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5 Most Famous Spies of All Time

Posted by Diana E on

Secretary of State Stimson famously stated that “gentlemen do not read other gentlemen’s mail”, but spies know better. The work that spies do is admired or detested depending on allegiances and loyalties, but it has often influenced the course of world events. Listed below are five of the most infamous spies in history. Think you could have lived a double life like them?

Sidney Reilly

Working as a manager of a German shipbuilding agency in Russia at the turn of the 20th century, Reilly (Sigmund Rosenblum) gathered information on Germany’s naval development plan for Britain’s intelligence service. With the outbreak of World War I, he moved to New York City to help counter Germany’s plans to sabotage American munitions factories. Returning to Russia in 1918 with intent to topple the Bolshevik regime, he was forced to flee when his plan was betrayed. Lastly, he is said to have been the spy that inspired Ian Fleming’s James Bond novel series.

Julia Child

Reading coded messages about the Japanese plan for the Malaysian Invasion was part of Child’s job with the Office of Security Services (OSS). From her post in Ceylon, she was privy to the highest levels of classified documents about clandestine agents in Asia. Working under her maiden name, McWilliams, Child rejected attempts to label her as a spy. However, she was awarded the Emblem of Meritorious Civilian Service for her work on the Registry of the OSS Secretariat.

Giacomo Casanova

Fitting the description of “a jack of all trades”, Casanova spent his adventurous life pursuing a variety of colorful interests. His travels to the capitals of 18th century Europe took him to Vienna, Dresden, Prague, Paris, Rome, Cologne, St. Petersburg and Warsaw. Trouble with creditors led him to seek refuge in Spain, but agreeing to serve as a spy for Venetian inquisitors from 1774 through 1782 allowed him to return to his native Venice.

Virginia Hall Female Spy
Virginia Hall

Volunteering to work for Britain’s Special Operations Executive (SOE) at the beginning of World War II, Hall assisted the resistance efforts of the Vichy government using the code name “Diane” to hide from the German Gestapo. When France fell to Germany, she escaped to Spain and worked for the SOE office there. In 1944, she requested assignment to occupied France where she mapped drop zones for British commandos after the Allied troops landed at Normandy. Her success in reporting enemy locations led to receiving the Distinguished Service Cross in 1945.

Elizabeth Van Lew

Credited for her role as “the most successful Federal spy” of the Civil War, Van Lew used her status as a Richmond socialite to gather intelligence on Confederate troop movements. From her three story mansion, she ran a network of spies and provided intelligence for Union officers. Maintaining a posture as a loyal Confederate, she escaped notice by her wealthy friends as she found ways to provide aid to prisoners. She planned escape routes for captured Federal soldiers and often kept them for brief periods in her home.

Obtaining strategic information through intelligence gathering often requires spies to maintain more than one identity. Under the cover of a code name or a pose as an ordinary member of society, these five spies have shown the value of listening when others are talking.

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