Sunday, December 17, 2006

Victorian Secret Service Agents & Spies: Flip Sides of the Same Hollow Coin, Part I

Secret service agencies were sprouting up from spy networks, by 1866, as well as from protection service agencies. Although secret service agencies were around in some form as early as Shakespeare’s times, they were often private enterprises hired out to governments and private houses of distinction, alike.

In Europe during Queen Victoria’s reign, protecting Prussia’s King Bismark became a concern. The Prussians used a Saxony intelligence master during the Victorian era, Wilhelm Stieber (1818-92) to set up the precursor to modern secret service agency models. He formed the Secret Field Police. Stieber had been operating as a spy to earn money for his education; he’d posed as an editor during the Great Exhibit or the World’s Fair of 1851. He effectively moved about many European countries, setting up and then taking down any number of spy networks, covering his tracks.

Prior to the Secret Field Police, Stieber had already masterminded intelligence networks in unheard of ways. In the 1850s, he noticed that certain men of high power and societal positions were frequenting prostitutes. He determined by surveillance that a great number of the prostitutes were spying on these men as they’d historically been noted to do, and some of the prostitutes had even garnered higher educations by the men who patronized them. Opportunistically, Stieber organized those spying prostitutes in his favor, ensuring they became police informants instead of underworld spies.

Another claim for Stieber’s genius in Victorian era intelligence work was his credited prediction of the rising power and influence of newspaper editors. An underpaid but powerful class, the editors were always short of cash to operate effectively in their field. By organizing editors worldwide to become informants for pay, Stieber had set up yet another unexpected resource for information gathering and spying.

No Saint, Stieber took full advantage of human depravity as prior to WWI, he set up at least one high-class bordello, himself, which only invited people of consequence. Once there, they where spied upon and oft times blackmailed if they stepped out of line with government objectives.

The EnemyWithin: A History of Espionage, by Terry Crowdy, ISBN 1841769339

4 comments:

Christine Koehler said...

Interesting. It's amazing how things began and how their origins were eventually lost to history.

Susan Macatee said...

Editor-informants! That's a new one.

Really interesting post.

Camilla said...

I'm always shocked by the lack of Victorian era spies in comparison to the ever-popular Regency spy when there was so much more for spies to do by this period! I find that the diplomatic tensions and espionage during the period between 1870-1914 create a more than fertile landscape for Victorian spy romances.

Christine Koehler said...

I find that the diplomatic tensions and espionage during the period between 1870-1914 create a more than fertile landscape for Victorian spy romances.

I agree. So much happened during that time, how could they not have spies? It's just not something one hears about when talking about the Victorian Era. Goes to show what kind of society we have even now that they're more interested in the sex (or supposed lack thereof) than spying.