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How the imprisoned "Doll Woman" spy attracted the attention of the sister to future President John F. Kennedy

By Barbara Casey

So much has been written about World War II and the role that the United States played in it. There is one story, however, that has remained relatively hidden, even though at the time it made international news.

On the afternoon of January 21, 1944, small-boned, petite—no more than 5 feet tall, if that, and weighing less than 100 pounds, Velvalee Malvena Dickinson (photo above) hurried into the Midtown Manhattan bank. She feared that the FBI was watching her, and her immediate mission was to remove the contents of her safety deposit box in case she needed to make a quick escape.

She was too late, however.

The first American woman charged with espionage

In fact, the FBI had been surveilling Velvalee for well over a year. They now had enough evidence for an arrest on the suspicion of violating wartime censorship codes, at the very least, and possibly espionage, which, if convicted, carried the death penalty.

As soon as she opened the metal box, FBI agents who had followed her into the dimly-lit vault announced that she was under arrest. When she flung the box at the agents, they immediately confiscated its contents which included $15,940, two-thirds of it in Federal Reserve Notes that were later traced through their serial numbers to the Japanese Consulate.

These same bills had been withdrawn by the Imperial Japanese Government before the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Immediately prior to being transferred to Velvalee, they had been in the possession of Captain Yuzo Ishikawa of the Japanese Naval Inspector’s Office in New York. Also discovered in the safety deposit box were secret Japanese codes and instructions on the use of them.

Velvalee Dickinson (right) “fought bitterly, kicking, clawing, and screaming in an attempt to escape,” said FBI Special Agent E.E. Conroy to the reporters, something that was immediately picked up and described with as much titillating detail as possible in numerous newspapers across the country. In fact, the agents had endured being throttled by Velvalee’s purse as they lifted her off the ground by her arms and carried her out of the bank past the slack-jawed bank patrons and employees. “Mrs. Dickinson sent many coded messages to South America containing military and naval information vital to our security and valuable to our enemies,” continued Special Agent Conroy. The coded messages were “concealed in what appeared to be innocent letters discussing sales of dolls…. She signed the letters with forged names of her customers,” he explained, but citing national security, he refused to reveal the contents of the coded messages.

This was the beginning of the seven-month legal battle of Sacramento-born Velvalee Malvena (Blucher) Dickinson, the first American woman to be charged with espionage and violating wartime censorship laws. Throughout the trial, Velvalee insisted that it was her husband, now deceased, who was the traitor. Neither the judge nor the jury believed her. And even though her attorneys managed a plea deal to drop the charge of espionage, at the end of those seven months, Velvalee received the maximum sentence for violating wartime censorship laws.

The Doll Woman

Even as a young girl, Velvalee showed a keen interest in the Japanese and their culture. While attending Sacramento High School, she studied Japanese. After graduating from Leland Stanford Junior University, colloquially known as “the farm,” she worked in social services where she assisted Japanese families, and later she became a bookkeeper for an agriculture brokerage firm located in the Japanese community of the Imperial Valley where she met her third husband, Lee Dickerson. It was during this time that she and her husband joined several Japanese societies with the stated purpose of promoting an awareness and appreciation of Japanese culture.

Because of these associations, it wasn’t unusual for Velvalee to attend many social functions where she would meet high-ranking officials of the Imperial Japanese Government and its military. She frequently wore authentic Japanese dress, and entertained these same officials in her home. She had a vast collection of author-signed Japanese books, musical recordings, and Japanese jewelry.

At the age of 41, Velvalee started collecting dolls. She and Lee moved to New York after the brokerage company was shut down where she eventually opened the Velvalee Dickinson Doll Store on Madison Avenue. In New York, she quickly joined the Japanese societies as well as several professional doll-collecting organizations. Her clientele, which eventually numbered up to 20,000, included movie and Broadway stars, assorted social celebrities, politicians, as well as affluent men and women of the carriage trade. The prices she charged these collectors for her highly sought-after dolls started at a minimum of twenty-five dollars, with some of the more rare dolls fetching well into the thousands of dollars.

