We’re going to conclude the series on George Washington’s spies with an unsolved mystery!
Per design, Washington did not want to know the spy ring’s members in order to keep them safe. Much of the information like letters, codes, etc. were destroyed by the patriots as well at the end of the war to protect their identities. Fortunately, someone discovered Robert Townsend’s family papers and journals in 1929. You will recall that his code name was Culper, Jr. and he ran the New York City Culper spy ring.
The very successful ring, under the command of Maj. Benjamin Tallmadge (George Washington’s hand-picked spy aide), included 6 known members: Robert Townsend (the New York City merchant), Abraham Woodhull (the Long Island manager of the ring), Austin Roe (a tavern keeper), Caleb Brewster (the fishing boat captain and message passer), James Rivington (the coffee shop owner/newspaper editor) . . . . and one other: Agent 355 – a woman.
No one to date has been able to confirm the identity of Agent 355, but some facts seem clear. She was recruited by Woodhull, she had some degree of social prominence, she most likely lived in New York and crossed paths with Major John Andre and Benedict Arnold. She may have been part of a prominent Loyalist family which would have given her the needed access to British officers.
She is credited with gathering the intel leading to the capture and hanging of British Major John Andre and discovery of traitor Benedict Arnold, so many believe she was a woman high up in society traveling in those social circles. With the sensitivity of the intel regarding crucial West Point, Maj. Andre would not have been broadcasting his plans beyond a small, select group of people he trusted. If the British suspected Andre had been compromised, anyone in his inner circle would have been arrested immediately, so she was among those in Andre’s cadre of loyal friends. John Andre, a handsome devil, considered the most eligible bachelor in NYC, was a well-known womanizer, so some surmise Agent 355 was a lovely woman being wooed by the Major.
While stationed in New York, playboy Andre pursued any number of beguiling and available women. Taking advantage of this, Agent 355 would have been in a position to attend parties, listen to conversations, and glean information after plying the Major with considerable quantities of ale. The intel gathered was then surreptitiously passed on to the Culper Ring and a very grateful Washington.
Many believe there is enough evidence to suggest that Agent 355 was Robert Townsend’s common-law wife. When Culper Jr. discovered her role in the West Point matter, he begged her to stop because she was pregnant with his child and he feared for her safety. She refused, believing – rightly so – that the information she gathered was of the highest importance. Agent 355’s days were numbered, however, when Benedict Arnold gave up her name once he had escaped to the British side following the arrest of Andre. It is speculated that she was captured and held in the fetid conditions on prison shop HMS Jersey, where she died. Some disagree with this point of view because women were not kept aboard the prison ships.
So then the speculative spotlight swings to Anna Strong, Woodhull’s neighbor, whose husband Selah was imprisoned on the HMSJersey and she was supposedly allowed to bring him food. Her presence on the ship may have led people to believe she was imprisoned there. The British did impound her home and use it as a residence for British officers , whom she was required to feed and care for, but this would not have placed her in the social circles of Andre and Arnold. Plus, she was already in a dangerous position being married to an imprisoned Patriot, so she would not have wanted to jeopardize her freedom while she worked to get her husband released, and she knew any departures from the family estate would be viewed with high suspicion by the British. Her part in the play was probably relegated to signaling Caleb Brewster with her petticoats on the clothesline.
Other possible candidates floated for the title Agent 355 have been Sarah Horton Townsend and Elizabeth Burgin, but little evidence supports this. Many believe a high-ranking British General’s American-born wife may have been a Patriot spy as well, but no definitive proof survives to prove this.
The papers discovered in 1929 show that Townsend was in love with Agent 355. When she was captured, he resigned from the spy game and went into a deep depression from which he never recovered.
Woodhull had sent correspondence indicating he was traveling to New York City soon and expected to be able to “outwit them all” through the efforts of Agent 355; and later, when Woodhull wrote of the arrest of “several of our dear friends” including “one who hath been ever serviceable to this correspondence,” Townsend and other Culper spy ring members fled New York and went into hiding. The Culper ring was never the same after that, which contributes to the theory that one of their best agents had been captured and was closely associated with Andre. Supporters of this theory also point out Townsend’s emotional devastation by this turn of events.
After the Revolution was won, Townsend retired to his farm, remaining depressed, unmarried and drinking heavily for the rest of his life. Agent 355 was never heard from again and never identified.
After the war, George Washington wanted to personally thank as many of his network as he could for the risks they took to provide the intelligence that helped win the war, so he made a tour of Long Island to meet people and assess the damage done to land and property by the British occupation. He completed his circuit around the part of Long Island where his spy ring had served him so faithfully and risked their lives and property with such dedication. He had especially wanted to personally meet with Culper Jr., who had sacrificed his health and well-being for so long, “passing in and out of the lion’s mouth every day, seeking to still the monarch’s roar within American borders” but Townsend declined the honor and the meeting. (George Washington’s Secret Six by Brian Kilmeade)
SO – who was Agent 355? Hopefully some day we will know, and she will receive the honor and recognition she so richly earned. Or maybe she likes it left as a mystery.
“Though her name cannot be verified, and many details of her life are shrouded still in mystery, her presence and courage undoubtedly made a difference. She represents all covert agents – those men and women whose true identities are never revealed and whose exploits are never told, but who offered their service and their lives on behalf of their country.” (George Washington’s Secret Six by Brian Kilmeade)
References: George Washington, Spymaster by Thomas Allen; George Washington’s Secret Six by Brian Kilmeade; National Women’s History Museum; www.womenhistoryblog.com, Spy Letters of the American Revolution