What Is the Culper Ring?

What Is the Culper Ring?

Ever wonder about the origins of organized intelligence operations? In America, until the Revolutionary War, there simply was no organized intelligence. There were military scouts and there were occasionally spies, but not under a central system. Then came the Culper Ring.

The Culper Ring was American’s first spy ring. They were a group of spies working for the Continental Army during the American Revolutionary War. General Washington saw the need for trustworthy, on-the-ground intelligence, gathered by people who were honorable and wouldn’t exaggerate. Accurate intelligence was hard to come by in those days.

Washington turned to one his aides, Benjamin Tallmadge, and commissioned him to put together a group of people who could gather information for the Continental Army from behind enemy lines, especially in New York City and Long Island. Tallmadge, in turn, called upon some old friends to get started, and then those friends brought in a few neighbors they could trust, and eventually the Ring grew to include Abraham Woodhull, Robert Townsend, and Anna Strong.


How did the Culper Ring get its name?

The “Culper” part of the ring is an abbreviated version of Culpepper County, Virginia, where Washington had held his first job.

But how they assigned individual aliases within the Ring is quite interesting! They started with the initials of the head of intelligence—Charles Scott, C.S. Then they reversed them—S.C. This would be the initials of the primary Culper officer. For the “C,” Washington chose a place he had fond memories of, Culpeper County, Virginia, where he worked as a lad. Then he shortened it to Culper. For the “S,” Tallmadge (the head officer of the ring) decided on “Samuel,” his younger brother’s name, and a good friend of the man who would be adopting the identity. So there we have it! Samuel Culper, the creation that became the bane of the British.


The Main Players:

Benjamin Tallmadge


Benjamin Tallmadge was  born in 1754 in Setauket, Long Island, New York. After attending Yale, he became an officer in the Continental Army during the American Revolution. He was assigned as an aide de camp for General George Washington, who eventually tasked him with creating America’s first spy ring: the Culper Ring. This was because of many frustrations from bad intelligence. They needed dependable intelligence. In Tallmadge’s mind, the best way to do that was to recruit people you knew and trusted. So he began with a childhood friend, Abraham Woodhull.

After the war, Tallmadge eventually went on to become a Congressman; he was serving in the House of Representatives during the War of 1812. He died in 1835.


Abraham Woodhull


Abraham Woodhull was recruited by Tallmadge as the first member of the Culper Ring…a bit unwillingly. He was a farmer by trade, and the demand for produce in British-held (and blockaded) New York City was so high that most farmers, regardless of their political persuasion, regularly ran the blockade the sell their produce on the black market. Woodhull, however, got caught—by the Patriots. When Tallmadge heard of it, he intervened and struck him a deal: he’d get off the hook for his smuggling if he agreed to gather intelligence for the Continental Army. Woodhull agreed and operated as the first and only member of the ring for a while.

Woodhull received the first code name of the Ring, Samuel Culper, as a way to protect his identity.

Eventually, he brought in Robert Townsend, who was a fellow resident of the boarding house in New York City that Woodhull occasionally made use of, and Anna Strong, his neighbor’s wife. Woodhull was very hesitant about these clandestine tasks, knowing well the danger it put him in. His anxiety, combined with ill health, led to him stepping away from the Ring near the end of the war.

After the war, Woodhull returned to his farming business and served in various local government positions. He died in 1826.


Robert Townsend


Robert Townsend was in many ways the most crucial member of the Culper Ring. Dubbed “Samuel Culper, Jr” by Tallmadge, Townsend became the main operative for the Ring within the City of New York.

He was born in 1753 in Oyster Bay, New York, and he was a merchant by trade. He owned a mercantile and a coffee shop, both of which were popular with British soldiers, and also wrote regular articles for a British-sympathizing newspaper. All of these business ventures put him in the perfect position to gather information for the Patriot cause and send it along to Tallmadge; sometimes via Woodhull and Anna Strong, sometimes via a courier that went from the city back to wherever Washington and Tallmadge were encamped.

Townsend’s intelligence was critical to the Continental Army’s success in many ways. However, he also suffered from what we today would call bipolarism or manic-depression. His own writings and those about him all agree that would swing from high moods down into “black moods,” as he dubbed him, that would hinder his work both in general and for the Ring.

After the war, he led a quiet life. He never married. He died in 1838.


Anna Strong


Anna Strong is the only identified female member of the Culper Ring. She and her husband, Selah, lived on a farm neighboring Abraham Woodhull’s on Long Island. A decade older than Woodhull, she was never a love interest, despite what television may lead us to believe. But she did pose as his wife from time to time as they made runs for information—a couple was less likely to be stopped by the British at checkpoints than was a single man. She is most remembered for the system of signal flags she used to communicate with Townsend—she would hang a black petticoat on her clothesline to signal that it was safe to come to town with a message.

