When we think of spies today, we usually conjure up images of debonair men in tuxedos, or perhaps action heroes with razor-sharp instincts. We think of technologically advanced gadgets, intimidating weapons, and carefully plotted missions. But until recently, espionage wasn’t considered a glamorous or even interesting profession. It was filthy. Shameful. Would only be entered into by the lowest of the low—because how could anyone who sold information possibly be trustworthy?
In the days of the Revolution, General George Washington found himself in a familiar but tight spot. He desperately needed to know what the British were doing, and the information he got from military scouts was not enough. There were, as always, those base creatures willing to sell what they knew to the highest bidder, but Washington knew well how inaccurate their information usually was. And whenever he did locate good sources, it seemed the British always found them out and arrested them. What he needed were trustworthy spies. Honorable spies. Anonymous spies.
Washington turned to one of his officers with a proposition—if Benjamin Tallmadge could put together a group of men who were virtuous and could devise a system for them to remain undiscovered, then he would be put in charge of all Patriot intelligence.
Tallmadge had never had a day of training in this sort of thing, but he knew well the consequences of failure—his friend from Yale had been hung by the British when he was caught scouting out of uniform. The penalty for espionage was, quite simply, death. So secrecy was his top priority. And when one wants to keep a secret, to whom does one turn but one’s closest friends?
Soon Tallmadge had put together his band of honorable men, men willing to take a great risk to aid the country and the cause they so loved. His primary intelligencer at the start was Abraham Woodhull, a Long Island farmer who grew up in the same town as Tallmadge. Woodhull had recently been arrested for sneaking produce to the black market trade in the British-held city of New York, and he was happy to be released in exchange for his assistance. He was given the code-name Samuel Culper, and all correspondence pertaining to “the business” called him such. Woodhull had a sister living in New York, which gave him a perfect excuse to make frequent trips to the city where he could observe British movement for Washington and Tallmadge. But the trips were expensive and the expenses never repaid, so he was soon looking for someone else to take over behind enemy lines.
Woodhull had become well acquainted by that time with a Quaker shopkeeper by the name of Robert Townsend. Townsend owned a popular dry goods store, stock in a popular Loyalist coffee shop, and also worked for a newspaper—all of which put him in a perfect position to overhear sensitive information from the masses of soldiers. Dubbed Samuel Culper, Jr., Townsend joined the Culper Ring and became its star. Here was a man of integrity, one who reported solid facts without opinion, without exaggeration, without fear. Here was a man with his pulse on British New York.
Here was a man with an anxiety disorder as yet unnamed, which he referred to as “black moods.” A man who spent much of his life governed by nerves, by fear, by melancholy. A man we today would deem a most unlikely hero. Yet it’s the information he passed along time and again that gave the Patriots the edge they needed to win a war.
Other members of the Ring included a die-hard sailor who was such an adventurous, robust character that he refused to use any code name. He was Caleb Brewster, he said to his childhood chum Tallmadge, and would be nothing else. Caleb Brewster the fisherman, the sailor, the soldier, and now the transporter of information. He was the one who took the messages from Long Island, across the pirate-infested sound, and to Patriot territory. Where he put them into the hand of Austin Roe, a farmer-cum-soldier from the same Long Island town.
They had only a tossed-together code that Tallmadge devised, one that would have been easily cracked. A handful of men willing to take risks. And a recipe for invisible ink that could only be developed with a specific counter-agent, which saved their necks time and again. But they had a will, a faith, and a determination. And most importantly, they had a bond of friendship that guaranteed that most important tool of all—anonymity.
Though they operated for years under the very noses of the British, the Culper Ring was never discovered. The Redcoats knew there were spies among them and sought them out relentlessly, but never once did they stumble upon the truth of the agents’ identities. The Culpers remained, till the end of the war, General Washington’s most trusted spies. And so they redefined the very word. No longer was it a badge of shame—they had made it into a badge of honor.
And because they were protected by bonds of blood and friendship, they remain so shrouded in mystery that no one is quite sure what became of them after the Revolution...or if perhaps their successors still walk among us today.