We've all heard of the famous (or infamous) Mata Hari, executed in 1917 as a German spy. And Nathan Hale, the American Revolutionary War spy who said, "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country," right before the British hanged him in 1776 at age 21.
But history is filled with spies whose names are virtually unknown. In most instances anonymity is vital to success, an unknown name and an appearance that blends in with everyone else.
I read a brief mention about a female spy from World War II who died in August 2011 at the age of 98, someone I had never heard of, and that led me to a list of 10 spies who aren't household names.
1) Nancy Wake: Flirted her way through checkpoints and karate chopped a Nazi guard to death.
The female spy mentioned above who survived her World War II spy assignments and lived to be 98 years old. In the 1930s, a young Australian journalist went to Germany to report on the rise of fascism and interview Hitler. The atrocities she witnessed changed her life forever. She settled in France and when the Nazi's invaded in 1940 she joined the resistance movement, helping thousands of Jewish refugees and Allied servicemen escape to Spain. In 1943, with the Nazis closing in on her, she escaped to Spain and later to Britain where she convinced agents to train her as a spy and guerilla operative. In 1944 she parachuted into France leading a band of 7,000 resistance fighters where she coordinated guerilla activities prior to D-Day. She rose to the top of the Gestapo's most wanted list. She killed a German guard with one karate chop to his neck, executed a female German spy, shot her way through roadblocks, and biked 70 hours through enemy held territory to deliver radio codes for the Allies.
2) Boris Yuzhin: Used a camera concealed in a cigarette lighter to leak KGB secrets to the FBI.
In July 1975, the KGB sent Boris to San Francisco where he posed as a visiting scholar and later as a news reporter. His indoctrination said America was the enemy, but to his surprise he felt right at home and eventually grew to question his own country's policies. By 1978 he had become a double agent, supplying information about KGB operations in California to the FBI. His career as a double agent ended in 1986 when Aldrich Ames, the infamous CIA officer who had been spying for the Soviets, identified Boris which landed him in a Siberian prison for 6 years (at a time when Soviet traitors were almost always executed). Boris now (at the time the article was written) lives in Santa Rosa, California.
3) Marthe Cnockaert: Healed Germans to help the British during World War I.
In 1914, German troops destroyed the small Belgian village where 22-year-old Marthe lived. Also sympathetic to the Allies, she was desperate for work to support her family. She found a job in a makeshift hospital for wounded German soldiers and earned the German Iron Cross for her medical services. A neighbor approached her about spying for the British, a role she soon embraced. For 2 years she coaxed secrets from German officers, arranged the murder of German who tried to recruit her as a German spy, blew up a German ammunitions depot, directed airplane strikes and helps POWs escape. She was eventually discovered and imprisoned for 2 years. She was later honored by Winston Churchill and wrote a book about her wartime experiences.
4) Eugene Bullard: Spied on Nazi officers who visited his Paris nightclub.
Eugene Jacques Bullard was born in Columbus, Georgia, in 1894. As a teenager, he stowed away to Europe and supported himself as a prize fighter and interpreter. With the start of World War I, he joined the French army and became the world's first black fighter pilot. He later married the daughter of a French countess, opened a nightclub in Paris, and socialized with Josephine Baker, Louis Armstrong, and Ernest Hemingway. He served his adoptive country again in World War II when he joined the French resistance movement. He used his fluency in German to spy on Nazis who frequented his nightclub. The Germans spoke freely in front of him, believing that nonwhites were incapable of understanding their language. He helped defend the city of Orleans, sustained serious injuries, and was medically evacuated to the U.S. along with his 2 daughters. While a hero in France, in the U.S. he finally found work as an elevator operator. He died in 1961 at the age of 67, just 2 years after France named him a Knight of the Legion of Honor.
5) Anna Smith Strong: Used laundry to arrange clandestine meetings during the American Revolution.
In 1778, George Washington instructed a young cavalry officer named Benjamin Tallmadge with establishing a spy network to operate behind enemy lines on New York's Long Island. His spy group, the Culper Spy Ring, became the war's most effective spy operation. Anna Smith Strong became a vital link between agents on Long Island and Washington's headquarters in Connecticut. She would hang specific pieces of laundry on her close line at certain times to send messages and arrange meetings according of a coded system.
6) Juan Pujol Garcia: Helped ensure the Allies' success on D-Day.
Juan Garcia, a Spanish businessman, earned the trust of high ranking Nazi officials who knew him by the code name Arabel. They were paying him to run an elaborate spy network which included a Dutch airline steward, a British censor for the Ministry of Information and a U.S. soldier in England, all of whom were gathering information that Garcia would transmit to Berlin. In reality, Garcia was a British double agent named Garbo who supplied the Germans with secrets designed to distract them from genuine military plans. June 9, 1944, was Garcia's most important moment of distraction. He sent his German contacts an urgent message saying the D-Day landings 3 days earlier were only a diversion, that the real invasion would be at Pas de Calais. As a result, Hitler kept his best units stations in the Calais area instead of sending them to Normandy as backup where the Allies were turning the tide of the war.
7) Elizabeth Van Lew: Led a spy ring for the Union during the U.S. Civil War.
Even though Elizabeth was raised in a wealthy slave-holding family in Richmond, Virginia, she developed strong anti-slavery sympathies after attending a Quaker school in Philadelphia. With the advent of the Civil War, she went on her own to visit captured Union solders, helping some escape and gathering information from prisoners and guards about Confederate strategy. In 1863, Union General Benjamin Butler recruited her as a spy and she soon became head of an entire spy network based in Richmond. She sent coded messages using invisible ink and hiding them in hollowed-out eggs or vegetables. In 1865 when Richmond fell to the Union forces, she flew the Stars and Stripes above her home.
8) John Scobell: Posed as a slave to gather information behind Confederate lines during the U.S. Civil War.
A former slave from Mississippi, John worked for Allan Pinkerton as an undercover officer. Pinkerton headed the Union intelligence services. John completed many top-secret missions, often playing the part of a cook, field hand, or butler. He also persuaded members of a clandestine slave organization to act as couriers and report on local conditions. Pinkerton specifically mentioned John in his memoirs, describing an incident when John was pretending to be the servant of a female Union operative. When Confederate agents opened fire on them, he single-handedly fought off the Confederates, killing several and saving the female operative's life and his own.
9) Yehudit Nessyahu: Helped bring Holocaust mastermind Adolf Eichmann to justice.
Yehudit was born in Holland in 1925 and moved to Israel as a young girl. In the 1950s she participated in a covert operation to smuggle Jews out of Morocco using the persona of a wealthy and eccentric Dutch transplant. In 1960s she was the only woman on the legendary Mossad team responsible for capturing Nazi leader Adolf Eichmann who was living in Argentina under a false name. She died in 2003.
10) James Rivington: Printed a loyalist newspaper but secretly spied for George Washington during the Revolutionary War.
An English bookseller and publisher who relocated to New York's Wall Street after his London business failed. Was he a staunch backer of the British Crown or the American Revolution's most unlikely supporter? With the escalation of tensions between the colonists and the British monarchy, he denounced the rebels in his newspaper, Rivington's Gazette. In 1775, his articles incited a mob of revolutionaries to burn his house and destroy his press. Two years later he returned from a stay in England. According to recent scholarly discoveries, he had switched sides and worked as a spy for the revolutionaries. A coffeehouse located next to his rebuild shop was a meeting place for high-ranking British officers. Documents from the period suggest the recent convert printer shared their secrets directly with George Washington.