From DNA testing to the Dixie Mafia, we bring you new stories of true crime in American history. Join writer & host Benjamin Morris for exclusive interviews with authors from Arcadia Publishing, writing the hottest books on the most chilling stories of our country’s past.
George Washington’s Long Island Spy Ring: An Interview w/ author Bill Bleyer PT 2
In 1778, two years after the British forced the Continental Army out of New York City, George Washington and his subordinates organized a secret spy network to gather intelligence in Manhattan and Long Island. Known today as the “Culper Spy Ring,” Patriots like Abraham Woodhull and Robert Townsend risked their lives to report on British military operations in the region. Vital reports clandestinely traveled from New York City across the East River to Setauket and were rowed on whaleboats across the Long Island Sound to the Connecticut shore. Using ciphers, codes and invisible ink, the spy ring exposed British plans to attack French forces at Newport and a plot to counterfeit American currency. Author Bill Bleyer corrects the record, examines the impact of George Washington’s Long Island spy ring and identifies Revolutionary War sites that remain today.
Bill Bleyer was a prize-winning staff writer for Newsday, the Long Island daily newspaper, for thirty-three years before retiring in 2014 to write books and freelance for the newspaper and magazines. He is coauthor, with Harrison Hunt, of Long Island and the Civil War (The History Press, 2015). He is the author of Sagamore Hill: Theodore Roosevelt’s Summer White House (The History Press, 2016), The Fire Island Lighthouse: Long Island’s Welcoming Beacon (The History Press, 2017) and Long Island and the Sea: A Maritime History (The History Press, 2019). The Long Island native has written extensively about history for newspapers and magazines. In 1997–98, he was one of four Newsday staff writers assigned full time to “Long Island: Our Story,” a year-long daily history of Long Island that resulted in three books and filled hundreds of pages in the newspaper. His work has been published in Civil War News, Naval History, Sea History, Lighthouse Digest and numerous other magazines, as well as in the New York Times, Chicago Sun-Times, Toronto Star and other newspapers. Bleyer graduated Phi Beta Kappa with highest honors in economics from Hofstra University, where he has been an adjunct professor teaching journalism and economics. He earned a master’s degree in urban studies at Queens College of the City University of New York. An avid sailor, diver and kayaker, he lives in Bayville, Long Island.
Bill, welcome back. Thank you so much again for joining us here on the show.
Bill Bleyer (00:05):
Thank you, Ben.
Benjamin Morris (00:07):
Where we left off last week, George Washington's network of intelligence agents, spies, spooks, was established. Before we get into the discussion of their methods, one thing that is absolutely critical to establish is the geography of the area with respect to the flow of information.
Benjamin Morris (00:34):
You write that Long Island has this sort of unique geographical formation, which required certain kinds of information to travel along certain pathways under certain conditions in order to ensure security. And I was wondering if you would just be willing to kind of give us that overhead view of the flow which you write, it was also bidirectional. Sometimes it would go one way. Sometimes it would go in reverse depending on what was being communicated.
Benjamin Morris (01:08):
And for our listeners who need to open up a map of Long Island on whichever device they are listening to right now, we are totally cool with that. It may help to visualize what's going on, but please don't do it if you're driving. That's all we ask. So Bill, would you just help us to see how the information traveled across the region?
Bill Bleyer (01:31):
Well, it's interesting. Washington praised the Culpers for most of the war, for giving him very valuable information and complained continually throughout the war, how long it took to get the information and that sometimes it was too late coming to him to be useful.
Bill Bleyer (01:48):
And because the key players were from Setauket, they tried to get messages directly north from Manhattan to Washington in his headquarters, either in upstate New York or even in New Jersey. That didn't work. They tried through Staten Island; they tried through Western Long Island. They could never get enough of the right people in the right place to make it work. And they did try because Washington complained about it constantly.
Bill Bleyer (02:12):
But it was only through Setauket, which because a lot of the Patriots had left, most of the people left were still Loyalists, which made even Setauket tricky. But throughout the war, that's the only place they could really use a sort of a center for operations.
Bill Bleyer (02:29):
So, what you have is when Townsend joins, he's staying in the city, he's got to get — either he takes a ferry across this river and meets up with a courier in Brooklyn. Or more often a courier crosses by ferry, gets a report from Townsend, goes back across the river and then rides on horseback, one of three roads down Long Island for 55 miles to Setauket, where he goes to Woodhull's farm, hands it off to Woodhull. Then Woodhull rendezvous with Caleb Brewster in his whale boats.
Bill Bleyer (03:03):
Brewster takes it across the Sound about 15 miles, initially hands it off directly to Tallmadge, who's waiting in Fairfield, Connecticut. Washington finally says, "You're too valuable to me to be playing courier, and you need to be in headquarters."
Bill Bleyer (03:21):
Tallmadge then signs a rotation of his dragoons, three of them every 15 miles from Fairfield to headquarters, so they can ride more quickly and get the information. But it still takes initially three weeks for a letter to go one-way. And they do go both ways because there's direction and requests from Tallmadge and Washington and reports going from Woodhull and Townsend up to them.
Bill Bleyer (03:48):
Through the relays and other shortcuts, they get it down to a week to 10 days for a one-way trip. But that's still a long time and Washington is never happy about it. But that's the only route they can make work. So, that's what they do.
Benjamin Morris (04:04):
I was thinking it was like a … if you sort of visualize it on a map, it's almost like a horseshoe turned on its side to where the sort of the open end of the horseshoe is sort of towards the left and the closed end of the horseshoe is to the right. And Setauket is at the very midpoint of the horseshoe just before you go, sort of across the-
Bill Bleyer (04:21):
Yeah. It's like a flattened U on its side. But you can just look at the map and say, "What a cumbersome route it was." But every time they tried something else, people were over compromised or caught or the information was lost.
Benjamin Morris (04:38):
Right. Which is further thrown into jeopardy because you have multiple water crossings. You have sort of dicey overland travel. You have malicious stations. There's not really a single safe stretch of the journey, is there?
Bill Bleyer (04:52):
Yeah. And the closer you are to New York, the more British troops you're going to encounter, the more British warships you're going to encounter. So, Setauket was far enough east, that they could not usually encounter a big British warship. So, it was more whale boat against whale boat kind of battles.
Bill Bleyer (05:10):
But you had Brewster who knew like every inch of the coastline and all the harbors and he continually outfoxed the British because it was in his backyard.