Velvalee was extremely proficient at marketing, and she frequently wrote for publication articles pertaining to dolls, she traveled around the country giving talks about doll collecting, she advertised regularly in the doll magazines, and, in short, quickly became known as an expert in the doll-collecting world. Most notable was her written correspondence with collectors who purchased dolls from her store. It was this abundance of letters that the FBI eventually focused on, ultimately bringing about the downfall of the “Number One American Spy,” Velvalee.

The United States enters World War II

In 1936 President Franklin Roosevelt and Secretary of State Cordell Hull tasked the Federal Bureau of Investigation with gathering intelligence on the potential threats to national security posed specifically by fascist and communist groups that were crossing U.S. borders and breaking lines into criminal activity. In addition, because the intelligence arms of the Army and Navy had noticed increased activity by German and Japanese spies in the late 1930s, they began working cohesively with the Bureau to disrupt it.

When war finally did come to America with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on a quiet Sunday, at 7:55 am, December 7, 1941, the Bureau was prepared. As the country absorbed the shock of the bombing at Pearl Harbor and tried to adjust to the new and difficult reality of rationing and travel restrictions while tearfully watching their loved ones depart for war zones in places unknown, the “Doll Woman,” Velvalee Dickinson, continued sending out her chatty, gossipy correspondence to her clientele and other doll enthusiasts.

The Doll Letters

One letter about dolls, however, posted from New York and sent to Señora Ines de Molinali in Argentina, was intercepted by wartime censors because of its unusual and somewhat confusing contents, as well as incorrect postage. The letter, dated January 27, 1942, was brought to the Bureau’s attention in February 1942. Purportedly written by Maud Bowman of Portland, Oregon, the letter mentioned a “wonderful doll hospital” where the writer had left her three “Old English dolls” for repairs. Also mentioned in the letter were “fishing nets” and “balloons.”

FBI cryptographers, and in particular C.A. Appel, examined the letter and eventually concluded that it was likely the “dolls” in question were possibly three warships and the “doll hospital” was a West Coast-based shipyard where repairs were made. They also speculated that the “fishing nets” referred to an aircraft carrier with antitorpedo netting on its sides, the “wooden doll” was an older battleship, and the “little boy” was a destroyer. “Balloons” mentioned in the letter probably disclosed information about coastal defenses and other critical information on the West Coast.

During the first half of 1942 it appears that Velvalee along with her husband remained on the move. They traveled first to Seattle, then to San Francisco, and back to New York in March. She reopened her store for several days and then returned to Seattle, with a stop in Portland. The Dickinsons continued their journey south to Oakland, California, and after a brief stay there, traveled possibly into Mexico briefly where they purchased hand-crafted dolls, then through the southern part of the United States before returning to New York.

These trips couldn’t have been easy. They also had to be extremely expensive. With the United States now involved in the war, gasoline rationing was in place thereby making automobile travel virtually impossible. Travel by train was equally difficult. Crowded waiting rooms at railroad stations, military troop trains receiving green light priority on all lines, servicemen on furlough commandeering what little space was available on regular passenger trains, and food rationing in place; yet Velvalee and Lee, even in declining health, somehow managed. For any of their more extended visits in an area, they stayed in hotels, and while in the San Francisco area, they relied on a realtor, Henry Jeffs, who handled Lee Dickinson’s property interests, to chauffeur them around. The Dickinson property consisted of the North Hotel in Seattle, Washington, that had been left to Lee by his late uncle, John Godwin. Jeffs would later state in an FBI interview that Velvalee impressed him “as a very self-centered and selfish woman of an extremely grasping nature. She was primarily concerned with how much she could get out of the real estate which comprised the Dickinson estate.”

Unraveling the Code

It was also in early 1942 when Mrs. Mary Wallace from Springfield, Ohio, about thirteen hours by train from New York, received a letter returned to her from Argentina and stamped by the postal service in Buenos Aires. It was in a red, blue, and white envelope, and like the first letter that had been intercepted, this letter had been addressed to a Señora Ines Lopez de Molinali, 2563 O’Higgins Street, Buenos Aires, Argentina. The return address correctly showed Mary Wallace’s address of 1808 High Street, Springfield, Ohio.

