Living across the street from British headquarters in Philadelphia in 1776, Lydia Darragh and her peace-loving Quaker family, had many opportunities to learn military plans, which they passed on to the Pennsylvania militia in an intriguing way. Lydia’s husband William would encode the messages on small bits of paper, which Lydia would sewed into covered buttons. Their 14-year-old son would then deliver the buttons to American authorities, sometimes even to Gen. George Washington himself.
In late 1777, Maj. John Andre informed the Darraghs that the British were taking over their home as a billet for officers. Lydia refused and determined to take her cause to Lord Howe. On her way, she serendipitously met one of her Irish cousins, who was a British officer. He intervened on her behalf, and the Darraghs were allowed to stay in the house, provided they allow the British use of one room as a meeting place.
On the night of December 2, 1777, the Darraghs were instructed to be in bed by 8 p.m. as the British were to have a special meeting. Lydia secreted herself in a linen closet in the room adjoining the meeting room, where she avidly listened to every word of the British plans to ambush the Americans. When she sensed the meeting was winding down, she slipped off to bed, pretending to be asleep and only “rousing” after Andre pounded three times on her door to tell her they were leaving.
The next day, Lydia secured a pass to go into the countryside to get flour from a mill. There are two versions of what happened next. Her daughter reported that Lydia set out on the road where she met a militiaman to whom she entrusted the news.
Elias Boudinot’s private journal records that while she was making the request for her pass, she slipped him a needlebook, which contained the information.
Lydia’s daughter also notes that after the British attack failed, the Darragh household came under suspicion, but Major Andre believed Lydia when she vehemently denied that anyone in her home had warned the patriots.
We know that in January 1786, Lydia moved as a notice in the Philadelphia papers states: Lydia Darragh takes this method of informing her friends that she has removed from her late dwelling house in Second, below Spruce street, to the west side of Second street, eleven doors above Chestnut street, to the home formerly occupied by John Connolly.