The business of Intelligence is one of the oldest professions in the world. Throughout history, it has attracted a unique and diverse group of selfless individuals willing to take repeated risks for this country, often without ever being recognized or acknowledged for their contributions. Read about the women who chose this profession or were chosen by it. Additional reference materials are cited for further research.
Modern-Day Intelligence Agents
Intelligence and espionage has been traditionally seen as a masculine realm. Yet, the profession has always attracted highly competent women. During the 1950s, the CIA was forty percent female while major private companies of the time were only 30 percent female. Women in intelligence still received little recognition in the early days of the CIA, since they were not trusted with executive or undercover positions. By 1992, only 10 percent of upper management positions were filled by women; the percentage was even lower for undercover positons.
As of 2013, women are appreciated as invaluable members of the intelligence force. Nearly half of the CIA, or 46 percent, is female. More significantly, 47 percent of the CIA's intelligence analysts are female, as well as 50 percent of the support staff and 40 percent of its undercover operatives in the National Clandestine Service. Finally, for the first time in history, five out of eight of the highest positions in the CIA are held by women, which include the positions of Deputy Director, Executive Director, CIO, Director of Support, and Director of Intelligence. CIA director John Brennan emphasizes that he appointed these women because they were the best people for the position and not because of their gender. He adds, "Women make us better. Minorities make us better. People with diverse experiences make us better. What we need to do is be able to have a diverse workforce with...different ways of analysing." Notably, he says that unlike other men, women can be highly and uniquely perceptive about the way a man acts.
The number of women in high level positions has increased in other parts of the intelligence community. Fran Fleisch is in the NSA's third highest position as the executive director, Lieutenant General Mary A. Legere is the first female Deputy Chief of Staff for Intelligence in the Army, and other women are serving as directors of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and the National Reconnaissance Office.
Perhaps it is because intelligence is seen as a "man's job" that women perform so well as rarely expected female intelligence agents. In a field where secrecy and surprise are crucial, women may have the greatest element of surprise. Some say that targets lower their guard around women since they are perceived as less threatening than men, particularly if the agent is also a mother. This is one reason why the British M15 has made efforts to recruit middle-aged mothers through parenting sites such as Mumsnet.
Women also possess traits that make them uniquely skilled in intelligence. David Shedd, the deputy director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, notes that "women as a rule tend to have stronger intuitive skills, and in the world of intelligence, where you are often dealing with less than perfect information, that intuitive nature is important...Men tend to be more fact-based." In a Forbes interview, former CIA spy Lindsay Moran says that women tend to have better people skills, street smarts, nurturing instincts that can be applied when handling and training foreign sources, and better listening skills. Others note that women tend tohave a "more consultative, collaborative approach." Mothers, once again have an even greater edge, as they have gained valuable life experience from having children and raising families. Some mothers can have especially strong relationship building skills that are a "vital talent for spies trying to recruit informants."
For more information about the intelligence field, visit the official pages of members of the United States Intelligence Community, which include the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency.
Famous Female Agents of the Past
From Spy Book, The Encyclopedia of Espionage
Loyalist American who spied for the British during the Revolutionary War. A Philadelphia schoolteacher, she was married to a man assigned to a British Army unit as an artillery repairman. Her husband joined the British troops evacuating Philadelphia and marching to New York City in 1778. Claiming to be a Patriot, she managed to get through the American lines at Philadelphia and traveled to New York, where she became an agent in the spy ring run by Maj. John André. Under the cover name "Mrs. Barnes" she spied on American troops. She carried a token (description still unknown) that would identify her as a British spy to an American officer who was spying for the British. But by the time she reached American headquarters at White Plains, N.Y., the officer had left the army. Posing as a peddler, she listened in on conversations, checked out gun emplacements, and even walked into the headquarters of Gen. George Washington. "I had the Opportunity of going through their whole Army Remarking at the same time the strength & Situation of each Brigade, & the Number of Cannon with their Situation and Weight of Ball each Cannon was Charged with," she later wrote. She also helped other spies (never identified) get through the lines and stay at safe houses as they made their way back to British-held territory. On another mission to an American encampment near Dobbs Ferry, NY, she counted men and guns and inventoried provisions. Her "timly information" about American troop movements led to British decisions to strength the garrison in Rhode Island.
Her husband accompanied British artillery to South Carolina in 1780,
and there her espionage carerr ended, for she was given no more
missions. The couple sailed to England in 1781. Later deserted by her
husband, she successfully petitioned for a small pension for her work
They thought she was dull-witted.
But Mary Elizabeth Bowser, a freed slave who was placed as a servant in the Confederate White House in Richmond, was as cunning as a fox.
While she cleaned the house and waited on Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his military leaders, she read war dispatches and overheard conversations about Confederate troop strategy and movement. She memorized details and passed them along to Union spies, who coded the information and sent it to Gens. Ulysses S. Grant and Benjamin Butler, "greatly enhancing the Union's conduct of the war," according to the account assembled by the U.S. Army Military Intelligence Corps Hall of Fame.
"Jefferson Davis never discovered the leak in his household staff," reads the account, "although he knew the Union somehow kept discovering Confederate plans."
In 1995 Bowser was inducted into the Hall at Fort Huachuca, Ariz. The acknowledgment of her role in the ultimate success of Union forces read, in part:
"Ms. Bowser certainly succeeded in a highly dangerous mission to the great benefit of the Union effort. She was one of the highest-placed and most productive espionage agents of the Civil War."
Exact details about Bowser's life and death are sketchy.
According to several accounts, Bowser was born about 1839 on a plantation owned by John Van Lew, a wealthy Richmond hardware merchant. When he died (some records say he died in 1843, while others put his death at 1851), his wife and his daughter, Elizabeth, freed his slaves.
Elizabeth Van Lew, who had been educated by Quakers, was an ardent abolitionist. She noticed that Bowser was quite smart and sent her to Philadelphia to be educated. When war clouds gathered, Bowser returned to Richmond to work in the Van Lew household on Richmond's Church Hill and married William or Wilson Bowser, a free black.
Van Lew, who already was sending information to Union officials about Southern unrest, reportedly recommended Bowser for the servant's job in the Davis household.
What Bowser learned in the Confederate White House she would repeat or message to Van Lew or to Thomas McNiven, the Union's Richmond spymaster, who operated a bakery that became a major central exchange point for information.
Before his death in 1904, he told his daughter, Jeannette B. McNiven, about his experiences, which were written down in 1952 by her nephew, McNiven's grandson, Robert W. Waitt Jr. of Richmond.
As recorded by Waitt, Thomas McNiven credited Bowser with being one of the best sources of wartime information, "as she was working right in the Davis' home and had a photographic mind. Everything she saw on the Rebel President's desk, she could repeat word for word. Unlike most colored, she could read and write. She made a point of always coming out to my wagon when I made deliveries at the Davis' home to drop information."
Specific details of Bowser's activities and the exact information she passed to Grant are unknown because after the war the U.S. government destroyed records on McNiven, Van Lew and her agents for their protection.
Nothing is known about where she went or what she did after the war. Her date and place of death are unknown.
Papers believed to have been Bowser's diaries were discarded inadvertently by family members in the 1950s. They said descendants rarely talked about Mary Elizabeth Bowser's work for fear of retaliation from lingering Confederate sympathizers.
Her grave was re-discovered in 2000 in Richmond, Virginia.
From Spy Book, the Encyclopedia of Espionage
One of the several female Confederate agents of the American Civil War. Isabelle Boyd, born in Martinsburg, WV, was a beautiful young woman known as Belle. She graduated from Mount Washington Female Collegein Baltimore, MD, in 1860.
When Virginia suceded from the Union in 1861, Belle's father joined the Confederate Army, serving under Major General Thomas (Stonewall) Jackson. She later claimed that when Union soldiers invaded her home, she fatally shot one of them. At the urging of a Confederate intelligence officer, she began to spy for the South.
Arrested twice and interrogated once by Allan Pinkerton, the Union's counterintelligence expert, beautiful Belle Boyd talked her way out of formal charges and was released both times.
Boyd continued her espionage even though she was now a marked woman. While staying at a hotel in Front Royal, VA, she heard Union officers quartered there discussing military plans. She slipped out of the hotel and made her way through Union lines to tell Jackson's intelligence officer that Front Royal, a vital crossroads in the Shenandoah Valley, was undergarrisoned. Jackson wrote her a personal note of thanks.
Arrested in 1863 by Lafayette Baker, Pinkerton's successor, she was held for a month in a Washington, DC, prison. After being released in an exchange of prisoners, she sailed for England aboard a Confederate ship in the spring of 1864. When the blockade runner was captured by a Union ship, she was again taken prisoner, and this time condemned to death.
