Crime History, Feb. 11, 1944: Manhattan ‘Doll Woman’ indicted for spying during World War II

On this day, Feb. 11, in 1944, a New York City shop owner was indicted in a plot to use her dolls to deliver secret messages to the Japanese during World War II.

Known as The Doll Woman, Velvalee Dickinson opened a doll shop on Madison Avenue in 1937. She catered to wealthy doll collectors.

Velvalee Dickinson

Velvalee Dickinson

Dickinson, 50, was caught when her contact in Argentina moved and five letters were returned to U.S. wartime censors. The letters talked about the status of several new dolls being repaired at hospitals: a fisherman with a net on his back, an old woman with wood on her back, and three Old English dolls.

Cryptographers at the FBI Laboratory soon unlocked the meaning of the weird messages.

For instance, “Doll in hula skirt is in the hospital and doctors are working around the clock,” translated to USS Honolulu is badly damaged and in Seattle undergoing repairs.

“Old English dolls” left at “a wonderful doll hospital” for repairs meant warships being repaired at a west coast naval shipyard; “fish nets” meant submarine nets, and “balloons” referred to defense installations.

Investigators captured her as she was depositing $100 bills traced back to the Japanese government agencies before Pearl Harbor.

Federal authorities indicted Dickinson on espionage charges that could have sent her to the electric chair.

After she pleaded guilty to espionage in 1944, she told investigators how she gathered intelligence at U.S. shipyards and how she’d used the code provided by Japanese Naval Attaché Ichiro Yokoyama to craft the letters.

She was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

Dickinson died in 1980 at the age of 86.

— Scott McCabe



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