Oh, dear. What a disappointment. Many who were thrilled by the news that the AMC Channel was creating “Turn”, a television series to tell the true story of George Washington’s Long Island spy ring were startled to see glaring inaccuracies depicted, from the opening scene on April 6, 2014.
Had the writers not pinned the names of historic figures onto their characters, and instead developed a script of pure fiction about spying, adultery, gratuitous violence and traitorous generals during the American Revolution, one could sit back with feet up and relax with escapist fantasy. No problem. But – when a producer and a network advertise a program as “a true story,” and then proceed not only to bend the truth but, on occasion, to break it across their knees, and when “real” characters bear no resemblance to their flesh and blood namesakes, it is time to protest.
Where to begin? Perhaps by coming to the defense of Anna Smith Strong, in a valiant attempt to resurrect her good name and sterling character. In AMC’s sexed-up, Hollywood version, which opens in the year 1776, Anna is in her twenties, married to Selah Strong, a tavern keeper. She wears revealing dresses (no modesty lace inserts for her) while carrying mugs of ale to rowdy locals. She responds to (some might say “encourages”) the yearning advances of Abraham Woodhull, to whom, according to the writers, she was secretly pledged until his father forced him to marry Mary Smith after Mary’s fiancé, Abraham’s older brother, had died. Abraham struggles to be a good husband to Mary, and father to his infant son, but still loves Anna and eventually succumbs to her charms.
Whew! Were I the current Regent of Setauket’s Anna Smith Strong Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution – a worthy organization devoted to educating the public about a local heroine – I would look into the feasibility of hiring an attorney to sue for libel on behalf of a historical person who has been a victim of grave character assassination.
The facts: Anna Smith was born in 1740, ten years before Abraham Woodhull. She was the daughter of landed gentry – the great-granddaughter of William “Tangier” Smith, an English early settler of Suffolk County. He and his wife, Madam Martha Smith, owned thousands of acres stretching from Long Island’s North Shore in Setauket to the Great South Bay in Mastic Beach. Anna Smith made a proper match at age twenty, in the year 1760. Her husband, Selah Strong II, was a Patriot and a judge who purchased a Long Island manor on Strong’s Neck in Setauket. They owned no tavern.
In 1776, the Honorable Judge Selah Strong II and Anna were Patriots living with their six children. In 1778 (and not in 1776 as “Turn” would have it) Judge Strong, accused by British forces of having “surreptitious correspondence with the enemy,” was captured and placed in a prison in Manhattan called the Sugar House. There is doubt that he was ever on the notorious prison ship, the Jersey, in New York Harbor. It was not Major Robert Rogers who secured Selah’s release through a subterfuge; it was Nancy, who put aside her Patriot pride to appeal to her Loyalist Smith relatives to obtain her husband’s release. For safety reasons, in 1778 Selah took their six children, who ranged in age from two to seventeen, to Connecticut, until 1781.
While he was away, Nancy became the only woman believed to have been involved in the Culper Spy Ring. Unlike the interpretation given on “Turn,” however, she was not the goad urging Abraham to be a spy; her role was not central. The only mention Abraham made of her in his correspondence was a reference to “a lady” that accompanied him to the city on at least one occasion in 1779, as a cover.
In 1776 Anna was 36; Abraham Woodhull, a great-grandson of another first settler, Richard Woodhull I, was 26 and unmarried. Abraham did not marry Mary Smith until 1781. They would have two daughters and one son. Nancy and Selah had nine children; their last infant was born after the Revolution, when she was 43.
Anna and Abraham did not fall in a passionate tumble atop a kitchen table in his house while his wife and son were at his father’s, and they were not interrupted by the British soldier quartered there. Love scenes between the two are pure invention.
Abraham’s father, Richard Woodhull IV, was a Patriot, not a Loyalist. He did not live in a grand house apart from his son, with servants and creature comforts to offer the estranged Mary and their infant. Richard, his wife Margaret, and Abraham lived together with Abraham’s unmarried sister in their farmhouse on Shore Road. Abraham did not marry Mary Smith until 1781. Richard Woodhull did not follow orders of Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hewlett to dig up gravestones of the Setauket Presbyterian Church, nor did he persuade other residents of Setauket to do so. British soldiers dug up the gravestones, as a barricade for the British garrison. As for Richard being coddled by the Redcoats, while Abraham was away from the farm British soldiers came to arrest him; not finding the son, they severely beat the father.
It is not true that Washington knew Abraham’s name. Washington never wanted to know the names of Abraham Woodhull (Samuel Culper Senior) and two other members of the ring that we may meet in future episodes, Robert Townsend (Samuel Culper Junior) of Oyster Bay, who became the main information gatherer in New York City, and the Setauket tavern keeper, Austin Roe. (Why “Turn” made Selah Strong a tavern keeper and eliminated the real one is a mystery thus far.)
A few other errors: The story of Abraham giving Hessian soldiers some cabbages in order to get news of the Hessians at Trenton in late December 1776 is pure fiction. And, according to historian Bev Tyler, his crop would not have been cabbage, but grain. Benjamin Tallmadge did not break military discipline by forging a letter to General Washington about the Hessian encampment in Trenton, and he was not reprimanded by General Scott or anyone else. In 1776 and 1777 Tallmadge was a respected soldier promoted rapidly, from Lieutenant to Captain to Major (and, eventually, Colonel) by General Washington. He soon replaced Nathaniel Sackett as head of the spy ring in 1778.
The list of egregious errors is too long to mention here. The credits for “Turn” still list Alexander Rose, author of Washington’s Spies: The True Story of America’s First Spy Ring. The thought that Rose was a contributor to the series originally encouraged one to expect a reliable telling. It is disheartening to think that Rose permitted the writers to subvert the history he had so carefully researched and written.
Not withstanding these sad thoughts, if the national audience reached by the program becomes “turned” on to the American Revolution and learns of the role played by Setauket and its Patriots to achieve victory, it seems churlish to quibble.
By all means, watch the program, not as history but as entertainment (sex and violence guaranteed). Take a sedative beforehand to combat apoplexy when fiction buries fact, and two aspirin if multiple commercials every seven minutes annoy. You can also check the “facts” of Turn online.
For the true story, I still recommend that you read Alexander Rose’s Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring. It’s the closest written version of the truth that we have. To hear the true story from the hero’s own mouth, you can’t do better than to meet Mr. Beverly Tyler (Bev), the Three Village Historical Society Historian, at the Caroline Church in Setauket, and take his next Walk Through History with Farmer and Revolutionary War Spy Abraham Woodhull.
Or, take the Society’s 90-minute walking tour of the Setauket Village Green to visit the grave of Abraham Woodhull in the Setauket Presbyterian Churchyard – yes, the place where the British ripped up some gravestones to fortify the church during the Battle of Setauket in 1777.
This essay is an expanded version of the original first published in the Long Island Studies Council Newsletter (May/June 2014) and the Times-Beacon-Record, May 30, 2014.