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White Collar and the Culper Ring

on Wed, 09/12/2012 - 00:00

During the first and second seasons of the USA Network drama White Collar, an ongoing narrative thread involving an amber music box had direct ties to actual historical events from World War II. The music box of White Collar was said to have been owned by Catherine the Great of Russia and kept in the infamous Amber Room in St. Petersburg until it was pilfered by the Nazis during their occupation of the city. More significantly, the music box contained clues regarding a sunken Nazi U-boat off the coast of New York City that was filled with other priceless art that the Germans had likewise stolen throughout the war. Although the story of both the music box and lost submarine is fictional, the theft of art by the Nazis during World War II is real, along with the fact that a large portion of the treasure has yet to be found.

White Collar again delved into the history books for inspiration during its fourth season, meanwhile, and crafted a single-episode storyline centering on the actual spy ring that George Washington used during the Revolutionary War to keep tabs on the British. Just like with the longer music box narrative, “Identity Crisis” melds the historically factual with the fictional to create a modern day myth of intrigue, duplicity and murder. The episode begins when conman Mozzie purchases a storage unit that has been abandoned by its renter, along with all of its contents. While rummaging through the items, he finds an address scribbled in a book along with two keys. He goes to the house in question, unlocks the door with one of the keys and—being Mozzie—makes himself at home. A masked man finds him there, however, and demands to know the whereabouts of a flag while brandishing a gun in his direction. Mozzie is able to escape, but the plot only thickens when former felon Neal Caffrey and his FBI partner Peter Burke investigate the mysterious event.

It turns out that the building where the altercation occurred was purchased by a Robert Townsend in 1781 and has been maintained by a family trust ever since. Digging a little deeper, Neal Caffrey discovers that Robert Townsend was a member of the Culper Ring. “If I recall from history class, George Washington created the Culper Spies to aid the continental army during the Revolutionary War,” Peter Burke remarks. Neal Caffrey adds that “they sent intel from British occupied New York in codes and they used numbers, not names.” The number that was assigned to Robert Townsend was 723—the same number that the masked man initially called Mozzie.

Not only are both Peter Burke and Neal Caffrey correct in their observations about the Culper Ring, but Robert Townsend was one of the actual spies used by Washington and his secret code alias was indeed 723. New York City was the main base of operation for the British during the Revolutionary War, and George Washington was determined to use espionage tactics to uncover information on the enemy’s plans. He thus assigned Major Benjamin Tallmadge the task of finding potential civilian spies in the city. Having been born on Long Island, Tallmadge still had ties to his local community of Setauket, and it was Setauket that would ultimately serve as the main base of operation for the Culper Ring. A man named Abraham Woodhull was the first recruit, with Robert Townsend joining later.

“Tallmadge adopted a set of aliases,” Alexander Rose explains in Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring (Bantam, 2007). “Tallmadge became the anodyne ‘John Bolton,’ and Woodhull, ‘Samuel Culper.’ Washington, General Charles Scott, and Tallmadge collaborated to invent the latter code name. Samuel Culper’s reversed initials are those of Charles Scott, while Washington lightheartedly amended the name of Culpeper County, Virginia—where, at the age of 17, he had worked as a surveyor back in 1749—to ‘Culper.’ As for the first name, Benjamin Tallmadge’s younger brother was named Samuel.” When Townsend joined the group, he was given the moniker Samuel Culper Jr., and it is this name that the number 723 literally refers.

In George Washington, Spymaster (National Geographic, 2004), Thomas Allen describes how the Culper Ring operated. “Austin Roe, a member of the Culper Ring who ran a tavern in Setauket, often took his wagon into New York City,” he writes. “From Robert Townsend, he would get an intelligence report. When Roe returned to Long Island, instead of delivering the report to Abraham Woodhull, he would put it in a box buried on Woodhull’s farm. After Woodhull found the report, he would take out his telescope and check the clothesline of his neighbor, Anna Smith Strong. If she hung a black petticoat on her clothesline, it meant that another member of the ring, Caleb Brewster, had arrived in his boat. The number of white handkerchiefs on the line indicated which of six coves Brewster and his boat were hiding.” Woodhull would then give the message to Brewster, who would in turn transport it to Benjamin Tallmadge.

