Here is the third and final part of the Culper Spy Ring by RW Jay Austin. Brother Jay and I went scouting around to see if we could find the resting places of our first spies, and we were fortunate to discover the burial plots for two of the operatives. We had a nice day and help from people with much more information then we can put into this article, ask us and, if you know the secret spy word, we may tell you more about what we found out.
The CULPER SPY RING Part 3
General Washington had numerous other agents reporting on enemy activities in New York City. Among them was James Rivington [Rivington Street in Manhattan is named after him], a prominent Tory newspaper publisher. James Rivington’s Tory newspaper, The Royal Gazette, was extremely critical of George Washington. However, Rivington was also a spy who passed along secrets of the British navy to colonial leaders. On one occasion, Rivington helped break a British code that almost surely saved American lives during one of the war’s earlier battles. Rivington published one of the most famous Loyalist newspapers in the American colonies, while secretly supplying George Washington with information. Rivington who opened a coffee shop adjacent to his printing-house, would have been the last New Yorker suspected of playing the part of a spy for the Continentals, but he furnished Washington with important information. His communications were written on thin paper, bound in the covers of books and conveyed to the American camp by agents that were ignorant of their service.
Agent 355, whose name and whose fate have been lost in time, might have escaped imprisonment and gone on to live a long and happy life. Or she may have passed away somewhere in the dark, disease-infested hull of the HMS Jersey. When the British left New York in November 1783, they abandoned the HMS Jersey in New York harbor, with several thousand starving prisoners still on board.
It is extremely difficult to learn much at all about the lives and deaths of those unlucky enough to be captured. After the surrender of the British, the former colonist sought to piece together their shattered lives and homes; many records were lost, destroyed or simply filed away without any thought to their deeper significance. Thousands of individuals were missing from battlefields, prison camps, and prison ships; thousands more were untraceable due to emigration, desertion, or simply westward movement into newly opened territories beyond the Appalachians. In the mid-nineteenth century, as the generation who lived during the Revolution was passing away, historians made some efforts to reconstruct lists of inmates’ names by interviewing survivors of the HMS Jersey. Though quite rare [and since they were recalled several decades after the fact, not wholly reliable accounts], women’s names do appear on most of these lists; none have proved to be that of Agent 355.
Agent 355 represents all covert agents------those men and women whose identities are never revealed and whose stories are never told, but who offer their services and their lives on behalf of their country. With the end of the war and the start of the American republic, the Culpers could return to their lives as ordinary citizens. While a few were not shy about their role in the war effort and enjoyed a bit of notoriety for their daring adventures, most did what all good spies do : They carried on in obscurity as ordinary and unassuming people whose neighbors never knew they had led double lives.
It is sincerely hoped that Robert Townsend, Austin Roe, Caleb Brewster, Abraham Woodhull, James Rivington, Anna Strong, and Agent 355 will be given their rightful place in American history. Their extraordinary heroism and patriotism, unknown to their contemporaries, should not be forgotten.
R W Jay Austin
As a footnote to this article, Brother Jay had asked Brother Thomas Savini, Director of the Masonic Livingston Library, to investigate if any or all of the men in the Culper spy ring were Masons. Sadly, Brother Savini, after going through a large number of sources, dating back to the year 1787, could not find any listing that included the members of the Culper spy ring as being members of any Masonic Lodge. To me, though, I believe that Robert Townsend, Austin Roe, Caleb Brewster, Abraham Woodhull, James Rivington, Anna Strong and Agent 355 show and uphold all the traits of a Master Mason, so I will think of these men and women as being Master Masons because of the ideals which they held near and dear to their hearts, and the ordeals that they went through.
W Nicholas Isabella
Queens District Historian