Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Second Oldest Profession

The role of the female spy is as old as recorded history. As children we read how Delilah betrayed Samson to the Philistines.

Empress Wu Chao, A.D. 625-705, set up a Chinese sovereign-controlled secret service. High priestesses at Delphi are credited with passing on intelligence while in drug-induced trances.

The Byzantine Empress Theodora danced nude while her spies worked the streets.

In the 16th century Q E 1 brought the art of espionage to an international level.

Women were active spies in the American Revolution. Patience Mehitabel Lovell Wright, an American sculptress, a confidant of Ben Franklin, served as a valuable intelligence agent in London and passed information to Franklin.

The Civil War had Belle Boyd and Nancy Hart, "Rebel Rose" Greenhow, the widow of a state department official who also served as a secret executive agent for the U.S. Rebel Rose was a capitol confidant of statesmen, congressmen, army and navy officers stationed in Washington.She penetrated Union Lines through her very effective courier service, sending intelligence to Richmond that Gen. Irvin McDowell was marching on Manassas, VA. Her timely ciphered message set the stage for the Union debacle at Bull Run in 1861.

On the Union side, a Quaker teacher in Winchester, VA, Miss Rebecca Wright, and Gen. P.H. Sheridan worked through an elderly black man who had a confederate pass to sell vegetables in the town - with messages on tissue paper, wrapped in tin foil and secreted in the man's mouth!

Miss Elizabeth van Lew, a spinster in Richmond, led a double life. Under the guise of a partying busybody, she eavesdropped on military conversations, sent coded messages back to Union posts and hid northern prisoners in her James River Mansion.

A Creole actress, Pauline Cushman of New Orleans, transmitted intelligence on military attacks to the Yankees.

A war widow, Sarah Thompson, helped in the capture of the famous Dixie Major John Hunt Morgan.

Dr. Mary Edwards Walker, a prisoner of war, was awarded the Medal of Honor, for service to the Union forces in 1865.

Spy fever spread across the U.S. in WW1. Signs were posted on the Brooklyn docks: "Beware of female spies!"

Femmes fatales with German accents were eliciting secrets in New York's high society. Even bird watchers along the coast were suspect.

Maria de Victorica, known as Baroness Kretschmann, Marie de Vussiere or Miss Clark, in 1917 organized spy rings, sabotaged ships and munitions factories, worked sub rosa from the Netherlands Hotel for the German Nachrichtendienst.

American officers uncovered her work in re-supplying German U-boats off Cape Hatteras, positioning spies on American and British ships and plots against the Panama Canal.

Admiral Sir Reginal "Blinker" Hall, director of British Naval Intelligence in WW1, hired ladies who were known as "Blinker's Beauty Chorus". They had to be able to speak two languages and type!

In the second great war, women worked for SOE, the British Special Operations Executive, OSS, the American Office of Strategic Services, and BCRA, the French Bureau Central de Reseignements et d'Action.

They also worked in Africa, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Poland, Portugal, Scandinavia, Asia and the Middle East.

Women managed the cryptography sections, infiltrated enemy lines to get tactical intelligence, published newspapers, managed guerilla operations and worked in "black" propaganda. Marlene Dietrich worked in radio for propaganda purposes.

Women taught weaponry, sabotage techniques and served in paramilitary units.

Many courageous French women worked in both world wars for intelligence or the resistance. Lee Child has several touching chapters in The Enemy, his book about Reacher's courageous mother and her work in this. The story of her funeral is very moving. Be sure to read it!

Over 4,000 women served in the OSS in WW2. General William Donovan called them "invisible apron strings." Women held jobs in administration, research and analysis. Jeannie Rousseau reported on Hitler's secret weapons. Rachel Griese compiled information on German defenses in France. Virginia Hall served in so many programs as a secret agent. Donovan awarded her the Distinguished Service Cross. After her work at OSS she joined the CIA.

Aline Griffith, Paige Morris, Isabel Pell, all made strong contributions to OSS in England, France and Spain.

Rosa Frame was a vital OSS agent in China and India.

Not all female OSS operatives gathered intelligence or blew up bridges. The MO branch of OSS, Morale Operations, dealt with black or covert propaganda. Their work included "all measures of subversion... used to create confusion and division, to undermine the morale and unity of the enemy."

In current tradecraft ... disinformation!

In post-war Germany, Emmy Rado, at OSS, worked with Allen Dulles on the highly secret "Crown Jewels" operation to coordinate churches in the German postwar rehab program.

In Japan, an OSS/MO woman planned the program to save the Emperor of Japan as a rallying point for the defeated nation. Her plan was adopted by Gen. MacArthur.

Under Stalin the NKVD set up Russia's first spy school in 1939, where actresses learned surveillance, ciphers and hand-to-hand combat, as well as the languages, culture and customs of the countries they infiltrated.

By 1971 there were hundreds of husband and wife teams in Russia. Anna Rosenberg, Jane Foster, and Martha Dodd Stern were indicted for espionage.

In Israel the Mossad was known for its excellent intelligence service. An agent code-named Cindy lured a prominent Israeli nuclear technician to Rome where he was picked up by the Mossad.

After 1947 the new Central Intelligence Agency hired many women from the old OSS. Women were promoted gradually to high positons, in operations and anti-terrorism.
William Colby, Director of the CIA from 1973-76, predicted then that one day a woman would be appointed head of CIA.

Many current mystery writers have women in various levels of the world of espionage. Thanks to the latitude of fiction, Zoe Bingham, with the looks of Helen Mirren and the will of the early Lady Thatcher, holds the position as head of CIA in my current series.

As a member of the Association of Former Intelligence Officers for over two decades, I recommend, however, that you read the books of our colleague, Vince Flynn, for the best portrayal of a woman head of CIA. His Dr. Irene Kennedy is shown, over about a dozen books, to be a woman of strength, erudition, culture - yet is one tough dame!

Thelma Straw


  1. Thelma,
    Always known that women were full of surprises...and dangerous; never regretted the experiences.

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Bob, it is WONDERFUL to be friends with a man who really likes women!

  2. Thelma, funny you should mention it. I have just begun to research my fourth South American historical and in it will a a female spy working with Garibaldi during the siege of Montevideo in 1840. I will have to read your recommendations to do my research into the mind of the female spy. Can I come and pick your brain?

  3. Bob, watch out for them ladies. They is real mysterious! Thelma

  4. Annamaria, my brain is pretty well picked over! But you might find some info you could use in those little grey cells! Thelma