Agent 355–A Patriot In Petticoats
Long before Agent 007 was a germ of an idea in Ian Fleming’s mind, there was Agent 355, one of the first female spies in America, active during the Revolutionary War. But unlike James Bond, Agent 355’s identity is still not known, even after all these years.
Here’s what we do know:
A spy organization, known as the Culper Ring, was set up during the Revolutionary War, following the orders of George Washington. His early military career was spent as a spy when he was surveying the Ohio territory in 1753, and kept the British appraised of the French military’s movements in the area.
The Culper Ring operated from 1778 to 1783, and was known as the Secret Six. They gathered information from overheard conversations in British occupied New York City and passed it on to George Washington by way of Setauket, Long Island and on through Connecticut to Newburg, NY, Washington’s headquarters. By the use of invisible ink and coded messages, critical information was passed along and aided in the eventual independence of the colonies. Robert Townsend, a New York merchant, was the linchpin in the organization, and would gather the intelligence, encode it or use invisible ink to pass the messages on. Austin Roe, who owned a Long Island tavern, would ride the 110 miles from his tavern to Townsend’s store to get supplies, would then take the messages back to Long Island and pass them along.
Even though Washington didn’t know the names of these spies, their identities finally became public knowledge in the mid-20th century, when some Culper Ring letters were discovered in the home of Robert Townsend. The head of the Ring, referred to as Samuel Culper, Sr., was in fact Abraham Woodhull, hand picked by his friend, Major Benjamin Tallmadge. He quickly drew the suspicion of the British and was forced to temper his involvement in the Ring. Samuel Culper, Jr. was merchant Robert Townsend, who became the unofficial head of the Culper Ring. The other members of the group were whaleboat captain Caleb Brewster, Long Island tavern owner Austin Roe, an owner of a Loyalist newspaper in New York, James Rivington, and the mysterious lady agent, known only as 355.
Major John Andre, who was the chief intelligence officer of the British, seems to have been the primary source of information for the Culper Ring. He was known for his weakness for the fairer sex and may have been the unwitting victim of Agent 355’s charms. To this day, Agent 355 is credited with playing a vital part in providing information leading to uncovering the treasonous acts of Benedict Arnold and led to the arrest of Major Andre, who was hanged. The Ring was forced into hiding after this information came to light and a pregnant Agent 355 was arrested by the British and held prisoner on one of the ships in New York harbor. She gave birth to a boy child, but later died herself, either at the hands of the British or by the horrific conditions on the ship. It is speculated that the father of her child was Robert Townsend.
Who Agent 355 was has remained a mystery all these years, although many have put forth ideas as to whom she may have been. Culper Ring documents refer to the agent only as “lady,” and the commonly held belief is this lady was from a wealthy British family residing in New York and used her status and influence to overhear information vital to the cause of the Revolution. This much has been agreed upon, although speculation remains as to her true identity.
Anna Strong is a name often associated with Agent 355. She was a neighbor of Woodhull, so the possibility she was recruited into the Ring is likely. What was known
about her is she used her clothesline to signal which of the six locations Caleb Brewster had docked in. He was the next in the chain to receive the dispatches from Austin Roe and had to keep the British guessing at which of six different ports he would dock. She had good reason to perform spy operations, since her husband was imprisoned by the British and she was often seen aboard the prison ship bringing him food to keep him alive. She could easily have overheard conversations aboard ship that she could pass on to the Ring.
Sally Townsend is another woman who could have been Agent 355. She was a cousin of Robert Townsend, and, like Anna Strong, worked for years to free her husband from the British prisons. She certainly had the means and the motivation to be Agent 355.
Elizabeth Burgin is another possibility. The British had a string of ships which had been converted to prisons, and Elizabeth moved among them. She set up a covert operation to help some of the prisoners escape, and managed to free more than 200 before her operation was reported and she fled Long Island for Connecticut.
Obviously, Agent 355 had some kind of tie to the Culper Ring’s leaders. Some choose to believe she was the common-law wife of Robert Townsend, who never officially married and after the Ring dissolved, became depressed and a drunkard. From this lady’s actions, we can deduce she also had courage, strength, nerves of steel, and a healthy dose of patriotism. All of the women who have been speculated as being Agent 355 were infused with these same characteristics, and their involvement in the Revolution helped ensure America’s success against the British. Who Agent 355 really was will continue to remain a mystery, as it should.