Author Alexander Rose talks 'Turn'

Major Hewlett (Burn Gorman), John Andre (JJ Feild)

Major Hewlett (Burn Gorman), John Andre (JJ Feild) and Captain Simcoe (Samuel Roukin) in the AMC drama "Turn." (Credit: AMC / Frank Ockenfels 3)

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Those familiar with Gen. George Washington's Culper Spy Ring during the American Revolution may watch the initial episodes of AMC's "Turn" and question the absence of a central character.

That would be Robert Townsend, aka Samuel Culper Jr., the Oyster Bay native most historians agree ended up as the most important of the spies gathering information in Manhattan and transmitting it via Long Island and across the Sound to Washington.

The reason Townsend doesn't appear in the first 10 episodes is that he was a late addition to the ring. The Culper operation began in 1778, and it wasn't until the next year that Townsend was recruited.

If the series is renewed, Townsend will show up next year and play his proper major role, executive producer Craig Silverstein said.

The other question history buffs will be asking is how accurate the series is.

"The show is not a documentary, it's a drama," said Alexander Rose, author of "Washington's Spies," the 2006 book on which the series is based and an adviser to AMC. "You have to take some liberties," Rose said. "Dramatically, it works brilliantly."

Historians who have seen the first episode have noticed a few of those liberties.

Probably the best-known vignette from the Culper story is that Anna Strong of Setauket signaled whaleboat captain Caleb Brewster where to pick up dispatches by arranging a black petticoat and other laundry on her clothesline. "Turn" shows that. But Harriet Gerard Clark, executive director of Oyster Bay's Raynham Hall Museum, the Townsend family home, said, "There's nothing documenting the use of the laundry."

Rose responded, "It's a great story. It's an oral tradition. I looked into it as closely as I could. It has a ring of truth to it. It might have happened, or it might not have happened."

The other quibble is that Richard Woodhull of Setauket, a magistrate and father of Abraham Woodhull, the initial chief Culper spy, is portrayed in the first episode as an ardent Tory or loyalist cozy with the British, even though in the real story the Redcoats almost beat him to death later.

Silverstein said, "Yes, that's the chief liberty that I took because that really was a dynamic going on in other households."

Overall, the author said, "When you're doing a historical drama, you have to focus on plausibility and authenticity. In other words, does the show feel real? As a historian, I feel it is plausible and authentic."

Verne Gay contributed to this story.

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