Though the event is not depicted in the show, the real John Graves Simcoe did have an altercation with the Woodhull family. In late April 1779, Loyalist John Wolsey, who had been released recently from a Patriot prison, informed Simcoe of Woodhull’s career as a rebel informant. Intent on apprehending the suspected spy, Simcoe and a party of his Rangers descended on the residence of Abraham’s father, Judge Richard Woodhull. The judge, who historically was a Patriot rather than a Loyalist sympathizer, became the hapless victim of his son’s clandestine activities when Simcoe’s men failed to discover Abe. According to a letter that Abe later wrote Tallmadge, Simcoe, eager “to make some compensation for his Voige [voyage] … fell upon” the Judge “and Plundered him in a most Shocking Manner.” Rose’s interpretation of this event was that Simcoe personally “beat up Abraham Woodhull’s father.” An alternate reading of the source suggests that Simcoe sought financial compensation for the expedition and permitted his men to seize items of the judge’s private property. British troops plundering inoffensive American civilians was in and of itself a “Shocking” act of cruelty discouraged by the prevailing European rules of war, but it was a far from uncommon practice during the conflict.
Plundering was one thing; physical assault was entirely another. Had Simcoe personally beaten a fellow gentleman—and an elderly one at that—he would have faced official censure, if not court martial and dishonor. Moreover, Abe would certainly have been more explicit in his letter had that been the case. When New York Loyalist Edmund Palmer “fell upon” a Mr. Willis, who was an “old Gentleman,” American Major General Israel Putnam informed Washington that Palmer “abused, beat, & left him, to appearance dead.” Abe’s letter is silent on his father’s status after the raid. It is highly unlikely that Judge Woodhull experienced such treatment at the hands of Simcoe. During a similar raid in 1778, Simcoe had personally protected the improbably named American Colonel Thomas Thomas, “a very active partizan of the enemy,” from his “irritated soldiers” who wanted to revenge the death of one of their comrades. If Simcoe or his troopers had brutalized Judge Woodhull, rather than merely plundered him, the Patriot press would have had a field day. Instead, the raid failed to make the news.
This is not to suggest that the real Simcoe was a softy. During his raids in New Jersey, Simcoe and his Rangers regularly burned barns and even private dwellings belonging to suspected Patriots. A Frenchman visiting Canada after the war was struck by Simcoe’s persistent “hatred … against the United States” and his “boasting of the numerous houses he had fired during the unfortunate conflict.” In 1779, the Pennsylvania Evening Post claimed that Simcoe’s “exploits have generally been marked with acts of the most inhuman barbarity.” To the governor of New Jersey, William Livingston, Simcoe was “a consummate savage.” Seeking to exploit Simcoe’s raids for propagandistic purposes, both the author of the piece in the Pennsylvania Evening Post and Livingston—who was a skilled propagandist often writing under the pseudonym Adolphus—painted Simcoe as a barbarian: someone beyond the pale of the civilized world. Rose, and by extension the producers of Turn, have accepted uncritically the Patriot propagandists’ interpretation of Simcoe.
The historical Simcoe, despite his firm belief that the stick was a better inducement for loyalty than the carrot, was no murderer. The Duke of Northumberland, who knew him well, claimed that Simcoe was “brave, humane, sensible, and honest.” Even Simcoe’s arch rival, American cavalry commander Colonel Henry Lee, described Simcoe as “one of the best officers in the British army” who “was a man of letters, and like the Romans and Grecians, cultivated science amid the turmoil of camp.” To Lee, Simcoe was “enterprising, resolute, and persevering.” It is hard to imagine an American officer endorsing someone who regularly murdered Patriot soldiers and brutalized civilians. Turn‘s portrayal sullies the memory of an officer who, though inveterately opposed to American independence, served his king and cause with honor and vigor.