Benjamin Morris (05:19):
So, let's talk about that outfoxing and for any student of the history of military intelligence of espionage, there is no subject which is more near and dear to our hearts than trade craft. And how one side is constantly coming up with devices or mechanisms or ideas in order to conceal, to outwit, to outthink the enemy.
Benjamin Morris (05:44):
And I just have what is almost like a laundry list or sort of a lightning round style list of some of the most remarkable instances of trade craft in your book. And I was wondering if we could almost just kind of run down them because they are so fascinating and I'm not spoiling everything here. There are plenty more in the book. So, the readers will enjoy kind of really diving into this world and quite a lot of depth.
Benjamin Morris (06:14):
But there are few that stood out for me. The first was, we spoke about Nathan Hale last week, spy not fit for the job and something happened with his shoes and something in the lining of his shoes that was maybe not very carefully concealed at all, which partly led to his demise. What happened there?
Bill Bleyer (06:37):
Well, he had a diploma, which was pretty incriminating to start with. He had written reports in the soles of his shoes, which the British easily found. And he didn't deny it. He basically admitted right away when he was captured what he was doing.
Bill Bleyer (06:53):
He had said it to Robert Rogers when they met, Rogers invited himself to sit down for dinner in the first day of the search on Long Island. And then Rogers has him meet for breakfast at Rogers' tavern the next morning, because he wants witnesses to hear the same thing. And Hale immediately repeats what he's up to and he’s quickly arrested, taken to General Howe's headquarters.
Bill Bleyer (07:18):
In the middle of the night, Hale wakes up grumpy, sees the evidence, here's the testimony of Rogers and his men and sees the report and the diploma, signs a death warrant and goes back to sleep.
Bill Bleyer (07:29):
So, he was not very good at spycraft. But the Culpers were much better at it and got better as the war went on.
Benjamin Morris (07:39):
Okay. So, Caleb Brewster has a much more successful method of protecting sensitive information. He has a bottle which is tied to the bottom of his whale boat. How did that work?
Bill Bleyer (07:53):
Well, he would sometimes put the reports in a weighted bottle. And if British whale boats or even if British warships showed up, he could just cut the rope and the thing would sink. And that's the end of it.
Bill Bleyer (08:06):
So, that was much more secure than riding on horseback either on Long Island or Connecticut. And there were messages that were captured by British patrols. In one episode a British patrol came across the Sound and raided Tallmadge's camp on his way with a message to headquarters.
Bill Bleyer (08:25):
The local militia showed up and drove the British off, but not before they captured Tallmadge's horse with one of the letters in the saddle bag. But luckily it was in code and they didn't know how to break the code yet, so-
Bill Bleyer (08:36):
But Washington was very alarmed when he learned about that episode. And scolded Tallmadge to be more careful.
Benjamin Morris (08:43):
Right. Even your enemy knowing the existence of a code itself is troublesome, is problematic.
Bill Bleyer (08:51):
Bill Bleyer (08:51):
For sure. Which brings us, of course, to that code, which is one of the most remarkable innovations in the entire campaign. You have a reproduction of one of the pages, which has just columns and columns and columns of names of people and places and dates and entities and numbers all assigned a special code number, one through, they number in the hundreds. So, how did that work?
Bill Bleyer (09:20):
Well, they actually went through two major levels of coding. The first one was devised by Woodhull and first shows up in the April 10th, 1779 letter. And it's a simple substitution code with two digits for different words they would use frequently in the letter. So, New York becomes number 10. Austin Roe, the chief courier on Long Island side becomes number 30. Setauket becomes 20. So, you start to see in the letters these numbers dropped in for words. And they did it for about a couple of months, about 20 letters going back and forth.
Bill Bleyer (10:01):
And then Tallmadge decides this is still too simplistic and could be easily broken by a skilled code breaker. And the interesting thing about the war is people don't realize that spycraft and coding was actually a fairly developed art by the revolution. There were experts in all the armies in Europe. There were actually textbooks on how to develop codes.
Bill Bleyer (10:22):
And the British made all kinds of blunders in executing the war, one of which was never to bring any of these people to America. So, what they did is, Tallmadge and Washington have read the books and they're sort of teaching themselves along the way.
Bill Bleyer (10:36):
And the British, instead of bringing their experts who even one of these letters could have unraveled the whole Spy Ring, instead they leave the whole thing to major John Andre, who's the sort of the chief of staff of the British Army, who knows no more about coding than Tallmadge does. So, you have this battle of amateurs dealing with each other when the British really could have cracked this whole thing wide open.
Bill Bleyer (11:03):
And it's stunning to me that the British didn't have the insight to do that. But Tallmadge in his is experience with this realizes that a two-digit code is too simplistic. So, in July of '79, he comes up with a much more sophisticated code that he calls the dictionary. And it's because it's based on an English dictionary. And again, it's an expanded substitution code. But now there's three digits for a lot of the words that they would use in their reports.
Bill Bleyer (11:37):
So, he's got a three-digit substitution for 710 words that he thinks would be most likely to show up in the reports like Tory, Navy, Congress, gun, things like that. And then he also gives 53 prominent proper names their own code numbers from 711 to 763.
Bill Bleyer (11:55):
So, Tallmadge is no longer John Bolton, he's number 721. Woodhull is now 722 instead of Culper Senior. Townsend is 723 and on and on. And they use this for the rest of the war. And as far as anybody can tell, even though letters were captured, they never broke the code.
Bill Bleyer (12:16):
But the most significant security comes between the two different code systems with the development of secret ink.
Benjamin Morris (12:26):
This was my absolute favorite. And it was my favorite, not just because, secret ink, invisible ink, sort of specialty inks have been a part of the history of espionage for centuries. But because specifically of who developed it and where he developed it and the fact that the person who developed it had already been knighted by King George III, that his invention wasn't used against the British. It was just absolutely magnificent. Tell us, James Jay, what happened?
Bill Bleyer (13:02):
Out of the Blue Washington gets a letter from John Jay, who will later become Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, saying that, "My brother James, who was a doctor in England before the war and was an amateur chemist, has invented a secret ink that he calls the stain."
Bill Bleyer (13:17):
In early efforts secret ink were pretty primitive, they would use milk or lemon juice. But if you suspected there was a coded message and you heated the paper, that message would immediately appear. So, no spies worth their salt would use that method by the time of the revolution.