But a Union officer, Samuel Hardinge, fell in love with her, helped her gain her freedom, and married her. He died a few months later.
After the war, she went on stage in London and New York, dramatizing her life as a spy. She wrote Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison (1865), a romanticized version of her adventures.
At the age of 56, Belle Boyd died of a heart attack in Kilbourn (now
Wisconsin Dells), WI. Her four children and third husband, who was 26
years Belle's junior, buried her in Wisconsin. Four former Union
soldiers helped lower the famous Confederate spy into her Northern
Cushman was born in New Orleans in 1833. At eighteen Cushman went to
New York where she began an acting career. She toured the United States
in a variety of different plays.
On the outbreak of the American Civil War Cushman was asked to become a Union Army spy. In 1863 she toured Tennessee and after visiting the camp of General Braxton Bragg of the Confederate Army, she managed to discover his battle plans.
Cushman was captured and sentenced to death. While waiting to be executed in Shelbyville, the Union Army captured the town and freed Cushman. Despite her narrow escape, Cushman agreed to carry out further spying missions behind the Confederate lines. She provided considerable information for General William Rosecrans and President Abraham Lincoln awarded her with an honorary major's commission.
After the war Cushman toured the country dressed in uniform lecturing on her spying exploits. A friend, Ferdinand Sarmiento, wrote her biography, The Life of Pauline Cushman (1865).
Cushman suffered from arthritis and rheumatism in her final years. Racked with pain, Pauline Cushman committed suicide by taking an overdose of morphine in San Francisco on 7th December, 1893.
From Spy Book, the Encyclopedia of Espionage
Canadian-born woman who successfully operated behind Confederate lines as a Union spy during the American Civil War. She was probably the only spy in history who was both transvestite and transracial.
Edmonds came to the United States from New Bruswick, Canada, in 1856. When the Civil War began in 1861 she adopted the name Frank Thompson and volunteered to serve as a male nurse for the Union Army. She was present at the first Battle of Bull Run, the first major combat between Union and Confederate troops. After serving as a male nurse for two years, Edmonds volunteered to serve as a spy behind Confederate lines. Disguising herself as a young black man by dyeing her skin, getting her hair cropped short, and wearing a wig, she managed to cross the front lines near Yorktown, VA.
Although claiming to be a free black when confronted by an overseer, Edmonds was put to work on Confederate fortifications. After a day of backbreaking work, she was able to make a sketch of the fortifications and an accounting of the ordinance being installed. The next day she carried water for the workers and then food to the troops. Impressed as a sentry at one point, she was able to defect back to Union lines during a rainy night -- carrying her Confederate rifle as a trophy.
After three days behind Confederate lines, Edmonds brought back useful military information. During the coming months she successfully accomplished 11 more missions behind Confederate lines without being detected. On one occasion she went as an Irish peddler woman, other times she posed as a dry goods clerk, and once she claimed to be the grieving friend of a dead soldier.
Eventually contracting malaria while on a spy mission, she deserted after returning to Union lines, fearing that medical treatment would reveal her sex.
After the war, Edmonds wrote about her exploits in Nurse and Spy in the Union Army. In 1867, she married Linus Seelye. After their three children died in childhood, they adopted two more. Edmonds and her family moved around a great deal, finally ending up in La Porte, TX.
Twenty-three years after the war ended, Sarah Edmonds Seelye applied for a veteran's pension. She wrote to her former comrades and asked for their support. Although they were shocked to discover that she was a woman, they agreed and wrote to Congress. Congress voted to "place on the pension roll, the name of Sarah E.E. Seelye, alias Franklin Thompson." For the rest of her life she received a soldier's pension of $12 per month.
Before her death, Sarah E.E. Seelye became the only woman member of the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR), an all-male organization of Civil War veterans. When she died in 1898, Sarah Edmonds was buried in a GAR cemetary.
Rose O'Neal Greenhow was a well-known person in Washington, DC, before the Civil War. President James Buchanan was her close friend. She liked to attend sessions of Congress and Supreme Court hearings. Greenhow would eventually write about her decision to support the South "I had a right to my political opinions. I am a Southern woman, born with revolutionary blood in my veins. Freedom of speech and of thought were my birthright, guaranteed, signed and sealed by the blood of our fathers."
Greenhow was recruited into the spy ring headed by Colonel Thomas Jordan. Soon Greenhow was leading a large network of Confederate spies operating in Washington, DC. Her network included dentists, professors, architects and cooks and spanned as far as New Orleans, Boston and across the ocean to London.
Union generals and politicians continued to be charmed by Greenhow, visiting her well into the war. Even Greenhow's own daughter did not suspect her of being a spy.
Greenhow's relaying of information proved invaluable to the Confederacy victories during the early months of the war. Confederate President Jefferson Davis even went so far as to tell Greenhow "but for without you, there would have been no Bull Run."
Greenhow's luck began to change in August, 1861, when she was arrested for spying by famed detective Allan Pinkerton. She recounted her arrest in her book My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule at Washington:
On Friday Aug. 23, 1861, as I was entering my own door on returning from a promenade, I was arrested by two men, one in citizens clothes and the other in the dress of an officer of the United States Army. This latter was called Major Allen, and was the chief of the detective police in the city. They followed close upon my footsteps. As I ascended my steps the two men ascended also before I could open the door and asked "Is this Mrs. Greenhow?" I answered "Yes. Who are you and what do you want?" "I come to arrest you." "By what authority?" The man Allen, or Pinkerton (for he had several aliases) said: "By sufficient authority." I said: "Let me see your warrant." He mumbled something about verbal authority from the War and State Department and then they followed me into the house. By this time the house had become filled with men, and men also surrounded it outside like bees from a hive. An indiscriminate search now commenced throughout my house. Men rushed with frantic haste into my chamber. My beds, my wardrobes were all upturned. My library was taken possession of and every scrap of paper was seized.
The evidence gathered at Greenhow's house is still preserved in the National Archives in Washington, DC.
Although Greenhow was able to destroy the secret documents she was hiding on her person before being strip-searched, she was kept prisoner in her own house for six months, and the heavily guarded residence became known as "Fort Greenhow." But house arrest didn't stop Greenhow from relaying messages to Confederate forces. In January, 1862, the decision was made to move Greenhow to the Old Capitol Prison. Greenhow wrote of how she learned of the move in My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule at Washington:
On Saturday, January 18th, at two o'clock, I learned incidentally, that I was to be removed from my house to another prison. I was sitting in my library reading. I immediately sent for the officer of the guard to know the facts. He told me he had orders not to communicate with me on the subject, but he would go to the Provost Marshal and obtain further instructions. He returned with orders fixing the hour of my removal. Detective Allen [Pinkerton] had the ordering and regulations of the arrangements. A covered wagon surrounded by a file of soldiers was ordered by Allen to be my conveyance to my prison. Believing that I should feel humiliated by this indignity, Lieutenant Sheldon however positively refused to obey this order.
Life in the Old Capitol Prison was harsh. Greenhow was completely cut off from the outside world. She was confined to a 10 by 12-foot cell with only a straw bed, a wooden table, and a water glass. She ate only soldiers rations, and all of her outgoing letters were subjected to a chemical treatment in an attempt to find treasonous information.
Greenhow still had powerful Union friends, and in June, 1962, she won her release from the Old Capitol Prison, but was exiled from Federal lines. She moved to Richmond, VA, and after meeting with Jefferson Davis, set off for Charleston, SC. She meant to run the Union blockade and set sail for Europe, but the lack of vessels made the trip impossible. Greenhow then traveled to Wilmingon, NC, and made the trip to Bermuda and then to England and France.
While in France, Greenhow met with Napoleon III. In England, she met Queen Victoria and wrote My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule at Washington, which was published by Richard Bentley.
On August 10, 1864, Greenhow set sail for a return trip to the Confederacy, secretly carrying gold for the Confederate cause either in a purse around her neck or in a belt around the waist. But the ship encountered rough weather as it was preparing to run the Union blockade on September 30. Greenhow argued with the captain to let her go ashore in a boat. At first the captain refused, but eventually relented.
A few yards from the ship the smaller boat capsized. While others in the boat were saved, Greenhow, weighed down by the gold, drowned. Her body washed up on the shore, and lay in state in Wilmington, North Carolina. She was buried with full military honors in Wilmington's Oakdale Cemetary.
Every year on May 10, which is the Confederate Memorial Day, United Daughters of the Confederacy place flowers upon Greenhow's grave.
