will soon be apparent, that was much easier said than done.
2. The United States’ first espionage hero was an utter failure
There are no fewer than a half dozen statues honoring Nathan Hale. There are college buildings and dormitories, a fort, public schools, a submarine, and a fife and drum corps named for him. What did Hale accomplish to earn such acclaim?
Frankly, not much.
Nathan Hale was a classmate of Benjamin Tallmadge at Yale, where both dabbled in forensics and the stage. Hale was from Connecticut, not New York, and this is no small point, as we shall see.
Hale became a schoolmaster after graduation. When his militia unit participated in the siege of Boston, Hale remained behind, likely because his teaching contract in New London would not expire until several months later. On July 4, 1775, Hale received a letter from Tallmadge, who by that time was well into his military service and who had gone to Boston to see the siege for himself. In so many words, he told Hale that at this juncture in history, there was no higher calling than military service, and several days later, apparently inspired, Hale accepted a commission as first lieutenant in the 7th Connecticut Regiment.
In the following spring, the army moved to Manhattan Island to try — unsuccessfully, as it turned out — to prevent the British from taking over New York City. In September, Gen. Washington was desperate to learn the British point of attack in what by that time was seen as an inevitable invasion of Manhattan Island. Washington sought to do this by sending a spy behind enemy lines, and Hale was the only volunteer for the job. Aside from great courage, little else recommended him for this task.
Indeed, Hale’s foray into espionage ended nearly as quickly as it had began. Why was that?
The closest thing he had to espionage training was his stage experience at Yale. (Kilmeade and Yeager posit that commanders rationalized Hale’s selection for this dangerous duty by imagining he could assume a role and think quickly on his feet.)
He had never been to New York. (Imagine a fish out of water, who didn’t speak with a local accent, didn’t know the lay of the land. Such a person almost certainly would be immediately pegged as an interloper.)
Hale did have loyalist relatives in New York. (While that might help provide a cover, it’s equally possible those relatives would be familiar with his enlistment in the Continental Army and blow his cover post haste.)
In fact, he had no credible cover.
Nonetheless, Hale volunteered Sept. 8, and by Sept. 12, he was being transported behind enemy lines. Just three days later, New York City fell, with Washington’s forces pushed back to Harlem Heights. The very outcome Hale was dispatched to help prevent now made his mission almost a moot point — not to mention, exceedingly dangerous.
The book doesn’t speculate as to the circumstances of Hale’s capture, but an account written by Consider Tiffany, a Connecticut shopkeeper and Loyalist, was obtained by the Library of Congress. In Tiffany's account, a British officer saw Hale in a tavern and recognized him despite a disguise. After luring Hale into betraying himself by pretending to be a Patriot himself, the officer apprehended Hale.
Another story holds that his Loyalist cousin, Samuel Hale, was the one who revealed Nathan Hale’s true identity.
Whatever the case, Hale was apprehended, questioned by Gen. Howe and convicted without a trial — spies were considered illegal enemy combatants at that time.
Hale asked for a Bible and was denied. He asked for a clergyman and was denied again.
He was hanged the morning of Sept. 22, 1776, just 10 days after his arrival and before he passed along a single piece of actionable intelligence. He was just 21. His greatest contribution to American history was not combat valor or intelligence-gathering. It was the inspirational line, reportedly uttered from the gallows: "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."
A line we’ve all heard.
America’s first famous spy died before he provided anything of actionable value. Let that sink in. Known spies are dead spies.
If Americans knew a lot about the Culper Ring exploits, it’s quite likely there would be nothing worth knowing.
It would be inaccurate to say Hale died for naught. His death gnawed at Washington and informed his subsequent decisions about spying. It reinforced the value of deep cover and familiarity with the landscape, which were to be Culper hallmarks.
3. A practice that inspired a constitutional amendment engendered deep resentments — and for good reason
I’m confident most of you sitting here are quite familiar with the contents of the First and Second amendments. By show of hands, who knows what’s in the third?
