The Long Island Spy Who Helped Win The American Revolution

by Rebecca Lewis | 04/30/2014 | 12:00pm

The Long Island Spy Who Helped Win the American Revolution

The AMC show "Turn" has shed light on Long Island's Culper Spy Ring, but an interview with a local historian reveals the involvement of another prominent-but-forgotten player.

The new AMC show "Turn" has brought attention to a lesser known piece of history. It tells the story of Long Island's Culper Spy Ring during the American Revolution. But it leaves out a key player- Robert Townsend. At Raynham Hall Museum in Oyster Bay, the house where Townsend lived, Michael Goudket has spent years learning about him and giving tours to visitors. He says Townsend was a very interesting and secretive man.

One of the things about doing this kind of work in a museum where he lived and to be him for the public, which is part of my job, leads me to understand a little bit more about human nature, that it’s possible to have a cause and have passion and to overcome your fears and do what you have to do and be as brave as you have to be to get something done. And if there’s ever anything we learn from the Culper spy story, it’s that ordinary people who take on something bigger than themselves can be as brave as they have to be.

Robert Townsend was believed to have patriot leanings, but was that really inspired him, or convinced him to join, the Culper Spy Ring?

Well, Robert Townsend is a complicated guy. He had patriot leanings, but was a loyalist at the same time. I think the modern word is conflicted. You see, his family comes from England, they’re wealthy, they’ve got connections there, and he’s out to do business. And at one point he even takes a loyalty oath in southern Manhattan, I believe in 1776, as the British invade New York. And now he’s considered to be a loyalist and he’s one of the boys as far as the British are concerned. Until he comes home in ’77 and finds the British have taken his home in Oyster Bay and using it as their headquarters. And the Queen’s Rangers, who are there at the time, are romancing his little sisters. His father’s a patriot and he’s conflicted, and I think that if I were conflicted, this would send me over the edge too. As a Quaker, he can’t take up arms against the British and go join the army. I think it’s for two reasons: one, is his religious upbringing; shedding blood would be something he didn’t want to do. And the other reason is he’s a merchant. He’s still a mercenary kind of guy. If he leaves his business, he’s ruined. A farmer, a fisherman, can leave their farm or the boat and come back to it, so he’s stuck. How do you fight the British if you aren’t going to be a soldier? Well now we know. After 100 something years, they found out that he was Culper Junior, the spy.

How exactly did he get involved with the Spy Ring?

Well, Austin Roe [a spy and courier between New York City and Long Island for the spy ring] were boys together and they were apprenticed. Austin lived in Setauket and Robert’s from Oyster Bay, but they found themselves living in a relative of Austin’s home while they were apprenticed in New York, learning to be merchants. And when it came time to choose people to be in the spy ring, you choose people you know and trusted. And Austin Roe will approach Robert, and Abraham Woodhull [another spy] perhaps, too, would approach Robert, and say ‘We gotta do something.’ And by the time they get to him, he was ready.

What were some of the improvements to the spy ring that he made once he joined?

Well, Robert Townsend was not really the one in charge. He enhanced the spy ring by being someone who could get good information and a lot of it. You see, during the revolution, a new kind of spy was invented. Robert Townsend and the Culper Spy Ring were the new spies who were not working for money and were using modern techniques that nobody used before. Yes, there were secret codes. That goes back to the Renaissance. But the idea of invisible ink and secret identities and cover stories and things like that, this was all new. And Benjamin Tallmadge, who was running the ring- graduate of Yale College, brilliant man- and he devised a lot the things the Culper spies used. And Robert, who was really the ultimate personality for a spy, a man so secretive and such a loner that no one could get close to him. He was the perfect spy.

What can you tell me about his work in Manhattan, gathering information, his work for the Royal Gazette, and James Rivington?

