When you think of espionage, the CIA, the Cold War, and James Bond may come to mind. But there were spies operating undercover more than 200 years ago during the American Revolution, and they played a part in turning the tide. George Washington was losing the battle until he enlisted a secret group called the Culper Ring, and their adventures in spydom are the basis of the new AMC drama series called “Turn,” which is based on the book “Washington’s Spies” by Alexander Rose.
British actor Jamie Bell — who plays Abraham Woodhull, a young man who reluctantly joins the Culper Ring — had no idea it existed. “It wasn't part of the curriculum, growing up in school," Bell says. "We did a lot of the British monarchy and just kind of skipped that part. So I really knew very little about this period, or British rule in the colonies, and what that was like for the colonists living there." He sees the conflict as “more of a sibling rivalry, trying to gain their independence from their bigger brother. It’s not so much the invaders and the occupied. These people are all from the same place, and they're really fighting for that sense of separation.”
“There was a real seamy underbelly to the war,” adds executive producer and show-runner Craig Silverstein. “It was neighbor versus neighbor, and families split right down the middle. It was actually the the stress of the occupation that ended up creating more rebels than actually believing in liberty or taxation.”
The cast of "Turn," (left to right): Jamie Bell, Daniel Henshall, Meegan Warner, Seth Numrich, Heather Lind, Angus Macfadyen, Kevin McNally, Samuel Roukin and Burn Gorman. (Photo: Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC)
The show's 10-episode first season, which begins on April 6, covers the formation of the Culper Ring, and how a grassroots group of childhood friends went up against a sophisticated British spy operation that included the infamous Benedict Arnold.
“The Culper Ring was never discovered. They never caved on each other, which is amazing when you consider how dangerous the times were,” says executive producer Barry Josephson.
Initially, author Rose came across the story unintentionally. He says he was reading a book about the British traitor Kim Philby and pondering writing about Benedict Arnold when that led him to think about George Washington and spying. He says he found in the library “this vast untapped reservoir of intelligence that had been ignored over the last couple hundred years. I discovered that in the George Washington papers at the Library of Congress where there's hundreds of thousands of letters, Washington’s entire correspondence with the Culper Ring.”
Rose says the most surprising thing he discovered in his research wasn't just the Culper Ring — it was the impression that Washington seemed to have actually enjoyed spying.
“We always tend to think of Washington as this solemn figure on a one dollar bill who’s completely and utterly humorless," Rose explains. "But in fact, what I discovered was that he took this very deep interest in the goings-on of this very obscure bunch of people on Long Island. He served as their sort of confessor and was this great father figure to them. This hidden side of Washington has been completely obscured over the last 200 years in order to maintain some kind of presidential dignity and authority, but he was a real live breathing person and he loved to spy. He was really good at it.”
The idea of shifting loyalties also intrigued Rose. “You had people like Woodhull starting out as loyalists, which was the default position, and then you had the corruption and the bureaucracy that begins to grind and you begin to think, ‘Maybe these rebels aren’t so bad after all.’ So you see New York and parts of Long Island slowly shifting their sympathies, aided by the fact that the British began to lose.”
The story has a complex ending. “He was never foolish enough to get caught in a showdown, decisive battle with them," Rose says of George Washington in those long, final days of the war. "He just kept drawing it out — a war of attrition, rather than a war of annihilation. It tired out the Brits, who had other global commitments. They were in the empire business rather that the colonial business.”
Since the Revolutionary War lasted eight years and the Culper spies were active after it ended, “Turn” won’t run out of stories to tell for quite some time.
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