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Elagabalus (Aged Facial Reconstruction)

Elagabalus (Aged Facial Reconstruction)


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I was asked by ABC Television and Disney Studios to create a skull, life-size skull photographs and facial drawings for use as “forensic” props on the television series Body of Proofwith Dana Delany and Jeri Ryan. These photos show the scope of the project and how it actually appeared on the show. The Season 3 Finale episode (#313) was called “Daddy Issues”. It was written by Corey Miller, directed by John Terlesky and produced by Matthew Gross.

This is a shot taken on the set, courtesy of writer Corey Miller. An important element of the plot dealt with the dental morphology of an “unidentified victim”. As part of the consultation I did with the writer, I suggested that this dental detail would be a useful tool to add authenticity to the props I was preparing. I then modified an existing skull to add a large space between the maxillary central incisors called a diastema. This was done by individually sculpting the teeth and painting them in a naturalistic way. A corresponding photo of this gap-toothed “victim’s” skull was also created with the assistance of Dreamfly Creations.

A close-up of the gap-toothed dentition is shown. This fictitious “victim” needed the assistance of 2-dimensional facial reconstruction to aid with his identification! I assembled drawing boards for two different stages of filming. A life-size photo of the skull is overlaid with transparent vellum so that drawings can be done over the skull. I set up a partially complete drawing as well as the finished drawing so it could be shot in stages. This is a forensic art procedure that I developed in the early 1980s while working for the Texas Department of Public Safety. I am grateful to say that it has been used to identify many hundreds of actual homicide victims. I taught the method for over twenty years at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. I continue to teach this effective, direct method at the Scottsdale Artists’ School in Arizona.

This beautiful rainy shot was created by cinematographer Patrick Cady to showcase actress Jeri Ryan portraying Dr. Kate Murphy. As we have seen in previous episodes, Kate is a pathologist, but her first love is forensic art!

Various action shots show Kate diligently drawing. Jeri is so skillful and convincing at doing this “forensic art” that her fans on Twitter have actually asked her if she did the drawings and sculptures herself!

For actual forensic cases, anatomical formulas are used to develop the various facial features, whether drawing or sculpting the facial reconstruction. It is really gratifying when the producers of a scripted television program make such great efforts to authentically present forensic art and facial identification procedures.

It is always fun for me when a copy of my textbook, Forensic Art and Illustration, is used on the set in a shot. Thanks to Property Master Chris Call for that!

This is a cool view of how it all looks to those talented people involved in the hands-on production of the show.

One of my favorite comments in this episode is when actor Windell Middlebrooks (Curtis) gently pats the skull and says, “You’re in good hands, Mr. Doe.”

This shows the moment when Dana Delany (as Dr. Megan Hunt) sees Kate’s drawing and makes a mental connection that leads to his identification. She says, “That is the same guy!” And that’s just how forensic art is supposed to work!

This is my drawing which is meant to age a young actor’s face by about three decades and show his unique teeth, heavy brow ridge and high cheek bones.

This is the young actor, Daniel Blaine, whose face I used as a basis for the aged “facial reconstruction”. I gave input for the casting choice of this actor and he was selected because his face had distinctive bony elements that could be emphasized in the “reconstruction” drawing. He does not have the gappy teeth in real life, by the way. To really understand all of these plot elements, you have to watch the episode! I don’t want to be too much of a spoiler!

Actress Jeri Ryan has been so fun for me to work with on this show. She is a real pro…intelligent, approachable and very quick to learn the forensic art actions.


Reuse of the Masseteric Nerve for Dynamic Reanimation in Facial Palsy Patients with Previously Failed One-Stage Dynamic Smile Reanimation