From Spies! Women in the Civil War
Like Harriet Tubman, Nancy Hart never learned to read and write. Like Belle Boyd, she was a teeanager and an expert rider. She also killed a Union soldier.
Just 15 years old when the Civil War started, Hart lived in the western part of Virginia. A land of narrow valleys and rugged mountains, western Virginia was separated from the rest of Virginia by the Allegheny Mountains. There were no plantations and very few slaves. When Virginia seceded from the Unions, many people in western Virginia objected -- so much so that they formed a new state, known today as West Virginia. Although West Virginia joined the Union, there were many Southern sympathizers in the area, and Confederate troops did not give up easily.
Nancy Hart and her family supported the South. When Hart's brother-in-law was killed, she left home and joined the Moccasin Rangers, a group of pro-Southern guerillas. She could ride and shot with the best of men. Sturdy and fearless, Nancy Hart rode on guerilla raids.
After one raid, Hart was captured and taken to the Union camp. She charmed the soldiers and fooled them into thinking she was harmless. They released her.
That was a mistake, because Hart had spent her time in the Union camp learning everything she could about the troop strength and plans to defeat the guerillas.
The Mocasson Rangers conducted a series of raids until the summer of 1862 when their leader was killed. The group disbanded, and Hart married Joshua Douglas, a former Ranger. Enlisting in the Confederate army, Douglas went off to fight. Hart went into the mountains to spy on the Union troops.
Posing as a simple country girl, Hart spent about a year gathering military information. Then one day a Union soldier recognized her. Arrested again, Hart was taken to Summersville, a town occupied by Union troops.
Once again Hart charmed the Union soldiers. In particular, she charmed her guard. One day she talked him into letting her hold his gun. Smiling and talking, she raised the gun and pretended to take aim. Then she shot, killing the guard with a bullet through his heart. Racing inside, Hart jumped on the Union commander's fastest horse and galloped away. Union troops pursued her, but she outrode them.
A week later, just before sunrise, Hart returned to Summersville. This time she came with about 200 Confederate cavalrymen and chased the Union troops out of the town. In the process, Hart and the Confederates captured several Union officers and sent them to Libby Prison in Richmond, VA.
After the war, Hart lived a quiet life with her husband on a mountain farm. When she died in 1902, Hart was buried on a mountain crag. Her grave was marked with a pile of stones. Years later, her granddaughter went looking for Hart's grave, but Hart's grave was gone. Instead, a beacon tower stood on the spot, which had been leveled by a bulldozer.
From Spy Book, the Encyclopedia of Espionage
Ex-slave who became a spy for the Union during the American Civil War. Born to slave parents in Maryland, Tubman escaped to freedom in Pennsylvania around 1849 by following Polaris, the north star. During the 1850s she became a leading abolitionist and one of the conductors on the Underground Railroad, which brought other slaves, including her own parents, to freedom.
When the Civil War began, she volunteered, first as a Union Army cook, then as a nurse, and finally as a spy. She led Union raiding parties into Confederate territory in Maryland and Virginia.
In 1863 she organized a scouting service consisting of former slaves who could slip through Confederate lines and locate supply dumps. Black river pilots working for Tubman located Confederate "torpedoes," as river mines were called. After she did the reconnaisance for a raid up the Combahee River in South Carolina, a Confederate officer reported, "The enemy seems to have been well posted as to the character and capacity of our troops and their small chance of encountering opposition, and to have been well guided by persons thoroughly acquainted with the river and country."
After the war, she tried unsuccessfully to collect $1,800 in back pay. She finally got a pension in 1899 -- but only as the widow of a veteran. She settled in Auburn, NY, opened schools for freedmen in the South and sponsored a home for poor blacks in Auburn. In acknowledgement of her work during the Civil War, she was buried with full military honors.
From Spies! Women in the Civil War
Loreta Janeta Velazquez spied for the Confederacy during the Civil War. Born in Havana, Cuba, Velazquez grew up in New Orleans, LA. She married a United States Army officer who, when the war started, decided to fight for the Confederacy. According to her book, The Woman in Battle, Velazquez fought for the South, too. Although she may have exagerrated her adventures, her story is fascinating.
As Velazquez told the story, she disguised herself as a man by flattening her breasts with wire shields and braces and wearing an army uniform. Calling herself Harry T. Buford, Velazquez adopted a manly swagger, perfected the ability to spit, and organized a company of soldier's, the "Arkansas Grays." As a lieutenant of the company, Velazquez fought in several battles -- the first battle at Bull Run, Ball's Bluff and Shiloh. "Fear was a word I did not know the meaning of," Velazquez wrote later.
Living as a man among men, Velazquez concluded that their conversations were generally "revolting and utterly vile." She also reported that soldiers' talk about women was "thoroughly despicable."
By 1863, Velazquez's husband had been killed, she had been wounded twice, and her true sex had been discovered. At this point, Velazquez switched to spying. She claimed that she managed to work undetected on the staff of Union Colonel Lafayette C. Baker, chief of the United States Secret Services. She was also sent to Canada to spy. According to one account, Velazquez was "the beautifu Confederate spy whose black eyes bewitched passes from Union generals."
After the war, Velazquez wrote The Woman in Battle and then headed west. In Omaha, NE, she talked General W.S. Harney into giving her a revolver, a buffalo robe, and a pair of blankets. Then she traveled to the mining town of Austin, NV, where she married a wealthy man and happily settled down.
Loreta Velazquez died in Austin, NV, in 1897.
From Spies for the Blue and Gray
By every rule of background, Miss Elizabeth Van Lew should have been among the Confederate women who hurried in and out of Jefferson Davis's "Gray House" on fashionable Clay Street, knitted for the Southern boys, and wept softly to themselves as the Stars and Bars floated past the iron-balconied residences of Richmond.
Miss Van Lew was the daughter of a prominent Richmond citizen. Their house stood on one of the city's most commanding hills, a mansion soaring three and a half stories high. And Elizabeth in her soft Southern voice always spoke of Virginians as "our people."
Yet Miss Van Lew became a freak in Richmond, a woman whose existence was a protest against the beliefs of her class and region. Defying old friends, civil and military authorities, she opposed slavery and war. She poured out money and energy to assist Union soldiers, and gained the hatred of her neighbors. But Elizabeth Van Lew was more than the "fanatic" and "theorist" that most Richmonders considered her. For the four full years of war she operated as a dedicated and resourceful spy, according to several Northern generals, the best one inside the Confederate capital.
Her reputation as a Union sympathizer, though it brought her heavy censure, served as a blind behind which she practiced espionage, directing a band of assistants of assorted ranks and occupations. Miss "Lizzie" was so foolishly and openly attached to the North that most people considered her a silly, hysterical woman. A spy would be ' expected to be silent or speak the opposite of what he felt. Deviousness was the last thing to be looked for in anyone like Miss Van Lew.
Yet dissimulation, it seems clear, was actually the quality that she possessed above all others. Without it she could not have bribed farmers, used Confederate clerks and attorneys, maintained lasting contact with secret service men, and helped prisoners to escape. At times Miss Lizzie could be acid-tongued, scalding in her contempt; again she was gentle and flattering when it helped her to get what she wanted.
Prim and angular, nervous in movement, she had once been pretty, but by her early forties she had turned into an old maid. She was the same age as her fellow Virginian, Rose Greenhow, but she had no men in her life. Tiny, blondish, with high cheekbones and a sharp nose, Miss Van Lew went about with an "almost unearthly brilliance" in her blue eyes. The opposite of the seductive lady, she accomplished her ends without the help of charm or a lush figure or a coquette's air.
Miss Lizzie served particularly the general whom Southerners regarded with marked dislike, U. S. Grant. After the victorious Union army arrived in Richmond, one of Grant's first visits was to the spinster's home. Proudly, her ringlets bobbing, she received him for tea. Nevertheless, some years later, when a little girl demurred against meeting her, a "Yankee," Elizabeth Van Lew bridled: "I'm not a Yankee." For she maintained at all times that she was only a good Southerner, holding to an old Virginia tradition of opposition to human bondage. She had been the loyal one, she said, they the traitors. . . .
Some Richmonders insisted the Van Lews had not, after all, come originally from the Old Dominion. Elizabeth's father was from Long Island, a descendant of a colonial Dutch family. Going to Richmond at twenty-six, John Van Lew cast his lot in 1816 with a member of the well-established Adams family. Their commercial firm failed, owing a debt that the daughter recalled as a hundred thousand dollars. With the sense of rectitude strong among the Van Lews, he "honorably paid" his share. Then, starting again as a hardware dealer, Mr. Van Lew prospered magnificently.
