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Lydia Darragh (1729 – December 28, 1789) was an American woman said to have crossed British lines during the British occupation of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania during the American Revolutionary War, delivering information to George Washington and the Continental Army that warned them of a pending British attack. Contemporary sources claim Darragh's uncorroborated story is historically unsubstantiated.
Lydia Barrington Darragh was born in 1728 in Dublin, Ireland to John and Mary (Aldridge) Barrington, the youngest child of six. On November 2, 1753, she married the family's tutor, William Darragh, the son of a clergyman. A few years later, they immigrated to Philadelphia, where William worked as a tutor and Lydia as a midwife. She gave birth to five children: Charles (born 1755), Ann (born 1757), John (born 1763), William (born 1766), Susannah (born 1768), and four others who died in infancy. Lydia Barrington was not well educated because her parents did not have enough money for her education.
American Revolutionary War
On September 26, 1777, British troops occupied Philadelphia. General William Howe moved across the street from the Darraghs, in a house formerly belonging to John Cadwalader. Darragh began regularly providing her son Charles with information regarding the enemy's plans, gathered by dropping in her home and around town. She would often write this information in simple code on pieces of scrap paper, which she hid in large buttons that she and the messengers wore. On September 27, 1777, Major John Andre, aide to General Howe, requested use of the Darraghs home for Howe's staff. Lydia told them that they had already sent away their two youngest children to live with relatives in another city, but that they had nowhere else to go and would like to stay in their home. She protested and went straight to Howe's residence (Cadwalader House) across the street from her home (Loxley House). Prior to her meeting Howe, a British officer introduced himself as Captain William Barrington of the 7th Regiment of Foot (Royal Fusiliers). She was immediately taken aback by his Irish brogue and his name Barrington, which was her maiden name. He told her that he was from Dublin and in the course of the conversation, she discovered that he was her second cousin. She explained to him the situation and he stated that he would take up her case with Howe immediately. They both walked into the residence and were taken in to see Howe who agreed to let her stay but that he and his staff would use the large house parlor for staff meetings. They were permitted to remain, as Quakers were known to be unsupportive of the war, even on the side of the colonies, and therefore posed no apparent risk to the British army.
On December 2, 1777, Lydia received a request that she and her family retire early, by 8 o'clock. She was told that she would be awakened when the soldiers were finished so she could let them out. Lydia pretended to go to sleep, but instead listened to the soldiers through the door. She learned that British troops were being ordered to leave the city on December 4 to make a surprise attack on the Continental army camped at White Marsh, led by George Washington. Lydia sneaked back to bed and pretended to be asleep until the officer, Major John André, knocked three times at her door to awaken her to follow them out and extinguish the candles.
Lydia decided not to share this information with her husband. The following morning she was given permission by General Howe to cross British lines in order to go to Frankford to get flour. Lydia dropped off her empty bag at the mill and then headed toward the American camp. Along the way she met an American officer, Colonel Craig of the Light Horse, and told him about the impending British attack so that he might warn Washington. After the warning, Lydia made her way back to the mill, picked up her flour and started her journey home. After the British troops attempted their attack and realized that the Americans were waiting for them, the officer questioned Lydia and asked if anyone was awake on the night of the meeting, because it was obvious that someone had betrayed them. Lydia denied any knowledge of this and was not further questioned. A quote from the officer who questioned Lydia: "We were betrayed, for, on arriving near the encampment of General Washington, we found his cannon mounted, his troops under arms and so prepared at every point to receive us that we were compelled to march back, without injuring our enemy, like a parcel of fools."
First Hand Account
In the Autumn of 1777 the American Army lay some time at White Marsh. I was then Commissary Gen l of Prisoners, and managed the Intelligence of the Army. — I was reconoitering along the Lines near the City of Philadelphia. — I dined at a small Post at the rising Sun about three miles from the City. — After Dinner a little poor looking insignificant Old Woman came in & solicited leave to go into the Country to buy some flour — While we were asking some Questions, she walked up to me and put into my hands a dirty old needle book, with various small pockets in it. surprised at this, I told her to return, she should have an answer — On Opening the needlebook, I could not find any thing till I got to the last Pocket, Where I found a piece of Paper rolled up into the form of a Pipe Shank. — on unrolling it I found information that General Howe was coming out the next morning with 5000 Men — 13 pieces of Cannon — Baggage Waggons, and 11 Boats on Waggon Wheels. On comparing this with other information I found it true, and immediately rode Post to head Quarters —
A contemporary account of Lydia Darrah highlights several grist mills on the Frankford Creek; also a tavern named the Rising Sun next to Frankford's main grist mill. This was not the same Rising Sun Tavern mentioned in Boudinot's Journal.