Failed primary dynamic smile reanimation procedures present significant challenges for the patient and surgeon alike. This is particularly true in older patients with a history of previous neck dissection and radiation therapy who underwent previous reconstruction with a free functional muscle transfer innervated with an ipsilateral masseter nerve. The objective of this study was to demonstrate feasibility, describe surgical technique, and assess results of reusing the masseter nerve to reinnervate a new free functional muscle transfer. Patients presenting between 2007 and 2017 to a single center after previously failed dynamic smile reanimation using the masseteric nerve who underwent a salvage dynamic procedure involving reuse of the masseteric nerve were analyzed for demographics, history of radiation therapy or chemotherapy, surgical techniques, and objective measurements using the MEEI Facegram software. The average age was 50 years, the average duration of palsy was 6.2 years, and the average preoperative House-Brackmann score was 6. Causes of palsy included Bell palsy in one, parotid malignancies in two, and a seventh cranial nerve schwannoma in one patient, with two patients requiring radiation therapy preoperatively. Three patients failed to achieve any motion after the first reanimation, and the fourth patient initially achieved excursion however, because of cancer recurrence and resection of free functional muscle transfer, motion was subsequently lost. Average smile excursion after salvage was 11.32 mm and philtral deviation correction was 1.3 mm. Reusing the masseter nerve for dynamic smile restoration with free functional muscle transfer in previously failed reanimation patients is feasible and may provide successful reanimation. Careful patient evaluation and clear understanding of previous procedures are essential for success. CLINICAL QUESTION/LEVEL OF EVIDENCE:: Therapeutic, IV.


Reuse of the Masseteric Nerve for Dynamic Reanimation in Facial Palsy Patients with Previously Failed One-Stage Dynamic Smile Reanimation

Failed primary dynamic smile reanimation procedures present significant challenges for the patient and surgeon alike. This is particularly true in older patients with a history of previous neck dissection and radiation therapy who underwent previous reconstruction with a free functional muscle transfer innervated with an ipsilateral masseter nerve. The objective of this study was to demonstrate feasibility, describe surgical technique, and assess results of reusing the masseter nerve to reinnervate a new free functional muscle transfer. Patients presenting between 2007 and 2017 to a single center after previously failed dynamic smile reanimation using the masseteric nerve who underwent a salvage dynamic procedure involving reuse of the masseteric nerve were analyzed for demographics, history of radiation therapy or chemotherapy, surgical techniques, and objective measurements using the MEEI Facegram software. The average age was 50 years, the average duration of palsy was 6.2 years, and the average preoperative House-Brackmann score was 6. Causes of palsy included Bell palsy in one, parotid malignancies in two, and a seventh cranial nerve schwannoma in one patient, with two patients requiring radiation therapy preoperatively. Three patients failed to achieve any motion after the first reanimation, and the fourth patient initially achieved excursion however, because of cancer recurrence and resection of free functional muscle transfer, motion was subsequently lost. Average smile excursion after salvage was 11.32 mm and philtral deviation correction was 1.3 mm. Reusing the masseter nerve for dynamic smile restoration with free functional muscle transfer in previously failed reanimation patients is feasible and may provide successful reanimation. Careful patient evaluation and clear understanding of previous procedures are essential for success. CLINICAL QUESTION/LEVEL OF EVIDENCE:: Therapeutic, IV.


Prop Drawing for ABC & Disney

I was asked by ABC Television and Disney Studios to create a skull, life-size skull photographs and facial drawings for use as “forensic” props on the television series Body of Proofwith Dana Delany and Jeri Ryan. These photos show the scope of the project and how it actually appeared on the show. The Season 3 Finale episode (#313) was called “Daddy Issues”. It was written by Corey Miller, directed by John Terlesky and produced by Matthew Gross.

This is a shot taken on the set, courtesy of writer Corey Miller. An important element of the plot dealt with the dental morphology of an “unidentified victim”. As part of the consultation I did with the writer, I suggested that this dental detail would be a useful tool to add authenticity to the props I was preparing. I then modified an existing skull to add a large space between the maxillary central incisors called a diastema. This was done by individually sculpting the teeth and painting them in a naturalistic way. A corresponding photo of this gap-toothed “victim’s” skull was also created with the assistance of Dreamfly Creations.

A close-up of the gap-toothed dentition is shown. This fictitious “victim” needed the assistance of 2-dimensional facial reconstruction to aid with his identification! I assembled drawing boards for two different stages of filming. A life-size photo of the skull is overlaid with transparent vellum so that drawings can be done over the skull. I set up a partially complete drawing as well as the finished drawing so it could be shot in stages. This is a forensic art procedure that I developed in the early 1980s while working for the Texas Department of Public Safety. I am grateful to say that it has been used to identify many hundreds of actual homicide victims. I taught the method for over twenty years at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Virginia. I continue to teach this effective, direct method at the Scottsdale Artists’ School in Arizona.

