The Culper Spy Ring

The Revolutionary War is taught in the United States from an early age to invoke pride and patriotism in ourselves.  General Washington lead the untrained colonists to victory even though they were outnumbered.  With just shear will power they were able to defeat the British armies and navies and become an independent nation.  However, George Washington knew that just will power could not win a war.  He even knew that he was not a great general after a decisive defeat when the British took New York early in the war.  He knew that intelligence would be key in this war and he employed a tactic that was considered lowly at the time for a gentleman.  That tactic was spying.

Naturally both sides used spying and intelligence gathering.  The act of spying however was left for a lower class and was usually unreliable due to double agents who would sell information to whichever side would pay the most or just sell it to both sides.  Another challenge at the time was that only one third of the colonists believed in becoming independent.  Another one third were loyal to the king and, true to most Americans today, the other one third just didn’t care.  George Washington needed loyal individuals willing to risk their lives and be clandestine enough to never get caught.  Perhaps the most successful of the teams was called The Culper Spy Ring. 

George Washington approached Major Benjamin Tallmadge about creating a spy ring to gather intelligence from New York City.  From there Tallmadge got to work and recruited his life-long friend Abraham Woodhull.  Woodhull had regular business in New York and a sister giving him a reason to enter and leave New York for a decent reason.  He was terrified and anxious every time and eventually came under suspicion.  After that Robert Townsend was recruited to aide Woodhull and act as lead.  Others included Caleb Brewster, Austin Roe, Anna Strong, Hercules Mulligan, and a woman only known as Agent 355.

How the ring passed information sounds like something you would see in a modern spy movie.  One of the spies would gather information by eavesdropping on British soldiers not being cautious enough with their information.  They would then write a message in codes, ciphers and invisible ink and pass it along using a series of drops.  Woodhull would drop his letter under a rock at the corner of his farm property despite British soldiers taking quarters in his home.  Brewster would then sail the message across the Long Island Sound to one of six caves in the cliff side.  Anna Strong would hang coded massages on her clothesline that would indicate whether a drop was ready by a black petticoat and which cave it was in by the number of handkerchiefs.  Tallmadge’s dragoons would intercept the information from the cave and eventually work their way to General Washington. 

Their techniques were so good that the spy ring wasn’t fully discovered until 1930.  They had many successes including uncovering a double agent, the infamous Benedict Arnold.  Perhaps their most successful intelligence was informing General Washington about a possible attack at Newport.  The colonist diplomats were able to convince the French to send a navy and soldiers to aide in the Revolution.  It was critical that the French be able to land safely and have a few months to recoup from their long journey.  It was discovered that the French had landed and the British sent their ships to meet them at Newport.  Once Washington was aware of this, he was able to trick the British into believing he was attacking New York which caused the British to pull back.  This gave the French a chance to organize with the colonists and eventually take back New York.

Scan of the Culper Spy Ring Code of the Library of Congress.

Most of the messages employed a sophisticated code system that the Culper Spy Ring employed.  The code consisted of over seven hundred and sixty numbers.  Each was three digits long and represented several words and names that you wouldn’t want to get caught talking about.  Agent 711 was George Washington himself.  Benjamin Tallmadge had the alias John Bolton.  Abraham Woodhull used Samuel Culper Sr. after which the ring was named after.  George Washington picked the name Culper from Culpeper County, Virginia which was his first assignment as a land surveyor.  Robert Townsend was Samuel Culper Jr. and Anna Strong was possibly the unknown Agent 355.

They also used a popular cipher of a page number, line number, and word number of a book.  The difficulty with this cipher is that it must be a book that both parties have available.  They used a popular dictionary for the time.  Another method was called a sympathetic stain or invisible ink.  This technique was known and used frequently even by the British.  You simply had to apply heat or another chemical agent to get the stains to appear.  For added security George Washington had a new invisible ink invented that only appeared with a specific chemical known to them.  It’s funny how war often advances innovation. 

There’s so much more information about the Culper Ring that I encourage you to research. Of course there were many other spy rings on both sides of the war with their own successes and innovations.  There are theories that the French ran out of money to help the American colonists which eventually lead to the French Revolution.  History is fascinating and the Fourth of the July is the perfect time to reflect on how we got here today.  That and blowing anything and everything up with fireworks!  Happy Fourth of July!  Never leave a firework unlit!

