31 March 2014


Spies in Disguise: The Feminine Side of Patriotism and Liberty

Excerpted from Moondance: Celebrating Creative Women
June, 2001

Edenton Ladies Tea Party
One of the earliest organized political efforts of the Revolutionary War were the Edenton Ladies' Tea Party, so named by a British cartoonist. These North Carolina women took the lead in the boycott of English goods, signing a formal pledge to support colonial resistance to the tea tax.

Another organization, The Ladies' Association, was the first national women's group. Organized in Philadelphia during the war by Esther de Berdt Reed, it raised money for Washington's army and was derisively known as "Washington's Sewing Circle."

Women served as soldiers, hid fugitives and shot the British to protect their families. They also performed the traditional logistical support tasks of cooking, sewing, nursing and fixing weapons. But perhaps the most under-appreciated in history were the women spies who risked all in order to promote freedom.

Spies have been needed since prehistoric times, gathering information on the strengths and weaknesses of the enemy. Women have proved adept at this art form, often taking advantage of the preconceived notions of womanhood.

A harmless Quaker woman, the British thought as they commandeered the Philadelphia house of Lydia Barrington Darragh for secret war strategy meetings on the night of 2 Dec 1777. Her gentle religion forbade her an active role in the fighting; her prowess as a nurse and midwife also pointed to her dedication to life. So it was with trepidation that she considered the information she'd gathered while listening through the keyhole. It was her faith in God that steered her as she realized more lives would be lost to silence than action. The British, led by General William Howe, planned a surprise attack on General George Washington and his men at camp in Whitemarsh, eight miles away.

Keeping her intention secret even from her husband, Lydia obtained a pass to leave the city and obtain flour at the Frankford Mill. Once safely clear of prying eyes, she veered toward Whitemarsh. Along the road, she encountered a friend, Colonel Thomas Craig. He took the information directly to General Washington as Lydia secured her flour and hurried home. The British marched during the night of December 4th but were repelled by a fully armed and waiting Continental Army. They drove the British regulars back to Philadelphia, thanks to Lydia's timely courage.

South Carolinian Emily Grieger was a mere eighteen in June 1781, when
 she heard that the American General Greene needed a courageous messenger to ride through British lines. The British commander, Lord Rawdon, was in pursuit of his regiment. Two other American regiments, under the command of Generals Sumter and Marion, planned to join Greene and attack Rawdon, but they were unaware of the unexpected movement of the British forces.

When no man stepped forward for the task, Emily volunteered to ride from Broad River to the Watersee River, even though the distance was long and the danger great. Riding sidesaddle, her long skirt billowing in the breeze, she counted on her horse, which was strong and swift. She forded the Congaree River by the second day. Soon after, on the edge of a dried-up swamp, a small party of British scouts took her prisoner. A young girl on a dismal road, she was immediately suspected of spying for the Americans. Not far away was a deserted cabin where the soldiers questioned her. She revealed nothing, but they weren't satisfied. Emily gambled on a risky plan, challenging them to bring a woman to search her. They locked her in and posted a guard before leaving. Emily promptly memorized and ate the written dispatch she was carrying. When the matron arrived, she found nothing, and the British were forced to release her. At once, Emily mounted her horse and galloped off toward her original destination.

Although she made quick progress, her ride was again interrupted by arrest. Late in the afternoon, a group of Tories stopped her, took her to a farmhouse and confined her in a room by herself. The Tories were as bloodthirsty as the British soldiers were and known to have killed many a patriot. Emily quietly fretted while the sun set and the moon rose bright, illuminating the landscape. Waiting till midnight, when all others were asleep, Emily pried open the window and slipped out. The moonlight was all she needed to find a bridle and her horse, mingling with a herd of others. She mounted bareback and escaped into the night.

By dawn she had arrived at the house of a known patriot. He provided her with breakfast, a fresh horse and a guide. The guide led her to a shorter, safer route, then returned home. Emily urged her sweaty horse on. By early afternoon, she located a few of General Sumter's soldiers. So tired she could hardly speak, she nevertheless convinced them of the urgency of the message from General Greene. They took her directly to Sumter, where she was able to repeat the contents of the letter word for word. Sumter sent a fresh courier on to warn Marion, then joined Greene at Greenberg via an alternative route.

Kate Moore Barry
Another teenager, sixteen-year-old Betsy Dowdy garnered information that enabled the Americans to defeat Dunmore and seize Norfolk, Virginia. Other South Carolinian messengers who risked their lives included Kate Moore Barry, Jane Thomas and Dicey Langston. Deborah Champion rode from Connecticut to Boston to deliver her message. In 1777, Sybil Ludington, from New York, rode by night to warn the American militia.

The towns and countryside of the thirteen colonies have changed drastically in the two centuries since these women braved war and death in the cause of freedom, yet their courage lingers, inspiring others to fight on against overwhelming odds.

25 March 2014

Agent "355" & the Culper Ring

Many intelligence historians consider her one of this country’s first female undercover operations officers. Still others refer to her as the “hidden daughter of the American Revolution.” While defending against British transgressions in and around New York, George Washington came to rely heavily on the information she supplied him. But even today, she is known only by the designation “355”, the code-number for "lady" in an encryption system used by the famous Culper Ring.