Bill Bleyer (13:36):
James Jay said that his stain was perfectly invisible until you put on a second chemical that he called it the counterpoint. And then everything was revealed.
Bill Bleyer (13:53):
Washington immediately realized the value writes back to John Jay and not to James Jay, "This is great. Get me all you can, as quickly as you can." The chemicals are hard to find. And in London before the war, James Jay had a very elaborate lab. So, when he is back in America, he doesn't have the lab, he doesn't have access to these rare chemicals.
Bill Bleyer (14:15):
Washington says, "What can we do?" He has his engineers actually build a lab for James Jay. He gives Jay a letter of authorization saying, you can go to any military hospital, anywhere in the colonies and requisition whatever you need. But it still took months for Jay to make even a small batch to get to Washington to try.
Bill Bleyer (14:36):
Washington is thrilled and said, "This is great. Get me more for my spies." There's a gap of many more months before he gets enough to give it to the spies, who love it. And there's many times for the remainder of the war when Jay just can't supply enough and they have to rely strictly on the coded letters.
Bill Bleyer (14:54):
But when they have the ink, it's great. Washington actually gives one letter, sort of a perimeter on how to use it. He said either take a ostensible letter to a Tory and between the lines, write your real message. Or take a book in the margins or between the lines on the book write your real message in the stain. And that's what they do.
Bill Bleyer (15:21):
But I love the ones that are these phony letters to Tories on Long Island that'll say, like Townsend, who's a merchant, will say, "I got your request. I will send you agreement of paper, as soon as I get a supply.” And between the lines in that letter is a real message for Tallmadge and Washington.
Benjamin Morris (15:39):
No, it's great. It's, it's just absolutely fantastic. And you write that the formula for the stain is there are a couple of sort of different theories which are in contention for what Jay was using, but that it's not conclusively established. Is that right?
Bill Bleyer (15:56):
Yeah. Nobody's ever actually fully replicated it. Alexander Rose, who wrote one of the most respected books on the Spy Ring, into my estimation gets almost everything right. Spent a lot of time looking into it and getting chemists to try to come up with it and he couldn't. And nobody else has either.
Benjamin Morris (16:16):
No, it's fascinating.
Bill Bleyer (16:17):
And James Jay never left any record of what he was using. So, nobody knows.
Benjamin Morris (16:21):
Well, if there are any aspiring historians of chemistry out there who need a doctoral dissertation, maybe this is the project they have been waiting for all their lives, so-
Bill Bleyer (16:34):
Yes, that would be a great find.
Benjamin Morris (16:35):
Yeah. You heard it here second, shall we say. Dead drops. Now, of course, dead drops are classics by spycraft. And in this case, you write that there were some that were used on Long Island, particularly in the farmland, but this was not because information could just be handed off person to person. Dead drops are not as widely used. Is that right?
Bill Bleyer (16:55):
Well, this is one of the things that goes back to Pennypacker, that people were using dead drops on Woodhull's farm, so they could come in the night and just drop it off and leave. This like Anna Strong's clothesline is another thing that's not documented anywhere. This is really a supposition. And it gets repeated over and over again. No proof, no mentions of dead drops in any of the letters.
Bill Bleyer (17:24):
My supposition is that Austin Roe or the other couriers would get to Setauket and if it was the middle of the night, they would wake up Abraham Woodhull and say, "Here's your letter." Maybe dropping it on like a wood box or something, feed box on the farm might add a little extra security. But there's no evidence they did that.
Benjamin Morris (17:47):
Now, I do want to make sure, we talked last week about separating fact from fiction and one of the most pointed examples of that is the clothesline. And I was just wondering if you would go ahead and lay that to rest for us, because your account was shall we say, fairly acerbically worded, which after you read the histories of conjecture, sounded nice and justified there, Bill.
Bill Bleyer (18:16):
Okay. Well, the Anna Strong clothesline is probably the best-known aspect of the Spy Ring, even though there's no proof it's real. The story goes that Woodhull would get the messages from one of the couriers, and then he'd have to rendezvous with Caleb Brewster to hand it off and have it carried across the Sound.
Bill Bleyer (18:35):
Now Anna Strong is married to Selah Strong, who's the head of the local town government. And he's an ardent Patriot, he's actually in prison briefly by the British, earlier before the war. And they're like the George and Martha Washington of Setauket area. They have a huge colonial estate or plantation that takes up a lot of the area of Setauket and going east. They live across the bay from Abraham Woodhull's farm. And they can see each other across the bay.
Bill Bleyer (19:12):
So, the story is that if Caleb Brewster had arrived to pick up a message or had a message to drop off to give to Woodhull or Townsend, that he would go to Anna Strong's house first and make contact with her. And we know that happened. We know that from the accounts that he would often make, his first stop would be Anna Strong's manor house, as they called it. And we know that as a fact and that's pretty much all we know is a fact.
Bill Bleyer (19:44):
Then the story goes that Anna Strong would signal Woodhull to meet with Brewster by putting a white petticoat on her clothesline which was actually by her slaves’ quarters, down on the harbor front. And then she would put up one to six black handkerchiefs, which would indicate which of six coves in and around Setauket, Tallmadge was waiting.
Bill Bleyer (20:05):
If it was true, it's a brilliant way to communicate, who would pick up on that? The problem is, there's no documentation in any of the 194 letters that they were doing this. It's in Pennypacker's book as stated as a fact.
Bill Bleyer (20:23):
And later one of Anna's Strong's descendants, Kate Strong, writes a family history and says she knows this is true because of what Pennypacker showed her and documents and things in her family archives. But nobody subsequently has ever seen anything that proves this really happened.
Bill Bleyer (20:40):
So, they would have to communicate. But as Beverly Tyler, the historian who best knows the Spy Ring in Setauket says, Anna could have ridden a horse around the half a mile of shoreline to Abraham's house. She could have had somebody row her across the bay, which is even shorter. It's a great way to communicate, but we don't know for a fact it ever happened.
Bill Bleyer (21:06):
But this is just one of many rumors and legends that are passed on as being fact. And actually, the evidence keeps coming out to show this is even less likely to happen. There's one of the minor players in the Spy Ring named Phillips Roe, who lived in Port Jefferson, east of Setauket. And we know, he's a verified member of the Spy Ring and his house has now turned into a village museum.
