On 2nd March 1938, Scottish woman Jessie Jordan was arrested on charges of espionage. An inconspicuous hairdresser living in Dundee, it would transpire that Jordan was in fact a spy for German military intelligence service, the Abwehr.
Jordan’s arrest had wide-reaching implications, not least for British intelligence services, and led to the exposure of a network of more than two dozen Nazi spies and their accomplices operating in the United States.
An unlikely candidate
Jessie Jordan was born in Glasgow in 1887. Her father, William Ferguson, is said to have abandoned the family to emigrate to America. Her mother re-married, and the family eventually settled in Perth.
At the age of 16, Jordan ran away and is said to have worked in a number of towns and cities across the country. In 1907, she met German waiter Frederick Jordan, whom she would later marry in 1912.
Frederick Jordan was killed in action during the First World War, prompting Jessie to return briefly to Scotland with her daughter. However, it appears relations with her family had somewhat cooled and she returned to Germany.
After a failed marriage and nearly two decades in Germany, Jordan returned to Scotland in 1937. Before her departure, however, she was approached by Abwehr agents and asked to collect and relay information on military infrastructure.
Jordan’s motivations for accepting the request are unclear. There were suggestions that she was pressured – or even blackmailed – into carrying out tasks for German military intelligence, but these were never confirmed.
What is clear is that she opened a hair salon in Dundee following her return to Britain, spending a significant sum to renovate the venue. It was from here that she would communicate with her Abwehr handlers.
Jordan is believed to have carried out a number of missions during her time back in-country, including observing and drawing important military sites such as the Royal Armament Depot at Rosyth dockyard. She is also said to have visited Aldershot barracks and shipyards in the south of England.
From her salon in Dundee, Jordan also received sensitive intelligence from German spies operating in the United States. From here, she would relay messages on to agents in Amsterdam, who in turn would send information to Abwehr headquarters in Germany.
Jordan’s clandestine activities were eventually exposed by an unsuspecting cleaner, Mary Curran.
Curran found a number of maps at the premises which highlighted important military targets located throughout Scotland and northern England. Curran shared her findings with local police, who informed MI5.
Although British intelligence had already been monitoring Jordan, this initial evidence prompted an investigation which saw mail seized from contacts in the United States.
Correspondence intercepted by British agents uncovered regular communications between Jordan and US-based agents, and even revealed a plot to assassinate a colonel serving in the US Army.
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Jordan was found guilty of espionage and sentenced to four years in prison. She would serve her time across prisons in Perth, Aberdeen and HMP Saughton in Edinburgh before being released early in 1941.
However, upon her release she was once again arrested and spent the remainder of the war interned as an enemy alien.
Jessie Jordan was deported to Germany after the war and would die in Hamburg in 1954. Her involvement in German spy activities was depicted in a Hollywood production in 1939, titled ‘The Confessions of a Nazi Spy’ starring Edward G Robinson.