5 Infamous Female Spies

cyano66/iStock via Getty Images
cyano66/iStock via Getty Images

Behind every good war are many good women. Using their feminine (and in at least one case masculine) wiles, the following five spies would make James Bond proud.

1. Mata Hari

While Margaretha Geertruida Zelle MacLeod (1876"“1917) may not have caused World War I, she sure as heck kept it going. Having spent time in Java with her husband, Captain Campbell MacLeod, Margaretha returned to Holland and sued for divorce. To make ends meet she took up exotic dancing and the name Mata Hari (meaning "the light of day" in Malay). With her sensual performances becoming the attraction of the major European cities came the men and the gifts for her favors. Many of these favors came from royalty and high-ranking French and German military officers. As World War I progressed, both sides became suspicious that Mata was spying for the other side. The French eventually put her on trial and, although the charges were never proven, Mata Hari was convicted of espionage and was executed by a firing squad on October 15, 1917. Playing the seductress up until the end, Mata refused a blindfold, smiled, and blew a kiss to the firing squad as the fatal shots were fired.

2. Noor Inayat Khan

Khan was born in the Kremlin in 1914 and at a young age moved with her family first to England and then to France. In 1940, Khan, along with her mother and sister, escaped back to England just before France surrendered to Germany. While in England she joined the Women's Auxiliary Air Force (WAAF), but her ability to speak fluent French soon caught the attention of the Special Operations group and Khan agreed to become a spy. Khan was flown to Le Mans, where she teamed up with other female spies and traveled to Paris. There they joined the French Resistance Prosper Network. Soon after their arrival, the network was infiltrated and many were arrested. Khan
was ordered to return to England, but instead she stayed on and continued to pass information on to England. Eventually she was arrested again and interrogated by the Gestapo. When she refused to speak, she was sent to a prison in Germany and then to the Dachau concentration camp. On September 13, 1944, Khan and three other female British spies were executed by the Nazi SS. In 1949, Khan was posthumously awarded the George Cross.

3. Belle Boyd (aka "La Belle Rebelle")

Born Isabelle Boyd in Martinsburg, Virginia, in 1844, the beautiful Belle soon became the star attraction in Washington, D.C., social circles prior to the beginning of the Civil War. With the outbreak of the war, she returned to Martinsburg. When the Union soldiers occupied the city, Belle mixed with the officers and soon gathered information on troop movements, which she passed on to the Confederate forces. However, she is probably best known for warning Stonewall Jackson that the Union intended to blow up all the bridges around Martinsburg. With this information, Jackson, with a small number of troops, was able to surprise the Union troops and drive them from the area. In 1864, Confederate president Jefferson Davis asked Belle to carry letters for him to England. The Union Navy captured her ship, but the officer in charge fell in love with Belle and let her escape. The officer, Lieutenant Samuel Harding Jr., after being courtmartialed and discharged from the Navy, traveled to England, where he married Belle. After the war, Boyd toured the United States as an actress under the stage name of La Belle Rebelle.

4. Elizabeth Van Lew

Crazy Bet, as she was known, was born in Richmond, Virginia, in 1818 but educated at a Quaker school in Philadelphia. After developing a hatred for slavery, Elizabeth returned to Richmond and freed all her family's slaves. She also went so far as finding where her freed slaves' relatives were and purchased and freed them also. After the Civil War started, Elizabeth asked to visit Union prisoners being held captive in Richmond. The Union prisoners gave her information, which she then passed on to the North. Among the slaves she freed was Mary Elizabeth Bowser, whom Van Lew got a job as a house servant in the home of Jefferson Davis. This allowed Bowser and Van Lew to collect and pass on information directly from the Confederate president's mansion. Elizabeth effectively used the Crazy Bet moniker to make the residents of Richmond think she was mentally ill. She would wear old clothes and bonnets and talk to herself. Because of this, most people thought that her Northern sympathies were just a part of her craziness. After the war, President Grant named Elizabeth the postmaster for Richmond. When the citizens of Richmond found out that Crazy Bet was an act, they shunned her. However, at her death, the state of Massachusetts placed a memorial marker on her grave.