It was to the Culper Ring that “355” reported, having been selected for the silent service by Abraham Woodhull, chief of the clandestine group. A Long Island farmer, Woodhull’s nom de espionage was Samuel Culper, Sr. His principal agent was a Quaker dry goods merchant named Robert Townsend, who was known as Samual Culper, Jr. This fictitious father-son arrangement formed the basis of the highly effective Culper network.

Utilizing a variety of trade craft, including a type of invisible ink developed by the brother of future Chief Justice John Jay, the Culper Ring provided timely and accurate intelligence to American military leaders, most notably General Washington.

Routes Taken by the Culper Ring
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 Townsend 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. Indeed, her days were numbered thanks, so the historical reflection goes, to the traitor Benedict Arnold, who gave her up once he had defected to Great Britain following the arrest of André.

Benedict Arnold
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. (See note.)

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.”

This biography is excerpted and from the NWHM exhibition Clandestine Women: The Untold Stories of Women in Espionage, Curated by espionage historian Linda McCarthy (2002). She is the author of Spies, Pop Flies, and French Fries: Stories I Told My Favorite Visitors to the CIA Exhibit Center.

NOTE: Most academics debunk this story as mere legend however, Robert Townsend, Jr., a "son" of James Townsend (brother of Robert Sr.) became a lawyer and went into politics. One of his pet projects was the Prison Ship Martyrs Memorial Fund which eventually became the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument at fort Green Park in New York. This monument, which is nearly 150 feet tall, commemorates the men and women who lost their lives aboard these horrible prison ships. Which begs the question: Could Robert Townsend have asked his brother to raise a bastard son, to give him a chance at a respectable life? 

24 March 2014

Miss Jenny (ca. 1760-)

"Miss Jenny", a French-speaking woman whose real-life identity was never confirmed, infiltrated the French troops who were fighting on the American side and reported the movements of French and American troops to the British headquarters in New York. She was reportedly in her late teens or early twenties in 1781.

At that time, she reported to the British that the French and Americans were planning an attack on the city of New York. She was on her way to report to the British base in New York she was taken hostage by the French General Marquis De Lafayette. There she was beaten and raped while they tried to wrench her story out. When they could not extract the truth, she was sent to General George Washington. Upon arrival at his camp she was questioned mercilessly. Through all of this she did not change her story or let out any secrets. She claimed that she was looking for her French-Canadian father who had left for war five years before. During her abuse she stuck to her story and would not back down.

Thoroughly frustrated, Washington sent her back to the French. Back at the French camp she was released, but only after they humiliated her by cutting off her hair, which was a big deal in that time. When she arrived back in New York and reported all that she saw, she was rewarded and was let go.

This was her last mission. Miss Jenny was never seen or heard from ever again. She simply disappeared.

Disposition of Miss Jenny after returning from the French camp. 

Page 1
Miss Jenny left here on Thursday the 9th of this month. In the evening, she slept in Kingsbridge and spent 3 to 4 hours in the morning traveling, having walked almost 3 miles. Our refugees came upon her, stopped her, and brought her back to Kindsbridge to Colonel Warn(er) who sent her back from this encounter with a passport. Having followed the main road, keeping always to the right, she came across a cavalry officer coming from the woods whom she asked, "Monsier, would you show me the French camp?" He answered her, "Why are you French?" "Yes, Monsieur," (she replied). "Come with me; I'll take you there," (he said). The officer led her to the outermost guard post of the camp after having proposed an amorous liaison to her, even desiring to force her, which she did not wish under these circumstances. When she arrived at the main guard post of the camp, the Captain asked her whom she sought. She answered that she came from the direction of York, having learned that her father was there (at the camp), and that she will be delighted to come and see him; (she said) that she was a seamstress and that her mother was a good wife, and that they found out that their father returned from France with the troops, seeing that it was six years since he went to France from Canada. The Captain of the post sent her to Monsieur de Rochambeau at general headquarters and Monsieur l(e) V(ice) C(onsul) de Laval had orders to question her since he (de Rochambeau) was not able to get anything from her, and he asked her several times whether she knew Hend and that surely he would have promised her money for coming to spy. She told him that she did not know what he meant. At this, she was sent to Monsieur de Rochambeau who asked several questions and in the end said, "Madame, I am sending you to General Wa(s)hi(ng)t(on)," which he did. Having arrived there, she was interrogated by Monsieur Smidt and Monsieur Cooper. Finding nothing against her, they held her for two days, and she was sent back to the French camp.

Page 2
While Monsieur Smidt and Cooper questioned her, she was asked several time whether she knew me, (was told) that I was responsible for the desertion of the French and that I would be the first one hanged if York were ever taken. After all that, she was sent back (to the French camp). Upon arrival at the French camp, she was handed over to the Provost; nevertheless, she was treated well enough. The Chief Provost questioned her several times over the course of two days, and insisted that she must know me, using guile and intimidation to make her talk. Seeing that nothing was able to be got from her, the order arrived late in the evening on Tuesday the 14th for her to depart on Wednesday at daybreak, and beforehand, to have her hair cut in such a fashion that what was done be acknowledged yet again; then (for her) to be set on a horse with neither bonnet nor hair covering, sitting on a cloak between two soldiers and (for her) to be led in this manner outside of the lines with the order not to return unless she wants to run the risk of being severely punished. She says that everything is ready with them for advancing and that the general opinion is that he (Washington) wants to come and attack in two places as soon as their fleet arrives. She saw your Jagers arrive yesterday, around 4 or 5. They were not retained; they were sent immediately to Philadelphia. When these Jagers arrived at Washington's quarters, he had them given something to drink and eat, informing them that soon all of your people will come, and that in a short while he will be in York.