On a trip to Philadelphia he met the daughter of that city's late mayor, and brought her back as his bride. Of their three children, Elizabeth was, though least robust, the strongest willed. She was tutored, and given the best of academic and social training, and she soon grew proud of her family's magnificent home on Church Hill, across from the church in which Patrick Henry called for liberty or death. The Adamses had lost the property, and the Van Lews acquired it.
'Handsome as the building was, John Van Lew transformed it, adding the superb portico and other embellishments. For years the great of America and some from the Continent visited the house to admire the chandeliered parlors with their walls covered with brocaded silk, mantels of imported marble, the sixteen-foot hallway, the terraced gardens lined with boxwood, and the summerhouse at the edge of the James. Jenny Lind stopped there, when she sang her way across America, and Chief justice John Marshall, and Edgar Allan Poe, who, it has been claimed, recited in one of the parlors.
From her earliest days Elizabeth was very close to her quiet mother. Then the girl left for school in Philadelphia, and Richmonders maintained that she "imbibed abolitionism" there. It appears, however, that she had always been a serious, introspective child. As she put it in a rather self-pitying analysis: "From the time I knew right from wrong it was my sad privilcge to differ in many things from the . . . opinions and principles of my locality." She described herself as "uncompromising , ready to resent what seemed wrong, quick and passionate but not bad tempered or vicious. . . . This has made my life sad and earnest."
When his daughter was twenty-five, Mr. Van Lew died, and his son John, as energetic as he was unspectacular, took over the hardware business with success. Meanwhile the bond between Elizabeth and her mother grew stronger. In the early i850s, when Fredericka Bremer, the Swedish novelist, visited Richmond, she met Elizabeth, who was then thirty, "a pleasing, pale blonde," who "expressed so much compassion for the sufferings of the slave, that I was immediately attracted to her."
As the 1850s passed, this Richmonder did more than feel compassion for her slaves. She freed all the family servants (Elizabeth dominated her mother in such matters), and most of them stayed on in their jobs. Hearing that the children or relatives of Van Lew slaves were to be sold by other owners, she bought and liberated them as well. And she set down such firm opinions as: "Slave power crushes freedom of speech and of opinion. Slave power degrades labor. Slave power is arrogant, is jealous and intrusive, is cruel, is despotic, not only over the slave but over the community, the state."
Surviving today is an unusual manuscript of hundreds of pages, part diary, part reminiscences, confused yet vivid in many passages. In it Miss Lizzie recalls the days just before the war: "I was a silent and sorrowing spectator of the rise and spread of the secession mania." From the hour of John Brown's raid, "our people were in a palpable state of war." In the general fury, rumors spread that Northern forces were immediately marching on Richmond. "The alarm bells would be rung, the tramp of armed men . . . heard through the night."
About this time Miss Elizabeth started her pro-Northern activities by writing to Federal officials and telling them everything that was happening. In her recollections she pictured the Virginia Secession Convention, and quoted a number of women as asking: "Do you think the state will go out today? For if it does not, I cannot stand it any longer." Upon this she commented: "God help us. Those were sorry days. . . ."
On April 17, 1861, Miss Van Lew first beheld the Confederate banner over Richmond. "Alas for those with loyalty in their hearts." Through tears she watched a torchlight procession, and fell to her knees. "Never did a feeling of more calm determination and high resolve for endurance come over me. . . ." Friends understood her general sentiments, but some of them must have thought Miss Van Lew's attitude would change. A delegation came to ask Elizabeth if she and her mother would make shirts for the troops.
The Van Lew ladies declined, but when they began to receive "personal threats" they agreed reluctantly to take religious books to the camps. If the people of Richmond thought the Van Lews had given in, they were wrong. An uneasy May and June passed. July brought the preparations for the first battle at Manassas. The two women saw the soldiers ride off to the applause and tossed roses of Richmond admirers. Their hearts sank when the South sent the Union Army reeling back. Through Richmond rolled wagons with dispirited Northern prisoners, and resentment against Yankees rose so high that no one dared speak to them.
A day or two later the Van Lews heard stories of suffering in the grim warehouse that was Libby Prison. Miss Lizzie went to Lieutenant Todd, the Confederate prisonkeeper (who was also Mrs. Abraham Lincoln's half-brother) and asked to be a hospital nurse. The lieutenant gasped. She didn't mean she wanted to nurse those men! Why, he knew people who would be glad to "shoot the lot of them."
Miss Van Lew next tried Secretary of the Treasury Memminger, with whom she was acquainted. Ah, he could not hear of such a thing. A class of men like that-they were "not worthy or fit for a lady to visit." She changed her tactics and reminded Memminger of the time he gave a beautiful discourse on religion. His face beamed; so she had liked it? "I said that love was the fulfilling of the law, and if we wished 'our cause' to succeed, we must begin with charity to the thankless, the unworthy." She won her point and the Secretary gave her a note to Provost Marshal Winder.
Once Miss Lizzie assured a friend: "Oh, I can flatter almost anything out of old Winder; his personal vanity is so great." Now she proved it. With her gaze fixed on his white head, she smiled: "Your hair would adorn the Temple of Janus. It looks out of place here." A few more such remarks, and she had her pass!
From then on Miss Van Lew called regularly at the prisons, until, as one man said, she shopped as much for the prisoners as for her own family. She carried clothes, bedding, medicines. Discovering sick men, she persuaded Confederate doctors to transfer them to hospitals. Some thanked her for their lives. As one of the Union secret service chiefs ultimately declared: "By her attractive manners and full use of money she soon gained control of the rebel prisons......... But before long the Van Lews were in the limelight, when newspapers singled them out.
Two ladies, mother and daughter, living on Church Hill, have lately attracted public notice by their assiduous attentions to the Yankee prisoners. . . . Whilst every true woman in this community has been busy making articles for our troops, or administering to our sick, these two women have been spending their opulent means in aiding and giving comfort to the miscreants who have invaded our sacred soil, bent on rapine and murder. . . . Out upon all pretexts to humanity! . . . The course of these two females, in providing them with delicacies, bringing them books, stationery and paper, cannot but be regarded as an evidence of sympathy amounting to an endorsement of the cause and conduct of these Northern vandals.
The Van Lews did not take the hint. Instead, they expanded their activities. Learning of Lieutenant Todd's taste for buttermilk and gingerbread, they plied him (shades of Mati Hari!) with these wholesome items. They worked similarly to gain favors from others. And Miss Lizzie's enemies would have been even more indignant had they known she was getting military information from the Union prisoners. The day she first sent secret messages through the lines is not known, but it appears that she soon established contact with Union agents who slipped into Richmond on secret missions. The prisoners understood the meaning of Confederate troop movements, the shifting of regiments near the capital, and they and Miss Lizzie picked up hints from soldiers and guards.
Elizabeth's servants were ready to leave the Van Lew mansion on a minute's notice on innocent-looking errands. The Van Lews had a small vegetable garden out of town-an excuse for the Negroes to go in and out of Richmond. Not many people would poke into the soles of muddy brogans worn by an old colored man on a horse. Few would inspect a servant's basket of eggs, one of which was an empty shell concealing a coded message.
The Confederate attitude toward Miss Lizzie's prison visits varied. A commanding officer once asked her to stop bringing in special meals because it "subverted the consistency of prison rules." Such orders inconvenienced but seldom halted her. During a tense period when she was ordered not to exchange a word with the prisoners, Elizabeth brought books. When the soldiers passed them back to her, the Confederates did not know that tiny pin pricks conveyed military data.
The spinster also slid notes into the "double-bottom" of a dish, originally intended to hold wan-n water. Advised that a suspicious guard planned a thorough inspection of the dish, Miss Van Lew prepared for him. When he reached for it she gave it up readily; for she had been holding it for some time cradled in her shawl. He let it go with a howl; she had taken care to fill the bottom with boiling water!
In the summer of i86i the Union seized fifteen Confederates as privateers on the vessel Savannah, and threatened to hang them. In retaliation Jefferson Davis ordered the same number of Federal soldiers held as hostages. Miss Lizzie protested and won the right to visit the endangered men, comforting them, bringing food, taking out forbidden letters. At this time the old maid developed a particular friendship for one of the condemned men, a young Colonel Paul Revere of Massachusetts. At one point she connived in his attempted escape. The danger of the mass hanging passed, and Colonel Revere eventually was exchanged, only to die later at Gettysburg.
Each incident meant intensified Confederate bitterness against Miss Van Lew. She did not dare keep a complete journal. "Written only to be burnt was the fate of almost everything which would now be of value. Keeping one's house in order for Government inspection with Salisbury prison in prospective, necessitated this. I always went to bed at night with anything dangerous on paper beside me, so as to be able to destroy it in a moment." Again: "The threats, the scowls, the frowns of an infuriated community-who can write of them? I have had brave men shake their fingers in my face and say terrible things.........