5. Sarah Emma Edmonds (or Was It Frank Thompson?)

Born in 1841 in New Brunswick, Canada, Sarah ran away from home in her early teens. In order to survive she became an itinerant Bible salesman, by calling herself Frank Thompson and dressing like a man. In 1861, Frank (Sarah) enlisted in the Second Michigan Infantry and over the next two years not only fought in a number of Civil War battles, but also served as a spy for the Union Army. Solders in her unit called Frank "our woman" because of his feminine mannerisms and his extremely small boot size. However, none of her comrades ever figured out that Frank was really Sarah. This boded well for her spying, where she dressed as a young boy serving in Confederate camps, as an immigrant Irish peddler and, most interestingly, as a woman. In 1863, Sarah caught malaria and deserted the army out of fear that hospitalization would reveal her true identity. In 1884, though, Sarah applied for and was awarded a veteran's pension in which the secretary of war acknowledged that Sarah was a female soldier who had rendered faithful services to the ranks.

This article was excerpted from our book Forbidden Knowledge: A Wickedly Smart Guide to History's Naughtiest Bits.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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10 Facts About Real Genius On Its 35th Anniversary

Val Kilmer stars in Martha Coolidge's Real Genius (1985).
Val Kilmer stars in Martha Coolidge's Real Genius (1985).
Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

In an era where nerd is a nickname given by and to people who have pretty much any passing interest in popular culture, it’s hard to imagine the way old-school nerds—people with serious and socially-debilitating obsessions—were once ostracized. Computers, progressive rock, and role-playing games (among a handful of other 1970s- early '80s developments) created a path from which far too many of the lonely, awkward, and conventionally undateable would never return. But in the 1980s, movies transformed these oddballs into underdogs and antiheroes, pitting them against attractive, moneyed, successful adversaries for the fate of handsome boys and pretty girls, cushy jobs, and first-place trophies.

The 1985 film Real Genius ranked first among equals from that decade for its stellar cast, sensitive direction, and genuine nerd bona fides. Perhaps fittingly, it sometimes feels overshadowed, and even forgotten, next to broader, bawdier (and certainly now, more problematic) films from the era like Revenge of the Nerds and Weird Science. But director Martha Coolidge delivered a classic slobs-versus-snobs adventure that manages to view the academically gifted and socially maladjusted with a greater degree of understanding and compassion while still delivering plenty of good-natured humor.

As the movie commemorates its 35th anniversary, we're looking back at the little details and painstaking efforts that make it such an enduring portrait not just of ‘80s comedy, but of nerdom itself.

1. Producer Brian Grazer wanted Valley Girl director Martha Coolidge to direct Real Genius. She wasn’t sure she wanted to.

Following the commercial success of 1984’s Revenge of the Nerds, there was an influx of bawdy scripts that played upon the same idea, and Real Genius was one of them. In 2011, Coolidge told Kickin’ It Old School that the original script for Real Genius "had a lot of penis and scatological jokes," and she wasn't interested in directing a raunchy Nerds knock-off. So producer Brian Grazer enlisted PJ Torokvei (SCTV) and writing partners Babaloo Mandel and Lowell Ganz (Splash, City Slickers) to refine the original screenplay, and then gave Coolidge herself an opportunity to polish it before production started. “Brian's original goal, and mine, was to make a film that focused on nerds as heroes," Coolidge said. "It was ahead of its time."

2. Martha Coolidge’s priority was getting the science in Real Genius right—or at least as right as possible.

In the film, ambitious professor Jerry Hathaway (William Atherton) recruits high-achieving students at the fictional Pacific Technical University (inspired by Caltech) to design and build a laser capable of hitting a human-sized target from space. Coolidge researched the subject thoroughly, working with academic, scientific, and military technicians to ensure that as many of the script and story's elements were correct. Moreover, she ensured that the dialogue would hold up to some scrutiny, even if building a laser of the film’s dimensions wasn’t realistic (and still isn’t today).

