10 Intriguing Female Spies You Might Not Know
Blessed with a number of traits which experts say give them an advantage over men, women make some of the best spies. Better listeners and gifted with street smarts, the women on this list used their guile to help their country in whatever way they could. Most people know of Mata Hari; here are 10 female spies you may have never heard of.
10 Elizabeth Van Lew
Elizabeth Van Lew, the earliest spy on this list, worked for the Union side during the American Civil War. Living in Richmond, Virginia, she was a widowed mother who vehemently opposed slavery. She not only freed her own slaves, but used her $10,000 inheritance to purchase and free their family members. For nearly four years, she supplied information to Union officers, and gave assistance to prisoners of war. Some have called her “the most successful Federal spy of the war.” Her first “treacherous” act was becoming a nurse at the infamous Libby Prison, a choice which brought her a lot of scorn and hatred from her fellow Southerners.
Using the freed slaves that made up her household staff as couriers, Van Lew began sending messages to the Union in hollowed-out shoes and eggs. Eventually she had to resort to more covert methods of communicating with the prisoners, as the guards forbade her from talking to the prisoners. She switched to using books and a personally designed cipher. She began faking a mental disorder, talking to herself and dressing shabbily in order to throw off suspicion, and was given the nickname “Crazy Bet” by her neighbors. Her spy network continued to grow until the end of the war, resulting in some of the best Union information gathered anywhere. After the war, she was basically ostracized in Richmond, where she lived until her death.
Born in Ireland just after the turn of the century, Cecily Lefort moved to France in her youth, where she became a skilled yachtswoman. However, when the country was invaded by the German army in 1940, Lefort fled to England, where she joined the SOE. Given the codename “Alice,” she was sent back into occupied France, along with two other female spies, Diana Rowden and Noor Inayat Khan (the latter of whom is featured later in this list).
Joining the Jockey Network (a group of spies which operated in the Rhone Valley), Lefort only worked in France for three months before she was captured; she had visited a house that she had been warned not to go near. (M.R.D. Foot, a British military historian and former spy, once said that her greatest contribution was suggesting that the beach near her house in Britain be used by the SOE.) Arrested by a suspicious German, Lefort was brutally interrogated for months, before being transported to the Ravensbruck concentration camp. It was there, on May 1, 1945, that she was executed, meeting the same fate as many female spies captured by the Nazis.
8Stephanie von Hohenlohe
Thought to be of Jewish birth, Stephanie von Hohenlohe was renowned for her beauty, as well as her intelligence in a number of different areas. In the early 20th century, she carried on affairs with two different princes: Franz Salvator of Tuscany and Friedrich Franz von Hohenlohe-Waldenburg-Schillingsfürst of Austria. She became pregnant with Salvator’s baby but convinced von Hohenlohe it was his. The pair married and Stephanie was given the title of “Princess,” an honor she relished for the rest of her life.
A gifted socialite, she was popular with much of Germany’s elite, and befriended a number of high-ranking government officials, including Adolf Hitler. Despite knowing she was half-Jewish, Hitler was infatuated with her, and once fired a man when he found out she was having an affair with him. A nurse throughout World War I, she became a spy for Germany throughout Europe in the 1930s. While in England, she would pass along secret messages between high-ranking Nazi sympathizers. When war broke out, von Hohenlohe fled to the US, where she was imprisoned after the attack on Pearl Harbor. While in custody, she gave the Office of Strategic Services a report on Hitler’s personality, which was used to develop their first comprehensive analysis of the German leader. In 1945, the “Nazi Princess” was finally paroled, and she returned to Germany.
7 Sarah Aaronsohn
Born in present-day Israel (which, at the time, was a province of the Ottoman Empire), Sarah Aaronsohn spent nearly all of her life there, except for a brief time in Istanbul. During her return trip, she witnessed something that changed the rest of her life: Turkish soldiers had bound up to 5,000 Armenians to a pyramid of thorns and set them on fire. Her brother Aaron convinced her to join Nili, a ring of Jewish spies supplying information to the British. (The name is an acronym of the biblical phrase “Netzach Yisrael Lo Yeshaker,” which translates to “The Eternity of Israel Will Not Deceive.”)
For nearly two years, Aaronsohn, as well as a number of other spies, aided the British in their fight against Turkey, a role which eventually led to her death. Captured by the Turks on October 1, 1917, she was brutally tortured, but she never said a word. Fearing she would eventually break (which would lead to the capture of the other spies), Aaronsohn shot herself in her home with a smuggled pistol, succumbing to the wound nearly four days later. A section of her suicide note read: “As heroes we died and did not confess.”
6 Velvalee Dickinson
Known as “The Doll Lady,” after the doll shop she managed in New York City, Velvalee Dickinson used her position as a rarity collector to secretly transmit information about Allied ships to the Japanese. Frequently seen in the Japanese consulates, she began sending letters, coded in a stunningly obvious manner, to a Señora Inez Lopez de Malinali in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The “code” had been supplied by her handler, whose ineptness also led to her capture. The FBI intercepted a number of her letters, and were quickly able to deduce that the messages were really talking about US naval movements.
