Not since HBO’s John Adams has a mainstream media event promised to deliver so much in terms of excitement surrounding the American Revolution, and with that, hopefully, historical accuracy. When Turn, a five-part series, premieres on April 6th on AMC, it will do much to temporarily quell the hunger of history geeks across the country, with this prominent part of our nation’s history largely ignored in feature films and television. While John Adams was spectacular, other Hollywood ventures have not been so successful. 1985’s Revolution starring Al Pacino was a travesty to history, while The Patriot with Mel Gibson in 2000 was nothing more than Lethal Weapon set during the 1700’s. Being that I worked at a Revolutionary War-era museum for four years and lecture on the subject from time to time, it is needless to say that I am excited. This new series will take a look at a very underrated aspect of our Revolution with Britain, which was the role that spies played in our eventual victory.
Turn is set in 1778-New York, and centers around a group of spies known as the Culper Ring. Aside from being featured in an episode of Brad Meltzer’s Decoded this past year on the History Channel, the general public is probably unaware of this group’s existence, much less how helpful they were to General George Washington and his rag-tag army. Just like today, espionage and getting the “one-up” on the enemy is key. The only difference is, back then, word traveled much slower, and being that New York and New Jersey were hotbeds of Loyalist activity, it was very hard for one to figure out who he could trust. The penalty for being captured was, of course, death by hanging, the most notable of these carried out against Nathan Hale in 1776, with his famous last words being recorded into posterity as, “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”
While this series is set in New York, there is actually a connection to a building a little bit closer to home in New Jersey, although maybe not a direct one. Standing in the small seaside town of Port Monmouth is a structure that is affectionately known as the “Spy House”. While today it is famous for allegedly being one of the most haunted houses in America, with a laundry list of myths and legends swirling around it, there is indeed a reason why it has such a nickname. Though the exact date of construction is still debated, recently uncovered tourist literature places the construction of the original segment (which was a simple log cabin) at 1663, with many more additions taking place over the next couple hundred years. It was owned by the Whitlock family and is said to be the first permanent structure ever built in New Jersey under Crown rule. Throughout the years, it was owned by several other families (including the Seabrooks and Wilsons), but it was during the American Revolution where the house came to earn its nickname.
Through research, unfortunately I found that some of the information conflicts. Originally, I always heard that it was a tavern where British soldiers used to frequent. The innkeeper or bartender would then attempt to get the soldiers drunk and try to find out any important information he could about the army, and then relay that information to Washington. However, the actual “spying” was most likely done from the house (or tavern) on the British ships entering what was then known as Shoal Harbor—the house is only a few hundred feet from the water. It would have been a busy area for the British, who controlled New York City at the time, which the house and nearby Garrett’s Hill overlooks. The British army under Sir Henry Clinton would have marched close by in Middletown, on their way into what is now Highlands and Sandy Hook, on their retreat from the battle of Monmouth in 1778, which is actually where Turn picks up. Once at Sandy Hook, they boarded ships and headed for the City. We do have a name of one of the spies involved with this location, John Stillwell, who according to reports, was actually very close to Washington.
Upon realizing just how dangerous a nest this house was for spies, the British Navy ordered soldiers to burn the location, which they attempted to do after destroying any buckets they found at the house. However, once the fire was set, the ladies working there were quick to action, taking damp clothes that were just washed and using them to put out the flames. There is no accounting for why the British never returned to finish the job. More than 300 years later, the house still stands, even with many alterations.
Today, there is a lot of conflict over how the Spy House should be used. Its official name is Bayshore Waterfront Park Activity Center. Folklorists would like to see the legendary haunted theme brought out, along with the spies (and there is even a supposed pirate connection) while the current owners continue to use the house as a nature center. Being a history guy who loves the paranormal, I would like to see all of the above, especially the spying aspect, which is going to be all the rage once Turn premieres in about a month. Readers of this blog and followers of my web-series Haunted Travels will know that I was a part of two “firsts” regarding the Spy House. Back in 2011, I became the first person to give a history-related lecture since the ownership change in the early 2000’s, when I presented New Jersey’s Role in the American Revolution. Then, just a few weeks ago, I had a chance to speak on The Haunted History of New Jersey in front of a sold-out crowd, being not only the first person to be allowed to give a paranormal-related presentation, but also to conduct a ghost hunt.
Due to the upcoming series, I would very much like to create a presentation focusing entirely on the house’s role in the American Revolution. Unfortunately, though, not a lot of specific information is known on the house. It’s famous late caretaker, Gertrude Niedlinger, is a major source of what we do know, and while everyone can agree that she loved the house and put a lot of care into it, many have stated that she made up information that she did not know or could not prove. Perhaps there are some solid facts buried in an archive somewhere, I do not know, but would love to find out. The Spy House is open on select hours every weekend, but beware, it is strictly used as an environmental center—historical information is limited to the basics. If you are really into history, then it is worth checking out. As for myself, I will continue to do some digging to see if I can find any direct connection between this spy haven at the Culper Ring itself.