[As promised at the end of Part 1, I’m back now with the completion of my account of actor-spies during the Civil War. As I said, this section covers spies who weren’t stage pros but used acting skills in their intelligence work and two who went on to become actors after the war ended. The final story is a surprise, so I won’t spoil it here—wait till you read it. If you haven’t read Part 1, posted on 25 May, I recommend going back and picking it up. (Reading the segments in order is probably helpful, but isn’t strictly necessary.)]
In “Spying in the Civil War,” his introductory essay in Civil War Spies (Capstone, 2013), Craig Sodaro wrote, “Many spies used acting talents to create characters. One pretended to be a crazy old lady wandering the streets of the Confederate capital, Richmond, Virginia.” He was speaking of Elizabeth Van Lew (1818-1900), a member of Richmond’s elite circles who ran an espionage ring for the Union. Van Lew’s father, John, was a prosperous hardware merchant and slave-owner whose home saw visitors like Edgar Allan Poe and Chief Justice John Marshall. They were all captivated by the charm of John’s daughter, Elizabeth. Van Lew was educated at a Quaker school in Philadelphia, her mother’s native town (Van Lew’s grandfather had been mayor there in the 18th century), where she acquired staunch abolitionist beliefs. When John Van Lew died in 1843, her brother John, Jr., took over the business and the Van Lews freed their nine slaves (one of whom, Mary Bowser, would also become a Union spy). Van Lew even used all of her inheritance, $10,000 (about $313 grand today), to buy the freedom of the families of her former slaves, even though the country was in the midst of a great depression (the Panic of 1837, which lasted through 1844). Van Lew’s brother John would repeatedly go to the Richmond slave market to purchase whole families that were about to be split up and free them.
When the war started and the now-infamous Libby Prison, known for its inhuman conditions, was opened in Richmond to incarcerate Union officers, Van Lew finagled permission to tend to the prisoners, bringing them clothing, food, medicine, and writing paper. (She was rejected at first by the prison commandant, Mary Todd Lincoln’s half-brother, Lt. David H. Todd, but went over his head to the Assistant Inspector General of the Camps of Instruction, who succumbed to her persistence and charm.) With this access, she helped prisoners escape, gave them information on safe houses and escape routes, and even engineered the appointment to Libby’s staff of a Union sympathizer who helped countless officers escape. (He played the role of the meanest of all the prison’s guards and no Union officer ever learned his actual identity or what he really did for them.) On at least one occasion, she smuggled information to inmates in a custard dish with a hidden compartment (what’s known today in spycraft as a “concealment device”—to which I had a little personal exposure). Other concealment methods included the hollowed-out sole of a shoe or an empty eggshell in a basket of eggs. Van Lew may have been responsible for the escape of over 100 prisoners through a tunnel in The Great Escape, 1864 version (almost exactly 100 years before that movie).
At the same time, she passed along to Northern commanders intelligence from the imprisoned officers, who were an invaluable source of information, about Southern troop strengths and deployment. When Van Lew was eventually forbidden to speak with the prisoners, she devised a special code system. She brought books to the men who’d relay bits of information they’d picked up from the guards by poking pinholes under specific letters in the pages and Van Lew would decipher the messages and pass the intelligence on to her Northern contacts.
Even more significant than this contribution to the Union war effort, Van Lew, under the code name “Babcock,” organized and ran a spy network in Richmond that included a mayoral candidate as well as, among other prominent figures, the Secretaries of War and the Navy of the CSA. Although the records are nearly impossible to verify, Van Lew may even have persuaded Jefferson Davis’s First Lady to hire Mary Bowser as a domestic servant in the Confederate White House. (After the war, Varina Davis denied that Bowser had been employed in the executive mansion, but aside from the natural tendency not to admit to such an act, it’s not likely the First Lady would ever have known Bowser’s actual identity in any case.) According to her 1911 biography, “Miss Van Lew,” published in Harper’s Monthly by Civil War scholar William G. Beymer, Van Lew led Richmonders to believe that her Union sympathies, for which she was often threatened both in person and in the Richmond Dispatch, were merely a manifestation of dementia. She picked up the nickname “Crazy Bet” by wandering the streets of Richmond in shabby clothes, wearing a confused expression on her face, muttering to herself, or singing nonsense songs (a little like the Mafia Don Vincent “Chin” Gigante in Greenwich Village in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s.) (Some historians dispute these tales, but since Van Lew destroyed her own records, it’s hard to be certain the popular beliefs are fictitious.) In any case, Van Lew secured her intelligence by tearing the messages into pieces and conveying the pieces by different couriers by way of a network of relay stations.
