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Book offers an authentic history of the Culper Spy Ring

Author debunks many Culper Spy Ring legends

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Spies and spying have been a fascination among even the most conventional among us for generations. The intrigue has no boundaries of timeline or locale:  Witness the popularity of Bond movies, the FX series “The Americans,” “Mission Impossible” — the TV series and the movies — and more recently, “Turn: Washington’s Spies.” But it is rare that viewers can say  they live where Revolutionary War spying took place, except in the case of “Turn,” in which some members of the Culper Spy Ring lived in the hamlet of Oyster Bay and Setauket.

Historians say there are many inaccuracies in the story depicted in “Turn,” as well as the roughly dozen books written about the Culper Spy Ring. This prompted Bill Bleyer, a Pulitzer Prize-winning retired Newsday journalist and author, to write “George Washington’s Long Island Spy Ring: A History and Tour Guide,” which he describes as an “analytical comparative story.”

“There was so much misinformation and conflicting information,” said Bleyer, who lives in Bayville. “A lot of them took their information from earlier [book] versions. I picked through what the others said, went through every piece with the historians and pointed out what other authors said and included the historians’ comments explaining why that couldn’t have happened. I fact-checked all of it.”

The debunked theories began with Suffolk County historian Morton Pennypacker’s 1939 book, “General Washington Spies on Long Island and in New York,” and continued in subsequent books about the spy ring, including the New York Times bestseller, “George Washington’s Secret Six,” by Brian Kilmeade, Bleyer said.

His book, released this month, clarifies and corrects the “unsubstantiated speculation” by including comments from Oyster Bay historian Claire Bellerjeau, from Raynham Hall Museum and from Beverly Tyler, the historian at the Three Village Historical Society in Suffolk County. Bleyer sets the record straight on who the spies were, how they did their spying and what they accomplished. He also examines the Culper Spy Ring’s impact on history, and includes a tour guide of Long Island’s Revolutionary War sites at the end of the book.

As for AMC’s “Turn,” Bleyer said he couldn’t watch much of it. The series drew his ire from the beginning, when it incorrectly stated that the Culper Spy Ring formed in 1776, instead of 1778. So many  inaccuracies followed, Bleyer said.

“It’s a series about spying, but they don’t talk about it for the first 40 minutes,” he said. “They turned [Abraham] Woodhull’s very patriotic father [Richard Woodhull] into a Tory sympathizer, even though he was almost beaten to death by Simcoe’s Queen’s Rangers. In ‘Turn,’ Richard badmouths the Revolution and is shown enjoying tea with Simcoe and the other Queen’s Rangers.” 

Raynham Hall Museum hosted a virtual book discussion of Bleyer’s book this month. Harriett Gerard, executive director at the Oyster Bay house museum, said that everyone at Raynham Hall, once the home of Culper Spy Robert Townsend, was in awe of Bleyer’s book.

“It takes a certain kind of courage to write a book like this,” Gerard said. “Bill brings the same amazing commitment to history as he always does to unearthing and presenting the truth, whatever it may be.”

Christopher Judge, an educator at Raynham Hall, agreed. “This book is the story of truth,” he said. “It is important to our museum’s central story.”

 

A passion for history

Bleyer has been an avid reader all his life, and always loved history. Born and raised in Little Neck, Queens, until he turned 13, he read history books written for children, finishing the Landmark Book series before he started kindergarten.

Moving to Bayville in 1966, he found more history, visiting Sagamore Hill and President Theodore Roosevelt’s gravesite at Youngs Memorial Cemetery. A 1970 graduate of Locust Valley High School, Bleyer attended Hofstra University. After graduating, he was the editor of the Oyster Bay Guardian from 1974 to 1975. He began his 33-year career at Newsday in 1981, where he sometimes wrote about Raynham Hall. When he retired in 2014, he began writing books. “George Washington’s Long Island Spy Ring” is his fourth book.

“People kept saying to me that I should write a book on the American Revolution,” Bleyer said. “When ‘Turn’ came out, my publisher, The History Press, asked me to write a book about the Culper Spy Ring, because the television show was so popular. At first I said no.”

His reason, he said, was because there were so many other books out there about the spy ring. He wondered what he could do differently. Then he came up with the idea of including a tour guide, and was green-lighted right away.

 

Finding the truth

He read most of the letters about the spy ring. But when he read the books, he realized that much of the information was inaccurate. All of it, he said, was historical fiction. 

Bleyer’s journalism experience was helpful. “It helped me to juggle all of the conflicting accounts, and I was on the phone every day with Beverly or Claire,” he said. “We’d talk out what I found. Sometimes I’d change their minds, or they would change mine.”

He found the process satisfying. “What I enjoyed most was picking through the different book versions and debunking them,” he said. “It did take a lot of work playing sleuth to untangle all of this.”

Pennypacker’s book lacked footnotes, and he transformed anecdotal information and legend into fact. Writers who followed him repeated the inaccurate information without researching or questioning it, Bleyer said.

He learned that Kilmeade had met with historians from Setauket and Oyster Bay who gave him information on the spy ring, but he ignored it. There were many inaccuracies instead, Bleyer said. Worse, Kilmeade included fictitious dialogue in his book, without identifying it as such.

“Why invent secret agents and all this other crap to hype up the story,” Bleyer said, “when the real story is so good?”

 

What’s in the book?    

“George Washington’s Long Island Spy Ring: A History and Tour Guide” covers the period 1776 to 1790, beginning with an introduction, which corrects the inaccuracies of previous works.

The book continues with the Battle of Long Island in 1776, followed by the British occupation of Long Island, Nathan Hale’s attempt at spying, other early spying efforts and how the Culper Spy Ring operated. There is also a section on each of the Long Island spies, with an analysis of all of their letters from 1778 through the end of the Revolutionary War, the importance of the spy ring and what it accomplished. The book has comments from Bellerjeau and Tyler throughout on the authenticity of the story, as well as explanations of what some of the historical information could mean.

The last third of the book focuses on New York state’s George Washington Spy Trail, which includes a treasure trove of 47 pages of photographs and explanations of what happened at each location.

 

Personal after-effects

Bleyer said that writing the book did not change him in any way, instead cementing beliefs he already had. “It made me more skeptical of what other people write, how things get amplified, all without critical analysis,” he said. “You get a historical rush when reading a story of people risking their lives, thinking in codes, coming up with invisible ink. Why check off all the boxes for entertainment?”

Bleyer said he’d like to think he would have joined the Culper Spy Ring given the opportunity, but said he wasn’t sure. “It was a pretty dangerous occupation, considering the first spy on Long Island was Nathan Hale,” he said, “and we all know he didn’t end up too well.”

His book will never get the kind of exposure that “Turn” received, Bleyer said, but he’s OK with that. It’s more important to him to continue with lectures promoting the book. It will quench his authorial thirst, he said, to continue correcting the record.