Bill Bleyer (21:31):
He's done a lot of research on this issue and realized that Anna Strong during revolution was not actually even living in Setauket. They were living in their bigger manor house further east on the other side of Port Jefferson Harbor. So, this system physically could not have worked. They were miles apart, about five miles apart. There was no way to communicate. So, it's just further proves that the clothesline story doesn't make any sense.
Benjamin Morris (21:56):
Yeah. Hopefully we can lay that one to rest. It's like the old saw about, if I tell you not to think about a pink elephant, what's the first thing you're going to think about? Right?
Bill Bleyer (22:03):
Benjamin Morris (22:05):
And so, for everybody out there in TV land, please, for the love of heaven, there is no pink elephant, let go of the clothes line story. Don't let the AMC shows and everything else tell you otherwise. That one seems done.
Bill Bleyer (22:18):
And unfortunately, the great majority of people who know anything about the Spy Ring or think they do are learning it from Turn, the AMC series, which is terrible history. It might be a good drama series, but it's terrible history.
Benjamin Morris (22:31):
So, the last instance of trade craft here, which I want to bring out, you mentioned Hercules Mulligan last week. And it struck me that one of the most effective instruments that the Spy Ring had in its entire operation was also one of the simplest, which is having the right person, at the right place, at the right time.
Bill Bleyer (22:54):
Benjamin Morris (22:54):
And Hercules Mulligan, I know that doesn't technically count as a gadget, but it does count as craft. And here you have somebody who quite literally, as you say tipped Washington off to a suspected kidnapping attempt just by overhearing the right thing, in the right place, at the right time. Did he get lucky or was that skill?
Bill Bleyer (23:21):
It's the right person, at the right place, at the right time, because he's a friend of Alexander Hamilton. Actually, Hamilton lives in his house when he first comes to New York, to go to college.
Bill Bleyer (23:32):
But Mulligan is making uniforms. He's one of the best tailors in the city. And the British officers flock to him because they want nice uniforms. And they blab to him. It's like talking to your bartender or your haircutter today. And they're telling him what they're doing and he listens and asks the right questions, and they're telling him about top secret missions like, "I need this uniform tomorrow because we're going off to capture George Washington based on intelligence we've gathered." Or, "We captured a spy letter or something."
Bill Bleyer (24:05):
So, Mulligan keeps a straight face. And once the British officer leaves, he sends one of his slaves named Cato. And somehow, even though the Culpers never can do it, Cato always manages to go directly north to the end of Manhattan across that short river and get up to Westchester.
Bill Bleyer (24:27):
And so, Mulligan’s stuff is getting right to Washington very quickly. But he's friends with Townsend. They cooperate, they're on parallel tracks, but they're totally separate operations probably for their own security. Because you almost say like, "Why wouldn't Townsend give his letters to Mulligan to give to Cato to get to Washington?" But I think they realized they need to keep everything totally separate for security.
Bill Bleyer (24:53):
But Mulligan wasn't using code. He just gave the information to Cato. Cato would go to headquarters and say, "Okay, we just learned this." And in the two cases where Washington was threatened, he changed his route and his plans and probably saved the revolution. So, in some ways, Mulligan was even more valuable than the Culpers.
Benjamin Morris (25:13):
If loose lips can sink Patriot ships, they can also sink Loyalist ships too. And very interesting illustration of that fact.
Benjamin Morris (25:27):
Now Bill, at the heart of your book, are these 190 odd letters and I want to shine a light on those explicitly because thanks to their preservation, we have this story. Now again, as you write, we have pieces of the story, but we have now, thankfully quite a lot of pieces of this story.
Benjamin Morris (25:54):
And I wanted to ask you first of all, how did they survive over the years? Second of all, where are they now and how can readers and listeners gain access to them or view them for themselves? And then lastly, this is a trick question, we're going to go ahead and ask you anyway. It's not possible to know, but how many do we think there were, we know how many we have, but is there any good scholarly conjecture based on activity and based on rates and sort of times of productions, is there any sense as to how much correspondence was generated in full?
Bill Bleyer (26:34):
Okay. They survive, they’re 194 and the 194th was just discovered two summers ago during COVID at the Long Island museum out in Stony Brook, near Setauket, because when they were closed, they decided to sort of upgrade their archival records and found that somebody in 1951 had donated a Culper spy letter to them.
Bill Bleyer (26:54):
Nobody who worked at the museum knew anything about it. So, they took this notebook reference, tracked it down in the archives, had it conserved and authenticated, and now we know there's 194. And all the ones that survive are because either Washington, Tallmadge or somebody in headquarters didn't do what Townsend and Woodhull always asked them to do, which was immediately destroy it upon receive and decoding and reading.
Bill Bleyer (27:20):
The great bulk of the 194 in the Library of Congress and you can actually read them online, a lot of them online. The University of Michigan Library has some, the Stony Brook University and Library on Long Island has several. The Long Island Museum has the one I mentioned. And then the others are scattered, like one here, one there.
Bill Bleyer (27:39):
But you can pretty much track them all down. Unfortunately, nobody has transcribed them and put them all in one source. I know Oyster Bay, a historian friend of mine who's a major source for my book, Claire Bellerjeau, that's on her list to do because she's read them all and wants to actually put them all out in book form. But pretty much, 194 you can find and read either in person or online.
Benjamin Morris (28:11):
Yeah. And is there any sense of how many might have been written in total? Or is that just pure speculation?
Bill Bleyer (28:18):
Well, we know there was dozens more. And a lot of them were numbered by the writers.
Benjamin Morris (28:24):
Bill Bleyer (28:25):
And you'll see references in a Townsend letter. Sometimes the couriers would destroy the letters because they were about to be searched. And some of the couriers, Austin Roe, tavern owner in Setauket was the most intrepid and the most frequent courier.
Bill Bleyer (28:40):
Some of the other ones that filled in around them were not so brave. And Townsend complains in one letter that the courier destroyed his letter out of fear, even though nobody was even around him to question him. So, he has to do another letter with a different number saying this is number 11 or whatever it is, repeating what was in 10 that the courier destroyed for no reason.
Bill Bleyer (29:02):
So, we know there's gaps in the letters we have in the number sequence. So, we know there were letters in between. I don't think I've ever seen an actual estimate of how many there were, but there's probably dozens more, if not hundreds more than 194 we know about. Because they were writing back and forth about once a week. And Washington, later at the end of the war, complained that the letters were never frequent, which is kind of odd when he was getting a letter like once a week from either Woodhull or Townsend in the city.
