Anna Smith Strong on AMC’s show Turn is portrayed as a woman more in love with a man than the cause of Liberty. Maybe. But I think it was the other way around.
From a wealthy Tory family, Anna married ardent Setauket patriot Selah Strong III, who became a judge in New York. The Strong family owned much property on what is now Long Island. Property owners, lawyers, and patriots, they made themselves a big target for the Crown. In 1778, her husband was arrested for suspicious correspondence with the enemy and thrown on the dreaded prison ship Jersey. A death sentence, except that Anna would not give up on Selah. She used every connection she had to get permission to take him food, while simultaneously pushing for his release. Between bribes and political pressure, Selah was eventually paroled.
But not cleared. He had no fans in the British army. To stay out of prison, Selah re-located to Connecticut with their children. Anna did not go with him.
Leaving would have meant abandoning their plantation. However, women, considered non-combatants by the crown, could maintain control of property in a husband’s absence. Maybe she stayed behind so the family wouldn’t be destitute after the war. Maybe, as the writers on Turn suggest, she stayed behind to continue her affair with Abraham Woodhull.
Or, maybe, she was willing to risk her life so a nation could be born. I’m on board with that option.
During the time that her husband was on the Jersey, Anna got involved with the Washington’s Culper spy ring. According to folklore, she would hang her black petticoat on the laundry line when Caleb Brewster had come ashore to collect intelligence. The number of handkerchiefs on her line would indicate in which of six coves he was waiting. Woodhull would then meet Brewster and hand-over the intelligence. According to AMC’s Turn, Anna and Woodhull were carrying on a torrid affair.
What we know for sure is that Anna’s home was constantly raided by British troops. She was harassed, and her home invaded whenever the notion struck the soldiers. They didn’t burn it, however, and she hung on to it. When the war was over, she and Selah were reunited. They spent the rest of their lives together in Setauket and named one of their children George Washington Strong.
I think that if she had loved Selah more than Liberty, she would have gone to Connecticut with him. If she loved Abraham Woodhull more than Selah, she wouldn’t have fought so hard to keep her home, nor would she have gone back to Selah at the end of the war. As it was, it seems she was willing to risk it all for an idea: the crazy notion that a free nation would provide a better life for her and her children and their children. Sounds like love to me, and not the kind that involves sex on the kitchen table.
Just my observation.
Copyright 2014 Heather Blanton
Antonia Ford, a pretty, sassy spy for the Confederacy, didn’t mind batting her eyelashes at a Union soldier if it got her intelligence. She didn’t count on one man capturing her heart, though, or what their love would cost them.
Born into a wealthy family of loud-and-proud secessionists, Antonia loved her home in Fairfax Court House, VA. When Union troops occupied her town in mid-1861, she eagerly used her money, connections, and feminine wiles to gather intelligence. The officers were awed by her beauty and, clearly, oblivious to her brains. They talked and talked about the Union’s plans right in front of her. And Antonia turned right around and fed intelligence to the Confederacy.
When Union General Edward H. Stoughton was captured in his headquarters (one of the most famous raids of the Civil War), suspicion fell on Antonia, since she had spent some time with the officer. A counter-spy tricked Antonia into revealing the aid-de-camp commission given to her by J.E.B. Stuart himself. Antonia was arrested based on this document. Worse, however, smuggled papers were discovered in her possession. Pretty incriminating.
As fate would have it, she was arrested by 44-year-old Maj. Joseph Willard. Willard was struck right in the heart by the pretty, 24-year-old belle, but did his duty and delivered her to Old Capital Prison in Washington, D.C. Antonia was also drawn to the major and their romance blossomed…behind bars. Maj. Willard spent several months working at it, but was finally able to secure Antonia’s release. Their love, though, came at a high cost.
Antonia had to swear allegiance to the Union and promise that she would never spy again. Willard agreed to give up his commission and resigned from the Army. Apparently, neither of the two ever regretted these decisions. The couple married in 1864 and took over his family’s business, the Willard Hotel. Sadly, during their short marriage, they lost two babies, and Antonia continually battled health issues that stemmed from her incarceration. She passed away in 1871. Willard was heartbroken by her death and never remarried. Their hotel, now called the InterContinental, still stands on Pennsylvania Ave., mere shouting distance from the symbol of a government she once sought to topple.
Oh, the irony for a lady in defiance.
Copyright 2014 Heather Blanton
Sometimes, just existing is such a task.
A college roommate said that to me many years ago. For some reason, I thought of that when I researched the story of Charly Parkhurst. She carried an amazing, isolating secret for over thirty years…
Born in 1812, Charly lost her parents at an early age and wound up in an orphanage in New Hampshire. Either she escaped or they let her go, but when Charly was old enough to take care of herself, she skedaddled. Probably in her early teens. Somehow, she stumbled upon a job with Ebenezer Balch’s livery in Worcester. Working with horses would set her destiny. Charly became one of the Wild West’s most famous stagecoach drivers.
She worked for Balch for several years, then suddenly struck out for California at the height of the gold rush. Skilled, reliable, sober stagecoach drivers were in short supply so she pretty much walked into a job. And the woman proved her metal. She was robbed twice. The first time she was unarmed, the second time the robber chose the wrong victim. Charly shot him dead. Road conditions were abhorrent in Northern California. If Charly wasn’t worrying about bandits or renegade Indians, she was crossing swollen rivers, navigating rickety bridges, driving in ice and snow, and, of course, battling ornery horses. To her credit, she never lost a coach.
Charly liked whiskey and cigars. She could fight and cuss with the toughest of men and did. Small in stature, she was tough as an oak but reclusive. Not many people got close to Charly. She was always picky about her privacy and lived alone her whole life.
Eventually, the demands of driving teams of horses up rugged mountain roads got to be too much for her. She “retired” and dabbled in ranching, and raising chickens. She even worked as a lumberjack for a spell.
Now all this is impressive, but there’s one other thing you need to know about Charly. She lived this remarkable life…as a man.
From approximately 1849 or so to 1879, Charlene Parkhurst’s gender was her deepest secret. The truth was only discovered upon her death. The town doctor, as well as the coroner, also believed that at some point in her life, Charly had given birth at least once. And baby items (either a dress or shoes—accounts differ) were found in a chest at her home.
So why did Charly live her life as a man? I find it interesting that she worked with Balch for several years, even moving with him to Rhode Island, then she suddenly struck out on her own. What if, at some point, Balch discovered that Charly was a woman? According to accounts from the time of Charly’s death, she was “well-endowed,” but hid her curves under baggy, pleated shirts. What if Balch didn’t like being lied to? What if he wasn’t a very nice man?
I realize that’s a heavy dose of speculation. But a small, petite orphan girl would have been easy prey. A young man on the other hand…
A gender-bender or a woman hiding from her past? Will we ever know? What do you think?
Copyright 2014 Heather Blanton