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.

Friday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Digital Projectors, Ugly Christmas Sweaters, and Speakers

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As a recurring feature, our team combs the web and shares some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. Here’s what caught our eye today, December 4. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

10 Surprising Facts About Wham!’s 'Last Christmas'

Michael Putland/Getty Images
Michael Putland/Getty Images

Over the course of his illustrious career, George Michael gave the world many gifts. One that keeps on giving is “Last Christmas,” the 1984 holiday classic by Wham!, Michael's pop duo with Andrew Ridgeley. “Last Christmas” is such a uniquely beloved song that it inspired a 2019 film of the same name. That’s just one interesting part of the “Last Christmas” story. Read on for 10 fascinating facts about this seasonal synth-pop favorite.

1. George Michael wrote "Last Christmas" in his childhood bedroom.

“Last Christmas” was born one day in 1984 when George Michael and Wham! bandmate Andrew Ridgeley were visiting Michael’s parents. While they were sitting around watching TV, Michael suddenly dashed upstairs to his childhood bedroom and composed the modern Xmas classic in about an hour. “George had performed musical alchemy, distilling the essence of Christmas into music,” Ridgeley said. “Adding a lyric which told the tale of betrayed love was a masterstroke and, as he did so often, he touched hearts."

2. “Last Christmas” isn’t really a Christmas song.

There’s nothing in “Last Christmas” about Santa, reindeer, trees, snow, or anything we typically associate with the holiday. Rather, the song is about a failed romance that just happens to have begun on December 25, when Michael gave someone his heart, and ended on December 26, when this ungrateful person “gave it away.”

3. George Michael wrote and produced the song—but that’s not all.

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By the time Wham! recorded “Last Christmas” in August (yes, August) 1984, Michael had taken full control of the group. In addition to writing and producing the song, Michael insisted on playing the Roland Juno-60 synth in the studio. “George wasn’t a musician,” engineer Chris Porter said. “It was a laborious process, because he was literally playing the keyboards with two or three fingers.” Michael even jangled those sweet sleigh bells himself.

4. “Last Christmas” didn’t reach #1 on the UK charts.

As the movie Love Actually reminds us, scoring a Christmas #1 in the UK is a really big deal. Unfortunately, “Last Christmas” didn’t give Wham! that honor. It stalled at #2, and to this day it has the distinction of being the highest-selling UK single of all time to not reach #1.

5. George Michael sang on the song that kept “Last Christmas” at #2.

“Last Christmas” was bested on the UK charts by Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” an all-star charity single benefiting Ethiopian famine relief. Michael sang on “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” and was so committed to the cause that he donated his profits from “Last Christmas” to helping the African nation.

6. George Michael was sued for plagiarism over “Last Christmas.”

In the mid-1980s, the publishing company Dick James Music sued George Michael on behalf of the writers of “Can’t Smile Without You,” a schmaltzy love song recorded by The Carpenters and Barry Manilow, among others. According to Chris Porter, the recording engineer on “Last Christmas,” the suit was dismissed after a musicologist presented 60-plus songs that have a similar chord progression and melody.

7. "Last Christmas" has been covered by a lot of other artists.

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Jimmy Eat World, Hilary Duff, Good Charlotte, Ariana Grande, Carly Rae Jepsen, Gwen Stefani, and Taylor Swift are just a few of the artists who’ve covered “Last Christmas” over the years. The strangest rendition may be the 2006 dance version by the Swedish CGI character Crazy Frog, which reached #16 on the UK charts.

8. Some people make a concerted effort to avoid hearing “Last Christmas.”

While millions of people delight in hearing “Last Christmas” every year, an internet game called Whamageddon encourages players to avoid the song from December 1 to 24. The rules are simple: Once you hear the original Wham! version of “Last Christmas” (remixes and covers don’t count), you’re out. You then admit defeat on social media with the hashtag #Whamageddon and wait for your friends to suffer the same fate. Note: The rules prohibit you from “deliberately sending your friends to Whamhalla.”

9. “Last Christmas” finally charted in America following George Michael’s death in 2016.

Back in 1984, “Last Christmas” wasn’t released as a commercial single in the United States, and therefore it wasn’t eligible for the Billboard Hot 100 chart. However, Billboard changed its rules in 1998, and in the wake of George Michael’s unexpected death on Christmas Day 2016, the song finally made its Hot 100 debut. In December 2018, it reentered the charts and peaked at #25.

10. George Michael was involved in 2019's Last Christmas movie.

November 2019 saw the release of Paul Feig's Last Christmas, a romantic comedy inspired by the song starring Game of Thrones's Emilia Clarke. Producer David Livingstone came up with the idea while George Michael was still alive, and when he pitched the pop star on the project, he was given the greenlight—with one condition: Michael stipulated that actress and author Emma Thompson write the movie. Thompson co-authored the story and the screenplay, and she even wound up playing a supporting role.