In May 1864, when Union raiders failed to take Richmond, Union Col. Ulric Dahlgren was killed. The Rebels declared that evidence had been found proving that Dahlgren and his men had planned to assassinate Jefferson Davis and burn the city (which may, in fact, have been true). Northerners were incensed at this accusation and reports that Dahlgren’s body was being mistreated, and Van Lew, risking her entire operation in Richmond, arranged to have the body secretly disinterred and returned to the North to be honorably reburied.
All through the war, particularly near the end when the South was losing badly, Van Lew came under suspicion. The Rebels could never put together evidence to prove that she was a Union spy, and she evaded many attempts to trap her. Once, when she got word that Confederate soldiers were on their way to her home, a large mansion in which she’d created several secret rooms to hide escaping prisoners before they could be sent on their ways out of town, to confiscate her horse, she brought the animal into the house, took it upstairs, and hid it in one of the secret rooms! The horse fortunately remained quiet while the house was searched and was never discovered. Van Lew was nothing if not resourceful—and pretty gutsy as well.
In the end, Van Lew’s spy ring was very successful and effective and after the war, when Gen. Ulysses S. Grant, the Union commander, made his first visit to the Confederate capital, he told Van Lew: “You have sent me the most valuable information received from Richmond during the war.” As president, Grant appointed Van Lew Postmistress of Richmond, a job she held from 1869 to 1877. In that post, Van Lew modernized Richmond’s postal system and hired many freed slaves. She became an advocate for the rights of women and African Americans, sponsoring, among other things, a library for black Richmonders. (For those who don’t know their pre-Emancipation history, it was illegal during slavery to teach a slave to read and write—a taboo that Van Lew broke consistently. She had, for example, sent her former slave, Mary Bowser, who became part of the espionage ring, to a school for African Americans in Philadelphia.)
During Reconstruction (1865-77), Van Lew’s wartime activities made her a pariah in Richmond. (When the city fell to the Union, Van Lew had been the first resident to raise the Stars and Stripes.) She requested her records from the U.S. Department of War so she could conceal the true extent of her work for the North. Further, she’d spent her entire fortune in her service to the Union and when she failed to get the U.S. Government to reimburse her, she had to rely on wealthy Bostonians, including the family of Paul J. Revere, grandson and namesake of the Revolutionary War patriot, a Union Colonel whom she’d helped in 1862 when he’d been imprisoned in Richmond, to raise funds for her support. Upon her death in 1900, she was buried standing up, facing north in a grave that remained unmarked until the Revere family donated a headstone. Even into the 20th century, Van Lew was seen in the South as a turncoat.
Mary Elizabeth Bowser (c. 1839-?), the former slave of Elizabeth Van Lew who became a member of “Babcock’s” Richmond spy ring, employed acting skills in the pursuit of her espionage efforts. Bowser was born a slave on John Van Lew’s plantation, but little is known about her early life, including her birth date. After the Van Lews freed Bowser following the death of John Van Lew, Sr., she remained a servant in the Van Lew home until the 1850s. Observing her intellect, Elizabeth, an active abolitionist, sent Bowser to a school in Philadelphia that specialized in educating African Americans. In 1855, she served as a missionary in Liberia under the name Mary Jane Richards but returned to Richmond in 1860. Upon returning, the former slave married just before the Civil War broke out, and settled outside of the city, but remained in close contact with the Van Lew family, sharing their political aims and, ultimately, their wartime activities.
