“As usual, it is the least likely that make for the best spies.”
– Anne Merrick, widow, rebel and spy
The ability to blend in – to become invisible – this is the successful spy’s single greatest asset. Being invisible allows a spy to maneuver between enemy camps without detection to first collect, and then deliver the intelligence vital to their cause.
When the American Revolution first began, the British Empire had been embroiled in European conflicts for hundreds of years, and the British were swift and experienced in building a clandestine network of spies who’s aim was to bring the rebel insurrection to its knees. Once the ardent patriot, Son of Liberty and Surgeon General to the Continental Army Dr. Benjamin Church, was discovered to be a secret agent to the British, General George Washington recognized that without a similar secret service in place, his fledgling army didn’t stand a chance, so he set about building an intelligence gathering organization.
Several characters appearing in The Turning of Anne Merrick are based on the stories of actual agents I discovered while researching the historical record on the various spy networks operating during the American War for Independence. One intriguing character is the clever Quakeress, Lydia Darragh, who eavesdropped on the British military officers who had commandeered a room in her home. Hercules Mulligan was a real Irish tailor who catered to the British officer corps in Occupied New York City, and was also the leader of the Mulligan Spy Ring.
The title character Anne Merrick’s spying persona is inspired by two real life she-spies from opposite sides of the conflict. Tory Ann Bates infiltrated the Continental Army disguised as a peddler woman and successfully gave accurate report on rebel troop numbers, movements, and munitions. The mysterious rebel agent known only as “355” was a female member of Washington’s Culpur Ring of spies. Some historians think she was eventually captured, and imprisoned to perish on a British prison hulk. 355 has gone down in history with her name and ultimate fate never revealed.
We tend to know the most detail about the unsuccessful spies – the ones who got caught. American Nathan Hale was famous for his stirring last words – “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.” British John André was renowned for the valor and gallantry he displayed on the gallows – “I pray you to bear me witness that I meet my fate like a brave man.” Unfortunately, both of these men were ill suited to the business of subterfuge, and they paid an awful price for their ineptitude.
18th century spies utilized several methods to transcribe secrets quickly and securely. In my novel, Anne Merrick creates a mixture of water and hartshorn powder (ammonium carbonate derived from the horn of the red deer) and she scribes her secrets with this invisible “ink” between the lines of innocuous recipes. Once the “recipe” is delivered, the page is exposed to the heat of a candle, and the invisible writing becomes visible. Advances in invisible ink technology evolved to require a special chemical reagent, that, when applied, would make the invisible writing magically appear. Washington supplied this “sympathetic stain” to his agents in the field.
A variety of codes and ciphers were developed to transmit important information. Benedict Arnold composed his secret letters to John André using a cipher whose key was a prearranged published book. Each word of his secret message was represented by a series of three numbers that corresponded to the page number, line number, and the number of the word counting from the left.
The British technique known as the Cardan system was a form of secret letter writing meant to be read with the aid of a special mask. This was complicated system, as the letter must make sense both with or without the mask.
Ingenious subterfuge was used to convey and deliver these secret messages. Spies often made use of the “blind drop”, leaving material at a location that was agreed upon in advance. Written small, on thin tissue, missives were often rolled and hidden inside the hollow stem of a quill pen or other common items that could be carried in plain sight.
The British devised hollow silver “bullets” to store and carry messages. A bit bigger than a musket ball, these bullets could be easily concealed, or even swallowed if the messenger were to be captured. British General Clinton used just such a bullet when he sent an important dispatch to General Burgoyne just before the fateful battle at Saratoga. When the courier was captured, and seen to swallow something, a nice little emetic was administered, which brought up the silver bullet. Clinton’s courier was tried for treason, and treated to a dance at the end of a hempen rope for his trouble.
Spying for either side was a most Dangerous Service. I am absolutely fascinated by these brave and dedicated men and women who worked as agents for their cause – average folk who risked their lives and faced dishonorable death on the gallows in pursuit of intelligence that might possibly turn the tide of fortune.