Monday, June 14, 2021

World War II's "Number One Woman Spy”

By Johnnie Alexander

 

Velvalee Dickinson, a respected member of the national doll-collecting community in the early 1940s, had a secret. A skilled marketer, she carried on a regular correspondence with many of her clients throughout the United States, created brochures detailing the dolls she had for sale, and wrote articles for hobbyist magazines.



She also wrote letters to her contact in Argentina—a woman who probably didn’t exist—using a jargon code that provided information about U.S. ships damaged at Pearl Harbor to the Japanese. As I mentioned last month in my post titled The Doll Woman ~ A World War II Traitor, Velvalee forged the signatures of a few of her clients and even used their return addresses on the letters. Between February and August of 1942, the FBI received five of these letters.

The Bureau’s efforts to break the jargon code and their search for the traitor who’d written the letters had begun.

As a reminder, here’s a quick summary of the five letters.

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.

A top priority was to decode the letters. Unlike a substitution code, where a number or letter is substituted for the correct number or letter, a jargon code hides a message within a message. To the casual reader, these five letters had a gossipy tone and were about different kinds of dolls. But their hidden meanings provided important information to our enemy.

For example, the Wallace letter included these lines, transcribed here as originally written:

You wrote me that you had sent a letter to Mr. Shaw, well I want to see MR. SHAW he distroyed YOUR letter, you know he has been Ill. His car was damaged but is being repaired now. I saw a few of his family about. They all say Mr. Shaw will be back to work soon.


FBI codebreakers determined that the misspelling of the word destroyed followed by the capitalized YOUR were meant to bring attention to these two words: Destroyed + Your = Destroyer.

The USS Shaw, a Mahon-class destroyer commissioned in 1936, was in dry dock at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Three bombs hit the ship during the Japanese attack. Most of the crew were ashore, but twenty-four crewmen died.



According to an article on a website called Gangster, Inc.:

“Temporary repairs were made at Pearl Harbor during December 1941 and January 1942. Then, on February 9, Shaw steamed towards San Francisco, about two weeks before the Springfield letter was sent, where repairs were completed, including the installation of a new bow” [bolded emphasis added].

FBI agents interviewed the women who supposedly wrote the letters. That’s when they learned the letters had been forged. The common element was that each of the women collected dolls and corresponded with the owner of a doll shop on Madison Avenue in New York City.

Even though the FBI now suspected Velvalee Dickinson as the letter-writer, they spent more than a year gathering evidence. Their investigation led the agents to the founders of the Humpty Dumpty Doll Hospital in Redondo Beach, California. Velvalee had often sent them postcards during a trip she had taken along the West Coast.

This itinerary helped the agents retrace Velvalee’s journey. They found the typewriters that Velvalee had used to write four of the letters at the hotels where she had stayed. They later determined that the Springfield letter was typed on Velvalee’s personal typewriter, a portable Underwood #621465.

In January 1944, the FBI arrested Velvalee, the “War’s Number One Woman Spy,” while she was taking money out of her safety deposit box in a midtown Manhattan bank.

Special Agent E. E. Conroy is quoted as saying that Velvalee “fought bitterly, kicking, clawing, and screaming in an attempt to escape.” He also said that Velvalee had “sent many coded messages to South America containing military and naval information vital to our security and valuable to our enemies” (The Doll Woman by Barbara Casey, p. 79-80).


Faced with the evidence, Velvalee claimed her husband—by this time deceased—was the true traitor.

Though Velvalee was charged with espionage and faced the death penalty, she eventually pleaded guilty to censorship violations. She served seven years and changed her name to Catherine Dickinson.

Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a sister of John, Robert, and Ted Kennedy, had taken an interest in Velvalee during her imprisonment and helped her get a job at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York City. She later worked for Mrs. Shriver as a secretary. Velvalee died in California in 1980.

Velvalee’s traitorous letters and the FBI’s investigation 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: The image of the letter is from the FBI ArchivesOther photos are in the public domain.

8 comments:

  1. Very interesting post! And I can't wait for your book. It sounds great.

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    1. Thanks, Linda! The research was fascinating...and kind of creepy! LOL!!!

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  2. Thanks for the post! I would love to know why Mrs. Shriver took such an interest in Ms. Dickinson!

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    1. That was such an interesting aspect of the story. Here's a quote from the book: "In January 1950, Eunice arrived at Alderson Federal Prison Camp for Women for a six-week stay in order to research the needs of incarcerated women with an eye toward helping them transition back into society as responsible citizens" (Velvalee Dickinson: The "Doll Woman" Spy by Barbara Casey, pg. 131). She seemed especially interested in inmates "whose illegal activities had been perpetrated in conjunction with, or at the urging of, husbands or boyfriends" (p. 132). Though that wasn't the issue for Mrs. Dickinson. She blamed her husband but she was definitely the one writing the forged letters and passing on the information.

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  3. I enjoyed your book (the ARC). It’s hard to understand Velvalee. Why stay in the US and not go to Japan? Why turn against America in the first place? Questions with no answers.

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    1. Terri, thank you so much!!! I'm glad you enjoyed the ARC. Velvalee just seemed to have an obsession with the Japanese culture and she had many friends among the Japanese elite in the U.S. But you're right--lots of unanswered questions.

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  4. Very interesting. I guess we still have women spies to this day.

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  5. Oh, I'm sure we do!! Thanks for stopping by, Michelle!

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