When you consider his bushy mustache, the sartorial influence of American cowboys, British manners and a plucky independent spirit balanced with real military experience, Robert Baden-Powell seems like someone out of a 19th century adventure novel. A British military hero, the stylish Baden-Powell went on to found the Boy Scouts.
And, oh yeah, he was a spy, too.
It all started when he was a boy. Baden-Powell left his private school near London to spend time in the woods. Because sneaking away from classes was strictly forbidden by school rules, he became adept at cooking and hunting in the woods without being discovered by his teachers. On holidays, he'd take camping and canoe trips with his brothers. All this outdoor experience became extremely useful when he joined the British Army at 19, and later helped with his scouting career.
Just a few years into his military service, Baden-Powell had served in South Africa and was transferred to Malta, where he began his spy career as an intelligence officer for the director of military intelligence. One of his favorite disguises was that of an entomologist who studied butterflies, a cover that allowed him to move around freely without looking suspicious. He revealed his scientific subterfuge in his book "My Adventures as a Spy."
Robert Baden-Powell (from left), President William Taft and British ambassador James Bryce review the Boy Scouts of Washington, D.C., from the portico of the White House in 1912. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)
"Carrying this book and a colour-box and a butterfly net in my hand, I was above all suspicion to anyone who met me on the lonely mountain side, even in the neighbourhood of the forts," Baden-Powell wrote. And not only did he disguise himself as a butterfly collector; he hid secret information about those forts, as well as other military secrets in drawings of insects and other natural ephemera, which you can see scattered throughout this post.
In Baden-Powell's illustrations, natural patterns are used to transmit messages and information within a drawing; a leaf's pattern could reveal the contours of an area to be invaded, as above. Once a recipient knew how to read the illustrations, it was possible to convey the information easily, without much translation or complex code-breaking needed.
After his time in Malta, Baden-Powell was ordered back to South Africa, where he ended up fighting in the Boer War. That's where he met Frederick Russell Burham, who told his new friend stories of the Old West in the United States. Those tales also went on to inform Baden-Powell's ideas for the Boy Scout organization — as well as his personal style including rakish neckerchiefs and a campaign hat, which is still a part of Boy Scout apparel today. (You can even buy a replica of the hat online.)
Before he even left service in the British army, he had convened a Boy Scout-like camp in 1907, and by 1908 had developed his ideas into a new book, "Scouting for Boys." When he retired from the military in 1910, Baden-Powell formed the Boy Scouts Association, to which he dedicated much of the rest of his life.