Agent 355–Her Name Might be a Mystery, But is Her Identity Really Still a Secret?


The study of our heroes and heroines is more often than not like trying to track a rabbit. The critter turns, runs, spins, leaves confusing tracks, and then disappears. But if you try hard, put yourself in your prey’s mind, and look outward, some compelling paths reveal themselves.

Agent 355 was a female agent in George Washington’s famous Culper Spy ring. Absolutely nothing concrete is known about her other than when British leaders were in New York, information funneled to Washington fast and furious. When they left town, the information slowed to a trickle.

rev_girlSo who was this totally unsung heroine who willingly risked it all for God and country? Walk with me as we make some educated guesses.

Technically, she didn’t actually have her own identity, like, say, “Agent 99.” The number “355” simply meant female spy. But this lady never disappointed Washington. Her intelligence was always spot on. Some documents indicate 355 may have provided the intelligence that suggested Benedict Arnold was going to betray his country and that the famously personable British soldier John Andre was his contact.

Scholars speculate that 355 was a well-bred lady from New York society, the member of a Loyalist family. Such a position would have certainly given her access to officers and their “attentions.” How easy to simply ignore boring talk of troop movements whilst you bat your eyelashes at a handsome, young soldier. No one would know you were actually soaking up the intelligence in that pretty little head of yours.

Or perhaps she was a maid in a house where British soldiers bivouacked. What better cover for rifling through papers on a desk than to say you’re dusting the furniture? Or cleaning up a mess on the floor so you could drop to your hands and knees and put your ear to the cracks?

Robert Townsend was the head of the Culper spy network and rumors have persisted for almost 300 years that 355 was his common-law wife. A female spy was arrested and incarcerated on the prison ship Jersey in 1780. This woman gave birth to a son whom she supposedly named Robert Townsend, Jr.  Most academics debunk this story as mere legend, but here is a tantalizing piece of information. Robert Townsend, Jr., a “son” of James Townsend (brother of Robert Sr.) became a lawyer and went into politics. Strangely, one of his pet projects was the Prison Ship Martyrs Memorial Fund which eventually became the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument at Fort Green Park in New York. This monument, nearly 150 feet tall commemorates the men and women who lost their lives aboard these horrible prison ships.

Could Robert Townsend have asked his brother to raise a bastard son, to give him a chance at a respectable life? Why didn’t Robert Townsend ever marry, or re-marry?

Whoever 355 was, she is not forgotten; she is honored and she lives on to inspire us all in the fight for liberty. She did nothing for fame or glory. Her name was never written down anywhere. George Washington didn’t even know who she was. She did it all for fledgling America.

But what do you think? Am I on this rabbit’s trail or have I lost the scent?

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About Heather Frey Blanton

"I believe Christian fiction should be messy and gritty, because the human condition is ... and God loves us anyway." -- Heather Blanton

Posted on September 24, 2012, in Heather Blanton, Ladies in Defiance and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 66 Comments.

  1. Have you ever come across any names of female spies on the HMS Jersey prison ship?

  2. No, 355 did not mean female spy, it meant simply, ‘lady’.

    • I don’t believe she was saying all the women on the the prison ships were spies. I took her question to mean that we might be able to find some names that were commonalities with other archival material. Also, while 355 did mean lady, in context it referred to a woman who was assisting in some way with intelligence. Thanks for your comment, though, John.

  3. “Also, while 355 did mean lady, in context it referred to a woman who was assisting in some way with intelligence.”

    This is simply conjecture on your part. I’ve seen the code book.

  4. Maybe I misunderstood you. If you meant by context, Robert Townsend’s specific mention of “meeting with a 355”, possibly a lady spy (we don’t know that for absolute, but that seems to be the consensus among historians) then you are probably correct. But as far as the code that was devised for this particular operation, generally speaking it simply meant, ‘lady’.

  5. Um, what I meant was I’ve seen copies of the code book, Heather. If you haven’t seen this, here ya go:

    • Thank you, John, for that tip. I took a gander. Seems so…simplistic and insecure, doesn’t it. I mean from the perspective of a digital world with encoding and security and firewalls. Thank God they kept it secure!

  6. xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx You’re welcome Ma’am. They definitely had to be people who could keep a secret. Not the self-aggrandizing type, and with copious amounts of cool courage.

    I just finished the latest book on this subject: George Washington’s Secret Six; the spy ring that saved the American Revolution, by Brian Kilmeade and Don Yaeger.

    BTW, since you have a keen interest in U.S. History, have you read David Hackett Fischer’s scholarship on Paul Revere’s Ride? It’s the seminal work on this period, Sept 1774–April 1775. He documents several of Revere’s rides, prior to the ‘Midnight Ride’, and brings more to the front than ever before, the battle of Fort William and Mary in New Hampshire. Fought in Dec 1774, it was the actual, at least technical, beginning of the American Revolution. For which Michelle Bachmann got hysterically assailed for mentioning. Sarah Palin received the same condescending treatment for suggesting that the purpose of Paul Revere’s Ride was to thwart the ongoing British campaign to disarm the Colonists. Which it absolutely was, and which the author clearly demonstrates. Fully endnoted, it is out of print, as it’s a 1994 copyright, but of course they are still available second hand on Amazon. I in fact just picked up a second copy to pass around. I got my original copy when it first came out.

    The treatise was especially timely, since the detractors of Paul Revere and his importance in Boston in the runup to the American Revolution had pretty much had free rein in their disparagement and depreciation. That they had such a profound interest in so doing boggles the mind.

