Have you heard of the real-life inspiration behind the character James Bond?
Bond creator Ian Flemming gave the spy new life in 1953 after reading about a man named Sidney Reilly’s exploits. Reilly was a British spy in the early 1900s who was loyal to no one but himself. Sound familiar? Throughout his career, the “Ace of Spies” committed very real crimes, some of which are echoed the James Bond books and movies we all know and love.
1. Murdering a man on a train.
In 1895, train operators in Paris found a man dying inside a train car. He had been stabbed many times but regained consciousness long enough to say he had been robbed by two men. It later came out that he was a member of an illegal anarchist group. Reilly and an accomplice stole money from the anarchist and Reilly fled to the United Kingdom.
2. Poisoning a romantic rival.
A man whose description matched Sidney Reilly certified the cause of death of Hugh Thomas. Since a supposed doctor verified Thomas’s death as the result of “influenza,” no autopsy was performed. Thomas was wealthy, and he made his wife Margaret Thomas the sole heir to his will. Margaret married Reilly five months later and shared her new fortune.
3. Kidnapping a woman.
One woman who was with Reilly when Hugh Thomas’s body was found, Louisa Lewis, mysteriously disappeared 10 years after Thomas’s death. Reilly had recently checked into the same hotel, and her disappearance was never solved. It’s thought that she could have identified him as the “doctor” who falsely reported Thomas’s cause of death.
4. Counterfeiting money.
The Russian government thought that Reilly was part of a gang in London that counterfeited Russian rubles in 1898. He was actually working as a spy to keep an eye on radical Russian exiles, but his help in counterfeiting the money was instrumental in the illegal operation.
5. Playing both sides.
Reilly was a great British spy, but he never hesitated to double-cross his country if he felt it would benefit him. During World War I, he may have even worked for Britain, Japan, and Russia. Another British spy said Reilly was a man “without patriotism or principles and therefore not recommended for any position which requires loyalty, as he would not hesitate to use it to further his own commercial interests.”
6. Strangling a weapons manufacturer.
In 1909, Reilly spied on a weapons factory in Germany. He tried to take pictures of the blueprints, but he was caught by the foreman, who he then strangled. Reilly changed his name and easily slipped out of the country despite a manhunt.
7. Marrying more than one woman at once.
Like the character of James Bond, Reilly was a notorious womanizer. In addition to marrying Margaret Thomas, he wed two other women while on his missions without getting divorced.
8. Rigging an election.
A group of rogue British spies that included Reilly forged a letter to newly elected prime minister Ramsay MacDonald. When MacDonald called for a new election due to a scandal, Reilly and his friends released the letter, which hinted that MacDonald being in office would initiate a communist takeover of Great Britain. MacDonald lost the election, and a copy of the letter has since been uncovered “in what appears to be Reilly’s handwriting.”
9. Plotting to overthrow a government.
Reilly met with the Latvian Riflemen to come up with a plan for a Russian coup in 1918. He told his bosses that Russian leaders Lenin and Trotsky wouldn’t be killed, simply embarrassed and marched through the streets in underwear. This was a lie, but the Russian government heard about the plan before it could be implemented. Reilly escaped to Sweden.
10. Offering to betray everyone.
Reilly was captured by Soviet spies in 1925 and held in prison. He wasn’t tortured, but he offered to turn traitor and give up information about British and American spies in a letter to a high-ranking official. The official never got back to him and he was executed that same year.
That’s astounding! I never knew the real story behind this beloved character. Time to watch some spy movies.
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