Women’s unassuming roles made them excellent spies. Playwright Darci Tucker tells the story of Elizabeth Thompson: Lady Spy.
Harmony Hunter: Hey! Welcome to the podcast, I’m Harmony Hunter.
Every war has its spies, and the Revolution is not without its secret agents. My guest Darcy Tucker is here today to share the story of a spy for the wrong side: a British operative called Elizabeth Thompson. Darci, thank you for being here.
Darci Tucker: Thank you. I’m glad to be here.
Harmony: You’re telling the story of Elizabeth Thompson as part of a larger Revolutionary Women program this summer at the museums of Colonial Williamsburg, tell us about that program.
Darci: The program I developed about nine years ago. It was originally developed for a school audience but it has worked really well with people of all ages. It’s actually three different women who were involved in the American Revolution. The first was a camp follower. Armies up until very recently brought along the wives and children of the soldiers to do a lot of the support work: things like laundry, and cooking, and nursing and that kind of thing.
So the first character is a fictitious composite camp follower based on a number of different women. The second character is Elizabeth Thompson, the spy, and I’ll tell you more about her. And the third character is Deborah Sampson, who actually enlisted in Massachusetts and fought for a year and a half as a man before she was actually discovered to be a woman.
Elizabeth Thompson, I became interested in because I’ve always thought we ought to be telling the entire story of the Revolution or of any historical event -- not just the winning side and Elizabeth Thompson was a spy for the British. And actually a full probably one-third of the population during the Revolutionary War did not want independence and there were a lot of people who spied for the British, a lot of people who took up arms for the British because at that point the way they saw it, being British was the best thing in the world at the time.
Many of the colonists thought that remaining British was the best thing to do. They had more rights and privileges as British subjects than really anyone else in the world at the time and people were afraid of giving up what was a good thing for the promise of a better thing, that might or might not actually turn out to be any better. They had remarkable freedom of speech. Not as much as we have today, but more than most people in the world had, they could send petitions and they could protest and boycott if they didn’t agree with the government policy, that was all legal.
They were considered innocent in a court of law until proven guilty as British subjects. In most places in the world that wasn’t the case. Although there were restrictions on their religious worship they had more freedom of religion than most people in the world had and they weren’t comparing themselves to 21st century United States rights and privileges so they had good legitimate reasons for wanting to remain British.
In addition, there were plenty of people who thought we couldn’t possibly gain our independence because we didn’t have a trained military, we had militia who had some training but not an actual professional army. So there was very real concern that we might start this movement for independence and not win. And if we didn’t win, we’d be in a much worse position because the British government had a kind of a long history of treating its subjects very well if they toed the line but if they openly rebelled, your life could be miserable for generations to come. So many British subjects here in America thought it just wasn’t worth the risk.
Harmony: Let’s talk about Elizabeth Thompson. Who was she, where did she live, what’s her story?
Darci: She and her husband came from Britain to Charleston, South Carolina in 1768. He was a milliner, which means that he imported all kinds of fashionable items. She was a mantua maker, who made ladies’ gowns. And they opened a shop in Charleston in 1768, put an ad in the newspaper saying they were open for business and what they would be selling. When he was asked to sign the non-importation agreement, Mr. Thompson refused to, partly because he was being asked to not to import all of the things that he imported, it would put his his business under if he had signed that.
He also was loyal to the crown and he felt that it was probably an act of disloyalty. So he refused to sign that, and when he did, he was tarred and feathered and thrown in prison and banished from South Carolina, eventually. Well the problem was they still owned all the property and so if they just left together when he was banished they would have lost everything they had invested in, in Charleston. So Elizabeth stayed behind to sell off what she could. That was shortly before the battle of Sullivan’s Island which came very early in the war. It was a terrible defeat for the British and there were British officers and sailors imprisoned.
So, Mrs. Thompson asked if her home could be used as a prison for the officers so they would be under house arrest and not kept in the dirty jail. And for whatever reason the city fathers agreed with her and that’s kind of bewildering because her husband had already been banished for being a loyalist but these officers landed in her home and stayed there for several months and while they were there she spied for them.
After the war she eventually made it back to Britain and her husband sent a letter to the King asking if they could be reimbursed for some of the property that they had lost. He listed their home, their five slaves, and all the goods in their shop as property they had lost. He explained in the letter that he had been tarred and feathered, imprisoned, and banished and that she had spied for the British officers and so since they had had risked their lives for the loyalist cause they were hoping to get compensation to replace some of the things that they had lost. Which of course they didn’t get, there were thousands of people who asked for compensation and most didn’t get it.