The Chief Provost told her that if she wished to confess that it is Hend who sent her, that he would give her 12 twenty-franc pieces, and if she wished to dissemble, that he wants to send to her mother to see if she speaks the truth. All that did not make her change her story. She persisted (in saying) that she does not know me.

Page 3
Monsieur Major, Miss Jenny has just arrived this moment. I will have her stay here until evening, and I will ask you, if your business allows you, to stop by for a little while. You can be sure that no one will know you, and you will be perhaps very delighted to hear from her lips the agreeable statement which she has just made. She will not know who you are.

Awaiting your reply I beg to be respectfully,

B. Ottendorf
15 August 1781

23 March 2014

Ann Bates (1748-1801)

Mrs. Barnes

Ann Bates was a loyalist American school teacher from Philadelphia who acted as an agent for British forces. She and her husband, a field artillery repairman for the British army, accompanied the British when they departed Philadelphia for New York City in 1778. In New York, she was asked by Major John Andre' to spy on American forces in New York and report her findings to General Henry Clinton.

She traveled a number of times disguised as a peddler into the American camp at White Plains, NY. Soldiers at the encampment allowed her to move about freely to sell her wares, as most military camps were populated by female peddlers. Because of her husband's artillery repair background, she readily identified the types of guns, cannons, ammunition and soldiers, and accurately relayed this information to General Clinton. On one occasion, she infiltrated General George Washington's headquarters, and overhear military intelligence discussions concerning troop movements and future maneuvers.

Ann typically would spend a week in the military camps, gathering any information she could. Then traveling by way of a series of Loyalist safe houses, she made her way back to New York to report to General Clinton. These cunning expeditions into the American camps ultimately led Britain to send reinforcements to Rhode Island, forcing the Americans from Newport and allowing Britain to maintain control of the coastal state.

In 1780, Ann journeyed with her husband and British troops to Charleston, SC. Her missions ended there. They secured permission to travel to England in March 1781. Later, abandoned by her husband, she appealed to the government and received a pension for her successful espionage work in the United States.

21 March 2014

Lydia Barrington Darragh (1728-1790)

Lydia Barrington, daughter of John Barrington and his wife, was born in 1729 in Dublin, Ireland. She died on 28 Dec 1789 in Philadelphia, PA.

On 2 Nov 1753 she married the family tutor, William Darragh, with whom she had five children who survived: Charles, Ann, John, William and Susannah.

None Known

On 26 Sep 1777, British troops occupied Philadelphia. General William Howe moved across the street from the Darraghs, in a house formerly belonging to John Cadwalader. Lydia began regularly providing her son Charles with information regarding the enemy's plans, gathered by eavesdropping in her home and around town. She would often write this information in simple code on pieces of scrap paper, which she hid in large buttons that she and the messengers wore.

The following day, Major John Andre, aide to General Howe, requested use of the Darraghs' home for Howe's staff. Lydia told them that they had already sent away their two youngest children to live with relatives in another city, but that they had nowhere else to go and would like to stay in their home. She protested and went straight to Howe's residence (Cadwalader House) across the street from her home (Loxley House). 

Prior to her meeting Howe, a British officer introduced himself as Captain William Barrington of the 7th Regiment of Foot (Royal Fusiliers). She was immediately taken aback by his Irish brogue and his name Barrington, which was her maiden name. He told her that he was from Dublin and in the course of the conversation, she discovered that he was her second cousin. She explained to her the situation and he stated that he would take up her case with Howe immediately. They both walked into the residence and were taken in to see Howe who agreed to let her stay but that he and his staff would use the large house parlor for staff meetings. As Quakers were known to be unsupportive of the war, even on the side of the colonies, they posed no apparent risk to the British army.

On December 2, Lydia received a request that she and her family retire by 8:00 p.m. She was told that she would be awakened when the soldiers were finished so she could let them out. Lydia pretended to go to sleep, but instead listened to the soldiers through the door. She learned that British troops were being ordered to leave the city on December 4 to make a surprise attack on the Continental army camped at Whitemarsh, led by George Washington. Lydia sneaked back to bed and pretended to be asleep until the officer, Major John André, knocked three times at her door to awaken her to follow them out and extinguish the candles.

Lydia decided not to share this information with her husband. The following morning she was given permission by General Howe to cross British lines in order to go to Frankford to get flour. Lydia dropped off her empty bag at the mill and then headed toward the American camp. Along the way she met an American officer, Colonel Craig of the Light Horse, and told him about the impending British attack so that he might warn Washington. After the warning, Lydia made her way back to the mill, picked up her flour and started her journey home. 

British Intelligence agents became aware of the "bag of flour" trick bit too late. On 6 Dec 1777, after the British returned from Whitemarsh, a message was published in the Philadelphia newspaper about "a poor woman, whom we both know" traveling to the Frankford Mill:

The following letter was found in a bag of Indian meal, which was picked up on Saturday the fourteenth of last month, was supposed to have been dropped by some of the women who were coming into town, when the skirmish happened between the pickets.

After the British troops attempted their attack and realized that the Americans were waiting for them, the officer questioned Lydia and asked if anyone was awake on the night of the meeting, because it was obvious that someone had betrayed them. Lydia denied any knowledge of this and was not further questioned.

