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Did the Culper Ring get its due? A review of AMC’s “Turn”

From the poster of AMC's "Turn"

From the poster of AMC’s “Turn”

In the world of espionage, the best recognition is no recognition at all.

The front of the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in Langley, Virginia have monuments to fallen agents, sculptures on intelligence gathering, and a statue of Nathan Hale, the Revolutionary war spy who got caught and hanged in September of 1776.  The fallen agents went down due to numerous factors (possibly including incompetence), the intelligence gathering is nothing to celebrate, especially lately, and Hale is remembered more for supposed valor at the gallows than any real prowess as a spy.

Yet there is little public fanfare for the first successful spy agency in American history.

For most Americans, the recent debut of the AMC series Turn is their introduction to the Culper Ring, a network of spies and couriers that operated in New York City, Long Island and Connecticut during the Revolution.  For me, and anyone who went to school on Long Island, the Culper Ring was part of our common knowledge.  Part of my American history class was devoted to local history, and the Culper Ring featured prominently–I had to memorize the names and roles of Benjamin Tallmadge, Abraham Woodhull, Caleb Brewster and the like.

We even used some of their codes and encryption methods in class–which is especially fun when coding out swear words to your classmates.

Yet beyond the spycraft and 18-century Bond-like gadgetry, the Culper Ring was successful in the quality and quantity of their information (they supposedly discovered the Benedict Arnold betrayal and the British ambush on French troops in Rhode Island) as well as keeping their cover.  The original ring kept their identities hidden to the grave, and most of these identities  weren’t discovered until the 1930s.

This was a story that just begged to be made for the screen, and AMC has done it right, for now, in releasing their story as a series.  Is this new drama worthy of the exploits of the Culper gang?  Two episodes in, the verdict is still out, but the results look promising.

The series is based on Alexander Rose’s book Washington’s Spies and begins in a supposed backwater of the war–Suffolk County, Long Island.  Yet it is here, in the north shore hamlet of Setauket, where the ring begins to take shape.  Benjamin Tallmadge, a Continental major (and Yale classmate of Nathan Hale) recruits his reluctant friend Abraham Woodhull on a mission to transmit information to the rebel base across Long Island Sound in Connecticut.  Woodhull is portrayed as a typical non-committal farmer ala Mel Gibson’s melodramatic Benjamin Martin in The Patriot.  His loyalist (for now) father is the local magistrate and friends with the local commander of the British garrison.  As a struggling farmer, Woodhull just wants to stay out of the way, until events push him towards Tallmadge and rebel espionage.

After two episodes (including a one and a half hour pilot) I can see where the creators are going with this.  It’s great that the show is taking its time in developing the establishment of the spy network.  In real life, establishing confidants, sources and “assets” to “turn” (spyspeak for getting an asset to spy on their side) takes time and dangerous planning.  The show is also accurate in developing the perspectives and loyalties of everyday colonists of the time.  Even among the loyalists, you get a sense that the characters are loyal less out of any sense of connection and more of expediency.  The patriots also seem less like the textbook noble heroes and more human, driven by more tangible needs than simply love of liberty.

Selections from the Culper spy code, courtesy of the Three Village School District.

Selections from the Culper spy code, courtesy of the Three Village School District.

Another fun feature of the show is its interactive features.  The Turn website features an option called Story Sync.  Designed to be used simultaneously with the broadcast, Story Sync features information about the historical characters, quizzes, polls, and little asides designed to enrich the experience.  There are also links to interactive maps, spy materials, and other resources that an educator can use.  I already see how these can create a home Blu-Ray or DVD loaded with surprises.

However, the construction of the basic drama, at least now, seems formulaic.  It establishes a clueless British commander in Major Hewlett, a one-dimensional, wooden villain in Captain Simcoe (who reminds me of Colonel Tavington in The Patriot without the charisma), and a somewhat contrived love triangle between Woodhull, his wife, and Anna Strong, a local tavernkeeper who was once engaged to Woodhull and whose husband is in prison for an attack on a British officer.  I will admit, I didn’t read Rose’s book yet, but I do think this romance is more a creation of the screenwriters and less a development of actual events.

In terms of dramatic license, there needs to be some slack given.  Until recently, there was little evidence as to the existence of the ring at all, let alone their day-to-day operations.  So we can forgive the writers somewhat in their zeal to fill in the blanks.

