During World War
II, Velvalee Dickinson, who owned and managed a doll shop in New
York City, used correspondence about dolls to conceal information
about U.S. Naval forces she was attempting to convey to the Japanese
via South America.
Malvena Dickinson was born on October 12, 1893, in Sacramento,
California, the daughter of Otto and Elizabeth Blucher, also known
as Blueher. Her father and mother were both born in the United
States. She graduated from Stanford University in Palo Alto,
California, in 1918, but did not receive her Bachelor of Arts degree
until January, 1937, because of an allegation that she had not
returned certain books to the University.
mid-1920s, Velvalee Dickinson was employed in a San Francisco bank.
She then took a position with a brokerage company in San Francisco
from 1928-1935; the company was owned by her husband, Lee Terry
Dickinson, for at least some of that time. Subsequently, she
obtained employment in the social services field in the San
In 1937, Mrs.
Dickinson and her husband moved to New York City, where she obtained
employment as a doll saleswoman in a department store until December
31, 1937. Mrs. Dickinson then began operating her own doll store,
first at her residence at 680 Madison Avenue, then at a separate
store at 714 Madison Avenue.
October, 1941, she opened her store at 718 Madison Avenue, at which
location she catered to wealthy doll collectors and hobbyists
interested in obtaining foreign, regional, and antique dolls.
Dickinson's husband assisted his wife in the operation of her doll
business by handling the accounting records of transactions,
including those involving the sale of dolls to influential
individuals throughout the United States. Mr. Dickinson, who
suffered from a heart ailment, died on March 29, 1943.
interest in Mrs. Dickinson stemmed from a letter about dolls
intercepted by wartime censors because of its unusual contents and
brought to the Bureau's attention in February, 1942. The letter,
purportedly from a Portland, Oregon, woman to an individual in
Buenos Aires, Argentina, dealt with a "wonderful doll hospital" and
observed that the writer had left her three "Old English dolls" for
repairs. Also mentioned in the letter were "fish nets" and
Laboratory cryptographers examined the letter and concluded that the
"three Old English dolls" probably were three warships and the doll
hospital was a shipyard where repairs were made. They further
concluded that the fishing nets referred to submarine nets
protecting ports on the West Coast, and that the reference to
balloons was intended to convey information about other defense
installations on the West Coast.
Based on the
examination of the above letter, the FBI began an investigation to
determine whether information about United States defense matters
was being transmitted to the enemy.
meantime, four more letters addressed to the same individual in
Buenos Aires began arriving at the homes of the ostensible senders
with the notation, "Address Unknown." These letters were turned over
to the FBI. The persons whose names had appeared on the envelopes as
the senders stated that the signatures on the letters resembled
theirs and that the letters contained correct information about
their personal lives and interest in dolls. The four emphatically
denied, however, that they had sent any of the letters.
One of these
letters, purportedly sent by a Springfield, Ohio, woman, had been
postmarked New York City. The letter, also dealing with dolls,
contained the words, "Distroyed YOUR" and in the same sentence made
reference to a Mr. Shaw who had been ill but would be back to work
soon. Significantly, this letter was written a short time after it
became known that the Destroyer Shaw, which had had its bow blown
off at Pearl Harbor, was being repaired in a West Coast shipyard and
soon would rejoin the fleet.
the letters, furnished to the FBI in August, 1942, by a Colorado
Springs, Colorado, woman, was postmarked Oakland, California. It
made reference to seven small dolls which the writer said she would
attempt to make look as if they were "seven real Chinese Dolls"
making up a family consisting of a father, grandmother, grandfather,
mother, and three children. This letter took on particular
significance when the FBI learned that several warships had come
into San Francisco Bay for repairs just before the time the letter
was written and mailed certain details about the ships involved, if
known to the enemy, would have been of tremendous value to them.
