The Limping Lady: The Greatest Female Spy You've Never Heard of

Updated: Mar 21


image: Smithsonian

In the Spring of 1906, Virginia Hall was born in the heart of Baltimore to a wealthy family. As a child, she attended an all-girls preparatory academy, Roland Park Country School. Her mother, Barbara, had grown up destitute and married into money. Facing hardships and poverty as a child, Barbara was determined for her daughter to marry into fortune, too. But Virginia was far from the dainty young woman her mother had so wished for and had her sights set elsewhere. As a kid, she'd often go out for hunting trips with her male classmates after school and was an expert shot. In the classroom, she'd often volunteer for male roles as she wanted to be the one who saved the day with a sword - where other girls were princesses and debutants, she opted to be the warrior and noble knight. And outside school, she preferred workers' pants and checkered shirts to frilly dresses. Her dreams didn't involve a big fancy wedding with a trust fund marriage and chardonnay afternoons, no, they involved traveling the world, doing something big, something noble and important. Years later, she attended Radcliffe College and then the oh-so-prestigious Barnard Women's College, where she studied her heart out in foreign language. She mastered French, German, Italian and eventually traveled to Europe to finish her studies. She gallivanted around Austria, France, and Germany all three a post-war fantasy known as the roaring 20s. She was finally right in front of the adventure she'd been waiting for.



1926, 20 years old - image: Smithsonian Archives




One thing led to another, and Virginia found herself in Warsaw. Working at the embassy, she held a job as an administrative assistant. This was a far cry from the life she'd imagined. Instead of saving the day, she was filing papers, so she began applying for diplomatic positions in Warsaw. Time after time, her application was 'lost' or the position had been 'filled' meanwhile several of her male counterparts were applying and receiving jobs. So what's a girl to do? Go to Turkey. Virginia transferred to Izmir in hopes that she'd have more luck moving up the ranks there.


An Estonian driver's license from a short stint in Tallinn - Smithsonian

Once in Izmir, she was right back where she started with rejected applications and little chance of ever being more than a file clerk. She decided she needed to cast a wider net and began applying to embassies all across Europe. Eventually, Venice decided to take a chance on this persistent stubborn American woman that just would not quit. In between Turkey stoking her fire to continue and Venice deciding to give her a chance, she went hunting. She was scaling a fence when she shot her self in the foot and fell into a deep mud puddle below. She was carried to a hospital where it was discovered that the mud had taken over the wound resulting in a nasty spread of gangrene - she would need an amputation. Her leg was removed from the knee down and was followed by a 3-week hospital stay. At just 27 years old, she was permanently disabled.



Despite her wooden leg, which she'd named 'Cuthbert', she arrived in Venice starry-eyed and ready to get to business. It seemed she'd finally gotten on the right path to the life she'd been dreaming of. But she was rejected as soon as they saw her. It turned out that women in high ranking roles were stretch enough, but combine that with a peg leg...



Virginia was furious. In a fit of rage, she wrote to the Secretary of State, Cordell Hull, all but begging to be given a higher role. After all, she was highly educated, fluent in 4 languages, and had just as much grit as any of her male counterparts. He responded that he thought she'd "make a fine career girl at the consular service" and banned her from all future applications, I.e., sit down and shut up. For the next few years, much to her dismay, she did just that. Until 1939, when she was due for a change of scenery and decided to move back to France.





With WW2 right around the corner, she knew she needed to volunteer her services and make a difference. She could no longer be confined to a desk, dating papers, stamping envelopes and fetching coffee with the world crumbling around her. She just couldn't. So she volunteered as an ambulance driver, but that would be shortlived as the Germans were making their way closer and closer to France. Just a year later, France became a puppet state and putty in the Nazi's hands. To that, she said, Hell No.



She made her way south toward the Pyrenees and set out on the Le Chemin de Liberte. Le Chemin de Liberte or, The Freedom Trail in English, is a 72 km trek at 6,000 feet across the natural border separating France and Spain. This trail was used as an escape route during WW2 and is known as being strenuous, dangerous, and dotted with dead bodies. For an able-bodied person, the journey would take around four days to complete, but Virginia didn't let this sway her. During this time, countless smugglers who aided French escapes and hundreds of civilians were captured, yet Virginia made it through. Her goal was to get to London so that she could volunteer her services and help defeat the Nazis in France. So with that in mind, she persisted along the ragged and unforgiving Le Chemin de Liberte.



