Anna Strong: The East End Woman Who Was in the Culper Spy Ring

Heather Lind as Anna Strong in AMC's "Turn"
Heather Lind as Anna Strong in AMC's "Turn," Photo: AMC

Last week, Heather Lind, the actress, told of an unwanted groping she endured a few years ago from someone she likely had never imagined would do that. He was former president George H.W. Bush. The occasion was Mr. Bush and his wife, Barbara, attending a screening and meeting with the cast of the AMC network show Turn: Washington’s Spies, where photographers were taking pictures. Mr. Bush, age 89 at the time, and in his wheelchair, was in the center. Mrs. Bush was standing on one side of him and Ms. Lind walked over to stand on the other side of his wheelchair. While the photographer asked everyone to stand still and smile, it happened.

According to Ms. Lind, after it happened, she looked over and saw Barbara Bush with an expression on her face that Lind says was like “not again,” according to the New York Post, and then she turned to a security guard nearby who, Lind claims, said she shouldn’t have stood next to him for the photo.

Mr. Bush, now 93, learned about this after Ms. Lind told the media about it, and issued an apology. It came from his spokesperson. “President Bush would never—under any circumstance—intentionally cause anyone distress, and he most sincerely apologizes if his attempt at humor offended Ms. Lind,” it said. The attempt at humor apparently was that while issuing the alleged grope, Mr. Bush told her a short dirty joke. That, again, came from Ms. Lind.

It may not have been much, but it is among the many things reported recently that, finally, bring the abusive behavior of men toward women to light and to a place where, once and for all, it will stop.

Ms. Lind plays Anna Strong in Turn. Strong was a real person who lived during the time of the American Revolution and was part of George Washington’s Culper Spy Ring. She lived on eastern Long Island. And people should know more about her.

As hostilities erupted, the British sent tens of thousands of Redcoats to America to put down a budding revolution. After losing control of Boston, the British decided to take New York City—even then the very heart of this country. Washington, a wealthy Virginia planter and commander-in-chief of the Continental Army fought and lost the Battle of Long Island in Brooklyn. Part of the reason he lost was that he got very inaccurate information about how the enemy was arrayed against him and how many Redcoats there were, so it all came down as a surprise.

As a result, in retreating out of New York into New Jersey and off to Valley Forge, Washington thought to create a spy network. He initially did so with some of his uniformed soldiers behind the lines. When young spies were caught and hanged, he decided the spying would be better if done by civilians. Early attempts, where civilians were sent in from Long Island to Manhattan to spy, failed because that plan relied on single spies on single missions, going in and coming back out. Of the first five, three were caught. As a result, Washington agreed to set up a network. It was called the Culper Spy Ring, the name coming from Culpepper County in Virginia, where Washington, as a young man, had worked as a surveyor.

The people who headed up the spy ring worked out of East Setauket, Long Island. One of them was said to be Anna Strong. More about what exactly she did comes later. Portraits of her show an alert and slender young woman with close-cropped black hair, which, as it happens, was a look pretty easily portrayed by Heather Lind.

At the time, some residents of Long Island supported the British, and some supported the rebels. Anna was of the latter stripe, as was her husband, Selah Strong. Strong is an old colonial name on eastern Long Island, and there are many descendants not only in East Setauket but in the Hamptons and on the North Fork. For what it was worth, Selah, after fighting in Brooklyn, was rounded up by the British and imprisoned in a sugar factory in New York City for a year. Many other young men at that time, to avoid that happening, fled to Connecticut and stayed there almost to the end of the war. So the East End was largely composed of older men and young women and their children for a while. Anna had nine children. There was a law—a British law—that stated that if property on Long Island was abandoned (by a family fleeing to Connecticut, which was in rebel hands), it was to become property of the king and sold. Selah Strong may have been in jail in Manhattan. But Anna and her children, rebel supporters, were not going anywhere.

A key individual in the spy ring was Abraham Woodhull, who owned a farm next to Anna and her kids. Woodhull would go every other week into Manhattan and meet with a prominent member of the city who was secretly giving information to the rebels. This man’s name was Robert Townsend. He worked for an English import-export firm in Manhattan, owned a tavern and wrote a society column for a Manhattan newspaper about the local gentry and the new British officers now present.

He was the last person the British might think to be a spy.

But he’d meet with Woodhull and give him a letter full of information written in an agreed upon code (Washington was code-named 711, England 745, New York 727). Woodhull would then hopefully get the letter to George Washington at his Army headquarters, by this time located in upstate New York. This had to be a very roundabout route, since New York City and Long Island were under the thumb of the British. Woodhull, whose cover to British authorities on arriving in the city was that he was visiting his sister Mary Underhill, who, with her husband, owned a Manhattan boarding house, would put this coded letter into his boot, and take it to his farm in East Setauket.

