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The Baltimore spy who beat the Nazis

Roland Park Country School graduate Virginia Hall became a spy in France in World War II.
Roland Park Country School graduate Virginia Hall became a spy in France in World War II.(Baltimore Sun)

The story of Virginia Hall, a spy who eluded capture in France by the Nazis during World War II, is remarkable and compelling. Her biographers say the Gestapo considered her the most dangerous of all Allied spies.

Her story begins in Baltimore, where she was born April 6, 1906. Her father was Edwin L. Hall, an executive in the old Whitehurst movie theater organization. He ran the Garden Theater and later had an office on Lexington Street in the Century Theater, where he was corporate secretary of what was then the most successful theater chain in the city. Her mother was Barbara Hammel.

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Virginia spent her school years living in a Victorian home at 2124 Mount Royal Terrace in Reservoir Hill. She spent her summers at a family summer home, Box Horn Farm in Parkton, off York Road. A state historic marker there commemorates her life.

Her summers on the farm afforded her advantages as a spy. Her father had a strong influence over his tomboy daughter, teaching her to hunt and shoot. She liked roughing it in the outdoors and learned the rudiments of cheese-making.

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Years later, in one of her numerous disguises, she posed as a cheese-maker in rural France and sold her dairy products to the German soldiers she was observing and whose movements she was secretly radioing back to her British spymasters.

She was a bright student and mastered languages. She graduated from Roland Park Country School, where she was class president and yearbook editor. She played on the school’s field hockey and basketball teams, and took on male parts in the school plays. In the senior yearbook she was called “cantankerous and capricious” and the “most original of our class.”

She was close to her father, who died in 1931 as an executive of the Westport Brick Paving Co. The family by then had moved to 103 W. 39th St. in the Tuscany-Canterbury neighborhood.

She left Baltimore after her high school graduation, attended Barnard College and moved to Paris at age 20. She later joined the U.S. State Department and took well to the overseas assignments she could get as a young woman. Her State Department bosses were loath to promote women to high posts.

Ever the outdoors woman, she injured herself severely in a bird-hunting accident in which she shot herself while carrying a 12-gauge shotgun and lost half her leg. She thereafter walked with a wooden prosthetic device she called “Cuthbert.”

Virginia Hall created a role for herself as an undercover agent working for British secret services, the Special Operations, beginning at the outbreak of World War II. She had incredible survival instincts and worked in a spy network in Lyon, France. She posed as a New York Post reporter and moved in and out of the French Resistance. At one point she took cover in a Daughters of Charity convent.

When the Germans tightened their control of France, she escaped capture by walking over a pass in the Pyrenees Mountains to Spain. She later returned to France for more covert activity and became a legend among her fellow Resistance fighters.

“Virginia returned to the United States in September 1945 as a stranger in her own country,” wrote Hall’s biographer, Sonia Purnell, in her 2019 work, “A Woman of No Importance.”

Hall remained in undercover work with the Central Intelligence Agency. She and her husband settled in Barnesville in Montgomery County. She died in 1982 at Shady Grove Adventist Hospital in suburban Washington.

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