There are a couple of other sources that tell about her too. There’s an ad in Charleston newspaper in 1780, it’s a list of loyalists whose names are being published for ridicule and derision and her name is listed. Her husband isn’t, obviously, because he was already in England at the time. And one of the officers who was imprisoned in her home, wrote about it later and he wrote that Mrs. Thompson had dressed him in her clothing and taken him out in a carriage so that he could see the American troops for himself and gain whatever information that he needed.
So I really admire the fact that she was willing to take such a risk because she been caught she would have certainly been hanged and she probably would have been tortured first to find out what she knew because it was important you know information that could have helped the American cause. So she risked her life to stand up for what she believed was the right thing and for what we would believe was the right thing if the war had turned out differently.
This really was not a war of good guys and bad guys, it was a war of people who disagreed on what their relationship with parliament ought to be. So it was good guys on both sides and she was one of the good guys because she stood up for what she believed in, it’s just that she happened to be a good guy who ended up on the losing side.
Harmony: Well if anybody knew the risks of remaining loyalist in the climate that was developing in the American colonies, it was Elizabeth Thompson, she saw what happened to her husband, a pretty violent consequence for his remaining loyalist, so I guess we can really only speculate about what her motivations were for spying. I mean you could say it was courage or you could say it was spite. Or was there maybe another motivation? What could she have gained if the British won?
Darci: I don’t see that there’s much she could’ve gained. I don’t see that her situation in life would have changed any, she still would have been a middling sort tradeswoman, merchants wife. What she would have gained I guess would be just the status quo, that she would be able to hold on to life as she knew it already and if the British won at least she would be identified as one who had remained loyal, rather than someone who had committed treason.
That’s one of the reasons I think she did it really out of conviction because it wasn’t like she was going to get compensated in any way for it. I think she probably was really exhilarated at having the opportunity to do something like that as dangerous as it was. To do something, to stand up for what she believed in, in a world where most women didn’t really have that opportunity. You know stay home and sew shirts, stay home and gather supplies and send them, keep the farm operating, but not to do something really overt to stand up for their cause.
Harmony: You mentioned one of the overt “stand up for your cause” acts she did by helping a general to cross-dress and ride in disguise behind enemy lines, what are some of the other things that we know that she did during the Revolution to spy for the British?
Darci: Well frankly there’s not a lot that is known. I’ve only run across, in the 10 years I’ve been doing this, I’ve only run across four documents: the ad in the newspaper, the description by that officer, her name in the newspaper as a loyalist, and her husband’s letter. So to some extent I as the playwright have had to do a little bit of creative, of educated guesswork.
I know that the officers were there for several months in her home and very often when women or children, and there were women and children on both sides who spied. Usually what they were doing was just carrying intelligence. They usually weren’t actually out watching to see what was happening to gain new information but usually they were asked to carry a message from one side to the other.
So I portray her as carrying messages from these officers to spies, British spies within the American ranks. Which she may or may not have done, but I’ve put that in to illustrate that there were were people who did that, just message carriers who wouldn’t have known what the messages meant, they would have been in code so that if they were captured and tortured and divulged what the message was, they wouldn’t give any information that made sense to the enemy. So that’s that’s kind of what I portray her doing, is carrying these messages that she didn’t even know the meaning of but she’d been asked to do it and so she did.
Harmony: What is it about this story that you like?
Darci: I love the danger and the intrigue. I like the fact that she and Debrorah Sampson especially, didn’t let the norms of society stand in the way of doing something important. They decided that they didn’t care what limitations were put on them, they were going to do something that made a difference.
You know at Colonial Williamsburg, there is such an effort to get people to understand the importance of active citizenship and that’s what Debrorah Sampson and Elizabeth Thompson both practiced. Elizabeth Thompson ended up on the opposite side but she was an active, engaged citizen and if history had turned out differently she’d be the one that we would be considering the hero and Debrorah Sampson would be the one that we would consider you know the villain and traitor.
Harmony: Sounds like a great show Darci, when can people come see you perform?
Darci: Most Wednesdays this summer through the end of August. Usually at 4 o’clock in the afternoon, there’re a couple of dates that are at different times but check your “this week” because the program will be listed there to tell you what time and whether it will be performed that week. I travel all over the country performing it, so if people want an opportunity to see it elsewhere they can find information on my website, americanlives.net
Harmony: Darci, thank you so much for being with us today.
Darci: Thank you.