After the war, Strong lived the rest of her life in Setauket. She died in 1812.



Remember When . . . The Schools Were at War Too

Remember When . . . The Schools Were at War Too

Well, that time of year has come again. My family has officially started the 2018-19 school year. Part of me hates the loss of free time…and part of me is excited about all those awesome books we get to read together this year!

For those of you who have been reading the Shadows Over England series, you know that one of the most important things for the family of thieves-turned-agents is that with the advent of steady income they can, for the first time, afford to send the little ones to school. While “public schools” had long been available in England, they weren’t what we think of them as today. They weren’t free for the public–they were just available for anyone from the public to pay to attend. Free, compulsory schools were set up in the 1890s, at which attendance was required…until the age of 10. My family, however, didn’t send the little ones to those for a few very good reasons–they weren’t a legal family, and if the children were known by the system, they’d be taken away. So Barclay educated the children at home until such a time as he could pay to put them in a better school.

In An Hour Unspent, we get a glimpse of the kids finally taking on the roles of traditional children. They’re attending school, fighting over books, struggling with Algebra. All things familiar to children today. But for them, this was huge. This was an opportunity. This was a new life unfolding before them.

But the war changed the school system just as it changed everything in England. Many of the teachers were gone, having enlisted. Meals, which had only been served in schools for 8 years at that point in history and were far from inspiring, became sparse and even less inspiring as shortages took effect. Older children often left school as soon as they legally could, usually between 10 and 12 years old, to get a job and help their families survive.
In some ways, the war hit colleges hardest. In my research, I found several mentions of professors leaving colleges when they closed in 1914–presumably because of lack of students. But then those same professors returned to their colleges in the later years of the war–presumably when more students came in.

As the war dragged on and shortages increased, the need for food was on everyone’s mind. “Grow your own” became a necessity, and many schools created gardens and instructed their students in how to grow vegetables. Schoolchildren were also called upon to knit scarves and socks for servicemen, write letters to soldiers, and raise funds for the war, often by selling small flags and pins to be worn on special Flag Days.

Though hard days for everyone, the First World War did, in fact, lead to educational reform in England. In 1918 the school leaving age was raised to 14, with more options available for children 14 to 18, to train them for better paying, skilled labor. This was one of the huge things that led to the stop of child labor. Which meant it was opposed by factory owners, landowners, and even the Church. But it also paved the way for what we know today–mandatory education for children up to 18 years of age (which came into effect after WW2 in England).
Did you enjoy school or dread it? Would you have left school to get a job as a young teen had it been an option?

Remember When . . . The War Brought Darkness

Remember When . . . The War Brought Darkness

War changes things. We all know that, but most of today haven’t lived through a “total war” that really impacts everyone at home, whether we or our family are directly involved in the fighting or not. Most people are very aware of how WWII did this…but most of us don’t realize that the things we’re so familiar with from that war, had their roots in the First World War.
But London, for instance, experienced huge changed when war was declared, and it was interesting to show these through my characters in An Hour Unspent.
London Blackout – Wiki Commons
One of the first changes to be put into place was a blackout in coastal towns and London. As early as 1913, Churchill, as the First Lord of the Admiralty, drew up a plan for a blackout in the event of war. For the first time in history, people had to fear enemies coming not just from land or sea, but from the air. Many still primarily feared rockets or missiles that could be launched from naval vessels, but there was (rightfully) a growing fear that aircraft could be weaponized. At the start of the war, airplanes weren’t the biggest threat–they had a difficult time crossing the channel and couldn’t carry much by way of bombs or guns. But zeppelins were a different story.
As a result, eight days after England declared war on Germany, blackout restrictions were put in place. In London, this meant no electric lights were permitted outside. Street lamps were painted over to dim them. Most houses at this time still had the old gas lights installed as well as the new electric ones, and they had to use those after dark, or use curtains to keep the light from shining.
The streets became hazardous after dark. Before, when gas street lamps were the norm, there weren’t automobiles zipping around. The combination of faster vehicles and less light was, let’s say, not a good combination.
So in an effort to keep people off the streets after dark, many traditional nighttime events like operas and plays and concerts were moved up to earlier hours or canceled entirely.
First Zepplin sighting 1915 – Wiki Commons
But dimming the lights wasn’t the only step London took to confuse an aerial attack. They knew that a night attack was most likely for zeppelins, and they knew that if they were to come across the Channel, it would have to be on a clear night.
A clear night meant moonlight. And moonlight would reflect most off…water.
Everybody of water in London would become a homing beacon. So they drained the lakes and ponds in the parks, leaving nothing but muddy expanses where once there had been beautiful vistas.
What they couldn’t drain, however, was the Thames. And in the first zeppelin raids, the river was indeed what the airships followed.
By the end of the war, all this was no doubt old hat. But can you imagine seeing one of those drained lakes at the start? How sobering a reminder it would have been that the world had gone mad and that the very skies should be feared? Quite a scary thing. And one my characters had to encounter and combat.
Remember When . . . Watches Appeared on the Wrist – Part II

