The Unexplained: Who was the lady known as 355?
November 11, 2022
This ring of spies was responsible for gathering information for critical players in the Patriot intelligence operations of the American Revolution.
“I intend to visit 727 (New York) before long and think the assistance of 355 (lady), of my acquaintance, shall be able to outwit them all.” — This one coded message has led to the only written knowledge of 355 at all. It’s in a letter from Abraham Woodhull to George Washington. It is the one reference to her discovered in all of the spy correspondence.
It is rumored and probable that 355 was actually from a wealthy New York Loyalist family. That would have put her into frequent contact with British generals and governors at posh dinners and social events in New York.
I can imagine her remaining very cool and collected, even disinterested, as she took in every bit of information, even as a very young woman, at these swanky affairs. At some point she must have developed a sense of what was important, and what wasn’t, as she developed her spycraft. Did she write it down later? How did she hide any notes?
The lady was taken into George Washington’s Culper Ring. This ring of spies was responsible for gathering and distributing information for and to critical players in the Patriot intelligence operations of the American Revolution.
Their names were not known at the time–not even by George Washington, himself. The spies were known by numbers. They used secret codes and even invisible ink in their correspondence and activities. Many used coding wheels which helped in creating unbreakable codes.
The Culper Ring did have three other women who have been identified: Anna Strong, Sally Townsend, and Mary Underhill. Number 355 may have been the most effective of them all. It is believed that her information helped expose Benedict Arnold. She also helped catch a British spy, John Andre.
Whoever this woman was, she got a wealth of valuable information that helped George Washington defeat the British.
Many naysayers are convinced 355 never really existed. Some believe 355 was an additional code name for one of the three other Culper Ring women spies. 355 is decoded only as “lady.” Other names mentioned are Elizabeth Burgin and Sarah Horton Townsend. The latter is an unlikely choice as she is Robert Townsend’s sister.
Among the Culper Ring females, Anna Strong was Abraham Woodhull’s neighbor and she was responsible for signaling the locations of Patriot, Caleb Brewster. Brewster was raiding British shipments in Long Island Sound with the use if his whaleboat. Anna would then signal Brewster a secure location for Patriots to meet up with him.
Robert Townsend, Sarah’s (Sally’s) brother, did not wish his identity as a Culper spy to ever be known. He was not discovered as a member until 1930 by historian, Morton Pennypacker. His actual code name was Samuel Culper, Jr. His code number was 723.
In 1789, 355 was captured and put on a British prison boat. Her capture may have even been a result of Benedict Arnold’s revenge. The conditions on British prison ships were most grim. To complicate things, 355 found herself to be pregnant. In due time she gave birth to a healthy boy. Some time after that, 355 died on the ship.
Who could the father of the little boy be?
I thought that surely there would be no way to find out about 355’s infant son. No one even knew the identity of 355. I was so wrong.
The little boy lived and grew up to become a productive and upstanding citizen: Robert Townsend, Jr. How do they know that when they don’t know more about 355? Now that is a mystery.
Robert Townsend had confessed to some members of the Culper Ring that he was in love with fellow spy, 355, on more than one occasion
Robert Townsend, Jr. grew up to be a politician, himself, and campaigned to have a memorial established for all women who had died on the British prison ships.
Soloman Townsend, Robert Townsend Sr.’s brother said the child belonged to their other brother, William Townsend. The answers to all these mysteries are in there somewhere. They are likely to remain mysteries.
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