Miss Lizzie once went to Jefferson Davis himself to request protection. Not many spies for one government asked the head of the opposing government for his aid! Mr. Davis's secretary advised her to apply to the mayor, but she had a better thought, which grew out of the housing shortage. Lieutenant Todd was to have a successor as keeper of prisons-a captain with a family. The newcomer had to live somewhere, and Miss Van Lew knew just the place-her big house. While he stayed there with his "interesting family," the Van Lews were left in peace.
It is hard to tell when the next step occurred in her evolution as a spy. Slowly, however, she took on a new, protective coloration. Richmond had long regarded her as a trifle odd. Elizabeth began to accentuate that oddity. As she walked along the street, she mumbled and hummed to herself, head bent to one side, holding imaginary conversations. Richmonders glanced at one another and shook their heads. The prison guards gave her a new name: "Crazy Bet." She lived up to her title, combing her curls less carefully, wearing her oldest clothes and most battered bonnets.
Yet there was nothing crazy in the next exploit credited to Miss Van Lew. Among the slaves she had liberated was slim, intelligent Mary Elizabeth Bowser, then living outside of Richmond. Mary Elizabeth returned at Miss Lizzie's request and became the new house servant for the Jefferson Davises. The Union now had its spy in the household of the Confederate President. The girl apparently brought back some interesting stories. . . . Mary Elizabeth and her former mistress met at intervals after dark near the Van Lew farm. For such trips the older woman varied her Crazy Bet routine and wore a huge poke bonnet, leather leggings, "belt canvas coat." Tucking up her curls, she played the poor country woman driving around in her buggy.
Miss Lizzie enlisted the help of a number of simpler folk, farmers, storekeepers, factory workers, united in their belief in the Union. In the words of General George Sharpe of the Army Intelligence Bureau: "Their [the Van Lews's] position, character and charities gave them a commanding influence, and many families of plain people were decided and encouraged by them to remain true to the flag, and were subsequently able during the war to receive our agents. . . . For a long, long time, she represented all that was left of the power of the United States government in the city of Richmond."
Other Federal spies or scouts arrived in the capital to "take her orders," the intelligence chief added. They usually slipped into the Van Lew house at night, to stay for days in rooms at the back of the mansion. In emergencies they stopped only at the family farm. Miss Lizzie's friends took them frequent messages. One such friend was a seamstress who stitched dispatches into her patterns. Several times the girl was halted by Confederate guards; rough fingers felt the patterns but none of the messages was discovered.
The Union threat against Richmond became ominous in 1862. McClellan came so close that the people of the capital could hear gunfire. "We are in hourly expectation of a battle. . . . We have hatched eight chickens today and have a prospect of rearing and eating them under our 'dear young government'; and so we go, mixing peace with war," wrote Elizabeth.
Miss Lizzie had the happy notion that when McClellan entered Richmond he should be their guest. Using "new matting and pretty curtains, we prepared a chamber." Meanwhile, revealing another side of herself, she went out with friends for a ringside view of the fighting. "The rapid succession of the guns was wonderful.... No ball could be as exciting as our ride this evening. Only think of the bright rush of life; the hurry of Death on the battlefield!" Here was a sight that not many other Richmond spinsters would have enjoyed.
McClellan never set eyes on Lizzie Van Lew's pretty room. Robert E. Lee took charge of the Confederate defenses, and Little Mac pulled back. For the saddened Van Lews there were other misfortunes. One day Elizabeth took pity on an undernourished milliner, "friendless and alone." Bringing this Miss McGonigle home, she helped her for months. Overnight the milliner turned on her and paid a call at Confederate headquarters to report her suspicions. Luckily Miss McGonigle knew nothing definite against the Van Lews, but Elizabeth was deeply hurt by this occurrence.
By now the family had taken in other boarders. One such guest, who might have told far more than the milliner, received a note from "W. W. New, Detective, C.S. Police," with a request to appear for testimony against the Van Lews. Her evidence was needed "to conclude the case." Detective New added that if the boarder felt some hesitation in going she would not have to appear before Mrs' Van Lew, nor would her name be mentioned in the case. The lady felt more than delicacy in the matter; she declined to say a word.
Some of the neighbors, however, were not so loyal and the Van Lews were continually trailed by detectives. As Miss Lizzie wrote: "I have turned to speak to a friend and found a detective at my elbow. Strange faces could be seen peeping around the column and pillars of the back portico." The grand jury investigated the old maid and her mother for "trafficking in greenbacks," United States currency, and Elizabeth's mother fell sick when she heard that warrants had been prepared against her.
With the supply of army horses decreasing, few Richmonders were allowed to keep their animals. One day Elizabeth received a tip from a friendly Confederate clerk that soldiers were headed for her home to confiscate her horse. She needed him badly for spy work, so she hid the animal in the smokehouse. A few days later Confederates learned of this and, being warned again, Miss Lizzie led the horse through the house and up the stairs to the library. Straw had been spread, "and he accepted his position and behaved as though he thoroughly understood matters, never stamping loud enough to be heard nor neighing." He was "a good, loyal horse," Elizabeth assures us.
Many townsmen were certain that Crazy Bet hid more than horses. In these later days, as privations increased and men in prisons turned desperate, scores escaped. The Van Lew home was searched several times without result, but people whispered stories of secret passages and hidden rooms. Miss Lizzie's niece told eventually how she saw Aunt Elizabeth glide toward the attic with a plate of food, and tiptoed after her. As the niece peered around a corner the spinster touched a panel. It slid back, and a bearded man reached out hungrily for the food. Years afterward the girl found the concealed chamber beneath the slope of the rear roof.
General Sharpe of the Union Intelligence credited Miss Van Lew with helping in many escapes, including the celebrated exploit in which a sixty-foot tunnel was dug under Libby Prison. The time was a chilly February day in i 864. Elizabeth had been told "there was to be an exit" in the near future, and she prepared "an off, or rather end room." Personal problems intervened and she had left the house when some of the escaping prisoners sought refuge, and the servants turned them away. Other Union sympathizers took them in, communicated with Miss Van Lew, and she went to work to assist them on their perilous journey....
By now she had further systematized her espionage, establishing regular contact with General Ben Butler at Fortress Monroe. Becoming more professional, she received a cipher and hid the key to it in her watch case, which she retained until her death. As an additional safeguard, her niece said, Miss Lizzie would tear cipher messages into two or three pieces and roll them into tiny balls, to be handed over in that shape. Years later the retired spy herself told a Richmond child how she hid papers by unscrewing the top of the andirons in her bedroom.
Crazy Bet's spy organization had also widened. The chief of Federal spies, speaking of her and her mother, said: "They had clerks in the rebel war and navy departments in their confidence." On that point Elizabeth always remained reticent, and such helpers, traitors to the Confederacy, were apparently never exposed. Once, she noted, she did go to General Winder's office with an emergency message from General Butler to a Union agent on the Confederate payroll. Had it fallen into Southern hands, the letter could have destroyed the man and also Crazy Bet.
The old maid acted with cool daring. She entered Winder's quarters, sought out the individual in question, and placed the note directly in his hands. A few feet away were the central offices of the Confederacy's secret service. The man trembled and seemed about to break. Might he betray her, in his terror? Instead he slipped the paper into his pocket and whispered that Miss Lizzie must never come there again. Apparently she did not have to, as the next time he went to her.
Late in January of 1864 Elizabeth Van Lew and her friends in Richmond passed on vital information about Confederate plans to move thousands of prisoners. Here was an opportunity for a sudden Northern attack which would free a great many Union soldiers and might even take Richmond. Miss Lizzie called in a few well-placed assistants and then sent a young emissary on a dangerous trip to Butler's headquarters in Virginia. The official war records contain her dispatch, originally in cipher:
It is intended to remove to Georgia very soon, all the Federal prisoners; butchers and bakers to go at once. They are already notified and selected. Quaker knows this to be true. They are building batteries on Danville road. This from Quaker. Beware of new and rash councils. This I send to you by direction of all your friends. No attempt should be made with less than 30,000 cavalry, from 10,000 to 15,000 infantry to support them.... Forces probably could be called in from five to ten days; 25,000 mostly artillery, Stokes's, and Kemper's brigades go to North Carolina. Pickett's is in or around Petersburg. Three regiments of cavalry disbanded by Lee for want of horses. . . .
