Woman who Nazis called 'most dangerous of all Allied spies' memorialized in Baltimore County

Virginia Hall crisscrossed Europe during her storied career. She clerked at the U.S. embassy in Warsaw, drove an ambulance in France and hiked over the Pyrenees Mountains.

But it was on a quiet farm in northern Baltimore County that the American spy — celebrated at home and abroad for her contributions to Allied Forces in World War II — spent much of her childhood.

Now that spot, near Parkton, will be commemorated with a roadside marker. On Saturday, a plaque was unveiled in the 19300 block of York Road, near the former farm that was her childhood home. A ceremony is scheduled for 11 a.m.

“She always seemed larger than life,” said her niece Lorna Catling of Baltimore, who plans to attend the celebration. “She was very intelligent, very sure of herself, and obviously very well-traveled.”

Hall’s career included time with the State Department, the French Ambulance Service, the British Special Operations Executive, and the U.S. Office of Strategic Services — a U.S. intelligence agency during World War II. In 1945, she was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross, the only civilian woman at that time to win the honor. In 1951, she joined the Central Intelligence Agency.

As an operative in the war, Hall sent intelligence reports, coordinated networks of agents, oversaw parachute drops and organized sabotage operations against German forces.

Baltimore County marker dedicated to World War II spy honors real-life 'wonder woman' »

She became so notorious to Nazi leaders that the Gestapo dubbed her “the most dangerous of all Allied spies.”

Catling, 88, calls her late aunt by the family nickname “Dindy.” She first met her when Catling was 16, after the war.

The family knew Hall was a spy, but didn’t know the details, Catling recalled. Hall was tight-lipped about her work.

“I was told not to ask questions, because there was a gag rule,” Catling said.

“Too many of my friends were killed because they talked too much,” Hall once said, according to her 1982 obituary in The Baltimore Sun.

Today, some are pushing for Hall’s story to reach more people.

Lisa Kraus, an archaeologist with the Maryland State Highway Administration, suggested the historical roadside marker near Hall’s former home — then known as Box Horn Farm. The marker was nominated and approved through a program administered by the Maryland Historical Trust and the State Highway Administration.

Kraus said Hall’s extraordinary life story inspired her. Not only was Hall a trailblazer, she had a disability. In 1933, she lost part of her left leg in a hunting accident in Turkey. She had to walk with a wooden leg, which she named “Cuthbert.”

The injury thwarted her plans of becoming a Foreign Service officer because she was not considered “able-bodied” — but she went on to a remarkable career in espionage.

Because of her injury, Hall became known as “the Limping Lady.”

“I often look back and think about what it might have meant to me to know about envelope-pushing women,” Kraus said. “It would have meant a lot.”

Several years ago, Kraus was reviewing interchange improvement plans for York Road and Interstate 83 in Parkton when she spotted a structure on historic aerial photos that sparked her interest. The building was no longer there, but after researching land records, Kraus found the area was once called Box Horn Farm.

She had never heard of Hall before. She tracked down the book “The Wolves at the Door: The True Story of America’s Greatest Female Spy,” a 2004 biography by Judith Pearson, and became engrossed in the story of Hall’s life.

Hall was born to a wealthy family in Baltimore on April 6, 1906. Her family had a home in the city but spent much of their time at their country house on the farm, her niece said.

Time on the farm helped Hall develop her sense of physical confidence and fearlessness, Kraus said.

“It was a place where she was really allowed to just run wild,” Kraus said. “And she kind of did that from that point forward.”

She graduated from the Roland Park Country School, where she played hockey and basketball, edited the yearbook and served as class president. She later attended Radcliffe and Barnard.

“She is, by her own confession, cantankerous and capricious, but in spite of it all we would not do without her,” states her page in the Roland Park high school yearbook. “She has been acclaimed the most original of our class, and she lives up to her reputation at all times. The one thing to expect from Dind is the unexpected.”

Hall also loved acting in school plays, said Craig Gralley, a retired CIA analyst and speechwriter.

“Acting is really very good training for being a spy,” said Gralley, who has written a first-person novel in Hall’s voice and is looking for a publisher.

During her childhood, the Baltimore County farm helped form Hall’s love of nature, Gralley said. Later, in the 1930s, she returned there to learn to walk again after her hunting accident.

“I think it’s an extremely formative location, because this is where she had to kind of re-make herself,” Gralley said.

Hall worked in various capacities for the CIA after the war. In her 40s, she married Paul Gaston Goillot, who had been a fellow member of the Office of Strategic Services.

She retired from the CIA in 1966 at age 60. She spent her retirement in Barnesville in Montgomery County, tending to her five French poodles and gardening in a greenhouse, according to her Sun obituary.

Catling said her aunt’s legacy recently has attracted more attention. Last year, the CIA named a training facility for her, the Virginia Hall Expeditionary Center. A biography is forthcoming from journalist Sonia Purnell.

Last year, several entertainment news outlets reported that the book could be made into a movie. And writers have been contacting Catling for interviews.

Kraus, the archaeologist, said that more than 35 years after her death, Hall is finally getting the recognition she deserves.

“I just think it’s a great story,” she said.

alisonk@baltsun.com

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