3. One element of Real Genius that Martha Coolidge didn’t base on real events turned out to be truer than expected.

From the beginning, the idea that students were actively being exploited by their teacher to develop government technology was always fictional. But Coolidge learned that art and life share more in common than she knew at the time. “I have had so many letters since I made Real Genius from people who said, 'Yes, I was involved in a program and I didn’t realize I was developing weapons,'" she told Uproxx in 2015. “So it was a good guess and turned out to be quite accurate.”

4. Val Kilmer walked into his Real Genius audition already in character—and it nearly cost him the role.

After playing the lead in Top Secret!, Val Kilmer was firmly on Hollywood’s radar. But when he met Grazer at his audition for Real Genius, Kilmer decided to have some fun at the expense of the guy who would decide whether or not he’d get the part. "The character wasn't polite," Kilmer recalled to Entertainment Weekly in 1995. "So when I shook Grazer's hand and he said, 'Hi, I'm the producer,' I said, 'I'm sorry. You look like you're 12 years old. I like to work with men.'"

5. The filmmakers briefly considered using an actual “real genius” to star in Real Genius.

Among the performers considered to play Mitch, the wunderkind student who sets the movie’s story in motion, was a true genius who graduated college at 14 and was starting law school. Late in the casting process, they found their Mitch in Gabriel Jarrett, who becomes the third generation of overachievers (after Kilmer’s Chris and Jon Gries’s Lazlo Hollyfeld) whose talent Hathaway uses to further his own professional goals.

6. Real Genius's female lead inadvertently created a legacy for her character that would continue in animated form.

Michelle Meyrink, Gabriel Jarret, Val Kilmer, and Mark Kamiyama in Real Genius (1985).Sony Pictures Home Entertainment

Michelle Meyrink was a staple of a number of ‘80s comedies, including Revenge of the Nerds. Playing Jordan in Real Genius, she claims to “never sleep” and offers a delightful portrait of high-functioning attention-deficit disorder with a chipper, erratic personality. Disney’s Chip 'n Dale: Rescue Rangers co-creator Tad Stones has confirmed that her character went on to inspire the character of Gadget Hackwrench.

7. A Real Genius subplot, where a computer programmer is gaming a Frito-Lay contest, was based on real events.

In the film, Jon Gries (Napoleon Dynamite) plays Lazlo Hollyfeld, a reclusive genius from before Chris and Mitch’s time who lives in a bunker beneath their dorm creating entries to a contest with no restrictions where he eventually wins more than 30 percent of the prizes. In 1969, students from Caltech tried a similar tactic with Frito-Lay to game the odds. But in 1975, three computer programmers used an IBM to generate 1.2 million entries in a contest for McDonald’s, where they received 20 percent of the prizes (and a lot of complaints from customers) for their effort.

8. One of Real Genius's cast members went on to write another tribute to nerds a decade later.

Dean Devlin, who co-wrote Stargate and Independence Day with Roland Emmerich, plays Milton, another student at Pacific Tech who experiences a memorable meltdown in the rush up to finals.

9. The popcorn gag that ends Real Genius isn’t really possible, but they used real popcorn to simulate it.

At the end of the film, Chris and Mitch build a giant Jiffy Pop pack that the laser unleashes after they redirect its targeting system. The resulting popcorn fills Professor Hathaway’s house as an act of revenge. MythBusters took pains to recreate this gag in a number of ways, but quickly discovered that it wouldn’t work; even at scale, the popcorn just burns in the heat of a laser.

To pull off the scene in the film, Coolidge said that the production had people popping corn for six weeks of filming in order to get enough for the finale. After that, they had to build a house that they could manipulate with hydraulics so that the popcorn would “explode” out of every doorway and window.

10. Real Genius was the first movie to be promoted on the internet.

A week before Real Genius opened, promoters set up a press conference at a computer store in Westwood, California. Coolidge and members of the cast appeared to field questions from press from across the country—connected via CompuServe. Though the experience was evidently marred by technical problems (this was the mid-1980s, after all), the event marked the debut of what became the online roundtable junket.