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4th Annual Love-A-Spook Day — An Insignificant Irish Quaker Woman

By Jay Holmes

In 2010, my writing partner, Piper Bayard, declared October 31st to be Love-A-Spook Day in appreciation of the quiet contributions of the intelligence community. In real life, versus Hollywood, not all spooks are highly trained supermen and superwomen who look like Daniel Craig and Scarlett Johansson. Many are simple people who rise to the occasion of their moment in history. Lydia Darragh was one of those people.

Lydia Barrington Darragh

Lydia Barrington Darragh

On a chilly rainy day in Dublin in 1728, a baby girl was born in front of a quaint Irish stone hearth in a humble home. Well, okay, I can’t be sure of the rain, but if you’ve been to Dublin, you can imagine a little rain falling. The house was likely humble, and why not get close to the fireplace if you have to give birth in Dublin in 1728? What we do know for certain was that the girl was named Lydia Barrington, and at twenty-four, she married a clergyman’s son named William Darragh. Two years later, they made the difficult crossing to the British colonies in America and settled in Philadelphia.

They joined a Quaker community and were clearly pacifists. Lydia, a nurse and midwife, was obviously a very durable woman, because she gave birth to nine children and managed to not die in the process. Lydia and William lost four children in infancy and raised their five surviving children to be practicing Quakers. However, during the American Revolution, their son Charles defied his upbringing and joined the Second Pennsylvania Regiment to fight against the British Occupation.

On September 26, 1777, British forces led by General Howe entered Philadelphia in force. He occupied the home of Lydia’s neighbor, John Cadwalader, who was absent, having joined the first revolutionary regiment, the Philadelphia Light Horse.

As was common practice at the time, Howe stationed soldiers in the homes of the local citizens. Upon arriving at his new headquarters, Howe dispatched his intelligence officer, Major John Andre, to commandeer more houses for his staff officers and their attendants. Major Andre ordered Lydia and her family to move out.

Lydia had two young children still at home and no place to go, so she decided to ask Lord Howe to allow her to stay in her home. On her way to Howe’s headquarters at Cadwalader’s, she met up with a cousin from Ireland, who happened to be a captain on Howe’s staff. Her cousin interceded for her, and Howe allowed Lydia and her children to remain in their home with the understanding that she would keep her dining room available as a meeting room for British officers.

Lydia Barrington Darragh Daughters of the American Revolution Medallion

Lydia Barrington Darragh
Daughters of the American Revolution Medallion

On the night of December 2, 1777, Howe held a planning session with his senior staff members and his unit commanders at the Darragh residence. They worked for several hours to formalize the details of an attack on the Revolutionary Forces stronghold of Whitemarsh, to be conducted on December 4.

During this planning session, Lydia hid in a linen closet next to the meeting room. Had she been discovered, she likely would have been taken outside and hanged as a spy. However, she was perhaps emboldened by the knowledge that her son Charles’s regiment was at Whitemarsh with Washington, and she took the risk.

As the meeting broke up, Lydia quickly snuck back to bed. Major Andre knocked on her door, but she ignored him the first few times. Finally, she answered, and Andre told her that the meeting was over. Lydia knew that she had two days to alert Washington’s forces of the pending British attack.

The next day, she requested a pass to go get flour at a mill in the countryside. Locals frequently requested such passes to purchase supplies from nearby farming communities.

The remainder of Lydia’s story is somewhat controversial. According to her daughter Ann, she found Thomas Craig, a member of the Pennsylvania militia, at the Rising Sun tavern. He relayed Lydia’s information to Washington. In another version handed down from Colonel Elias Boudinat’s family, the Colonel was dining at the tavern when Lydia approached him and passed him a note hidden in a small sewing kit. In that version, it was Boudinot who alerted Washington to the pending attack. It may be that Lydia was simply being a good intelligence agent and chose not to rely upon only one person to deliver the critical message to Washington. I suspect that both accounts are true.

What is certain is that Washington did indeed get the message, and it’s a good thing that he did. He was considering moving the greater part of his forces further north. Many of his 9,000 troops were recently arrived reinforcements from New York and Maryland, and they had not had time to rest. Had Howe and his 10,000 troops caught the less experienced, inferiorly equipped Continental forces on the march, his well-disciplined, well equipped, experienced troops would likely have destroyed the better part of the colonial forces. With the new information in hand, Washington and his staff were able to prepare to resist an attack.

