Long before Powers and Bond: spies of the American Revolution

June 17, 1999

ANN ARBOR—The fictional methods and adventures of Austin Powers and James Bond only duplicate those of real life spies, including those of the American Revolution.
From copies of their letters to maps of the routes the letters traveled, to the secret methods and techniques used during the Revolutionary War period, the University of Michigan’s “Spy Letters of the American Revolution” Web page demonstrates the facts and divulges the secrets as documented by original material.
Developed by four students in U-M’s School of Information from original documents held by U-M’s Clements Library, the spy letters and the biographies of the writers and receivers bring new images of and insights into the fight for freedom during this period of American history.
Among the letters on the Web site is one Rachel Revere gave, along with some money, to a friend to deliver to her husband, Paul, after his “Midnight Ride.” Rachel didn’t know that her friend was a spy who delivered the letter to the British and pocketed the money.
A letter from Benjamin Thompson, who did not hide his loyalist feelings and was often referred to as “The Mad Scientist,” was written in “invisible ink” and described movements of the “Rebel Army.”
General William Howe sent General John Burgoyne a secret dispatch consisting of two, long narrow strips of paper, designed for insertion into the hollow quill of a large feather.
Another letter was meant to be read through a mask or grille. With this gimmick, the mask was laid over the letter, and the real message that the writer wanted to convey was revealed.
The Clements Library collection and the Web site include a letter intended for Benedict Arnold. The letter instructed Arnold in the types of information to gather for the British and the ways to relay this information secretly. A letter from Arnold provided the British with key information about American and French troop movements learned from George Washington.
“Spy Letters of the American Revolution” admits that there is not much information available about the women who spied for both the British and Americans, though it is known that they played an important role in the War. One such spy was Philadelphia schoolteacher Ann Bates who, disguised as a peddler, freely traveled among the American soldiers and camp followers, observing the numbers of weapons and men in each camp she visited. Later, when all her supplies had been sold, Bates would return to the British camp and report her findings.
Both British and American spies used secret codes and ciphers to disguise their communications. A cipher is letters, symbols, or numbers used in the place of real words. In order to decode a cipher, the recipient of the letter must have a key to know what the coded letters, symbols, or words really mean. Sometimes the writer did not disguise some words with the cipher so that the letters seemed to be about normal business transactions. Anyone who intercepted these letters would see such business language and think the letters were part of routine commercial deals. Spies also made up their own pocket dictionaries to encode their messages. Each word had a corresponding number. Other spies assigned each letter in the alphabet a corresponding number. Some spies even transposed letters in the alphabet. Yet other spies changed the names of major places, so that if the letters were captured, the other side would not know the places to which the letters really referred.
One form of secret writing used by both the British and American armies was invisible ink. Invisible ink, at the time of the Revolutionary War, usually consisted of a mixture of ferrous sulfate and water. The secret writing was placed between the lines of an innocent letter, in case of interception by the enemy army. The message could be discerned by treating the letter with heat by placing the paper over the flame of a candle or by treating it with a chemical reagent such as sodium carbonate solution to read the letter.
British spies took precautions to conceal the messages they carried. Letters were inserted into the hollow quills of large feathers, sewn into buttons, and stuck into small silver balls.
One British spy, carrying a message in a silver ball the size of a rifle bullet, when captured, swallowed the silver ball. He was forced to drink a strong emetic, and then vomited the ball, which he instantly snatched up, and swallowed again. The spy agreed to a second dose when the American general threatened to hang him and cut the message out of his stomach.
The Web site provides access to letters, stories about each letter, the methods used, the people sending and receiving the letters, the routes the letters took, and a timeline. The site can be accessed at www.si.umich.edu/spies/.

Spy Letters of the American RevolutionSchool of InformationRachel RevereletterGeneral William HoweAnother letterBenedict Arnold