Benjamin Morris (29:36):
Well, I want to offer a tease to our listeners because for anyone out there who thinks that paper is boring, I challenge you to read the account in Bill's book of how we learned who Robert Townsend was within the ring.
Benjamin Morris (29:55):
And the account of the detective work that it took decades and decades and decades later by matching ink and handwriting and paper quality and light and so forth, in order to conclusively prove who one of America's most important early intelligence agents was, it is fascinating. It is absolutely fascinating. And you'll never look at a single sheet of paper the same way ever again. That is my challenge to our listenership.
Benjamin Morris (30:24):
But Bill, I want to ask you something about sort of the historiography of these letters. You write fairly early on about the need for historical caution that many writers, as they sort of assess what we have here with the Spy Ring, have ascribed too much weight to the effort in terms of its overall contribution to the revolution, that the actions and the information gathered by the Spy Ring was decisive.
Benjamin Morris (30:59):
You write that it was effective and it was effective at varying levels, at varying times, but it isn't the whole story. And I really appreciated that, because historical caution seems to be in short supply these days, in an age of overstatement.
Bill Bleyer (31:18):
Insofar as that is the case, as you are urging kind of a measured approach to reading these and their impact, I did want to ask, is there one letter out of all of them that you read and studied that you think did prove sort of uniquely important in some way? Or that you gravitated to in a way that it felt more pivotal, more consequential than the rest?
Bill Bleyer (31:53):
Well, there's a lot of them. Some of them have major military importance. One of my favorites though is, as I mentioned Woodhull gets increasingly paranoid about being captured and hanged and persuades Tallmadge and Washington, that they need to find somebody embedded in the city. And it's Woodhull who finds Robert Townsend because they share the same boarding house that Woodhull's brother-in-law. So, I love the letter from June 20th, 1779 from Woodhull to Washington saying that he's got the right guy. Let me give you a little bit of that. He says:
"I have communicated my business to an intimate friend and disclosed every secret and laid before him every instruction that has been handed to me. It was with great difficulty that I gained his compliance, checked by fear. He is a person that has the interest of our country at heart and of good reputation, character and family as any of my acquaintance.
Bill Bleyer (32:57):
I am under the most solemn obligations never to disclose his name to any, but the post (meaning the couriers) who unavoidably must have it. I have reason to thank his advantages for serving you and abilities are far superior to mine. You will receive a letter from him in short time, he will expect an ample support, at the same time, he will be frugal as long as I am here, shall be an assistant and do all that I can."
Bill Bleyer (33:24):
So, this is Woodhull being modest in turning over the primary spying in the city to Townsend, ultimately proves to be the most valuable asset. And when you read the letters from Townsend, it's just incredible the detail that he supplies, the number of soldiers in a regiment, where they're going, what supplies have been unloaded from a ship. It's just kind of mind boggling, which makes it fairly apparent. And he must have had contacts right in British headquarters.
Benjamin Morris (33:54):
Yeah. Now it is remarkable as you read the letters that come through, you get the sense of the granularity of war. And folks might find that to be a little dry. But at the same time, knowing how many people are riding which direction, at which hour of the day, accompanied by how many different entourages of what kind. That's the very thing that Washington needs to know and in order to be able to respond. And that's how wars are waged, right?
Bill Bleyer (34:27):
Is by one decision at a time.
Bill Bleyer (34:29):
The most famous letter is from Woodhull to Washington in July of 1780, forwarding a report from Townsend that the British were planning to attack Rhode Island. And it's the shortest letter. It's in the Library of Congress.
Bill Bleyer (34:43):
All it says is, "Sir, the enclosed requires your immediate departure this day. By all means, let not an hour pass for this day must not be lost. You have news of the greatest consequence perhaps that ever happened to your country."
Bill Bleyer (34:57):
And this is basically forwarding this letter from Townsend saying the British are going to attack Rhode Island, which allows Washington to alert the garrison. And since you love spycraft Ben, they create phony orders for troops that are supposedly marching to Rhode Island to reinforce the garrison. And they arrange for a courier to drop it in a saddle bag on the side of the road.
Benjamin Morris (35:27):
Oh, that's great.
Bill Bleyer (35:27):
For the British to find. And so, Henry Clinton, the British General bites.
Benjamin Morris (35:32):
Bill Bleyer (35:33):
He's on his way down Long Island with his troops. And the British ships are sailing for Newport. They find this phony letter and turn around and go back to New York. Because they figure the jig is up. It's up there with General McClellan finding the orders around the … before the Battle of Antietam.
Benjamin Morris (35:52):
Bill Bleyer (35:53):
Some of the things the British did before D-Day and things. But-
Benjamin Morris (35:57):
Oh, that's great.
Bill Bleyer (35:58):
So, Washington acts on the intelligence and then does counterintelligence on the British to fool them. It's classic.
Benjamin Morris (36:05):
Well, and that raises actually, perhaps the last question I have for you before we turn to the end of the war which is about counterintelligence. Actually, there's some discussion of what the British were doing, not just to identify the American spies and to try to apprehend them, which of course they were successful in some cases, but of their own spying activities upon the Americans.
Benjamin Morris (36:30):
And there's a name that comes up here, which is John Andre. You mentioned him very briefly last week. And Andre as I was reading your account, Bill, I'm going to go out on a limb here, for a spy, he seemed to be awfully well known, and he seemed to be sort of man about town. And you sort of have a few accounts of sort of ladies following him, trying to gain his attention and his favor. And he wasn't very good at staying in the shadows, was he? Or was that not his design at all as a Culper spy?
Bill Bleyer (37:09):
Yeah. Well, there's two interesting aspects with Andre. One is that the Culper Spy Ring had played a role in unmasking him, which is repeated in a lot of books and it's totally untrue. We can deal with that in a minute.
Bill Bleyer (37:21):
But Andre is not a spy. He was never a spy in the sense we think of spies. He is the aid to camp, to General Clinton. He's in charge of the British spying operations and anti-intelligence anti-spying operation. And he becomes the go in that role between General Clinton and Benedict Arnold, when Benedict Arnold is planning to change sides and turn West Point over to the British.
Bill Bleyer (37:53):
So, he's never out actually gathering information himself. He's running the spies just like Tallmadge does for the other side. But Clinton wants him to go back and forth to West Point to deal with Arnold, to work at the details of him flipping and turning over West Point.
