Saturday, August 12th at 9 P.M. the final episode will air of the AMC dramatic series, TURN: Washington’s Spies – about Long Island’s own Culper Spy Ring, the United States’ first organized espionage ring, during the American Revolution. TURN gets its name from the word “turncoat,” which is another term for a traitor, and can also imply undercover operations. For many people on Long Island, around the country, and beyond its borders, news that Long Island has a history, much less a Revolutionary War spy ring operating at great personal risk behind British lines, came as a shock. The series is well-acted and directed, but the emphasis is largely on dramatics, too frequently at the expense of history, and of personal and family reputations. But, before the screenwriters’ view becomes too firmly embedded as what actually happened, or because it is likely to be so, it’s been time, over the past 4 years, to clear away some of the Ring Baloney.
The Truth about TURN
Patchogue-Medford Library has copies of both Alexander Rose’s well-researched and well-documented history, Washington’s Spies, on which the series is based, and it is perhaps the best and most up to date account on the subject. But, strangely AMC now describes it as a novel. It isn’t. But, they have their reasons. We live in an age when truth is increasingly considered irrelevant, in the face of strange and entertaining beliefs, no matter how strange or strained. Seasons 1-3 DVDs have released, and Season 4 can’t be far behind. We own seasons 1 & 2, and have Season 3 on order. Each of the 4 Seasons consists of 10 Episodes.
In and out of your Library’s Local History Room I’ve received quite a few questions about the accuracy of the TURN Series, and suspect that that’s the case at other libraries around Long Island, in Manhattan, NYC and vicinity. “How can I find out what really happened?” “Is this or that really accurate?’ “Where can I find out more about the spy ring, or this or that individual, place, event, or something else mentioned in the series?” “Were they the only spies, or were there others?” “What did they do?”
What did TURN get wrong?
You might start with Alexander Rose’s book and our website, Hollywood and History in AMC’s TURN where the first 4 links are season-by-season, episode-by-episode True or False Quizzes (Yep. 40 of them.) There are about 150 classified subjects and many cross-references to help you explore aspects of the Long Island’s part in the Revolution and uncover the truth hiding behind the fairy tales woven by dramatists, which is often more interesting than fiction.
In the TURN series there are multiple love affairs (many never happened), particularly surrounding a tavern wench, and Benedict Arnold’s refined wife, love triangles about, a blood-drenched torturer and psychopathic killer (who was mostly the opposite), townspeople forced to move headstones of their dead to defend a fort surrounding their one and only desecrated Setauket church (there were 2, one that was almost untouched), whaleboat raids, occasional massacres, several pitched battles or skirmishes, trials, hangings, and a lot of gray areas and tensions between tories and patriots, spymasters, spies and their information sources, robberies, corrupt officials, double agents, the famous, the obscure, Indians, slaves, freed men, riots, oaths of allegiance, strained partnerships, assassination attempts, treachery by generals of both sides, and much more, from 1776 to war’s end. The general outline of things is not that far from the truth, if you expand it to include the entire Revolution, and maybe squint a lot. But, the local particulars are usually way off base, only accidentally accurate, and then most likely by mistake.
Try our website. You might just get hooked on the history of your surroundings.
Mark Rothenberg, PML Local History Liaison