Recruited into Van Lew’s spy circle, Bowser took on the identity of “Ellen Bond,” a slow-witted, but capable servant. Van Lew persuaded a friend to bring “Bond” (propitious alias) along to help at special events hosted by Varina Davis, the wife of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. As Bond, Bowser was eventually hired as a servant in the Davis household, cleaning and serving meals until just before the war’s end. According to the custom of the slave South, household servants were essentially invisible, so Bowser used her position to pick up a lot of useful information just by listening, essentially hiding in plain sight. Because of her education, about which the Davises wouldn’t have known (because it would have been illegal in their society), Bowser could read the state documents to which she had access while cleaning the Confederate White House—and she had a near-photographic memory, just as a bonus. Apparently, President Davis suspected that there was a leak in the house but never had any inkling it was Bowser—probably because, I would guess, they wouldn’t have considered her capable of understanding anything anyone said, much less of absorbing it and passing it along to someone, even if they even noticed she was around.
The system was simple, and nearly foolproof. The man who collected most of the intelligence in Richmond was the local baker, Thomas McNiven, whose regular rounds included stopping at the Davises. Making his deliveries at the Confederate White House, McNiven naturally met with Bowser who simply passed on the information she’d gathered as she took in the household’s bakery order. After the war, McNiven recounted his exploits and he recorded that Bowser had been his most crucial source, “as she was working right in the Davis home and had a photographic mind. Everything she saw on the Rebel president’s desk, she could repeat word for word. Unlike most colored, she could read and write. She made a point of always coming out to my wagon when I made deliveries at the Davis’ home to drop information.”
Toward the end of the war, the Rebels did suspect Bowser, though there’s no record of how or why; it may have been in part because McNiven fell under suspicion, possibly leading to Bowser. The former slave was forced to flee the Confederacy in January 1865, but, as a final act as a Union agent and Northern sympathizer, Bowser tried to burn the Confederate White House; she wasn’t successful, however. The official records of the work of McNiven and Van Lew, including details of Bowser’s service, were destroyed to protect the agents, and the private journal Bowser compiled later was accidentally lost as well, so no specifics of Bowser’s espionage activities exist. There’s no record of Bowser’s postwar life—she worked as a teacher at a school for freed slaves in Georgia in 1867 under the name Mary J. R. Richards apparently—and even the date of her death isn’t known. She did go on the lecture circuit, billed as Richmonia Richards, but the account she gave of her life and experiences was highly fictionalized. To recognize Bowser’s actions in the Civil War, she was inducted into the Military Intelligence Hall of Fame at Fort Huachuca, Arizona (the U.S. Army Intelligence Center), in 1995.
What Mary Bowser provided was called “Black Dispatches” by the military men of the Union: intelligence collected by African-American partisans. Another former slave who gathered Black Dispatches, a valuable and productive source of information on the Rebel forces, was John Scobell from Mississippi (c. 1833-65), a spy for the North who assumed the persona of “the light-hearted, happy darkey.” Beginning in the fall of 1861, Scobell was directly recruited by Allan Pinkerton, famous as the founder of a detective agency in Chicago before the war and now the chief intelligence and counterintelligence officer for Maj. Gen. George McClellan, commander of the Army of the Potomac. Known variously as Major Allen or E. J. Allen, Pinkerton used many sources for the information on Southern positions and troop movements, but he quickly saw that escaped slaves were especially effective as informants and he instructed his agents to look out for African Americans with some education or who seemed particularly astute and observant. “From the commencement of the war, I have found the negroes of invaluable assistance,” said the renowned detective, “and I never hesitated to employ them when after investigation I found them to be intelligent and trustworthy.” Scobell was one of the best known of these black operatives and Pinkerton himself lauded the freed slave as a “cool-headed, vigilant detective.”
