What ought to be an innocuous business catering to wealthy collectors and hobbyists hid an underlying clandestine operation.

The year was 1942. Just a few months fresh from the traumatizing damages the Imperial Japanese had inflicted on neutral America. Almost everyone in the stateside was furious and vindictive, seeking retribution for the damage and losses done at Pearl Harbor.

But most of all, suspicious considering prior to the attack, spies and undercover agents were strolling around the island state covertly taking and transmitting critical information to the enemies and costing the lives of hundreds of Americans. So it didn’t come as a surprise when mysterious letters addressed to South America immediately found their way to the hands of the Federal Investigation Bureau (FBI) after postal censors discovered these undeliverable.

This is the case of the “Doll Shop Spy” and how brilliant minds in the Bureau caught wind of the seemingly harmless letters about dolls.

Too Odd To Be Just About Dolls

In February 1942, wartime censors intercepted a letter containing unusual contents from a woman in Portland, Oregon, addressed to someone in Buenos Aires, Argentina. The letter discussed a “doll hospital” where the sender left her three “Old English dolls” for repairs, with references to “fish nets” and “balloons.” Recognizing the potential significance, the FBI’s cryptographers deciphered the coded message, linking the dolls to warships, the doll hospital to a shipyard, and the fish nets and balloons to defense installations. This discovery prompted a thorough investigation into the potential transmission of sensitive defense information.

One of five coded letters from 1942, following the instructions of the Japanese Naval Attaché in New York, revealing intelligence from US shipyards to the enemy. (Image source: FBI)

Four additional letters sent to Buenos Aires, marked “Address Unknown,” arrived at the homes of unsuspecting senders. The letters contained accurate personal details but were denied by the alleged senders. Another letter, mentioning Chinese dolls and repairs, was linked to a damaged warship at Pearl Harbor. The FBI’s analysis confirmed that all five letters had forged signatures and shared typewriter characteristics, indicating a common author. Velvalee Dickinson, the owner of a doll shop in New York City, emerged as a suspect after her typewriter matched the Buenos Aires letter. Further investigation revealed her connections to the recipients and previous correspondence about doll collections.

The Woman Who Runs the NYC Doll Shop

Velvalee Dickinson moved to New York City with her husband in 1937, where she became a doll saleswoman in a department store. She eventually opened her doll store, initially operating from her residence and later at a separate store on Madison Avenue.

Velvalee store catered to affluent doll collectors and enthusiasts seeking foreign, regional, and antique dolls. Meanwhile, her husband supported her business by managing the accounting records, including sales to influential individuals across the states. Sadly, Mr. Dickinson, who had a heart ailment, passed away on March 29, 1943.