The publisher of the company that just entered Soviet Russia and started spying


For Women’s History Month, Atlas Obscura delves into the world of espionage, where being overlooked and underappreciated has been an asset for centuries for female spies. Learn about the hidden female secret agents in history.

For a Spy, Marguerite Harrison was remarkably frank. In the fall of 1919, when the U.S. Army’s Military Intelligence Division asked her to travel to Russia to gather information about Vladimir Lenin and the Bolshevik Party, the 40-year-old Baltimore Sun reporter first asked Russia for permission to enter the country. When her request was denied, she traveled to Poland, which was then at war with Russia, and in February 1920 she simply crossed the Polish military front line into “no man’s land”. There she waited for a Red Army officer to appear. “I explained to him in my best Russian that I had come from America to learn the truth about the Soviet government and that I wanted to continue in Moscow”, she wrote later.

This photo of Marguerite Harrison accompanied press reports about her arrest in Russia in 1920. Bettmann/Getty Images

Without this unwavering candor, Harrison would never have become a spy – the first woman hired as a foreign intelligence officer for the United States. She was the daughter of a wealthy Baltimore family, raised at the turn of the century to marry well and make a comfortable home. And that’s exactly what she did until her husband’s sudden death in 1915. Harrison was left alone with a teenage son, Tommy, and her husband’s unpaid debts. To cover her expenses, Harrison began taking boarders at her home in Baltimore’s trendy Mount Vernon neighborhood, and when that proved insufficient, she reported to the editor of the Baltimore Sun and asked for a job. Harrison had never written an article before, “But I think I could,” she told the man during her interview. Her confidence, along with a life of connections in the city, landed her a job as the society’s associate editor.

The outbreak of World War I took Harrison from writing about parties and theater to reporting on the war effort from the home front. But Harrison wanted to be closer to the action. She later explained in his autobiography that she had become a spy because no American newspaper would send a woman to the front lines, although other female journalists found ways to witness events in Europe “without resorting to espionage”, writes Elizabeth Atwood in The release of Marguerite Harrison. “She wanted to be a spy because she was fearless, loved adventure, and had an intense desire to serve her country.” The United States Office of Naval Intelligence turned Harrison down; they didn’t want a woman in their ranks. But the US Army’s new Military Intelligence Division (MID), influenced by Harrison’s powerful connections, his fluency in German (his mother, hoping Harrison would marry a titled European, was credited to his language skills) and his cover story ready as a reporter—accepted the eager rookie.

The armistice had been signed before Harrison boarded a steamer bound for France in December 1918, but that did not lessen the urgency of gathering information on the rapidly changing political climate in Europe. . Harrison was assigned to report to MID on politics, economics, and public morale in Berlin, and then, after a brief and tedious return to Baltimore, Harrison left for Moscow.

Formerly the headquarters of an insurance company, this building on Lubyanka Square in Moscow was transformed into a prison in 1920. Marguerite Harrison was one of the first prisoners.
Formerly the headquarters of an insurance company, this building on Lubyanka Square in Moscow was transformed into a prison in 1920. Marguerite Harrison was one of the first prisoners. A. Savin / WikiCommons CC BY-SA 3.0

Harrison’s dramatic arrival in Russia was followed by several weeks of successful intelligence gathering in the Russian capital. She even spoke as far as the Kremlin, where she met Leon Trotsky, then leader of the Red Army. But a few days later, she was arrested and imprisoned in Moscow’s soon-to-be-notorious Lubyanka prison. Facing an espionage charge, Harrison typically and bluntly confessed. “Alright, I admit it,” she said. “I am an agent of the United States government.” To secure her release, she agreed to be a double agent for Russia. And then she quickly became a triple agent for the United States, passing lists of Americans imprisoned in Russia to her handlers at MID, ultimately earning her another harrowing nine-month stint in Lubyanka.

When Harrison was finally allowed to return to Baltimore in the summer of 1921, she blithely wrote of her time in Russia: “It was a wonderful experience and well worth the price I paid, which, after all, was the result of my entry into Russia. without invitation.” The experience would not prevent her from traveling the world, as a journalist, explorer, filmmaker and spy. In one year, in fact, she would find herself in a Russian prison for the third time.


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