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AMC’s “TURN” twists American history

The New York State historical marker is on the site of the Abraham Woodhull house. In the series, the house is burned by Abe's wife. The real story: Abraham did not marry until 1781 and his house burned during 1931.
The New York State historical marker is on the site of the Abraham Woodhull house. In the series, the house is burned by Abe's wife. The real story: Abraham did not marry until 1781 and his house burned during 1931.Mike Virgintino

The original series TURN on AMC that made its debut a couple of months ago is a period drama based on Alexander Rose’s 2007 book Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring.

While TURN is captivating, especially for viewers who enjoy this period of American history, the series also delivers many huge historical flaws that have frustrated the viewers who really know their history. The series concluded its first season of 10 episodes on June 8. It will return for a second season of 10 episodes next spring.

While the series delivered significant attention to period language, dress and the appearances of the Long Island town of Setauket and New York City, the director and script writers removed a considerable amount of the fascinating real story from the program.

Historical Flaws

Here are just several major factual flaws:

  • The show begins during 1776 and 1777. British Major John Andre is introduced but he was not in charge of his country’s military intelligence until 1779, which was after the Battle of Trenton (December 26, 1776) that appears in episode five. Andre should not have been introduced so early in the series.
  • The historical records do not indicate that Andre met with captured patriot General Charles Lee as depicted in the series. Lee was not caught half-naked and blindfolded while playing Marco Polo with a honeypot, as seen in episode four. Instead, Lee and his guards were surrounded on December 12, 1776 at the White Tavern in New Jersey. Lee surrendered about 10 a.m., still in his dressing gown, to British officer Banastre Tarleton, who refused to let him change into his uniform.
  • The character of Abraham Woodhull, one of the significant contributors to the TURN series spy ring and a critical member of the real spy ring, is depicted as married and a father of a young boy. We learn that he already has lost a brother to the conflict. His father is a loyalist and Abe once was engaged to neighbor Anna Strong, another member of the spy ring. The actual facts are that Woodhull did not marry until 1781 and his first marriage was to his cousin Mary Smith. His father was a patriot and about 70 years old during the war, and Abraham did not loose a brother during the war. The senseless killing of a patriot militia officer cousin (Brigadier General Nathaniel Woodhull) seems, according to history, to have influenced him to spy for the patriots.
  • Woodhull could not have had a previous public love interest with Strong as is depicted in the various episodes. She was 10 years his senior. At the time of the war, she was 35 to his 25, and this would not have been acceptable for the norms of the times. But they were family friends and they did supposedly "appear" as husband and wife on at least one occasion when Abe traveled to New York.The British were known to stop solitary men traveling along the route between Long Island towns and New York City as single men fit the profile of spies. Abe thought civility would prevent soldiers from stopping and searching a "married man" who happened to be traveling with a woman (Anna) who was masquerading as his wife. The scheme worked. This incident appears at the end of episode six and at the beginning of episode seven.
  • During episode six, Woodhull is told of his code name (Samuel Culpeper) for future identification. While “Culpeper” was first agreed upon at General George Washington’s headquarters, it was quickly shortened to Samuel Culper.
  • A leading British antagonist, Captain James Graves Simcoe, was not involved in the lunatic actions that are depicted in the series by an officer with the same name. The real Simcoe was quite a different man who was offered, during 1777, the command of the Queens Rangers, a unit of loyalist soldiers that fought with the British Army. Even the British officer in charge of affairs in Setauket in the TURN series is a fictional character. He goes by the name of Major Hewlett. The historical Richard Hewlett was not English. For generations, the Hewlett family had been established closer to New York City in Hempstead on Long Island. Some were patriots but Hewlett remained loyal. The troops that the real Lieutenant Colonel Hewlett commanded on Long Island were American Loyalists and not British regulars.

Other Flaws

On the series Facebook page, comments have included complaints that the characters frequently talk in whispers and that the dialogue goes by too softly and too quickly. Whispers are important when spies talk, but raising the volume a little bit would have engaged each viewer a bit more and made him or her more of a part of the inner circle of the spy ring.

During one of the early episodes, a British officer is killed in Setauket. It is later learned that he was killed by a citizen as a result of “buggery.” Few viewers knew the definition of this term, but a handful did surmise that it had a homosexual connotation. Some viewers wrote on Facebook that the sexual reference injected into the storyline forced them to turn away from the series.

Without becoming too specific, the term “buggery” at the time was very close in meaning to the term “sodomy.” It often was used interchangeably in law and popular speech and it may have encompassed both sodomy and bestiality. In Hollywood’s insistence to include a homosexual reference to a storyline at every opportunity, this one was totally fictional and not necessary to tell the stories of Setauket during the war, the British Army, or the spy ring. The "buggery"actually led to not just the murder of the officer but also to the killing of another British soldier.

The book on which this series is based has been heralded, justifiably, as a significant piece of historical research that documents George Washington’s spy ring on Long Island. No doubt the author received a financial commitment to allow his research to be adapted into a TV-made drama series with an historical setting. But this begs the question as to why any historian would allow so much of the actual story to be falsely “turned.”

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