28 May 2014

Sock and Buskin & Cloak and Dagger, Part 2

[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.

25 May 2014

Sock and Buskin & Cloak and Dagger, Part 1

A new cable-TV series started in April—Turn, the saga of espionage in the Revolutionary War.  According to press coverage of the series (airing Sundays on AMC), this was the beginning of “the American age of espionage.”  Readers of ROT will recall that I, myself, was in that game when I was in the army back in the Cold War, a counterintelligence officer in West Berlin in the first half of the ’70s.  (That’s the 1970s, not the 1770s, thank you very much!)  I’ve even written about some aspects of that life on this blog from time to time, so you know it’s a topic of interest to me.  (For the curious, see Der Illegale,” 5 July 2009; “Berlin Station,” 19 and 22 July 2009; “The Berlin Wall,” 29 November 2009; “Spook Museum,” 25 March  2010; “Top Secret America,” 17 September 2010; “Berlin Stories: Three SNAFU’s,” 18 August 2012; as well as scattered anecdotes elsewhere.)

Now, when I was active in the world of the stage, I directed a play called The Gift (by Neal Thompson, presented in 1982 at the Process Studio Theatre in New York City), which was about Edwin and John Wilkes Booth, the actor brothers before the event that made John Wilkes infamous.  I did some research in preparation for that production, reading about the Booths and the lives of actors in that era, the 1850s and ’60s.  It turns out that many of the spies serving both sides of the Civil War were—are you ready for this? . . . actors.  Well, theater folk in general, but Wilkes (as he was called by his friends and family) was himself one of them.  The Booths were Marylanders, so, like their home state itself, they were split in their allegiances during the War Between the States and while Edwin supported the Union (though he wasn’t an activist), Wilkes was a Confederate sympathizer.  Since theater troupes from both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line traveled back and forth across the battle front with impunity—actors toured in those days and criss-crossed the entire country as a matter of course—theater people were natural couriers for information about the troops and the circumstances on both sides of the conflict.  Actors, of course, were ideal spies since, in addition to their access, they were practiced at dissembling: actors lie for a living, after all.  (I won’t get into this here, but that’s one reason some churches disparage actors and the acting profession.)  Booth collected intelligence in the North and brought it back to his beloved South on a regular basis, imparting what he learned to the Confederate commanders for whom he was gathering the information.  

I don’t know if the American Civil War was the origin of performer-spies, the circumstances having been ideal for the phenomenon to evolve at that time, but it certainly wasn’t the end of it.  World War I’s Mata Hari was, famously, a dancer—an “exotic” dancer, to be precise, and we know what that’s code for!  (Hari spied for the Germans and was executed in France in 1917 for her activities.  But she became a famous symbol of the femme fatale agent—known later, in the world of John le CarrĂ© and his fellow espionage novelists, as a “honeypot” or a “honeytrap.”  As one TV journalist put it, however: “If your name became historically famous for spying, then you weren’t all that good at spying.”)  

There’s also another cable series that demonstrates just how useful the skills of an actor can be for professional spies: The Americans on FX.  The undercover Soviet agents in that series, set in the Reaganite 1980s, use elaborate disguises, costumes, accents, and other forms of role-playing to pursue their nefarious aims.  (When I decided to get out of the army and go to acting school, a number of people in Berlin commented that that seemed like a big change.  “No,” I replied, “it really isn’t.  After all, I’ve been playing a role for nearly five years.”  Now, when I said that, I was thinking of having played the part of an army officer all that time, but if truth be known, I’d also been playing other parts from time to time.  I can’t tell you any more . . . otherwise, I’d have to kill you.)  

In any case, I decided it would be an interesting inquiry to look into the incidence of actors and other theater folk in the espionage game during the Civil War (and wherever that research leads).  Coincidentally, this topic covers two of my longtime personal interests, so it’ll be fascinating to see where the search takes me.  