A slave in Mississippi, Scobell had been educated by his owner who subsequently freed him. He was perceptive and clever, plus he had a talent for role-playing, allowing him to impersonate many different types of community members, including food vendor, cook, and laborer. When on a mission in the South, Scobell often played the part of a servant to another Pinkerton agent, usually one of the intelligence chief’s best. His usual gig was to glean information from the slaves, servants, and freedmen in the black community while the white agent spoke with the Confederate officers and civilian officials. Scobell and his partners brought back invaluable information on Southern morale, troop deployments, supply situations, and battle plans, with Scobell focusing on the social circumstances, local conditions, and fortifications. One of Scobell’s main sources were fellow members of the “Lincoln’s Legal Loyal League” (known as the “4L’s”), a secret organization in the South championing freedom for slaves, who not only provided Scobell with information but occasionally served as his couriers to carry the intelligence through Rebel lines to the Union commanders.
Scobell, in order to blend in with the social milieu in which he was working, played the part of the stereotypical singing, shuffling, illiterate, and ignorant slave. Rebel officers weren’t concerned about his presence and proceeded to leave important documents around where he could see them and discuss military matters in front of him because, after all, what could he understand and who would he tell—he was just a slave working in the field, on the deck of a river steamer, or in the master’s house. Black Southerners like Bowser and Scobell had a virtual Cloak of Invisibility with which the white Southerners themselves endowed them. (Only Robert E. Lee seems to have recognized the danger in this situation: “The chief source of information to the enemy is through our negroes,” the Confederate commander said in 1863. It was the North, however, who took cognizance of this fact, not Lee’s Rebel subordinates.) Of course, operatives like Scobell and Bowser, as well as Van Lew and the others like them, were in peril of their lives if they ever were discovered and identified. The penalty for espionage was summary execution—hanging or a firing squad on the spot.
Pinkerton recounts at least one occasion when Scobell helped Carrie Lawton, Pinkerton's best female agent, escape from pursuing Confederate troops. On another occasion, Scobell and Lawton were arrested with another Union spy (who was executed); Lawton was ultimately sent north as part of a prisoner exchange, but Scobell was simply released because Rebel officials simply wouldn’t believe that a slave could be a spy. His espionage activities ended in late 1861 when Gen. Ambrose Burnside relieved McClellan as commander of the army and Pinkerton disbanded his intelligence operation.
Emma Edmonds (1841-98) was a Canadian-born daughter of a farmer originally named Sarah Emma Edmondson (or Edmonson). Her father, Isaac Edmondson, had wanted a son and maltreated Sarah, so in 1857, she left her home in Magaguadavic, New Brunswick, and fled 140 miles northeast to Moncton where she took the name Edmonds. After a year, still fearing discovery by her tyrannical father, Edmonds decided to immigrate to the U.S., disguising herself as a man to avoid detection and to get better work, traveling as Franklin Thompson. By 1861, when the Civil War broke out, Edmonds was living in Flint, Michigan, and she decided to enlist in the Union army under her alias. She’d become a devout Unionist, devoted to her adopted country, and a staunch opponent of slavery and the rebellion. Edmonds cut her hair, dressed in men’s clothes, and, physical examinations not being common for enlistment at the time, signed on for a three-year hitch in Company F (the “Flint Union Greys”) of the 2nd Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment. (Historians estimate that at least 400 women served as soldiers on either side in the Civil War, although documentation is scarce.) To try to please her father Edmonds had learned to outshoot and outride many country boys and she was easily more skilled than city boys so army life proved a good fit for her. Since soldiers slept in their uniforms, even sharing a tent didn’t pose an inconvenience for the recruit.
After the Battle of First Manassas, Edmonds’s regiment covered the Union retreat and she stayed behind, barely escaping capture, to nurse wounded soldiers. Edmonds served as a male nurse for several months, then, in 1862, the 2nd Michigan was sent to Virginia where she fought in several engagements. During this period, Edmonds, motivated by reports of the execution of a Union spy in Richmond and the death in an ambush of her friend, Lt. James Vesey, reportedly volunteered to engage in espionage, though proof of her service is lacking. (Remember that it was common practice in both the Union and the Confederacy to destroy records of espionage activities after the war.) Her memoirs, however, recount that she became a cunning master of disguise, posing variously as a male slave, an Irish peddler, a washerwoman, and a fop.
