Posted by Elaine Marie Cooper
Sometimes heroes are not obvious. And certainly no one would envision a Quaker midwife taking on the role of military spy.
Yet that is exactly what Lydia Darragh did in 1777. Displaying admirable courage in a critical hour, she saved the day for General George Washington and his troops in December of that year. Her courageous action brought victory for the Continental forces, changing the tide for the American Army after several discouraging defeats. It was an unexpected change for Lydia, who was born into a Quaker pacifist family in Dublin, Ireland in 1728.
Mrs. William Darragh, who was born Lydia Barrington, emigrated to America with her husband in 1754. The couple made their home in Philadelphia. As members of the Quaker religion, they settled into the large community of fellow believers in that city.
As their faith taught, they preferred peacemaking when the American Revolution began, refusing to become involved in the fighting. The Darragh’s oldest son, Charles, however, left his religious teaching and joined with the Continental forces. When the British took over the city of Philadelphia in September of 1777, Lydia seemed to have a change of heart about remaining neutral as well.
Whether it was a mother’s heart with a son in the Army that piqued her concern or her worries in general about the American cause is unclear. But one thing is certain: Her involvement with a pacifist church made her appear to be harmless to the British cause. But nothing could have been further from the truth.
British General Sir William Howe made his headquarters in a confiscated house directly across the street from the Darragh home. Soon after, British Major John Andre pounded on Lydia’s door demanding that the family evacuate. Lydia, the mother of five, had already sent her youngest two children to stay with relatives for safety. She still had two children at home and begged the major to allow her to stay, as she had nowhere else to go. A distant cousin, who was a British officer, worked in the enemy headquarters across the street. He arranged for Lydia to stay in her home as long as the British could use one of the Darragh’s rooms for military meetings. Lydia agreed.
On the evening of December 2, several British officers, including Howe, arrived at her home and ordered the whole family to retire to bed early. But Lydia only pretended to sleep. While the others slumbered in their rooms, Lydia quietly hid in a closet adjacent to the room where the officers met. Her heart in her throat, she heard them planning a surprise attack on Washington and his soldiers at a place called Whitemarsh. That was where Lydia’s son was stationed with the Continental Army! As the meeting was wrapping up, she quietly snuck back to her room.
Major Andre came to her room and knocked on her door. She feigned being in a deep sleep and ignored the first two attempts by the major to awaken her. By the third knock, she managed to look rumpled and sleepy as she answered. Their meeting was over, the officer told her. She pretended to return to her slumber, but she did not sleep. Lydia lay awake in bed, planning how to get the word to Washington.
The next day, Lydia took an empty twenty-five-pound flour sack to the British headquarters to request a pass to leave the city. She needed flour, she said, and she wished to visit her two youngest children as well. Her cousin became the one who gladly signed a pass for his Quaker relative. I can just see her smiling gratefully for this opportunity to purchase much-needed food for her family.
But any smiling would be short-lived as time was becoming critical. The planned attack on the American troops would take place the next day.
Mrs. Darragh carried the flour sack but, more importantly, the critical message warning of the impending assault. She had tucked the handwritten message in a folder for her sewing needles.
Trudging several miles through the snow, she located the Rising Sun Tavern, a known hang-out for Patriots.
An entry in a journal by Elias Boudinot, Commissary of Prisoners, who was dining at the tavern that night, relates this incident:
“After dinner, a little poor-looking insignificant old woman came in and solicited leave to go into the country and buy some flour. While we were asking some questions, she walked up to me and put into my hands a dirty old needle book, with various small pockets in it.”
The woman left. When Boudinot opened the last pocket, he found a message: General Howe was coming out the next morning with 5,000 men and thirteen cannons.
The next day, the “surprise” British attack against the American forces was thwarted. All because Lydia made a decision to be brave and risk her own life for the lives of others. Although she was later questioned by Major Andre about her possible involvement in spying, Lydia managed to convince him that she had no idea what he was talking about. She had been in a deep sleep the night of the officer’s meeting, after all. He completely believed her tale.
Lydia Darragh’s wartime spying came to light in 1827 when her daughter, Ann, published her mother’s story. In 1877, some questioned the veracity of Ann’s written narrative—until Boudinot’s memoirs were published in 1909, lending credibility to the tale of the courageous Lydia Darragh. Her treasonous actions could have led to her execution. Instead, her mother’s heart led her to unexpected bravery.