Oregon, woman, whose name had appeared as the writer of the letter
intercepted by censors in February, 1942, submitted to the Bureau a
letter returned to her by the Post Office in August, 1942. This one
was dated in May, 1942, and postmarked Portland, Oregon. The letter
read in part: "I just secured a lovely Siamese Temple Dancer, it had
been damaged, that is tore in the middle. But it is now repaired and
I like it very much. I could not get a mate for this Siam dancer, so
I am redressing just a small plain ordinary doll into a second Siam
cryptographers made the following interpretation of the above: "I
just secured information of a fine aircraft carrier warship, it had
been damaged, that is torpedoed in the middle. But it is now
repaired and I like it very much. They could not get a mate for this
so a plain ordinary warship is being converted into a second
had been written a few days after the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga
left Puget Sound for San Diego still another letter was turned over
to the FBI by a Spokane, Washington, woman, this one carrying a
Seattle, Washington, postmark. The letter referred to a "German
bisque doll," dressed in a hula grass skirt, which was reported to
be in Seattle for repairs scheduled for completion by the first week
in February. A check by the FBI with naval authorities verified the
conclusion that the doll referred to a warship which had been
damaged at Pearl Harbor. The vessel was in Puget Sound Navy Yard for
repairs at the time the letter was written.
Laboratory examination of all five letters confirmed that the
signatures on the letters were not genuine, but were forgeries which
the experts decided were prepared from original signatures in the
possession of the forger. The examination also showed that the
typewriter used in the preparation of the letters was different in
each case, but that the typing characteristics indicated that the
letters were prepared by the same person.
conclusion reached by the FBI cryptographers was that an open code
was used in the letters, which attempted to convey information on
the U.S. Armed Forces, particularly the ships of the U.S. Navy,
their location, condition, and repair, with special emphasis on the
damage of such vessels at Pearl Harbor.
from Colorado Springs provided the information that directed the
FBI's attention to Velvalee Dickinson, the doll shop owner from New
York City. She expressed the belief that Mrs. Dickinson had used her
signature on one of the letters in a spirit of vindictiveness
because the woman had purchased some dolls from Mrs. Dickinson and
had been unable to pay for them promptly. Others of the women who
had received the letters returned from Buenos Aires also voiced
their suspicions of Mrs. Dickinson as the sender.
letters dealing with dolls received on past occasions by one of
these women from Mrs. Dickinson were identified by the FBI with the
typewriting on one of the letters that had been addressed to Buenos
Aires. Thus it was determined that Mrs. Dickinson's typewriter had
been responsible for at least one of the letters to Buenos Aires.
FBI investigation also disclosed that all four of the women whose
signatures had been used on the Buenos Aires letters had
corresponded in the past with Mrs. Dickinson concerning doll
Further FBI investigation revealed that in the early and mid-1930s,
while she was still in the San Francisco area, Mrs. Dickinson had
been a member of the Japan-American Society. During one year, her
dues to the Society were paid by an attaché of the Japanese
Consulate in San Francisco. It was also determined that she had made
frequent visits to the Japanese Consulate in that city, attended
important social gatherings in San Francisco at which Japanese Navy
members and other high Japanese government officials were present,
and entertained many Japanese in the Dickinson’s' home.
The FBI also
learned that after moving to New York City, Mrs. Dickinson had
visited the Nippon Club and the Japan Institute, had cultivated the
friendship of the Japanese Consul General there, and had met Ichiro
Yokoyama, the Japanese Naval Attaché from Washington, D.C.
Mrs. Dickinson's activities from January, 1942, through June, 1942
(the time frame in which the five doll letters had been sent), the
FBI found that the Dickinson’s had been in the areas from which the
letters had been postmarked at the time the letters were sent. The
hotels at which the couple had stayed on the West Coast were also
located, and FBI examination showed that typewriters owned and
available to guests at these hotels were used in the preparation of
four of the letters sent to Argentina.