There were many similarities to the first letter. The information on the envelope was typewritten, and in addition to the Argentine stamp, there was an American stamp of the Central Station of New York and dated the month before. A separate stamp revealed the words, roughly translated from Spanish to English: “Recipient party without leaving the forwarding address rejected to the sender.”

When Mrs. Wallace opened the letter and read it, it almost appeared as though it had been written by someone illiterate. There were numerous typographical errors, misspellings, incorrect grammar, and many inconsistencies, yet some things did reveal certain personal happenings in her life, such as her nephew’s serious illness. Totally confused and wondering if it might be someone’s idea of a bad joke, Mrs. Wallace gave the letter, later to become known as “the Springfield letter,” to the Director at the Springfield Post Office who in turn sent it to the FBI in Washington where the letter was carefully studied. A short time later, Mrs. Wallace was called in for questioning.

The agent who questioned Mary Wallace, known only as Agent B, was particularly interested in what Mrs. Wallace told him about her doll collection, her activities with the Springfield Art Circle, and how she had recently purchased several dolls from a Madison Avenue shop in New York. She also described to the agent how kind Mrs. Dickinson, the owner of the shop, had been, especially since they both were experiencing tragedy—Mrs. Dickinson’s late husband’s death and her own nephew’s incurable brain tumor.

The contents of the letter were simply too strange to be innocent and too vague to be a joke. The postal censorship authorities had almost let the original letter they had intercepted pass, thinking that the letter writer was just a little addled. However, with the second letter now being returned, Agent B had a different theory, one which he shared with the FBI cryptologists.

This crucial second letter had been sent to the same address in Argentina as the first letter that had been intercepted by the censors and returned to an address of the person who supposedly wrote it but had no knowledge of it. Like the first letter, it also discussed dolls:

You asked me to tell you about my collection a month ago. I had to give a talk to an art club, so I talked about my dolls and figurines. The only new dolls I have are THREE LOVELY IRISH dolls. One of these three dolls is an old Fisherman with a Net over his back – another is an old woman with wood on her back and the third is a little boy. Everyone seemed to enjoy my talk. I can only think of our sick boy these days. You wrote me that you had sent a letter to Mr. Shaw, well I want to see MR. SHAW he destroyed (sic) Your (sic) letter, you know he has been Ill. His car was damaged but is being repaired now. I saw a few of his family about. They all say Mr. Shaw will be back to work soon.

Mrs. Wallace who turned over the letter said the signature looked somewhat like hers, and the writer seemed to know quite a bit about her personal life and of her interest in dolls, but she had not sent it. The return address was correctly noted on the envelope as an Ohio address, but the letter had been postmarked New York, a place where Mrs. Wallace had not been when the letter was mailed, her main source of entertainment being the Springfield Art Circle in the town where she lived. Besides that, she didn’t know how to type and didn’t care to learn.

In the letter, the FBI focused their attention on the reference to “Mr. Shaw.” In early 1942, the Japanese needed to know how badly the American Pacific fleet had been damaged in the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7, 1941, and how quickly the United States Navy was making repairs.

USS Shaw (DD-373) was a Mahan class destroyer commissioned in 1936, and fully operational in 1938. After training in the Atlantic, she was transferred to the Pacific where she conducted various exercises and provided services to carriers and submarines operating in the area. By mid-February 1941, Shaw entered the Navy Yard at Pearl Harbor for repairs, dry docking in YFD-2.