When Butler received Miss Lizzie's message four days later, he marked it "private and immediate" and forwarded it to Secretary of War Stanton, with an explanation that it came "from a lady in Richmond with whom I am in correspondence." The bearer had carried a token to show he could be trusted. "Now or never is the time to strike," Butler added . , and told of his questioning of Miss Van Lew's nervous courier.
The boy had contributed dozens of other military facts, troop movements of which the Van Lew group had learned at the last moment, and other advice from "Quaker" and "Mr. Palmer," two of the Union agents who concealed their identities. All pointed to the belief that "Richmond could be taken easier now than at any other time of the war."
This advice from civilians had its defects, to be sure; they threw figures about carelessly, and there were military factors about which they lacked information. Nevertheless, the Northern officials apparently accepted the truth of the general situation as presented, and accordingly launched a major operation. The Union War Department gave considerable time, attention, and manpower to a cavalry movement to surprise Richmond and free the prisoners. Unfortunately for the enterprise, however, the "secret" project became as confidential as a White House reception. Too many officers' wives, and officers themselves, talked about it.
On February 28 a body of four thousand picked troops swept toward Richmond from the left, under General Judson Kilpatrick and Colonel Ulric Dahlgren. From the right several thousand other Union soldiers would make a feint. Then young Dahlgren was to drive on the Confederate capital in one direction while Kilpatrick knifed in from the other. The blow might be one of the most brilliant of the war; his superiors expected a great deal of the twenty-two-year-old Dahlgren, son of Rear Admiral Dahlgren, and the Army's youngest man of his rank. Having lost a leg shortly after Gettysburg, the boy used a wooden leg and crutch, but could still outride anyone in sight.
The raid started on schedule, then rapidly went to pieces. There were unforeseen obstacles, a Negro guide who could not or would not find a ford across the James, and, not least, Confederate foreknowledge. In badly frightened Richmond, as Miss Van Lew reported: "every reliable man was called out. There was an awful quiet in the streets; the heavy silence was impressive. . . . At night we could hear the firing of the cannon. . . ." By the time Colonel Dahlgren reached a road only five miles from the city, strengthening resistance made the attack hopeless. As the Union troops retreated in darkness and rain, Yount, DahILyren himself was killed.
Then began a macabre episode that involved the boy's remains. The body was hastily searched by Confederates, a memorandum taken, a finger cut off for its ring, and the valuable wooden leg was removed. Casually they buried what was left of Dahlgren near a road.
Soon afterward Southern officials made an announcement that sent a wave of fury over Richmond. Dahtgren, they said, had carried orders to burn and sack the city, and kill Jefferson Davis and his Cabinet. Whether or not the documents were authentic has never been determined. Richmond papers described the captured Union soldiers as "assassins, barbarians, thugs . . . redolent of more hellish purposes than were the Goth, the Hun or the Saracen." Kill them all as enemies of humanity! One journal urged a public showing of the Dahlgren corpse as a "monument of infamy" to teach young Confederates to hate such men.
Where Ulric Dahlgren lay interred, no one knew, said the newspapers. "It was a dog's burial, without coffin, winding sheet or service. Friends and relatives in the North need inquire no further." As a matter of fact, the remains had meanwhile been placed in a coffin and transferred to Richmond, and on orders from President Davis workmen reburied Dahlgren late at night and secretly among thousands of other Union graves. But not entirely secretly, because of Elizabeth Van Lew.
She tells us that a Negro she knew was "in the burying ground at night . . . entirely accidentally, or rather providentially"! The man marked the spot of Dahlgren's grave, sought her out, and she took over, managing a remarkable job of plotting, body stealing, and transfer through the Confederate lines. Needing six or seven helpers, she had no trouble enlisting them at once among her Union friends.
Late one night, four men rode to the burial place. Digging up the rude casket, they unscrewed the lid and identified the corpse by the missing right leg. Over rutted back roads they hastened to the farm of W. C. Rowley, where Miss Lizzie waited in a seed house, and once again the boy's remains were examined, but with "gentle hands and tearful eyes," she said. She helped transfer the corpse to a new metal coffin, which would now be put into the earth on Robert Orrick's farm outside town.
First, however, they had to take the box past Confederate pickets. In the morning Farmer Rowley climbed to the seat of his wagon, the coffin on the floor behind him, covered by a dozen closely packed peach trees. Approaching the pickets, the farmer saw that they were examining everything. He was panicky until he recognized the soldier who strolled over to inspect his wagon. He reminded the man of their last meeting. Vaguely the soldier recalled the incident. "But whose trees are these?" Rowley tried to be casual: "They belong to a German in the country." The two acquaintances talked about the unwisdom of planting peach trees at this season. Ah, well, that was the German's worry. The uniformed man sighed: "It would be a pity to disturb those trees, when you've packed them so nice. Go ahead."
With the body safely buried, Elizabeth Van Lew promptly started a cipher report of the exploit on its way to General Butler. Dahlgren's sorrowing father had meanwhile asked that Ulric's remains be returned to him and Jefferson Davis issued orders to grant the request. When Confederate soldiers dug in their own burial grounds and found nothing, Richmond buzzed with a greater mystery than ever. Not until after the war was the matter cleared up.
At least once Miss Lizzie was almost led to betray her connection with Butler. The general had requested an up-to-date report on Richmond's defenses, and she had her cipher message ready, torn in strips and rolled in wads as usual. An expected scout had not arrived and as she walked along the street, wondering how she was going to send her report, a man beside her murmured: "I'm going through tonight," and continued on without pausing.
Perhaps it was the Union agent, who might have some urgent reason for approaching her this way without identifying himself. Quickening her steps, she passed the stranger, and again she heard: "I'm going through the lines tonight." She frowned and made no acknowledgment. The risk was too great. The next day a Southern regiment marched by, and she recognized the man, now in his gray uniform. Belle Boyd had once been trapped in much this fashion; Crazy Bet was more crafty.
From General Sharpe, we learn that as General Grant moved closer to Richmond Miss Van Lew's communications with the Union command reached a new peak. With the distance shortened, she could forward messages almost daily. She used a system of five "stations" or points along the way, from the mansion on Church Hill, to her farm, and beyond. Grant asked repeatedly for "specific information" and she "steadily conveyed it to him," Sharpe explains.
So expert was her transmission belt that flowers from the Van Lew gardens often arrived fresh and dewy on Grant's breakfast table! And Sharpe declared that "the greater portion" of the information passed to the general's army in 1864-65 "in its collection and in a good measure in its transmission, we owed to the intelligence and devotion of Miss E. L. Van Lew."
But at this late date Crazy Bet faced a final threat of exposure. In February of 1865 Union officials believed they had an inspiration when they dispatched to Richmond an Englishman named Pole. Prodigious spying deeds were predicted. On his way Pole met many Union sympathizers. Careful arrangements had been made for him in the city and supposedly he was to meet Miss Lizzie. Her diary described her suspicion and anxiety, which turned to terror when Pole suddenly rushed into Confederate headquarters to sell out his employers.
At least two Union agents went to prison. For hours Elizabeth waited in apprehension, fearing the man had discovered enough to implicate her. Then nothing more happened. She had missed disaster by a thread. Personal deliverance was not long in following. On a Sunday in early April a roar echoed in the Richmond streets; Lee's lines had given way, the Confederates were marching out, and the town had gone mad. Fires crackled in one square and another. "Hundreds of houses had fallen victims to the spreading fire.... The constant explosion of shells, the blowing up of the gunboats and of the powder magazines seemed to jar, to shake the earth and lend a mighty language to the scene ... the burning bridges, the searing flames added a wild grandeur. . . ."
Neighbors borrowed the Van Lew wheelbarrows to save their belongings. The prisons were emptied and scores of Union soldiers were taken out of Richmond. Miss Lizzie had determined to make a grand gesture, whatever its cost. At considerable peril she had ordered a big American flag smuggled through the lines. She and her servants scrambled to the roof and set it to waving its thirty-four stars against the sky. Hers was the first Union flag to be unfurled again in the Confederate capital.
Richmonders glared, and a howling mob gathered. God damn the old devil; burn her place down! Men shoved toward her house, trampled the garden, and Crazy Bet stepped forth to confront them. "I know you, and you. . . " Her thin face contorted, she screamed their names and pointed them out. "General Grant will be in town in an hour. You do one thing to my home, and all of yours will be burned before noon! " They were convinced and they backed away.
Miss Lizzie had one last assignment for herself. She ran to the Confederate Capitol, to search among the ashes of the archives for secret documents which the Union government might find helpful. She was found there by a special guard dispatched for her protection by General Grant. He had remembered her and the danger she might face on this day....
after his arrival the general paid his formal visit. Mrs. Grant
explained later that her husband said they must visit Miss Van Lew, for
she had given great service to the Union. They drank tea together and
talked politely on the columned porch. "Crazy Bet" was very proud; for
the rest of her life she kept Grant's calling card.