Bill Bleyer (38:13):
And on one of these visits, he's going up and down the Hudson River and then landing surreptitiously and going to West Point to see Arnold. In one episode that becomes fatal for him, the local militia sees the British warship that's transporting him back and forth and fires on it. The British captain decides to hightail it out of West Point area and leaves. And he leaves Andre, literally high and dry on the shores.
Bill Bleyer (38:43):
So, Andre has to go back down the shoreline on the eastern bank of the Hudson to get back to the British headquarters in New York. And most fatefully decides not to be wearing a uniform. He changes his clothes. So, when he's captured by local militia down towards Irvington, he's in civilian clothes, which under international military protocol makes him a spy.
Bill Bleyer (39:13):
If he had left on his uniform, he would've been a captured officer and afforded all — he would've been a prisoner, but he would've not been hanged. He would've been treated very well and probably actually it might've even been exchanged for an American officer in captivity.
Bill Bleyer (39:26):
But being captured with incriminating documents in civilian clothes, he was quickly convicted by a military tribunal spying and hanged. And Washington, I'm sure took some pleasure in getting revenge for Nathan Hale in this.
Bill Bleyer (39:43):
But the interesting thing is a lot of authors, even in fairly recent books say that Andre was captured because of information gathered by the Culpers. And the story is that Andre was out with Clinton on Eastern Long Island, gets sick, decides to go visit his friend, Colonel Simcoe, who's the head of the Queens Rangers based at Raynham Hall, the Townsend home in Oyster Bay to recuperate. And we know he does that stays for about a week. He writes letters which survive from Raynham Hall to other people in the city.
Bill Bleyer (40:18):
So, we know he was there. We know when he was there. The story goes that Robert's sister, younger sister Sally is in the house, overhears the two officers planning Arnold's treason. She writes a letter to her brother in the city, has a neighbor next door deliver it to Robert, who gets it to Tallmadge, and Tallmadge uses that to uncover the treason plot.
Bill Bleyer (40:51):
That's the story. No basis in fact. There's no proof there ever was a letter. And we know from the dates of Andre's letters that Andre was at Raynham Hall a full year before Arnold even thought about changing sides. So, the whole story makes no sense.
Benjamin Morris (41:05):
It can't be true. Right, no.
Bill Bleyer (41:06):
Anybody had done even the most basic research would know this is nonsense. But all these authors keep repeating the Sally letter without doing even the most basic homework. And it makes me crazy.
Benjamin Morris (41:19):
The list of things that seems to drive you crazy is getting longer by the minute, I'm afraid. There's a queue.
Bill Bleyer (41:24):
Yeah. A lot of the book turns out to be, as I said, debunking these rumors. And this Andre connection is even on a historical marker in front of Raynham Hall. And I've been trying with other people to get them to change it for years. And they're working on it.
Benjamin Morris (41:41):
There you go.
Bill Bleyer (41:41):
But right now, there it says, “Information gathered here, led to the capture of John Andre.” And the real story is Tallmadge had gotten tips about something squirrely going on with Benedict Arnold and he had his feelers out, had his agents trying to pick up what was going on. But Andre was captured before he actually put it all together and could do anything about it.
Benjamin Morris (42:10):
As I read your account, Tallmadge, despite his incredibly young age, his mid-twenties, he seemed to be much more adept at the game than John Andre was. And it struck me that if anybody was going to embody the principles of the unparalleled George Smiley of Tinker Tailor, Tallmadge had Andre up a creek in that respect.
Bill Bleyer (42:39):
Yeah, and to be fair to Andre, Andre was the chief of staff, so he had a lot of other things going on other than running the spy operation. But he was also, as you as you mentioned, he was a social — he wrote plays and poems and threw these lavish parties for the British officers and their Loyalist supporters.
Bill Bleyer (43:02):
And there's rumors from that. Brian Kilmeade in his very bad book has one of the six … Kilmeade says there's only six members of the Spy Ring, even though in my book, in other books more than a dozen have been positively identified.
Bill Bleyer (43:17):
He invents this Agent 355, which turns into a movie with Jessica Chastain and Kilmeade and others going back to Pennypacker's say that there was this young socialite, Loyalist woman who decides to support the Patriot cause and hangs around at all of Andre's soirees and picks up information British officers, and gets it to Tallmadge and Washington. And he calls her one of six members of the Spy Ring, he conveniently leaves out any of the couriers, never explains how information can be get back to headquarters when you don't have any couriers on land or sea.
Bill Bleyer (44:00):
He doesn't include Caleb Brewster in particular or Austin Roe or any of the horseback riding things and never explains how the Spy Ring can operate without couriers.
Bill Bleyer (44:11):
But he has this socialite woman gathering information being the mistress of Robert Townsend, even though there's only one woman and woman is 355 in the code. So, the only 355 is mentioned in only one of the 194 surviving letters. And it's in a letter from Woodhull to Washington saying that a 355 of his acquaintance will help him outfox the British.
Bill Bleyer (44:36):
But Kilmeade and other authors attached this 355 to Townsend. And the city have Townsend's mistress have an illegitimate son with Townsend, have her captured by the British, put on the British prison hall jersey off the Brooklyn Shore and dying there.
Bill Bleyer (44:55):
And there's no basis for any of this. It's total speculation, but it's out there and it's in Turn. And people say, "Oh look, this is who Agent 355. And the other weird thing is agent was not used regularly to describe a spy until after the revolution. It was used in a few letters here and there, but spies were not called secret agents, generally until well after the war. So, it was just one more example of misinformation.
Benjamin Morris (45:21):
Yeah. It sounds about all it's good for is an excuse to fire up the microwave and make some popcorn and watch a fictional TV show.
Bill Bleyer (45:36):
My fellow historians and I, we actually have a list of all the factual errors in Turn. And granted, it's not saying that it's a real story but it's like a parlor game for us. Every time somebody watches a Turn, they say, “Oh, did you see …” like things like they turn Woodhull's pastor father who's an ardent Patriot, just like his son into a Tory for the series, because they want tension in the family.
Bill Bleyer (46:01):
They have Anna Strong serving rum or whatever drinks to people in the tavern in Setauket. And that's like Martha Washington doing that. She's a extremely wealthy woman who co-owns this huge estate. She has probably never been in a tavern in her entire life.
Benjamin Morris (46:20):
Much less serving-
Bill Bleyer (46:21):
It goes on and on. It's kind of fun to chronicle all these things.