Elias Boudinot's Journal Entry

In the Autumn of 1777 the American Army lay some time at White Marsh. I was then Commissary Genl of Prisoners, and managed the Intelligence of the Army. — I was reconoitering along the Lines near the City of Philadelphia. — I dined at a small Post at the rising Sun abt three miles from the City. — After Dinner a little poor looking insignificant Old Woman came in & solicited leave to go into the Country to buy some flour — While we were asking some Questions, she walked up to me and put into my hands a dirty old needlebook, with various small pockets in it. surprised at this, I told her to return, she should have an answer — On Opening the needlebook, I could not find any thing till I got to the last Pocket, Where I found a piece of Paper rolled up into the form of a Pipe Shank. — on unrolling it I found information that Genl Howe was coming out the next morning with 5000 Men — 13 pieces of Cannon — Baggage Waggons, and 11 Boats on Waggon Wheels. On comparing this with other information I found it true, and immediately rode Post to head Quarters.

A contemporary account of Lydia Darrah highlights several grist mills on the Frankford Creek; also a tavern named the Rising Sun next to Frankford's main grist mill. This was not the same Rising Sun Tavern mentioned in Boudinot's Journal.

18 March 2014

Sarah Bradlee Fulton (1740-1835)

Sarah Bradlee, daughter of Samuel Bradlee and Mary Andrews, was born on 24 Dec 1740 in Dorchester (now part of Boston), MA. In 1762 she married John Fulton and moved to Medford, MA 
where she died 9 Nov 1835.

John and Sarah Fulton had three children: Ann W., Mary and Elizabeth Scott.

Mother of the Boston Tea Party

In addition to being a prominent member and leader of the Daughters of Liberty, Sarah is often referred to as the “Mother of the Boston Tea Party.” She is credited with the idea of disguising the men as Mohawk Indians, painting their faces and donning Native American clothing. She also anxiously awaited the men’s return to her home to dispose of their disguises and remove the stained red paint from their faces in order to conceal their identities.

This was not the end of her involvement in the war effort. Two years later, after the Battle of Bunker Hill (17 Jun 1775), Sarah voluntarily rallied women to nurse and tend to wounded soldiers. She came to an open space by Wade’s Tavern between the bridge and South Street armed with baskets full of lint, bandages and other basic medicinal remedies of that time to act as surgeon to the injured men. 

In March of 1776 Major John Brooks of Medford needed an urgent message to be delivered to General George Washington. He called upon the Fulton family for aid. Sarah volunteered to carry the message alone through the enemy lines of the Charleston waterfront; she did so successfully and later returned home. Washington later visited the Fultons to thank Sarah for the dangerous mission she undertook. 

As the British laid siege to Boston, the Fultons used their own ships as protection and often rowed across the river to seek fuel and wood in Medford. Aware of what a shipment of wood meant for the American troops at Cambridge, Sarah sent her husband to buy the wood, hoping that the laws regarding personal property would be respected. But this was not so: The British confiscated the wood from Mr. Fulton. Sarah pursued the British until she reached them, reportedly grabbing the oxen by the horns, turning them around and leading them away even as the British prepared to shoot her. She simply told them to “shoot away” and the British, so astonished by her defiance, surrendered the wood to her without resistance.

17 March 2014

Nancy Morgan Hart (1735-1830)

Nancy Morgan was born in North Carolina sometime around 1735. She is said to be related to pioneer Daniel Boone and Revolutionary War General Daniel Morgan.

Her physical appearance was both dramatic and imposing: She had red hair and freckles, was six foot tall and cross-eyed with scars of small pox evident on her face. She was a hard swearer and a sharpshooter who could handle a rifle as well as any man.

When Nancy married Benjamin Hart, the couple migrated first to South Carolina and then to the Georgia back country where they settled along the banks of the Broad River in Wilkes County in 1771. A mother of eight children, Nancy's knowledge of frontier medicine made her a sought-after midwife.

None Known

In the years of the Revolutionary War, most women and children were relocated for their safety. Nancy, however, chose to remain with her husband. But for most of the conflict, she was left alone to fend for herself and her children while her husband served as a lieutenant in the George militia under Elijah Clarke. Nonetheless, she was a devout patriot who gained notoriety during the revolution for her determined efforts to rid the area of Tories, English soldiers and British sympathizers. 

Her single-handed efforts against Tories and Indians in the Broad River frontier, as well as her activities as a patriot spy, have become the stuff of myth, legend and local folklore. Disguised as a simple-minded man, she wandered into Tory camps and British garrisons to gather information which she subsequently passed along to patriot authorities. According to some accounts, she was also an active participant at the Battle of Kettle Creek on 14 Feb 1779.

After the Revolution, the Harts moved to Brunswick, where Benjamin died. Nancy then moved to Clark County, GA, and finally to Henderson County, KY where she died in 1830.

Nancy Morgan Hart (continued)

The following, from Mrs. Ellet's Women of the Revolution, will be read with interest:

In this county is a stream, formerly known as "War-woman's Creek." Its name was derived from the character of an individual who lived near the entrance of the stream into the river. This person was Nancy Hart, a woman ignorant of letters and the civilities of life, but a zealous lover of liberty and the "liberty boys," as she called the Whigs.

