One of the most enjoyable parts of reading or watching historical fiction is actually just after we finish reading or watching. When we begin to wonder what really happened, and what was invented; whether we should wonder at the coincidences of history, or be more impressed by the powers of the imagination.
Last Monday, the second season of Turn: Washington’s Spies premiered at 9 on AMC. The series focuses on the Culper Spy Ring, a group of Long Island spies who operated during the Revolutionary War. For those who have not watched before, the hero is Abraham Woodhull, farmer and leader of the spy ring. Many scenes are set in the Long Island town of Setauket, where the events really occurred, and feature real historical figures.
Tonight’s episode is on at 10 on AMC; you can watch the premiere on AMC’s website here.
Although enjoyable television, you might ask, how much Turn is based on real history and how much is fictionalized?
For those who watch Turn, and are interested in learning more about the history behind the show, the library is an excellent source of information. Mark Rothenberg, head of the Patchogue-Medford Library’s Celia M. Hastings local history room, has composed a fascinating, and invaluable, guide to the series that you can find here – Hollywood & History in AMC’s Turn. The webpage is organized according to color, so it can be quickly navigated according to which side of the war you are interested in researching.
Interestingly, although of undoubted historical importance, the existence of the Culper Ring was only first discovered in the twentieth century. Publications such as Morton Pennypacker’s The Two Spies, Nathan Hale and Robert Townsend (1930) – later expanded into George Washington’s Spies on Long Island (1939) – and Robinson Roe’s thesis The Culper Spy Ring (1949) documented the existence of the ring via primary documents, particularly letters exchanged between George Washington and his men. More recent studies continue to bring light to the spy ring, identifying – and debating the identities of – agents kept secret for over a century.
The book on which Turn is directly based, Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring, by Alexander Rose, is available at the library in both the regular history collection and in the Celia M. Hasting Local History Room. Rose’s book is a narrative of the spy ring’s operations, describing how spies passed on information, and gives an account of the development of the Culper Ring. Where Pennypacker’s books reproduced original documents, Rose incorporates details and facts throughout.
Still, as with all historical fiction, there is a level of fictionalizing in Turn. Certain real events, or identities, are modified for the sake of telling a story. Some spies, such as Austin Roe, have not yet been included in the story; while fictional characters have been added to it. When the series debuted last year, librarian Mark Rothenberg published True and False in AMC’s Turn on the website after each episode. Take a look and try your knowledge. For instance, do you know what George Washington’s attitude was toward British prisoners? Or the name of the American submarine used in the revolutionary war? This season, keep an eye out for more True and False in AMC’s Turn.
Additionally, many additional readings and resources, both print, online, and available in the local history room, can be found at the Hollywood & History page. The Celia M. Hasting’s Local History Room website is a comprehensive guide to New York, Long Island, and Patchogue History; while Digital PML site is a growing repository of digitized materials such as original maps, books, and postcards.