Lydia Barrington Darragh (1728-1789)
When her home was taken over by the British during the Revolutionary War, this Philadelphia Quaker woman became a spy for the rebels.
Born in 1728 in Dublin, Ireland, Lydia Barrington married family friend William Darragh in 1753. A few years after their marriage, the couple moved to the American colonies. Members of the Quaker faith, the couple settled in Philadelphia because it was a large Quaker community. William Darragh worked as a tutor and Lydia Darragh worked as a midwife and bore and raised five children; four others died in infancy. Although Quakers do not believe in warfare and most were neutral during the Revolutionary War, the Darraghs were secretly in favor of the colonists’ cause.
In September 1777, after several victories over General George Washington and his army, the British armies marched triumphantly into Philadelphia. In October, Washington led an unsuccessful attempt to retake Philadelphia and then he and his troops retreated to Whitemarsh. Nearly one-third of Philadelphia’s population evacuated the city, and the majority of those remaining were British loyalists or were neutral in the conflict. As well-known Quakers, the Darraghs felt relatively safe remaining at their home even though the British General Sir William Howe set up his headquarters across the street. From her vantage point as neighbor to British headquarters, Lydia Darragh spied for General Washington’s army. Her eldest son William broke with their Quaker traditions and joined the army, and with her fourteen-year old son John as the messenger, she was able to smuggle notes in code to him about the British army’s activities.
In late fall 1777, British troops arrived on the Darragh’s doorstep, demanding use of their home for meetings. With nowhere to go, Darragh spoke with the soldiers asking if they could stay and found out that one of the soldiers was a member of her extended family from Ireland. Through his help, most of the family was allowed to remain at their home; the youngest children were sent to live with relatives outside the city.
On December 2, 1777, the British officers ordered the family to stay in their bedrooms all evening while they held a secret meeting in another part of the house. Suspicious of what they would say or do, Darragh snuck out of her room and hid in the chamber closet of a room adjoining the council room. She overheard a plan for a surprise attack on General Washington’s army at Whitemarsh on December fourth. As soon as she heard sounds of the meeting ending, she hurried to her room and when an officer knocked on the door minutes later, she answered the bedroom door, pretending to have been asleep; the officer did not suspect anything was wrong.
All day on December third, Darragh wondered how she could send a message to the troops at Whitemarsh. The danger was much greater now and she did not want to endanger her son or worry her husband. Finally she came up with a plan and requested a pass from General Howe to go visit her youngest children and to obtain flour from Frankford Mill. Early on the morning of the fourth, Darragh left her home and started a long walk through the snow. Her pass allowed her to go through the patrol stops without any trouble. After stopping at the mill for twenty-five pounds of flour, Darragh continued many more miles, headed toward the Rising Sun Tavern, a known message center for colonists. On her way, she crossed paths with an American officer she knew and told him about the surprise attack General Howe planned for that evening. He passed the news along to Colonel Elias Boudinot who reported back to Whitemarsh. This account is based on what Darragh later narrated to her daughter Ann. One of the British soldier’s memoirs indicates a slightly different story. Colonel Boudinot reported that a woman matching Darragh’s description came into the Rising Sun Tavern and after speaking with him, handed him a needle book with various pockets. Inside one of the pockets he found a message about the surprise attack.
Regardless of the specific facts, the central point is that in great part because of Darragh’s bravery, General Washington and his troops were able to prepare for the battle in time. General Howe’s army was thrown off guard when Washington and his troops confronted them. After four days of minimal fighting in what was virtually a standoff, Howe and his troops turned around and headed back for Philadelphia.
In Philadelphia, the British soldiers conducted an investigation to find out who leaked their plan. Darragh was questioned by one of the officers about whether anyone in the family was awake the night the soldiers held council in their house. Darragh replied no and the officer believed her.
In June of 1778 the British left Philadelphia and Darragh was reunited with the rest of her children. In 1783, her husband William died. Three years later, Darragh moved into a new house and ran a store until her death in 1789.
Darragh’s daughter Ann published the story of her mother’s spy work in 1827 and teachers taught the narrative in schools. In 1877, various people started questioning the truthfulness of the narrative. However, when Boudinot’s memoirs were published in 1909, corroborating the narrative, the narrative seemed more plausible. Historians debated the validity of the tale, but now most accept that Darragh helped inform Washington of the impending British action. Her courage is particularly impressive because she had to overcome the qualms of her Quaker pacifism and because she acted entirely alone, without telling her husband or anyone else what she planned to do. Her action, after all, was treason against the established government: under the laws of any nation at that time (and of most today), she was a traitor who could have been legitimately executed.
- 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).
- Wright, Mike. What They Didn’t Teach You About the American Revolution (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1999).
- 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).
- Somerville, Mollie. Women and the American Revolution. (National Society, Daughters of the American Revolution, 1974), 4.
- “Story of Lydia Darragh,” Explore PA History, n.d., http://www.explorepahistory.com/odocument.php?docId=50 (19 June 2006).
- Wright, Mike. What They Didn’t Teach You About the American Revolution. (Novato, CA: Presidio Press, 1999).