She had a husband, whom she denominated "a poor stick," because he did not take a decided and active part with the defenders of his country, although she could not conscientiously charge him with the least partiality towards the Tories. This vulgar and illiterate, but hospitable and valorous female patriot, could boast no share of beauty ... a fact she herself would have readily acknowledged, had she ever enjoyed an opportunity of looking in a mirror. She was cross-eyed, with a broad, angular mouth, ungainly in figure, rude in speech and awkward in manners, but having a woman's heart for her friends, though that of a Catrine Montour for the enemies of her country. She was well known to the Tories, who stood in fear of her revenge for any grievance or aggressive act, though they let pass no opportunity of worrying and annoying her, when they could do so with impunity.

On the occasion of an excursion from the British camp at Augusta, a party of Tories penetrated into the interior, and having savagely murdered Colonel Dooly in bed, in his own house, they proceeded up the country for the purpose of perpetrating further atrocities. On their way, a detachment of five of the party diverged to the east, and crossed Broad River, to make discoveries about the neighborhood, and pay a visit to their old acquaintance, Nancy Hart. 

On reaching her cabin, they entered it unceremoniously, receiving from her no welcome but a scowl; and informed her they had come to know the truth of a story current respecting her, that she had secreted a noted rebel from a company of King's men who were pursuing him, and who, but for her aid, would have caught and hung him. 

Nancy undauntedly avowed her agency in the fugitive's escape. She told them she had at first heard the tramp of a horse rapidly approaching, and had then seen a horseman coming towards her cabin. As he came nearer, she knew him to be a Whig, and flying from pursuit. She let down the bars a few steps from her cabin, and motioned him to enter, to pass through both doors, front and rear, of her single-roomed house; to take the swamp, and secure himself as well as e could. She then put up the bars, entered her cabin, closed the doors, and went about her business. 

Presently some Tories rode up to the bars, and called out boisterously to her. She muffled her head and face, and opening the door, inquired why they disturbed a sick, lone woman. They said they had traced a man they wanted to catch, near her house, and asked if any one on horseback had passed that way. She answered no, but said she saw somebody on a sorrel horse turn out of the path into the woods some two or three hundred yards back. "That must be the fellow," said the Tories; and asking her direction as to the way he took, they turned about and went off. 

"Well fooled!" said Nancy, "in an opposite course to that of my Whig boy; when, if they had not been so lofty-minded, but had looked on the ground inside the bars, they would have seen his horse's tracks up to that door, as plain as you can see the tracks on this here floor, and out of t'other door down the path to the swamp."

This bold story did not much please the Tory party, but they could not wreak their revenge upon the woman who thus unscrupulously avowed her daring aid to a rebel, and the cheat she had put upon his pursuers, otherwise than by ordering her to aid and comfort them by giving them something to eat. She replied, "I never feed King's men if I can help it; the villains have put it out of my power to feed even my own family and friends, by stealing and killing all my poultry and pigs, except that one old gobbler you see in the yard."

"Well, and that you shall cook for us," said one, who appeared the head of the party; and raising his musket, he shot down the turkey, which another of the men brought into the house, and handed to Mrs. Hart, to clean and cook without delay. She stormed and swore awhile ... for Nancy occasionally swore ... but seeming, at last, resolved to make a merit of necessity, began with alacrity the arrangements for cooking, assisted by her daughter, a little girl some ten or twelve years old, and sometimes by one of the soldiers, with whom she seemed in a tolerably good humour, exchanging rude jests with him. The Tories, pleased with her freedom, invited her to partake of the liquor they had brought with them, an invitation which was accepted with witty thanks.

The spring, of which every settlement has one near at hand, was just at the edge of the swamp, and a short distance within it was a high, snag-topped stump, on which was placed a conch-shell. This rude trumpet was used by the family to give information, by means of a variation of notes, to Mr. Hart, or his neighbors, who might be at work in a field or clearing just beyond the swamp, that the "Britishers" or Tories were about; that the master was wanted at the cabin, or that he was to "keep close," or "make tracks" for another swamp.

Pending the operations of cooking, Mrs. Hart had sent her daughter, Sukey, to the spring for water, with directions to blow the conch in such a way as would inform him that there were Tories in the cabin, and that he should "keep close," with his three neighbors who were with him, till he heard the conch again.

The party had become merry over their jug, and sat down to feast upon the slaughtered gobbler. They had cautiously stacked their arms where they were in view, and within reach, and Mrs. Hart, assiduous in her attentions upon the table, and to her guests, occasionally passed between them and their muskets. Water was called for, and as there was none in the cabin ... Mrs. Hart having so contrived that ... Sukey was again sent to the spring, instructed by her mother to blow the conch so as to call up Mr. Hart and his neighbours immediately. 

Meanwhile, Mrs. Hart had slipped out one of the pieces of pine which constitutes a "chinking" between the logs of a cabin, and had dexterously put out of the house, through that space, two of the five guns. She was detected in the act of putting out the third. The party sprang to their feet. Quick as thought, Mrs. Hart brought the piece she held to her shoulder, and declared she would kill the first man who approached her. All were terror-struck, for Nancy's obliquity of sight caused each one to imagine her aim was at him.

At length one of them made a motion to advance upon her. True to her threat, she fired. He fell dead upon the floor! Instantly seizing another musket, she brought it to the position in readiness to fire again. 

