Sunday, May 25, 2014

Kristie Macrakis's "Prisoners, Lovers, and Spies"

Kristie Macrakis, an author, historian and professor, was born and raised in Boston, MA. After completing her Ph.D in the history of science at Harvard University, she spent a post-doctoral year in newly unified Berlin, Germany. She is a professor in the school of history, technology and society at Georgia Tech in Atlanta where she teaches courses on history of science, Nazi Germany and the history of espionage.

Macrakis applied the “Page 99 Test” to her latest book, Prisoners, Lovers, and Spies: The Story of Invisible Ink from Herodotus to al-Qaeda, and reported the following:
Given the subject of my book – the history of invisible ink – I may well have opened up page 99 only to find a blank page! Instead, a facsimile of a developed invisible ink letter dating from the American Revolutionary War takes up about three quarters of the page. I can’t say this is typical of the whole book because it was understandably difficult to find invisible ink letters whether made visible or still invisible.

But the fact that a developed invisible ink letter dating from the American Revolutionary War exists, tells us quite a bit about the importance of this mode of secret communication in wartime. In particular, General George Washington was enamored with what he called “sympathetic stain.”

However, the letter reproduced here does not stem from the George Washington’s spies, but rather from the Tories. It is the first invisible ink letter that anyone has found since it dates from 6 May 1775. Benjamin Thompson, a turncoat – better known as the eminent physicist Count Rumford – wrote the letter to warn the British that the rebel army had grown to 30,000 men and that Congress intended to follow through with its plan of Independence at any cost.

This is an important bit of secret news and it needed to be sent in secret as if the patriots had discovered this message, Thompson would have been caught and hanged.

Aside from the content of the letter and the reason for using invisible ink to disguise it, another question to ask of it is, what kind of invisible ink formula did Thompson and George Washington use. The Revolutionary Ink chapter also uses detective skills to uncover the invisible ink formula used by both sides. The reader may be surprised to find out what the results were.
Learn more about Prisoners, Lovers, and Spies at the Yale University Press website and Kristie Macrakis's website.

The Page 99 Test: Seduced by Secrets.

--Marshal Zeringue