Abraham Woodhull (October 7, 1750 – January 23, 1826) was a member of the Culper Spy Ring during the American Revolution. After the Revolution, he served as a magistrate and a judge. It may be that James Fenimore Cooper’s character Harry Birch was based upon his work as a spy.
Woodhull’s father was a local judge who was linked to Patriot politics. Before 1776, Woodhull may have briefly served with a militia company, but there is little to tie him to either side of the war until his spying. Historian Alexander Rose claimed Woodhull began working as a spy as part of the conditions of his early release from prison in Connecticut for engaging in trading.
Woodhull developed a code to communicate with members of the patriot army that the British forces were unable to understand. This code was a series of letters and numbers that were put together and looked like nothing more than gibberish. Abraham Woodhull went by the name “Samuel Culper Sr.” so that the British did not discover who he really was, and harm him or his family. In some of his letters, Woodhull used a type of invisible ink (gallic acid) that needed to be doused in a certain type of chemical (iron sulfate) to be read. Woodhull also would deliver messages to him by burying the message in a box in a certain place, where he would know to look for it. This type of message delivery was known as a “dead drop”.
Regardless of Woodhull’s motives, he began spying in November 1778. Woodhull’s plan was to travel to Manhattan pretending to visit his married sister and her family at her boardinghouse. While in Manhattan, he would wander the city to collect information and then return to Setauket where he could communicate the information to Major Benjamin Tallmadge writing with the pseudonym “Samuel Culper.” Predictably, this initial plan had problems. Woodhull’s visits to his sister were too frequent to be understandable, especially given the danger. Additionally, he spent all of the time he was supposed to be visiting with his sister wandering the city without an obvious purpose, suggesting that there was another reason he traveled to New York. The British naturally became suspicious by the spring of 1779. On June 5, the Long Island-based Queens’ Rangers under the command of Colonel Simcoe were sent to the Woodhull family home to Abraham. Abraham was not at home at the time and avoided, but the Rangers attacked his father.
Clearly, Woodhull’s situation was too precarious to continue using the same plan. To escape the immediate danger of, Woodhull sought help from a friend who was powerful enough to personally with the “Gen’l Aid,” a phrase that seems to refer to one of Major John André’s many military titles. Woodhull recruited Robert Townsend, who lived at his sister’s boardinghouse and was distantly related. Woodhull and Townsend also had some similarities in social status. Why Woodhull chose Townsend is not known, but Townsend sent his first report as “Samuel Culper, Junior” on June 20, 1779. Townsend was a much better choice as a spy since he had an obvious reason to be in New York. His mercantile background gave him a good reason to inquire about British troop movements and shipping. While Townsend’s intelligence reports were a much better quality than Woodhull’s, Woodhull and Tallmadge knew by August that they needed to do something different if they wanted decent intelligence.
On August 15, 1779, Woodhull wrote to Tallmadge, indicating that he planned to travel to New York shortly, and he had a plan involving the “assistance of a lady of my acquaintance” to ” them all.” Many historians have interpreted this letter to mean that Woodhull recruited another agent who was a woman. Because people did not believe women in the 18th century were capable of independent activities or political allegiances, women were often capable spies. There is no further evidence to indicate that the Culper Ring had a female agent gathering intelligence for them, although there was a woman in Setauket who helped with the network logistics. Less than two months after Woodhull wrote this letter, the Culpers’ reports drastically improved, and they were feeding Tallmadge intelligence that could only come from the upper levels of British Headquarters.
With the new structure of the ring, Woodhull no longer carried messages between New York and Setauket. He would simply retrieve Townsend’s intelligence from a pre-arranged place on his property, where it was left by a courier. Woodhull’s job was to simply collect the message, monitor for a signal from the whale boat ferry-man Caleb Brewster, and deliver the dispatches to Brewster. It is generally thought that Woodhull only needed to watch his neighbor Anna Strong’s clothesline, where she would arrange her laundry to signal Brewster’s presence and location. Woodhull only traveled to Manhattan when he felt there was a problem with Townsend he needed to discuss.
The letters Woodhull wrote as cover letters or supplements to Townsend’s dispatches are particularly valuable in some cases, particularly where Townsend’s letters no longer survive. It was the urgent cover letters Woodhull wrote on July 20, 1780 (coinciding with the British discovery to the arrival of the French Fleet), that make historians think the Culpers discovered the British plans to attack the vulnerable fleet.
===Benedict Arnold discovery===
When Major André was captured and the Benedict Arnold was discovered, Woodhull continued to report. Woodhull’s dispatches often provided more information about the mindset and concerns of the ring, along with the dangers everyone faced. Also, it was Woodhull’s dispatches that informed Tallmadge and historians of the capture of “friends” including “one who hath been ever serviceable to this correspondence” on October 26, 1780, during the period of Arnold’s spyhunt. At the time Woodhull wrote that letter, Townsend was hiding at Woodhull’s family’s home, presumably because it would be easier to escape to Connecticut than in the Townsend family home, which was occupied by the British.
In the aftermath of the Arnold plot, Townsend had an extreme emotional response, documented by Woodhull, and refused to continue spying until the following spring. However, Woodhull continued reporting, even though he had little information of any true value. Woodhull’s reports were not of a particularly good quality, and after Andre’s death, Townsend’s few reports were also lacking.
Following the war, Woodhull married his cousin Mary Smith in 1781 and had three children with her. He held a few minor political appointments, including Suffolk County, where he served from 1799-1810. His wife died in 1806. In 1824, Woodhull married Lydia Terry. He died in Setauket in 1826.
He is a descendant of Richard Lawrence Woodhull, Esq., a wealthy settler of Setauket and a relative of Major General Nathaniel Woodhull.