On December 7, Shaw was still dry docked, receiving adjustments to her depth charge mechanisms. During the Japanese attack, she took three hits—two bombs through the forward machine gun platform, and one through the port wing of the bridge. Fires spread rapidly through the ship. By 9:25 that morning, all fire-fighting facilities were exhausted, and the order to abandon ship was given. Efforts to flood the dry dock were only partially successful, and shortly after 9:30 am, her forward magazine exploded.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, the crew of the Shaw was ashore, “as was customary for vessels undergoing overhaul in dry dock, and only a few men were on hand when the bombs started to fall,” according to U.S. Destroyer Operations in WW II. Even so, USS Shaw lost twenty-four crewmen during the attack.

Temporary repairs were made at Pearl Harbor during December 1941 and January 1942. Then, on February 9, Shaw steamed towards San Francisco, about two weeks before the Springfield letter was sent, where repairs were completed, including the installation of a new bow.

Noticing the incorrect spelling of “distroyed” and the word “Your” capitalized immediately following—possibly indicating the word “destroyer,” the FBI concluded that the letter’s information tied in with the USS Shaw, damaged in the Pearl Harbor attack. With repairs now being completed on the West Coast, it would soon be part of the Pacific fleet once again.

With this attention to detail, the FBI began to unravel the coded messages of Velvalee Dickinson.

Velvalee’s Trial and Sentence

With four more letters being intercepted, and after a year of investigating Velvalee and her activities, the arrest was made. Velvalee continued her spirited fight throughout the seven months of legal maneuvers. When she was finally sentenced, Federal Judge Shackelford Miller, Jr. felt no mercy. Velvalee was given the maximum sentence: ten years at the Federal Correctional Institution for Women at Alderson, West Virginia, and a $10,000 fine.

Alderson, a minimum security campus-like facility, is the same prison where Martha Stewart spent five months for her involvement in an insider trading scandal. When Velvalee was an inmate there, many of the female prisoners were serving time for making moonshine and selling it illegally. There were other women inmates, however, who were imprisoned there for more serious crimes. They included Tokyo Rose, Axis Sally, and Kathryn Kelly.

For the most part, Velvalee’s imprisonment was unremarkable except for one thing: After serving five years, Eunice Kennedy, sister to future President John F. Kennedy, visited Alderson for a six-week stay while doing research on ways to best help women prisoners adjust after they were released back into society. Eunice would have met most of the inmates while staying there, but she seemed to take a special interest in Velvalee. Like Velvalee, Eunice had graduated from Stanford and she had worked tirelessly in the area of social services, even though coincidentally on the very day that Velvalee Dickinson had been sentenced to prison, Eunice’s brother had been killed in a war-related accident. And a year earlier, her brother John F. Kennedy had been seriously injured by the Japanese in the Solomon Islands.

When Velvalee was quietly released from prison three years early, she immediately returned to New York where she worked for St. Vincent Hospital, a job Eunice arranged for her. Velvalee later became a personal secretary for Eunice. She attended the wedding of Eunice and Sargent Shriver, and was a guest at their reception at the Starlight Roof and the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria which featured a fifteen-piece orchestra and an eight-tier wedding cake.

The seventeen hundred guests included such notables as Margaret Truman Daniel, only child of President Harry Truman and First Lady Bess Truman; American financier, Bernard Baruch; Supreme Court Justice William Douglas; Thomas Watson, Jr., the president if IBM; politicians Vincent Impelletteri, mayor of New York City, and Christian Herter, governor of Massachusetts; and Wisconsin senator, Joseph McCarthy.

The next few years passed inconspicuously for Velvalee as she tried to live anonymously, and by the time she turned 70 years old, she simply vanished. Her traitorous actions took their toll on so many. The devastation she brought about because of her greed has yet to be fully calculated. At the time of her conviction, many believed that it was her dolls who talked, thereby exposing the war crimes of Velvalee. Even today, after all this time, her dolls continue to talk. Collectors pay huge sums for a doll that has the provenance of having been in Velvalee’s collection. Even more amazing, there are some people who insist that they still see Velvalee, wearing authentic Japanese attire, sipping tea at the Nippon Club in quiet contemplation.

You can read the entire story and more in Velvalee Dickinson: The “Doll Woman” Spy by author Barbara Casey (photo right). Visit her website at www.barbaracaseyagency.com

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