Who Were the Most Successful Spies of All Time?
A spy is someone we usually associate with the government, but he or she might also be a person secretly collecting information for, say, a business. Their job is to collect information and report it back to the source, sometimes tracking another person. They could be working on home turf, looking for foreign spies, or working abroad, spying themselves. That’s basically the difference between the UK’s MI5 and MI6. These are known as Intelligence Agencies. Some others include the CIA, the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, Israel’s Mossad, and Russia’s GRU – which took over from the KGB. The most famous spy in the world is fictional, and he of course is James Bond, aka, 007. Today we’ll look at the most famous real spies the world has ever known, in this episode of the Infographics Show, Who Were the Most Successful Spies of all time?
Number 10. Virginia Hall
Let’s start with a woman, just because you probably think this list will be populated mostly by men. Known as the limping lady, Hall accidentally shot herself in the leg; a leg that was later replaced by a prosthetic limb she nicknamed Cuthbert. During the second world war, she worked with the U.S.’s Special Operations Executive and was also a correspondent for the New York Post. She was an important asset and hated by the Germans, who called her “the most dangerous of all Allied spies.” Apparently, she moved many documents around Europe by concealing them in her false leg. She died in the U.S. at age 76.
Number 9. Aldrich Hazen Ames
As you’ve seen in the movies, spies sometimes are spies working for the other side. This is what is called a mole. One such spy was Aldrich Ames. Ames worked for the CIA but became a mole for the KGB. He spent 31 years working for the CIA so he certainly had a lot of information to pass on. In fact, it’s said he compromised more CIA assets than another other spy in the history of moles. He was arrested in 1994 and is currently serving a life sentence at a Federal Correctional Institution.
Number 8. Major General Dmitri Polyakov
It works the other way, too. Major General Dmitri Polyakov was at the top of Russia’s GRU and he was passing information to the CIA. A lot of information, too, as he knew just about everything regarding Russian affairs due to his high rank. Also known as Tophat, his story doesn’t have a happy ending. Polyakov was caught by the KGB in 1986 and he was executed two years later. After that the CIA said of their prized asset, “He didn’t do this for money. He insisted on staying in place to help us. It was a bad day for us when we lost him.”
Number 7. Klaus Fuchs
Fuchs is perhaps the nicest spy on this list as it’s said all he wanted was peace between nations; his main reason for spying. This German theoretical physicist worked on secret British atom bomb projects and also the American Manhattan Project. At the same time, he was passing on what he knew to the Soviets, who at the time were an ally. Known as a gentle and helpful kind of person, it’s said that he passed on this information due to his “complicated view of how best to achieve postwar equilibrium,” according to The Guardian. He believed everyone had a right to this information. The Brits imprisoned him, and he served over 9 years. He died in Germany in 1988 after receiving many accolades throughout his life.
Number 6. Margaretha Geertruida MacLeod or Mata Hari
Maybe the most intriguing spy on this list, Hari’s occupation apart from spying was as an exotic dancer. She spied for Germany during the first world war after she met with a German attaché and promised to pass on French secrets in return for some cash. Prior to that, France’s Deuxième Bureau had asked her to gather information as the organization knew she danced for senior German officials. It backfired as she went the other way. Codenamed H-21 she was finally found out by the French and was executed by firing squad in 1917. The rifles didn't quite kill her so to finish the job an officer walked up to her squirming body and shot her in the head with a pistol. She always denied spying, saying at her trial, “A harlot? Yes, but a traitor, never!”
Number 5. Melita Norwood
Melita Norwood passed away in 2005. Prior to that, this British woman worked for the KGB, but her other job was working undercover at Britain’s atomic research centers. For 37 years she was passing information to the USSR about what goes on there and amazingly she wasn’t caught until she was 87 – after retiring of course. Her most famous words were, “Oh dear. I thought I had got away with it.” In a way she did, as the British never prosecuted her. She has gone down in history as one of the KGB’s greatest assets.
Number 4. Frederick Joubert Duquesne (Doo-Kayne)
South African Duquesne might have the coolest spy name out there and lives up to the ‘Catch me if you can’ lifestyle. Nicknamed ‘The Black Panther, he was outraged at British atrocities during the Boer War so he started spying for the Germans in 1914. While pretending to be a science researcher he was actually planting bombs on British ships. This is one tricky character, having been arrested and imprisoned three times by the British and escaping each time. Not surprisingly he used various names and went on to spy for many years to come. He was finally imprisoned in the U.S. but released due to ill health. He then did some lectures about his life and died in the U.S. at age 78. His other claim to fame is that he once was Theodore Roosevelt’s personal hunter when the president was on a trip to South Africa.
Number 3. Shi Pei Pu
Ok, so this person might not be the best spy, but he has perhaps the best story. Shi Pei Pu was a Chinese opera singing spy. In 1964 he ended up making the acquaintance of French embassy clerk Bernard Boursicot and they fell in love. Except Shi pretended to be a woman, telling Boursicot he had been forced to act as a man. Bouriscot was gay, but that didn’t go down well in those days so having a lover that insisted on being a woman worked out. Shi also adopted a child, and so it looked as though they were parents. They insisted it was theirs, but it seems people didn’t really believe that. Anyway, during a 20-year relationship Shi passed on lots of secret information to the Chinese government. Shi was imprisoned by the French in 1986 and served one year of a six-year sentence. He died in 2009 but was made immortal by the famous play M. Butterfly.
Number 2. James Armistead Lafayette
Lafayette has gone down in history as the first ever African American spy. His life didn’t start well as he was a slave, but he soon enlisted and was an important person during the American Revolutionary War against the British. He defected to the British side, but that was a bit of subterfuge from Laffayette. He was actually giving the Brits false information and feeding the revolutionaries correct information about the British; all the while working for the revolutionary Marquis de Lafayette. These intelligence reports were very important and were indispensable regarding the defeat of the British at the Battle of Yorktown. One history book says about him, “The ex-slave, who later renamed himself James Armistead Lafayette in the general's honor, served as a double agent against the British under the avowedly antislavery Lafayette.” He later became a successful farmer and died at age 70 in 1830.
Number 1. Sidney Reilly
Who’s the spy of all spies? Arguably that’s the guy who James Bond was based on. Nicknamed “the Ace of Spies”, Reilly was incredibly talented. Part of his job at MI6 consisted of spying on the Russians and trying to put a stop to the rise of Bolshevism. But that was just one of his duties. The master spy traveled all around the world collecting information for the Brits, saving British diplomats, stealing weapons plans, plotting executions, and seducing the wives of enemy politicians. In the end, Stalin ordered his murder and that was that…Or was it? Some people think he faked his own death and started working for the Soviets. It’s said he was an amazing spy, but later the media also portrayed him as a “trickster, murderer, and serial womanizer” in every part of his life. In the U.S., he became known as the world’s greatest conman, and one book about him states, “He was a good spy but also a criminal who perfected confidence stings. He was a scoundrel who spoke seven languages.” His exploits can be read in books and seen in countless films and TV series.
So, what do you think of this list? Do you know of any spies who you think should have been mentioned?