With characters like James Bond and Johnny English dominating the screens, there likely isn’t a single person who hasn’t lost themselves in the “greatest spy fantasy”. We picture ourselves driving the coolest cars, using the most extraordinary gadgets, and knocking down the villainous megalomaniac with one swell swoop. However, it's important to remember that espionage is the art of covertly obtaining and passing on confidential vital information to an enemy force.
Real spies were unlikely to have had fancy cars and gadgets, but they lived equally dangerous lives, blending in no matter where they went and extracting top secret information from any source they could find. Many of these undercover agents fooled the greatest minds of various governments for decades and carried out many covert missions, before ending up in jail or on death row for their treasonous lives. These are the stories of 7 of the most famous spies that were discovered throughout the past century.
(By Roger Higgins, Wikimedia Commons)
These two look like an ordinary couple, worried about groceries and rent payments. However, between 1942 and 1951, Julius, assisted by his wife, was heavily engaged in the art of espionage. Julius was approached and recruited by the KGB when he began his job as an engineer-inspector at the Army Signal Corps Engineering Laboratories at Fort Monmouth.
Julius continued to pass on crucial classified information over the next few years, including the confidential fuze design, which would then be used to shoot down the American Spyplane Lockheed U-2 in 1960. Julius’s brother-in-law, Sergeant David Greenglass, was at the time working on the Manhattan Project, designing a nuclear bomb, in Los Alamos. He recruited Greenglass with the help of his wife and received further information from him, which was then passed on to the KGB through a courier at the Project named Harry Gold.
Over the next decade, the Rosenbergs amassed a miniature army of recruits that passed on information to them that was of utmost importance to the USSR, including the plans designed for a jet fighter, and manufacturing procedures for weapons-grade uranium. Of course, at this point, the US Government became suspicious of the Soviet Union’s sudden scientific developments, and all eyes turned to the Manhattan Project, a hub of sensitive information.
The spotlight eventually turned to Greenglass and Gold, who promptly revealed Julius Rosenberg’s role. The trial of the Rosenberg’s began in 1951, and while Ethel’s contribution was never confirmed, she was heavily implicated in the crimes, in the hopes of, unsuccessfully, getting Julius to confess. Greenglass and his wife were exonerated of their involvement, and the Rosenbergs became the only American civilians executed during the Cold War for espionage.
(By Francesco Giuseppe Casanova, Wikimedia Commons)
If you think the name sounds familiar, you would be correct. Casanova was an infamous 18-century Venetian womanizer, known for his charming words and endless trickery. Both his stories of romance and revelry laid out in his tell-all book, The Story of My Life, and the fictionalized tale of his search for meaning in the 2005 film Casanova, barely scratch the surface of this formidable man’s life.
Casanova had many professions and roles in his life, but what is known is that he began his escapades as a lawyer. Despite practicing law, his interests laid in medicine, though he worked for a wealthy patron who was his steady source of income. After seducing a beautiful woman that his patron had been pursuing, his employment was brought to an end, and he had to seek another stream of payment.
This was a regular pattern for the emboldened Casanova, who combined stunning smarts with cunning slyness and a predilection for debauchery. He was inducted into both the church and the military and was promptly dismissed from both, leaving them in the still smoking wake of his scandalous behavior. He then tried his hand at professional gambling, played the violin, was a medicine man for a wealthy patron, and even a practical joker. After being arrested and fleeing from prison, Casanova made his way to Paris, where his new employer, the then Foreign Minister of France, finally put his endless range of skills to use.
Casanova was sent on top-secret missions to Dunkirk, Amsterdam, and numerous other European nations, where he would steal information, designs, personal details, and sell government bonds. Much of the work he performed was described in brief details in his autobiographies, though the bulk of his stories revolve around his romantic escapades. When his patron was finally dismissed from the Court, Casanova was again left without any protection and once again returned to his life on the run.
James Armistead was an African-American slave with a passion for joining the American Forces during the time of the American Revolution. Recognizing his intelligence and ability to blend in, his master, William Armistead sent him to be commanded by one General Lafayette in 1781. Lafayette immediately put him to work posing as a slave in British camps.
One of the first camps Armistead found himself in was that of the then outed traitor, Benedict Arnold. He pretended to be a spy for the British and continued to relay information on Arnold’s movements and plans to General Lafayette. After Arnold’s camp was decommissioned, Armistead’s work was far from over. He moved from British camp to camp, becoming a familiar face among the Colonizers. He collected details on arms shipments, troop movements, and major players, among many other things.
Despite the fact that the information relayed by Armistead would eventually secure the victory of the American Forces in Yorktown, Armistead’s freedom was still a long way off. As a spy and not a soldier, Armistead was not entitled to his freedom under the Manumission Act. It was finally only in 1787 that Armistead secured his freedom from the state of Virginia, with the support of both his master and General Lafayette.
In honor of his commanding officer, Armistead took on his name as well, and with his freedom in hand, Armistead went on to leave a model life. He got married and had a family, and become a successful farmer in New England.
(By staff, Federal Bureau of Investigation, Wikimedia Commons)
Aldrich Hazen “Rick” Ames had an impressive 31-year record with the CIA, before choosing to take on the role of a double agent for the KGB. Ames’ first foray into the world of espionage occurred in 1985 when he was assigned to Ankara, Turkey, with the task of recruiting Soviet Intelligence officers.
At that time, Ames was struggling in both his professional life and personal life. His long CIA work record showed numerous ebbs and flows, filled with commendations for exceptional work, right alongside reprimands for sub-par work and irresponsible actions, which included accidentally leaving confidential information in public places. On the home front, numerous affairs and an unhealthy fondness of alcohol led to a divorce, leaving Ames severely financially strained.
