Dubbed ‘the champion spy of the century’ for twenty five years Henri Le Caron operated as a British mole inside the Fenian movement.
It was the bloodiest day of the American Civil War. When fighting ceased on 17 September 1862, 12,410 Union soldiers and 10,700 Confederate troops lay dead on the windswept battlefield at Antietam. Casualties amongst the Union army’s Irish brigades were especially high, leading to the suspicion that Union generals considered Irish lives to be particularly expendable. For 19 year old Henri Le Caron of the Anderson Fifteenth Cavalry, it was a particularly gory introduction to war.
Le Caron had enlisted as a Frenchman in the Union Army on 7 August 1861, but both name and nationality were false. Le Caron was born Thomas Billis Beach on 26 September 1841, in Colchester, England. He was the eldest son of John and Maria Beach’s 13 children. Beach senior, a skilled barrel maker and a lay Methodist minister, apprenticed the teenage Thomas to a local draper, but the young Beach did not see any future in selling curtains, and, at the age of 16, ran away to Paris to seek his fortune. Despite not speaking the language, he soon found work, joined a church choir, made friends, and comfortably embraced the Gallic lifestyle.
It was a shot fired by rebel forces on 12 April 1861, at Fort Sumter (Charlestown), signalling the commencement of the American Civil War, which forever changed Beach’s life. Friends from the American colony in Paris encouraged him to join them as they departed for the United States to enlist, and before long Thomas found himself a passenger aboard the US bound Great Eastern. He was destined for New York and the Union Army recruiting halls. He registered as Henri Le Caron, a name he took from a family who ran a local Paris restaurant, to ensure that his family in Colchester wouldn’t learn of his enlistment.
Other bloody battles followed Antietam. In December 1862, at Fredericksburg, 545 of the 1200 Irish brigade soldiers were killed, wounded or listed as missing. Sent on a mission to acquire rations following the battle, Le Caron was captured by Confederate troops and locked in the log smokehouse of a farm. ‘Death’, he later wrote, ‘was very near’. During the night he heard the bolt on the smokehouse door being released. It was not the expected firing squad, but the farmer’s pretty, blonde niece, Nannie Melville, who risked her life to set him free to rejoin his unit. In April 1864, Le Caron again met Nannie, and later that year, in Nashville, the two were wed. ‘I ignored all the Articles of War and subscribed to those of marriage’, he recalled. It was to be a long, happy and eventful union. On 10 January 1866, Le Caron, now promoted to the rank of major, was mustered out of military service and settled down with Nannie and their one year old son, to study medicine. However, the former Union soldier did not revert to his baptised name of Beach, but rather committed to his nom de guerre and a future in the United States as Henri Le Caron.
While still a medical student, and part-time porter, Le Caron renewed his acquaintanceship with former war friend, General John O’Neill, now a leading member of the Fenian Brotherhood. O’Neill harboured plans to lead an invasion of Canada, with the idea of trading it to England in return for Ireland’s freedom. Such a notion shocked Le Caron, and, suddenly feeling very English, he wrote to his father (with whom he had re-established contact) to inform him of the Fenian plot. John Beach, now a government bonding agent and rate collector, contacted the British Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs to apprise him of the possible imminent invasion of a British colony by a Fenian army.
In 1867, Le Caron returned to England to see his father. To his surprise he was invited to a meeting at 50 Hartley Street, London, where the offer was made for him to become a British spy in the Fenian movement. Aroused by patriotism, he willingly agreed, and was soon introduced to Robert Anderson his spymaster and link to the British Government.
On his return to the United States, Le Caron contacted O’Neill who willingly found him work with the Irish Republican Brotherhood. Taking the oath of allegiance, Le Caron was designated as a military organiser and tasked with uniting the various Irish nationalistic groupings under the Fenian umbrella. As a further boost to his income, Le Caron had also agreed to spy for the Canadian Government.
The planned Fenian attack on Canada was eventually scheduled for 26 April, 1870. Some 1,300 Irishmen were drawn up along the border near the town of Franklin in Quebec. Before the invasion, O’Neill addressed his troops. ‘Soldiers, this is the advance guard of the Irish-American army for the liberation of Ireland from the yoke of the oppressor. The eyes of your countrymen are upon you. Forward. March. ‘Cheering wildly, and with fixed bayonets, the Fenian army advanced – right into a deadly volley of shots from the awaiting Canadians.
Watching from a hill overlooking the scene, Le Caron recorded, ‘Utterly taken aback, they [the Fenians] stopped, broke rank and fled …….. an ungovernable mob’. The victorious Canadian troops joked that ‘IRA’ was not an acronym for Irish Republican Army but merely meant ‘I ran away’. The Canadian Government, in a gesture of appreciation, awarded Le Caron a bonus of $2000 for his information about the invasion. The next year, Le Caron again warned the British and Canadians of another futile Fenian invasion, this time led by Bernard O’Donoghue in the Province of Manitoba.