Turn‘s depiction of Simcoe is not only unjust to a man who would go on to be one of the founders of modern Canada, it is regrettable in its predictability. Roukin gives us the classic cliché of a sexually aggressive and cruelly sadistic aristocratic English villain. The viewer instantly recalls the English lord who rapes newly married women under the guise of the law of Primae Noctis in Braveheart (1995) and Tim Roth’s repulsive interpretation of rapist and murder Archibald Cunningham in Rob Roy (1995). The Patriot‘s William Tavington, while not a rapist, does delight in burning innocent men, women, and children alive. All three characters accomplish their evil deeds with a smirk and a hint of an aristocratic lisp. But these characters are works of fiction. Though potentially inspired by historic characters, they bear fictional names. Their nefarious deeds require no documentation. Simcoe, on the other hand, was real. He and his Queen’s Rangers operated on Long Island and raided Setauket. Abe Woodhull considered Simcoe an especially dangerous foe, even wishing him dead. The opportunity to create a sophisticated, complex, zealous, and contemporarily relevant antagonist was thrown away on Roukin’s Simcoe. In the end, Turnfails most spectacularly by failing to live up to its potential for originality, squandering its chance to rejuvenate the Revolution by resorting to a tired trope. This unfortunate decision tarnishes an otherwise plausible and entertaining historical drama.
For the relationship between historians and Hollywood, see Robert A. Rosenstone, “Inventing Historical Truth on the Silver Screen,” Cinéaste 29:2 (Spring 2004): 29-33 and Melvyn Stokes, American History through Hollywood Film: From the Revolution to the 1960s (London, 2013), especially chapter 1: “The American Revolution.”
The February 3, 2015, discussion among the producers, cast, and advisors of Turn and faculty members from the College of William & Mary, entitled “Television, History, & Revolution,” can be viewed in full here.
For a brief biography of the real Major Hewlett, see Todd Braisted, “Lieutenant Colonel Richard Hewlett: The Loyal-est Loyalist,” Turn to a Historian, April 27, 2015.
For information on the relationship, or lack thereof, between Abraham Woodhull and Anna Strong, see Rachel Smith, “Abraham Woodhull and Anna Strong Revisited,” Turn to a Historian, April 6, 2015.
The interview in which Samuel Roukin characterizes Simcoe as “basically a sociopath” can be found here.
Find AMC’s official biography of the character John Graves Simcoe here.
For historical biographies of John Graves Simcoe see William R. Riddell, The Life of John Graves Simcoe, First Lieutenant-Governor of the Province of Upper Canada, 1792-96 (Toronto, 1926), Mary Beacock Fryer and Christopher Dracott, John Graves Simcoe, 1752-1806: A Biography (Toronto, 1999), and Alan Taylor, The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies (New York, 2010), chapter 2.
For Simcoe’s letter to his mother in which he mentions “the dreadful scene of civil war,” “an effectual reconciliation,” “infatuated wretches,” and “inevitable destruction,” see John Graves Simcoe to Katherine Simcoe, Boston, June 22, 1775. Transcribed in Riddell, The Life of John Graves Simcoe.
For Stephen Conway’s description of some British officers as “hard-liners,” see Stephen Conway, “To Subdue America: British Army Officer and the Conduct of the Revolutionary War,” William and Mary Quarterly, 3rd ser., 43 (1986): 381-407.
For Simcoe’s approval of Howe’s policy of protecting civilian property and refusing to burn Boston upon the army’s evacuation, see John Graves Simcoe to Katherine Simcoe, Boston, March 13, 1776. Transcribed in Riddell, The Life of John Graves Simcoe.
For expressions of Simcoe’s religious faith, see John Graves Simcoe to Katherine Simcoe, Boston, June 22, 1775. Transcribed in Riddell, The Life of John Graves Simcoe, and John Graves Simcoe to Katherine Simcoe, Boston, March 13, 1776. Transcribed in Riddell, The Life of John Graves Simcoe.
Simcoe’s decision to reverse his policy on plundering enemy prisoners can be found in Simcoe’s Military Journal: A History of the Operations of a Partisan Corps, Called the Queen’s Rangers … (New York, 1844).
For Alexander Rose’s claims that “Simcoe exemplified the worst aspects of the British army,” engaged in “wanton brutality,” “stripped Oyster Bay bare of wood,” and “sacrilegiously converted” the Quaker meetinghouse into a storeroom see Alexander Rose, Washington’s Spies: The Story of America’s First Spy Ring (New York, 2006).