Her slave disguise required her to darken her skin with silver nitrate and wear a black wig. Calling herself “Cuff,” Edmonds worked in a Rebel encampment where she helped build ramparts and worked in the kitchen as she listened in on officers’ conversations. When she left a few days later, she brought the Union forces information on fortifications, force size, and weaponry (including how may “Quaker guns,” logs painted to look like cannon, the Rebel units planned to deploy). As Bridget O'Shea, the Irish peddler, Edmonds sold soap and apples to the Rebel soldiers and again returned to the Northern side with valuable information. On one occasion when Edmonds was working for the Rebels as a black washerwoman, a packet of documents fell out of an officer’s jacket. Edmonds scooped them up and returned with them to the North to the delight of her superiors.
In 1863, after several campaigns with the 2nd Michigan, Edmonds contracted malaria. Fearing that treatment in an army hospital would mean the discovery of her true gender, she surreptitiously left her comrades and checked into a private hospital in Cairo, Illinois, planning to return when she was cured. When Edmonds recovered, however, she found that Frank Thompson had been declared a deserter and she knew that return to the army would mean hanging. She found work in Washington as a female nurse for wounded soldiers. After the war, having married and started a family, Edmonds attended a reunion of the 2nd Michigan in 1876 without her disguise. Praised as a hero and regarded as a fearless comrade despite her deception (Edmonds had published her memoir, Nurse and Spy in the Union Army, in 1864), her fellow soldiers helped her get the charge of desertion dropped and, with their support, she was cleared and granted a military pension in 1884. In 1897, Edmonds became the only female member of the Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization representing military veterans who served in the Union armed forces during the Civil War. She suffered another bout of malaria and died some months later in 1898 from a possible stroke, at the age of 56, in Texas and in 1901 was reburied with military honors in the GAR cemetery in Houston.
A couple of Civil War spies translated their experiences with pretense and role-playing into acting careers after the war. One of these was Confederate spy Belle Boyd (1843-1900), born Isabella Marie Boyd in Martinsburg, Virginia (now West Virginia), the daughter of a hotel-owner from whose Front Royal establishment she worked. Her father, Benjamin Reed Boyd, was a soldier in the Stonewall Brigade, and at least three other members of her family served as Confederate spies. Boyd spent her youth as a tomboy, climbing trees and racing through the woods with her brothers and other kin. Still, she received a good education, despite her family’s lack of money, attending a “female college” in Baltimore. She was even a debutante in Washington in 1860.
Boyd’s espionage career began by happenstance. After an 1861 skirmish, some Union soldiers showed up at her home, essentially to harass her family for their open Southern sympathies. (Remember that West Virginia voted to separate from Virginia in 1861 in opposition to the formation of the Confederacy, though the populace was divided in its allegiances.) The drunken soldiers spoke obscenely to Boyd’s mother and Boyd took out a pistol and shot one of them dead. She was essentially placed under house arrest while the Union commander investigated the shooting (eventually she was cleared of wrongdoing), and the house was guarded by a contingent of troops. Boyd, who was more “handsome” than pretty, became familiar with the men and especially charmed one officer who, during his attentions to her, spilled a lot of military secrets. (Loose lips, you see, do sink ships—or at least ground troops.) Boyd happily passed on this valuable intelligence to her friends in the Rebel army, sending messages by her slave in a hollowed-out watch case. Belle Boyd, Rebel spy, was 18 years old.
In May 1862, a Union general and his staff met in Boyd’s father’s hotel and she eavesdropped at a knothole in the door. She learned the general’s plans and rode through the Union lines using false papers to get past the pickets, reporting to a Rebel scout about the prospective Northern troop movements. When the Confederates attacked Front Royal, Boyd ran through the battle lines, dodging bullets that pierced her dress, toward Stonewall Jackson’s forces shouting that “the Yankee force is very small” and telling them that a direct attack would be victorious. General Jackson followed Boyd’s advice, won the battle, and sent her a note afterwards, saying, “I thank you, for myself and for the army, for the immense service that you have rendered your country today.” Boyd was awarded the Southern Cross of Honor for her deed and Jackson made her an honorary captain and aide-de-camp.