Espionage, or spying, is the gathering and passing on of information your side wants but the other side doesn’t want you to have.  (Counterespionage is the prevention of the other guy from getting the information he wants that you don’t want him to have.  That’s what I did in the army.)  It’s been going on at least since Moses sent out spies to explore Canaan and Joshua sent agents to Jericho, and the techniques (not to mention technology) have advanced (can you really call it “improvement”?) ever since.  Secrecy and dissembling are a big part of what spies and counterspies do, and much of that is . . . well, let’s call it morally questionable.  (Oh, what the hell!  When I was a spook—that’s what we and others called those of us in the intelligence  racket—we used to remind each other frequently that what spies do is basically illegal.  Certainly from the other guy’s point of view.)  A gentleman may never open another gentleman’s mail, but spies aren’t gentlemen and we do open other people’s mail.  We also listen to their phone calls and radio broadcasts, read their e-mails, hack their websites and databases, and do all manner of privacy-violating things.  We watch people, follow them, pick through their trash, plant bugs on them, and ask people who know them all kinds of probing and revealing questions.  (Let me ask you: Is anyone surprised to hear this?  I mean, Is this news to anyone?)  And lest you get the wrong idea, we do this to our enemies and adversaries . . . and to our friends and allies.  However shocked Angela Merkel and David Cameron might have behaved, everyone knows this goes on; it’s an open secret.  

(In a 2011 post on this blog, I wrote about a scene in an old movie, The Big Lift, about the 1949 Berlin airlift:

Anyway, the man tells [Montgomery] Clift that the Russians are spying on the Americans with 20,000 agents in Berlin, and the Americans are spying on the Russians, only with just 10,000 agents.  Both sides know that the other side is spying, and that each side also knows that the other side knows.  It’s all very absurd, sort of Kafkaesque—but not inaccurate.  When I was an intel officer in Berlin in the ’70s, not only were the Russians (and the East Germans, of course) spying on us and we on them, but, obviously, the French and British were also spying on the Russians and vice versa.  But the Allies were also spying on each other.  And there were spies in Berlin from Bulgaria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and other Soviet Bloc countries, all spying on everyone else—including each other.  There were even Chinese spies operating in Berlin— countries with no obvious need to be in Berlin.  Berlin was espionage-central in that era—the counterpart of, say, Lisbon in WWII.  With the possible exception of Saigon, Berlin in the early ’70s may have had more spies per capita than any other place on Earth.  It certainly had spies from more countries and agencies than anywhere else.  (I’m sure there’s a comedy of errors in this somewhere!)  

The first day I reported to our offices . . . I noticed two black Russian sedans parked, one by each exit from the compound.  (Russian Moskviches or Volgas were easy to spot: even in the early ’70s, they looked like something preserved from the late ’40s.)  I asked about them, and my sponsor told me that they were almost always there, just watching, taking notes and probably photos—and that within an hour of my arrival, the Soviets knew my name, rank, and assignment.  [This, by the way, was in the days long before face-recognition software and computer databases —editorial note.]  By the same token, I got info copies of the transcripts of the wiretaps from Potsdam, the Soviet military HQ in East Germany.

Now, there are certain skills that are beneficial to spies and agents, especially the clandestine kinds.  A facility with languages, especially those spoken in the enemy’s territory, is certainly a big one.  My dad, an artillery officer in World War II, was detailed to the Counterintelligence Corps during the Occupation to help interrogate Nazi prisoners because he spoke German.  I ended up in Berlin because I spoke English, German, and French and had studied Russian.  The people we dealt with in Berlin were Brits (friends), French (friends . . . more or less), Germans (friends in the West, enemies in the East . . . and a few who weren’t entirely sure), and Russkies (enemies), so I sort of had the field covered.  The intelligence agents about whom I’m about to write didn’t need to worry about speaking the language of the opposition: accents aside, both sides spoke the same language.  (To continue my lesson on espionage jargon, “intelligence” is just another word for information, except that it has some kind of practical—in this case military— application.  Industrial intelligence or political intelligence would have other uses.  And there’s no need to repeat the old joke about “military intelligence”; I already know it.  An “agent” is a euphemistic name for a spy in this case, someone who acts on behalf of a government or organization.  A “foreign agent” serves a government other than your own, either overtly, like a trade delegate, or covertly, like . . . well, a spy!  Members of almost all U.S. investigative or security organizations, including Military Intel, the one for which I worked, are formally called Special Agents—as you’ve heard on TV, I’m sure.  Of course, among ourselves, when we met one another outside the office when we weren’t actually working, we’d hum a bar from Johnny Rivers’s 1966 pop hit “Secret Agent Man.”  Spook humor.)  

