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Tuesday, June 25, 2013


This is the story of a heroine of the War for Independence. We don’t know her by name, only by her deeds and the number “355.”

It was the middle of 1778; the British Army occupied New York City and had so for the previous two years. George Washington’s small force, located outside the city, was desperate for information on the activities of the British. He called on Major Benjamin Tallmadge to organize an intelligence operation staffed by patriotic civilians to provide him with information.

That organization today is known as the “Culper Ring.” Its job was to spy on the British and send secret messages to Washington through a web of couriers moving along different routes and using different modes of travel. The name Culper was based on the fictitious surnames of two of its members Samuel Culper Sr. (actually Abraham Woodhull) and his alleged son Samuel Culper Jr. (the Quaker Robert Townsend).

Secrecy was vital. The members were only known by aliases or coded numbers. Tallmadge had constructed the spy ring so that even Washington himself did not know the identities of the agents. Written messages were encoded in numbers or written in invisible ink in between the lines of an ordinary personal letter. So secret was this organization that the American public wasn’t even aware of the Culper Ring until 140 years after the Revolutionary War (in the 1930’s). It came to light when letters in Washington’s private collection included what looked like coded messages sent to him by Robert Townsend, alias Samuel Culper Jr.

Several women participated in this secret spy organization as well. The British were seldom suspect of women as they were believed to be disinterested in affairs of state and preferred to remain uninvolved. This turned out to be to the detriment of the British. One such woman is considered by historians to be this country’s first female undercover agent. No one has ever been able to determine to this day her real name; she only went by the number “355.”

Some believe that 355 was a member of a prominent Tory family in New York City. It would have been a position that allowed her to move easily among British military leaders operating in the area. In a coded letter sent to General Washington by Samuel Culper Sr. (Woodhull) on August 15, 1779, he wrote, “I intend to visit 727 (New York) before long and think by the assistance of 355 shall be able to outwit them all.”  

Major John Andre, the head of England’s intelligence operation in New York, kept company with only the most beguiling women in the city and 355 looked the part and took notice. She maneuvered herself through the parties he gave picking up bits of conversations, many of which she facilitated with ales and wines. The information she acquired was passed to Washington via couriers. One piece of information 355 obtained helped to expose Benedict Arnold’s role in surrendering West Point to the British. She also facilitated the arrest of Major Andre himself. Later on, Washington had him hanged as a spy.

Some people believe that Benedict Arnold, after defecting, identified 355 to the British and that she was arrested and hanged, the only member of the Culper Ring to be executed. But most historians contend that in October 1780, she was taken aboard the HMS Jersey, anchored off Manhattan, as a prisoner and held awaiting sentencing.

It is also believed that 355 may have been the common-law wife of Robert Townsend, and was pregnant with his child when she was captured. Townsend had earlier begged her to give up her espionage duties for the sake of her life and the unborn child’s, but she refused. She believed that the information she was getting for Washington was too vital to ignore. While incarcerated aboard the HMS Jersey, 355 gave birth to a son who she named Robert Townsend Jr. Shortly after the birth, she died in the squalid conditions of the cell on the ship.

Today, the U.S. intelligence community cites “355” as an example of what a capable, trusted, and patriotic agent should be; even though more than two centuries have passed since her death. Her true identity is still unknown to this day - an unknown soldier in America’s war for independence.

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