With these stresses weighing on his mind, in 1985, Ames offered what he believed to be “worthless” information to the Soviet Union in exchange for a sum of $50,000. Ames hoped to end his foray into espionage then and there, along with his financial woes. Unfortunately, Ames would learn that spying is a long-term game. As an executive with access to crucial information related to CIA operations, and a solid network of connections in the Soviet Union, Ames proceeded to provide information on over 100 CIA operatives, leading to the execution of 10 agents.
Ames became so accustomed to his work as a double agent, he could even fool the lie detectors. Ames successfully passed two lie detector tests during his time as a spy for the KGB, which effectively moved suspicion away from him. However, with his financial woes now turned into wins, it was Ames’ lavish spending that would be his undoing. Tracking his expenses, including a half a million-dollar house and a luxury car, the FBI caught and tried Ames, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 1994.
Mata Hari is the stage name for Margaretha Geertruida "Margreet" MacLeod, a young woman who was plagued by bad luck from the very start of her life to the very end when she was executed for espionage. Born in 1876 to the owner of a hat shop, her initial years were spent in luxury until 1889, when her father went bankrupt. After the passing of her mother and the consequent remarriage and abandonment by her father, Margreet stayed with various other relatives, always watched for her beauty by the men in her life.
At 18, she married a Dutch Colonial Army Captain. Together, they had two children, both of whom they outlived, and a marriage filled with violence, abuse, and affairs. It was during her 7 years married to Captain MacLeod that she began to study the art of dancing, and took on her stage name, Mata Hari, inspired by Indonesian culture. It was in 1904 that she began to gain a lot of attention as an exotic dancer, wowing crowds with her beauty, promiscuity, and provocative movements. For a good five years, she was admired for her grace and femininity, until critics began to call her performance exhibitionist and lacking artistic merit.
It was during this time of struggle that she fell in love with a young Russian captain serving the French Army named Vadim Maslov. When Maslov was blinded in battle with the Germans, Mata Hari was told by the French Government that she would only be permitted to see him if she spied on the Germans for them. She proceeded to Germany with the intention of doing the same and intending to seduce the Crown Prince to determine what information he held. She proceeded to reveal information to the Germans regarding French officials, effectively becoming a double agent. However, as her information was largely tawdry gossip, the Germans disposed of her by revealing her as a German Spy to the French.
She was summarily tried by the French Government for espionage, and despite providing minimal vital information to both governments, she was portrayed as the mastermind behind a much greater plot to cover up the bulk of espionage that had occurred at the hands of many others. During her trial, Maslov, whom she claimed to be the love of her life, abandoned her and refused to testify on her behalf. Mata Hari was executed by Firing Squad in 1917.
(By CIA People, Wikimedia Commons)
Virginia Hall, named after her mother and not the state, was born in Baltimore, Maryland, and was always destined to be a traveler. She studied French, German and Italian, and made her way to Europe where she studied and worked in Germany, France, Austria, Poland, and Italy over the next few years, with an end goal of becoming a diplomat.
Her diplomatic dreams came to an abrupt halt when she accidentally shot herself in the leg, resulting in an amputation. Unable to work as a diplomat, which was a job then deemed inappropriate for disabled people, Virginia took up work as a consular clerk. In World War II, she worked as an ambulance driver. It was during this time that she happened upon a British Intelligence Officer that got her through to the newly-formed Special Operations Executive (SOE).
After receiving her training, she reported to Vichy, France, and began her work as an agent. She became a self-taught expert in the art of disguise, wireless operations, bribery, guerilla combat, networking, and recruiting. She built up a series of contacts and safe houses in France and maintained the longest tenure of almost any agent in France. Her instincts were applauded and saved her life more than once, including on one occasion when an SOE meeting was raided by French Officers, which Hall had been smart enough to skip.
Following this, Hall was one of the only agents that remained in France. She then went on to organize the escape of the 12 agents being kept in the French prisons. She is still regarded as one of the most dangerous Allied spies. After her stint in France with SOE came to an end, Hall was recruited, as expected, by the CIA, where her adventures continued but with a greater shroud of secrecy.
(By China5000, Wikimedia Commons)
Shei Pei Pu was the ultimate master of deception and took his work as a spy to the next level. His original profession helped him along the way. Born to a college professor and a teacher, Shei Pei Pu earned himself a literature degree, but his true aspirations were to become a recognized singer and actor, a task he achieved by age 17.
It was in 1964, when Shei Pei Pu was aged 26 and working as an Opera Singer in Beijing, that he met Bernard Boursicot, an accountant working for the French Embassy. Boursicot had reportedly only been attracted to men prior and was in search of a woman to fall in love with. Shei Pei Pu, whom Boursicot met for the first time as a man, convinced the Frenchman that he was a woman forced to dress as a man to fulfill his (her) father’s wishes of having a son.
Boursicot was smitten almost instantly, and Shei Pei Pu kept up the veil of womanhood for almost two decades. The two engaged in physical relations, bathed in secrecy and darkness at the behest of the Opera Singer, so Boursicot did not learn the true origins of his assumed female lover. Over this time, Boursicot handed over numerous confidential and crucial documents to his lover, unaware that all information was ending up in the hands of the Chinese Secret Service.
Shei Pei Pu even went so far as to purchase a child from a doctor in China and convince Boursicot that the child, named Shi Du Du, was a result of their love. Eventually, Boursicot arranged for both his “mistress” and son to travel to France. However, upon their arrival, the charade was revealed, twenty years after its inception. Both Shei Pei Pu and Boursicot were charged with espionage and imprisoned for 6 years. Even after his imprisonment, Boursicot was subjected to so much public ridicule that he attempted, and failed, to take his own life.