This beautiful rainy shot was created by cinematographer Patrick Cady to showcase actress Jeri Ryan portraying Dr. Kate Murphy. As we have seen in previous episodes, Kate is a pathologist, but her first love is forensic art!

Various action shots show Kate diligently drawing. Jeri is so skillful and convincing at doing this “forensic art” that her fans on Twitter have actually asked her if she did the drawings and sculptures herself!

For actual forensic cases, anatomical formulas are used to develop the various facial features, whether drawing or sculpting the facial reconstruction. It is really gratifying when the producers of a scripted television program make such great efforts to authentically present forensic art and facial identification procedures.

It is always fun for me when a copy of my textbook, Forensic Art and Illustration, is used on the set in a shot. Thanks to Property Master Chris Call for that!

This is a cool view of how it all looks to those talented people involved in the hands-on production of the show.

One of my favorite comments in this episode is when actor Windell Middlebrooks (Curtis) gently pats the skull and says, “You’re in good hands, Mr. Doe.”

This shows the moment when Dana Delany (as Dr. Megan Hunt) sees Kate’s drawing and makes a mental connection that leads to his identification. She says, “That is the same guy!” And that’s just how forensic art is supposed to work!

This is my drawing which is meant to age a young actor’s face by about three decades and show his unique teeth, heavy brow ridge and high cheek bones.

This is the young actor, Daniel Blaine, whose face I used as a basis for the aged “facial reconstruction”. I gave input for the casting choice of this actor and he was selected because his face had distinctive bony elements that could be emphasized in the “reconstruction” drawing. He does not have the gappy teeth in real life, by the way. To really understand all of these plot elements, you have to watch the episode! I don’t want to be too much of a spoiler!

Actress Jeri Ryan has been so fun for me to work with on this show. She is a real pro…intelligent, approachable and very quick to learn the forensic art actions.


Survival of the Prettiest

Over the years, I have drawn literally thousands of faces of criminals in my role as a forensic artist. Until this project came along, I had never really given the concept of idealized beauty much thought.

Sketch I prepared like a police composite sketch, based on the verbal description of Dr. Nancy Etcoff

Then, I was contacted by renowned cognitive psychologist and researcher Dr. Nancy Etcoff, a professor of neuropsychology at Harvard Medical School. She indicated that she had read the discussions of facial proportion in my textbook Forensic Art and Illustration.She asked that I draw the face of “idealized female beauty” based on her verbal description, much like a police composite sketch. This idealized face of “beauty” was done for a television feature production entitled Survival of the Prettiest based on Dr. Etcoff’s book of the same name. California-based Termite Art Productions developed the hour-long program for the Discovery Channel.

Dr. Etcoff and I conferred on camera to arrive at this universal “template face” of beauty in conjunction with Etcoff’s belief that physical attraction is innate and biologically-based rather than learned behavior.

There are many fascinating concepts conveyed in Dr. Etcoff’s book concerning our societal perceptions of attractiveness and their implications. Some quotes I find particularly significant include:

“When abused children under court protection were studied in California and Massachusetts, it turned out that a disproportionate number of them were unattractive.”

“Good-looking adults are more likely to get away with anything from shoplifting to cheating on exams to committing serious crimes.”

Though my only requested task was the black and white “template” sketch, I grabbed some sheets of transparent paper and did an experiment. I placed sheets of drawing vellum over the “ideal” template and did very generalized portraits of several famous female faces. In each case, the face seemed to perfectly fit the template, even when I used beauties of differing ancestries. I did sketches that roughly represented Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Halle Berry, Lucy Liu and Vanessa Williams. Dr. Etcoff felt that these sketches further emphasized her concepts about a universally held idea of beauty and they were included as part of the television production.

Generalized sketches of the faces of five women considered to be beautiful, who all fit the template

Here is an animation of the celebrity faces over the template.

Facial template I created that fits the classic beauties Elizabeth Taylor, Marilyn Monroe, Halle Berry, Lucy Lui and Vanessa Williams


Prop Sculpture for ABC & Disney

I was asked by ABC Television and Disney Studios to do a “forensic” skull-to-face reconstruction sculpture for use as a prop on the television series Body of Proofwith actresses Dana Delany and Jeri Ryan. These photos were taken on the set of the show in Los Angeles. This particular episode, called “Occupational Hazards”, was written by Corey Miller (veteran of CSI:, CSI: Miami) and produced by Matthew Gross.

