In Dangerous Service, by Christine Blevins
“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 allowed a spy to maneuver between enemy camps without detection to first collect, and then deliver the intelligence vital to their cause.
At the time of the American Revolution, the British Empire had been embroiled in European conflicts for hundreds of years, and were swift and experienced in building a clandestine network of spies able to bring the rebel insurrection to its knees. When supposed ardent patriot, Continental Army Surgeon General Dr. Benjamin Church, was seized and imprisoned as a British secret agent, General George Washington recognized that without a similar mechanism in place, his fledgling army didn’t stand a chance, and 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 uncovered while researching the historical record on the various spy networks operating during the American War for Independence. One intriguing character is the clever Quakeress named Lydia Darragh who eavesdropped on the British military 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 real life she-spies from opposite sides of the conflict. Tory Ann Bates infiltrated the Continental Army disguised as a peddler woman and gave accurate report on rebel troop numbers, movements, and munitions. The mysterious agent known only as “355” was a female member of Washington’s Culpur Ring of spies. Some say she was captured and perished on a British prison hulk, but 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, famous for his stirring last words, or British John André, renowned for the valor and gallantry he displayed on the gallows, were both ill-suited to the business of subterfuge, and paid an awful price for their ineptitude.
18th century spies utilized technologies to transcribe secrets quickly and securely. In the novel, Anne Merrick creates a mixture of water and hartshorn powder (ammonium carbonate derived from the horn of the red deer) and scribes her secrets invisibly between the lines of innocuous recipes. Once transmitted, the hidden information was revealed by exposing the paper to the heat of a candle. Advances in invisible ink technology at the time evolved to require a special chemical reagent, or “sympathetic stain” that, when applied, would make the invisible writing magically appear.
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 the secret message was represented by a series of three numbers corresponding 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 – average folk who risked their lives and faced dishonorable death on the gallows in pursuit of intelligence that might possibly tip the tide of fortune.
More about Christine Blevins
Author Christine Blevins writes what she loves to read – historical adventure stories. The Turning of Anne Merrick is the second in a 3-book series set during the American Revolution, and the companion book to The Tory Widow. A native Chicagoan, Christine lives in Elmhurst, Illinois, along with her husband Brian, and The Dude, a very silly golden-doodle. She is at work finishing the third novel inspired by a lifelong fascination with the foundations of American history and the revolutionary spirit.
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