Cloaks, daggers…and petticoats

Cloaks, daggers…and petticoats
Depiction of Richmond's Elizabeth Van Lew offering shelter in a secret room of her house to spies of the Union Army. (Photo/Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library/Alamy)

How American women spies ‘gave the slip’ to the enemy (Part I)

By Gayle Converse and Pat Miller

Invisible ink, secret codes… and layers of petticoats have all been elements of the American spy game. Although most have never been recognized, brave and enterprising women throughout our history have played an important part in espionage, using their courage, creativity, wit and wardrobes. Unable to openly serve in the U.S. military until World War I, women have taken advantage of female stereotypes to gain access to top secret information.

At the start of the American Revolution, as male family members allied with British loyalists or Colonial patriots, women were widely considered incapable of perilous spy work. As the War continued, however, commanders began to recruit women spies. They realized females – posing as cooks and maids – could easily eavesdrop on campsite conversations and supply vital military intelligence. Some served as counterspies. None of this was without risk – on Nov. 7, 1775, the Continental Congress added the death penalty for espionage to the Articles of War.

One of the first patriot organizations created for counterintelligence was the Committee for Detecting and Defeating Conspiracies. The Setauket spy ring in New York began its activities in 1778, employing both men and women. One agent was known simply as “355.” She supplied information to George Washington and helped to uncover Benedict Arnold’s treason. Her true identity remains a mystery.

The Setauket Spy Ring also included a Long Island woman who devised an ingenious signal system. Anna Smith Strong used her wash line to hang laundry in a code formation; a black petticoat was the signal that a courier was nearby, while the number of handkerchiefs revealed the meeting place.

With a simple needle and thread, Lydia Darragh, whose Philadelphia home had been exploited for meetings by British officers, created a covert method of sending messages. Darragh would secretly transcribe the enemy’s military plans, then arrange her miniscule notes on a button mold. She would overlay the notes with cloth and sew the covered round fasteners to the coat belonging to her 14-year-old son. Young John would be sent to visit his elder brother Charles, stationed with American forces nearby. Charles would remove the buttons and decode the shorthand for his officers.

Not all women spies were considered heroines – and one of them had an Alexandria education. Mary Elizabeth Jenkins was born in the early 1820s on her family’s plantation near Waterloo, Maryland. For four years, she lived in Alexandria while attending a Catholic boarding school. The Academy for Young Ladies was located at the southwest corner of Duke and Fairfax streets. Throughout the mid1800s, the building served as a school, residence, doctor’s office and became the site of Alexandria’s first infirmary.

Jenkins, known as Mary Surratt after she married, ran the Washington, D.C. boarding house where John Wilkes Booth met with co-conspirators. She was accused of plotting to assassinate Abraham Lincoln. Surratt was convicted and hanged, becoming the first woman executed by the federal government.

In Fairfax Court House, Laura Ratcliffe smuggled thousands of dollars for the Confederate cause in the counterfeit bottom of an egg basket.

Wealthy Richmonder Elizabeth Van Lew was a Union sympathizer who kept a secret room in her home to shelter Union agents. She would courier military messages placed in the soles of shoes and in the shells of eggs. Van Lew arranged for her former enslaved house maid Mary Elizabeth Bowser, who could secretly read and write, to be hired at the Confederate White House, where Jefferson Davis and his guests reportedly openly discussed military plans. Bowser was never discovered. In 1995, the U.S. Army described Bowser as “ … one of the highest placed and most productive espionage agents of the Civil War.”

Look for part two of our spy series next month, when we will reveal the identities of additional historic women special agents from Virginia.

It’s time to recognize history’s courageous women who, in their day, avoided recognition in the cause of freedom.

The writers are founders of Alexandria Celebrates Women, a nonprofit that highlights influential women throughout the city’s history. Contact them at AlexandriaCelebrates