A little poor looking insignificant old woman

As part of my recent research dive into All Things Hamilton, I read a book that had been sitting on my shelf for years, that I originally intended to read as research for my Regency spy story A Lily Among Thorns and never got around to: Invisible Ink: Spycraft of the American Revolution by John Nagy.

While the book’s style is occasionally confusing and repetitive, and the book could have used both a more thorough edit AND a thorough copyedit, it’s full of great information and I thought today I’d share a few of my favorite tidbits.

1. In General Clinton’s papers is a codebook using Biblical words and places. For example, “synagogue” meant congress, “Jordan” meant the Susquehanna River, “Sodom” meant Wyoming PA and “Gomorrah” meant Pittsburgh. Not sure what the code authors had against Pennsylvania…

2. John Adams had a lot of trouble deciphering a correspondent’s coded letters and Abigail tactfully tried to help him out at a distance without deflating his ego: “With regard to the cipher of which you complain, I have always been fortunate enough to succeed with it. Take the two Letters for which the figure stands and place one under the other through the whole sentence…”

3. Molly “Mom” Rinker used to bleach flax on top of a high rock. “While performing this chore, she would sit and knit for hours on end, all the while observing British troop movements.” She then shoved her notes into the center of her ball of yarn and “accidentally” dropped it over the side of the rocks, where it would be retrieved by American scouts.

In fact, a number of spies during the Revolution were women (just as there were many black spies; spying is one of the few professions where it’s useful to be underestimated). Another great story involves (in Elias Boudinot’s words) a “little poor looking insignificant old woman” who came asking for permission to leave Philadelphia to buy flour and gave Boudinot a “dirty old needlebook” in which she had hidden a rolled-up scrap of paper accurately informing the rebels that “General Howe was coming out the next morning with 5,000 men, 13 pieces of cannon, baggage wagons, and 11 boats on wagon wheels.”

4. Eliphalet Fitch “contracted with Francisco Miranda, a Spanish official in Jamaica, to supply military stores to the Spanish under the cover of flags of truce for prisoner exchanges. The fact that Colonel John Darling, the governor of Jamaica, and Sir Peter Parker, a British admiral, were quarreling and not speaking to each other allowed Fitch to pretend that he had received permission for his flags of truce from one or the other.” A great story even apart from how whenever I read “Admiral Sir Peter Parker” I imagine Age of Sail Spider-Man.

5. Captain Noah Phelps infiltrated Fort Ticonderoga by “pretend[ing] to be a countryman who wanted a shave from the British fort’s barber”!

Do you have a favorite spy story?

About Rose Lerner

A geek of both the history-and-English and the Star-Trek variety, Rose writes Regency romance with strong heroines and adorable heroes. Her most recent books are Listen to the Moon (book three in her Lively St. Lemeston series, about a very proper valet and a snarky maid-of-all-work who marry to get a plum job) and a novella about an architect and a gaming den hostess in Gambled Away, a gambling-themed anthology with Molly O’Keefe, Joanna Bourne, Jeannie Lin, and Isabel Cooper.

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8 Responses to A little poor looking insignificant old woman

  1. Elena Greene says:

    I can’t think of a favorite spy story off the top of my head, but wow, the ones you mention are so cool–and potential novel fodder, too! Thanks.

  2. ki pha says:

    Fascinating! I can’t think of the Lord spy’s name…. But I do remember he was captured by the enemy and used as a bargain to retrieve back one of the enemy’s man and the spy had to walk all the way back to his crew to bargaint a trade of himself for the return of one of the enemy’s man. Unfortunately, his commanders declined the trade bargain and the spy walked back to the enemy line to be held captive once again. He did escape later and survived and became well known for his bravery.

  3. Thanks for a very interesting post, Rose! The AMC channel on cable TV has been running a show called “Turn” that is about spies during the American Revolution. It is in between seasons right now, but we are eagerly awaiting its return! They do a great job of capturing the suspense and daring, not to mention the social difficulties and moral dilemmas of spying in the 18th century. We love the bits of “low-tech” spy techniques they use –I bet John Nagy’s book is one of their sources. An added bit of fun –on the show’s website they run info about the real historical people who are portrayed as characters on the show. It is all based (as much as possible when some things will never be known) on true events that have been documented or uncovered. I would love to read Nagy’s book!!

    • Rose Lerner says:

      I adore that show! While I don’t get the impression they strive for accuracy as far as specific details or events go (they take a lot of dramatic liberties to increase their characters’ importance and expand the show’s scope–for example, giving Abraham credit for the Battle of Trenton when his career as a spy didn’t started until two years later, IIRC), I think they do an incredible job visually and emotionally in creating an authentic-feeling historical world. And it’s so FUN!

  4. Oooh! Another book to add to my buy list! I love these stories! What I find most interesting about spying during the 18th and 19th centuries is how ungentlemanly an occupation it was considered. When one looks at the sort of things that are done in war today it makes one wonder.

    • Rose Lerner says:

      Well, I would hesitate to say that war used to be more ethical simply because rich people preferred to let poor people do the dirty work–on that front, I’m not sure how much has changed. That said, there are certainly new kinds of atrocities being invented all the time. It’s an awful world out there.

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