Fairfield’s Revolutionary Era Spy Ring––exhibits & events thru Nov 1
Illustrator Kirk Manley makes the Culper spy ring story come to life in comic strip format, engaging viewers at the Fairfield Museum exhibit.
Legend has it that George Washington “never told a lie,” but the Culper Spy exhibit at the Fairfield Museum and History Center tells a different story. As British Army officer Major General George Beckwith noted, “Washington didn’t really outfight the British. He simply out-spied us,” and this exhibit illustrates Fairfield’s role in the Revolutionary War from a new perspective.
The Culper Spy Ring was a group of men and women during the American Revolution who transported secrets from enemy lines to General Washington himself. Their secrets passed across the Long Island Sound, through Fairfield, to Washington into Westchester County.
The Culper Ring: The Spies of George Washington exhibition, on view until November 1, at the museum tells the story of this talented group of spies. The exhibit is a series of graphic novel-style panels that have been created by illustrator Kirk Manley, Fairfield Museum library director Elizabeth Rose, and volunteer Laura Lugo.
Though the Culper Spy Ring has intrigued Fairfielders for years, the development of an exhibition based on hidden secrets posed certain challenges. The spies were careful not to leave a trail of information, nor did they want their identities to be uncovered. “Because of the lack of artifacts and documents we could never do a traditional exhibit, but with the public interest generated by the AMC show Turn, we knew we wanted to devote an exhibition to the topic. We had the idea to commission an artist to help us tell this dramatic story in a different way,” explains Dr. Rose.
Rose and Lugo worked with Manley by “sharing historical images that could inform his work, so the appearance of buildings, ships, and clothing would be accurate. With all that, there are elements of the story where we don’t know the details, so there was room for some imagination.”
That’s where Manley came in. Given the task of managing historical accuracy and creativity, he spent a year and a half planning and developing his images. “The balance came in pushing myself to use page composition, panel layout, camera angle, color, and sound effects to be creatively expressive while being diligent about proper historical portrayal of the content,” Manley explains. His work gives life to each key character with his illustrations, and emphasizes their connections to one another.
The most essential members of the spy ring were childhood friends, who gathered together because they believed they could trust each other more than anyone else. The spy Anna Strong reportedly sent messages to her neighbor, another spy named Caleb Brewster, by arranging her laundry in specific ways on the clothesline. Brewster lived in the Black Rock area, and Brewster Street there is named for this Revolutionary War hero (his grave is in Fairfield’s Old Burying Ground). Other messaging techniques were also used, such as an invisible ink that was developed to show its message only when a particular solution was applied. Most of the spies’ communication was done with a particular code in which places and people were assigned a number or set of numbers. Each spy also had a nickname to ensure even greater secrecy.
Though many residents of Fairfield are familiar with the legendary Burning of Fairfield, fewer are aware of the key role the Culper Spy Ring played in that dramatic story. The spies warned George Washington that the British would soon set the town ablaze. Washington received the message, but it arrived too late for him to prepare any significant defense. He was also concerned that it was an attempt by the British to lure him into a dangerous situation. Though the spy chain was constantly working, the transportation and technology of the time period did not always allow for successful results.
“The exhibit tells the story of a group of individuals that took a stand for their beliefs, knowing that if caught, they would likely have been hanged. Secret technologies and simple deception successfully transmitted information about the most powerful military at the time, right here in Fairfield,” notes Walter Matis, the Museum’s program coordinator. The exhibition helps viewers imagine Revolutionary spies moving stealthily through the streets of Fairfield. The spies would meet at local taverns to discuss their findings, and it is possible that they met at the Sun Tavern.
“This exhibition is made possible thanks to funding from Connecticut Humanities," says Shana Wiswell, Fairfield Museum’s director of development. “All of us at the Museum are tremendously appreciative of their support, which is enabling us to bring this rich story of the Culper Spy Ring to life for audiences of all ages.”
BIKE THROUGH HISTORY Join the Fairfield Museum on 9/8 for a bicycle tour of Bridgeport’s Black Rock section, back to the Revolutionary War, Participants will see a colonial fort, homes of patriot captains, and the wharves they sailed from. Guides will discuss the espionage that took place with the “Culper Spy Ring” and show you where Caleb Brewster settled when his spy days were done.