Boston 1775 Remembers John Nagy

NagyThis weekend we did a post on the sudden death of John Nagy, a historian and author of books about espionage during the American Revolution.

Over at Boston 1775, J.L. Bell reflects a bit more on Nagy’s legacy.  Here is a taste:

John was an expert—really, the current expert—on Revolutionary War espionage. He had several books to his name, including Invisible Ink: Spycraft of the American Revolution and Rebellion in the Ranks: Mutinies of the American Revolution.

I never met John in person, but over the last several years we had a steady correspondence by email about spying during the siege of Boston. We exchanged sources and leads. Every couple of years I would receive a barrage of messages signed just “John” asking about various individuals in colonial Boston, and I knew he was working on a new manuscript.

In Spies in the Continental Capital: Espionage Across Pennsylvania During the American Revolution, John presented contemporaneous documentation for the espionage activities of Lydia Darragh. I sent him congratulations because I’d been so skeptical about her legend, which arose in dramatic form a generation or two after the war. John vacuumed up all the stories and evidence about Revolutionary espionage he could find, and he spotted a period document pointing to Darragh’s family.

In his biography Dr. Benjamin Church, Spy: A Case of Espionage on the Eve of the American Revolution, John endorsed my conclusion about the identity of the doctor’s mistress. Convincing John Nagy gave me confidence in my interpretation of the evidence.

Read the entire post here.

Are You Watching "Turn"?

I am not.  

But everywhere I go people are asking me about this new television series about the American Revolution based on Alexander Rose’s book Washington’s Spies.   I am sure I will get around to watching it one of these days.  As much as I preach the idea that historians must engage the public, I seldom watch historical movies until well after they have the left the theaters.  I guess I need to improve in this area, but as someone who thinks about history all day for a living I have always seen television and movie watching–sports, comedy, dramas–as a chance to think about something else for a change.

I am, however, glad that J.L. Bell is watching Turn and is reviewing it at Boston 1775.  Here is a taste of his Season One wrap-up:

Early on in the show’s run I had to reconcile myself to the many historical liberties the show’s creators had taken, from launching the Culper Ring in 1776 to giving two principal characters anachronistic bushy beards as a way to signal they stood outside ordinary norms and differentiate them from the other men. There are so many deviations from the historical record or historiographical questions to point out that those essays could fill a season unto themselves.

But I realized that simply noting those changes was not unlike pointing out that Bucky Barnes died while trying to stop Baron Zemo’s rocket, and not by falling off a train as in the new Captain Americamovies. That may be true—hey, it is true—but not in the “Marvel movie continuity.”

Similarly, it seemed wiser to consider the Turn continuity to reflect a different universe from the real one. The same characters were playing the same basic roles in the same basic storylines, but they looked different, the timeline was changed, and knowledge about one world didn’t necessarily apply in the other. Given the cast-limiting budget, the show’s production values, use of period music, and generally strong performances kept it generally entertaining.

My biggest disappointment with Turn, therefore, wasn’t with the historical accuracy but with the way some characters’ motivations seemed to shift as the plot demanded. The character at the center,Abe Woodhull, is obviously torn in several directions—politically, romantically, familially. But his choices remained so opaque that, for instance, his getting involved in a duel seemed to be driven more by the producers’ thought that a duel would be dramatic than by anything we’d seen Abe do up to that point. Secondary characters worked better since they could be “flat,” in E. M. Forster’s formulation, and maintain their motivation. 

For Bell’s other posts and reviews on Turn click here.