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Culture

The Badass Female Spy You’ve Never Heard About 

When I say “spy,” you probably picture some sort of smooth-talking handsome British man going by the name of 007. But not all spies wear tuxedos, and it happens that agent 355’s garment of choice was most likely a petticoat. 

To put in a bit of context, the story is set during the American Revolutionary War. In 1776, The British took over New York City, and George Washington started setting up networks of spies to gather information. The Culper Ring was one of them. Created in 1778 by New York merchant Robert Townsend, it was comprised of six people, including the mysterious agent 355. 

Very little is known about “355.” The number does not give any hint about her identity, since 355 was merely the code used in letters to mean “lady.” In other words, the only thing we know for sure is that she was a woman. Oh, and that the information she gathered proved crucial in many instances. 

To mention only one of her achievements, she was the one who warned that Benedict Arnold was about to surrender a strategic fort to the British for money. With that information, Washington’s forces were able to succesfully thwart the operation. 

We might never know the real identity of agent 355, but historians were able to guess a few things. She is referred to as a “lady,” meaning she was probably an educated woman from the high society. Her family is likely to have been loyal to the British, which would explain why she was able to easily access crucial information. It is easy to imagine her pretending to be charmed by British officers while taking mental notes of everything they were saying. 

Agent 355 probably became a spy because she had personal ties to one of the male members of the Culper Ring. It has been said that she was Robert Townsend’s cousin, or even his common law wife. But maybe that explanation just shows that historians have a sexist bias : they cannot think of a woman acting from her own initiative.

Eventually, agent 355 was arrested by Benedict Arnold in 1780. She was pregnant  at the time but refused to give any information about the identity of the father, or about her spying activities. Her name hasn’t been passed down in any interrogation report, and it is only known that she was kept captive on a prison ship in New York harbor where she allegedly gave birth to a son. The conditions of detention were dreary, and she died shortly after. 

While the identity of the other Culper Ring members was disclosed at some point during the 20th century when letters were found, agent 355 remains anonymous.  But then, secret is what characterizes a good spy, and in that sense there is no doubt she was an excellent one.

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by Elisabeth Ropartz

Elisabeth is a French woman passionate about history. Willing to acknowledge the women whose contribution to world history has been overlooked, she celebrates them in a column named "Women History Forgot".

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