This is my finished facial reconstruction sculpture on the set on Body of Proof.

Actresses Dana Delany and Jeri Ryan posing with the reconstructed murder “victim” in dramatic lighting on the set. How fun!

Before flying from Texas to Los Angeles, I prepared the reconstruction in several phases to facilitate filming…sort of like they do it for cooking shows! The action for the first stage could be filmed, then the next and so on. This allowed for the simulation of a sculptural process that would actually take far too long to film in real time.

Actress Jeri Ryan was tasked with “creating” the sculpture and it was my job to coach her so that her hand actions would appear authentic. She was a very attentive student and worked hard to do the procedure “just so”. I was appreciative of her diligence and attention to detail to perfect her craft…and we had a lot of fun together.

In between takes…and with dozens of people swirling around us…Jeri and I would practice the next step for her to sculpt.

As we worked, we were under the constant guidance of Producer Matthew Gross…in red. He’s a real pro and was also a pleasure to work with.

Jeri was so good at mimicking the sculptural manipulations I showed her, we were able to use her hands for filming. With some other shows like CSI:, my hands have been intercut with the actress’s hands. Here Jeri is holding my favorite handmade sculpture tool. She got SO excited about sculpting those lips herself and did a great job!

Jeri is adding some finishing colorization here.

This is the young actress Jessica Raimondi who portrayed the “murder victim” who became skeletonized as part of the script. I actually gave input for the casting of Jessica. I wanted to choose an actress whose face had bony structural elements that could be reflected in the reconstruction sculpture, just as it would happen with an actual forensic case. Of course, a real case includes the victim’s actual skull forms. The difficulty here was to make a generic skull turn into Jessica’s bony facial structure, in effect doing a simplified portrait sculpture of her.

On the set with writer Corey Miller

With producer Matthew Gross and Jeri Ryan on her phone photo-bombing us in the background!

Actresses Jeri Ryan and Dana Delany with my sculpture on the set.

Immediately following the airing of the “Occupational Hazards” episode, Jeri Ryan did a Twitter session. It was fun to get her perspective on the work we did as she responded to the tweets. All in all, the entire experience was really enjoyable for me. The writers, actors, producers and crew were all super.


Single-stage dynamic reanimation of the smile in irreversible facial paralysis by free functional muscle transfer

Unilateral facial paralysis is a common disease that is associated with significant functional, aesthetic and psychological issues. Though idiopathic facial paralysis (Bell's palsy) is the most common diagnosis, patients can also present with a history of physical trauma, infectious disease, tumor, or iatrogenic facial paralysis. Early repair within one year of injury can be achieved by direct nerve repair, cross-face nerve grafting or regional nerve transfer. It is due to muscle atrophy that in long lasting facial paralysis complex reconstructive methods have to be applied. Instead of one single procedure, different surgical approaches have to be considered to alleviate the various components of the paralysis. The reconstruction of a spontaneous dynamic smile with a symmetric resting tone is a crucial factor to overcome the functional deficits and the social handicap that are associated with facial paralysis. Although numerous surgical techniques have been described, a two-stage approach with an initial cross-facial nerve grafting followed by a free functional muscle transfer is most frequently applied. In selected patients however, a single-stage reconstruction using the motor nerve to the masseter as donor nerve is superior to a two-stage repair. The gracilis muscle is most commonly used for reconstruction, as it presents with a constant anatomy, a simple dissection and minimal donor site morbidity. Here we demonstrate the pre-operative work-up, the post-operative management, and precisely describe the surgical procedure of single-stage microsurgical reconstruction of the smile by free functional gracilis muscle transfer in a step by step protocol. We further illustrate common pitfalls and provide useful tips which should enable the reader to truly comprehend the procedure. We further discuss indications and limitations of the technique and demonstrate representative results.


What it’s like to be an undercover female CIA agent in Iraq

In the movies, secret agents face their adversaries with guns, weapons, and flashy cars. And they’re so proficient in hand-to-hand combat that they can bring enemies to their knees with the right choke hold or take them down with a well-placed aimed shot. As much as I’d like to think I was that cool, in reality, life in the CIA is much more pedantic.

