The Role of Women Spies in History by Andrea K. Stein
Fans of Danielle Harmon's Heroes of the Sea series will love FORTUNE'S HORIZON—a humorous, high adventure historical romance from debut author Andrea Stein in which a spoiled American heiress tangles with an arrogant British sea captain on a mission for the Confederacy on the high seas.
Lillie Coulbourne, in “Fortune’s Horizon,” spies for the Confederacy at the age of nineteen. She sneaks aboard a blockade-runner as a cabin boy, carrying critical documents and gold from the French government. Far-fetched? Not really. She was part of a centuries-old sisterhood using gender and accompanying invisibility to pass information and money.
Fifteenth century Dane Brita Tott’s marriage into the Swedish royal family helped her pass military secrets to Denmark. Her “guilty” treason sentence changed from burning at the stake to being buried alive to simple exile back to Denmark.
Seventeenth century stakes escalated. Charles II of England hired Aphra Behn, code name Astrea, or Agent 160, to spy during the Second Anglo-Dutch War. Her assignment: Recruit her former lover, political radical William Scot, a spy for the Dutch. She was successful, but never paid. After getting out of debtor’s prison, she wrote sixteen plays for the London theater as well as fourteen novels, becoming the first woman to earn a living writing.
Postmistress Alexandrine, Countess of Thurn and Taxis, headed the Black Chamber spy network. The elite group specialized in cryptanalysis, translation, and forging of seals, selling information to the highest bidder. Research of convents in that era revealed even nuns were involved in politics and espionage.
Revolutionary War in eighteenth century America found both sides using female spies. Gen. George Washington reported to the Continental Congress on Elizabeth Burgin who helped 200 prisoners escape a British prison ship:
Regarding Elizabeth Burgin an inhabitant of New York. From the testimony of our own (escaped) officers…it would appear that she has been indefatigable for the relief of the prisoners, and for the facilitation of their escape. For this conduct she incurred the suspicion of the British, and was forced to make her escape under disturbing circumstances.”
The most outrageous spy of the Revolutionary War was Margaret Kemble Gage, an American married to British General Thomas Gage. She was the main suspect when someone gave Joseph Warren the lowdown on British raids. Her husband refused to admit she betrayed him, but sent her back to England, just in case.
Anna “Nancy” Smith Strong served Culper Spy Ring from her New York area farm. Her drying laundry signaled undercover operatives. The television series, Turn, used this in one of the episodes.
During the nineteenth century American Civil War, military leaders began to take women operatives more seriously, because of the data they routinely procured and their harsh working conditions. Women served at all levels, from scouts to encryption specialists, agent handlers, and spies. Most famous among Confederate women spies were Rose O’Neal Greenhow and Belle Boyd. Two black women spies, Mary Bowser and Harriet Tubman, worked for the Union.
Spymaster Greenhow operated a ring out of the heart of Washington, D.C., supplying troop movement information to Gen. Pierre G.T. Beauregard that helped the South win the First Battle of Manassas (Bull Run). When Boyd was detained after shooting a Union soldier who broke into her home, she charmed her guards out of information. Gen. “Stonewall” Jackson credited her with victories in the1862 Shenandoah Valley Campaign. She finally fled the country and married one of the Union naval officers who had detained her.
Bowser helped Union soldiers at Libby Prison and infiltrated the Confederate White House in Richmond. Harriet Tubman, another ex-slave, used her Underground Railroad experience to help the Union with knowledge of covert travel and subterfuge. She gave Col. James Montgomery intelligence aiding the capture of Jacksonville, Florida. She was the first woman to lead an armed assault when his troops attacked plantations along the Combahee River.
In World War I, the most infamous woman spy of all, Mata Hari, died in front of a French firing squad. In the US, three women cryptologists turned the tide: Elizabeth S. Friedman, Ruth Wilson, and Agnes Meyer Driscoll. Their code-breaking work was so important, the findings were used through the next several wars.
During World War II, women’s spying turned deadly. German troops captured Violette Szabo, a British SOE agent, following an intense gun battle during which she emptied all her ammunition clips. In prison, her defiance inspiring fellow detainees led to her execution in 1945, at twenty-three. New Zealander Nancy Wake, a French Resistance courier, established a spy network so effective that the Gestapo put a price on her head worth millions. She allegedly killed a German soldier with her bare hands. After the war, five countries honored Wake, making her one of the most decorated spies of the war, man or woman.
Sources: Dr. Nadine Akkerman of Leiden University, “Ciphers and Codes in the Letters of Female Spies;” National Women’s History Museum, “Clandestine Women: Spies in American History;” and various Wikipedia articles
She risks everything to deliver gold to the Confederacy.
Lillie Coulbourne marks time in Paris while the Civil War rages back home. While translating dispatches for the French Finance Ministry, she accepts a spy mission through the Union blockade. When the captain of the only blockade runner headed back to a Southern port won't deal with women, or spies, she sneaks aboard as his cabin boy.
He refuses to risk his ship, or his heart.
Blockade runner Captain Jack Roberts has never been caught, and he's not about to let a spoiled American heiress ruin his perfect record. After he discovers her deception, he fails miserably at keeping her at arm's length and vows to send her packing on the first mail ship back to England.
When she surprises him with her skill as a seaman and navigator, he grudgingly allows her to finish the run. But ultimately, he has to choose what is closer to his heart - Lillie or his ship.
Sign-up for Contests & Special Event Notifications
Finalist, Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers, Colorado Gold, 2011
Daddy was a trucker, Momma was an artist, and I'm a scribbler. The stories just spilled out—the pony escaped, the window magically shattered. Not my fault.
Twenty years as a journalist couldn't stifle the yarns. Yacht delivery up and down the Caribbean only increased the flow. Now those tales celebrate romance on the high seas.
I am a professional captain living in the Rocky Mountains, just about 15 minutes from the Continental Divide. I spent the last 12 summers teaching sailing on awesome Lake Dillon at 9,017 feet in Summit County, Colorado. I also captained tours for my business, Sails in the Sunset.