-J.C. Mystery Detective

Legend: A Game of Maps Review

One thing I love about these immersive puzzle games is there is so much room for creativity. Just about everyone that has played these games has an idea brewing in their mind. I discovered one of the most brilliant and creative mystery games that I’ve played to date. Well-hidden amongst the arts and crafts of Etsy is an independent game called Legend: A Game of Maps. A true piece of art by its own right.

The game is beautiful and ingenious. The documents and maps you receive are made with great care and craftsmanship. They all look and feel hundreds of years old and possibly lead to some long-forgotten treasures. All the puzzles make it seem as though you’re the historian treasure hunter discovering hidden messages and codes in these old documents. Right now, there are two chapters of the game that can be purchased separately or as a bundle. Although, I can’t imagine just stopping at one.

Legend: A Game of Maps first game.

The first game came to me in a shiny red envelope with my name hand-written in cursive on the front. The personal touch is something you won’t find anywhere else. Opening the envelope revealed a letter from the Kettering Institute asking for my help with the following documents. Three pages written in a strange cipher and an accompanying clothe map. They believe the pages contain some clue in finding a buried treasure and naturally they heard I was good at this sort of thing. They must be fans of the blog.

This chapter of the game is enjoyable if you like cracking ciphers. It’s challenging because it uses symbols instead of letters. I spent a good hour or two doing frequency analysis before I realized there’s a hint in the Kettering Institute letter that saved me a bunch of time. Always read the directions people! After solving the message I was able to plot some locations on the map and sent in my findings to the Kettering Institute via email. After a couple of days I received the conclusion to the story.

The second game is where things get really exciting. The difficulty level also goes way up and it’s where we leave behind the amateurs. Once again I received a personalized envelope which contained a letter from the Kettering Institute asking that I take a look at the following documents; a large map of the Caribbean, a Mayan manuscript, a letter from a sailor to his wife and daughter, several cards with symbols and cutouts, and a paper artifact. The Kettering Institute thinks that the Caribbean map and Mayan manuscript are linked somehow. The other items are their own mystery which means we are getting two treasure hunts in one game.

Holy lifeboat, this game is amazing. I cannot believe the volume of puzzle that the creator managed to fit into these documents. Every time I solved a piece, I got an elated feeling of accomplishment. Imagine if you were Nicholas Cage in National Treasure and finding the Templar treasure. This game is more riddle based and you will have to go from riddle to riddle finding the clues. When I found the first hidden message in the sailor’s letter, I thought that was all there was to it. But as I pondered what it could mean I realized there was more. I was in shock when I found the next step and realized that this single letter contained an extremely sophisticated set of riddles that seemed to never end. With that much puzzle you would think the letter would be a jumbled mess of words, but it reads like a simple letter from a man to his wife, just describing some of his adventures. There’s even a part where you have to make a decision on which path you continue forward.

The Caribbean map and Mayan manuscript are their own incredible puzzle. Studying the map shows a lot hidden content, but where to start. From the title of the map of course. It’s hard to go into detail without spoiling anything, but you will go back and forth between the map and manuscript as it’s clear the Spanish explorers used the manuscript to create a treasure map. Eventually you will decipher some coordinates that will lead you to the buried treasure. X marks the spot! Once you are completed you will email the Kettering Institute with your findings they will explore those areas and report back what they’ve found.

Ron Francesangelo is the creator and I believe a one-man operation. I personally think he’s a genius as I’ve never seen this level of puzzle before. If you get stuck on any part and need a hint, you can email him with the address provided and he was happy to help. His hints are perfect as they give away nothing but help you on what you should be focusing on.

You need to buy this puzzle! There are two ways to buy, you can buy the first and second parts independently for $25 or $35 respectfully, or you can save $5 and buy the bundle for $55. At only $55 for both games, it’s a steal. I spent $50 in New Zealand on a map of Middle Earth, and that only gets me to the dumps of Mordor. This game is hand crafted and everything looks and feels like it’s hundreds of years old. The website claims that this is only the beginning in a whole series. I might be biased, but you need this game. I cannot wait any longer for the third installment to come out.

-J.C. Mystery Detective

House of Leaves

The House of Leaves can easily be described as more of an experience than just a written story. This book was written by Mark Z. Danielewski and compiled by Johnny Truant and edited by The Editors and written by Zampano about a documentary film by Navidson. It also has a companion music album by Poe called Haunted. Poe is Mark’s sister and they simultaneously wrote their respective works influencing each other rather than either being the original art.