Benjamin Morris (46:24):
Yeah. Go through a lot of popcorn, don't you?
Bill Bleyer (46:26):
Benjamin Morris (46:27):
So, I do need to ask you about the aftermaths of the war. You described, as the campaigns progress and Washington does begin to score some major victories against the British, that the tide changes and that as the war draws closer and closer to its end, that the Spy Ring actually decreased its activities. It had gone on hiatus for a bit. And then come back and then as the theaters began to move to different regions, Long Island sort of receded in importance.
Benjamin Morris (47:01):
So, the information was a bit more circumspect or just sort of late in coming, until eventually in a sort of, I thought, fairly nicely ironic twist, the first mention of the Treaty for Peace actually comes through the Spy Ring on Long Island. And Washington hears of that through the guys who are still embedded before he hears of it through any official channels. Is that right?
Bill Bleyer (47:33):
Yeah, it's interesting because every historian who's ever studied the Spy Ring thinks they were very valuable, probably the most, other than Mulligan saving Washington's skin twice over the course of the war, were the most valued intelligent source that Washington had.
Bill Bleyer (47:51):
The most extreme is Brian Kilmeade again, who claims in his book that they won the war all by themselves, not that they help Washington with the Continental Army. He actually says in his book, and I read it three times to make sure he really said it, that the Spy Ring won the war all by themselves, which everybody else thinks is ridiculous.
Bill Bleyer (48:11):
But Washington covers the full spectrum about the value of the Spy Ring. Because in the beginning of the war, he's writing things like, “I find their intelligence of very great importance.”
Bill Bleyer (48:26):
Another letter he writes, “I rely upon this intelligence.” But then a couple things happen. Arnold, switches sides goes into the city, basically scares Townsend to go back to Oyster Bay for nine months. And the Spy Ring doesn't operate and Washington is really angry about that.
Bill Bleyer (48:44):
And even when Townsend comes back, Washington sort of keeps them on the back burner and it seems like a sort of anger. He's not even relying on them when they're giving him information again. And he only sort of revives them on his end when the French join the war. And he needs information about where to deploy the French before they join operations leading to Yorktown.
Bill Bleyer (49:11):
So, the other thing is because the war shifts south to Virginia and the Carolinas, what's going on in New York becomes very unimportant. New York becomes the back burner of the war. The British have pulled most of their troops out of Long Island and the city. So, Washington really doesn't have much interest or need to know what's going on in New York anymore. So, there's that going on.
Bill Bleyer (49:40):
But he does find out after Yorktown, basically, the war is essentially over, except for a treaty to officially end it. Washington goes back in April of 1782 to a headquarters in Newburg and stays there till the following August, waiting for the British to decide what they're going to do.
Bill Bleyer (50:00):
And he finally finds out that the British have agreed to sign a Peace treaty in a letter from Townsend. So, he finds out that everything he's done is coming to culmination in the Culper spy letter.
Benjamin Morris (50:11):
There really is something.
Bill Bleyer (50:11):
But despite that he's still very negative about the spies, because of that time when he wasn't getting any useful information.
Bill Bleyer (50:18):
So, it's important to realize that everybody in the Spy Ring did it as volunteers, because spying was considered the lowest kind of humanity in this era. And if you got paid for it, then you were like a Judas and really the lowest of the low.
Bill Bleyer (50:35):
So, if you were a spy for patriotism, that was somewhat better. So, they never got paid for their work and nobody involved in the ring ever got paid. But they did have expenses and Tallmadge would collect them and send them to Washington, periodically. And Washington would reimburse them for renting horses, for buying paper, whatever they were spending to get information.
Bill Bleyer (50:58):
So, at the end of the war, Tallmadge collects a final round of invoices from Woodhull and Townsend and everybody else, sends it off to Washington. And Washington writes this really testy letter back to Tallmadge saying that, "I need a lot more detail to pay these expenses," even though they're the same kind of invoices he had been paying all along.
Bill Bleyer (51:22):
And then he writes this really nasty line about Woodhull, and he says, "The services which were rendered by him, however well-meant was by no means adequate to those expenditures because his communications were never frequent and always tedious in getting to hand." And it's a curious line because as I mentioned earlier, the Culpers are writing to him about once a week. And it takes at least a week to get a letter. So, I don't know what he expected.
Bill Bleyer (51:50):
And in his letters, he never complains about the frequency, he complains about the time of getting the letters, but he's never complained in any of the surviving letters about that they weren't writing enough. He's always praising their information. So, it's really kind of curious. So, he's gone from being very supportive of the Culpers and their benefit to being the most severe critic of the Culpers, over the course-
Benjamin Morris (52:12):
Yeah. It doesn't match sort of the tone, which that is perplexing. Let me ask you this Bill, your book contains an account of what happens when Washington finally rides into the city and even until the very end, he still does not know all of the agents. And that's purposeful and so forth.
Benjamin Morris (52:33):
But I wanted to actually skip forward to well past the 1790s and jump into actually 1812. And I was curious, you write that many of the agents lived for a good while longer in some cases decades after the end of the Revolutionary War.
Bill Bleyer (52:56):
And I was curious, it was only 25 years before the British showed back up on our shores. And I was curious, was there any talk that you ever saw on any of the archives? I know these letters are a very strict time period, but was there ever any discussion of the reactivation of this network or a new kind of network forming for intelligence, once the British tried to take the colonies back?
Bill Bleyer (53:27):
I haven't really studied that issue. My research sort of ended in 1790 when Washington comes to visit Long Island for five days. And I get into that because this is another one of these areas of legend rumor that don't hold up. A lot of historians, including some I have used as sources and respect, think the real reason Washington came in 1790 was to thank members of Spy Ring.
Bill Bleyer (53:52):
The best evidence is that he stays in the middle night in Setauket at Austin Roe's tavern and Roe is the chief courier for the Spy Ring. So, you can make that conclusion. The problem even with that is Washington has said during the revolution and ever after, he'd never wanted to know and didn't want to know who the members of the Spy Ring was.
Bill Bleyer (54:16):
And people could say, "Well, that the war is over. What difference does it make? What he probably found out," and maybe he did. But in his personal diary, he never meant for publication, where he writes about the trip, he doesn't mention the Spy Ring, doesn't mention any of the spies by name.