By this time Sukey had returned from the spring, and taking up the remaining gun, carried it out of the house, saying to her mother, "Daddy and them will soon be here." This information increased the alarm of the Tories, who understood the necessity of recovering their arms immediately. But each hesitated, in the confident belief that Mrs. Hart had one eye, at least, upon him for a mark. They proposed a general rush. No time was to be lost by the bold woman; she fired again, and brought down another Tory. 

Sukey had another musket in readiness, which her mother took, and, posting herself in the doorway, called upon the party to "surrender their damnd Tory carcasses to a Whig woman." They agreed to surrender, and proposed to "shake hands upon the strength of it"; but the conqueror kept them in their places for a few moments, till her husband and his neighbors came up to the door. 

They were about to shoot down the Tories, but Mrs. Hart stopped them, saying they had surrendered to her, and, her spirit being up to boiling heat, she swore that "shooting was too good for them." This hint was enough. The dead man was dragged out of the house, the wounded Tory and the others were bound, taken out beyond the bars, and hung.

The tree upon which they were hung was pointed out, in 1838, by one who lived in those bloody times, and who also showed the spot once occupied by Mrs. Hart's cabin, accompanying the designation with the emphatic remark, "Poor Nancy ... she was a honey of a patriot, but the devil of a wife!"

06 March 2014

Anna Smith Strong (1740-1812)

Anna Smith, daughter of Col. William Smith and Margaret Lloyd, was descended from colonial elites and closely related to other Culper Ring members. Described in an 1839 book by Benjamin Thompson as "a lady of much amiability and worth," she was born on 14 Apr 1740 in New York and died on 12 Aug 1812 in Setauket, NY.

In 1760 she married Judge Selah Strong with whom she had ten children: Keturah, James Woodhull, Thomas, Margaret, Benjamin, Mary, William Smith, Joseph, George Washington and Joseph.

None Known

In 1778 Judge Strong was arrested and confined on the British prison ship Jersey in New York harbor for "surreptitious correspondence with the enemy." The conditions on those ships were terrible, and she finally got permission to bring him food, which evidently saved his life. Anna's wealthy Tory relatives (British supporters) helped her bribe British officials to parole her husband to Connecticut, where he stayed for the remainder of the war, taking their children with him.

Therefore, Anna was alone on Strong's Neck in Setauket, LI, throughout the rest of the war. She stayed behind to take care of the family home because empty homes were subject to greater destruction and abuse. Many women did this during the Revolution because they were seen as non-combatants. Woodhull needed his neighbor Anna Smith Strong to advise him of Caleb Brewster's location.

Caleb Brewster came periodically across the Devil's Belt (Long Island Sound) to deliver or retrieve the Spy Ring's messages. Brewster, one of the most daring of the group, was also the only member whom the British had definitely identified as a spy. Brewster and his crew rowed his whaleboat across the Long Island Sound to and from Connecticut. They were in constant danger because there were British frigates constantly patrolling the Sound, so he hid his boat in the willows of the bay.

Anna Smith Strong's assignment in the Culper Ring was to signal Brewster's arrival to Abraham Woodhull. She did this by hanging laundry on her clothesline in pre-arranged configurations, a system that fooled all by the wisdom of its simplicity. If she hung up a black petticoat, it meant that Brewster was in town.

By counting the number of white handkerchiefs scattered through her wash, Woodhull knew in which of six coves Brewster hid his boat. Under cover of darkness, Woodhull then rendezvoused with Brewster and passed along the secret messages. Brewster and his men then crossed Long Island Sound to Connecticut and passed the information to Tallmadge who passed it on to Washington's headquarters in Westchester County, NY.

Strong is not referred to in the dispatches, although there are several references to her property and the British movements around her home. Later, when British officers occupied the Manor House, she lived in a small cottage across the Bay from Woodhull's farm to keep an eye on the farm and main house. 

On 4 Feb 1781, the double agent (or simple self-dealing mercenary)) William Heron told British intelligence chief Maj. Oliver De Lancey of the 17th Light Dragoons that private dispatches were being sent from New York City by some traitors to Seutaken "where a certain Brewster received them near a certain woman's (home)." Since the British were never able to catch Brewster and get him to disclose the woman's name, Anna's identity remained secret.

After the war, Anna and Selah were reunited, and had their last child, George Washington Strong. Their home survived the war safely, and the Strong Family remained there. Anna is buried in the graveyard on Strong's Neck. The house is no longer standing, but around 1845 a new house was built on the same site as the family home that the British occupied during the war. 

05 March 2014


Found at www.spycurious.wordpress.com.

Spycraft: The Cardan Grille System

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.
TURN01 - spycraft_4 

TURN copper grille

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.
TURN01 - spycraft_1The 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.

The Cardan Grille is one of several 18th century methods of spycraft referenced in the TURN opening credits.
The Cardan Grille system is one of several 18th century methods of spycraft referenced in the TURN opening credits.

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.)

Another example of the Cardan Grille system. (Click to enlarge. Source: Wikimedia Commons.)
Another example of the Cardan Grille system. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

06 February 2014

Laura Ingersoll Secord

Laura Ingersoll, daughter of Thomas Ingersoll and Elizabeth Dewey, was born on 13 Sep 1775 in Great Barrington, Province of Massachusetts Bay. She died on 17 Oct 1868 in the Village of Chippawa, Ontario, Canada.

Shortly after her father moved the family to the Niagara region of Upper Canada, Laura married Loyalist James Secord, who was later seriously wounded at the Battle of Queenston Heights early in the War of 1812. They had seven children: Mary, Charlotte, Harriet, Charles, Appolonia, Laura Anne and Hannah.

