Many intelligence historians consider her one of this country’s first female undercover operations officers. Still others refer to her as the “hidden daughter of the American Revolution.” While defending against British transgressions in and around New York, George Washington came to rely heavily on the information she supplied him. But even today, she is known only by the designation “355”, the code-number for “lady” in an encryption system used by the famous Culper Ring.
|Routes Taken by the Culper Ring|
For her part, “355” helped expose Benedict Arnold’s treasonous role in the surrender of West Point and neighboring military outposts, an act that earned him a £20,000 gratuity from the British government. She also facilitated the arrest of Major John André, the head of England’s intelligence operations in New York, who was eventually hanged as a spy on orders from General Washington.
While in New York, the debonair André kept company with any number of beguiling and available women. Taking advantage of this, “355” worked the parties he gave and attended, paying careful attention to what he offered during conversations that were often plied with considerable quantities of ale. Any substantive information “355” gleaned from these indiscretions, such as the deal to hand over West Point for payment, was surreptitiously passed by way of the Culper Ring to an appreciative George Washington.It is believed that “355” was actually Robert Townsend’s common-law wife, with whom he had a son. When Townsend learned that his prized operative and lover was to bear his child, he pleaded with her to forgo her dangerous espionage work. She refused, believing, and rightly so, that the information she was providing was of the highest value. Indeed, her days were numbered thanks, so the historical reflection goes, to the traitor Benedict Arnold, who gave her up once he had defected to Great Britain following the arrest of André.
In October 1780, “355” was captured and ordered held in fetid conditions aboard the prison ship Jersey, which was moored in the East River. While incarcerated, she gave birth to a son, whom she named Robert Townsend, Jr., after the Culper Ring operative. She died shortly thereafter. (See note.)