Just after midnight on December 5, General Cornwallis led the British vanguard into an ambush by a small Colonial cavalry patrol. The American commander Captain Allan McLane dispatched riders to alert nearby pickets. When McLane and his small force withdrew, the always-arrogant Cornwallis was certain that he had won the skirmish. He failed to understand what was occurring. McLane had simply wanted to make contact with the British forces in order to determine their arrival time.

Over the following two days, the British easily held off small American advances. Cornwallis was deceived, but Howe was not. Howe was a brilliant soldier and understood the Americans better than most of his contemporaries did. He knew Washington was merely keeping track of British dispositions so as to better organize to meet a British attack on the prepared Colonial defensive positions.

Battle of Whitemarsh Library of Congress

Battle of Whitemarsh
Library of Congress

Howe expected to fight for a maximum of two days to destroy the Colonial Army. Hoping to surprise Washington in the open, he had ordered that his army’s heavy baggage be left behind in Philadelphia. His troops had now slept in the open for two days and were short on rations.

To Cornwallis’s surprise and the considerable disappointment of Washington and his staff, Howe ordered a withdrawal to Philadelphia. Cornwallis and others later criticized him for this move, but had his hungry, tired men attacked the Colonials, the long range fire of the Colonial’s rifles would likely have taken a huge toll on Howe’s forces before they could even get close to the enemy lines.

It was obvious to Howe that Washington was warned of the British attack. The British questioned everyone in the area, but fortunately for Lydia, they settled on the theory that a trained spy from Washington’s camp must have interpreted their preparations to march and relayed a message using the usual American relay rider tactic.

Given Lydia’s connection to a member of Howe’s staff, it’s easy to see how even a bright man like Howe might have assumed that the Quaker woman was a British loyalist. She hailed from an English Irish family in Dublin, and Quakers of all backgrounds were seen as being often annoying, but never dangerous. In Lydia’s case, the reasonable assumptions turned out to be bad assumptions.

Some historians interpret Lydia’s story as proof that General Howe and his army thought too little of women to think them capable of spying. This seems unlikely. Howe’s trusted intelligence officer Major Andre was not in the habit of underestimating women and often employed women as spies for the British. Lydia simply played her role as a friendly sympathizer well.

In overall casualties, the Battle of Whitemarsh was insignificant, but strategically, it was important for the American rebels. It allowed Washington to safely withdraw his forces to Valley Forge, where they faced a bitter winter, but were able to survive and renew their offensive in the spring. Without the advanced, detailed warning that the old Quaker pacifist gave, Washington’s army might have never made it as far as Valley Forge.

In truth, if the stories of all the spooks who have helped American and allied causes were known, we would quickly see that they are not all highly trained “James Bond” types. Spooks come in all sizes and shapes. What Lydia Darragh proved is that it’s the commitment to one’s cause that matters the most.

35 thoughts on “ 4th Annual Love-A-Spook Day — An Insignificant Irish Quaker Woman

  1. Pingback: 4th Annual Love a Spook Day – An Insignificant Quaker Woman « Bayard & Holmes

    • From Holmes: Hi Diane. If you find any good spooks this week, give them a cookie. If you find any bad spooks, be careful not to get caught burying their bodies.

      • Sage advice indeed. Problem is, a good spook would never take a cookie from a strange woman… and I’m about as strange as they come.

      • From Holmes: Hi Laird. First of all, thank you for doing a great job on developing our site. You are very easy to work with. Not that I actually DO any of the work — that’s generally Piper’s job. Nonetheless, I do appreciate your professional attitude and your skills.

    • From Holmes: Hi Jenny. It’s okay to love spooks every day. Love is always the right answer, but as with all forms of love, one must be careful about whom one chooses to answer. I’m going to contact your sweetie and see if he will consent to dressing up as a spook for you once a week. Would you prefer the James Bond type or the Guy Dressed Up for a Night Jump type. Trust me. The SCUBA costume might look cool, but it’s completely impractical for anything but SCUBA.