Remember When . . . Watches Appeared on the Wrist – Part II

Last week I started telling you about Hans Wilsdorf and the founding of Rolex. It was getting a bit long, so I figured I’d better break it up into two posts. 😉 As a quick reminder, I’d told you a bit about Hans’s early days and his determination to create a great wrist watch (called “wristlets” at the time) and then make his company name, Rolex, be the one people came to associate with the quality watches he produced.
But if you were paying attention to the years I mentioned, you’ll have known that things were about to change for Hans. The Great War was coming. And though he’d become an English citizen when he married his wife, Florence, no one really cared about that.
He was German. He spoke with an accent. He had a clearly German last name.
Life became not so easy for the Wilsdorfs in London. He and Florence were both harassed whenever they went out in public. And to make matters worse, a new customs duty was put into place–33.5%. And for a business that was almost exclusively exported, this could easily spell The End.
The Wilsdorfs didn’t have much choice. They packed up and moved to Bienne, Switzerland, for the duration of the war. Rolex already had a branch there, so they moved all operations out of England and continued to produce the watches quickly gaining a reputation for excellence.
But though the war forced them from their home, it also helped create a market for the wristlet. Timing was crucial in military operations, and having a reliable timepiece was essential. The few soldiers who went to war with wristlets soon proved how practical they were. Pocket watches were generally worn in a jacket pocket, which was then under an overcoat in the winter months. To check the time, soldiers would have to take off their gloves, open their overcoat, and dig it out of their undercoat. Compare that to just raising your wrist, and you can see why the men who had wristlets found them so much better an option. After the war ended, the popularity of the wrist watch surged.
And at the front of the wave was Rolex.
But Wilsdorf wasn’t about riding a wave. He was about innovation–and marketing savvy. His next goal was to create a waterproof watch, which he achieved in 1926. The Oyster. But water had long been known as the enemy of a watch, so he had his work cut out for him, convincing the public that his Oyster really could keep running, even when wet. One boon came when a swimmer swam the English Channel, wearing one. They were already getting publicity for their feat, and Rolex got a bit too.
But that wasn’t quite enough. So Wilsdorf came up with an ongoing publicity stunt. Shops that sold Rolexes were outfitted with aquariums, in which hung an Oyster, keeping perfect time despite being continually submerged.
It worked. By the time World War II rolled around, Rolex was well known around the world as being the best watch to be had. The most reliable. A byword for quality and luxury.
Now, though he was German by birth, Hans was firmly on the Allied side of both World Wars. And when he heard that Allied soldiers in the Second World War were stripped of their Rolexes when they were taken prisoner, he publicly swore that Rolex would replace any Allied soldier’s watch that was stolen. And he kept his word. This story exemplifies just one of the many ways that Hans made Rolex a company with heart, not just monetary success.
So how does all this work its way into my book? Well, all of it obviously doesn’t. But I’d looked up the history of Rolex out of curiosity when I realized I would have a clockmaker for a central character in An Hour Unspent, figuring the company was forming around the same time as my story. When I realized how well it actually lined up with my timeline, I decided to give Hans Wilsdorf a cameo appearance. He actually ended up presenting a plot point that was rather crucial…but of course, I’m not going to tell you what that was. 😉 Just that I had oh so much fun writing it!
And I also just want to say that the more I learned about Wilsdorf and the company he built, the more I admired him and Rolex. They aren’t just glitzy watches for the rich, status symbols. They’re undeniable quality built on innovation and popularity gained through determination and marketing brilliance. You just have to admire that.
Remember When . . . Watches Appeared on the Wrist – Part I

