This Day in History: A Quaker woman overhears British soldiers plotting an attack
On this day in 1777, a Quaker woman overhears British soldiers plotting an attack on George Washington’s army. She decides to act!
Lydia Darragh was then living in British-occupied Philadelphia. She’d stayed in the city, despite the fact that many other Americans had evacuated. The Quakers were pacifists, so they were assumed neutral and not viewed with suspicion. British General William Howe took up residence across the street from Darragh’s home. He occasionally demanded the use of Darragh’s parlor for officer meetings.
Maybe Howe should have paid more attention to the fact that Darragh’s son had joined a Pennsylvania Regiment and was then stationed at Whitemarsh with Washington?
On December 2, British Major John Andre arrived and told the Darraghs to retire to their rooms early. The British wanted to use the Darragh’s parlor for a meeting. The family retired to bed, but Lydia decided to creep out and listen to the British discussion. According to some versions of the story, she listened through a keyhole. Others say she was able to hear through the wall of an adjoining closet. Either way, she heard a message that she knew to be of the utmost importance: The British were planning a nighttime attack on Washington’s army.
Darragh reportedly obtained a pass to visit the countryside, allegedly to buy some flour from a local mill. She dropped her bag off at the mill, but then she continued on toward a tavern frequented by Patriots. What happened next? Well, there are two versions of the story. Possibly, Darragh met a soldier that she knew and told him what she’d overheard. The message was carried to Elias Boudinot, who told Washington. Alternatively, Darragh contacted Boudinot directly. She gave him a “dirty old needle book, with various small pockets in it.” The book contained a “piece of paper rolled up into the form of a pipe shank.” That paper contained “information that General Howe was coming out the next morning with 5,000 men, 13 pieces of cannon, baggage wagons, and 11 boat on wheels.”
Some people dispute that the woman in the last story was Darragh because a “dirty old needle book” doesn’t sound consistent with the “extremely neat” Quaker matron. Possibly, Darragh recruited a second woman to carry the message, just to make sure that one of the two messages got through to Washington Of course, maybe she delivered the message twice, on her own, for the same reason.
Either way, Washington was warned about the British plan, and he was prepared for the attack when it came. Naturally, that is a story for another day.
In the meantime, you’ll be happy to hear that Darragh survived these experiences without being arrested by the British. She was apparently questioned about the fact that the walls in her house “must have ears,” but she denied that anyone was awake to hear the British discussion on the night of December 2.
Another unsung female hero of our Revolution!
Note: This heroine appears in my new kids' book about Revolutionary War heroines. Signed copies are available here.
David G. Martin, The Philadelphia Campaign: June 1777- July 1778 (1993)
Martha Kneib, Women Soldiers, Spies, and Patriots of the American Revolution (2004)
Paul R. Misencik, The Original American Spies: Seven Covert Agents of the Revolutionary War (2013)
The Journal of the Friends Historical Society (Norman Penney ed., 1917) (Volume XIV)
The life, public services, addresses, and letters of Elias Boudinot (J.J. Boudinot ed., 1896) (Volume 1)