Lydia Darrah – Spies


Lydia Darragh (1729 – December 28, 1789) was an American woman said to have crossed British lines during the British occupation of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania during the American Revolutionary War, delivering information to George Washington and the Continental Army that warned them of a pending British attack. Contemporary sources claim Darragh’s uncorroborated story is historically unsubstantiated.

==Early life==

Lydia Barrington Darragh was born in 1729 in Dublin, Ireland to John Barrington and his wife. On November 2, 1753, she married the family tutor, William Darragh, the son of a clergyman. A few years later, they immigrated to Philadelphia, where William worked as a tutor and Lydia as a midwife. She gave birth to five children: Charles (born 1755), Ann (born 1757), John (born 1763), William (born 1766), Susannah (born 1768), and four others who died in infancy.

==American Revolutionary War==

As Quakers, the Darraghs were pacifists. However, their oldest son Charles served with the 2nd Pennsylvania Regiment of the Continental Army.

On September 26, 1777, British troops occupied Philadelphia. General William Howe moved across the street from the Darraghs, in a house formerly belonging to John Cadwalader. Darragh began regularly providing her son Charles with information regarding the enemy’s plans, gathered by eavesdropping in her home and around town. She would often write this information in simple code on pieces of scrap paper, which she hid in large buttons that she and the messengers wore. In late fall of 1777, British troops (one of whom was a distant relative of the Darraghs from Ireland) requested use of the Darraghs’ home for meetings. Lydia told them that they had already sent away their two youngest children to live with relatives in another city, but that they had nowhere else to go and would like to stay in their home. They were permitted to remain, as Quakers were known to be unsupportive of the war, even on the side of the colonies, and therefore posed no apparent risk to the British army.

On December 2nd, 1777, Lydia received a request that she and her family retire early, by 8 o’clock. She was told that she would be awakened when the soldiers were finished so she could let them out. Lydia pretended to go to sleep, but instead listened to the soldiers through the door. She learned that British troops were being ordered to leave the city on December 4th to make a surprise attack on the Continental army camped at Whitemarsh, led by George Washington. Lydia sneaked back to bed and pretended to be asleep until the officer, Major John André, knocked three times at her door to awaken her to follow them out and extinguish the candles.

Lydia decided not to share this information with her husband. The following morning she was given permission by General Howe to cross British lines in order to go to Frankford to get flour. Lydia dropped off her empty bag at the mill and then headed toward the American camp. Along the way she met an American officer, Colonel Craig of the Light Horse, and told him about the impending British attack so that he might warn Washington. After the warning, Lydia made her way back to the mill, picked up her flour and started her journey home. After the British troops attempted their attack and realized that the Americans were waiting for them, the officer questioned Lydia and asked if anyone was awake on the night of the meeting, because it was obvious that someone had betrayed them. Lydia denied any knowledge of this and was not further questioned.

==First Hand Account==

Elias Boudinot’s Journal relates the following:

“In the Autumn of 1777 the American Army lay some time at White Marsh. I was then Commissary Genl of Prisoners, and managed the Intelligence of the Army. — I was reconoitering along the Lines near the City of Philadelphia. — I dined at a small Post at the rising Sun abt three miles from the City. — After Dinner a little poor looking insignificant Old Woman came in & solicited leave to go into the Country to buy some flour — While we were asking some Questions, she walked up to me and put into my hands a dirty old needlebook, with various small pockets in it. surprised at this, I told her to return, she should have an answer — On Opening the needlebook, I could not find any thing till I got to the last Pocket, Where I found a piece of Paper rolled up into the form of a Pipe Shank. — on unrolling it I found information that Genl Howe was coming out the next morning with 5000 Men — 13 pieces of Cannon — Baggage Waggons, and 11 Boats on Waggon Wheels. On comparing this with other information I found it true, and immediately rode Post to head Quarters —” chir

A contemporary account of Lydia Darrah highlights several grist mills on the Frankford Creek; also a tavern named the Rising Sun next to Frankford’s main grist mill. This was not the same Rising Sun Tavern mentioned in Boudinot’s Journal.

British Intelligence agents became aware of the “bag of flour” trick bit too late. On December 6, 1777, after the British returned from Whitemarsh, a message was published in the Philadelphia newspaper about “a poor woman, whom we both know” traveling to the Frankford Mill:

”The following letter was found in a bag of Indian meal, which was picked up on Saturday the fourteenth of last month, was supposed to have been dropped by some of the women who were coming into town, when the skirmish happened between the pickets.”

==Later life==

In June 1778, British troops left Philadelphia, and Darragh’s children returned to their family home. William Darrgah died on June 8, 1783. Charles lost his membership to the Society of Friends on April 27, 1781. Lydia lost her membership on August 29, 1783. In 1786, Lydia and the children moved into a new house, and she ran a store until her death on December 28, 1789.