Edith Cavell (1865-1915) was a British nurse serving in Belgium who was executed on a false charge of assisting Allied prisoners to escape during World War One.
Born on 4 December 1865 in Norfolk, Cavell entered the nursing profession while aged 20. Moving to Belgium she was appointed matron of the Berkendael Medical Institute in Brussels in 1907. During her brief career in Belgium she nevertheless succeeded in modernising the standard of Belgian nursing.
With war in 1914 and the subsequent German occupation of Belgium Cavell joined the Red Cross; the Berkendael Institute was converted into a hospital for wounded soldiers of all nationalities.
Many of the captured Allied soldiers who were treated at Berkendael subsequently succeeded in escaping to neutral Holland. Cavell was arrested on 5 August 1915 by local German authorities and charged with having personally aided in the escape of some 200 such soldiers.
Kept in solitary confinement for nine weeks the Germans successfully extracted a sham confession from Cavell which formed the basis of her trial. She, along with a named Belgian accomplice Philippe Baucq, were duly pronounced guilty and sentenced to death by firing squad.
The sentence carried out on 12 October 1915 without reference to the German high command, Cavell's case received significant sympathetic worldwide press coverage, most notably in Britain and the then-neutral U.S. Such press coverage served to harden current popular opinion regarding supposed routine German barbarity in occupied Belgium.
who is buried at Norwich Cathedral, is also commemorated in a statue
near Trafalgar Square.
From Spy Book, the Encyclopedia of Espionage
The most renowned woman spy in history -- although she probably wasn't one. She was naive and easily duped -- and trapped -- by her "friends" as well as her enemies during World War I. The Oxford English Dictionary describes her as the "Prototype for seductive spy."
Born in Holland as Margaretha Gertrud Zelle to a well-to-do shopkeeper and his Javanese wife, she attended a school for teachers but was forced to leave for having sex with the headmaster. At age 18 she married a Dutch naval officer who was 20 years her senior. They soon moved to the Dutch East Indies and had two children, but divorced in 1906.
She went to Paris in 1905, assuming the name Mata Hari (Eye of the Dawn) and the persona of a Javanese princess. She made her debut as an erotic dancer at the Oriental Studies Museum, followed by performances to ecstatic audiences throughout Europe and in Egypt. She also began having wealthy and influential lovers.
During World War I Mara Hari had an affair with a 25-year-old Russian pilot flying with the French, Capt. Vadim Maslov, son of a Russian admiral. When Maslov was wounded in the summer of 1916, she asked permission to visit him in a forward hospital. French officials at the Deuxieme Bureau gave her permission -- in return for her agreeing to spy on Germans, including possibly the crown prince, whom she knew. She was to receive one million francs for her efforts.
To carry out her assignment, Mata Hari traveled to Spain en route to neutral Holland, from which she could cross over into Germany to rendezvous with the crown prince. En route to Holland, her ship stopped in Falmouth, England, where she was detained and interrogated. British officials warned her not to go to Germany and sent her back to Spain. There she met and had an affair with the German military attache, Major Kalle. He sent a message to Berlin in code that he knew the Allies could read, saying that spy "H-21" had proved valuable.
Mata Hari returned to Paris on January 4, 1917, and was arrested on February 13. Although the French and British intelligence services suspected her of spying for Germany, neither could produce definite evidence against her. Secret ink was found in her room -- incriminating evidence in that period. She contended that it was part of her makeup. She admitted to taking money from Germans but claimed that it was for love, not spying.
Still, she was tried by a closed court-martial, found guilty, and executed by a French firing squad on October 15, 1917. Refusing a blindfold or to be bound to the stake, she blew a kiss to the 12-man firing squad before their rifles shattered the morning stillness. neither former lovers nor family claimed her body, and her remains were taken to a Paris hospital, for dissection by medical students.
Three films attempted to capture the theatrics of her life: Mata Hari, a 1931 classic melodrama, starred Greta Garbo, Ramon Novarro, and Lionel Barrymore. The French version of Mata Hari, Agent H21 (1964) starred Jeanne Moreau, while the third Mata Hari (1985) was an absurd attempt to trade on the name of an exotic nonspy.
Mata Hari's memory is kept alive in a permanent exhibit at the Fries Museum in Leeuwarden, the Netherlands. Included in the exhibit are her two personal scrapbooks and an oriental rug embroidered with the footsteps of her fan dance.
From Spy Book, The Encyclopedia of Espionage
American journalist who was an agent for the British SOE and the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (OSS) during World War II. She later served in the CIA.
Hall was a European correspondent for The New York Post when World War II began. She volunteered to work for the SOE before America's entry into the war. Early in 1942 she ran an SOE safe house in Lyons. Although she had a wooden leg, she became a courier, carrying messages between members of SOE networks. She was known by two code names: Diane and Renee.
In March 1944, as SOE and French Resistance forces began preparations for the Allied invasion of Normandy, she helped to form the first OSS network in France. What neither the SOE or OSS knew was that, through treachery by double agents, the German Abwehr knew her identity and her previous work for the SOE. but she was not betrayed, and her preinvasion mission succeeded.
After the war, when the OSS was disbanded, she remained in intelligence, joining the OSS's successor, the CIA. She served as a senior intelligence officer in Latin America.
From The Ultimate Spy Book
The Special Operations Executive (SOE) recruited Jacqueline Nearne (1916-82) from the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry (FANY). She was taught how to make Morse code transmissions with a suitcase radio. In 1943 Nearne was sent to France to act as a courier. There she formed the link between several SOE groups covering a large area around Paris. The British later awarded Nearne the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire) for her work.
Nearne starred in a U.K. propaganda film in 1945 but not screened until 1946. It was released to the general public on PAL-format VHS in 2001. It can be ordered at lastminute.com.
Born in Amiens, Odette Brailly was the daughter of a banker who joined the French Army at the beginning of World War I and who was killed two years later in 1916 at Verdun. She was convent-educated in Saint Sens and, at age nineteen, married an Englishman, Roy Sansom, moving to England with him in 1932. The couple had three children.
In 1940, after the British evacuated Dunkirk during the fall of France to the Nazis, the War Office requested all French-born residents in London to provide photos of their towns and provinces. Odette came forward, offering her family photo album that contained many photos of the French Channel coast, particularly the Boulogne area. British intelligence needed these photos to prepare bombing missions and secret landings along the coast made by small fishing vessels and those from submarines.
It was quickly apparent to British intelligent agents interviewing Odette that she would make a perfect agent for SOE (Special Operations Executive). She was asked to join SOE, train as a radio operator, and be sent to France where she would work with the French underground. Though she had three small children, Odette enthusiastically volunteered in 1942. After finishing her training, she was taken by submarine to southern France where she rowed ashore near Cannes on the night of October 30, 1942, to make contact with British agent Peter Churchill, who was in charge of all SOE operations in southern France.
Operating under the code name "Lise," Odette's mission was to bring Churchill money and to act as his radio operator. So expertly did she perform that Churchill asked London for permission to have her stay on as his permanent assistant.
In 1943, through the treachery of a French double agent, Churchill and many in his organization were captured and imprisoned. They had been trapped through the machinations of Hugo Bleicher, a fanatical Nazi agent who knew well how to turn French underground fighters into German double agents. It was Bleicher (known as Colonel Henri, although he never rose above the rank of sergeant), who penetrated Churchill's network with the help of a French turncoat.
When Odette and Churchill were taken to a Gestapo prison for interrogation, both underwent tortures. Throughout fourteen hideous interrogations by Nazi thugs, Odette was branded on the base of the spine with a white-hot iron and had several of her toenails ripped out with pliers, but she refused to talk. Moreover, she not only convinced her Nazi interrogators that she, not Churchill, was the leader of the SOE group, but that Churchill was the nephew of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (which he was not). This undoubtedly preserved Churchill's life. He, in turn, told the Nazis that Odette was his wife. As such, she was treated with some deference when she was sent to the women's camp at Ravensbrück.
Both Churchill and Odette were housed in separate camps, were spared execution as Allied troops closed in, their captors believing that they would receive leniency if they preserved the lives of those related to Winston Churchill, a ruse Odette had perpetuated throughout captivity. After the war, Odette attended the 1946 war crimes trials in Hamburg where she testified against German females who had served as guards at Ravensbrück, detailing their cruelty and atrocities against prisoners. Four of these women were later executed. One of these bestial female guards was Irma Grese who took pleasure in torturing and murdering helpless prisoners.
