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University Purchases Letter from George Washington to Local Spy Ring

By Michael Kelly

Special Collections and University Archives at Stony Brook University recently acquired a letter written by George Washington to his Setauket-based spy ring during the Revolutionary War. Kristen Nyitray, head of Special Collections, placed the winning bid of $48,000 for the letter. The letter had been projected by Christie’s, a Manhattan auction house, to go for a price of $25,000 – $35,000.

The letter, dated Sept. 26, 1780, was sent from the famed American general and president to Benjamin Tallmadge to inform him how one of Washington’s top spies would be compensated once the Revolutionary War was won. Washington promised the spy, a merchant named Robert Townsend, public recognition and money.

The spy ring helped Washington gather information about the British-controlled New York City. Those in the spy ring had code names and different ways of secretly sending messages to one another. Information gathered followed a chain from New York City to Long Island to Connecticut.

“It was a really sophisticated spy ring with just every day normal people,” Nyitray said.

This is the second Washington letter communicating with the spy ring – known as “Culper’s Ring”— that now belongs to Stony Brook University. The university acquired the first letter in 2006. Nyitray said that she is excited for the second letter to arrive — it will get to Stony Brook in about three weeks — because she is interested to compare the two letters.

The first of the letters was actually not written by Washington, but rather by his secretary, James McHenry, though Washington did personally sign his signature. Nyitray said that photocopies she has seen of the second letter have not given enough evidence for her to decide whether or not the second letter was actually written in full by Washington himself, or was again written by McHenry. Nyitray also said that she is currently researching if there are any other letters Washington wrote to this spy ring, and, if so, where they are.

“It’s very interesting to start to research it and to get to the bottom of it,” she said.

After the letter gets to Stony Brook, Nyitray said she expects Special Collections will have it sent to the Conservation Center for Art in History in Philadelphia, P.A., so that the letter can be treated to try and make sure it does not deteriorate.

The letter will be paid for by two separate sources. Henry Laufer will provide half the money, and the other half will be secured by Assemblyman Steve Englebright (Fourth Assembly District).