A covert agent would also benefit from a practical knowledge of make-up and disguises like false beards, wigs, even prostheses, as well as the use of different clothing and manners of dress.  (In the theater, we call that “costume design.”  See where I’m headed?)  Another reason I ended up in Germany, though not specifically Berlin, was that since I lived there when I was a teenager, I had a sense of how Germans dressed and could blend in.  Americans had a tendency to stand out—like our cars, we were easy to spot on a German street.  The ability to adopt different personas—change characters, as it were—is also an extremely useful attribute.  Now, who would have those skills, do you suppose?  Why, how about . . . an actor?  

There are instances of modern-day actors working as spies at one level or another, but one more thing that was unique to the mid-19th century made the actor a truly ideal agent in the Civil War.  As I mentioned already, actors then toured constantly.  There was no television, no movies, no DVD’s, VCR’s, or DVR’s.  To see a play in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Chicago, or San Francisco, a troupe of actors had to pack up their costumes and sets, get on a train or a stage coach, and come to your city and perform live.  Edwin Booth, Wilkes’s older brother and the most famous actor in America in the last half of the century (he was known as the Prince of Players), played not only in places like Cheyenne, Wyoming, and San Francisco, but traveled to Hawaii and Australia.  His appearances in London and on the Continent established him as the first American actor to gain an international reputation.  A little thing like a war between the states wasn’t going to stop troupe managers from booking performances in Charlotte, New Orleans, and Savannah, or Boston, Washington, and Baltimore—or prevent the actors from traveling there across the front lines to perform for their fans and paying audiences.  And since acting companies had been making these circuits for decades before the war started, no one paid any attention to their passing back and forth, plying their trade.  A farmer or miller might raise concerns if he wanted to take a cartload of goods from New Orleans to Philly or Boston to Richmond—that would be supplying war necessities to the enemy—but what harm could a bunch of players in greasepaint do?  I mean, really!  Running around in tights and ruffles—how dangerous could they be?  

Little did they know, those military commanders and border patrols!  Given the access to and the social acceptance in the homes and salons of the communities, actors could—and did—observe a lot as they traveled around the country.  Unmolested as they returned home to the North or the South, they could seek out the authorities there and impart what they learned or pass along messages from others behind the lines.  In a sticky situation at the border or in the camp of the enemy, a quick-thinking actor could bluff his or her way out (unlike poor Mata Hari, who ended on the wrong end of a French firing squad) by improvising a role.  Touring, though it was common in the 18th century as well, was much more arduous and by the 20th century, it had begun to fade as a practice, especially for stars, and was increasingly restricted to large cities with bigger theaters and audiences.  (New York City also eventually became the established center of theater in the U.S. so that touring no longer became a significant source of an actor’s livelihood.  And, of course, the advent of film and, later, TV, further curtailed the practice.)

It all sounds a little like Hollywood make-believe, but much of it actually happened, in one way or another, during the four-year conflict between the American North and South.  The stories of some of the spies who worked for both the Union and the Confederacy during the Civil War are proof of this contention.

John Wilkes Booth (1838-65), the man who eventually fatally shot Pres. Abraham Lincoln at Ford’s Theatre on 14 April 1865, is probably the most famous actor-spy of the Civil War (and maybe of all time).  Politically, he sympathized with the Confederacy and was an open supporter of slavery.  In 1859, Booth was a member of the Virginia militia that helped capture the notorious abolitionist John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, and he witnessed Brown’s execution on 2 December.  When the Civil War began, instead of enlisting in the Army of Northern Virginia under Gen. Robert E. Lee (he’d promised his mother, who’d recently lost her husband, that he’d stay away from the battlefield), Booth became a spy, courier, and blockade-runner for the Confederate Secret Service and used his occupation as an actor as cover to smuggle medical supplies, especially quinine and laudanum, into the South.  

