by Mindy Czech
The life of a spy is thrilling and tough. Long hours, secret drops, doing your best to avoid blowing your cover and being executed by firing squad. It's basically like being a health inspector at Denny's.
The thing is, when someone says the word "spy," it's easy to picture one of the many, many fictional dudes in the spotlight. James Bond, Jason Bourne, Austin Powers. There's nothing wrong with that -- we love all of them. But there are a whole lot of badass, real women who spied up the spy game so hard, they deserve our respect and admiration. For instance ...
The Spy Who Drove Jefferson Davis Crazy
Mary Bowser was born into slavery in Richmond, Virginia in the mid 1800s. When the plantation owner died, his abolitionist daughter (Elizabeth Van Lew) freed her and all of the other slaves. Bowser stayed with Elizabeth and received a Quaker education, learning to read and write. She then moved to Liberia in order to do some missionary work, returning to Virginia in 1860 where she soon wed another freed slave. Four days after her wedding, the United States got her the world's most difficult-to-wrap present: the Civil War.
Did we mention that Elizabeth Van Lew ran an extensive spy ring? Because she totally did. In 1863, she recruited Mary Bowser, who landed a job as a servant in Jefferson Davis’ mansion. She had to pretend she was illiterate, because slave education was actually illegal at the time. Since Davis assumed all of the black people in his mansion were uneducated, he didn’t think twice about leaving out secret military documents that detailed things like the movement of Union prisoners of war, military strategies, troop movements and other various plans.
What's the old saying? "Never assume. It makes 'u' a 'presumptuous moron'"?
"Coming, idio- I mean ... Mr. Davis."
Mary would read them and write down what she learned, as well as taking notes on the secret discussions she overheard about military strategies. She would then pass this information on to Van Lew or Tom McNiven, a Union agent in their spy ring who was working out of a bakery. Because of course he was. Bakeries are where all the awesome spy stuff goes down.
After some time, note passing got a wee bit too risky, so Mary came up with an elaborate code of hanging laundry in certain patterns that would let Van Lew know what was going on. Van Lew would then send her servants to Union officials, with the information hidden inside of egg shells and the false bottoms of their shoes. Ulysses S. Grant himself said that Bowser's information was the most valuable he received during the entire war. And the best part? This drove Jefferson Davis crazy, because he absolutely could not figure out who the leak was.
The Badass Cold War Spy
Stephanie Rader was born to Polish immigrant parents in Toledo, Ohio in 1915. Her intelligence and high marks in school earned her a full ride to Cornell (whose most famous graduate was obviously Andy Bernard), where she graduated with a Bachelors in chemistry. Unfortunately, 1937 was smack dab in the middle of The Great Depression, which meant she couldn’t get a job in her field. Throwing up a couple of middle fingers, she joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in 1942, and in 1944 she was recruited by the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA.
Stephanie became one of two agents sent to Warsaw, but was the only one who spoke Polish. She got a job working at the embassy under the guise of searching for lost family members after the war. In reality, she was gathering information about the police, Russian troop movements, and political data.
She was ordered to wear plain clothing rather than a military uniform, which was particularly dangerous because if she was busted, there was no way she was going to be sent back to the US. She also refused to carry a gun, because if she got caught, she’d be killed anyway ... which is like ten different levels of ballsiness.
"I'd much rather take your gun and feed it to you."
At one point, she took on a role as a courier and had to visit the OSS headquarters in Berlin to deliver and receive some information. She realized that she was getting noticed when she was about to cross the border back into Poland. Thinking on her toes, she quickly and quietly handed the documents she was holding to another person and told him to take them to a specific location. She was arrested, but since they had nothing on her, they had to let her go.
It turns out her cover had been blown by her superior in Paris. She offered to stay on to complete her mission, despite being under constant surveillance. When she returned home in 1946, she was recommended for the Legion of Merit. But this was a time when women didn’t receive such honors, so she was then recommended for the Bronze Star. Again she was denied. Finally, she was given the Army Commendation Ribbon ... which, though honorable, is still kind of a "suck it" from the system.
She didn’t speak about her time in the OSS for decades. It wasn’t until her files were declassified and accessible through the Freedom of Information Act in 2008 that her family and friends even knew she was in their employ. Those family and friends started rallying for her to get the Legion of Merit she was due. And finally in 2016, right after she passed away (of course) at the age of 100, she received it. Stephanie is said to have been one of the most successful intelligence agents in post-war Poland ... it just took them seven decades to give her some recognition for it.
The Human Tape Recorder
In 1939, Jeannie Rousseau took a job as a translator in the Dinard area of France, negotiating contracts between French businessmen and their Nazi occupiers. Because she knew the language and was a beautiful, charming young woman, the Nazis felt quite comfortable speaking openly about things around her. Nazi things.
She began reporting intelligence about the Nazis in the Dinard area and was arrested on suspicion of spying in 1941. Her case was examined by a military tribunal, but Nazis from Dinard said there was no possible way that the charming young translator was doing anything untoward. She was released, but told to leave the area.
Then the work really began.
"Nazis are idiots and horndogs? Hold my beer."
