Behind The Culper Spy Ring: Anna Smith Strong and Robert Townsend

by | Apr 10, 2018 | Heidi's Updates

We’re concluding our exploration of the Culper Spy Ring today by talking about the only female member of the ring, Anna Smith Strong, and the most elusive member of the ring, Robert Townsend.

Anna Smith Strong (aka Nancy Strong)

Born in 1740, Anna was a bit older than the other members of the spy ring. Mother of nine children and wife to Judge Selah Strong, Anna obtained permission to bring her husband food when he was arrested for “surreptitious correspondence with the enemy.” 

Anna’s house was taken over by the occupying army, and she went to live in a slave cottage on her property.

A neighbor and good friend of Abraham Woodhull, much legend surrounds Anna Smith Strong. The legend says that Anna would hang a black petticoat on her laundry line, indicating that Caleb Brewster was nearby. The number of white handkerchiefs hung would indicate which cove (of the many in Setauket) that Caleb waited for Abraham in. (Or in other versions of the legend, which cove was safe for Caleb to enter, or where Abraham had left a dead drop.)

Anna is also said by many to be the mysterious Agent 355, “the lady” Abraham writes of in one of his letters, who would “outwit them all.” Brian Kilmeade, in his book George Washington’s Secret Six, however, says that “it seems quite unlikely that the fortyish housewife, mother, and spouse of a well-known Patriot rabble-rouser would have ventured from Long Island to Manhattan to attend parties where she would have rubbed elbows with the Loyalist elite and gained the trust of high-ranking British officers. A much more likely contender would be a young woman living a fashionable life in New York.” This is where my fictional heroine, Mercy comes into play in The Hidden Side.

In Turn: In AMC’s Turn, Anna is young and without children. She is disloyal to her husband and falls in love with Abraham Woodhull. I do, however, like her spunk and bravery portrayed in the series, and it is fun to think of the entire laundryline legend as being true—perhaps it is!

In The Hidden Side: Since Mercy takes up the role of Agent 355 in my book, we only have a brief scene with Anna. In my book, Anna never goes to Manhattan. That role is taken up by Mercy.

Robert Townsend

This historical character fascinates me. He kept his secret best, for it wasn’t until the early 20th century that he was discovered as a member of the spy ring. Up until that time, it was a mystery how so much information was actually obtained in Manhattan. This is the man with the answers!

Recruited by Abraham Woodhull, this half Quaker/half Protestant had a share in James Rivington’s Loyalist newspaper, the Royal Gazette. No one would guess that this simple, unassuming, cautious man would take up the business of spying.

A troubled man and lifelong bachelor, Robert seemed to be haunted by his duplicity, and yet the reading of Thomas Paine’s Common Sense and his family’s mistreatment by the redcoats in Oyster Bay prompted him to put aside his Loyalist leanings to aid General Washington.

In Turn: Robert is a tavern keeper, who takes part in Rivington’s newspaper. He strikes me as a bit bolder than the real Robert Townsend, but that is to be expected. I have an inkling that the real Robert Townsend would not be one we think of as a television hero!

In The Hidden Side: I have tried to keep Robert’s personality as true as I can to what history indicates. He is a major part of the story, but I can’t say more for I don’t want to give too much away. I will say I felt for Robert, for his very real struggle to do what was right, and for his fearfulness. I get that, so it was nice to try and portray the conflict faced by these spies. We often think of it as glorious, but there were certainly many inner challenges these men and women faced.

That completes our tour of the Culper Spy Ring! I hope you enjoyed learning about these members, and I hope you check out The Hidden Side soon!

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