For an example of Continental troops seizing private property, and General Washington’s opposition to it, see George Washington to the Board of War, Valley Forge, January 2-3, 1778. Founders Online, National Archives (last update: 2015-03-20). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 13, 26 December 1777-28 February 1778, ed. Edward G. Lengel (Charlottesville, Va., 2003).
See also George Washington to Colonel Armand-Charles Tuffin, marquis de La Rouërie, Wilmington, September 2, 1777. Founders Online, National Archives (last update: 2015-03-20). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 11, 19 August 1777-25 October 1777, eds. Philander D. Chase and Edward G. Lengel (Charlottesville, Va., 2001).
In his narration of the whipping of John Weeks, Rose chose to cite Frances Irwin, Oyster Bay in history; a sketch by Frances Irvin. With notes by Clara Irvin (Oyster Bay, New York [?]: 1963 [?]). Henry Onderdonk’s recounting of the alleged incident is very clear that Simcoe and his Queen’s Rangers were not present at the time. Henry Onderdonk, Documents and Letters Intended to Illustrate the Revolutionary Incidents of Queens County … (New York, 1846).
Abraham Woodhull’s account of Simcoe’s raid on his father’s house appeared in Samuel Culper to John Bolton, June 5, 1779. George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 4. General correspondence, 1697-1799, which can be accessed via a keyword search here.
For Rose’s interpretation of the raid see Rose, Washington’s Spies, 129, 163.
General Israel Putnam’s description of Edmund Palmer’s alleged plundering and beating of a “Mr. Willis” in July 1777 can be found in Major General Israel Putnam to George Washington, Peekskill, NY, July 19, 1777, Founders Online, National Archives (last update: 2015-03-20). Source: The Papers of George Washington, Revolutionary War Series, vol. 10, 11 June 1777-18 August 1777, ed. Frank E. Grizzard Jr. (Charlottesville, Va., 2000).
For Simcoe’s protection of Colonel Thomas from his “irritated soldiers” see Simcoe’s Military Journal.
The Frenchman who visited Simcoe in Canada was François-Alexandre-Frédéric La Rochefoucauld-Liancourt. His account of Simcoe’s hatred for the Americans can be found in Travels through the United States of North America, the Country of the Iroquois, and Upper Canada … (London, 1800).
For the Pennsylvania Evening Post‘s claim that Simcoe’s “exploits have generally been marked with acts of the most inhuman barbarity” see Pennsylvania Evening Post, November 6, 1779.
For Livingston’s description of Simcoe as “a consummate savage” see Taylor, The Civil War of 1812.
For more on Livingston’s career as a Patriot propagandist see The Papers of William Livingston Carl E. Prince, Dennis P. Ryan, Pamela B. Schafler, and Donald W. White, eds., 5 vols., 2:3-6 (Trenton, N.J., 1979).
In a letter to Captain Joseph Brant, the Duke of Northumberland described Simcoe as “a most intimate friend of mine.” Northumberland thought Simcoe was “possessed of every good quality which can recommend him to [Brant’s] friendship. He is brave, humane, sensible, and honest.” Northumberland to Captain Joseph Brant. September 3, 1791. Simcoe’s Military Journal.
For Colonel Henry Lee’s recollections of Simcoe see Henry Lee, Memoirs of the War in the Southern Department of the United States 2 vols., 2:8 (Philadelphia, 1812).
Abraham Woodhull confessed to Benjamin Tallmadge that had he not “fear of Law or Gospel, [he] would certainly [kill Col. Simcoe], for his usage to me.” Samuel Culper to John Bolton, December 12, 1779. George Washington Papers at the Library of Congress, 1741-1799: Series 4. General correspondence, 1697-1799.
This article originally appeared in issue 15.3.5 (July, 2015).
T. Cole Jones holds a PhD in early American history from the Johns Hopkins University. He is the Hench Post-Dissertation Fellow at the American Antiquarian Society and will be joining the faculty of Purdue University as an assistant professor of history in the fall. His current book manuscript is entitled Captives of Liberty: Prisoners of War and the Radicalization of the American Revolution.