She moved to Paris and got a job in the French industrialist syndicate as a translator, where she would regularly meet with the German military commander’s staff. She was gathering basic intelligence and joined a spy ring called The Druids that was organized by a former classmate. Given the code name “Amniarix,” Rousseau would meet with Nazi officers, many of whom had known her in Dinard, and jack up the charm, teasing them into giving her information. They’d talk about their weapons programs and the V-1 and V-2 rockets, and she’d say there was no way that what they were telling her was true. This scheme absolutely worked, and one of the officers, eager to convince her, even showed her drawings of the rockets.
She had perfect recall of this information and would relay all of it to her contacts, even though she often didn’t understand what the hell they were talking about. By 1943, she had gathered enough information about the V-2 rocket program at Peenemunde that the British were convinced to bomb the place. She continued gathering intelligence about Wernher von Braun’s rocket program into 1944, and Winston Churchill wanted to bring the “human tape recorder” in for a debriefing. Unfortunately, the French agent who was supposed to help get her to London was captured first at their rendezvous point, and her cover was blown. She was arrested and managed to survive three concentration camps. She died in 2017 at the age of 98.
The Nurse Who Made Her Way Onto Hitler's "Black Book"
In August of 1914, as the Germans burned down her home village of Westrozebeke, Belgian nurse Marthe Cnockaert jumped into action and operated out of an old manor house that had been turned into a makeshift hospital. Due to her dedication and bravery among the chaos, the Germans gave her the Iron Cross. Nice of them, right?
The Germans transferred her to a military hospital in Roulers in 1915, where Marthe was reunited with her family. She worked as both a nurse and waitress ... then after being approached by an old family friend who worked in British Intelligence, she became a spy. It sounds like a weird combination of occupations, but she had the perfect set-up: the hospital and cafe were ideal places for her to listen in on the Germans, and all she had to do was pass the info along.
Over time, she became really bored with being a simple message courier, though. She was like, "Screw this. I want to be a full-on spy, buttholes!" We're paraphrasing. Her first feat was pretty simple: cutting the wire of a phone that a priest was using to send secret messages to the Germans. But then things started to ramp up.
"I could kill you in 6 different ways, using only my hat."
A German boarder who was living with her wanted her to spy for them. She told her handlers, who told her to play along. She relayed harmless information for a short while, but this got too complicated ... so she just arranged to have him killed. Like one does.
Eventually, she got into more "action hero" type of stuff. She was tasked with blowing up a sewer tunnel underneath a German munitions building. Unfortunately, she dropped her watch (engraved with her initials) while placing the dynamite, which led to her capture. And to add insult to injury, she didn't even get to walk away from the explosion in slow motion without looking back at it.
The Germans were going to execute her, but that Iron Cross came in handy. Since she had saved so many Germans back in Westrozebeke in 1914, they commuted her sentence to life in prison. And “life in prison” ended up meaning “two years,” because she was freed after they lost the war. She received numerous awards from the British, French and Belgian governments, due to her service during the war, and later, a spot in Hitler’s Black Book: a list of prominent citizens to be arrested if there was ever a successful invasion of Britain.
The Woman Who Used Leprosy To Her Advantage
1941 was a particularly awful year for Filipina Josefina Guerrero. She went from living comfortably as the young wife of a successful physician, to being stricken with leprosy in a country that had just been invaded by the Japanese. Her husband left her, and she was being treated as subhuman by both the invaders of her country and her own people. But instead of wallowing in misery in a horrible leper colony, she joined the damn Resistance.
She was perfect for the job, because when people saw her on the street, they’d do everything they could to avoid her. The downside was living with the knowledge that if she was caught, others in the Filipino Resistance would not come to save her. The Japanese didn’t want to fully search her because they were all like, "Ew, no." So they just let her go about her business.
She did small things at first, like smuggle messages in her hair, in hollowed out pieces of fruit, and in shoes to American prisoners of war. Soon she was tasked with larger things. The Resistance would have her map artillery placements, hide explosives in her home, and smuggle food and medicine to the POWs. This whole time, she would wear pretty revealing clothing, simply to show off her leprosy and ensure that people would stay away from her.
The physical manifestation of motivation.
Her largest feat was when the Americans scooped her up to work for them. They asked her to make a 3 day journey to deliver a map that showed the placements of landmines. The trek was 75 miles, where she had to avoid pirates and had the map taped between her shoulder blades. When she crossed military checkpoints, they would see her sores and just wave her on through. But she made it, and Josefina is credited with saving hundreds of lives.
When the Japanese were driven out of the Philippines, Josefina wanted to work as a nurse for the wounded, but was too sick to do so. She was sent to one of the leper colonies she wanted so desperately to avoid, but made that her new mission: make these places not totally suck. And she did.
They updated the facilities, brought in modern medicine and completely transformed the place. She was eventually welcomed to the US, where the government allowed a foreigner with leprosy in the country, willingly and knowingly for the first time. She was given the Medal of Freedom, cured of her leprosy, and after facing the prospect of deportation when her temporary visa status was questioned, given US citizenship.
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