Her name and origins will probably remain forever unknown to us, but the woman known to us only as “355” may be one of the great heroes of the American Revolution.
George Washington maintained a spy network, dubbed the Culper Ring, from 1778 to 1780 in the British occupied areas of New York. These spies would communicate intelligence to Washington using an elaborate code. They were responsible for alerting the Americans to Benedict Arnold’s impending betrayal, most likely with Agent 355’s help. She was also likely instrumental in bringing about the arrest and eventual hanging of British Major John Andre, one of Arnold’s accomplices.
Despite playing a major role in assisting American intelligence operations during the Revolutionary War, we still have no idea who she was. Unlike other members of the Culper Ring, she was not given a code name. The number 355 was the ring’s generic code word for any woman.
As with all historical mysteries, there are several theories regarding the mysterious lady’s true identity. Many believe that she was from a Loyalist New York family, most likely from high society, since she obviously had access to British officers and other important people. It is also possible that she was a maid who was employed in the home of a prominent family, and that she used her position to listen in on conversations. There are also some scholars who speculate that 355 was not just one woman, but several different ones all referred to by the generic code word. There are even a few who believe that she didn’t exist at all.
One of the more popular speculations regarding her identity is that she was the common-law wife of Robert Townsend, one of the known Culper spies. There are reports that a roundup of spies in the aftermath of Andre’s execution led to the capture of Agent 355, and her subsequent imprisonment on the notorious prison ship, the HMS New Jersey. This female spy was said to be pregnant with Townsend’s son at the time of her capture, and she allegedly died shortly after giving birth to a son during her imprisonment.
There was a Robert Townsend, Jr., who was raised by Robert Sr.’s brother, James. This man became a lawyer and politician, and he later became instrumental in the construction of the Prison Ship Martyrs Monument at Fort Green Park in New York. If this man was the son of the famous spy, he never spoke about it, nor did he leave any documentation regarding this. Genealogists have not been able to trace him to a prison ship inmate, either.
There is not enough evidence to say who Agent 355 was with any certainty. Since a good spy leaves little to no trace of their activities, it is likely we will never know who she was.