As a famous actor (he was the mid-19th-century version of a matinee idol—handsome, dashing, and mustachioed), Booth had more freedom than most to travel around unquestioned.  The name Booth—not only his brother Edwin, but his brother Junius Brutus, Jr., and his father, Junius Brutus, Sr., were famous and popular actors—opened doors to society homes all across the Union.  Booth certainly also used the theatrical touring circuit, which included theaters in Baltimore, Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, and other cities of the North, as a way to meet with other Confederate agents and operatives in the North and South, as well as “Copperheads,” Southern sympathizers in the North.  Booth’s sister Asia, to whom he was a hero, recorded in her memoir, The Unlocked Book, that “strange men called late at night for whispered consultations.”  In fact, he told his sister how he moved among Union troops and, in the most distinguished Northern society, gathered intelligence.  He reportedly confessed that he thought he was made for spying: his brains, he asserted, were worth twenty men, his money worth a hundred, and most useful of all, his profession and his fame gave him unfettered access.  

Booth joined a spy ring known as the Knights of the Golden Circle which operated between Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital, and Montreal, Canada.  On many occasions during the war, Booth was known to have had secret meetings with Confederate operatives in hotel rooms in the North and in Canada, and to have left those meetings with sums of cash.  In addition to the drugs smuggled from Canada through the Union lines into the South, the Knights established a clandestine mail route.  (The Knights also may have been largely responsible for fomenting the Draft Riots in New York City in 1863, setting ablaze many blocks of Manhattan.)   

There’s little doubt, too, that the conspiracy of which Booth was part to kidnap Lincoln—a plot which preceded the assassination but was abandoned—was the work of the organized Confederate Secret Service rather than a rag-tag band of zealots.  After the assassination of the president, Booth’s thwarted escape plans made considerable use of the secret underground routes and way stations by which the CSS had transported people, information, and goods back and forth to the North during the hostilities.  Of course, as we all know, Booth’s career as a spy and Confederate agent ended badly.  The Union army was on his trail immediately after the shooting at Ford’s and he was surrounded in a tobacco barn near Port Royal, Virginia, and, refusing to surrender, shot to death on 26 April 1865 at the age of 26.  He was buried in an unmarked grave until, in 1869, his remains were turned over to the Booth family who reburied him in the family plot in Baltimore.  His given names don’t appear on the marker, just the family name, “Booth.”

Other less-well-known actors also served the Confederacy as spies.  Henry Thomas Harrison (1832-1923), known just as “Harrison” because so little was known of him for more than a century, served as an agent for Lt. Gen. James Longstreet and the First Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia.  Harrison, a Tennessean whom Longstreet described as a “slender, wiry fellow about five feet eight,” wasn’t offered many substantial acting roles because of his small stature.  It’s uncertain how much work as an actor Harrison got, but historians suggest that any skills he had were put to good use.  He may, however, have had the most impact on the progress of the war of any of the actor-spies about whom I learned.  

In May 1861, he enlisted as a private in the 12th Mississippi Infantry.  By November, Harrison had been discharged from the militia for “medical reasons” and became a spy for Confederate Secretary of War James Seddon; by April 1863, he’d met General Longstreet and began providing him with such valuable information on Federal troop movements that the general paid him in Union gold or cash to keep him loyal.  (Harrison was paid $150 each time he showed up, the equivalent of about $2,800 today.)  The “scout” was once even arrested in 1863 by Union forces in North Carolina for watching from a distance, but he was released for lack of evidence that he was actually working for the Confederacy.  (In Civil War parlance, a scout was an agent or spy wearing the uniform of his own army.  If an agent is caught by the enemy in the other side’s apparel, civilian or military, he is liable to summary execution as a spy.  There were no women in uniform—officially—in the 1860s, so, of course, female agents were always under threat of death if caught.)  In a Century Magazine article in 1887, Longstreet wrote that Harrison had provided him “with information more accurate than a force of cavalry could have secured.”