None Known

On the evening of 21 Jun 1813, Laura learned of plans for a surprise American attack on British troops led by Lieutenant James FitzGibbon at Beaver Dams, which would have furthered American control in the Niagara Peninsula. It is unclear how she became aware of these plans, but according to tradition she overheard a conversation amongst the billeted Americans as they ate dinner. As her husband was still recovering from his October injuries, Laura set out herself early the next morning to warn the Lieutenant. She reportedly walked 20 miles (32 km) from present-day Queenston through St. Davids, Homer, Shipman's Corners and Short Hills at the Niagara Escarpment before she arrived at the camp of allied Mohawk warriors who led her the rest of the way to FitzGibbon's headquarters at the DeCew House. A small British force and a larger contingent of Mohawk warriors were then readied for the American attack. Most of the American forces were casualties or taken prisoner in the Battle of Beaver Dams on 24 June. No mention of Secord was made in reports that immediately followed the battle.

Over the years, the Secords unsuccessfully petitioned the government for some kind of acknowledgement. In 1860, when Secord was 85, the Prince of Wales, who later became King Edward VII, heard of her story while travelling in Canada. At Chippawa, near Niagara Falls, he was made aware of Laura Secord's plight as an aging widow and sent an award of £100. It was the only official recognition that she received during her lifetime.

Statue of Laura
Valiants Memorial
Ottawa, Canada
Laura Secord died in 1868 at the age of 93. She was interred next to her husband in the Drummond Hill Cemetery in Niagara Falls. Her grave is marked by a monument with a bust on top, and is close to a monument marking the Battle of Lundy's Lane. The inscription on her grave marker reads:

To perpetuate the name and fame of Laura Secord, who walked alone nearly 20 miles by a circuitous difficult and perilous route, through woods and swamps and over miry roads to warn a British outpost at DeCew's Falls of an intended attack and thereby enabled Lt. FitzGibbon on 24 June 1813, with fewer than 50 men of the H.M. 49th Regt., about 15 militiamen and a small force of Six Nations and other Indians under Capt. William Johnson Kerr and Dominique Ducharme to surprise and attack the enemy at Beechwoods (or Beaver Dams) and after a short engagement, to capture Col. Bosler of the U.S. Army and his entire force of 542 men with two field pieces.

31 January 2014

CIVIL WAR (1861-1865)

The Civil War was the first war where spying was used on a large scale and became an art. It is an interesting fact that the brightest and the best were young females. There were male spies, but none of them were as successful as the female spies. Three of the very best spies were Rose O'Neal Greenhow, Emma Edmonds and Bell Boyd. These ladies helped their side get information about the other sides' war tactics. 

Spying during the Civil War lead to what is now known as tactical espionage.

It's tempting to think that spy gadgets aren't all that old, but even Caesar encoded messages using cryptography. This disk dates back to the Civil War, when it was used by the Confederate side. CSA stands for Confederate States of America.

It's pretty obvious how the device works: rotate the inner wheel to displace the letters. M = G, P = J, etc. Simple to crack, right? Not if the message is written in a language you don't know. Spies were tricky like that.

Unknown Photo of Women in the Civil War
Both the Union and Confederate armies forbade the enlistment of women. Women soldiers of the Civil War therefore assumed masculine names, disguised themselves as men and hid the fact that they were female. Because they passed as men, it's impossible to know with any certainty how many women soldiers served in the Civil War. Estimates place as many as 250 women in the ranks of the Confederate army. Visit www.civilwarsoldierwomen.blogspot.com to learn more about these amazing women!


23 January 2014

Mary Elizabeth Bowser (c. 1839-)

Mary Elizabeth was born c. 1839 in Richmond, VA as a slave to John Van Lew, a wealthy hardware merchant. Upon his death in 1843, his wife, son and daughter freed his slaves. They also bought everyone in the slave's family in order to set them free as well.

Like most former slaves, Mary remained a free woman and servant in the Van Lew household. She stayed with the family until late 1850s. The matriarch of the family, Elizabeth Van Lew, became increasingly aware that Mary Elizabeth had exceptional intelligence. Being a staunch abolitionist and Quaker, she sent Mary to the Quaker School for Negroes in Philadelphia to be educated.

Mary Elizabeth returned from Philadelphia after graduating so that she could marry Wilson Bowser, a free black man. The ceremony was held on 16 Apr 1861, just four days after Confederate troops opened fire on Fort Sumter. There is no record of any children.

