January 8, 2009

Death by Jewelry (and Why Authors Are So Generous)

Rose O’Neal Greenhow was the only American spy who was killed by her own jewelry. A gregarious socialite in Washington, DC, during the Civil War, Rose was actually gathering secrets about the Union army to pass along to the South. And this was good stuff; after Rose sent one message about troop movements hidden in a girl’s curls, the South got a big victory at the Battle of Manassas. (Jefferson Davis later gave Greenhow full credit for the victory.)

But the jig was eventually up. When Abe Lincoln’s very own detective, Allan Pinkerton, arrested Greenhow, she chewed and swallowed a secret message she was carrying. She was imprisoned for espionage and eventually exiled to the Confederate states. From there, the spying socialite traveled to Europe to lobby for the Confederate cause. She was surprisingly successful; it turned out that aristocrats could relate to the South. While in Europe, Greenhow's memoirs (My Imprisonment and the First Year of Abolition Rule At Washington) were published. It sold VERY well.

In 1864, Greenhow got on a British blockade-running ship to return home. She made it to the Cape Fear River near Wilmington, North Carolina. But as a Union gunboat gave chase, Greenhow gathered the gold and jewels her royalties had gained her and got in a rowboat. Bad move. After the boat capsized, the gold and her gigantic skirt, Greenhow sank like a gemstone, never to return.

And this explains why authors to this day donate the bulk of their royalties to charity.

Hey, that reminds me, have you ever seen that movie on intelligence gathering called Spy Kids? If so, you know that part when Carmen said, “Spy work, that's easy. Keeping a family together, that's difficult. And that's the mission worth fighting for”? I winced a little there. (Good movie, though.)
My sources are here.

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