Shots were fired in the late summer of 1777, a year after the United States declared independence, as some 15,000 British soldiers descended onto Philadelphia, then the seat of the rebellious Second Continental Congress. After some hard-fought battles that resulted in over a thousand Continental Army deaths, the British marched into Philadelphia unopposed. The Continental Congress first relocated to Lancaster and then York, leaving civilians behind in Philly. One of those civilians was Molly Rinker.
Molly Rinker, also known to friends as Old Mom Rinker, was a matronly woman who ran a Philadelphia tavern. While George Washington and his troops were encamped just a few miles outside of the city, Mom Rinker closely tended to British soldiers and Tories, keeping their plates full, their beer pitchers flowing, and the conversation animated. But her intentions went beyond just providing good service. While drunken redcoats chatted away, Mom Rinker picked up bits and pieces of information, which she then covertly jotted down in the backroom. Each night, she wrapped her notes around tiny stones, and then hid those stones inside large balls of yarn. And on the following day, she took her knitting needles and yarn to the outskirts of town, where she’d climb high atop of a rocky ridge. From this vantage, Mom Rinker could easily survey the area. She would then sit down and proceed to innocently knit.
With yarn strewn around her and knitting needles in her hand, Mom Rinker was a portrait of tranquil domesticity. British soldiers who may have seen her from afar suspected nothing. But from this position, Mom Rinker could see when a Continental soldier emerged from the brush below. When she did, she’d gently nudge a ball of yarn over the brink, causing it to tumble to the ground, and the soldier would then scoop up, pocket, and carry her priceless message to George Washington. Old Mom Rinker, who never dropped a stitch, was America’s first and perhaps only sweater-making spy. She turned cloak-and-dagger techniques into yarn and knitting needles.Keep reading