Special Report

The Most Famous Spies in History

Source: Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Sir Francis Walsingham (1532-1590)

Principal secretary to Queen Elizabeth I, Francis Walsingham made it his mission to sniff out Catholics during the era of the newly formed English Protestand Church. Using a team of cryptographers, forgers, and informers, this spymaster helped send many Catholics to their deaths including Mary, Queen of Scots.

Source: Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Nathan Hale (1755-1776)

A soldier during the American Revolutionary War, Nathan Hale traveled behind enemy lines disguised as a Dutch schoolmaster to gather intelligence on British troop movements. While attempting to return to American-controlled soil, he was captured with incriminating documents and subsequently executed by the British.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Rose O’Neal Greenhow (1813-1864)

A powerful socialite in Washington, D.C., Rose O’Neal Greenhow became a spymaster for the Confederates during the Civil War, leading a ring of pro-South intelligence operatives in Union territory. Her work is credited with helping the Confederate Army win the Battle of Bull Run.

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

Elizabeth Van Lew (1818-1900)

Born in Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy, Elizabeth Van Lew was the granddaughter of prominent abolitionist Hilary Baker, and an abolitionist herself. Upon the start of the Civil War, Van Lew began caring for wounded Union soldiers at a Confederate prison. Her position allowed her to gather intelligence from the prisoners to pass along to Union commanders, and to assist in prison escapes. She eventually became the leader of an indispensable spy ring called the “Richmond Underground.”

Source: Public Domain / Wikimedia Commons

James Armistead Lafayette (1748?-1830?)

An enslaved man during the American Revolution, James Armisted Lafayette – who served in the Continental Army under the Marquis de Lafayette, and took his name in tribute – aided the colonies by pretending to be a runaway slave and crossing enemy lines to gather intelligence on the British Army, while also feeding the British false information. His reports led to the Continental Army’s decisive victory at the Battle of Yorktown.

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