Crazy Bet
Ellen Bond
Mary Jane Richards
Mary Jones

Elizabeth Van Lew
Elizabeth Van Lew was the tool used to integrate Mary Elizabeth into the espionage business. Van Lew had strong ties to the Union and used this to her advantage. She would use an alter-personae which was always distracted and muttered when she spoke in order for people to think she was unbalanced and therefore not someone to take seriously. She was given the nickname "Crazy Bet". Van Lew was instrumental in establishing a spy system in the Confederate capital. She would regularly visit the Libby Prison with food and medicine, and helped escapees of all kinds, hiding them in a secret room in her mansion. However her biggest accomplishment in espionage was utilizing Mary Elizabeth .
Because of Mary Elizabeth's intelligence and photographic memory, Van Lew decided to make her a spy to infiltrate the confederacy. In order to get access to top-secret information, Mary Elizabeth became "Ellen Bond", a slow-thinking, but able, servant. Van Lew, through the help of friends of the Union, was able to have "Ellen Bond" work at functions held by Varina Davis, the wife of the Confederate President, Jefferson Davis. She was eventually hired full-time and worked in the Davis household until just before the end of the war. At the Davis house she worked as a servant, cleaning and serving meals. Because of the racism that existed then, the slaves were trained to act and seem invisible. Usually not noticed at all. Mary Elizabeth was able to get incredible amounts of information simply by doing her work. The assumption was that slaves could not read or write, nor understand the complex political conversations being held. However, due to her education and keen perception, Mary Elizabeth was able to read and remember any papers that were left around in Jefferson Davis' study and report the information to the other spies. She would also spy on conversations and relay back to Van Lew all that was going on in Davis' house.
Jefferson Davis
There was another spy that Mary Elizabeth would work in coalition with, named Thomas McNiven. He was a baker in Richmond and would make deliveries to the Davis household. She would relay the information to McNiven who had a team of people come in and out of his bakery to dispatch the related information. According to McNiven, she was the source of the most crucial information because as he wrote in his journal, "she was working right in the Davis home and had a photographic mind. Everything she saw on the Rebel President's desk, she could repeat word for word. Unlike most colored, she could read and write. She made a point of always coming out to my wagon when I made deliveries at the Davis home to drop information."

Jefferson Davis had become aware that there was a leak in his house, but for a while he did not realize it was Mary Elizabeth. Thomas McNiven was found out to be a spy and soon suspicion fell on her. She chose to flee in January 1865, but she did not go quietly. Her last act as a spy was an attempt to burn down the Confederate White House. She was not successful. After the war ended, the federal government destroyed any records of evidence of espionage in order to protect those involved, including those of McNiven and Mary Elizabeth. Therefore, the extent of information gathered by Mary Elizabeth is unknown. A significant amount made its way to General Ulysses S. Grant and influenced his decisions from 1863-1864.

Belle Boyd (1844-1900)

Isabella "Belle" Marie Boyd, daughter of Benjamin Reed Boyd and Mary Rebecca Glenn, was born on 4 May 1844 in Martinsburg, VA. She died on 11 Jun 1900 in Wisconsin Dells, WI.

Despite her family's lack of money, Belle received a good education. Her influence of becoming a spy was by her family: Her father was a confederate soldier and the rest of the members were Confederate spies.

Cleopatra of the Secession

Belle Boyd's espionage career began by chance. According to her 1866 account, on 4 Jul 1861, a band of Union army soldiers heard she had Confederate flags in her room, and they came to investigate. They hung a Union flag outside her home. This made her angry enough, but when one of them cursed at her mother, she was enraged. Belle pulled out a pistol and shot and killed the man. 

A board of inquiry exonerated her, but sentries were posted around the house and officers kept close track of her activities. She profited from this enforced familiarity, charming at least one of the officers, Captain Daniel Keily, into revealing military secrets. "To him," she wrote later, "I am indebted for some very remarkable effusions, some withered flowers, and a great deal of important information." Belle conveyed those secrets to Confederate officers via her slave, Eliza Hopewell, who carried the messages in a hollowed-out watch case. On her first attempt at spying she was caught and told she could be sentenced to death, but was not. She was not scared and realized she needed to find a better way to communicate.

One evening in mid-May 1862, Union General James Shields and his staff gathered in the parlor of the local hotel. Belle hid in the closet in the room, eavesdropping through a knothole she enlarged in the door. She learned that Shields had been ordered east from Front Royal, Virginia, a move that would reduce the Union Army's strength at Front Royal. That night, Belle rode through Union lines, using false papers to bluff her way past the sentries, and reported the news to Col. Turner Ashby, who was scouting for the Confederates. She then returned to town. 

When the Confederates advanced on Front Royal on 23 May Belle ran to greet General Stonewall Jackson's men, braving enemy fire that put bullet holes in her skirt. She urged an officer to inform Jackson that "the Yankee force is very small. Tell him to charge right down and he will catch them all." Jackson did and that evening penned a note of gratitude to her: "I thank you, for myself and for the army, for the immense service that you have rendered your country today." For her contributions, she was awarded the Southern Cross of Honor. Jackson also gave her captain and honorary aide-de-camp positions.

After her lover gave her up, Belle Boyd was arrested on 29 Jul 1862, and brought to the Old Capitol Prison in Washington 30 Jul 1862, where there was an inquiry on 7 Aug 1862 concerning violations of orders that Boyd be kept in close custody. Boyd was held for a month before being released on 29 Aug 1862, when she was exchanged at Fort Monroe. She was later arrested and imprisoned a third time, but again was set free.

In 1864, she went to England where she met and married a Union naval officer, Samuel Wylde Hardinge. Belle became an actress in England. Following the death of her husband in 1866, she returned to the United States on 11 Nov 1869 and married John Swainston Hammond in New Orleans. After a divorce in 1884, she married Nathaniel Rue High in 1885. A year later, she began touring the country giving dramatic lectures of her life as a Civil War spy.

While touring the United States (she had gone to address members of a GAR post), she died of a heart attack in Kilbourne City, Wisconsin (now known as Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin) on 11 Jun 1900. She was buried in the Spring Grove Cemetery in Wisconsin Dells, with members of the Local GAR as her pallbearers. For years her grave simply read: