“We are determined to foment a rebellion”: Women and Espionage in the American Revolution

Patience WrightIt’s no secret that women in the eighteenth century had little to no political freedoms. The patriarchy that had worked so well for the male elite of Britain and the rest of western Europe had, by that time, been transplanted in the American colonies. Despite the lack of women’s rights in Britain’s New World colonies, even during the famous period of salutary neglect, American women had hope that revolution and independence from the empire would bring about new rights.

As Abigail Adams wrote to her husband John in 1776:

I long to hear that you have declared an independency. And, by the way, in the new code of laws which I suppose it will be necessary for you to make, I desire you would remember the ladies and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the husbands. Remember, all men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the ladies, we are determined to foment a rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any laws in which we have no voice or representation.

Clearly, some women in America held out hope for a better future once freed from the patriarchy of Britain. While Abigail Adamas is remembered as one of the important women of the American Revolution, many others risked their lives for the cause.

As many women worked as nurses and cooks for the American army, some took a more direct route: espionage.

Don’t Send a Man to Do a Woman’s Job

Of all the spies that Washington and the American military effort employed throughout the war, the women who volunteered their services proved the most effective. Most men, especially those who served in the military, viewed women as innocent and non-threatening. Due to this sexist oversight, British commanders inadvertently gave female spies premo access to military intelligence, often discussing important matters in front of the women they deemed so harmless.

The story of Patience Lovell Wright (pictured top right, National Portrait Gallery) is perhaps the best example of British officers and higher-ups disregarding the presence of a woman when discussing matters of war.

Born in Bordentown, New Jersey in 1725, little is known of Wright before her husband’s death in 1769. A widowed mother of five children, Patience began making wax sculptures to make ends meet. Originally created for clothing models, her lifelike representation of heads and hands soon gained her notoriety.

In early 1772, Wright picked up stakes and moved to England. Centering her new shop out of London, Wright quickly gained patronage from some of the most influential members of British society. She even had members of Parliament and the king’s court come to her to have their likenesses done. By the time the American Revolution had begun, this expat had the perfect setup to turn spy.

By making small talk and overhearing gossip, Wright gained insight into the political and military affairs of the British. Once she had a piece of juicy intel, she would hide it in a sculpture and send it to American agents in Europe and the Americas. She kept in touch with such notable patriots as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. Through these connections, Wright helped the American cause back home stay informed on the latest news from the British capital.

lydia darraghAnother woman who took advantage of the era’s patriarchal bent was Lydia Darragh (right). Hailing from Dublin, Ireland, the Darraghs moved to Philadelphia in the 1750s. Whether they took an extreme liking to the colonies or saw a means of striking back at the British for their age-old abuses of the Irish, the Darragh family supplied the Continental forces with soldiers and spies.

After British officers were quartered in the Darraghs’ home, they must have overlooked the family due to their pacifist Quaker beliefs, because they often discussed plans for military campaigns within earshot of Lydia. What they didn’t know, though, was that she was listening. Taking what she heard from the officers as she went about her day, Lydia and her husband would translate the information into a shorthand often used by the family. She then sewed these letters into the buttons on the coat of her teenage son, who would then simply walk across British lines to deliver his button-messages to his older brother serving with the American forces.

On December 2nd, 1777, Lydia put herself in even greater danger. Somehow made aware of a particularly secretive and important meeting between the officers stationed in her home, Wright hid herself in a closet that adjoined the room in which these loose-lipped redcoats met. Startled by what she heard, she left the house as soon as she could under the pretense of needing more flour. She then made a beeline for a small mill on the outskirts of town, where she met Colonel Elias Boudinot and delivered the message: the British were planning a clandestine attack on George Washington’s forces camped in Whitemarsh, Pennsylvania.

When the British forces marched on Whitemarsh and found no Washington, they realized their secret attack wasn’t so secret after all. Though Lydia was questioned, she was never seriously considered a threat, so her familial spy ring remained at large.

Part of a spy ring now made famous by AMC’s Turn: Washington’s Spies, Anna Strong is another perfect example of the overlooked woman turned spy.

Operating out of Setauket, Long Island, Strong was one of the handful of New Yorkers who made up the Culper Spy Ring. Just like Wright and Darragh, Strong had the guts and the guile to pass on information about the British in plain sight.

One of four members of the Culper Spy Ring, Strong’s job was to coordinate the passage of information. The other members included Abraham Woodhull, who procured the intel; Caleb Brewster, who transported information off the island; and Benjamin Talmidge, the ring’s spymaster within Washington’s forces.

In order to avoid detection, the Culper Ring used six different inlets along the Long Island coast as dead drops. When new intel was gathered, Woodhull took it to one of these drop zones. In order for Brewster to know which of the six drop zones Woodhull had used, Strong invented a code the British never cracked: she would hang a black petticoat out on her laundry line when a drop had been made. She would then scatter handkerchiefs along the line, with a the number of handkerchiefs corresponding to a particular drop zone.

By appearing to simply be carrying out her daily duties, Strong facilitated the safe passage of confidential information across enemy lines for years. What’s more, the Culper Spy Ring was never caught.

On both sides of the American Revolution, women stood up for what they believed in. While many of them did not have their names recorded in the history books, they left their imprint on history. By taking advantage of the sexism inherent in eighteenth-century society, female spies gathered information men could not and, in so doing, changed the tide of the war.

Jordan BakerJordan Baker holds a BA and MA in History from North Carolina State University. A lover of all things historical, he concentrates his research and writing on the history of the Atlantic World. He also blogs about history at eastindiabloggingco.com.

Lies, Spies, and Unsung Heroes: Espionage and the British Empire

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Engraving of Elizabeth I with William Cecil (left) and Francis Walsingham (right)

We’ve loved our spy fiction for over 100 years. The early years of the twentieth century saw the start of the genre, with Kim, by Rudyard Kipling, several books by Joseph Conrad, The Scarlet Pimpernel, by Baroness Orczy, even some of the Sherlock Holmes stories by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Sexy heroes, thrilling encounters, mysterious beautiful women, and ghastly villains. Spy novels had it all. How things have changed.

Disreputable and dishonest

In the past, spying was a murky hidden business, and spies despised as liars who sold their honour. The British Secret Service was not founded until the twentieth century, and before that spies were seen as dishonest and disreputable. Yet without them, the history of England would be very different.

Henry VIII and Elizabeth I both had spymasters whose extensive spy networks helped keep their royal majesties on their throne.

Sir Anthony Standen—torn between loyalties

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Standen’s alias: Pompeo Pellegrini

One of those spies was a Catholic refugee from Protestant England, whose reports on the Spanish Armada allowed the English to attack the Spanish Fleet at Cadiz. Sir Francis Drake fired ships and sunk galleys, putting the invasion off for years.

Poor Sir Anthony Standen. His love for England and his love for his faith conflicted, and — although he eventually returned to his home country — he was not welcomed by a grateful nation. Indeed, though he was sent on further spying missions, he was also imprisoned for a time in the Tower of London.

It is an interesting juxtaposition: his sterling work for the Crown did not (in the eyes of some) prove his patriotism, but rather his lack of moral fibre. He spied, therefore he could not be trusted.

Spying at home as well as abroad

Walsingham and his successors were as likely to spy on Englishmen as on enemies from abroad. William Pitt the Younger, in more than tripling the amount spent by the government on spying and infiltration of potentially rebellious organisations, was walking in well-trodden footsteps. The budget passed through the hands of a few civil servants at home, and ambassadors and military commanders abroad, with no more accounting than this oath.

I A.B. do swear, That the Money paid to me for Foreign Secret Service, or for Secret Service in detecting, preventing, or defeating, treasonable, or other dangerous Conspiracies against the State…, has been bona fide, applied to the said Purpose or Purposes, and to no other: and that it hath not appeared to me convenient to the State that the same should be paid Abroad. So help me GOD.

A secret part of the Post Office opened, read, and copied mail, especially mail from foreign governments. And both amateur and professional informers reported on their neighbours.

Systematic spying

Napoleon employed a network of spies, under the Minister of Police, Joseph Fouche, who had survived the two previous regimes and would survive the Empire to serve the restored monarchy.

The English system was much more ad hoc. Spies, yes, and many of them, but probably no central co-ordination, though William Savage makes a good argument for the central role of The Alien Office.

Overseas, diplomats and military commanders took the fore. We know the names of some of the diplomatic spymasters who plotted against Napoleon: William Wickham in Switzerland, Francis Drake* in Munich and later Italy.

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Colquhoun Grant by George Jones (1815-1820), National Portrait Gallery. Grant was a British army soldier and intelligence officer during the Napoleonic Wars.

Noble spies

Wellington had ‘exploring officers’, who would have challenged you to a duel had you dared to call them spies. They were officers and gentlemen, and if they did creep behind enemy lines to collect information, they wore their uniforms to do so. Wearing a disguise or other forms of deception would be beneath their code of civilised behaviour.

But Wellington (and other military leaders) also had other intelligence gatherers who were less particular. Did some of them include members of the great aristocratic families of England? If so, we would not expect to find out from the records. Such a secret would reflect badly on those families, and would never be disclosed.

Spies of romance

So we are free to imagine that the romantic heroes and heroines of our modern stories might represent some, at least, of the spies whose reports on Napoleon’s troops, movements, and intentions saved England from invasion. Or who uncovered plots at home.

Prudence Virtue, heroine of my book Revealed in Mist, is a spy in the service of the mysterious Tolliver. Recruited after a love affair turned sour, she infiltrates the houses of the ton to uncover secrets and help defend the State. Or so Tolliver claims.

Jude Knight

15057987_707784779371091_490009922_nJude Knight’s writing goal is to transport readers to another time, another place, where they can enjoy adventure and romance, thrill to trials and challenges, uncover secrets and solve mysteries, delight in a happy ending, and return from their virtual holiday refreshed and ready for anything.

Since publishing Candle’s Christmas Chair in December 2014, Jude’s name has seldom been off Amazon bestseller lists for one or more books. She is a member of Romance Writers of New Zealand, and of the Beau Monde chapter of Romance Writers of America. You can visit her at http://www.judeknightauthor.com

Revealed in Mist is out December 13, 2016.

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References
Ioffe, Alexander: Espionage During the Napoleonic Wars. The Dear Surprise.
Rice, Patricia: Spies in Regency England. Word Wenches
Savage, William: The C18th British Secret Service under Pitt. Pen and Pension.
Secrets and Spies, National Archives Exhibition.

*The diplomat, not to be confused with Sir Francis Drake. -Ed.