Jessie Jordan (23 December 1887 – 1954) was a Scottish hairdresser found guilty of spying for the German Abwehr on the eve of World War II. After her German husband’s death in battle, she remarried and later became a spy in Scotland. Imprisoned and deported to Germany after the war, Jordan’s life was marked by intrigue and tragedy.
Born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1887 to Elizabeth Wallace, an unmarried domestic servant, Jordan grew up with a stepfather and five half-siblings. Restless and determined, she ran away from home at 16 and worked as a maid in various towns across Scotland and England. In 1907, she met Frederick Jordan, a German waiter whom she married in 1912. Living predominantly in Germany until 1937, she became a German citizen through marriage. Jordan briefly returned to Scotland in 1919 after her husband’s death in World War I, but by 1920, she was back in Germany, marrying her late husband’s cousin, Baur Bamgarten. The second marriage ended in divorce, prompting her return to Scotland in 1937.
Jordan had two children, Werner Tillkes and Marga. Marga pursued a career in acting and married Hermann Wobrock, a Hamburg merchant. Jordan’s decision to return to Scotland was influenced by several factors. Her failed marriage, coupled with her feeling like an “unwanted child” in both Scotland and Germany, played a role. Additionally, her hairdressing business in Hamburg suffered due to the Nazi regime’s discriminatory policies, negatively impacting her clientele. The requirement for Marga to prove her “Aryan” ancestry further compelled Jordan to seek her family’s support and gather evidence in Scotland.
Once back in Scotland, Jordan established a hairdressing business in Dundee, investing a considerable sum in renovating her new premises. Unknown to many, she had already been recruited by the Abwehr, and her motivations for becoming a spy sparked much debate. Some speculated that her deep ties to Germany, having spent most of her adult life there, made her more inclined to espionage. Others suggested financial motives or even blackmail. The truth remained elusive. The Dundee Courier, reporting on her trial, suggested that Jordan had been chosen as an instrument due to her personal history, possibly coerced into carrying out the espionage.
Jordan’s role as a spy was considered that of a novice by MI5 interrogators. Her hairdressing business served as a conduit for communication between established German agents in the United States and contacts in Amsterdam, with the gathered intelligence eventually reaching Abwehr headquarters. In addition, she possessed maps of military sites in Scotland and Northern England. During her trial, Jordan claimed she was merely confirming information already collected by German authorities.
The discovery of maps in Jordan’s salon led to her exposure. A cleaner named Mary Curran and her husband reported their findings to the Dundee police, who subsequently involved MI5. Unaware of the Dundee shop, MI5 had been monitoring Jordan but had missed this crucial piece of evidence. Following the report, the salon’s address was added to ongoing surveillance, leading to the discovery of incriminating mail from the United States, including a plot to assassinate a US Army colonel.
On 2 March 1938, Jessie Jordan was arrested and subsequently convicted of espionage. In May 1939, she received a four-year prison sentence. Initially held at Saughton Prison, her deteriorating health necessitated an invasive operation, including a sub-total hysterectomy. When World War II began, she was transferred to Aberdeen Prison. Jordan’s incarceration had devastating consequences for her daughter Marga, who struggled financially and tragically died in early 1939. Despite these hardships, Jordan maintained good behaviour during her time in prison, impressing her solicitor with her needlework skills and showing no signs of depression. Due to her exemplary conduct, she was granted early release in 1941. However, her freedom was short-lived as she was immediately arrested and interned as an enemy alien.
Remaining in internment throughout the war, Jordan endured the uncertainty and hardships of confinement. The war’s end brought little respite as she was eventually deported to Germany. Jordan’s life took a sombre turn, and she faced the challenges of rebuilding in a country devastated by the conflict.
In 1954, Jessie Jordan passed away in Hamburg, her birthplace shrouded in a complex web of espionage, personal struggles, and the consequences of her actions. Her story stands as a testament to the intricate choices and burdens faced by individuals swept up in the tumultuous currents of history.
Jessie Jordan, the Scottish hairdresser turned spy, left an indelible mark on the pages of history. Her motivations and loyalties may forever remain a matter of speculation, but her role in the espionage world and the impact on her own life and the lives of those around her cannot be denied. The tale of Jessie Jordan serves as a reminder of the complexities and consequences that accompany choices made in times of turmoil and uncertainty.
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