    • Thank you so much for these…well, all these insights and suggestions. I knew I liked you. Especially since you mentioned two of my favorite ladies. I will put these books on my TBR list. Do you blog? You should. This is the kind of information that needs to get out there!

  7. WWWWWWWWWWWWW Oh my…lastnight when I typed that comment the ‘Enter your comment here’ wouldn’t go away (as it is now too), so I X’ed it out and typed my post…..but today all that remain are the X’es, LOL. Have you ever been so appreciated???

  8. That should have been: ‘Institute On The Constitution’.

  9. Another good Constitutional Primer is the Online program offered by Hillsdale College.

    Yes, Heather, I’ve been political blogging for many years, and an ancellary benefit is that allows me to dispense historical information. It’s frustrating that so many are hearing much of this information for the first time, having been suckled on revisionist history, or pop culture as a substitute. And it’s very disheartening that many don’t want to hear it. Sadly, I’m afraid our Constitution is on life-support, and our Constitution is what gives identity to the United States and its citizenry. I dearly pray that these early Americans, who toiled, bled and died, for the idea of a nation blessed in freedom under God, will not have done so in vain.

    It is encouraging to come across a site such as this. Keep up the good work Heather.

    ~~~Concord Hymn

    By the rude bridge that arched the flood
    Their flag to April’s breeze unfurled
    Here once the embattled farmers stood
    And fired the shot heard ’round the world

    ~~~Ralph Waldo Emerson — (1803-1882)

    • John, that is one of the points of my blog: American Exceptionalism. WE are different and our Constitution is evidence of that. I’m not through doing what I can to get that out there and neither are you. So there’s still hope for our country. What is your blog?

  10. Hi Heather and John,

    Interesting to read your information/conversation here… especially in light of the new series Turn (AMC) and the renewed (awakening?) interest in the Culper Ring.

    One of the stories that I keep seeing in connection with the Agent 355 mystery is that she was executed after giving a birth, supposedly causing her jailer to defect to the Americans, at which time he confessed that he was defecting because he ‘had had to do something which no gentleman should ever have to do (i.e., executing a woman).’

    The story goes on further to say that in this same time period Washington had given folks in the field urgent instructions to try to capture a general or other high-value official– the implication being that he wanted someone he could trade for the imprisoned Agent 355.

    I have yet to see citations, however, for any documentation that would make this story seem credible. (Not saying it’s not true, just wanting to know if there’s anything to back it up or point to it being possible.)

    I’m wondering is if the British would have any documentation or records that would shed light on 355’s identity– or the identity of any other spies they caught. Or perhaps those records were lost at some point?

    Would be interested to see if either of you could tell me more– by the way thanks for your blogging and promotion of American history.

    • That is all very interesting. From what I’ve learned of Washington, I could see him thinking like that (high value target) so he had something valuable to exchange for her. He was a man of honor and compassion. Too bad we don’t have any like him in Washington today. If you find out anymore, please feel free to check back in with us! As far as AMC’s Turn, I really want to like it, but they gotta two things: clean it up (I’ve got kids) and stop whispering so much. Laugh.

      • I so agree! Why do writers and producers always feel the need to inject blatant sex into what’s already a good story?! If they were less sex-obsessed, I think they’d discover that subtlety is much more effective anyway. As a teacher, I’m sad that many of my students really can’t watch.

        My 10-year-old nephew is allowed to watch, but knows he has to face away from the TV during the naughty scenes,

        As for the whispering… many viewers have complained about that. Between the various accents and the bad audio, I do have to (often!) replay on TV or computer to get the dialogue.

        A lot of info swirling around the TURN series… some readers passing things off as fact that I think are really conjecture. But makes it fun to research and find out what’s really known versus what’s being said.

        Anyway, thanks for your site,

  11. Thanks for the reply, B. Turn isn’t a bad show, but I’ll watch with a raised brow. I agree, they’re missing an opportunity to bring in more viewers by not cleaning it up. Dumb Hollywood.

  12. Actually, I have yet to find any document at all that says 355 was put in prison, much less the Jersey. Can you validate this and tell us where that document can be found?

    • Magnolia, thanks for reading. While there are actually several good sources in existence, why don’t you start with this one: Clandestine Women: The Untold Stories of Women in Espionage, Curated by espionage historian Linda McCarthy, 2002. THANKS for reading!

  13. “Robert Townsend was the head of the Culper spy network” this is erroneous information. George Washington was the Head of the Ring…….Benjamin Tallmadge was the “Handler” and the rest, including Townsend were “Agents”.

  14. I figured out that 355 in the code book meant lady and I found a clear image of the code book and here is the website:

  15. One quick question: How did she not get caught

  16. I read that Agent 355 was arrested in 1780 and imprisoned on the HMS Jersey a prison ship where she was interrogated.

  17. I also found an entire biography page over her. I read through it and most of it is her “spy life”

  18. This is where records become murky. According to one legend, Arnold turned over the names of several Patriot spies, including Agent 355. She was captured and held on a British prison ship, where she died—though not before giving birth to a son, Robert Townsend Jr.

  19. Did her husband try to break her out since she was a P.O.E.?

  20. why was she a spy if she was pregnant?

  21. curnol John Lesher is one of my many great grandfathers and he knew George Washington

  22. how old was agent 355 and how many months pregnant was she when she first became a spy

  23. how long was she married for and did she have any other kids

  24. how much money did she have and who did it go to

  25. More information next time

  26. How could someone find this much information on this person but I can’t find anything? Agent 355 is almost completely invisible.

  27. Love to read and to find a series of books about independent strong women is definitely a win in my book. Thank you 😊

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