On the night of 28 June 1863, Harrison sped to Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, arriving “filthy and ragged, showing some rough work and exposure,” and told Longstreet that the Union forces were centered on Frederick, Maryland, and were moving north under Gen. George Meade, who had replaced Gen. Joseph Hooker.  Longstreet was troubled by this news because the Confederate troops were dispersed along a broad front in central Pennsylvania so he sent Harrison to Gen. Robert E. Lee the next night.  Lee, who’d never heard of Harrison before, relied on his intelligence because Longstreet had vouched for his accuracy—and Lee halted his entire army and redirected it to the area near Gettysburg, thus assuring that the famous Battle of Gettysburg would take place on 1-3 July, a turning point of the Civil War.                     

After the historic battle, Harrison stayed with Longstreet’s army waiting for something for him to do, finally asking for leave to go to Richmond for a time.  The general’s aide happened to be in the Confederate capital some weeks later and found Harrison, apparently drunk, playing Iago in a production of Othello.  Discovering that the scout had been drinking and gambling heavily, the aide reported this to Longstreet, who felt Harrison was a security risk and paid him off for his services.  Harrison married and moved to New York City for the remainder of the war and operated there and in Washington as an agent for the Confederacy, but none of his intelligence ever came up to the level of significance as that which he provided Lee at Gettysburg.  

After the war, Harrison’s life became troubled and peripatetic—and he never seems to have returned to the stage.  He, his wife, and daughter moved to Mexico in 1865, but in 1866, his marriage in trouble, Harrison left to prospect for gold in Montana Territory near Helena.  From 1867 to 1892, Harrison seemed to have fallen off the map and his wife, assuming he’d died, later remarried.  In 1893, however, Harrison  turned up in Cincinnati and in 1901, got a job there as a detective.  An attempt to reconnect with his family in 1900 met with rejection, though some letters were exchanged.  Eleven years later, he moved to Covington, Kentucky, and applied for a Confederate pension, stating in his application only that he was a Confederate veteran but never mentioning his dramatic service as a spy for Seddon, Longstreet, and Lee.  On 28 October 1923, Harrison died destitute in Covington at the age of 91.  He was buried in an unmarked grave, registered only as “Harrison,” because Longstreet, who alone knew his full identity, had died in 1904 without revealing who his “scout” was.  The Department of Veterans Affairs placed a headstone on Harrison’s grave in 2003 after his full identity was discovered in 1986.

Ironically, there was another Confederate spy with the same family name as Longstreet’s scout, and he, too, was an actor.  In fact, some accounts of the events of 28-29 June 1863 assert that “Harrison” was James Harrison (1834-1913), but this is a case of mistaken identityengendered, of course, by the secrecy in which Henry Thomas Harrison’s identity was wrapped.  (There are nevertheless current Civil War histories that identify the scout who informed Longstreet and Lee about the Union troop movements on the eve of Gettysburg as James Harrison even though it’s pretty conclusive it was H. T. Harrison.)  James Harrison was a better-known actor, an associate of Edwin Booth (older brother, as noted, of John Wilkes Booth).  James Harrison, who was from Richmond (and should also not be confused with James E. Harrison, a Confederate general from South Carolina and Mississippi), is alternately characterized as an itinerant actor and a Shakespearean actor, but all actors at the time moved from town to town and theater to theater and any serious player had to master the Bard to earn a living.  (There were no rep companies and the long run of one show at a single theater didn’t occur for another generation.  Before New York was established at the U.S. center of theater, there were important theaters in many cities where actors traveled to perform.  Shakespeare was almost always on the bill.)  It was difficult for an actor to make a living in one town all of his or her career, but James Harrison performed regularly in Richmond and, in April and May of 1863 alone, had been booked to appear in 14 different plays there.  Apparently there’s not much record of this Harrison’s espionage work, possibly because much of the Confederacy’s records were destroyed at the end of the war or maybe because James Harrison was confused with Henry Thomas Harrison and wasn’t really involved in espionage.  (It may also partly be the result of the fact that there were literally scores of soldiers named James Harrison in the armies of both sides and any extant records are hard to sort out.)  He was reportedly an officer, but his rank is unknown, and he operated in Washington, and maybe other Northern cities, but his activities aren’t recorded (or the records have been lost or destroyed).