Bill Bleyer (54:32):
And even though he stays at Austin Roe's tavern, Roe was down on the south shore when he learns that Washington is heading for his tavern to stay overnight, gets on a horse in gallops North. And here's a guy that's ridden up and down, that's 55 miles back and forth throughout the revolution without incident, gets thrown from his horse and breaks his leg. And there's no proof he ever actually got to his tavern when Washington is there.
Bill Bleyer (54:54):
And Washington in his diary talks about the nice people he met; the food was good. Does not mention Austin Roe by name, does not mention even meeting Austin Roe. So, my feeling is Roe never got there. And there's nothing in Washington's diary or any place else that says the two of them were actually there together.
Bill Bleyer (55:13):
And further evidence to me that Washington was there just to see the land and meet his constituents, and in particular interest in farming and the land and the geography. The next night after leaving Setauket, he stays in Oyster Bay, which is the home of Robert Townsend. He doesn't stay at the Townsend house. He stays a mile down the road at somebody who was actually a Tory sympathizer and a Tory spy during the war. So, if he was really there to thank the members of the Spy Ring, why would he have not have stayed at Raynham Hall, at the Townsend house?
Bill Bleyer (55:45):
So, I don't buy it. But almost every other historian out there writes that this was the real reason, ignoring the fact that the year before he goes to New England where there are no Culper spies to see, the people give speeches, have dinners, look at what people are farming.
Bill Bleyer (56:00):
And the year after he goes south to do the same thing, all that’s a suggestion of Alexander Hamilton who says, “In the spring when Congress is not active and the government is slow, you should go out and see the people and show yourself to the public.”
Bill Bleyer (56:14):
So, you put it in the greater context, it makes even less sense. But this is just the last example of legend and speculation. But during the war of 1812, to get back to your question, it's a whole different situation. It's basically a refight of the revolution. But the major difference is the British never captured New York. They don't capture Long Island.
Bill Bleyer (56:37):
The Americans do a great whale boat raid on Sag Harbor, which is the biggest concentration of manufacturing and militia and population in Suffolk County. During the war, the Americans come and they capture Sag Harbor and take a lot of prisoners, burn a lot of British shipping and go back to Connecticut.
Bill Bleyer (56:56):
During the war of 1812, the British try to flip the coin. They do their own raid on Sag Harbor from their ships offshore and they do try to blockade Long Island Sound in the south shore of Long Island and do a pretty good job of that. But they never control any of the land, so you don't have a situation where you're going to have-
Benjamin Morris (57:15):
The same individuals doing the same kind of work.
Bill Bleyer (57:17):
Yeah, you don't need spies. Looking at what the British are doing, because the British don't have any of the territory. The British should never — they do the famous raid on burn Washington, but they don't stay and occupy any American territory anytime during the war. So, they don't really need that kind of intelligence system.
Bill Bleyer (57:32):
I'm sure there was spies trying to figure out what the British were doing with their fleet and where they would attack, particularly down in the Chesapeake Bay area. But you don't have the same situation where you would need a Spy Ring on land.
Benjamin Morris (57:47):
Right. When you note near the end of your book that some of these individuals, they're not passing away until 1820s, 1830s, 1840s, in some cases even, you just sort of think, here they are watching this replay as you say. And I couldn't help but wonder whether the old itch began to be scratched once more. But further research is perhaps required. We shall see.
Benjamin Morris (58:12):
Let me ask you this, the last sort of main question I have for you is that you write in the book and you actually document quite extensively the sites that still exist that are associated with the Spy Ring and the ones that are truthfully associated with the Spy Ring, not in fanciful versions, shall we say.
Bill Bleyer (58:32):
Is there one out of all of the different lookouts and houses and farmsteads and so forth that you describe, taverns and the rest, is there one which you were just particularly partial to as a longtime resident of Long Island, historian or Long Island? If there's one place that you would tell sort of a visitor to go to really get a sense of the drama and the intrigue and the mystery of this story, what would that be?
Bill Bleyer (58:59):
Well, the best place to go and learn the story is Raynham Hall. Because that's the Townsend family home. Although Townsend did no spying there and I've mentioned how the Andre connection doesn't really mean anything either.
Bill Bleyer (59:14):
But it's the Townsend home and they interpret the Spy Ring there. And they talk about Andre and they talk about what Robert's doing in the city. Because there aren't a lot of sites left that you can go to and learn anything about it because Woodhull's farmhouse burned down in the 1950s. Tallmadge's house is still there, but it's part it's private owned by the church still. And he wasn't doing any spying in Long Island. Everything he was doing was in Connecticut or north of the city.
Bill Bleyer (59:48):
There's the Phillips Roe house I mentioned in Port Jeff has just turned into a full working museum house. And they interpret and their curator's done a lot of work on the Spy Ring, including some groundbreaking stuff that nobody else has come up with. So, that's a good place to go.
Bill Bleyer (01:00:09):
Austin Roe's tavern was sold to a writer in the 1920s and he actually moved the house away from its original location because he wanted peace and quiet. So, he put it nearby in a road, and then he added two extensions on it. But the town of Brookhaven is in the process of acquiring it from the current owner who's a revolutionary or a reenactor.
Bill Bleyer (01:00:33):
There's a private house on the original site, but there's an empty site the town owns across the street. So, they're going to take off the modern wings, move the original center section where Washington slept to across the street from the original site and turn it into a house museum in the next year or so. So, that'll be a great place, that could even be the best place to go.
Bill Bleyer (01:00:55):
The Three Village Historical Society in Setauket, in their headquarters has a big exhibit on the Spy Ring with maps, showing the route, showing the codes, how that works. So, that's a great place to go also.
Bill Bleyer (01:01:22):
There’s actually, the state at the urging of all these organizations that own these houses created a spy trail. It's 55 miles with historical markers showing Washington's carriage linking up all these different sites and there's a telephone narratives tour you can follow, website with a lot of information. So, anybody that wants to actually sort of follow the trail of Austin Roe, you can do that and see these little markers along the way on Route 25A.
Benjamin Morris (01:01:55):
Well, it is no exaggeration to say that next time I come to New York, I know exactly where I'm going and what I'm doing, thanks to you. So, I really have loved this journey through such a remarkable part of our country's history.
Benjamin Morris (01:02:12):
And frankly, Bill, to start off our series on spies in American history, I can think of no better place to do that than at the start of American history, at the revolution. So, thank you so much for the time that you've taken to share this with us and for the journey. It has truly been a joy.