Spies of the 18th Century


The means have changed, but the end is the same. Interpreter Jay Templin describes the tactics of information gathering.


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi. Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present on history.org. This is “Behind the Scenes” where you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns and mostly I ask questions.

The art of spying is as old as the art of war. Interpreter Jay Templin is here with me now to talk about the techniques and deceptions employed during the Revolution.

Jay Templin: Spies are, throughout history, seen as being almost evil. It’s something that no self-respecting person would do. When they were recruiting spies at the beginning of the Revolution to go into New York, one of Nathan Hale’s associates was approached about going in and spying on the British. He told Washington that he would fight them all day long, but he would not sneak among them and be taken up and hanged like a dog for spying on them.

At the start of the war, when America is just getting going, they hadn’t thought to come up with any laws against spying yet. So the first spy that the Americans capture, Dr. Benjamin Church, he was quite a blow to the Revolution, because he had been involved in it from its very earliest beginnings. He was one of the original Sons of Liberty, and he had started spying for the British about three years before the war started – passing information along to them.

When he was captured, spying wasn’t technically illegal. So they imprisoned him for the duration of the war. But he wasn’t executed. Almost immediately, they went ahead and passed a law making spying illegal. Washington insisted on having most spies tried by military tribunals, rather than civilian courts, because that gave him the authority to execute them if they were convicted. Hanging was the usual punishment.

Lloyd: Did he execute any spies?

Jay: There were a number that were executed. Probably the most famous is Major John Andre at the end of the war, who was part of Benedict Arnold’s plot to turn West Point over to the English. Andre’s sort of a sad story, because he was a career military officer who reluctantly got involved in the spy outfit with Benedict Arnold. When Andre was going to meet with Arnold, he had been told, “Well you’re going to come in disguised as a merchant.” He said, “I won’t. I’ll come in in my uniform, because if I get captured in civilian clothing, I’m a spy and they’ll hang me.”

Lloyd: Were there women spies in the Revolution?

Jay: There certainly were. There were a number of them, particularly in New York and New Jersey. You’ll see women – not necessarily gathering information, although some of that went on – but working to carry it. At least early in the war, women and children weren’t thought to be any particular threat by most military officers. So a woman would not necessarily be searched as thoroughly as a man who was suspected of spying. In fact, in the Church case, it was a woman who was serving as sort of a safe drop for letters between him and one of his English contacts that was responsible for his being captured.

Lloyd: It seems to me it’s the people doing the carrying who are more at risk than the people gathering the information.

Jay: Certainly. Sometimes they’re at tremendous risk, either directly or sort of accidentally. There was a case in New York, early in the war, leading up to the battle of Saratoga. An innkeeper by the name of Alexander Bryant had overheard some information that English officers were passing back and forth in his tavern.

When he went to convey this to the Americans, normally he sent information with a courier. But he decided to carry this himself. The officers watched him leave the tavern. They were suspicious and they followed him. In one of the earliest sort of high-speed chases in spy history, he ends up riding a horse to death trying to get away from these men, and then spends the night in the Hudson River.

Now this is late September, early October in Northern New York. It’s very cold up there. He spends the night in the river, floating downstream until he can get across to where the Americans are, away from these English officers that are chasing him and deliver the message, which helps to give a better picture of what the British are doing to the Americans as they prepare for the battle of Saratoga.

Not long after that, a young British officer by the name of David Tailor was supposed to carry a message to the English General Clinton. For safekeeping, he had it written on a scrap of silk, which was rolled up inside a hollow musket ball that he could carry. It was a common thing for a soldier to have, it shouldn’t have been suspected.

He runs into some sentries and says, “I have a message for General Clinton.” So they take him to headquarters. Unfortunately, the Americans also had a General Clinton, and now he’s in the wrong General Clinton’s office. He grabs the musket ball and swallows it, and figures, “All right, I’m safe.” They decided that they were going to get it out, and they brought in a doctor to administer medication to make him bring it back up.

