By Scott Ferrara
There’s no doubt that Long Island played a major role in the success of the American Revolution. In fact, Setauket was home to numerous people who comprised a network of clandestine intelligence operatives known as the Culper Spy Ring.
One of those Setauket spies was Abraham Woodhull (1750-1826). Woodhull, known for his alias Samuel Culper Sr., resided in British-Occupied Setauket during the war and used invisible ink to send encoded messages of enemy troop movement to General George Washington.
Unfortunately, few artifacts and personal belongings of Woodhull’s survived, both through the passage of time as well as the 1931 fire that razed his former home.
On July 26th, 2023, the Three Village Historical Society (TVHS) acquired two books at auction that belonged to the Woodhull family, one of the books bearing Abraham Woodhull’s signature. These books hold promise as a cultural resource for the community, and for their research potential of Three Village history and the history of our nation.
The first book, The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul by Phillip Doddridge, was signed by Abraham Woodhull prior to both the American Revolution (1775-1784) and activities of the Culper Spy Ring (1778-1783). Abraham wrote his name on the first page of the book as well as a brief description of where he was at the time, Newfoundland.
We know he was only 23 years old at the time, had not yet married or taken over the family farm and estate. His youthful decisions had found him aboard the ship the Dolphin during a very tense moment in American history. After all, Abraham had conveniently provided us the date of his travel, Aug. 27, 1773.
This date provides clues as to the social environment Abraham was reading this book in. August of 1773 was a very tense summer in our nation’s history. Only three months earlier, in May of 1773, King George signed into effect the Tea Act which undercut colonial merchants, who had been prospering in maritime trade, and increased the power and influence of the British East India Company. This discriminatory act angered American colonists and sparked resentment that would eventually lead to war.
These tensions would eventually boil over in December of that same year when the Sons of Liberty threw bricks of tea into the Boston harbor in an act of protest and defiance of the British King; an event known today as the Boston Tea Party. What was Abraham doing so far away from home during such a kinetic social time? Who or what was in Newfoundland that would draw him away from his family? These, among many more questions, have yet to be answered.
Abraham, later in life, gifted this book to his second wife, Lidia, shortly before Christmas in their wedding year of 1824. We know this because she had inscribed her name and a brief note on the page following her husband’s earlier signature. Abraham passed away two years later.
The book moved through many hands over time until the departure of its most recent owner in Islip last year. The book, along with the rest of their estate, was inventoried and listed at private auction where it was identified by friends of the TVHS.
A second book was also included in the auction lot. This book bears the signatures of Charity Woodhull and William Woodhull, likely niece and nephew of the patriot spy, Abraham. This book is titled The Holy War by John Bunyan (1682). The Holy War is a fiction book with Christian themes that tells the story of a mighty king who is overthrown by evil rebels and must fight to reclaim his throne.
The acquisition of these books is exciting for the Three Village community. The TVHS can now appropriately curate them, while making these artifacts accessible to scholars. In fact, these books have incredible research potential both historically and genealogically.
The Three Village Historical Society is currently exhibiting the Woodhull books for a limited time. These books can be viewed at TVHS headquarters located at 93 N Country Road in East Setauket.
Guests are welcomed to visit TVHS.org to book a docent- or self-guided tour of the historical society’s museum or a walking tour throughout the Three Village community (operated by Tri-Spy Tours). The TVHS’s Spies! exhibit also features interactive software, hands-on learning activities, and the original Abraham Woodhull costume worn by actor Jamie Bell in the TURN: Washington’s spies television series. The society also welcomes researchers who wish to study their collections for academic or independent research projects.
Acknowledgments: Acquisition of these historical items would not have been possible without the combined efforts of the Three Village Historical Society’s staff and trustees. Specifically, the Collections Committee comprised of Christina Tortora Ph.D., Brian Bennett and Judi Wallace, as well as Brookhaven Town Historian Barbara Russell, Three Village Historian Beverly C. Tyler, the Society’s director Mari Irizarry, and President of the Board of Trustees, Jeff Schnee.
Author Scott Ferrara is the Exhibits & Collections Coordinator at the Three Village Historical Society.