What most people don’t know is that the CIA is really a massive sorting agency. Intelligence officers must sift through mountains of data in an effort to determine what is authentic and useful, versus what should be discarded. We must consider the subtleties of language and the nuance of the nonverbal. We must unwind a complicated stream of intelligence by questioning everything. In the counterterrorism realm, this process has to be quick we have to weed out bad information with alacrity. We can’t afford to make mistakes when it comes to the collection, processing, dissemination, and evaluation of terrorism intelligence. As we say in the CIA, “The terrorists only have to get it right once, but we have to be right every time.”

Contained in that massive flow is an incredible amount of useless, inaccurate, misleading, or fabricated information. The amount of bad reporting that is peddled, not only to the CIA but to intelligence agencies all over the world, is mind-boggling.

That’s precisely why one of the greatest challenges we faced as counterterrorism experts was figuring out who was giving us solid intelligence and who wasn’t. And when we were dealing with terrorists, getting it wrong could mean someone’s death.

In early 2007 when Iraq was awash with violence, many Iraqis who had formerly counted the United States as the Great Satan for occupying their country switched sides and were willing to work with Coalition Forces against Iraqi terrorists. Brave locals were rebelling against al-Qa’ida’s brutal tactics and were doing whatever they could to take back the streets from these thugs. This was a turning point in the war. Our counterterrorism efforts became wildly successful, fueled by accurate and highly actionable intelligence.

In one such case, we were contacted by one of our established sources, who was extremely agitated. Mahmud had come from his village claiming that he had seen something that sent chills down his spine. As Mahmud was driving not far from his home, he saw an unknown person exit a building that one of his cousins owned. The building was supposed to be empty and unoccupied. For reasons Mahmud could not explain, he thought that something bad was going on and that maybe the man he saw was a member of Al-Qa’ida in Iraq (AQI).

(Courtesy Tyndale House Publishers)

Up until this point, Coalition Forces had found Mahmud’s information extremely reliable. Of course, they did not know his name or personal details, but they made sure we knew that his information had checked out. They contacted us on numerous occasions to praise us for the source’s reporting, explaining that it had allowed them to disarm IEDs and detain insurgents who were causing problems in his village.

Mahmud had a solid track record. But the bits he provided this time were sketchy and lacked sufficient detail. You can’t just disseminate intelligence reports saying that a location “feels wrong,” “seems wrong,” or that some random dude you just saw “looked like a bad guy.” That kind of information does not meet the threshold for dissemination by the CIA. In this case, however, the handling case officer and I went against protocol and put the report out.

Within the hour, we were contacted by one of the MNF-I (Multi-National Force-Iraq) units with responsibility for that AOR. They regularly executed counterterrorism operations in that village and wanted to know more about the sourcing. They were interested in taking a look at the abandoned building because they had been trying to locate terrorist safe houses they believed were somewhere in the vicinity of the building mentioned in our report. They had a feeling that nearby safe houses were being used to store large amounts of weaponry and a few had been turned into VBIED (vehicle-borne improvised explosive device) factories. But there was one big problem: Military units had acted on similar intelligence reports before, but the reports had been setups—the alleged safe houses were wired to explode when the soldiers entered.

A spate of these types of explosions had occurred east of Baghdad in Diyala Governorate, and while we had not yet seen this happen out west in al-Anbar Governorate, one could never be too careful. Basically, the military wanted to know: How good is your source? Do you trust him? Do you think he could have turned on you? Could this be a setup?

This was one of the hardest parts of my job. While I had to protect the identity of our sources when passing on intelligence, I had to balance this with the need to share pertinent details that would allow the military to do their job. It was critical to give them appropriate context on the sources, their access, and their reporting records, and to give them a sense of how good the report may or may not be. Given our positive track record with these military units, I knew that they would trust my judgment, and therefore, I needed to get it right. Lives were at stake.

What do I think? Is this a setup? He’s usually such a good reporter, but what if someone discovered he was the mole?

Even if Mahmud was “on our side,” the insurgents could turn him against us by threatening the lives of his wife and kids. Similar things had happened before. I prayed, “Please, Lord, give me wisdom.”