Once in neutral Spain, she went to England, where she walked straight into the American embassy in London and practically demanded to be put to work. What the Italians, Poles, Turks, and Americans saw as a weakness, the Brits in the Special Operations Executive saw as a strength. Because she was, at first glance, a frail woman with a soft smile and now, a limp, who could easily slip by German forces. A few signatures here, a few handshakes there and just like that, Virginia Hall became the SOE's first female spy in France - Code Name: Heckler. After her training, she was smuggled back in and settled in Lyon, where she made a guise as a journalist for the NY Post. Her name was Marie Monin, and she had a lot of work to do.



Over the next year and some change, 'Marie Monin' used her role as a journalist to distribute thousands of resistance newspapers across France and gather intelligence within Lyon's community. Virginia soared above her cover as Marie Monin with countless other disguises. Wigs, wide-brimmed hats, rubber in cheeks for changed bone structure, faked accents, Virginia could be four people in the span of an afternoon. She buddied up with a local brothel owner, Germaine Gue, to help collect information such as paperwork and clues from the countless Nazi suiters that kept them in business. She also partnered with a local doctor, Jean Rousset, who helped forge paperwork showing prostitutes to be disease-free, when they, in fact, weren't. This would lead to small outbreaks of STDs among the Nazis, and while it was a small dent, it was a dent nonetheless. Besides, if you're out to take down some Germans, and you have the help of a brothel, why not weaponize syphilis and gonorrhea to your advantage? But that's not the half of it. In the meantime, she also organized countless networks of safehouses across France and rescued hundreds if not thousands of wounded Allied soldiers. These feats made her the go-to person as new spies arrived in France and established her as the inside contact for fallen men. She was literally kicking ass and taking names.


Dr. Jean Rousset and Virginia Hall were a duo for the ages. Their work at the brothel was only just beginning when Rousset decided to gradually smuggle in wounded allies to his business for treatment. This included Virginia sneaking wounded soldiers into his practice and even more interesting, creating a 'Lunatic House' on the second floor. Rescued POW's would be smuggled in by ambulance and at German checkpoints, would act 'crazy.' At the time, the few wounded soldiers who managed to make it to a safehouse were generally operated on kitchen tables with liquor anesthetic and the not so skilled hands of seamstresses with the occasional pre-war amateur med student. After this, assuming they healed and didn't die from shock, organ failure, internal bleeding, or whatever run of the mill war injury, they'd be sent off for the tumultuous Hell that was Le Chemin de Liberte. Virginia was personally responsible for smuggling groups of wounded soldiers across the 72 km escape route and, despite her efforts, often lost many along the way. Death from dehydration wound complications, cliffsides, and captures was part of everyday life for her Le Chemin de Liberte. At one point, during a particularly lengthy passage through The Pyrenees, she reported back to the SOE that Cuthbert was giving her trouble.


Not realizing she was talking about her prosthetic, the Brits replied:


"If Cuthbert is giving you difficulty, have him eliminated."

Over time, Virginia's leg became both a blessing and a curse. While initially, nobody suspected that some fragile, softspoken woman with a bad leg would be capable of what she was doing, as her reputation grew, it became a defining trait. French double agents were soon reporting a lady with a limp to Gestapo near and far. It didn't take long to reach a mister Klause Barbie.




Klause Barbie - The Butcher of Lyon



Klause Barbie, also known as The Butcher of Lyon, was the chief of Gestapo in Lyon and was notorious for his merciless acts. The Butcher of Lyon was the man of nightmares. Often personally torturing Jews and anyone else who dared cross him. His trades included hanging enemies from their feet, burnings followed by ammonia baths, boiling plunges, skinning - the list goes on and on. He once escorted 44 Jewish orphanage children from Izieu to their deaths in a gas chamber. He was wicked, vicious, and pure evil. Which is why when he got wind of a limping spy, Virginia needed to act fast.


In no time at all, a sketch of Virginia was plastered on every corner in France. The wanted poster read:


"The Limping Lady - The most dangerous of all allied spies. We must find and destroy her!"



Klaus absolutely loathed Americans and didn't believe an American (woman no less) would be capable of skating by as Virginia had. He is quoted as saying:


"I'd give anything to get my hands on that limping Canadian bitch"

Virginia quickly notified the SOE that her location and identity had been compromised and that she'd be making the trek over Le Chemin de Liberte asap to return to England for a new identity.


