You Gotta Know These Spies
- Sir Francis Walsingham (1532–1590) is best known as the “spymaster” to Elizabeth I. After the accession of Mary I to the English throne, Walsingham fled with several prominent Protestants to Europe; there, he became radicalized against Catholicism upon witnessing the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. As personal secretary to Elizabeth, Walsingham amassed a web of contacts, including Thomas Phelippes, the cryptographer who uncovered Mary, Queen of Scots’s complicity in the Babington Plot. In 1587 Walsingham recruited Antony Standen due to Standen’s friendship with Tuscany’s ambassador to Spain, an arrangement that produced so many advance details about the Spanish Armada that Lord Henry Seymour quipped “you have fought more with your pen than…our English navy fought with their enemies.” Though it has never been proven, author Christopher Marlowe is commonly believed to have been a spy for Walsingham.
- Giacomo Casanova (1725–1798) was an adventurer and libertine from the Republic of Venice. He is now best remembered for his affairs, to the extent that his name is synonymous with “womanizer,” but among many other occupations, he also worked as a spy. His spying, which he described in his French-language memoir Histoire de ma vie (Story of My Life), included a stint working for France gathering information on the British ships docked in Dunkirk. He spent much of his life in exile from his native Venice, running from the authorities to avoid being arrested for his debts, but was allowed to return to Venice in 1774 in exchange for performing espionage work for the republic.
- Nathan Hale (1755–1776) only participated in one spying mission, which failed, but his purported final words have become part of American legend. At the age of 21, Hale was a soldier in the Continental Army and agreed to undertake a spying mission to pose as a neutral citizen, disguised as a Dutch schoolmaster, in New York City. Hale was almost immediately exposed (possibly by his Loyalist cousin) and subsequently interrogated by Commander-in-Chief William Howe and then hanged as a spy. His supposed final words, much quoted in Patriot propaganda, were “I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country.”
- The Culper Ring (active 1778–1783) was organized by Benjamin Tallmadge (a schoolmate of Nathan Hale) under the supervision of George Washington. The ring takes its name from Samuel Culper, the alias of chief agent Abraham Woodhull. The Ring operated near New York City and was very successful: they exposed a plot to render Continental currency worthless through a massive counterfeiting scheme; they found that the 1779 Tryon’s Raid was part of a trap devised by Henry Clinton; and they determined that Benedict Arnold was conspiring with British intelligence officer John André to hand over West Point. André himself was captured on his return from a night meeting with Arnold when he encountered two American soldiers, one of whom was wearing a stolen Hessian officers coat, causing André to mistake them for allies and identify himself. His captors, ignorant of Arnold’s role, remanded André to Arnold’s custody. Tallmadge, however, suspected that Arnold was his accomplice, and Washington had André tried and hanged as a spy.
- Belle Boyd (1844–1900) was a society woman from Virginia whose 1866 memoir Belle Boyd in Camp and Prison provides a highly embellished chronicle of her exploits. She claims she listened through a hotel’s closet door to learn of James Shields’s troop maneuvers, which she reported to Stonewall Jackson’s men by literally sprinting across a battlefield. Tracked by operatives of Allan Pinkerton, Boyd was arrested in 1862 and eventually released in a prisoner exchange. Sailing to England with letters from Jefferson Davis, her blockade runner was captured, after which she reportedly seduced her guard to allow the blockade runner’s captain to escape. Though Boyd’s spying contributions were scant, she later became an actress and lecturer on her actions, with the result that she was frequently mythologized in post-war Southern propaganda.
- Ferdinand Esterhazy (1847–1923) was the French military officer and spy for the German Empire who perpetrated the acts of espionage wrongfully pinned on Alfred Dreyfus in 1894, prompting the Dreyfus Affair. Esterhazy is believed to have written a sensitive missive known as the bordereau that was found in a trash can by a janitor; this was the key evidence in blaming Dreyfus, whose handwriting was determined (by unqualified scholars) to be a match. Gradually, evidence came to light incriminating Esterhazy, including a letter from the German attache in Paris acquired by Georges Picquart. Esterhazy requested a closed-door trial that exonerated him in 1898, which was seen as a cover-up by French commanders to avoid embarrassment at convicting the wrong man.
- Sidney Reilly (1873–1925), known as the “Ace of Spies,” was an extremely prolific Russian-born spy primarily in the service of the U.K. and Japan, though he also worked for Germany and Russia. His identity as Sidney Reilly was likely created by William Melville, a Scotland Yard agent for whom he worked as an informant. His global career included stints in Port Arthur, where he stole defense plans that allowed Japan to sneak-attack Port Arthur to spark the Russo-Japanese War; in France, where he snuck onto a Rothschild family yacht to try to convince William Knox D’Arcy to sell his oil rights to the British government; in Germany, where he pretended to be a factory foreman named Karl Hahn to steal weapons plans for Britain; and in Russia, where he may have led a failed 1918 plot to overthrow the Bolsheviks. Undercover agents in Russia eventually exposed him, leading to his execution in 1925.
- Mata Hari (1876–1917) was an exotic dancer who used her neutral Dutch citizenship to spy for France, and possibly also for Germany, in World War I. Born Margaretha Zelle, she adopted the persona of a Malay princess to further her career, which brought her into sexual relationships with high-ranking military figures and nobles. In 1917, French intelligence determined she was spying for Germany while producing no worthwhile information of benefit to France, leading to her arrest and conviction, though scholarship is still sharply divided on whether she was merely a high-profile scapegoat. Both pop culture and academia have long been intrigued by the racy appeal of Mata Hari’s story, embodied by her 1917 execution, at which she blew kisses to her firing squad, though photographic records disprove urban legends that she wore a lavish new outfit for her execution.
- The Cambridge Five (active 1934–1951) was a quintet of British agents disillusioned about capitalism who were recruited as Soviet spies while attending Cambridge University. Supervised by Yuri Modin of the KGB, it included Donald MacLean, Guy Burgess, John Cairncross, Anthony Blunt, and Kim Philby. The KGB believed Maclean and Burgess to be exceptionally sloppy in maintaining their covers, but the two agents still passed over 9,000 secret wartime documents to the KGB before fleeing the U.K. in 1951, at which point the British press learned of the existence of the ring. Kim Philby maintained his innocence until 1963, when he defected during an intelligence mission to Beirut.
- Julius and Ethel Rosenberg (1918–1953 and 1915–1953) were a married couple from New York City who supplied Manhattan Project secrets to the Soviets. Julius recruited many informants, whose raw intelligence was then typed up by Ethel. The most important Rosenberg recruits were Russell McNutt, who worked at Oak Ridge Laboratory, and Ethel’s brother David Greenglass, who worked at Los Alamos and ferried Julius diagrams of atomic weapons. The Rosenbergs were found out in 1950 after the spy Klaus Fuchs implicated his courier, Harry Gold, setting off a chain of confessions and exposures that ended with David Greenglass, who exposed Julius and Ethel as part of a plea deal. The Rosenbergs were then aggressively prosecuted by Roy Cohn (later a key figure in the McCarthy Era) and executed in the electric chair at Sing Sing Prison. In 1995 the Venona Project confirmed that Julius bore the codename “Liberal” as a Soviet operative.
This article was contributed by NAQT editor Danny Kristian Vopava.