The One-Legged Spy
Virginia Hall attended Radcliffe and Barnard colleges, her era’s female counterparts of Harvard and Columbia universities. There, she studied French, German, and Italian. She liked travel and public service, so she tried to combine the two and become a US diplomat. Unfortunately, the State Department’s sole career track for women back then was clerical. So Hall became a clerk at the American consulate in Turkey. There, she accidentally shot herself in the leg while hunting, and the limb was amputated. She got a wooden prosthetic, which she nicknamed “Cuthbert”. Because of her gender, Hall was repeatedly denied promotion to diplomat. So she resigned in 1939. She was in France when the Germans invaded, and volunteered to drive an ambulance for the French Army. When France fell in 1940, she fled to Britain.
There, Hall joined the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a clandestine organization tasked with espionage and sabotage in occupied Europe. She became one of the first spies infiltrated into France. It was hazardous duty: more than a third of female SOE agents sent to France perished. She established an espionage network named Heckler that gathered valuable information and coordinated with the Resistance. The Gestapo learned that a “Limping Lady” was operating on their turf, and circulated bulletins – along with sketches – to be on the lookout for her. However, Hall used various aliases and disguises, and continued her clandestine work under the Nazis’ noses despite her tell-tale limp. Along the way, she recruited a Lyon brothel owner, and used his establishment as a kind of headquarters. She also had a sixth sense for danger, which allowed her to evade capture on many occasions.