This time, the journey that she'd made so many times before was different. She was arrested for failing to provide the proper paperwork to enter Spain (because she was entering illegally). They jailed her for six weeks until she was released and made her way back to London. Once in London, she was restless and ready for action. She requested a new identity and mission, but the British refused, thinking that she was too risky given her 'wanted' poster and distinguishable traits.


By this time, the Americans were ramping up their own intelligence service, known as the Office of Strategic Services, or OSS. Willing to give the United States one more try, if they'd have her, she asked to be put to use in espionage. This time, they accepted, and she had the perfect idea for a disguise - an old woman. Sure, Germans were arresting anyone with so much as a sprained ankle or broken heel but nobody would suspect a limp if it was carried by an old lady. So Virginia took her new mission, dyed her hair grey, and dressed up daily as a wrinkly older woman. She became a master of morse code and radio operations; she even went as far as to have a dentist shave down her teeth. In no time at all, Virginia became Marcelle Montagne, an old milkmaid in the heart of the French countryside.



'Marcelle Montagne' with her goats - image: Our Community Now

She tended to goats and delivered fresh goat cheese and milk to Nazi camps where she would gather intelligence. Not expecting an old French woman who shuffled her feet and spoke shakily to know German, they openly discussed strategy which was used to her advantage. Her mission was to act as a radio operator and coordinate supply drops for allied forces along with any other information she could get her hands on. She didn't stop there, though, she went further on the offensive and supplied the US with serious intel on specific bridges expected to be used by Nazis on their upcoming Normandy attack. Then she gathered a team and bombed four of the major bridges, severed their main rail line, and downed several telephone lines. This drastically delayed Nazis on what would later be known as D-Day and the beginning of the end of WW2. Without the help of little miss Marcelle Montagne, the world may not be the same today.


'Marcelle Montagne' reporting back to England with intellegence from her milkmaid cottage - Paiting done by Jeff Bass


Forged identification for Marcelle Montagne image: Archives For All


After the war was over, Virginia's mission ended. She was called home to the United States, where her career as a spy was over for the foreseeable future. The French government awarded her the Croix de Guerre Avec Palme while the British made her a Member of the Order of the British Empire and the United States presented her with the Distinguished Service Cross. She accepted these medals only on the condition that there be no press. Even so much as a thumbnail clipping in the newspaper, she would not agree to. She would do no interviews. No sit-downs. No public photos. President Truman himself even wanted to gift Virginia the Distinguished Service Cross in a public ceremony at the Whitehouse, which she declined. Why? In addition to having no desire for fame, if there ever came a day where she was needed again, she wanted to be ready.


Preident Truman awarding Virginia the Distinguished Service Cross

Just a few years later, in 1947, the OSS became the Central Intelligence Agency, and Virginia once again went back to work where she served in the CIA for 15 years. In 1950, she married a man named Paul Guillot, who was a fellow French Resistance fighter and spy in his heyday. The pair retired in 1966 and lived a quiet life out in the country until her death in 1982. In a way, you could say that she died undercover. Her story and exploits were completely unknown outside the intelligence community. To her neighbors and family, she was nothing more than a sweet old woman with a limp.



Virginia & Paul image: Smithsonian Archives

It wasn't until years later when fellow CIA agent, Craig Galley happened across her file. He flipped through it in disbelief of the countless lives she'd saved and her important role in World War 2. Her courage. Her valor. Her unbelievable spirit that just would not waiver. He decided that he needed to share her story, and in her honor, he retraced her steps on Le Chemin de Liberte. He is quoted as saying:



'I'm hiking at above 6,000 feet and have stumbled twice on the narrow and rocky trail in the French Pyrenees there is nothing to grab on to if I fall only thorny brush and an occasional stub pine clinged to the mountain slope.'


How Virginia made this trek countless times with a peg leg and a troupe full of wounded men, we'll never really know. It's said that many times along the trail, she'd hop and detach her leg as a sort of plow to sweep away the snow for her team. However she managed, whatever she did, has undoubtedly contributed to the free world as we know it. And for that, we should be grateful. Virginia Hall was, and is, a clandestine legend. She is bravery. She is courage. She is virtue, spirit, and fearlessness to the highest power. And she is, The Limping Lady.





Further reading:

Woman Of No Importance (Sonia Purnell)

Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America's Greatest Female Spy (Judith Pearson)

The Spy With The Wooden Leg (Nancy Polette)



Sources:

Biographics

NPR

Time

CIA.GOV





Virginia (standing) pictured with Paul (bottom left) and fellow French Resistance fighters.