How did the Culper Spy Ring get a secret message to one of the most powerful individuals in the Continental Army – His Excellency General George Washington?
It’s a lot more difficult than you can imagine if you were living in America during the year 1780 and it’s a subject that’s explored in the children’s novel The Ghosts of Raynham Hall.
Imagine – back then there were no telephones. Telephones weren’t invited until the year 1876 so exactly 100 years after the Declaration of Independence. If there were no telephones, then there were not smart phones. No internet or social media. You couldn’t simply text General Washington some crucial piece of information. For people living in the colonial period, our modern communications were impossible even to imagine.
The main form of communication in 1780, apart from talking to someone in person, was the letter. Letters were the only real way of communicating across huge distances or of getting crucial information to someone who really needs it.
As the Culper Spy Ring gathered information from their day to day activities, they had to get that information transported to Colonel Benjamin Tallmadge and General Washington. This involved writing a letter, getting it sent via courier along the length of Long Island, and then over the Long Island sound (or Devil’s Belt) into territory that was safe for the American Continental Army. Only then could the letter slowly make its way to the right people to be read.
In total it could take nearly two weeks for a crucial piece of information to be delivered. Remarkable when you consider the rate of information exchange in today’s modern society. Makes you think what else could be possible in the years to come!
Delivering the letters was fraught with danger. If the courier (Austin Roe for instance), got caught with a letter and discovered as a spy, then he could be executed. Spying in the eighteenth century was perceived as a low form of treachery unbecoming a lady or a gentleman.
So, to protect themselves, the Culper Spy Ring would use two important tactics to keep the information safe. The first was to use invisible ink. Messages were written between the lines of a normal letter. Only after a reagent was used to reveal the words written by the invisible ink could someone read the message.
The second method was to use a secret spy code that was created by the ring lead of the Culper Spy network, Benjamin Tallmadge.
Using special numbers for particular words, the Culper Spy Ring hoped they would hide the meaning of their messages in case they were caught. Key words had a designated number. The word “boat” was assigned the number 55. British was 72. Gloomy was 226. Horseman was 261. Mistake was 391. Punishment was 517. Key people had their own numbers. Robert Townsend, one of the heroes in the book, The Ghosts of Raynham Hall was assigned the number 732. Caleb Brewster was 725. General Washington was 711. And Long Island was 728.
I was able to show Tallmadge’s secret code to the 4th Grade at Vernon School in Oyster Bay. We certainly had a lot of fun deciphering secret messages written in the spy code.
Next time you want to talk to a friend, just think how easy it is today with the internet, cell phones, Skype, and Facebook. And then think about General George Washington and how he had to wait nearly two weeks to find something out that could help him win the War of Independence!