Tallmadge described going into New York in the summer of 1783, after it was clear the British would pull out. He wrote:
“I found it necessary to take some steps to insure the safety of several persons within the enemy’s lines, who had served us faithfully and with intelligence during the war. As some of these were considered to be of the Tory character, who would be very obnoxious [i.e., unpopular] when the British army should depart, I suggested to Gen. Washington the propriety of my being permitted to go to New York, under the cover of a flag…While at New York, I saw and secured all who had been friendly to us through the war, and especially our emissaries, so that not one instance occurred of any abuse, after we took possession of the city, where protection was given or engaged.”
Tallmadge’s private papers, now owned by the Litchfield (Connecticut) Historical Society, reveal a few clues about the Culper Ring, such as a draft of his letter to Gen. Washington explaining a code system he designed in 1779. A copy of that codebook survives in Washington’s own papers at the Library of Congress, along with reports sent to “John Bolton”—Tallmadge’s code name. But those documents still don’t name Tallmadge’s “emissaries” in New York.
Historians knew that Lt. Caleb Brewster (1747-1827) was part of the network, commanding one of those boats crossing Long Island Sound. Brewster signed his own name to reports describing his missions. But most of the letters he ferried to Tallmadge came from people calling themselves “Samuel Culper, Sr.” and “Samuel Culper, Jr.” When decoded, those letters contained hints of British plans, stories about nearly being caught, warnings that they might soon quit spying—a lot of dramatic detail. But their authors remained a mystery.
The first editor of Washington’s papers, Jared Sparks, quizzed people on Long Island for information about the “Culpers” and came up empty. In the late 1800s a note found in the files of British general Henry Clinton made Nathaniel Ruggles the chief suspect, but he was actually from Guilford, Connecticut, on the wrong side of the Sound.
Then in the early 1900s a local historian and genealogist with the I’m-not-making-this-up name of Morton Pennypacker noticed similarities between the handwritings of the “Culpers” and those of a couple of Long Island businessmen whose papers he was studying: Abraham Woodhull (1750-1826) and Robert Townsend (1753-1838).
Pennypacker began to investigate further. He amassed more evidence about Woodhull, Townsend, and a courier named Austin Roe (1748-1830). Those men never took credit for spying during the war, but their activities matched details in the Culper letters. Pennypacker published his findings first in The Two Spies, Nathan Hale and Robert Townsend in 1930, and then in the much thicker General Washington’s Spies on Long Island and in New York in 1939. The main members of the Culper Ring had been unmasked at last.
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