Imagine an exclusive doll shop in New York City used as a front for espionage on behalf of Japan during the second world war. Velvalee Malvena Dickinson cleverly used her business in order to become a spy and leak important information to the Japanese. Boron October 12, 1893, the daughter of Otto and Elizabeth Blucher, this clever woman fooled so many for so long. She graduated Standford University in Palo Alto, California in 1918 but received her Bachelor of Arts in 1937 because of an allegation that she never returned books owed to the university. The author enllightens readers to to various modes of employment starting with the San Francisco bank and then a brokerage company in San Fransciso, the company owned by her husband Lee for at least some of the time. She worked for social services and in 1937 she and her husband moved to New York City where she was employed as a doll salewoamn in department store until December 31, 1937. She then moved on to opening and operation her own doll store at her first residence at 680 Madison Avenue and then another store at 714 Madison Avenue. Later in October 1941 she opened her store at 718 Madison where she catered to wealthy and rich doll collectors and anyone interesting in obtaining and buying foreign, or regional or antique dolls. With the help of her husband who handled the accounting records and transactions, and anything involving the sale of dollls to influential and rich individuals throughout the United States until her husband had died on March 29, 1943.
Customers would send request letters for dolls and when Mrs. Dickinson received them she was able to copy their signatures in order to use the contents of the letters as codes to provide information about the war to the Japanese governement based on what the United States was doing. The FBI became interested in her and she became a person of interest and the author creatively takes readers inside the heart of the investigation, which began with a letter that about dolls that was intercepted by wartime censors because of its rare and unusual contents. The letter was brought to their notice or attention in February 1942 and it was supposedly from a Portland, Oregon woman to an indvidual in Buenos Aires, Argentina, who dealt with a wonderful doll hospital and observed that the writer had left her three Old English dolls for repair. These letters were fish nets and balloons. The FBI Laboratory had their crytopgraphers examine the letters and realized that the three Old English dolls were most likely three warships and the doll hospital was a shipyard where repairs were made. Further investigation revealed that the fishing nets referred to submarine nets protecting ports on the West Coast and that the references to balloonw was intended to convery infomration about other defense installations on the West Coast.
With the FBI investigating to determine and decide whether and if information about U.S. defense matters were transmitted to the enemy, things took on a different turn. The author included letters that stated information such as : My Most Gracious Friend: please forgive the ealy in writing to thank you for your kindess in sending my family the beautiful Christmas gifts. The girls were especially pleased. It goes on to state how busy she is wehre she has been, the kids of dolls that were found and the code that was hidden beneath the words. More letters were addressed to the same person in Buenos Aires and began attriving at homes of the supposed senders with the notation: Address Unknown turnring these letters to the FBI. The person or persons whose names appeared on the enveloped as senders, stated that the signatures lloked like theirs and contained information that was correct about their personal lives and interest in dools but the four denied that they never sent the letters. One was supposedly sent by a Springfield Ohio woman postmarked NYC. The letter, dealing with dolls had words in it like Distroyed Your and in the same sentence made refernce to a Mr. Shaw who had been ill but would be back to work soon. This letter was written a short time after it became known that the Destroyer Shaw which had had it bow blown was being repaired in a West Coast shipwyard and soon would rejoin the fleet. The amount of letters were numerous and one made reference to 7 small dolls which the writer said she would attempt to make lok as if they were seven real Chinese Dolls amking up a family of a father, grandmother, mother, grandfather and three chidlren. This letter was crucial and the FBI learned that several warships had come into San Francisco Bay for repairs just before the time the letter was writtena nd mailed certain details about the ships involved, if known and the information given to the enemy would have been invaluable to them and catastrophic to us. This was just the tip of the iceberg that the author shares with readers as another woman in Portlan, Oregaon whose name alos appeared as the writer of the letter intercepted by censors in February 1942, sent the a returned letter them which was a letter returned to her by the Post Office in August of that same year. This letter stated information about a lovely Siamese Temple Dance that had been damaged and that is torn in the middle but is now repaired and she liked it very much. She could not get the matching mate for this Siam dancer so she is redresseing just a small plain oridinarly second Siam doll.
The FBI crytopgraphers interpreted many of the letters and realized that information in the form of codes were hidden in plain sight. When a woman from Colorado Springs gave information that directed the FBI’s attention to Velvaleet’s doll shop in NYC. She sated that she believed that she used her signature on one of the letters in a spirit of vindictiveness because when purchasing the dolls she could not pay for them on time. Others of the woemn who had received letters from Buenos Aires also voiced and stated their thoughts that Mrs. Dickinson was the sender. Mrs. Dickinson has beena member of the Japan-American society and during one year her dues were paid by an attache of the Japanese Consulate in San Francisco. She made several visits to the consulated and attended social gatherings. Navy members and other high Japanese government officials were present too. She even borroed money fro banks and associates in NYC as late as 1941. In 1942 she was known to have in her possession a huge number of 100 dollar bills and four of the bills were said to have been sued in transactions which were traced by the FBI to Japanese sources, which had received money before the start of the war. As a result she was arrested on January 21, 1944 in a bank vault in which she kept her safe deposit box. All of the research related by the author is accurate as a fact checked it all.
The author shares the fact that she was indicted by a federal grand jury in Southern District of NY for violation of the censorship statues, conviction of which might result in 10 years in prison and a 10 thousand dollar fine. She stated she was not guilty and was held in lieu of 25 thousand bail. At the time of her arrest the FBI found in the safe deposit box 13 thousand dollars which was traceable to Japanese sources and some of the money had been in the hands of captain Yuzo Ishikawa of the Japanese Naval Inspector’s Office in NYCF before coming into her possession. Wanting to cast blame away from her she told the arresting agents that the money had come from an insurance company and a saving account on her doll business. But she later claimed that the money in the box belonged to her husband and claimed that she found this money hidden in her husband’s bed when he died and that he never told her the source of the money. Charges were filed and she was indicted on May 5 of 1944 on charges of violating the espionage statues, the Registration Act of 1917 and the censorship statues. She once again pleaded not guild and the bail of 25 thousand held. But, not wanting the death penalty, she decided to plead guilty to a censorship violation and had to furnish information that she had in her possession concerning Japanese intelligence activities. The story continues with much more that the FBI found, the five letters addressed to the person in Argentina and that she had used correspondence received from customers of her own to forge their signatures. How she did this was quite ingenious and according to her the code to be used in the letters , instructions for the use of the code and 25 thousand dollars in 100-dollar bills has been passed to her husband a Japanese attaché in 1941 in her doll store on Madison Ave. She was sentenced to the ten years in prison and 10 thousand dollars fine and sent to the Federal Correctional Institution for Women in Alderson, West Va. She was conditionally released on April 23, 1951, to the supervision of the federal court system.
The most intriguing part of the book is when Eunice Kennedy Shriver spends 6 weeks there and interviews many of the celebrity inmates and how and why she helped Velvalee acclimate to life after her incarceration.