When he did, they went to take it, he swallowed it again, and they threatened to cut it out this time. He was then convinced to submit to another dose of the medicine, brought the message back up. It turns out the message was one that said essentially “There’s nothing between your army and my army but General Gates, so we can come together and destroy him.” The Americans were able to use that to change their disposition in the field to make sure that the ambush that Burgoyne was trying to set up didn’t work.

Lloyd: You were talking about rolling it up on a piece of silk. Was this in plain English, was it in some sort of code?

Jay: That particular message was in plain English. Codes and ciphers were used a lot. Invisible inks were also used to hide information. Lemon juice, when you write with it, flows just like regular ink. When it dries, it’s clear. When you heat it – they would have used a candle, today kids would experiment with it and use light bulbs and things – but it shows up as a faint brown. So you can write information in between the lines of another letter, in the margins in a book.

Washington often encouraged his officers to write on the blank pages of the front and back of pamphlets and other small books. Something that they could carry that wouldn’t arouse suspicion, but they would be able to keep that information. Unfortunately, things like lemon juice that show up when you heat them are common enough that early in the war, everybody’s heating their papers up.

So they start experimenting with other formulas for invisible inks. Unfortunately, we don’t know what any of them were. They mention, you know, “the secret ink,” or “these chemicals,” but they never tell us what they are, because it was a secret. They didn’t want anyone to know.

Lloyd: The most common reason for espionage is money. Was that true in Revolutionary times?

Jay: A lot of the messages that are being passed around historically are going in codes and ciphers. That was something that wasn’t really that unusual. Because the mail wasn’t secure the way it is today, people folded letters over and sealed them with wax rather than gluing them in an envelope, it was all too common for somebody unauthorized to be able to read your mail. So a lot of people employed ciphers in their personal business correspondence.

It’s hard to say for certain, because so few spies left behind their diary that’s, “Well I decided to get into this because …” But in many cases, money seems to have been if not the motivating factor, then at least one of them. Benedict Arnold, for instance, was looking for money from the English as well as promotions that he thought he deserved as a hero of the early Revolution that congress wasn’t giving him. He kept being passed over for promotions in favor of men with better political connections who hadn’t done as much for the cause.

Eventually, he decided that if the American army wasn’t going to appreciate him properly, maybe the English would. So in consideration for a sizeable amount of money and generalship in the English army, he offered to sell West Point to the British. Benjamin Church and some of the others, on the other hand, speak of doing it for their country – in his case, England. There were a number of accounts of people who got into the spying because they felt it was something that needed to be done, that it was the right thing for them to do at the time. But as I say, money is usually a factor in it as well.

Lloyd: You mentioned the rolled-up silk in a musket ball. Where else were messages hidden?

Jay: One of the most common places to hide a message is in your shoe. Unfortunately, because it’s one of the most common places to hide, it’s one of the first places people look, which is how Andre got caught.

You’ll see in hollowed-out walking sticks, rolled up on thin pieces of paper and shoved into the quill of a pen, sewn into the linings of clothing, stuffed into books behind the paper that lines the covers, into the linings of hats, inside sword hilts, sometimes in food, tucked inside a loaf of bread, or in a fish or something like that. A lot of times, information is being carried just in the person’s head.

There’s an awful lot of sort of immediate physical danger of being captured, being killed. Today, that’s certainly true as well. For every pilot that you’ve got in a military base in America flying over the middle east with a drone, you’ve got people who are on the ground in other countries who are at just as much risk as they were 200 years ago. But 200 years ago, it was all done that way. So I think to an extent, there was more danger to the folks back then.


  1. Hi:
    I am in the process of writing a first novel which takes place in late 18th century, Philadelphia, England and France. I am trying to find out more about British spying after the American Revolution in Ireland and France. I know they were active in these areas, but it is difficult to find out much about their actual spy system. There was no MI5 of MI6!

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