Boyd was betrayed by a lover in 1862 and arrested for a second time (her first arrest having been at the outset of her espionage service). She was ultimately exchanged for Union prisoners in Rebel hands, only to be arrested a third time, and again released. In the end, she’d be arrested and released as many as seven times. (Good luck is another asset for the intelligence agent!)
In 1864, Boyd went to England where she married a Union naval officer—and became a successful actress. Her first husband died in 1866 and she returned to the United States, remarried in 1869, divorced, and married again in 1885. In 1886, she began to tour the country giving dramatic lectures about her life as a Confederate agent, entitling her show “The Perils of a Spy.” Over that career, she’d been variously known as the “Cleopatra of the Secession,” “La Belle Rebelle,” the “Siren of the Shenandoah,” the “Rebel Joan of Arc,” and the “Amazon of Secessia.” While on tour in 1900, Boyd died in poverty of a heart attack in Kilbourne City, Wisconsin (now Wisconsin Dells), where she’d gone to address, of all organizations, a GAR chapter.
Virginia Moon (1844-1926), born Virginia Bethel Moore but known as Ginnie, was the daughter of a Virginia doctor who moved to Oxford, Ohio, when she was a small child. Dr. Moon died in 1856, and in 1862, Moon moved again, with her mother and sister, to Memphis, Tennessee. Moon began working with Memphisite Nathan Bedford Forrest, Confederate lieutenant general and cavalry commander, as well as other Southern partisans, including her own older sister, Charlotte “Lottie” Moon (1840-1912), as a spy for the South. The sisters were both said to have had brilliant intellects and, uncommon for the day, received good, formal educations. When Union forces occupied Memphis, Moon was arrested but her sister helped her escape and she fled further south, only to be rearrested and imprisoned in New Orleans.
The sisters both had cavalier attitudes toward men, and Ginnie Moon, a beauty who never married, is said to have balanced as many as 16 beaux at once, figuring that some of them would likely die in the war anyway. One day, while Moon was living in Ohio with her sister and brother-in-law (who was a member of the Knights of the Golden Circle), a Confederate officer arrived at the house and told Lottie that he needed someone to carry secret documents to the South. Lottie volunteered and used a gift for acting to cross back and forth through Union lines, variously playing an old lady, an Irish washerwoman, and an English tourist. Throughout the war, Lottie Moon traversed from Canada to the deep South countless times.
While Ginnie and her mother remained in Memphis making bandages and tending wounded soldiers, the Union army was getting closer to the city. When Memphis fell to the North in June 1862, Ginnie Moon, hiding a pearl-handled pistol in her umbrella, began carrying messages and supplies to the Rebels, boldly passing through Union lines on the pretext of meeting a beau. When the Moons got word that the Rebels needed someone to smuggle information and medical supplies to Southern troops in Ohio, the women saw visiting relatives as an excuse to travel to Ohio and accepted the challenge. They fell under suspicion, however, and, detained on the boat, Ginnie managed to swallow the secret papers but was left with the drugs she’d sewn into her clothing and the two women were arrested. In a hail-Mary play, Ginnie Moon demanded to see the commanding general, Ambrose Burnside—who’d once been engaged to Lottie (and whom she had literally left at the altar). (And yes, this is the same Civil War general whose side whiskers became so recognizable and famous, they came to be known as “sideburns,” a signature look for some in the 1950s and ’60s—the years, incidentally, of my own youth.) Ginnie’s sister Lottie disguised herself and went to the hotel where her mother and sister were being held, but she was recognized and arrested as well. None of the Moon women were charged or imprisoned (that good luck again).
After the war, Lottie Moon became a globe-trotting journalist, but Ginnie ultimately landed in Hollywood, where she appeared in the silent films Robin Hood starring Douglas Fairbanks (1922) and The Spanish Dancer starring Pola Negri (1923). When she met producer Jesse Lasky upon her arrival in 1919, he asked Moon what made her think she could be an actress. “I'm 75 years old,” she declared. “I have acted all the parts.” After leaving Hollywood, she moved to Bohemian Greenwich Village in New York City, where she died at the age of 81.