Remember When . . . Watches Appeared on the Wrist – Part I

I’m posting my “Remember When” a day early this week, in deference to Independence Day tomorrow. Just pretend it’s Wednesday. 😉
These days, when someone asks you what time it is, you might just pull out your cell phone. But until recently, that certainly wasn’t the norm, right? You would have looked at your wrist–and many of us today still do. (I say “us,” but the sad truth is that I rarely wear a watch–it hits against my laptop keyboard and is uncomfortable, and since I’m home most of the time, I can just look at a clock, so…)
But wristwatches–arguably the norm for timekeeping for the last century–were once the new kid on the block. And we owe their popularity primarily to one man.
Hans Wilsdorf.
Born in Germany in 1881, Hans and his brother and sister were orphaned when he was 12. His uncles decided that in order to see to the childrens’ futures, they would liquidate the prosperous family business and equip the children with the means to be self-reliant. They were sent to boarding school, where Hans showed great promise in languages and mathematics. His fluency in multiple tongues led him to an apprenticeship at a pearl exporter with a worldwide sales organization–something that taught him much about business.
From there he was hired in the year 1900 by a French watchmaking firm. Again, it was his linguistics skills that got him the job, but he quickly came to love and appreciate the world of watches.
In 1903, Hans moved to London to work for another watchmaking firm. He ended up marrying an English woman, applying for and receiving English citizenship, and eventually began his own watch company with his wife’s brother–Wilsdorf & Davis.
But Hans wasn’t satisfied to just make traditional pocket watches in the traditional way. Hans had a vision of a “wristlet.” A watch worn on the wrist. And he had a dream of being a watchmaker so respected that it would be his name that sold a watch, not the trader who sold it (as had always been the case).
So Hans set out on a journey. First, he utilized the Swiss watch movements he’d learned so much about in his previous jobs to acquire the best, most accurate workings possible. Then he soldered a strap onto a small pocket watch and strapped it around his wrist. But there were issues that needed to be overcome–the arm moves a whole lot more than a person’s body, with more violent motions. This was terrible for watches. Such jostling usually damaged the works and make them, well, not work. Plus, there was the matter of dirt and other particles getting into a watch case. In a pocket, the watch was protected from such undesirables. But on the wrist? They’d get grimy, fast. And that would gum up the works. So that, again, they wouldn’t work.
Through a series of different prototypes, Hans Wilsdorf worked out these issues. He created a case with a gasket to seal it from dirt, and utilized works so precise and robust that not only did the jostling not destroy them, but the watch still remained accurate.
In fact, his wristlet was honored with the Certificate of Chronometric Precision–an award that had until then only ever been issued to marine clocks.

During this time, Hans was trying to come up with a name for his company that wasn’t just his name. He wanted something that would be pronounced the same in German, French, and English. Something that was easy to say, concise, and had that certain something when one heard it. It took him quite a long time to hit upon the name he felt embodied all those things.


In the 1910s, he began to do the unthinkable. He put Rolex on the face of a few watches. Now, this was unheard of. The face of a watch usually had the trader’s name, because that was who people trusted. The manufacturer’s name only went on the back of the case. Hans knew he was treading on dangerous ground…but at that point, most of his wristlets were being shipped out of England, to Europe. So what were they really going to do if his company name appeared on, say, 1 of every 6 watches? Nothing. So that’s how it began. First on one, then on two, then on half, and eventually all of his watches bore the name Rolex on the face. And the traders accepted them because they were the best watches to be found.

Today, of course, we know the name Rolex. But it was still quite a journey from those early days to the company that is now a byword for luxury. Come back next Wednesday for the rest of the story, and to discover how this fun history worked its way into An Hour Unspent!
Remember When . . . Big Ben Joined the Skyline

Remember When . . . Big Ben Joined the Skyline

When the design for A Name Unknown, book 1 in the Shadows Over England Series, was shone to me and I saw the spine for the first time, I was so excited to see the series logo they’d come up with. Big Ben’s clock tower.

Big Ben says London. Which is what the designers were no doubt trying to invoke, as my family of thieves are firmly Londoners. But for me, it was more than that. Because in the third book of the series, An Hour Unspent, that iconic clock actually plays a role in the story.
For starters, a bit of naming. Most of us think of “Big Ben” as the clock, but it’s technically not. Big Ben is actually the bell. The clock is the Great Westminster Clock, though over the years the name Big Ben has come to be associated with the entire structure. So now that we’ve got that straight… 😉
The clock tower was designed by Augustus Pugin and completed in 1859. Pugin was an architect, one who is most remembered for redesigning the interior of Westminster Palace and the tower in question, which has become one of the most iconic symbols of England. Though he also designed the face of the clock, the mechanics of the thing he wisely handed over to someone else.
But interestingly, the movement–the gears and weights that make a clock work, and in this case, work with amazing reliability–was actually designed by two amateurs to the field. Edmund Denison, a lawyer, and mathematician George Airy. The construction was the only part undertaken by an actual clockmaker, Edward Dent.
The Great Clock’s inner workings are so precise that a penny sitting on the pendulum is all it takes to make slight alterations to the time. That one little coin will make an adjustment of nearly half a second a day. That doesn’t sound like much, but it allows for small incremental adjustments to keep the clock accurate year after year. The pendulum still has a stack of old coins on it, and the clock is still hand-wound three times a week.

In my story, I gave the job of upkeep of the Great Clock to my heroine’s father, a clock maker. This part is purely fictional, of course, but it would have been considered a great honor to be tasked with such a responsibility, and in my story that’s the proof of Cecil Manning’s proficiency in his trade, even though he’s by no means made himself rich.

That honor goes to another historical figure that my fictional Manning claims as a friend, who revolutionized the timekeeping world. But you’ll have to come by next Wednesday to learn about that…