In that vein, Robert Rogers offers a fun way to develop the story.  Rogers, a hero of the French and Indian War and a founder of modern military rangers, had serious legal issues in Britain and returned to America as an erratic alcoholic during the Revolution.  He offered his services to whoever would pay him: first Washington, who (wisely it seems) didn’t trust him, and then the British.  He created another Ranger unit that helped capture Nathan Hale, but Rogers’ behavior got him dismissed the next year, so he probably didn’t have as much involvement in the Culper spy network as the series would like him us to believe.

However, I think Rogers can become the most interesting character in the whole show.

In the series, he is portrayed as a colonial has-been with a hair-trigger temper and a sixth sense for treachery, one who’ll sell his mother for a few guineas.  Of all, I see Rogers as developing into an Al Swearengen type of character: a son of a bitch so ruthless and witty you just have to love him.  The problem with the show right now is that the British are all universally one-dimensional bad guys.  The best villains are those who have something likable about them, and Rogers is definitely someone I would have a drink with.  If Rogers emerges as the main antagonist, this might become a really fun show.

In terms of history, Turn is doing its best with the information it has.  Again, I didn’t read the source material, and once I do, I can make a more informed judgement.  However, as a television show, this has the potential to be fun, exciting and a good starting point in studying espionage in the American Revolution.

If only the show can get away from the cookie cutter formulas, it just might  do justice to an important set of patriots in our history.  Let’s hope the history wins out.

 

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Movies for the Classroom: A Christmas Carol (1971)

The holidays are never complete without Charles Dickens‘ immortal Victorian morality tale–and now you can show among the best versions of the story.

In 1843, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was not only a wildly popular bestseller.  In so many words, Dickens defined the modern definition of Christmas in Britain and especially in America.   Practically overnight, A Christmas Carol re-introduced the English-speaking world to a holiday that had been largely forgotten for almost two centuries.

Ever since the ban on Christmas during the Cromwellian era, the holiday was looked down upon as an idolatrous Catholic vice.  Even in America, only Anglican Virginia and outlying German Lutheran and Catholic settlements on the frontier really celebrated it.

Dickens’ work practically re-oriented the holiday from its more religious underpinnings to a secular, family-based celebration of comraderie and goodwill.  Even the most dour Calvinist couldn’t argue with those sentiments.  As the novel became popular, the markings of the celebration as noted on the pages–gift-giving, trees, pine wreaths, holly, carols, food, etc.–started to sprout in Britain and the United States (Puritan New England was slower in adopting it: many parts of the region wouldn’t allow Christmas celebrations until the 1870s.)

Thus, the holiday we see today comes almost directly from this 1843 novel.

Like any popular story, A Christmas Carol has been adapted for stage and screen numerous times.  The version attached today is among the best.  This 1971 animated film won the Academy Award for best animated short film: the only version of the story to be honored with an Oscar.  Directed by Richard Williams and produced by legendary animator Chuck Jones, the film’s style is lifted almost directly from 19th century illustrations, as well as 1930s illustrations of a popular reprint.  The tone is sufficiently dark to suit the somber Dickensian world of mid-19th century London: you can smell the smog and misery.

I think its among the best adaptations of the story around.  The mood of the story is sufficiently dark and upbeat to satisfy all audiences–but particularly older students.  This definitely lends itself to discussions of Victorian society, values, social welfare and government policies to the less fortunate.

Or it just could be a great Christmas yarn (which it is).  You can decide.  Enjoy.

 

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This Day in History 11/28: The Birth of Lord—or Lady—Cornbury

Lord Cornbury

Painting of a woman alleged to be Lord Cornbury. New-York Historical Society. Image via Wikipedia

History is primarily the business of debunking popular myths.

Yet some myths are so scandalous, so outrageous and so off-the-wall that you sincerely wish they were true—even if you know they’re probably not.

Such is the case with Edward Hyde, 3rd Earl of Clarendon, Viscount Cornbury. Historians know Lord Cornbury as among the worst colonial governors in American history. According to 19th century historian George Bancroft, Cornbury illustrated the worst form of the English aristocracy’s “arrogance, joined to intellectual imbecility”.

Yet his popular reputation rests in a painting.