Well, Robert Townsend, first of all, is a merchant. He’s down at the docks listening because he has reason to be. The ships are coming in and out, the soldiers talking. He gets a job with Mr. Rivington, printer to the king, hated by the patriots Rivington is, and he reports for The Royal Gazette, which is a Tory scandal sheet. And he has the perfect cover to go around asking questions. Now Rivington, his house gets burned down, his press gets smashed, the Sons of Liberty would take the typeface from his printing press and turn them into bullets. He’ll go to England and the king would say ‘You’re royal printer to the king. Here’s 100 pounds a year and money to restart the business.’ And he goes back and Rivington is a spy for our side. It’s amazing. He and Robert would go into business, opening a coffee house for the British soldiers, for the officers of course, not the enlisted men. And they had a deal. It was a very exclusive coffee house. But if you give Rivington a story, they would forgive your debt. And that’s where that got a lot of the stories and a lot of the spy information. Clever, isn’t it?

You were saying that it was probably the British who were quartered in his house, chasing around his sisters, so family was important to him. What can you tell me about when he tried to recruit his nephew, his cousin rather, James Townsend to be a courier?

Oh, what a mistake that was. That was bad. Remember now. This was the beginning of modern spying. James thought himself to be James Bond. And he overdid the spy thing, told stories about being on the side of the British, got drunk ,and ended up getting caught by the patriots and Washington himself has to write and say ‘Let this guy go’ because they’re just about ready to string this guy up by the time he’s finished with his cover story. That attempt to find another, shorter way to Washington, instead of going the more secure route out to Setauket, didn’t work and James is responsible for that. What a mistake.

So did that cause any tension between Townsend, Washington, and the rest of the spy ring?

More than usual? You have to understand. Spies in this time, if they were caught, were killed. They could creep up on you in the dead of night, take you away, and you’d never be seen or heard from again. Robert Townsend lived in constant fear. They all lived under a lot of tension. Robert was a bit of a prima donna. He was in the ring and then he didn’t want to do it and then he did it again and it was that it was more tension than usual, but probably not because they were stressed out beyond belief. I guess that’s the real answer. Robert Townsend was so stressed out that by the time of the war ending and the Treaty of Paris, he came back to Oyster Bay, quit his business, and lived in Oyster Bay quietly for the rest of his life and never told anyone what he did, probably post-traumatic stress disorder, which was an undiagnosed thing back then.

So what were some of the successes that Townsend’s information had and led to during the Revolution? Some of their best success stories from the spy ring?

Let’s just stay with the very best one. Robert Townsend’s Culper spies saved the French fleet. The French came in on the side of the patriots. Not because they love us so much; they hate the British. That goes back a long way. They sail across from France and end up in Rhode Island. They had a tough voyage. People are sick, the ships are in terrible shape, and they ground on Rhode Island. If the British find out about this, they can send their troops out there and massacre the French, who are in no shape to resist them. Robert Townsend found out that the British know, he lets Washington know in good time, and at the Battle of Yorktown, it’s the French fleet that isolate the British and lead to the final victory in the war. So perhaps the greatest achievement of Robert Townsend and the Culper spies is indirectly helping to win the final battle.

There was obviously the secrecy, destroying the messages. Townsend was especially cautious. How was he eventually found out to be part of the ring because he came out later than other members and it’s much more recent that he was discovered?

Well, there was a single sentence mentioning him in the family history at the time and it had nothing to do with spies or spying. When people did something for the revolution, most of them came out. Rivington did because if he didn’t, they probably would have strung him up. He was living here after the revolution and he finally said “He guys, I’m a spy. You don’t need to burn my house down!” So he did well with that. Robert took his spying to the grave. And it wasn’t until over 100 years later that a historian named Morton Pennypacker realized that the handwriting for Culper Junior [Townsend’s code name] and Robert Townsend was identical. I checked it out myself. The East Hampton Public Library has correspondences from Robert Townsend and they have account books from his business that he was running discount merchandise in New York, and the Culper Junior letters are in Washington and they are online. And if you look at one and you look at the other, same guy. And it wasn’t until the 1930’s when Mr. Pennypacker was doing his research that he realized it. Robert Townsend took his spying to the grave, the perfect spy. No one ever knew.

More information about Raynham Hall Museum can be found on its website


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