‘Turn’ offers glimpse into Washington’s spy network
In the series finale of AMC’s “Turn: Washington’s Spies,” George Washington says that “our country owes its life to heroes whose names it will never know.”
Abraham Woodhull is one such hero. The spy network he helped create, The Culper Ring, relayed vital information to the Colonial troops that helped lead to the defeat of the British at the Battle of Yorktown in 1781.
In the four-season AMC series, Woodhull is played by English actor Jamie Bell, best known for his role as the kid who just wants to dance in “Billy Elliott.”
“Turn” is based on the book “Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring” by Alexander Rose. The series, which recently concluded its fourth and final season on AMC, brings to life the story of the secretive Culper Ring, founded by Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge under orders from Washington in the summer of 1778 during British occupation of New York City.
The spy network was so secretive that, even centuries later, the names of some of the network’s operatives remain a mystery.
The ring was led by Woodhull, whose code name was Samuel Culper Sr. Woodhull was a young cabbage farmer from Setauket, New York, and a friend of Tallmadge.
Woodhull would travel to New York City, where he collected information from British officers staying at a boarding house, and then travel back to Setauket. There, he relayed the information to whaleboat operator and fellow spy Caleb Brewster, who took it across Long Island Sound to Tallmadge.
Working with Woodhull and Brewster was Robert Townsend, aka Samuel Culper Jr., a quiet, unassuming Quaker and reluctant spy who relayed information to Woodhull through newspaper advertisements gleaned from a boarding house he worked in which was often occupied by British forces.
Culper Ring spy Anna Strong’s role was to signal Brewster that a message was ready by hanging a black petticoat on the clothesline.
The name of another female spy, “Agent 355,” remains unknown to this day, but may have been Strong, according to historical documents.
In the series “Turn,” Agent 355 is a freed slave named Abigail, who relays messages to the Culper Ring in order to have her son returned to her.
I recently discovered the series and, after watching a somewhat slow and confusing first season, became addicted by season two. By the end of season four I was waving the flag of patriotism.
Bell plays Abe Woodhull with an intensity that carries the series. His character is caught between a desire to assist the cause, his hatred of the British and his love for fellow spy Anna Strong.
With my iPad ever present, I was able to conduct instant research on the historical characters portrayed in “Turn,” including Maj. John Andre, a British spy who helped turn Benedict Arnold into a traitor and was hanged by Washington when discovered. He is played in the series by the dashingly handsome actor J.J. Feild.
Arnold is played to dastardly perfection by British actor Owain Yeoman. Toward the end of the war, Arnold tells his fellow officers, “My legend has yet to be written. I will return to the colonies and I will win.”
I doubt that if he knew how history would actually remember him, he would have made the same decision.
A young and handsome George Washington is played by veteran actor Ian Kahn, who brings to the role a perfect combination of overwhelming strength, humility and compassion that history has taught us to believe that Washington possessed.
And, finally, a good series is nothing without a dastardly villain, and “Turn” has it in John Graves Simcoe, the ruthless and bloodthirsty commander of the Queen’s Rangers, whose job it is to capture and destroy the Culper Ring. Simcoe is portrayed by British actor Samuel Roukin.
“Turn” took artistic license with its portrayal of Simcoe, however. In reality, historians say that after the war he served as the first lieutenant governor of Upper Canada, founded Toronto, established courts of law, trial by jury and outlawed slavery.
The series also takes artistic license with its portrayal of the status and role of African-Americans in 18th century New York, choosing to whitewash the darkest period of American history.
Instead of slaves, African-Americans are portrayed as we wish history could recall — as servants, confidants and trusted friends of those they served, instead of enslaved against their will.
One of Washington’s African-American servants, Billy Lee, even serves as a moral advisor to the future president. Lest we forget, Washington himself was a slave owner.
In spite of its faults, the series offers an opportunity for viewers to remember how dangerous and difficult it is to form a new nation. And it offers a perfect opportunity to dig deeper into those who worked behind the scenes to help create ours.
The four-season series is now available on Netflix and Amazon Prime.
Susan Campbell may be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.