By Johnnie Alexander
She owned a doll shop on Madison Avenue in New York City. She was obsessed with Japanese culture. And she is the first American woman to face the death penalty for her wartime betrayal.
According to who you asked, Velvalee Blucher Dickinson was either a respected businesswoman with a sense of style or a small, mousy woman with a mean streak.
Velvalee’s parents, Otto and Elizabeth Blucher, settled in Sacramento before her birth on October 12, 1893. She had a younger brother, Oswald.
Elizabeth died of tuberculosis less than a year after Velvalee received her Bachelor of Arts degree from Leland Stanford Junior University. Otto died four years later when he was crushed beneath the wheel of a car.
Velvalee’s first two marriages ended in divorce. She later married Lee Dickinson, the owner of a produce commodity brokerage company that catered to Japanese clients in California’s Imperial Valley.
In the years prior to World War II, Velvalee cultivated deep relationships within the Japanese-American Society. Her dues were even paid by an attaché from the Japanese Consulate in San Francisco. She attended social events with Japanese Naval officer and other high-ranking government officials where she dressed in authentic Japanese attire.
Even after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Velvalee’s sympathies were with the Japanese. When she was asked to find out the extent of damage to U.S. naval warships, she readily agreed.
The Dickinsons had moved to New York City in the mid-1930s where Velvalee opened a shop selling a variety of dolls to clients throughout the United States and even internationally.
She passed along traitorous information to our enemies by using jargon code in letters written to a fictional señora in Argentina. She forged the names of several of her clients on these letters.
Here’s a quick run-down of the five letters that prompted the FBI’s investigation into the Doll Woman:
· In February 1942, wartime censors gave the FBI a suspicious letter supposedly written by Maud Bowman of Spokane. The letter, dated January 27, 1942, had a Seattle postmark.
· That same month, Mary Wallace of Springfield, Ohio, received an envelope with her address marked Return to Sender. Her signature had been forged on the letter. She gave the letter to her local post office director who forwarded it to the FBI.
· The FBI worked with post office censors to intercept three more letters in August 1942. Two of these were supposedly written by Sara Gellert of Portland and the third was supposedly written by Freda Maytag of Colorado Springs.
All the letters were addressed to Señora Ines Lopez de Molinali in Buenos Aires. But when FBI agents went to this address, the house had been abandoned. Months later, the FBI learned that the Japanese had switched agents in Buenos Aires without telling Velvalee.
The story of the Doll Woman inspired the plot of my newest novel, The Cryptographer’s Dilemma, the first in Barbour’s Heroines of WWII Series. The book releases in August.
Next month, I’ll share more about Velvalee Dickinson and the FBI’s investigation.
The Doll Woman inspired the plot of my newest novel, The Cryptographer’s Dilemma, the first in Barbour’s Heroines of WWII Series. The book releases in August.
Johnnie Alexander imagines stories you won’t forget in multiple genres. A fan of classic movies, stacks of books, and road trips, she shares a life of quiet adventure with Griff, her happy-go-lucky collie, and Rugby, her racoon-treeing papillon.
Pre-Order The Cryptographer's Dilemma at http://bit.ly/ja-TCD.
Connect with Johnnie at johnnie-alexander.com.
Photo Credits: Photos are in the public domain.