That’s the amendment to the U.S. Constitution that restricts the quartering of soldiers in private homes without the owner's consent, and forbids the practice in peacetime. The amendment is a response to Quartering Acts passed by the British parliament during the Revolution, which had allowed the British Army to lodge soldiers in private residences.
Care to guess how many times this amendment has been the primary basis of a Supreme Court decision?
Never. The answer is never.
It is one of the least-controversial of our constitutional provisions, to the point it seems almost an anachronism. But the fact is, it inspired deep resentment in Revolutionary times, and the Patriots were distrustful of troop quartering (and standing armies, for that matter.)
A list of grievances against the king in the Declaration of Independence, adopted a little more than a year later, specifically noted that George III:
erected a multitude of New Offices, and sent hither swarms of Officers to harrass our people, and eat out their substance.
kept among us, in times of peace, Standing Armies without the Consent of our legislatures.
affected to render the Military independent of and superior to the Civil power.
Parliament passed various laws, including the Mutiny Act, that forbade quartering troops without the consent of owners in 1723, 1754, and 1756. However, the British Army ignored them in the colonies. Because of this violation of their rights the colonists believed that liberty itself would be destroyed.
Opposition to such outrages was more than academic. British troops would commandeer private property, often helping themselves to their “hosts’ ” crops and goods. In some cases, the British dissembled barns to build fortifications, leaving hay to rot from exposure and wreaking havoc on agriculture.
Sometimes, British troops also helped themselves to the farmers’ daughters.
And the boorishness of British behavior was enough to overcome Townsend’s Quaker pacifism and join in the fight against the crown — very briefly as a supply master, and later as a spy.
On Nov. 19, 1778, Col. John Graves Simcoe of the Queen's Rangers and about 300 of his men were stationed in Oyster Bay, Townsend’s hometown, during the winter. Townsend was an adult living in New York by this time, but Simcoe took the Townsend family home in Oyster Bay as his headquarters, and he and his men used the home when and however they wanted. Townsend's father, Samuel, was distraught after his prized apple orchard was torn down by Simcoe's men. Adding to the insult, the Townsends were forced to swear allegiance to the King or go to prison.
Incidentally, Simcoe later became a provincial governor of Upper Canada after the Revolution and a staunch abolitionist. In fact, he did away with slavery years before it was outlawed elsewhere in the British Empire. If you Google him, that will be at the top of the search results, and you could conclude history has treated him kindly.
But to Townsend, Simcoe’s unkind treatment of his family and its property was the embodiment of the indignities suffered at the hands of quartered troops.
4. Prison ships were hell ... and one prison ship was Hell
The list of wartime atrocities committed by combatants — mostly British, but on both sides — is quite long. You don’t have to look long to locate gruesome tales of civilians burned out of their homes and fields; babies ripped from their mothers’ wombs; troops massacred while attempting to surrender.
Other examples of man’s maltreatment of man took place on the mastless British prison ships stationed in New York harbor — originally the transport vessels that brought cattle and other supplies for the British army to America. A thousand or so American prisoners could be stuffed into cargo holds. By some accounts, they were allowed to come up on deck for exercise or fresh air only for an hour or so a day; by other accounts, including the ones in this book, they weren’t allowed outdoors at all.
They were afforded no medical care. Pestilence and disease prevailed. So did filth. Prisoners had to urinate and defecate over the side. Occasionally, locals would row out to the ships and attempt to donate or sell fresh food to the prisoners. Often they were rebuffed.
As you can imagine, thousands died under these conditions. Often, the corpses remained in staid holds for days before they were removed.
Among the most notorious of these ships was the “Old Jersey,” also nicknamed “Hell.” Kilmeade and Yeager speculate that Agent 355 could have wound up here. It is clear from surviving correspondence between ring members, particularly correspondence emanating from Townsend, that something grave happened to her, although that correspondence doesn’t provide particulars. It is plausible she wound up on Hell, as there are accounts of female prisoners being held there.
Others in the ring definitely were acquainted with the horrors of prison ships.
