Espionage in the 18th Century

Socializing was the best time to spy

Lately, I have been working on a set of novels that involve espionage.  In my first novel, My Lover is a Spy, it’s pretty obvious where the espionage comes into play.  Our hero, is an American colonist who is spying for Great Britain (this is 30 years before the American Revolution).  In my second novel, (not sure of the name at the moment) Ice Moon, my hero is the leader of the spy ring in Britain and works closely with Pelham.  I did a bit of research for espionage during that time and thought I would share it with you.

Here are some tidbits about espionage during the 18th century:

Americans usually remember Benedict Arnold and Nathan Hale, two spies during the Revolutionary War.  Benedict Arnold turned against the patriots and spied for the British. Nathan Hale was captured by the British and hung because he was spying for the patriots.  His famous words were “I regret that I have but one life to give for my country”.
Nathan Hale

Benedict Arnold

Not many people knew that George Washington was a “spymaster”.  During the war, a group called the Culper Ring was secretly sending messages to Washington about movements of the British in New York.  The leader of this group, also known as the Setauket Spies were run by Benjamin Tallmadge whose code name was Samuel Culper.
George Washington

Benjamin Franklin was surrounded by spies while he lived in England.  He lived at Franklin House in London from 1757 to 1775 while he was ambassador and the British were always hoping to find out information about the colonies while visiting him.
Benjamin Franklin

John Honeyman is a controversial spy during the Revolutionary War. Some believe the stories about him are just fabrications and yet his legend continues.  The stories state he was a double agent. He brought Washington information about the movements of the Hessians during the winter of 76-77, and he supplied the Hessians with false information about Washington’s troops.  Some believe Honeyman’s tales cannot be true since they find no record of him in Washington’s correspondence.  Just the same, his tales are interesting.

Major John Andre is usually mentioned when talking about Benedict Arnold. He was captured by the patriots while spying for the British.  The British wanted him back but he was hanged.
Margaret Kemble Gage

General Thomas Gage

A surprising spy was Margaret Kemble Gage, the wife of General Thomas Gage.  He was British and she was a colonist. During the early stages of the war, it was said she sent word of her husband’s strategies with Lexington and Concord.  Her husband sent her to live in England for the remainder of the war once he learned of her actions.
the salons of Versailles were filled with spies

The American Revolution was not the only time when spies were being used during the 18th century.  During this time, many advances were being made.  Inventions were being made at such a rapid rate that countries were sending men to spy on other  countries and steal their ideas.  France sent many spies to steal ideas from the British during this time.
King Louis needed to know about the British

Marie Antoinette had her own spies

Daniel Lescallier was a French spy who gathered information on the British Navy and brought the industrial information back to France.  He lived from 1743 to 1822.
Halls of Versailles

William Wickham was a British spy during the French Revolution.  He was a spymaster who worked against the revolutionaries in France, hoping to bring the monarchy back into power.

The Chevalier d’Eon was a French spy who spent the first 49 years of his life as a man and the last 33 years as a woman.  In 1756 he was a member of Le Secret du Roi, an espionage ring that spied for Louis XV.  He was so good at his job that when he died, everyone thought he was a woman until the doctor examined his body and discovered his secret.

A few tricks of the trade: 
Invisible ink was used to send secret messages.  Sometimes it would be written on a blank piece of paper, but usually the hidden words would be written between the lines of a normal letter.  The words would only appear through a chemical reaction or by using heat to bring the words out.
quills were used to hide messages

Special codes were designed which included letters, numbers, specific word counts, or symbols.  The codes would be written in regular letters and sent to a person who had a code book who could decipher the letter.  Benedict Arnold was a spy who would use a cipher to deliver his messages.

A blind drop was when a letter would be sent to one location and picked up by another person and delivered to a different person.  Sometimes these letters would be sent odd ways.  For instance, the letter might be in long thin strips inside a quill.  They might be rolled up into a metal bullet.  Sometimes they would be swallowed so no one would find the evidence of the letters.

Spies could be men or women. They could be best friends, husbands, wives, or even the person living next door.  The best spies were the ones no one knew about.  For instance, the Culper Ring was not discovered until this century when someone found a trunk in an attic filled with special codes and materials used for send on the messages.  For nearly one hundred and fifty years no one even knew of their existence.  Now that’s a good spy ring.

I read about a novelist during the 18th century whose novels included stories of a young lady who would become invisible when she secured a belt around her waist.  She could then spy in social and political circles since no one could see her.  Quite a clever spy and trick for the 18th century.

1 comment:

  1. This is really helpful! I'm studying about espionage right now and I stumbled upon this blog while searching for information about the 18th and 19th century. The methods of hiding the messages were especially fascinating! But I also have a question; was the invisible ink already invented at this time? Or is it an example from a story, like the 'invisible belt' from the last paragraph? Erasable ink (not counting the ones that don't actually erase) was invented quite recently, and it took a fairly long amount of time. I'm not sure about the details, but the mechanism of the two types of ink seem very similar to me, on the point that they use heat. I wasn't sure if this kind of technology was available back in those days...?

    ReplyDelete