A female espionage agent, often a multi-talented master of disguise, sometimes a celebrity, can be motherly, flirtatious, commanding, completely unremarkable or easily ignored. Whether she’s living and breathing, one nation’s half forgotten heroine, perhaps another nation’s traitor, or a fictional character playing games in a writer’s head—a woman often succeeds on a mission where a male would arouse suspicion.
Born into a leading Richmond, Virginia family and educated in Philadelphia, Elizabeth Van Lew returned to the south, an abolitionist resolute and dogged in her decision to combat the cruel practice of slavery. Her neighbors marked her as eccentric and began calling her, Crazy Bet. Her reputation allowed her to visit the Confederate Lobby Prison where Union prisoners were held. Van Lew managed to charm the confederate guards, brought food, medicine and books to the prisoners and helped several to escape. The prisoners told Van Lew the strength and positions of the Confederate troops they had passed on their way from the front to Richmond. She persuaded one of her servants to work as a member of President Jefferson Davis household staff and mailed information to Federal authorities. Her own servants were sent north with baskets of produce and eggs that contained encoded messages. After the war, President Grant appointed her postmistress of Richmond; she served from 1869 to 1877. Well thought of in the north, she was held in disfavor by her neighbors in Richmond.
“No one will walk with us on the street,” she wrote, “no one will go anywhere; and it grows worse and worse as the years roll on.”
Sarah Edmonds, a Canadian who supported the Union served as a nurse, messenger and spy. She disguised herself as an Irish woman, an African-American slave and a soldier. Sarah—the first woman to receive a pension from the United States Army—donned male garb, used the alias Frank Thompson and fought at Antietam and Fredericksburg.
The Confederate Army used Virginia’s Belle Boyd, an actress who served in the Shenandoah Valley using her father’s hotel—the Front Royal—as her base. Generals Turner Ashby and “Stonewall” Jackson were provided with information during the spring 1862 campaign. Betrayed by her lover in 1862, she was imprisoned in the Old Capitol Prison in Washington. A month later she was released in a prisoner exchange but was again arrested in June, 1863; becoming ill from typhoid, she was free in December and went to Europe to recover. Marriage to Samuel Hardinge, her prize master followed after Hardinge was dropped from the Navy’s rolls for neglect of duty. While in England Boyd used her talents as an actress and resumed her career in addition to publishing a book—Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison.
Allan Pinkerton, Chicago’s first full-time detective, founded his own detective agency, in 1850, offering confidential assistance and specializing in the apprehension of counterfeiters, embezzlers and train robbers.
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Six years later, Pinkerton interviewed Kate Warne who had applied for a secretarial job; impressed, Pinkerton hired Warne who would become part of his team and the nation’s first female investigator. During a railway investigation, Pinkerton heard rumors of a plot against Abraham Lincoln and Warne learned the details while working undercover in Baltimore disguised as a wealthy southern lady. Warne’s act as a southern belle gained her entry into secessionist social gatherings where she confirmed the assassination plot and ferreted out the how, why and where. Pinkerton then requested a meeting with Lincoln.
“We have to come to know, Mr. Lincoln, and beyond the shadow of a doubt, that there exists a plot to assassinate you. The attempt will be made on your way through Baltimore, day after tomorrow.”
Pinkerton would get Lincoln to Washington, D.C. Four berths on a train leaving Baltimore were obtained by Warne; the berths were to be used by her “sick brother and her family.” Lincoln, wearing a shawl secretly boarded the train—amongst his guards was Kate Warne—to take his oath of office in Washington. Warne would train an all-female investigative team for Pinkerton.
The beguiling Josephine Baker worked with the French Resistance against the Nazis during the Second World War. A celebrated talent, she graced social events where German, Italian and Japanese officers gathered. Loose talk from smitten admirers gave Baker valuable information; written on scraps of paper and fastened to her lingerie, she carried them across the border—no one dared search Josephine Baker. In recognition of her heroic service, French President Charles DeGaulle awarded Miss Baker the Legion of Honor.