The author, Michele Rigby Assad, was an undercover CIA agent for 10 years. (Courtesy Tyndale House Publishers)

The bottom line was, I didn’t know anything for sure, and I told the military commander that. But I also remembered that just the week before, Mahmud had provided a report that MNF-I units said was amazingly accurate regarding the location of an IED in his village. They found the IED and dug it up before the Coalition Humvee rolled over it. So as of then, he was definitely good, and I told the commander that as well.

The next day, the case officer came to my desk and said, “Did you hear?”

“Mahmud’s information was spot on!”

“Really?” What a relief, I thought. “What happened?”

“When the soldiers entered the abandoned building, they found seven Iraqis tied up on the floor, barely clinging to life. It was more than a safe house. It was a torture house. There were piles of dead bodies in the next room.”

Mahmud’s intuition about the stranger he saw exiting that building had been correct. Something about the unidentified man’s behavior or appearance—the look on his face, the posture of his body, the way he walked or the way he dressed—had hit Mahmud as being “off” or “wrong.” It turned out that local AQI affiliates had commandeered the building and were using it as a base to terrorize the local population.

My colleague pulled out copies of the military’s photographs that captured the unbelievable scene. The first images showed the battered bodies of the young men who had just been saved from certain death. According to the soldiers, when they entered the building and found the prisoners on the floor, the young men were in shock. Emaciated and trembling, they kept saying, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” They could barely stand, so the soldiers steadied them as the young men lifted up their bloodstained shirts for the camera, revealing torsos covered in welts and bruises. If that unit hadn’t shown up when they did, those men would have been dead by the next day.

I swallowed hard as I flipped through the photographs of the horrors in the next room, and my eyes welled up with tears. The terrorists had discarded the mutilated bodies of other villagers in the adjacent room, leaving them to rot in a twisted mound. I could hardly accept what I was seeing. It reminded me of Holocaust photos that were so inhumane one could not process the depth of the depravity: men and women . . . battered and bruised . . . lives stolen . . . eyes frozen open in emptiness and horror.

My stomach began to churn, but I made myself look at the pictures. I had to understand what we were fighting for, what our soldiers faced every day. As much as I wanted to dig a hole and stick my head in the sand, I needed to see what was really happening outside our cozy encampment in the Green Zone.

They say war is hell they don’t know the half of it.

Taken from “Breaking Cover” by Michele Rigby Assad. Copyright © 2018. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved.

Michele Rigby Assad is a former undercover officer in the National Clandestine Service of the US Central Intelligence Agency. She served as a counterterrorism specialist for 10 years, working in Iraq and other secret Middle Eastern locations. Upon retirement from active service, Michele and her husband began leading teams to aid Christian refugees.

This article originally appeared on Business Insider. Follow @BusinessInsider on Twitter.


The spies who helped win the Revolutionary War

Posted On September 12, 2019 02:52:38

“I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”

So wrote 21-year old Nathan Hale before being hanged for espionage by the British on Sept. 22, 1776. Hale had originally been encouraged to join the revolution by an old Yale classmate, Benjamin Tallmadge.

Tallmadge and Hale had been close during their time at Yale and often exchanged letters. Three years after their graduation, Tallmadge wrote to Hale, newly an officer in the American forces, saying, “Was I in your condition, I think the more extensive service would be my choice. Our holy Religion, the honor of our God, a glorious country and a happy constitution is what we have to defend.”

Hale agreed with Tallmadge’s sentiment and soon accepted an assignment to do more than just fight–he would spy from behind enemy lines. Although Hale’s venture into espionage ended rather poorly, Tallmadge’s revolutionary feelings did not subside. Soon, he would find himself at the center of the American Revolution’s most important spy ring.

The Culper Ring, founded and supervised by Tallmadge, operated from late October in 1778 until the British evacuated New York in 1783. Although the ring was active for all five of these years, its most productive period was between 1778 and 1781.

Benjamin Tallmadge with his son, William.

After Tallmadge brought the ring together, it was led by Abraham Woodhull and Robert Townsend, codenamed “Samuel Culper, Sr.” and “Samuel Culper, Jr.” respectively. The codename “Culper” came straight from George Washington himself, a slight alteration of Culpeper County, Virginia where Washington had worked as a surveyor in his youth.