The Good Doctor
By 1873, Le Caron had completed his medical studies, and together with Nannie and his expanding family of three children, settled in Braidwood, a coal mining town some 100km south west of Chicago. He did not expect to hear anything more from the Fenians in the light of the Canadian debacles, so he resolved to concentrate on his medical career. But unknown to his Braidwood patients, their hard working doctor indulged in a rather gruesome pursuit to supplement his income – grave robbing.
Post-Civil War, the number of American medical schools was rapidly increasing, giving rise to an escalating demand in cadavers for anatomy purposes. To the Le Carons, grave robbing was a ‘family business’. Nannie took responsibility for the administration, taking orders and scheduling deliveries, while Henri led the work gang, which included his son, in digging up, and transporting, the corpses to various universities.
In 1867, Alfred Nobel‘s invention changed strategic planning amongst dissident Irish organisations. Patent #78,317 was also known as ‘Dynamite or Nobel’s Safety Powder’. While the Fenians had previously been fixated on full-frontal assaults to effect their aims, they could now dream of travelling incognito to London to raze icons such as the Houses of Parliament and Palace of Westminster. The urban terrorist, in pursuit of political and nationalistic causes, now posed a very real threat.
Clan na nGael
Besides the Fenian Brotherhood, Irish Americans supported an alternative group – Clann na nGael (family of the Gaels), a secret society based on codes and trust, founded in New York in 1868. There was a realisation that armed invasion of England, or any of her Colonies, was futile; desired outcomes could now be attained through the use of terror, courtesy of Alfred Nobel. The Clan set about fund raising in the United States to finance both overt, and covert, strategies in pursuit of Irish independence.
Alarmed by the spectre of Clann na nGael’s potential for well planned terrorism, the British Government recruited agents from the Pinkerton Detective Agency to infiltrate the Clan’s North American branches. Le Caron was again contacted. In 1883, he and Nannie with their six children) moved to Chicago to be closer to the core of Clann na nGael power.
Given his past service to the Fenian movement his acceptance, by such a secretive society as the Clan, was not difficult. Soon, as a member of the organisation’s Military Board, he was privy to its plans and personnel, which he duly conveyed to his spymaster, Robert Anderson. When Clann na nGael finally did mount a dynamite war against England, Le Caron was able to provide information which ultimately led to the arrest of 25 Irish ‘dynamitards’.
For a brief time during 1881, Le Caron was liaison officer between the Clan and the Irish political leader Charles Stewart Parnell, who was then on a fund raising tour of the United States. When Le Caron returned to England to meet Anderson, Parnell, who was overtly advocating Irish independence through constitutional means, requested a further meeting. In 1888, the two men met at Westminster, where Parnell, according to Le Caron, dropped a ‘veritable bombshell’. ‘There need be no misunderstanding’, Parnell told him. ‘We are working for a common purpose ….. for I have long since ceased to believe that anything but force of arms will ever bring about the redemption of Ireland’. Parnell directed Le Caron to make his views known to the leaders of Clann na nGael on his return to the USA. The head of the Irish Party had just advocated plans for mass bloodshed. It was not long before Le Caron informed, Anderson.
Other events were in train which led to the eventual downfall of Parnell. In April 1887, The Times had acquired and published, a letter purportedly from Parnell supporting the murder of Lord Cavendish and Thomas Burke which had taken place in Dublin’s Phoenix Park, on 6 May 1882. ‘Burke got no more than his deserts’, Parnell allegedly wrote.
A Commission of Enquiry was set up to investigate the matter and on the morning of 5 February 1889, those attending the Royal Courts of Justice were stunned when a thin, short, wiry man stepped forward to give evidence. After a quarter of a century undercover, Henri Le Caron had come in from the cold. ‘I stepped into the witness box and came out in my true colours, as an Englishman, proud of my country, and in no sense ashamed’, he reported. He went on to testify that he believed the Irish politician had been involved in an ongoing Irish terror campaign. The trial, which was attended by Oscar Wilde and a young Winston Churchill, culminated with the revelation that the letters were in fact forgeries by Richard Pigott, a seedy Dublin newspaper owner. The Times was directed to pay Parnell substantial compensation for defamation. Despite this Parnell’s name had been sullied and his credibility questioned.
Le Caron never returned to the United States and was eventually reunited with Nannie in London following her hasty departure from Chicago. Fearing for his life he took on a new alias, that of ‘Doctor Morton’, and lived quietly with his family, under police protection, in London’s South Kensington. Faced with the constant threat of assassination and in failing health, Le Caron wrote his memoirs (Twenty–five years in the Secret Service: the Recollections of a Spy), which were published in 1892. He died two years later from appendicitis and was buried in Norwood Cemetery, Kensington. After the interment, Nannie and the family returned to the United States.
Following Le Caron’s burial, his former colleague and noted Irish American revolutionary, John Devoy, observed, ‘[W]ith twenty millions of a race that hates informers as does no other in the world … and he dies peacefully in his bed…the champion spy of the century’. It was a grudging compliment, but often these are the most genuine. Henri Le Caron, the great infiltrator, would no doubt have been very pleased.
John Hagan graduated from TCD before moving to Perth (WA) to take up a lecturing position. He now resides in Tasmania.
This article was first published in the March/April issue of ‘Irish Scene’.