Forgotten History: The Culper Spy Ring


I absolutely love the History Channel, and one of my favorite shows is Brad Meltzer's Decoded. On the show, author Brad Meltzer and his crack team of friends investigate mysteries and strange history of the United States. On a recent episode, the team researched the Culper Ring and interviewed experts about it's history and weather or not it exists today. I had never heard of the Culper Ring but I found it fascinating because I am generally interested in espionage and the like.

The Culper Ring

The Culper Ring was a spy ring under the orders of General George Washington during the American Revolution. Washington asked Major Benjamin Tallmadge to organize a group of ordinary people who could covertly send messages to him about the whereabouts and plans of the British in New York City.

To form an intelligence-gathering team, Tallmadge enlisted Abraham Woodhull, a farmer from Setauket, Robert Townsend, a Manhattan merchant and society page reporter, and Austin Roe, a tavern keeper. Townsend would gather reports at social gatherings and give them to Roe. Roe, in turn, would ride to Setauket and drop the report off in a secret place. Woodhull would pick up the report, add his own information to it, and hand it off to Caleb Brewster. A whaleboatman, Brewster, would ferry the information across Long Island Sound. Tallmadge's men would be waiting for the hand-off to bring the reports, in the form of codes or invisible ink, to Washington's headquarters.

The Culper Ring was so secretive, not even Washington knew everyone who was in the group. Each agent was assigned a code name which was a three-digit number in most cases, while Woodhull was known as Culper Sr. and Townsend was known as Culper Jr.

Female Spies

Women were seen as critical members of the group. Anna Strong of Long Island used her laundry line as a code. If she hung a black petticoat on the clothesline, that meant that Brewster had arrived in his boat. The number of white handkerchiefs on the lie indicated which cove he docked in.

Another alleged member of the ring was a woman identified as "lady" or "355". On Decoded , a historian suggested that she may have been the girlfriend of a high ranking officer in the British military and used him to collect information preventing Benedict Arnold's treacherous plan from coming to fruition. Her true identity has never been discovered and she is thought to be the only member of the ring to be caught and executed by the British.


The Culper Ring was America's first group of super secret spies and the inspiration for the CIA and similar agencies. Some of their techniques such as codes, aliases and invisible ink are still in use today. Some believe that the ring never died; some form of the group still exists to this day.

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Comments 6 comments

viking305 profile image

viking305 5 years ago from Ireland

Yes I love history too and enjoyed reading about the Culper Ring here.

Jefsaid profile image

Jefsaid 5 years ago from London, UK

Good stuff

Andrea 5 years ago

This is one of the most accurate summaries I've read on the Culper Ring and 355! Thank you!

I think there's some confusion over the blog link, since that relates to current news.

kmcmichael profile image

kmcmichael 5 years ago from Athens, Georgia Author

thanks for the comments y'all! and andrea- i'll try to fix the link.

Rose West profile image

Rose West 5 years ago from Michigan

Very cool! I love history like that!

Celticsky 3 years ago

I came across one book that said it was preposterous that a woman could be a spy in the Culper Ring and have anything to do with the turn of the war for George Washington. It's the only citation I've seen that claims that, and he didn't even have a source to back it up.

Any source recommendations on 355?

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