British Intelligence agents became aware of the "bag of flour" trick a bit too late. On December 6, 1777, after the British returned from Whitemarsh, a message was published in the Philadelphia newspaper about "a poor woman, whom we both know" traveling to the Frankford Mill:
The following letter was found in a bag of Indian meal, which was picked up on Saturday the fourteenth of last month, was supposed to have been dropped by some of the women who were coming into town, when the skirmish happened between the pickets.
In June 1778, British troops left Philadelphia, and Darragh's children returned to their family home. William Darrgah died on June 8, 1783. Charles lost his membership to the Society of Friends on April 27, 1781. Lydia lost her membership on August 29, 1783. In 1786, Lydia and the children moved into a new house, and she ran a store until her death on December 28, 1789. They are both buried in the Quakers' burying ground at Fourth and Arch Streets, not far from their home.
In 2013 the National Society of the Sons of the American Revolution created the Lydia Darragh Medal. The Lydia Darragh Medal may be awarded by the incumbent President General, Vice President General, State Society President or Chapter President to the lady who has provided significant service to him during his term of office. The medal recognizes the assistance of the women who work behind the scenes supporting SAR programs.
- Intelligence in the American Revolutionary War
- Intelligence operations in the American Revolutionary War
- In John Fanning Watson's Historic Tales of Olden Time: Concerning the Early Settlement and Progress of Philadelphia Pennsylvania (published Philadelphia, 1833), there is an account of "Lydia Darragh" listed on page 294 under "MISCELLANEA."
- Darrah's exploits were first documented in the article Lydia Darragh: One of the Heroines of the Revolution by Henry Darrach, published in 1915 by the City History Society of Philadelphia. A copy of this article is online here Archived 2009-03-20 at the Wayback Machine
- "CIA.gov: Intelligence in the War of Independence - Personalities". Archived from the original on 14 January 2009. Retrieved 2 February 2014. "Family legend contributes the colorful but uncorroborated story of Lydia Darragh and her listening post for eavesdropping on the British."
- Bohrer, Melissa Lukeman. Glory, Passion, and Principle: The Story of Eight Remarkable Women at the Core of the American Revolution. (New York: Atria Books, 2003), 127.
- Elizabeth Leonard, All the Daring of the Soldier (New York: Penguin, 1999), 19-35.
- Howat, Kenna (2017), "Revolutionary Spies: Women Spies of the American Revolution", National Women's History Museum
- Bohrer, Melissa Lukeman. Glory, Passion, and Principle: The Story of Eight Remarkable Women at the Core of the American Revolution. (New York: Atria Books, 2003),128.
- Lincoln Diamant, ed., Revolutionary Women in the War for American Independence (Westport, Conn: Praeger, 1998), 113-115.
- Journal or Historical Recollections of American Events During the Revolutionary War.
- “Frankford Chronicles Agent Lydia Darragh - Intelligence Operative”.
- Menkevich, Joseph J. Frankford Chronicles Agent Lydia Darragh - Intelligence Operative, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania (self-published, 2012), 5
- SAR Handbook. Vol. 5. Individual Medals and Awards. 2015. pg. 34-35.
- Darrach, Henry, et al. "Lydia Darragh, of the Revolution." The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 23.1 (1899): 86-91. online
- Darrach, Henry. Lydia Darragh, One of the Heroines of the Revolution. (1916) online
- "Boudinot, Elias. Journal or Historical Recollections of American Events During the Revolutionary War. (Philadelphia: F. Bourquin, 1894)
- "Lydia Darrah's House", Muscatine Journal, Friday, January 6, 1854
- "Frankford Chronicles Agent Lydia Darragh - Intelligence Operative" at frankfordgazette.com
- lydia darragh grave at Find a Grave
- Michals, Debra. "Lydia Barrington Darragh". National Women's History Museum. 2015.