In the New-York Historical Society hangs a painting of a woman. She is a rather ugly woman wearing a nice blue period dress…and a distinct five-o’clock shadow. For many years, this painting, which is unsigned and unattributed, was believed to be Lord Cornbury himself, sparking the popular myth that he was America’s first transvestite political leader.

Yet looking back, the claim of cross-dressing just doesn’t add up.

To be fair, the transvestitism isn’t what made Cornbury such a dickhead. Apparently his whole life was an exercise in profligate douchebaggery. During an unremarkable spell as a Tory member of Parliament, Cornbury served as a Page of Honour during James II’s coronation. Yet when William and Mary came ashore in 1688, Cornbury was one of the first officers to dump James off—and take a massive load of soldiers with him.

His later career only gets worse. As governor of New York and New Jersey from 1701 to 1708, he earned a foul reputation on both sides of the Atlantic. He favored Anglican churches with vast amounts of real estate, in open defiance of New York’s longstanding religious toleration. £1500 meant for the defense of New York harbor suddenly went missing. Bribes and corrupt payoffs became commonplace. His critics described him as a “fop”, a “wastrel” a “degenerate” and a “pervert.”

Even the little lady at home got in the act. According to Edwin Burrows and Mike Wallace in their work Gotham, Cornbury ‘s wife was known as a petty thief, swiping clothes and jewels from New York society ladies: “the sound of her carriage at the door, people said, was a warning to hide anything of value.”

The British didn’t much care for him, either. After his removal in 1708, Cornbury landed in debtor’s prison, where he received the not so welcome news that his father died and he would be the new Lord Clarendon. The title came with some serious money. It allowed him to get out of jail and pay his debts only to piss his fortune away again with the creditors knocking a second time. He finally dies alone and in debt in 1723, to be buried in Westminster Abbey (in what kinds of clothes I’m not sure.)

Yet the story of the cross-dressing governor persists. It has taken on a life of its own: Ric Burns’ documentary on New York states Cornbury’s sartorial transgressions almost as fact. I’ve even heard teachers showing the aforementioned painting as an actual portrait of Cornbury.

Yet as fun as the story is, the historian in me thinks the evidence to support it is not only thin, but woefully one-sided. Patricia Bonomi, Professor emeriti of history at New York University, agrees.

In 1998, Bonomi wrote The Lord Cornbury Scandal: The Politics of Reputation in British America, among the few scholarly works addressing Cornbury’s tenure as New York’s governor. In this work, she debunks the transvestite myth as a rumor started by his colonial opponents in New York.

First, transvestitism was, according to Bonomi, considered a heinous act in the 18th century. The painting purported to be Cornbury would probably not have been him, since such a public display was usually meted out by political cartoons and the like. It would be almost as if a pedophile sat with his/her victim for a portrait at Sears: ballsy, obscene, irrational…but probably unlikely.

Second, the evidence of the cross-dressing comes from four letters dated 1707-1709, all from three colonists bent on removing Cornbury from office. According to the letters, Cornbury opened the 1702 New York Assembly in an elaborate gown reminiscent of Queen Anne, claiming that as the Queen’s power in the colony he needed to represent her in every way possible. During Lady Cornbury’s funeral in 1707 (when the shoplifting was done), Cornbury also supposedly attended in female dress.

However, according to Bonomi, none of his officers, ministers or colonial agents ever mentioned these tendencies. None of the authors of the letters even claim to have seen this, either. It appears it was an attempt to get him out of office by any means necessary—and it worked.

Bonomi also claims (and I’m not totally convinced of this) that Cornbury was not as corrupt and profligate as is claimed. She claims that he was welcomed warmly in England on his return in 1709, and served high offices. I’m not as convinced at this—especially since fiscal malfeasance tends to leave a more verifiable paper trail than sexual transgressions.

What is important in looking at this episode—and what Bonomi gets right—is how sex was used as a political tool even in the early 18th century. The cross-dressing scandal, more than anything else, is what drove Queen Anne to replace Cornbury in 1708. Sexual misconduct, even as a rumor, is still a powerful tool, now as it was in Cornbury’s time.

However, even as one can probably put the transvestite myth of Lord Cornbury in doubt, there is some sense of loss. Without the hoop skirts and corsets, Cornbury becomes just another greedy colonial governor.

Sometimes the myths really do add to the history—even if it isn’t really true.

 

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