Horatio Green Cooke (1844-1924) may have been the most unusual spy in this collection. Born in Norwich, Connecticut, he finally settled with his family in Iowa. In his lifetime, Horatio, who went by the name Harry, was a teacher, an inventor, a carnival showman, magician, and escape artist. He wasn’t really an actor, but he was a showman, and he didn’t exactly serve as a spy, but a scout. In 1862, 17-year-old Harry Cooke enlisted in the Union Army as a private. He went on to become one of Lincoln's Federal Scouts.
On 1 May 1864, Cooke was ordered to appear in Washington where he met with an illustrious group of Union officials: Secretary of War William Stanton; Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman; Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock; Democratic orator Robert Ingersoll; and the Commander-in-Chief himself, Pres. Abraham Lincoln. They’d heard about Cooke’s skills as an escape artist and wanted to see the feat for themselves. The president exclaimed, upon greeting Cooke, “Well lad, I am informed that you are rather tricky. I thought we would make an investigation.” Cooke was bound with a 50-foot rope and when he was securely tied, Cooke asked Lincoln to move away 10 feet. The magician then asked the president to come back, but before Lincoln reached Cooke, he’d freed himself from the restraints. A Los Angeles newspaper reported that the president was so impressed that he handed Cooke a two-dollar bill (remember those?), saying, “Here my boy, keep this to remember Uncle Abe by.” Cooke kept the bill, which in 1864 bore a portrait of Alexander Hamilton instead of the current Thomas Jefferson, for the rest of his life.
In October, Cooke and six other scouts were captured in Winchester, Virginia, by the notorious Mosby's Raiders. In the view of Lt. Col. John Singleton Mosby, “The Grey Ghost,” scouts were spies subject to summary execution. The six Union men were sentenced to hang the next morning, but they spent their presumed last night tied to a tree. Using his escape skills, Cooke freed himself from his bonds and then untied his companions and all six broke for the Union lines. Unfortunately, only two of the former captives made it back alive, Cooke being one of them.
In a horrifically ironic turn, when Mosby’s men stripped the captive scouts of their possessions, they took the letter Cooke carried in which President Lincoln appointed him a scout. He cherished the letter and deeply regretted its loss. Returning to Washington after his escape, he went to the White House to see Lincoln, but he found that the President and the First Lady had gone to the theater. He followed and was in the audience while the First Couple were watching Our American Cousin from the Presidential Box at Ford’s Theatre on 14 April 1865, the night John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln to death.
It’s not clear how or when Cooke became interested in magic and escapism, except that it was early in his youth. During the war, Cooke didn’t perform, aside of course from the escape demonstration for President Lincoln, but afterwards, he became Professor Harry Cooke and worked as a professional magician. He eventually became president of the Los Angeles Society of Magicians and took a new descriptive: The Oldest Living Magician. On 1 May 1924, Cooke reenacted his escape from the 50-foot rope for an audience of L.A. magicians; he wore his Civil War uniform for the demonstration, staged exactly 60 years after he’d appeared at the White House. On 17 June that year, Horatio Green “Harry” Cooke, former Federal Scout, mentor to Harry Houdini, died at the age of 80.
Starting with Part 1 of “Sock and Buskin & Cloak and Dagger,” I think the foregoing accounts, as brief and necessarily superficial as they are, offers excellent proof of the wisdom of the admonition I found in a 1911 New York Times article on espionage in the Civil War:
But here is a friendly tip to the Scott or Dumas of the civil war, if such a person exists, and that is doubtful.
Don’t focus your novels around the heroic private soldier and the high-strung Confederate girl. Learn something about the spies of the war, and build your novel on that.
For there, if anywhere, the real romance of the civil war was laid.
Could you ask for more evidence of this than the stories of the 11 theatrically-disposed intelligence agents I’ve related here? I think not.