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Passionate About the Past: Morton Pennypacker unraveled important stories of Long Island's history

Amateur historian Morton Pennypacker, seen here in an

Amateur historian Morton Pennypacker, seen here in an undated photo, discovered in 1939 that the Revolutionary War spy known as Culper Jr. was Robert Townsend of Oyster Bay. Credit: East Hampton Library

This story first appeared in 1998 as part of "Long Island: Our Story"

One of the Culper Spy Ring's deepest secrets eluded historical detectives for almost a century and a half. The real name of the spy known as Culper Jr. was not uncovered until 1939, and the sleuth was a dedicated amateur historian named Morton Pennypacker.

It was Pennypacker who discovered, with the help of a handwriting analyst, that the mystery spy was Robert Townsend. For 10 years, Pennypacker had searched for handwriting to compare to that in letters written to Gen. George Washington by Culper Jr. He finally came across "a chest of old documents" that was once the property of Robert Townsend of Oyster Bay.

"It was found that the paper upon which they were written was identical," Pennypacker wrote. "The same watermark, the same shade, the same weight, the same laid marks minutely varying one from the other on the same sheet, but corresponding exactly with all the little variations and flaws with other sheets among the Townsend Papers. The handwriting, looking so similar, was not declared identical until the world's greatest expert, Albert S. Osborn, had examined it."

That Pennypacker should make such a discovery was not surprising. Once he was asked by a reporter why he was such a passionate collector of books and documents having to do with Long Island history. The answer was simple -- he was in love, he said.

"I'm doing this because I love Long Island and its history makers," Pennypacker said in a Dec. 4, 1923, interview in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. "They were splendid men and women. If people knew how interesting it all is, there would be more of them following in my lines. I am passionately fond of the work, and it is more than a hobby -- it is a love."

Although he was not a professional historian, Pennypacker, who died in 1956 at age 84, had a remarkable effect on Long Island history. He published a number of books and articles, but his most notable contribution was a collection of books, pamphlets, maps and historic manuscripts that became the foundation for the Pennypacker Long Island Collection at the East Hampton Free Library.

It is ironic that such a dedicated Long Islander as Pennypacker was not born or reared on Long Island at all. He was born Frank Knox Morton Pennypacker in Philadelphia on Aug. 13, 1872. The son of a merchant, Pennypacker was educated at home and never attended college. He learned the trade of printing, and for 18 years he and his brothers ran a printing plant in Asbury Park, N.J. He later took a job as a salesman with the Osborne Advertising Co. in New York, and moved to Kew Gardens, then Mineola and, eventually, East Hampton. He worked for Osborne from 1920 to 1952.

But it was Long Island history that attracted Pennypacker, and he began collecting Long Island materials during the 1920s, sometimes item by item, other times in entire collections from other collectors. As part of his job, he traveled all over the Island, and as his collection grew, he began looking for a public place to deposit it. In 1930, the East Hampton Library became the happy recipient of what turned out to be 7,314 items, of which 2,600 were books, the rest pamphlets, clippings, manuscripts, maps and other historical miscellany.

There were many attractions for Pennypacker in East Hampton. Not the least of these was Ettie Hedges, who had been named the library's first librarian in 1898 at the age of 19. In 1936, Hedges and Pennypacker were married, settling in the Hedges' old family house down the street from the library. It was the first marriage for both. She was 57; he was 63.

Pennypacker, who was Suffolk County historian from 1943 to 1954, is perhaps best-known for his books -- "The Two Spies," about Nathan Hale and Robert Townsend, and "General Washington's Spies on Long Island and New York," an exhaustive study of the Long Island spy system.

His passion, however, may have led him to conclusions about other aspects of the spy ring that are historically troubling. In his 1939 book, Pennypacker told a completely undocumented story about how the Culper Spy Ring was instrumental in the capture in 1780 of Maj. John Andre, the British spy, as he was about to meet secretly with Gen. Benedict Arnold at West Point. The story gives much of the credit to Townsend's sister, Sarah (or Sally), whose Oyster Bay home was then occupied by the British.

In his 1953 book, "The Traitor and the Spy," historian James Thomas Flexner wrote, "The story is told in such detail that many documents would be needed for substantiation; Pennypacker cites no sources. Furthermore, the anecdote does not stand to reason."

A second Pennypacker story is equally suspicious. In 1948, he told, for the first time, a story about a mysterious female in New York City who not only assisted Townsend, but became his lover. She became pregnant, was arrested by the British and thrown aboard the prison ship Jersey, where she died. The baby, the story ends, survived as Robert Townsend Jr. Though the story has been retold and heavily embellished by subsequent writers, it has recently been shown to be totally untrue.

Pennypacker also was the first person to claim -- incorrectly, it seems -- that the so-called Hulbert flag predated Betsy Ross' flag as the first Stars and Stripes.

Pennypacker's reputation, however, is based primarily on his creation of the Long Island Collection in East Hampton, a treasure trove of local history.

 

LEGACY: THE LONG ISLAND COLLECTION

This collection is . . . the history of Long Island, the first of the first editions.

-- Morton Pennypacker, Sept. 10, 1931

There is something for every researcher in the Long Island Collection housed in two recently remodeled rooms at the rear of the East Hampton Library on Main Street. Novels and poetry written about Long Island or by Long Islanders. Materials on the Quakers, agriculture, Long Island history, churches. There are maps, town records and fascinating old diaries and sermons by Long Island preachers. There is Vol. 1, No. 1 of Frothingham's Long Island Herald, the first newspaper published on Long Island, in Sag Harbor. There is even a book in Latin published in 1475, a few years after Johann Gutenberg introduced movable type to Europe.

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