Here is where Anna Strong came in. At this time, huge whales were plentiful in both the Atlantic Ocean and Long Island Sound, and there were many boat captains in their whaleboats hunting them. The letter would have to go across Long Island Sound to Norwalk, Connecticut, where Caleb Brewster, another member of the Culper Ring, lived. (Brewster had fled Setauket to get there.) Brewster would then add to it—sometimes writing about the British fleet docked in Connecticut—and give it to a trusted courier to take across the Hudson River to Washington’s headquarters in the town of New Windsor, New York, once there to hand it to Chief of Intelligence Ben Tallmadge, who would give it to Washington.

But how could it get across Long Island Sound? Abraham Woodhull, arriving in Setauket with the letter, would put it in the hollow of a tree in one of the six small inlets of Long Island Sound nearby and then tell his neighbor, Anna, to hang certain things on her clothesline out back of her house facing the water. The things were a black petticoat and up to six white handkerchiefs.

These items on the clothesline were for the whaleboat captains to see from their ships. The black petticoat meant there was a letter to be picked up. And the number of the white handkerchiefs would indicate the cove where the letter had been left in the tree. The letters were, of course, for Caleb Brewster in Norwalk. And from there to Washington himself.

This arrangement went on for several years. On one occasion, leaving the city, Woodhull had an encounter with a British unit where they searched him—but somehow never asked him to take off his boots—and this had spooked him. After that, he wrote to Brewster that he thought there was too much suspicion about this and he thought he was finished spying. Then, in a further letter to Brewster, he wrote that he had arranged to go to New York accompanied by a woman, Agent 355 he called her, and due to the fact the woman had reason to go to the city too—her husband was still in prison there and she’d visit him and bring him food—he felt it would make his being searched less likely.

Agent 355, it is believed, was Anna Strong.

In this manner, enormous amounts of valuable information got to General Washington. The British were planning a surprise attack on the recently arrived French fleet at Rhode Island there to help the rebels. The British planned to counterfeit American currency—which prompted the Continental Congress to pull that particular kind of paper out of service. An attack into Connecticut from New York by the British was in fact just a diversion to induce Washington to divide his forces. The British were building flat-bottom boats, which could only mean they intended to take their army across the Delaware to attack Philadelphia. And they were planning to take Washington’s life. Townsend gave them the plan.

Interestingly, the identity of the prominent man in New York City who was feeding this information to the rebels remained a mystery for over 150 years. The members of the spy ring were known. And the information was known. But the name of the man that Woodhull was seeing in Manhattan was only known as “Culper Jr.” (Woodhull was “Culper Sr.”). Historians had tried mightily to discover who this was. All had failed.

But then, in 1939, an amateur historian living in Southampton named Morton Pennypacker figured out the man’s identity as Robert Townsend, the merchant and gossip columnist. Pennypacker had come upon letters written in code by “Culper Jr.” still around in East Setauket. But then, in going through letters from the Revolutionary period found in a trunk in Oyster Bay, he noticed letters that seemed highly suspicious. They were written in the unmistakable hand of “Culper Jr.,” but were letters signed by someone named Robert Townsend. Handwriting experts soon confirmed that Townsend was Culper Jr. That solved it.

Incidentally, Pennypacker, at the age of 63, came to marry the woman heading up the East Hampton Library, a place he often went to read. (She was 57.) That might explain why, when he died at age 84, his will instructed that a tremendous amount of historical material, more than 20,000 items, be donated to the East Hampton Library, where it is today. For half a century, a room in the library was named for him, although it is not that name anymore.

After the war ended George Washington was ultimately elected President of the United States in 1789. One year into his presidency, Washington, spending time in New York City, embarked on what he hoped would be a weeklong trip out to eastern Long Island on horseback. When the time came, though, he was very ill and so didn’t go by horseback but by horse-drawn carriage, staying at inns he encountered along the way. He headed out along the north shore, intending to get all the way to Montauk. He also said he wanted to see and meet some of the people he had dealt with during the years of the Culper Spy Ring. He never made it to Montauk, but he did get out as far as Stony Brook and East Setauket. There he stayed one night at Roe’s Tavern. Austin Roe, the owner, had been one of the couriers for Woodhull.

One wonders if Washington might have met with Selah and Anna Strong. Selah had served only a short jail term in the British sugar factory prison in Manhattan, but when let out, fled to Connecticut. (Anna and the kids did not follow, for reasons explained earlier.) But when the war ended, all the men who had fled to Connecticut, including Selah, came home to reunite with their families. He soon became involved in town politics, serving a term as Trustee of Brookhaven. And the couple lived through to old age in their home in East Setauket.

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