More women who were great spies!

by | Mar 5, 2017 | Karna Small Bodman | 7 comments

….posted by Karna Small Bodman

Several of my “Rogue” colleagues have been writing about clever women spies. I would like to add to that list as there have been so many whose clever exploits led to battles won and traitors discovered.  Throughout history women have been able to gather and pass along secret information because the “prevailing wisdom” held that since women were less educated, they couldn’t possibly understand war plans, the use of weapons and certainly not technology.  Ah, the perils of underestimating the talents of a woman!
Let’s go back to the Civil War when both sides received vital intelligence from female informers.  Take the case of Rose O’Neal Greenhow. A well-known hostess in the nation’s capital, she actually ran a large Confederate spy ring, was able to ferret out information about troop movements and gave invasion plans to the South — thus ensuring their victory at Bull Run.
Rose O’Neal Greenhow & daughter in prison
She eventually was put under surveillance by Allan Pinkerton, head of the new Secret Service, confined in the Old Capitol Prison, finally deported to the South, but she never quit. She was sent to Europe to raise money for the Confederacy, and on her return voyage, her ship went aground and lore has it she drowned weighted down with gold sovereigns.  When her body washed ashore, she was buried with military honors in  Wilmington.
Elizabeth Van Lew
Not to be outdone, the North had its share of women who managed spy networks as well. Elizabeth Van Lew helped Union prisoners escape, men who, in turn, gave her information on Confederate troop movements which she was able to pass on to Union commanders. She even got a Union sympathizer  appointed to the prison staff. Her spy ring became known as the “Richmond Underground” where she had operatives working as clerks in the War and Navy Departments of the Confederacy. She developed a cipher system using invisible ink and hid messages in hollow eggs. Clever indeed!
Marguerite Harrison
Moving on to WW I we have the exploits of Marguerite Harrison. As a reporter for the Baltimore Sun and the Associated Press, she also offered her services to the Chief of a Military Intelligence Division. Fluent in French, German, Italian and some Spanish she was sent  overseas  to assess Bolshevik economic strengths and weaknesses. At various times she posed as a radical, interviewed Trotsy, listened to Lenin and sent valuable intelligence back via military couriers. But a news story was leaked about a successful American woman spy in Russia which led to her arrest by the Cheka, predecessor of the KGB. She was thrown into Lubyanka prison, but with pressure from some of her influential contacts, including a US Senator, she was finally set free, along with other American prisoners, in an exchange for food aid to Russia.
 Now we come to recent spy activities.  I’m sure you know the name Aldrich Ames, the notorious Cold War spy and traitor to the United States. But did you know that it was a small team of CIA officers who doggedly investigated and uncovered his actions, a team led by a woman, Jeanne Vertefeuille.  Along with another female CIA analyst, Sandy Grimes, she followed the high rate of Russian double agent disappearances and knew there had to be a mole in the organization. It turned out to be an eight-year investigation that led her to Ames’s treachery and involvement in a number of those officers’ executions.  Ames had exposed them in exchange for millions of dollars.
Jeanne Vertefeuille
We certainly owe our gratitude to the many women throughout our history who engaged in various forms of espionage and spy-craft. Some of these stories have been the genesis of thrillers written by my Rogue colleagues. I also want to give my personal thanks to Gene Poteat for his 30 years of service to the CIA where he was awarded their Intelligence Medal of Merit among many other honors throughout his career.   His research and advice gave me the inspiration to write this article about great women spies.  All of us here at Rogue Women Writers would welcome your comments.
….by Karna Small Bodman
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  1. Gayle Lynds

    Oh, my goodness, Karna. What a wonderful post. So much great history about forgotten spies and women who made such a difference. Thank you for all of the fine research. Plus, it was a treat to see Gene Poteat's name. Please say hi.

  2. S. Lee Manning

    A great list of the women who risked their lives to gain intelligence. Women's contributions are so often overlooked. Thank you for writing this.

  3. John Sheldon

    Really interesting, Karna! Many thanks.

  4. Chris Goff

    I always wanted to be a spy, but then I read accounts like this and realize, I can write spies but I'm basically a coward. No way I would survive even one night in Lubyanka prison. Great post!

  5. Fran

    Karna, you did it again. So much fascinating history in such a small space. Women are amazing and have made tremendous contributions in this field as well as many others. Thanks for writing about this so beautifully.

  6. Jamie Freveletti

    Karna-love this post! Never knew about Vertefeuille's role in the Ames case.

  7. Sonja Stone

    Karna, like Jamie, I knew of Sandy Grimes' role in the Aldrich case, but had no idea about Jeanne Vertefeuille. Many thanks to Gene Poteat for his advice, as well!