The Nazis hated this most dangerous, smart and daring female spy from Baltimore
Virginia Hall Goillot
April 6, 1906, Baltimore, Maryland
Died: July 8, 1982, Rockville, Maryland
She may have been the daughter of a wealthy Baltimorean and a Roland Park Country School graduate but, to the Nazis, Virginia Hall was “the most dangerous of all Allied spies.”
Virginia dreamed of becoming a diplomat, but life’s turns instead put her on the path to the underground with both British and United States intelligence agencies during World War II. Both agencies awarded her medals.
She possessed qualities of a valuable spy. Adventurous, articulate and well-liked, her family raised her as a woman of the world. She travelled to Europe and mastered five languages. At her family’s part-time farm in Parkton, she also grew to understand rural lifestyles. These personal traits melded perfectly in her later clandestine travels throughout the German-occupied French countryside.
Shortly after studies at Radcliffe and Barnard colleges, Virginia joined the American Embassy as a Consular Service clerk in Warsaw and, later, at the US Consulate in Turkey. During a hunting trip, she accidentally shot herself in the foot, which led to a leg amputation at the left knee.
Her prosthetic, fitted back home in Baltimore, was cumbersome and painful. In those days, leg prostheses were made of painted wood, an aluminum foot and attached at the waist with a leather belt. She nick-named it “Cuthbert” and walked with a noticeable limp for life.
Her dreams of a diplomatic career were dashed, though she applied for positions nonetheless.
The State Department rejected her application since she was not “able-bodied.” Disillusioned, she enlisted in the French ambulance corps until France fell to Germany in June 1940.
With a grudge toward Germany after what she had witnessed during her ambulance corps duty, Virginia departed to England to work with the British Special Operations Executive after a chance meeting with one of its agents.
Back in France again, she posed as a French-American reporter for the New York Post. In reality, she worked virtually around the clock supporting the French Resistance. Virginia rescued downed Allied airmen, oversaw parachute supply drops, organized sabotage against German supply lines and plotted POW escapes from German prisons and Vichy camps.
She was so effective that the Nazis set up a nationwide campaign to locate “The lady with the limp.” The Gestapo circulated posters offering a reward for the capture, saying “We must find and destroy her.”
They never did. Virginia escaped to Spain by way of the Pyrenees, walking in the midst of winter on “Cuthbert.” She returned to England and went on to work underground in Madrid as a Chicago Times Correspondent and in London as a radio operator. She declined to accept her medal from King George VI so as not to draw attention to her covers.
Since her British superiors said that she was in too much danger to resume her previous assignment in France, Virginia turned to the US Office of Strategic Services.
Disguised as an old (and limping) woman, she set up an operation in a village south of Paris, reporting on German troop movements. As Germans closed in, she relocated as needed, supporting the French Resistance network with information, weapons, supplies and money.
She was in service with her colleagues on D-Day and set out to wage a guerilla war on German troops behind enemy lines. It was during this time that she met French-American lieutenant Paul Goillot, who she later married in 1950.
Though Virginia, Paul and their colleagues prepared for other conflicts, the war finally ended.
Virginia received the Distinguished Service Cross in 1945. General William J. Donovan wrote to President Truman that “. . . Miss Virginia Hall is the first civilian woman in the war to receive the honor. Despite the fact that she was well known to the Germans, Miss Hall voluntarily returned to France in March 1944 to assist in sabotage operations against the Germans.”
After the war, Virginia became the first female member of the then-new Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). She retired in 1966 to her home in Barnestown, Maryland, where she enjoyed reading spy novels, gardening and raising pet poodles.
She died in 1982 and is buried under a modest gravestone, next to Paul, in Druid Ridge Cemetery in Pikesville.
Much of her work during World War II remains classified. At the International Spy Museum in Washington DC, you can see Virginia’s suitcase radio, her British ID and several personal papers.
She rarely spoke of her war time work, saying, "Many of my friends were killed for talking too much."
Sources and more reading:
WANTED: The Limping Lady: The intriguing and unexpected true story of America’s most heroic—and most dangerous—female spy, by Cate Lineberry, Smithsonian.com, February 1, 2007, Accessed 03/08/18
L’espionne: Virginia Hall, une Americaine dans la guerre
Vincent Nouzille. (In French) Paris: Fayard, 2007, pp 452, illus. Reviewed by M.R.D. FootIntelligence in Public Literature, , Accessed 03/08/18
Finding Ordinary Americans with Extraordinary Stories
Miriam Kleiman, Prologue Magazine, The National Archives, Fall 2005, Vol. 37, No. 3, Accessed 03/08/18
Virginia Hall's critical role as an American spy, WBAL TV,, Lisa Robinson, 01/28/16
A Climb to Freedom: A Personal Journey in Virginia Hall’s Steps, Craig R. Gralley, Studies in Intelligence Vol 61, No. 1 (Extracts, March 2017)
Virginia Hall: Professional US Spy, Curious Historian, by Kennita Leon Rose, accessed 03/13/18
Ambassadors to honor female WWII spy, by Ben Nuckols, Associated Press Writer
Virginia Hall Biography, thefamouspeople.com, accessed 03/13/18
Not Bad for a Girl from Baltimore: the Story of Virginia Hall, unknown author, accessed 03/13/18