The FBI arrested her, and found nearly $13,000 in hundred-dollar bills, which they easily traced back to Japanese officials. Fearing the charge of espionage, Dickinson quickly spilled her guts, explaining the details of the operation, for which she was paid $25,000. Extracting information out of seemingly innocuous conversations with the local population, she was able to get information about the ships, which she then passed on to Argentina. It turned out that her contact in South America had been uncovered and her handler had failed to notice, allowing Dickinson’s letters to be easily intercepted. Dickinson served seven years in prison, vanishing from the public’s eye as soon as she was released.
Born to a pair of Parisian Jews, Denise Bloch grew up in a proud family, determined to stop the Nazis during World War II. Her father and two older brothers fought for the French army, while her brother Jean-Claude returned to join the resistance, which Denise also became involved with over the next two years. Leaving Paris just before the Vel d’Hiv Roundup (a mass arrest of Jews who were eventually transported to Auschwitz), the Bloch family fled to Lyon, where Denise began her career with the Special Operations Executive (SOE).
The SOE was a British organization that conducted espionage and reconnaissance throughout occupied Europe. Given the code name “Ambroise,” Bloch was paired with a radio operator named Brian Stonehouse, who was having issues because his French was terrible. When Stonehouse was arrested, Bloch went into hiding, reemerging in London to train as a radio operator. For about a year, Bloch spied throughout occupied France, until she was captured by the Nazis in June 1944. Tortured and imprisoned, she was eventually sent to the Ravensbruck women’s concentration camp (pictured below) in early 1945, where she was later executed. (Two other notable female spies, Lilian Rolfe and Violette Szabo, were executed at Ravensbruck on the same day.)
4 Noor Inayat Khan
Noor Inayat Khan was born in the Soviet Union, in the early part of the 20th century. She was an Indian by birth, but her family moved to England early in her life and then to France, where she became a children’s book author. When the Nazis invaded France, she fled back to England and joined up with the WAAF (Women’s Auxiliary Air Force). Eventually, she was recruited to the SOE as a radio operator and given the codename “Madeleine.” She was the first female radio operator to be sent into occupied France. Most of the members of her first group were arrested shortly after she arrived in 1943 (not because of her), but she chose to stay in France despite the increased risk, moving from place to place to avoid capture.
Khan was betrayed in October of that year, and the Gestapo uncovered copies of her secret signals, which she had unwisely kept. Three agents met their death because of that mistake: The Germans tricked the British into sending people straight into their hands. Imprisoned for over a year, Khan was later sent to the Dachau concentration camp, where she was executed in 1944.
3 Sarah Emma Edmonds
Sarah Emma Edmonds was better known to her contemporaries as Frank Thompson. Born in Canada, she fled to America during the American Civil War and enlisted in the Union army as a male field nurse. She participated in a number of battles during the Maryland Campaign of 1862. Although there is no official record of her espionage, her memoirs go into great detail about her exploits.
She used a number of different aliases, including a Southern sympathizer named Charles Mayberry and a black man named Cuff. To disguise herself as the latter, Edmonds used silver nitrate to dye her skin. After contracting malaria as Frank Thompson, she fled to a civilian hospital, fearful of what would happen if she was found out. (She must have known the story of Mulan.) With her cover now labeled as a deserter, Edmonds worked as a female nurse in a hospital in Washington, D.C. After the war, she published her life in book form: the bestselling Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, now freely available online.
Edmonds was also the only female member of the Grand Army of the Republic, a male-only fraternal organization of Civil War veterans.
2 Savitri Devi
Born as Maximiani Portas in early 20th-century France, Savitri Devi became enthralled with Adolf Hitler in her youth. Inspired by their shared use of the swastika, she sought to reconcile the Nazi ideology with Hinduism. Her quest took her to India, where Devi was consumed with poring through the writings of old philosophers, as well as nurturing a burgeoning anti-Semitism. She eventually concluded that Hitler was an avatar, like those of the god Vishnu, sent to Earth to defeat the forces of evil. (She felt that the Jews were the leaders of this evil force.)
During the 1930s, Devi spread pro-Axis propaganda throughout India, in addition to her role as an intelligence gatherer on the British. Traveling throughout Europe during World War II, she often entertained Allied personnel with her husband, questioning them about military matters whenever possible. After the Nazis lost, she continued to espouse their beliefs, even becoming one of the first Holocaust deniers. In addition to her feelings on Nazism, Devi was also a firm believer in animal rights and deep ecology.
1 Jeannie Rousseau
Believed to be one of the most effective spies of World War II, Jeannie Rousseau was a member of Georges Lamarque’s resistance operation, given the codename “Amniarix.” Living in Paris during the build up to the war, her family eventually moved to the north, hoping to avoid the Nazis. The German army arrived shortly after, in preparation for an invasion of Britain. At this point, Rousseau’s father volunteered her as a liaison to the Germans.
Thanks to her beauty, as well as her skill with the German language, she was able to extract a lot of information from the officers she spoke with, information she was all too happy to share with the Allies. (When first asked if she would share it, her response was, “What’s the point of knowing all that, if not to pass it on?”) Rousseau’s information on the Peenemünde Center (a military research and development facility) greatly influenced Churchill’s decision to raid it, delaying the development of the V-1 and V-2 rockets, and so saving thousands of lives. She was captured a number of times, and spent time in three different concentration camps, but unlike many Allied female spies, she was lucky enough to survive. After the war she worked as an interpreter for the UN.