velvaleedickinsonVelvalee Dickinson (1893-1980) sounds like a name more befitting a Wisconsin cheese heiress than a WWII spy, but a spy she was and her undercover monicker of “The Doll Woman” is highly appropriate for this broad’s shenanigans.

Velvalee was born in Sacremento, California and educated at Stanford University. In the mid 1920’s, Velvalee went to work at a brokerage company in San Francisco where she met future husband, Lee. Velvalee became involved in social work which brought her into close contact with the Japanese community there. She became a member of the Japanese-American Society (fees paid by a Japanese Attache, thank you), well-entrenched with visiting members of the Japanese military and government, and hosted numerous soirees in her home for said same folks.

The Dickinsons moved to New York City in 1937 where Velvalee opened a doll shop specializing in rare and antique dolls. It was here, well under radar, that Velvalee conducted her treasonous activities.

dickinson_store1Velvalee used her doll shop as a front to send secret communiques, more specifically, steganographic messages, around the globe reporting on military activities and position. And example of an actual message: “Doll in a hula skirt is in the hospital and doctors are working around the clock”, which translated to “Light cruiser USS Honolulu is badly damaged and in Seattle undergoing around the clock repairs.”

The language of dolls apparently served up a myriad of ways certain activities could be discussed in front a casual observer without drawing too much attention. However, this was WWII. The government had a cadre of cryptanalysts on payroll examining the mail of everyday citizens and this is what led to Velvalee’s discovery.

The dame was busted by a piece of returned mail.

velvaleedickinsonfeb221942letterYup, she sent one her “letters” to Buenos Aires, but the intended recipient had moved on and the letter was returned to the US where it was intercepted by wartime censors. Thinking the correspondence was a little fishy, the censors passed it along to the FBI where it ended up in the capable hands of our favorite cryptanalyst, Elizebeth Friedman, and the rest is history.

The subsequent investigation uncovered all sorts of correspondence that had been bouncing around the country under a variety of different names in dozens of cities, but all traced their way back to Velvalee. The FBI uncovered her connections to the Japanese government in San Francisco and New York, about $25 thousand in payments made to Velvalee, and then they really went to town.

Velvaless was indicted in 1944 under a number of various charges and like the stand-up gal she was, she promptly blamed it all on her late husband who has passed away in 1942. However, medical records proved her husband’s lacked the mental faculties at the time in question due to a prolonged illness, and then the gig was up.

Maintaining her innocence until the end, Velvalee was sentenced to a ridiculously short amount of time in federal prison and was released in 1951, disappears from radar in 1954, and all we’re left with in the end is her date of death in 1980.

  1. 2blake2 says:

    The spotlight on the Dame served its purpose, a portion of this very interesting story raised a question about a detail;
    “The subsequent investigation uncovered all sorts of correspondence that had been bouncing around the country under a variety of different names in dozens of cities, but all traced their way back to Velvalee.”
    Given the numerous names and locations used, HOW or by what METHOD did the investigation trace these correspondence conclusively to Velvalee? Any idea what the agencies did in the ’40’s to verify the source through the post? ;)

  2. girlspy says:

    War time censors who monitored the US mail are largely credited with initially tipping off the FBI who handled the subsequent investigation. Velvalee was using real people and their addresses as the “sender” of her correspondence. These people, when contacted by the FBI, acknowledged their interest in dolls but stated that the signatures on their letter, which were similar to their own, were not quite the same. It was during the interview portion of the investigation that the FBI was informed that a letter supposedly sent from a women in Ohio to the Argentine address was stamped and endorsed in New York City.

    Other letters to Argentina were returned to women around the country who had never sent them and passed them along to the FBI. The letters had been addressed in one location but sent from other locations very far away.

    One Colorado women who had received one of these returned letters, pointed the FBI towards Velvalee. The woman believed that Velvalee had used her name and address in retaliation for the woman’s late payments to Velvalee’s business.

    Envelopes sent from various locations around the country but endorsed in California, Oregon and New York were conclusively traced back to Velvalee who could be placed in those locations during the time the letters were mailed.

    I have yet to find a really thorough and comprehensive source on the investigation, but most of the finer details of this case I found in a book written by David Kahn in 1996 titled “Codebreakers: The Comprehensive History of Secret Communications from Ancient Times to the Internet” (a massive book, over 1000 pages, but good information).

  3. question remaims whatever happen to her after her release?Was she in seclusion or sis she just fled the country and never heard from her again?

  4. girlspy says:

    It’s a great question, one I wish I had the answer to. Unfortunately, Velvalee seems to have fallen off the map. It wasn’t terribly difficult to change your name and disappear in those days. I tried a simple search for her through “Find a Grave” with no results.

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