Spies in the Library

Research Librarian Allison Heinbaugh stalked the stacks of the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library looking for evidence of spies and spycraft in the 18th century. The bibliography she compiled tells its own story of loyalty, secrecy, and stealth.


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Harmony Hunter: Hey, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. Television and movies bring the intrigue and danger of spying to the screen, but nothing could be more exciting than uncovering the real stories of true adventure for yourself.

Our guest, Allison Heinbaugh, has joined us from one my favorite places in Colonial Williamsburg, the John D. Rockefeller Library. Allison, thank you for being here today.

Allison Heinbaugh: Thanks for having me, Harmony.

Harmony: Well, you’re a hero. You’re a librarian. Tell us what you do at the John D. Rockefeller Library.

Allison: I am the reference librarian at Rockefeller Library and I sit on the reference desk a couple of hours a day and I also answer questions from people that give us calls. I answer the e-mail questions that people have for us, so it’s a really exciting and interesting job. You never really know what is going to come up within the next five minutes, what’s going to come walking through the door, who’s going to pick up the phone, who’s going to, you know, set their fingers to type out a question. You never really know what’s going to come up next.

Harmony: You’re like a research expert.

Allison: I would like to think so. I certainly don’t know everything. We librarians like to pretend that we do, but certainly don’t know everything, but we love finding things out.

Harmony: You know where to start looking. Well what brings you here today is the popularity, the resurgence in popularity of the subject of spies during the American Revolution brought on by a new television series. If people aren’t familiar with this series. Could you describe it to us a little bit?

Allison: It’s a television series on the cable channel AMC and its called “Turn.” It’s about the true life stores, it’s a drama, about true life stores that are of people that are participating in the American Revolution, but behind the scenes. So people that you might not have heard of before, you know, you’ve heard of George Washington and the Marquis de Lafayette, but these are people that really worked to stay behind the scenes and they’re really fascinating individuals not only on the TV show but in real life.

Harmony: And so we should say Colonial Williamsburg has no affiliation with this series or with the AMC Network…

Allison: That’s true.

Harmony: … but it has sparked a lot of curiosity in revolutionary spies, which is where we come to you. Did you see an uptick in requests and questions about spies during the American Revolution?

Allison: We did see a bit of an uptick, especially right after the premiere, and that’s sort of what inspired me to start looking into this a little further so that we at the library could be prepared for any questions that we might get from our own interpreters, from the curious public. So it’s been really interesting looking into these stories.

Harmony: And this curiosity led you to compile a bibliography, which I think is just a neat story in itself that you compiled all these records, but you uncovered some really neat tidbits in the process of it. Let’s outline first the bibliography; what you were able to pull together.

Allison: So the bibliography, I’ve broken it up into three different sections. One is just general sort of reference things that people have written about, spycraft during the Revolutionary War. And this is anything from published materials to even the CIA website, if you dare to take a look. On the CIA website they actually do have a history of spycraft during the Revolutionary War so there’s link to that.

The second section is about individual people who were involved, so people like George Washington, even characters on the show like Benjamin Tallmadge, Major John Andre, people like that.

And then in the final section is the primary sources section which is things that were actually written by the people who were involved, and that’s been also really fascinating.

Harmony: That must be the most interesting section I would think.

Allison: I would agree with you. That’s actually probably the one that I’ve spent the most time on. Because once you find these sources you really start, sort of, they’re easy to find, they’re very easy to find online, because there’s no copyright on them. They were written long enough ago that they’re freely available online most of them. A simple web search will turn them up and some of them are very readable.

I was very surprised at Benjamin Tallmadge’s memoir. It’s a very, very readable account. Now he is very sketchy about his involvement with this spy ring. He sort of vaguely references that he was part of this information gathering for a set of correspondents and that’s really all you get out of his memoir. He is still, probably 30 years later, protecting his network, keeping their names from going public.

Harmony: One of the other interesting stories that you uncovered was the story of James Armistead Lafayette. Now this is not an unknown corner of history, but it was a story that you found especially compelling. What do we know about James Armistead?

Allison: James Armistead was a slave not too far from here in Virginia. He was the slave of a local plantation owner, William Armistead, and he served as a double agent in the final years of the war. So in 1781, he volunteers with the permission of his master to serve the patriot cause. He poses as a runaway slave to the British side.

And the really fascinating thing is, he can read and write so he’s writing notes back to the Marquis de Lafayette detailing all of this information that he’s finding out because the British generals really paid him no attention. They talked about their plans freely in front of him. So he was able to then just write off notes to the Marquis de Lafayette telling them all of their plans and he was a real key in the Battle of Yorktown and the victory there.

Harmony: So compiling this bibliography is almost a bit like it feels like almost it’s a bit of spy work on its own. You have to do this research, that you have to dig around, you have to like kind of read between the lines. What is the method and what is the fun in starting to pull together all these sources and put this picture together?

Allison: Where I started was just sort of going through our on-line catalog and typing in various key words and subjects and just seeing what would pop up in terms of what we had, in terms of just in general what would come up with the subject searches.

From there, I was able to compile what was going on. It’s sort of funny, I do almost feel an affiliation with these spies as a librarian. We both deal in information; that is sort of the crux of what we’re after. We’re after finding out information that somebody else might not know. Now we’re a little bit less clandestine in the library. We’re very open about our methods, of course, and we’re not really doing anything behind the scenes, but I almost feel a sort of an affiliation with these spies because that’s really what our business is. Our business is finding out information.

Harmony: Did you learn anything that surprised you?

Allison: Yeah, so one of the really interesting things is that spies, by their very nature, are very difficult to track in the historical record. They are obviously trying to stay under the radar. What we do know about them we know through either spies that were caught, or we know about them by they chose later in life to reveal their activities and some spies even today write books and memoirs that detail what their lives were like. And sometimes their evidence comes up even after their deaths.

A few members of the Culper ring, they were not identified positively until the 20th century when people were going through various family records and family papers and discovered that they had had an affiliation with this group. So we’re talking 150 years later these people were not positively identified. So that’s one of the really interesting things, is how difficult it is to trace these people because by their very nature they are trying not to be recorded. They’re really trying hard not to be seen by anybody and definitely not to leave a paper trail. It’s an interesting fact that most of the Culper ring never asked for pensions. They never went to the government and asked for repayment for their services. They continued to live their lives as if they had never done it. Their devotion continued throughout the rest of their lives.

Harmony: This is a topic that remains fascinating to people and of course as a trade that carries on right up to the present. If people want to learn more about spying and spycraft, either historical or modern, what are some of the sources, what are some of the places they can begin in their own towns or at their own desks?

Allison: At their own desks; cia.gov is actually a very good resource. They’ve done their homework on their own craft. They know the history of their own craft so they do actually have a history section of historical spying, at least in the United States. And the next place to check out would be your local library. Use the bibliography that I have compiled. If anything in particular intrigues you, check out your local library and see if they happen to have a copy and if not ask them about their interlibrary loan policy. A lot of libraries these days are participating in interlibrary loan which means you can request a book from another library that they don’t have and they can get it for you and just you can then just check it out as if it were a regular book.

Harmony: And you’ll find a link to Allison’s bibliography at podcast.history.org. Allison, this has been a great chat. I’m so glad you put together this little bibliography that has sparked so much conversation and so much curiosity. Thank you for being here today.

Allison: Thank you for having me.