      • My guy is an ex-football player. Ergo, wetsuits and monkey suits are NOT his look, and make him resemble Guido the Spine-Cracker.

        So, whichever ensemble/costume works with THAT body type, that’s the one I want! 🙂

        • From Holmes: My reliable intelligence sources inform me that your guy is “awesome.” I have never met him, yet I find that I “owe him one” for all his help in Dallas. I hope I get to return the kindness on some occasion.

          Perhaps the Tarzan Spying in the Congo look would work best in his case. He wouldn’t have to actually go to the Congo, and an old towel serves as well as a cheetah pelt.

    • From Holmes: Hi Tom. You are right. My wife is the perfect example of that. She always knows what I said, and even knows what I said when I forgot to say it.

    • From Holmes: Hello Justine. Thank you for all of your support. Congratulations on all of your success with your novels. You picked the most difficult genre in which to succeed. I’m impressed that you did.

  2. on ,
    Jay Holmes said:

    Hi Philosopher. “May others our take her life as a guide.” I hope so.

  3. on ,
    Jay Holmes said:

    Great to see you Susie. Well OK. Great to see the glow caused by the electrons that you directed toward this screen…but you get the idea.

    Piper and Laird Sapir get the credit for the new web page. My contribution was limited to “uhm yea a web page would be good.”

  4. Love Holme’s historical narratives. One of his/your recent columns remarked on spooks having to know their history. It really comes through in articles like this!

    • Glad you enjoyed it. Holmes would love to answer himself, but he is busy eliminating global warming, world hunger, and low air in tires today. In the meantime, thanks for stopping by.

    • Thank you, Michelle. Glad you enjoyed it. If Holmes wasn’t cleaning up corruption in the Axis of Evil (Iran, North Korea, and Washington D.C.) today, he would love to answer you himself. We both appreciate you stopping by.

  5. Great story! And now I have Carly Simon’s “Nobody Does It Better” going through my head (but The Spy Who Loved Me was always my favourite Bond, thanks mainly to that Lotus)..

    • LOL. I’m guessing Holmes would enjoy that Lotus, and if he wouldn’t, then he could give it to me to enjoy. He’s out eliminating terrorists, phone solicitors, and litterbugs today, but I’m sure he will appreciate your comment as soon as he’s able to check the site. 🙂

  6. I’m a day late to the party, which would not</strong bode well in the world of spooks. I love getting the inside scoop on spooks.

    I'm reading about the American Revolution now. Catching up on all those history classes I found give-me-a-daydream boring.

    I'll be interested to see if Joseph Ellis includes Lydia Spook Intel in his recounting of the Battle of Whitemarsh.

    His focus seems to be on personalities and battle strategies, end-results and implications, and the ideals surrounding The United STATES of America.

    Since I have the right to bitch about the current situation in Washington, I felt I should exercise my brain cells and learn intent compared to our current reality. I'd say "scary," but the truth is…

    it pisses me off.

    p.s. Love the new look. Yes, I signed up. I don't want to miss a Bayard/Holmes installment.

    • Note to self: B&H accepts HTML code, but it does not appear to make any damn difference to the output in posted comments.

      Yeah. I’m dinking around with code again. Since I plan to be an ongoing commenter, I want to know what I’m dealing with here. 😉

      I’d say “sorry,”, but, if that were true, I’d choose to Cancel Reply rather than Post Comment, wouldn’t I?

      • LOL. Dink away! It’s always a pleasure to see you. Holmes is currently off killing zombies and preventing the next asteroid apocalypse, so he can’t answer you himself, but I know I speak for him, too, when I say we appreciate your friendship, interest, and support. 🙂

  7. on ,
    simone Barrington Darragh said:

    I’m a direct decendant of ms lydia Barrington darragh. It pisses me off when armchair critics without a callous on their baby soft hands diss and bag my gggreatgrandma. I am Simone Barrington darragh. Grand daughter of William Darragh and alot more family to mention. So to those who sit back and bag my lineage for having the guts and courage to help the cause she believed in. How many
    can say their family helped George Washington. Not many if any. Simone Barrington Darragh.

  8. Pingback: Flying Spooks — 6th Annual Love A Spook Day | Bayard & Holmes

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