Velvalee 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.
Velvalee 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.
Yup, 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.