Jessie Jordan: A Rejected Scot Who Spied for Germany and Hastened America's Flight from Neutrality

By Jeffreys-Jones, Rhodri | The Historian, Winter 2014 | Go to article overview

Jessie Jordan: A Rejected Scot Who Spied for Germany and Hastened America's Flight from Neutrality


Jeffreys-Jones, Rhodri, The Historian


This article is about a spy or agent, not an intelligence "officer." Unusually for a discourse on a spy, it is about a working-class person. It is about someone who was female and not glamorous. It tells of an unheroic woman who betrayed the land of her birth, the United Kingdom. It deals with an individual who may not seem to be self-evidently significant. Yet, on closer inspection, the case of Jessie Jordan sheds light on what makes people spy, and had far-reaching repercussions.

Jordan spied for Germany's secret service, the Abwehr, on the eve of the Second World War. MI-5 surveillance of her movements triggered a spy scandal in the United States that helped to alert American opinion to the danger posed by Nazi Germany. Now that her trial records and MI-5 file are open to scrutiny, there is an opportunity to re-examine her case after 75 years of obscurity. (1)

It is worth noting at the outset that Jessie Jordan was a charismatic person with what the People's Journal called "an intensely interesting personality." (2) Speaking anonymously just after her conviction, one of her acquaintances told the Journal:

   No one could pass her without being impressed. And it is not her
   unusual hair alone that draws attention to her. She is under
   average height and of full figure, but this in no way detracts from
   her individuality. Even the way she walks gives her a certain
   distinction which marks her out among other women. (3)

Jordan needed her strong character, as she had experienced neither a privileged nor a lucky life. Her maternal grandparents had humble origins in County Down, Ireland. Though having the advantage (in the Irish context) of being Protestant, grandfather John Wallace was a laborer both before and after his relocation to the west of Scotland. Jessie was born in Glasgow in 1887, the illegitimate daughter of John's Irish-born daughter Elizabeth (Lizzie) Wallace. Jessie told the alien registration authorities in Glasgow that her father was William Ferguson, who took off for America leaving her mother to fend for herself. His name does not appear on her birth certificate. (4)

After Jessie's birth, her mother married John Haddow, a widower with two sons, one of whom worked as a railroad locomotive engineer. As Lizzie Haddow she bore five more children, then left her husband for a new life in Canada. (5) Before this, Jessie lived with her mother and stepfather in Lanark and then Perth; she had taken the Haddow surname by the 1901 Census. But she did not feel part of the mutating family, and at the age of sixteen ran away from home. A capable young woman, she found work as a maid in various towns in Scotland and England. In 1907, she met Frederick Jordan, a German waiter who took her home to meet his family. They married in 1912. Jessie became a German citizen, and lived in her husband's homeland until 1937.

Jessie Jordan's daughter Marga became an actress and singer, and married Hermann Wobrock, a Hamburg merchant with good connections. Through him, Marga met the family of Paul von Hindenburg, the Prussian Field Marshall who served as president of Germany from 1925 to 1934, and who appointed Adolf Hitler as Chancellor in 1933. Marga named her own daughter Jessie, after her mother. Jessie Jordan also had a son, Werner, who bore a different surname--Tillkes--and may well have had different paternity.

Jessie Jordan's life in Hamburg was, according to her own account, difficult. Her husband died on the Western Front in 1918. One might be tempted to believe that it was his death for the cause of the Fatherland that prompted his widow to spy for Germany twenty years later. If such an emotional tug existed, it must have been weakened by Jessie's discovery of a cache of letters her husband had written to another woman while at the front. It was one of several betrayals in her life. (6)

In 1920 she married Frederick Jordan's cousin Baur Baumgarten. …

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