Pauline Cushman (1833-93), one of many women who worked in espionage, was a professional actress when the war broke out.  Born Harriet Wood in New Orleans but raised with her seven brothers in Grand Rapids, Michigan, her father ran a trading post on the Chippewa reservation.  The Indians taught her to ride horses, shoot, stalk the woods, and fight like a man, and she got plenty of practice romping with her brothers in the forest.  She returned to New Orleans in 1851 to join New Orleans Varieties, a performance group, and later traveled to New York where she took the stage name Pauline Cushman.  While appearing (in a male role) in a popular comedy called Seven Sisters (by Thomas Blades de Walden) at Wood’s Theatre in Louisville, two local Southern sympathizers (Kentucky was a “border state” but had decided Southern leanings) offered to pay Cushman $300 (about $3,600 today) to toast Confederate president Jefferson Davis during a performance.  She decided to curry favor with the Rebs by making the toast: “Here’s to Jefferson Davis and the Southern Confederacy.  May the South always maintain her honor and her rights!”   The theater manager fired her, but she’d already offered her services to the Union army as a spy.  Capitalizing on her beauty and allure, she fraternized with Confederate commanders in Kentucky and Tennessee to gain access to military documents and plans, which she concealed in her shoes to spirit away to her Northern handlers.  

Cushman also disguised herself as a backwards country boy or a young gentleman to eavesdrop on conversations at the billiard parlors and other places where women weren’t allowed.  At night, she’d ride through the countryside and observe the deployment of Confederate troops, using the skills she’d picked up in Michigan as a tomboy with seven brothers.  Cushman had another card to play as well: one of her brothers was a Confederate officer whom she hadn’t seen in years.  Searching for him was a perfect excuse for her to be asking questions about personnel and units in the area.  

At one point, however, Cushman was caught with secret documents, arrested, court-martialed, and sentenced to hang.  Using her acting skills, she feigned illness as a delaying tactic in the hopes she could find a way to escape, until 27 June 1863, three days before her final execution date, when the North invaded Shelbyville, Tennessee, where she was imprisoned.  The Rebels retreated, leaving Cushman behind.  History records that she returned to the South to continue her espionage work disguised as a male officer (one of the Rebel officers with whom she “fraternized” had had one made up for her), facial hair and all.  The actress-spy was commended by President Lincoln himself and awarded the honorary rank of Brevet Major.  (“Brevet” was a military designation, no longer used, that indicated the rank was temporary.)  For her exploits, the actress was known as “Miss Major Cushman” and went on tour, in the Union uniform given to her at her honorary commissioning, after the war lecturing about her life as a spy.  She was later even presented by P. T. Barnum, who called her the “greatest heroine of the age.”  

Cushman’s life in the years after the war was full of tragedy—failure in her return to the stage; serial marriages; the deaths of her children, a stepchild, and a couple of husbands; widowhood; poverty; toil at menial work to survive; disabled by rheumatism and arthritis.  She traveled about the country, moving to California where she ultimately settled in a San Francisco boarding house.  Addicted to pain medication, Cushman took an apparently intentional overdose of morphine on 1 December 1897 and was found dead at the age of 60 by her landlady the next morning.  Buried in the military cemetery at the Presidio of San Francisco under her last married name, her headstone reads: “Pauline C. Fryer, Union Spy.”  

[I continue the survey of spies with connections to the theater in Part 2, to be posted on 28 May.  I’ll be recounting the stories of some spies who, though they weren’t professional actors, used thespian skills to further their espionage activities.  There are also several spies who turned to the acting profession after the war, and one surprising rarity about which I won’t say anything here.  Come back to ROT later in the week to find out what I mean—and to read the rest of the collected stories of Civil War spies with a penchant for theatrics.]