White Collar incorporates aspects of this clandestine operation into its own narrative for “Identity Crisis.” In order to make contact with the descendent of another Culper spy, for instance, Mozzie takes out an ad in a local newspaper for a fictitious “Ye Olde Culper Cleaners” that contains the drawing of a clothesline. “Undergarments symbolized the person you wanted to contact, and then the handkerchiefs were where they were supposed to be,” Peter Burke explains to his wife in regards to the advertisement. “Back in the day, four handkerchiefs referred to an old pub at Sixteenth and Second Avenue.” Although not historically accurate, it adds a sense of legitimacy to the proceedings nonetheless.

Later in the episode, Mozzie uses a batch of chemicals to reveal a message written on some old documents in an invisible ink called the “sympathetic stain,” and the original Culper Spies did indeed use such a method in their communications to George Washington. “In the Eighteenth Century secret inks were rarely used,” Alexander Rose explains in Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring. “This was because they were generally based on organic liquids, such as the juice of leeks, oranges, limes, cabbage, and potatoes, as well as milk, vinegar, or urine (in a pinch). To develop them, the recipient applied heat, either by pressing the letter with an iron or holding a candle beneath it. The very simplicity of the revelatory process tended to outweigh the advantages bestowed by invisibility.” James Jay, brother of Federalist Papers co-author John Jay, however, devised his own ink that did not rely on heat but a counteragent to reveal the hidden words instead.

“Jay’s recipe was revolutionary enough to amaze Washington,” Rose continues. “Performing his own experiments with the liquid, the general marveled that ‘fire which will bring lime juice, milk and other things of this kind to light, has no effect on it. A letter upon trivial matters of business, written in common ink, may be fitted with important intelligence which cannot be discovered without the counterpart.’” Although Mozzie is able to effectively reproduce Jay’s counteragent, Alexander Rose maintains that no one knows what ingredients actually went into the invisible ink. “Conducting tests on the Culper letters in the Washington collection at the Library of Congress is impossible, and even if performed would be unlikely to yield much of use owing to the age and brittleness of the surviving correspondence written in the stain,” he states.

White Collar likewise takes historical liberties with another aspect of the Culper Ring. “Some storytellers say there was also a woman, known as Agent 355,” Thomas Allen writes in George Washington, Spymaster. “But in Tallmadge’s codebook, ‘355’ means only ‘lady.’ The stories say Townsend was in love with Agent 355 and was expecting British counterintelligence agents to arrest them both. According to the stories, only Agent 355 was captured.” He later adds that “an unproven story has persisted that Benedict Arnold had Agent 355 held captive aboard the prison ship Jersey, anchored off Brooklyn, and that she was one of thousands of prisoners who died on the hulk of horror.”

White Collar, meanwhile, paints a different picture. “I started with the family history of Robert Townsend,” FBI agent Diana Berrigan explains of her own investigation into the mystery. “His lineage ends with his son, and little is known about his family after he died in 1838. But guess who’s the mother of his son? Agent 355.” Alexander Rose does not mention Agent 355 within the pages of Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring, apparently believing the story to be fictional, and instead maintains that Robert Townsend remained a childless bachelor throughout his life.

Despite such discrepancies, White Collar still manages to craft its own entertaining narrative of espionage and intrigue within the confines of “Identity Crisis,” using the Culper Ring from the Revolutionary War as catalyst. While there is no evidence that the Culper Spies live on through their decedents, nor that they are in possession of the flag used by George Washington when he crossed the Delaware River as White Collar suggests, this modern day myth lives up to the real life adventures of the Culper Ring nonetheless—true patriots who played their own significant role in the foundation of the United States of America.

Anthony Letizia

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