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The Mystery of Agent 355: Unraveling the case of the Patriot spy who never was

Raynham Hall, built in 1738, was home to

Raynham Hall, built in 1738, was home to the Townsends, including Robert Townsend, a member of the Culper Spy ring that spied on the British for Gen. George Washington. Credit: NEWSDAY/Bill Davis

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

Girl Who Spied for Washington Died on Wallabout Prison Ship
Say Child Was Born to Her in Hulk of Vessel

This grotesque headline, sad and yet deliciously wicked, appeared in the Brooklyn Eagle on May 30, 1948. The Culper Spy Ring story behind it has been eagerly repeated ever since by writers who refer to the unidentified spy as Agent 355. Or the Mysterious Lady. Or Madame X.

Here is a mystery that lingered long after the story of the spy ring was pieced together. And there's more.

The father of the child, the lover of Agent 355, was said to be the lifelong bachelor Robert Townsend of Oyster Bay, known in the revolutionary spy business as Culper Jr. Agent 355, the story goes, was captured by the British and thrown aboard the prison ship Jersey, where she later died. But the love-child survived and became a respectable citizen named Robert Townsend Jr. The problem is that the story, though widely believed, is not true.

Is this, then, an exculpation of Robert Townsend? Not exactly. Through some very nice detective work by two skeptical writers working independently of each other, Culper Jr. is still found to have a skeleton in his closet.

The fact is that Townsend did have a son named Robert Townsend Jr. born out of wedlock. But Robert Jr.'s mother was not in the Culper Spy Ring. She was Mary Banvard, an immigrant from Nova Scotia, who was Townsend's housekeeper in his New York apartment. Robert Jr. was not born until Feb. 1, 1784 -- his mother was then 24 and Townsend 30 -- after the war was over and the spy ring disbanded. The baby was raised by his mother, who later married someone else.

Part of the story appeared in the winter, 1993, edition of the Long Island Forum, in an article written by Estelle D. Lockwood of the Three Village Historical Society. Then, in 1995, in a detailed, three-part series that appeared in the New York Genealogical and Biographical Record (copyrighted by Dorothy Horton McGee, the Oyster Bay Town historian), writer Harry Macy seems to settle the question once and for all.

Supporters of the myth about the mother's death on the prison ship Jersey point to Robert Jr.'s connection to a memorial to those who died on the prison ships as proof that his mother was one of them. But the facts don't bear this out.

Robert Jr. became a carpenter, but he developed a lifelong interest in politics and government and was elected to a term in the New York State Assembly in 1836. He joined the Tammany Society in 1807, Macy writes, and he was soon appointed to seven-member Wallabout Committee, which was planning the memorial -- now known as the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument at Brooklyn's Fort Greene Park. As a member of this committee, Robert Jr.'s name was included on the cornerstone that was laid for the monument in 1808. But there is no evidence that his support of the memorial was anything more than civic duty.

It is the family scrapbook of Robert Jr.'s cousin, Solomon Townsend, that gave Lockwood proof that Robert Jr.'s mother was not the mystery spy. The scrapbook is owned by Raynham Hall Museum in Oyster Bay, the longtime Townsend family home. In it, Solomon writes that Robert Jr. was accepted in the family as Robert Townsend's son. But the mother, who Solomon did not name, was the housekeeper in the New York apartment, which Robert Townsend shared with his brother William, and another unidentified relative. In fact, Solomon suggests it was possible that William was the father of the boy, not Robert. However, Robert Townsend accepted the child as his responsibility, and paid for his education.

Macy, it turns out, was researching the story at the same time as Lockwood, and what he produced two years later is a lengthy genealogical record of Robert Jr. Macy found out the name of Robert Jr.'s mother, and detailed his political involvement that led to the creation of the memorial to the prison ship dead.

This seems to put to rest the legend of Agent 355, the spy who never was. The question is, how did it begin in the first place?

The answer lies with the former Suffolk County historian, Morton Pennypacker, who wrote a number of books and articles about the Culper Spy Ring. In a 1948 book, Pennypacker told for the first time the story about a bold female spy who bore Townsend's child and who later died on a prison ship, with the child placed in the care of an unidentified benefactor. The problem is that little evidence was presented by Pennypacker to back it up.

The only hint that there was even a woman involved at all is in a single line in a coded letter to Washington dated Aug. 15, 1779, by Culper Sr., Abraham Woodhull of Setauket. The line read:

I intend to visit 727 [NEW YORK]before long and think by the assistance of a 355 [LADY]of my acquaintance, shall be able to out wit them all.

There was no Agent 355; the number 355 meant simply the word "lady" just as the code number 371 meant "man." There may have been a woman in New York who assisted Woodhull in some manner in the early stages of the spy ring. Nothing else is known of her.

The lady remains but a cipher.

 

DESCENDANT:

PAUL TOWNSEND

Paul Townsend figures that in addition to being relatives separated by two centuries, he and Robert Townsend -- the spy known as Culper Jr. -- are brothers-under-the-skin.

"I've always enjoyed the fact that Robert Townsend was in business in New York City, and he wrote a column for Rivington's Gazette," Townsend said. "I'm a columnist and he was a columnist. I'm in business and he was in business."

Townsend, who is 78, is a columnist, editor and owner of the Long Island Business News. A former public relations consultant, the Bellport resident took over the paper in 1953 and made it into a major business force on Long Island.

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