Image from ladiesindefiance.com.
Don’t you think the “They Spy Who Knitted Socks” sounds a bit like a movie title? One of those spy/thriller spoofs that James Bond fans love to hate and James Bond haters just love? Well, I certainly think so. But its also a true story. There once was a spy, an American Revolutionary spy, who knitted socks. In fact, knitting socks was her cover. She’d be knitting away on a pair of socks while passing secrets to rebels (who carried those secrets direct to George Washington).
I’m talking about Molly Rinker, aka Mom Rinker, aka the spy who knitted socks. Molly Rinker was an innkeeper/tavern keeper in Philadelphia and for six weeks General Washington was camped with his men at Whitemarsh, which is just a few miles away. Molly had a bar full of British soldiers and she heard things, sometimes very useful things. When she had something useful to pass on, she would take her knitting and go sit on top of this huge rock which overlooked a road. She wrote her useful bits of information down onto scraps of paper and hid them in little balls of yarn. When the time was right, she dropped the little balls of yarn down from her perch on the rock and one of General Washington’s guys would pick it up. Then she’d pack up her knitting and go back to serving drinks to the British army.
Pretty clever right? Any one of us who have knitted or crocheted in public can attest to what an innocent picture the talented crafter makes. When people see us doing our yarn thing they think “aww, how sweet”, or “I wish I could do that”, or “what a waste of time!”. But they never think “Oh look a knitter! I bet she/he is in cahoots with rebels and trying to overthrow the rightful rulers of this land!”. Yep knitting is a pretty good cover when you want to do something devious right under everyone’s nose. And Mom Rinker certainly knew that.
In considering Molly Rinker and what she did, its helpful to keep a few historical tidbits in mind. First, those British customers hanging out in her bar and sleeping in her inn were forced upon her. The British army was occupying Philadelphia and when they did that sort of thing troops were quartered in people’s homes and such. The people who lived in those places had no say in the matter.
Second, George Washington had spies everywhere. He was quite literally a spymaster and had agents feeding him information from every corner of the colonies. Historians think his spy network was a key part of defeating the British forces. Molly was one of his network and he relied on the information she and others gave him.
Last, the socks Molly Rinker was knitting were for the rebel army of course. At the time that alone could get you locked up as a traitor. During the winter of 1777-1778 over two thousand rebel soldiers died due to exposure, disease, and starvation. Giving any form of relief to the troops was a crime. To openly knit socks for the rebels, and supposedly Mom Rinker made no secret as to where her sympathies lay, was bold with a capital B.
So… old Mom Rinker was knitting illegal socks to cover up her really illegal mission: listening to drunk British soldiers and passing on what they said to the grand spymaster of the rebel army. Those secrets were dropped into Washington’s hand… wrapped up in yarn. In yarn. How cool is that?
Well, its probably only cool to die-hard yarn geeks like me. And maybe you.
Molly “Mom” Rinker is described on page 37 of No Idle Hands: The Social History of American Knitting. She is also mentioned on page 208 of Turncoats, Traitors, and Heros. The rock she sat and knitted on has been named Rinker Rock and you can find it in Fairmount Park. (There is a statue up there but its not of Molly. I think is a statue of William Penn.)