By Jenna Lennon
‘Lucky is the child who listens to a story from an elder and treasures it for years.’ — Barbara Russell, Brookhaven Town Historian
Margo Arceri first heard about George Washington’s Setauket spies from her Strong’s Neck neighbor and local historian, Kate W. Strong, in the early 1970s. Arceri lights up when talking about her favorite spy, Anna Smith Strong. “Kate W. Strong, Anna Smith Strong’s great-great-granddaughter, originally told me about the Culper Spy Ring when I used to visit her with my neighbor and Strong descendant Raymond Brewster Strong III. One of her stories was about Nancy (Anna Smith Strong’s nickname) and her magic clothesline. My love of history grew from there,” she said.
Four years ago Arceri approached the Three Village Historical Society’s President Steve Hintze and the board about conducting walking, biking and kayaking tours while sharing her knowledge of George Washington’s Long Island intelligence during the American Revolution.
Today Arceri runs Tri-Spy Tours in the Three Village area, which follows in the actual footsteps of the Culper Spy Ring. “I wanted to target that 20- to 60-year-old active person,” she said. “I have to thank AMC’s miniseries ‘Turn’ because 80 percent of the people who sign up for the tour do so because of that show,” she laughs.
It was during one of those tours that Arceri came up with the idea of having a Culper Spy Day. “Visiting places like the Brewster House, which is owned by The Ward Melville Heritage Organization, the grave site of genre artist William Sidney Mount at the Setauket Presbyterian Church cemetery (whose paintings are at The Long Island Museum) and the Country House, which every one of the spies visited,” Arceri thought “there has to be a day designated to celebrating all these organizations in the Three Village and surrounding areas; where each of us can give our little piece of the story and that’s how Culper Spy Day developed.”
After a successful two-year run, the third annual Culper Spy Day will be held on Saturday, Sept. 16 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. offering self-guided tours of 15 locations.
One event you won’t want to miss is the display of historic letters at Stony Brook University’s Special Collections and University Archives located on the second floor of the Frank Melville Jr. Memorial Library. Last year more than 60 people came to see two of George Washington’s letters during the event. This year, they’re hoping for an even bigger turnout with four handwritten letters that illustrate the “history and impact of the Culper Spy Ring,” according to head director Kristen Nyitray. The letters, which were penned by Nathaniel Woodhull, James Jay and Washington, “underscore Setauket’s and the Spy Ring’s pivotal role in the framing of our country,” she said.
The first of Washington’s letters, dated Sept. 24, 1779, addresses issues regarding Robert Townsend, whose code name was Samuel Culper Jr. It was received just a few days later, as noted on the letter, by Washington’s spymaster, Benjamin Tallmadge.
The letter offers methods of gathering intelligence, such as the mention of using “the stain” or the invisible ink believed to be created by James Jay, and the use of code names and numbers. During the war, Washington didn’t know the identities of the spies operating within the spy ring, so they communicated with code names and numbers to assure complete secrecy. At this point in history, the spy ring was “still vetting how best to obtain information without detection,” said Nyitray.
Almost a year later, on Sept. 16, 1780, Washington wrote to Tallmadge again, this time very favorable of Culper Jr., offering him public awareness of his actions or compensation for his efforts. The letter states, “I shall be ready to recommend him to the public, if public employ shall be his aim, and if not, that I shall think myself bound to represent his conduct in the light it deserves, and procure him a compensation of another kind.”
However, Townsend quite literally took his secret to the grave. The existence of the Culper Spy Ring was not made public until the 1930s when historian Morton Pennypacker acknowledged the similarities between Townsend’s handwriting and that of Culper Jr.
Obtaining Washington’s letters from Christie’s New York was a “collaborative effort” by the university, the Three Village Historical Society, The Ward Melville Heritage Organization and the Raynham Hall Museum.
In Woodhull’s March 4, 1776, letter, he provides Major General Philip Schuyler updates in regards to officers, battalions and supplies while Jay’s Jan. 9, 1808, letter addresses an unnamed general asking for compensation for his development of a “secret mode of correspondence,” presumably the invisible ink Washington and Townsend used to communicate decades prior.
Nyitray has been contacted from people all over the country looking to make an appointment to view the letters. “I receive calls and emails every week about the letters,” she said. With the Culper Spy Ring at the forefront of the popular TV show, AMC’s “Turn,” it has “brought positive attention and awareness to our region’s history” and “taken on a life of its own … the university provides an opportunity for all to engage in history through the letters, which is a much different experience than reading or watching a television program about it.”
Arceri’s favorite part of the day is “seeing all these different organizations coming together as a whole. It really is our Revolutionary story,” she said. “Everywhere you turn in the Three Villages you are looking at an artifact, and as the historical society believes, the community is our museum and that I would really love to put on the forefront of people’s minds.”
The third annual Culper Spy Day has been made possible through the efforts of The Three Village Historical Society, The Long Island Museum, The Ward Melville Heritage Organization, Tri-Spy Tours, Stony Brook University Special Collections, Emma S. Clark Memorial Library, Frank Melville Memorial Park, Three Village Community Trust, Caroline Church of Brookhaven, Setauket Presbyterian Church, Incorporated Village of Port Jefferson (Drowned Meadow Cottage), History Close at Hand, the Country House Restaurant, Times Beacon Record News Media, Raynham Hall, the Smithtown Historical Society, Discover Long Island, Ketcham Inn of the Moriches and Sagtikos Manor in Bay Shore.
Tickets, which are $25 adults, $5 children ages 6 to 12, may be purchased in advance at the Three Village Historical Society (TVHS), 93 North Country Road, Setauket, by calling 631-751-3730 or by visiting www.tvhs.org. Veterans and children under the age of 6 are free. Tickets may be picked up at the TVHS from Sept. 11 to 15. At that time, visitors will receive a bracelet and a copy of the Culper Spy Day map with all event listings and include access to 15 Culper Spy Ring locations. If available, tickets on the day of the event may be purchased at the historical society.