In my opinion this book has been mislabeled as a horror and some claim it’s the scariest book they’ve ever read. The story has some horror elements in it for sure, but the type of horror would be better described as cosmic or existential horror. Not really meant to shock you or get your heart pounding but can keep you up at night as you ponder the big questions in life like “What did I just read?” “Am I too going mad.”

The bulk of the story is focused on what is called The Navidson Record. Its author was a blind man named Zampano who has written hundreds of pages of content fully analyzing a documentary that apparently does not exist. These pages were discovered by a tattoo artist named Johnny Truant after Zampano’s death. Johnny felt the need to compile this record and get it published.

The Navidson Record itself is about a man named Navidson and his family moving into a new home. Navidson is a prize-winning, world-traveling photography but has decided to settle down in order to save his marriage to his wife Karen. He begins filming everything in the house with installed video cameras in order to document his life as a way to adjusts to his new lifestyle. He becomes obsessed with measuring the home when he notices an odd discrepancy where he believes the inside of the home is bigger than the outside by 1/4 inch. From there things spiral as a new closet forms and eventually a whole labyrinth is discovered under the house.

Zampano describes all of this in a type of review or blow-by-blow commentary. He supplements the text with his opinions on things, reviews from other notable authors, how the public treated Karen after the first showings, textbook descriptions on echoes and light. He also meticulously credits anything and everything in the footnotes sometime listing pages upon pages of people’s names, important places, styles of architecture. Johnny also adds his own journal in these footnotes going on for multiple pages about his random sexual exploitations and how the story is slowly driving him mad. When you think you’ve finished the book, there’s nearly two hundred pages in the appendices including multimedia images, poems, and most importantly, several letters from Johnny’s mother to Johnny. In these letters she desperately seeks a relationship with Johnny from a mental hospital known as The Three Attic Whalestoe Institute.

Phew, just briefly describing the plots in this book can become it’s own novel. But the reason I wanted to bring attention to it is, of course, the secret messages! This book is completely packed full of hidden messages, codes, Easter eggs, hints. There’s braille, Morse code, different languages, different fonts, different colors. There’s meaning and thought behind everything written. Even the formatting is designed to make you feel a certain way and read a certain way as you turn the book back and forth or feverishly flip through several pages that only contain a few words.

A few examples I’ve found include using the paragraphs in a 3 long, 3 short, 3 long format to spell out S-O-S in Morse code. That’s one of the easy ones though as it literally tells you S-O-S in several ways in that chapter. In her letters to Johnny, the mother doesn’t trust her caretakers in properly sending out her mail so she describes to Johnny a few techniques she will use to send him messages in coded form. Applying these same methods into the footnotes and Johnny’s stories can turn out some interesting messages. Taking the first letters of each footnote will occasionally spell out the authors name Mark Z. Danielewski. On page 64, the footnote starts a list of photographers that Zampano wanted to credit. Taking the first letter of the surnames revealed “A LONG LIST…” followed by some gibberish and a few other messages. There are tons of forums online of people intent on finding all of these codes if you want to find more.

When I discovered this last code however, it gave me pause to continue looking for any more hidden messages. There are secrets sprinkled literally everywhere throughout the book, but it’s almost treated like a joke or to provide an endless amount of information to distract from the point. So what is the point? I believe that the mountain of information you receive and the never-ending codes you can find are meant to create its own labyrinth to the reader.

In the Navidson Record, Navidson goes on many expeditions into the maze beneath his home and ultimately finds nothing. There’s almost no point to it as he attempts to travel farther and farther into the abyss that provides him no answers to its existence. I believe the codes and information are meant to create the same feeling in the reader. Perhaps even provide a sense of horror that there might be some earth-shattering information you can get out of the hidden messages if you just keep searching for it. Maybe find the mystery as to who the true author might be, or the reason behind it all. It just isn’t there. The more time you spend looking for it the closer you get to the frenzied feeling that Navidson feels just hoping to find a reason behind it all. This is backed up by the myth of Perseus and the Minotaur being completely stricken out but still readable, because this is not that story. I’m not saying this book it irrelevant or meaningless, but sometimes you just have to take something at face value.

There is a 9-day challenge where you force yourself to read nearly 700 pages in that time. I think this could be beneficial for your first time going through this monster. There’s a lot of book here but don’t be intimidated as some of the sections can go by quickly. Such as just glancing over the long lists provided instead of reading every word and the nearly 100 pages with barely any text at all. Whatever you do, do not skip the appendices. They aren’t just there to look pretty and add pages. They completely change the story depending on the angle you take. Never leave a house unsolved!

-J.C. Mystery Detective