Image courtesy of Colonial National Historical Park, Yorktown.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Meeting Notes: May 19, 2010

"Spycraft in the American Revolution," John Nagy

Bruce Venter provided an interesting discussion concerning Simon Girty. His father, Simon, Sr., was a fur trader and well-liked, but was killed in 1749 by an Indian in a brawl. Simon, Jr. was born in 1741 in Pennsylvania and early in his life, shortly after his father was killed in the brawl, he was forced to live with Indians in western New York and the Pennsylvania region. He became very successful in the Indian way of life and learned approximately nine to eleven dialects. Although illiterate, he certainly was adept at language and could remember "messages" well. Thus he became quite an important courier first for the British, then for the Americans, and then he turned again and went back to serve with the British. Although often considered an "outlaw" Simon Girty, Jr. was involved in quite a number of interesting activities.

John Nagy then spoke about "Invisible Ink and Spycraft of the American Revolution." As referenced in our meeting notes from his November 2007 presentation, Mr. Nagy is an expert in antiques and antique manuscripts and is also a consultant for the Clements Library at the University of Michigan and has appeared on the History Channel, most recently, on Book TV. It's interesting to note that in some ways Bruce Venter's presentation and John Nagy's presentation tied in together because it was obviously very difficult to get messages through because often the messages would fall into the hands of the wrong parties. That was one of the reasons that Simon Girty was so important as a courier because he could remember these messages verbatim.

Obviously, since there were very few Simon Girtys around and especially since Simon Girty had really turned back to the British, people who wanted messages to go back and forth had to rely on invisible ink or on codes and ciphers so that if the messages did fall into the wrong hands they could not be read or understood.

Obviously there was no expectation of privacy in the mail and so it started out that the merchants would send their messages in code because they didn’t want their competitors to learn of their prices.

Mr. Nagy showed us a number of examples of these codes and had us try to decipher a number of them. For example, to bring it up to modern day times, the computer named HAL in 2001: A Space Odyssey is representative of one of those codes where a letter would be used once one beyond the actual letter. So for example, HAL is really an acronym or code for "IBM" since I is one letter past H, B is one letter past A, and M is one letter past L. There were also codes that were related to books such as the Blackstone Commentaries 5th Edition, dictionary codes, etc.

There also what were known as "dead drops" where parties would prearrange that messages would be put, say, in a tree or in a box in a cow pasture or in a ball of yarn or perhaps under a rock.

Then of course there was the actual invisible ink which is the ink mixed with something acidic such as lemon juice. Then in order to read it, heat would be applied to weaken the fibers and disclose the message.

There were also "hidden compartments" such as a false heel in a shoe, a lining of clothes, the channel for a drawstring, etc.

Finally, Mr. Nagy referenced some of Washington's deceptions because these were designed to confuse the enemy. For example, Washington would often fill barrels with sand to make the British think they were actually filled with gun powder. He would multiply the number of troops, especially through fake reports from spies. In fact one of the most obvious of his deceptions was to fake or feign an attack on New York in 1781 in order to steal his march to Yorktown.