FBI investigation disclosed that Mrs. Dickinson had consistently
borrowed money from banks and business associates in New York City
as late as 1941. However, in early 1943, she was known to have had
in her possession a large number of $100 bills. Four of the bills
which she had used in transactions were traced by the FBI to
Japanese official sources, which had received the money before the
Based on the
results of the FBI's investigation, Bureau Agents arrested Velvalee
Dickinson on January 21, 1944, in the bank vault in which she kept
her safe deposit box. On February 11, 1944, she was indicted by the
Federal Grand Jury in the Southern District of New York for
violation of the censorship' statutes, conviction of which could
result in a maximum penalty of ten years in prison and a $10,000
fine. She pleaded not guilty and was held in lieu of $25,000 bail.
examination of the contents of the safe deposit box disclosed some
$13,000 which was traceable to Japanese sources. A portion of the
money had been in the hands of captain Yuzo Ishikawa of the Japanese
Naval Inspector's Office in New York City before coming into the
possession of Mrs. Dickinson.
Dickinson had told the arresting Agents that the money in the safe
deposit box had come from insurance companies, a savings account,
and her doll business. Upon interview later, Mrs. Dickinson stated
that the money in the box actually had come from her husband. She
alleged that she found this money hidden in her husband's bed at the
time of his death. Mrs. Dickinson said that her husband had not told
her the source of the money but she believed it might have come from
the Japanese Consul in New York City.
information compiled as a result of the FBI's continuing
investigation resulted in another indictment of Mrs. Dickinson on
May 5, 1944, this time on charges of violating the espionage
statutes, the Registration Act of 1917, and the censorship statutes.
She pleaded not guilty, and her bail of $25,000 was continued.
On July 28,
1944, an agreement was made between the U.S. Attorney and Mrs.
Dickinson's attorney whereby the espionage and Registration Act
indictments were dismissed, and Mrs. Dickinson pleaded guilty to the
censorship violation, and promised to furnish information in her
possession concerning Japanese intelligence activities.
guilty plea, Mrs. Dickinson admitted to FBI Agents that she had
typed and prepared the five letters addressed to the individual in
Argentina, and that she had used correspondence received by her from
her customers to forge their signatures thereon. She claimed that
the information incorporated in her letters was obtained through
questioning innocent and unwitting citizens in the Seattle area
around the Bremerton Navy Yard, the Mare Island Navy Yard in San
Francisco, and from personal observation. She stated that the
letters transmitted information about aircraft carriers and
battleships damaged at Pearl Harbor, and that names of the dolls
appearing in the letters referred to these types of vessels.
Mrs. Dickinson, the code to be used in the letters, instructions for
the use of the code, and $25,000 in $100 bills had been passed to
her husband by Japanese Naval Attaché Ichiro Yokoyama on or about
November 26, 1941, in her doll store at 718 Madison Avenue for the
purpose of supplying information to the Japanese. She repeated her
claim that for the most part the money had been hidden in her
husband's bed until his death. Investigation by the FBI belied her
claims. That investigation disclosed that while Mrs. Dickinson knew
the Japanese Naval Attaché well, her husband did not know him at
all. It was also learned that a doctor's examination of Mr.
Dickinson had shown that Dickinson's mental faculties were impaired
at the time of the supposed Japanese payment to him. As for Mrs.
Dickinson's claim that the money had been hidden in her husband's
bed until his death, both the nurse and the maid employed by the
Dickinsons at that time emphatically stated that no money was
On August 14,
1944, Velvalee Dickinson appeared in court for sentencing. As the
sentence was imposed, the court commented, "It is hard to believe
that some people do not realize that our country is engaged in a
life and death struggle. Any help given to the enemy means the death
of American boys who are fighting for our national security. You, as
a natural-born citizen, having a University education, and selling
out to the Japanese, were certainly engaged in espionage. I think
that you have been given every consideration by the Government. The
indictment to which you have pleaded guilty is a serious matter. It
borders close to treason. I, therefore, sentence you to the maximum
penalty provided by the law, which is ten years and $10,000 fine."
maintaining her innocence and contending that her deceased husband,
and not she, was the traitor to her country, Mrs. Dickinson was
removed to the Federal Correctional Institution for Women at
Alderson, West Virginia. She was conditionally released on April 23,
1951, to the supervision of the Federal Court system.