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A Byte Out of History - Velvalee Dickinson

A Byte Out of History
The Case of the Treasonous Dolls

Dickinson's doll shop storefront with Velvalee Dickinson's image in window


The facts of the case are odd.

Five letters were written in early 1942 and mailed by seemingly different people in different U.S. locations to the same person at a Buenos Aires, Argentina, address.

How do we know that? Because all of them bounced: "Return to Sender"--and the "senders" on the return address (women in Oregon, Ohio, Colorado, and Washington state) knew nothing about the letters and had not sent them.

Wartime censors had intercepted one letter postmarked Portland, puzzled over its strange contents, and referred it to cryptographers at the FBI Laboratory. Our experts concluded that the three "Old English dolls" left at "a wonderful doll hospital" for repairs might well mean 3 warships being repaired at a west coast naval shipyard; that "fish nets" meant submarine nets, and "balloons" referred to defense installations.

The FBI immediately opened an investigation.

It was May 20, 1942--62 years ago--when a woman in Seattle turned the crucial second letter over to us. It said, "the wife of an important business associate gave her an old German bisque Doll dressed in a Hulu Grass skirt...I broke this awful doll...I walked all over Seattle to get someone to repair it..."

In short order, we turned up the other 3 letters:

  • From New York: "The only new dolls I have are THREE LOVELY IRISH dolls. One of these three dolls is an old Fishermen with a Net over his back...I went to see MR. SHAW he distroyed YOUR letter, you know he has been Ill.
  • From Oakland: I will try to make these 7 small dolls look as if they are "seven real Chinese Dolls."
  • From Portland: "I just secured a lovely Siamese Temple Dancer [doll], it had been damaged, that is tore in the middle, but it is now repaired..."

All five letters were using "doll code" to describe vital information about U.S. Naval matters. All had forged signatures that had been made from authentic original signatures. All had typing characteristics that showed they were typed by the same person on different typewriters. How to put these together?

It was the woman in Colorado who gave us our big break. She, like the other purported letter senders, was a doll collector, and she believed that a Madison Avenue doll shop owner, Mrs. Velvalee Dickinson, was responsible. She said Ms. Dickinson was angry with her because she'd been late paying for some dolls she'd ordered. It was a match: the other women were also her customers.

Who was Velvalee Malvena Dickinson? Basically, a mystery. She was born in California and lived there until she moved with her husband to New York City in 1937. She opened a doll shop on Madison Avenue that same year, catering to wealthy doll collectors and hobbyists, but she struggled to keep it afloat. It turned out, too, that she had a long and close association with the Japanese diplomatic mission in the U.S.--and she had $13,000 in her safe deposit box traceable to Japanese sources.

Following her guilty plea on 7/28/44, she detailed how she gathered intelligence at U.S. shipyards and how she'd used the code provided by Japanese Naval Attaché Ichiro Yokoyama to craft the letters. What we'll never know is why the letters had been, thankfully, incorrectly addressed.