19 January 2018



"That show/film is so inaccurate!" – every historian ever, at some point 
I don't mean to make light of historical representation (I could write a book about how the inaccuracies of the 2005 adaptation of Pride & Prejudice incense me), but with the ever-expanding popularity of television and film, historical dramas are on the rise.

More historical dramas? George Washington approves. Source.
Though often highly fictionalized or overly nostalgic, historical television can illustrate untold stories for mainstream consumption. Despite often sacrificing elements of history for the sake of storytelling, historical dramas have potential value as educational material by way of compelling interpretation. We lose some context, but what does critical viewing of period dramas offer us in terms of interpretive insight?

The AMC television show, TURN: Washington's Spies shares the little-known story of the Culper Ring, a network of American spies operating against British colonial rule during the Revolutionary War (1775-1783). Much of the series' third season was filmed at Colonial Williamsburg. The Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia has displayed costumes from the television show, and even held an advance screening of the fourth season.

AMC's TURN: Washington's Spies uses interpretive techniques to depict intelligence networks operating during the American Revolution. By taking liberties (pun intended) with historical facts, the series aims to interest audiences and foster a general awareness of the Culper Ring's significance. Source.
Using thematic narrative techniques, TURN changed my understanding of the American Revolution, portraying the following real-life individuals who contributed to the victory of the colonists and their ensuing independence.

Jamie Bell plays Abraham Woodhull,
a reluctant Patriot spy in TURN:
Washington's Spies
. The show makes
Woodhull's biography accessible to the
public and highlights his role in the American
Revolution. Source.

Abraham Woodhull was a cabbage farmer in Setauket, Long Island, New York, and the lead member of the Culper Ring. Operating under the alias "Samuel Culper", or "722", Woodhull frequently travelled to Manhattan and passed information to General George Washington through courier Caleb Brewster.


A Yale classmate of Nathan Hale (whom the British hanged as a Patriot spy in 1776), Benjamin Tallmadge ("721") was Woodhull's neighbour in Setauket and a major in the Continental Light Dragoons. Stationed in Connecticut, he became director of intelligence under Washington and assembled the Culper Ring, recruiting Woodhull as its key member in 1778.
The Culper Ring's code book. The
Ring's correspondence with Washington
has survived intact. Source.


Another Setauket native serving as a courier for the Continental Army, Caleb Brewster ("725") travelled by whaleboat to collect information from Woodhull – letters using the Culper Ring's numerical code – and ferry them from Setauket to Washington's camp.


Anna Strong was a Patriot spy and member of the Culper Ring. Considered by many to be the unknown "Agent 355" in Woodhull's correspondence, it's also possible that "355" was merely the Ring's code for "a lady". Nevertheless, Strong is thought to have hung petticoats outside to signal to the courier, Brewster, though some historians dispute this.

In TURN, Agent 355 is a former slave named Abigail, who collects British intelligence under the employ of Major John André. In this case, such an interpretation diversifies the Culper Ring, both racially and in terms of social class.

Anna Strong (Heather Lind) forges a letter while Caleb Brewster (Daniel Henshall) and Benjamin Tallmadge (Seth Numrich) look on. As the primary means of relaying information, correspondence is a major storytelling device in the series. Source.
The only surviving portrait of Robert
Townsend. Apart from Tallmadge,
little to no images exist of
the other members of the Ring. Source.

The least-known spy in the Ring, Robert Townsend worked under the alias of "Samuel Culper, Jr.", or "723" and was adamant that not even Washington should know his name. A Quaker who ultimately turned his back on pacifism, Townsend passed information directly to Woodhull from his work at a coffeehouse in New York. His name was not discovered until 1930.


Venerated in Canada due to his founding of York in 1793 and his instrumental role in the abolition of slavery, John Graves Simcoe is mercilessly vilified in TURN. Given that the series' protagonists are American colonists, Simcoe is a natural choice for an antagonist. Some historical evidence loosely supports this portrayal - Simcoe commanded the Queen's Rangers' massacre of sleeping Americans in 1778. Watching the television series was extremely entertaining knowing the context of his future role as Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada.

A young John Graves Simcoe (Samuel Roukin) and Black loyalist Akinbode (Aldis Hodge) of the Queen's Rangers. 
Though it has its share of inaccuracies, overt nationalism, and exaggerated violence, TURN offers a closer look at the communities affected by British colonial rule in what would eventually become the United States.

In interpreting the American Revolution from the perspective of ordinary colonists, the series taught me about the secret intelligence networks that influenced the war. It also taught me that while accuracy and context are vital to ensuring ethical interpretation, we don't necessarily have to discount dramatic interpretation. Much like television audiences, museum visitors' engagement will vary, so a rich thematic backdrop and strong storytelling provides a solid foundation on which to build learning.

Further Resources: 

Interactive Map of the American Colonies as seen in TURN

Toronto Star: John Graves Simcoe to take a Turn on AMC show's final season

TURN to a Historian (blog): The Historical Accuracy of TURN

TURN: Washington's Spies by Alexander Rose - Book Excerpt

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