Tallmadges’s older brother, William, enlisted about the same time as Benjamin but was captured in battle early in the war. Benjamin made repeated attempts to have provisions delivered to William in the prison ship where he was being held, but all efforts were denied. William starved to death sometime in fall of 1776, and his body was either thrown over the side of the ship or buried on shore in an unmarked grave.
5. Yes, they really had invisible ink back then
Think of the treatment of Nathan Hale or of William Tallmadge, and it’s easy to see how the Culper Ring participants would be motivated to spy. It’s also obvious why the mere prospect of being discovered was frightful.
Great pains were taken, not only to prevent such an eventuality but to recruit members to the ring in the first place. Woodhull was a particularly nervous participant, and Townsend joined only on the condition that no one in the ring, except for Woodhull, who recruited him, and a minor courier would know his identity.
Now, bear in mind, espionage was nothing new by the time of the Revolution, though it was widely perceived as less-than-gentlemanly. These folks had no formal training in the spy game, yet, Kilmeade and Yaeger say that when they interviewed CIA officials for this book, they were shocked to find that the Culper Ring’s operations were the subject of study even today.
For instance, correspondence often was passed from person to person by dead drop — leaving a report in a pre-determined location, rather than handing it off face-to-face. They also developed fairly elaborate codes for their written correspondence, with members assigned pseudonyms and those pseudonyms represented by numbers — an analog version of double encryption, one might say.
They also used invisible ink, which could be used in various ways. For instance, a single sheet of paper might contain a report and be slipped within a stack of blank sheets to avoid detection if it fell into enemy hands. Townsend used this technique frequently. They also would write messages between the lines of an otherwise innocuous letter written in regular ink — thus the popular idiom, read between the lines.
As I mentioned, Woodhull was particularly nervous about his participation, but one thing that set him at ease was a provision by Washington of an invisible ink developed by James Jay, brother of diplomat and future Supreme Court justice John Jay. This very special concoction could be revealed only by applying a revealing agent that also was formulated by Jay. So unlike other inks, which had common revealing agents, if you could discern that the ring was using “white ink,” one still could not reveal the message without this solution that almost nobody had.
6. Morton Pennypacker and his research were pivotal to our understanding of the spy ring
Frank Knox Morton Pennypacker lived from 1872 to 1956 and was a collector of Long Island historical material, as well as author of several books and articles on Long Island history, including "George Washington's Spies: The Story of the Culper Ring.”
Born in Pennsylvania, Pennypacker moved to New York City a little after the turn of the 20th century before moving to Southampton, N.Y., on Long Island. The parallel here with Kilmead is strong. Kilmeade became quite interested in the local history that Pennypacker and others unearthed after he moved to Long Island from the San Diego area.
A writer and publicist by trade, Pennypacker made a private hobby of collecting historical materials related to Long Island which eventually amounted to what is today called the Long Island Collection. It contains some 20,000 books, manuscripts, pictures, and other documents pertaining to the island’s history, housed at the East Hampton Library.
A lot of the history affected by the Culper Ring — the counterfeiting scheme, the codebook that helped the Patriots win at Yorktown, Benedict Arnold’s attempt to surrender West Point to the enemy — were known but not attributed to any single person or group until Pennypacker’s work helped connect the dots.
By the 1920s, most of the Culper Ring participants had been slowly revealed, but the principal spy still had not been identified. Then, in 1929, Pennypacker received a stack of yellowed Townsend family papers. The Townsends were prominent in Long Island history, so Pennypacker would have had an interest in them whatever the case. But when he came across a letter written by Robert Townsend, he noticed the similarity to Culper correspondence. He passed it along to a handwriting analyst and, voila — the fourth member and the one who provided most of the primary intelligence, was identified. (Remember, Rivington’s participation wasn’t confirmed until later, and Agent 355 still has not been identified.)
Without the discovery of this reserved Quaker merchant by this reserved Long Island archivist, we might never have solved the mystery of the ring that saved the American Revolution.
And were it not for these seven heroes — the six spies, plus Pennypacker — I might be standing here today attempting to regale you with stories describing how George III kept the empire intact.
I like this discussion better, and I hope you folks did, as well. Thank you.