The ring was highly sophisticated, using methods still familiar today. Couriers, invisible ink. and dead drops were the norm. Some messages were hidden in plain sight, coded within newspaper advertisements and personal messages. Supposedly, one woman, Anna Strong, was even able to use the clothes she hung to dry to send messages to other members of the ring. Codes and ciphers were standard practice. These methods enabled agents to send Tallmadge apparently innocent letters. Tallmadge could pick out individual words to decode messages.

While Woodhull and Townsend ran the show, many agents, couriers, and sub-agents were also involved. Caleb Brewster, Austin Roe, Anna Strong and the still-unidentified ‘Agent 355’ all played vital roles. Other members included Hercules Mulligan and his slave Cato. Mulligan warned in January, 1779 of British plans to kidnap or kill senior American leaders including Washington himself. Cato delivered the vital message.

Other agents included Joseph Lawrence, Nathan Woodhull (Abraham’s cousin), Nathaniel Ruggles, William Robinson and James Rivington. So solid was the ring’s security that its very existence remained unconfirmed until the 20th century. Even Washington himself couldn’t identify every Culper agent. Its strict security preserved both the ring and the lives of individual members, boosting their confidence in themselves and each other.

The Culper Ring’s successes, what spies call coups, were many. They warned of a surprise attack on newly arrived French troops at Newport, Rhode Island. The forces, properly warned, were able to foil British plans to devastate their men while they recovered from their transatlantic voyage. The Culper spies uncovered British plans to destroy America’s nascent economy by forging huge amount of Continental dollars. Continental dollars were soon withdrawn from circulation, replaced with coins by 1783.

Without the Culper Ring, Washington may have fallen for a raiding operation meant to divide his forces. In 1779, General William Tryon raided three main ports of Connecticut, destroying homes, goods in storage, and a number of public buildings. Tryon was attempting to split off a portion of Washington’s forces to allow British forces to rout the Americans.

Washington did not ride out to meet Tryon. Instead, Tryon’s forces rampaged through civilian land and the general was criticized by both American rebels and those who supported the British as barbarous.

By far the Culper Ring’s most important coup was exposing General Benedict Arnold. Arnold, whose name has entered the American language as a metonym for treachery, was in contact with British spy Major John André and planned to surrender West Point to the British. The Culper Ring warned Tallmadge of a high-ranking American traitor, but lacked his identity. Tallmadge identified Arnold when André was captured and later hanged for his treason. Although Arnold escaped with his life, West Point remained safe from the British.

Abraham Woodhull’s sister Mary is sometimes credited with exposing Major André and thus Benedict Arnold. André (alias John Anderson) fled when he realized he was under suspicion. Unlike the Culper Ring’s, André’s security was lax. That cost André his life, Arnold his reputation, and ultimately helped cost the British Empire its American colony.

Stopped by three soldiers, André first tried to bribe them to let him go. Instead of taking the bribe, the soldier, now actively suspicious rather than idly curious, searched him and found incriminating papers. The letters proved conclusively that André was a British spy. The information contained in André’s letters was almost useless to the British their commander General Clinton already had it. They were, however, extremely valuable to Tallmadge.

André’s captured messages were in Benedict Arnold’s handwriting, making it suddenly clear who was leaking high-level information. Arnold fled for his life, going to England, then Canada. After alienating a number of business partners in New Brunswick, Arnold returned to England. André was not so lucky to escape the American forces–he would make a useful reprisal for the hanging of Tallmadge’s dear friend, Nathan Hale. Caught dead to rights by the Culper Ring, André would soon be dead, period.

Hale had been hanged on Sept. 22, 1776 at the tender age of 21. He died bravely, with composure, courage and dignity. André faced the gallows equally bravely on Oct. 2, 1780. Before his death he received a visitor: Colonel Tallmadge.

The two spent part of their time together talking. At one point André asked Tallmadge whether his capture and Hale’s were similar. Tallmadge, remembering his dead friend and perhaps feeling guilty at encouraging him to take a more active revolutionary role, replied, “Yes, precisely similar, and similar shall be your fate…”.

The British evacuated New York in mid-August, 1783. On Nov. 16 of the same year, Washington himself visited to mark the seventh anniversary of the American retreat from Manhattan. While there he met someone to whom he and his new nation owed a personal and national debt: Culper agent Hercules Mulligan.

This article originally appeared on Explore The Archive. Follow @explore_archive on Twitter.