Odette's husband had died and, after returning to England, she married her commander, Churchill, a union that ended in divorce in 1955. The courageous Odette was awarded England's prestigious George Cross for her wartime service. A stirring film, Odette, released in 1951, retold the spy's heroic story.
From Spy Book, The Encyclopedia of Espionage
Code name for Ruth Hamburger Beurton (nee Ursula Kuczynski). Chapman Pincher, author of Too Secret Too Long (1984), called Sonia "the most successful female spy in history."
Born in Berlin, to a communist father, Ruth joined the Communist Youth Union when she was 17. In 1929 she married Rolf Hamburger in Germany, and the folliwng year she was ordered by Soviet intelligence to go to Shanghai. there she met Agnes Smedley, Richard Sorge, and probably Roger Hollis. Sorge persuaded Ruth to work as an illegal for the GRU, Soviet Military Intelligence. She allowed her apartment to be used as a meeting place for Sorge and also served as courier for the group.
In December, 1932, Sorge reported to Moscow that Sonia was a capabale agent. She was then invited to Moscow to learn tradecraft, including the use of clandestine radios. At that time she was given the code name Sonia, which she is believed to have used for the rest of her career.
The Soviets sent her to Mukden, the capital of Japanese-controlled Manchuria, in April 1934. Her assignment was to maintain contact between Moscow and the Chinese partisans fighting the Japanese. She was subsequently sent to Peking (now Beijing) in May 1935, but she soon left China when Sorge's successor in Shanghai was arrested. Back in Europe, she visited her parents in London and then accompanied the Hamburgers to Poland, where Rolf also worked for the GRU. Sonia returned to Moscow June 1937 for advanced training and to be decorated with the Order of the Red Banner, the highest honor than available to a non-Soviet citizen; she was made a major in the GRU.
In June 1938 Sonia was directed by Moscow to recruit Britons to serve under her as spies in Germany. The GRU ordered her to divorce Rolf and to marry one of her British agents, Len Beurton, to enable her to become a British citizen. She married Beurton on Feb. 23, 1940, and recieved a British passport in May.
"Ollo," who had been Sonia's nanny in Germany, wanted to go to England with the family. Told she could not go, she revealed Sonia's and Beurton's espionage activities to the British consular representative in Montreaux, Switzerland, but was ignored. When Sonia and her two children arrived in Britain in February 1941, she moved into a home near Oxford and began her radio transmissions in the spring of 1941.
Klaus Fuchs supplied Sonia with information about his work related to the atomic bomb beginning in 1941. In September 1944, Sonia's brother, Juergen Kuczynski, was asked to participate in an American effort to assess the damage to the German war effort by Allied bombing. Her was commissioned as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army and was thus able to pass on to Sonia the results of the U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey.
In June 1947 two British MI5 officials and a local detective attempted to question Sonia and her husband about alleged spy activities. When the couple refused to answer questions, the officers left without searching the house; there was apparently no further interested in the family by counterespionage officials.
In 1950 Sonia and two of the children went to East Germany for a vacation. She never returned to Britain, and Beurton joined her in East Germany later that year. In 1969 Sonia received her second Order of the Red Banner. She published her memoirs in 1977, wrote several other books, and was awarded the Order of Karl Marx in 1984.
Violette Bushell, the daughter of an English father and a French mother, was born in France on June 26, 1921. She spent her early childhood in Paris where her father drove a taxi. The family moved to London and she was educated at a Brixton secondary school.
At the age of fourteen Violette left school and became first a hairdresser's assistant and then a sales assistant in a local department store.
During the Second World War Violette met Etienne Szabo, an officer in the Free French Army. The couple decided to get married (21st August 1940) when he heard he was about to be sent to fight in North Africa.
Soon after giving birth to a daughter, Tania Szabo, Violette heard that her husband had been killed at El Alamein. She now developed a strong desire to get involved in the war effort and was recruited to join the Special Operations Executive (SOE).
After completing her training she was parachuted into France where she had the task of obtaining information about the resistance possibilities in the Rouen area. Despite being arrested twice by the French police she completed her mission successfully and after being in occupied territory for six weeks she returned to England.
Violette returned to France in June 1944 but while with a member of the French Resistance was ambushed by a German patrol. She was captured and taken to Limoges and then to Paris. After being tortured by the Gestapo she was sent to Ravensbruck Concentration Camp in Germany.
On January 26, 1945, with Allied troops closing in on Nazi Germany, Violette Szabo was executed. She was 23 years old. She was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre and the George Cross. Her story is told in the book and film entitled Carve Her Name With Pride.
Today, the memory of Violette Szabo is kept alive through a museum that bears her name in the UK, and a documentary film of her life, Violette Szabo Remembered, has been released.
From Spy Book, The Encyclopedia of Espionage
U.S. Department of Justice employee who spied for the Soviet Union.
Coplon, born in Brooklyn, NY, studied Russian at Barnard College. After graduation she began her career as a Justice Department employee in 1943 in New York City, transferring in 1945 to the department's Washington headquarters. There she worked in the foreign agents registration section. In that seemingly innocuous job she gleaned a great deal of information, because FBI reports were often included in files of registered foreign agents -- including those the FBI suspected of being Soviet operatives.
In 1948, when the FBI first suspected that she was a courier for a Soviet spy ring, J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, wanted her simply fired as a security risk. But counterintelligence officials recommended that she be kept on and closely watched. Hoover, who was not comfortable with espionage work, finally agreed. Coplon was placed under surveillance and her phone was tapped. On her frequent journeys between Washington and New York she was observed handing over documents to her Soviet contact, Valentin Gubitchev, a former Soviet intelligence officer whose cover was an employee of the United Nations.
The FBI prepared a fake secret memo signed by Hoover and passed it under Coplon's unsuspecting eyes. She had it in her handbag, along with other FBI documents, in New York City in March 1949 when agents arrested her and Gubitchev. The Soviets' claim of diplomatic immunity for Gubitchev was unsuccessful because although he had entered the United States as a member of the Soviet delegation to the UN, he had subsequently become an employee of the UN Secretariat. The job shift lost him his immunity.
Coplon, tried for theft of government documents and attempted theft of national defense documents, was convicted, as was Gubitchev. he was deported, in a deal engineered by the State Department. Coplon's conviction was set aside by an appeals judge on two legal issues: Records of the wiretap should have been shown to her defense attorney, and her arrest should have been made with a warrant. Congress soon passed a law authorizing warrantless arrest in espionage cases.
Attractive and talented, Maria Knuth was an actress without work following World War II because the German film industry was in shambles. In 1948 she befriended Heinko Kunze, a former Prussian officer and art historian who operated an antique shop in Berlin. Kunze loaned money to Knuth and slowly worked on her to join a group of Soviet spies who included Kunze, his mistress Luise Frankenberg, and one-time Polish cavalry officer Colonel Gregor Kowalski. This network was known as the Kolberg Ring, and busied itself with recruiting displaced East Germans into their ranks.
Knuth proved herself an excellent agent. She lured American and British officers into the Berlin antique shop, compromised them and extracted important information that she dutifully passed on to spymaster Kowalski. She became so successful that she was provided with more funds, and she was able to buy a handsome villa outside of Cologne. This was used as a love nest where more Allied officers and West German officials were compromised and bilked for information.
Knuth was promoted and ordered to take over the Frankfurt operation, which she did, proving herself to be one of the best Soviet spies in the West. In 1950 she was ordered to penetrate the newly established Amt Blank, a West German intelligence network organized to identify Soviet spies in the West. Knuth went to Amt offices and applied for a secretarial job, but was turned down because she did not know shorthand. Knuth later came to the attention of West German spymaster Reinhard Gehlen, who set out to trap Knuth.
In 1952, a "Dr. Petersen," claiming to be a West German agent opposed to German rearmament, was introduced to Knuth, and he offered to work for the Kolberg Ring. Although she was warned that Petersen might be a Gehlen agent, Knuth accepted him as a genuine, especially when she learned that he worked in the offices of West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. In fact, Knuth was so enamored with Petersen that she became his lover.
Petersen dutifully supplied Knuth with high-grade information, which she passed on to Kowalski and the Soviets. All of the information, however, was counterfeit intelligence concocted by Gehlen, who had planted Petersen. by 1953 Petersen had learned everything there was to know about Knuth and the Kolberg Ring. West German police rounded up all of its members including Knuth, who was caught collecting coded letters from Kowalski in a Cologne post office.
Kowalski escaped into East Germany, but his network was smalled. All of his agents, including Knuth, were quickly convicted and sent to prison. Knuth did not survive for long, though. By the time she was arrested she had already contracted cancer. She died in prison from the disease in 1954.