[PW] ?"northern spy"

John Henderson jhenderson at ithaca.edu
Thu Oct 14 10:35:25 PDT 2010

One explanation of the origin of the name of the Northern Spy apple  
was that it came from an anonymously authored dime store novel that  
either was titled "The Northern Spy" or at least featured a character  
known as the "Northern Spy." The WPA New York: A Guide to Empire State  
in 1940 only goes as far as saying "the name Northern Spy grew out of  
the abolitionist movement rampant at the time: the apple was  
considered an interloper, hence a spy." The apple was introduced  
around 1840, but was locally known (East Bloomfield, south the  
Rochester, NY) before that time, and may have been named as early as  

A now deceased apple historian is credited with tracking down a letter  
to the editor in a gardening magazine dated about 1853 (which he does  
not name), and, alas, instead of quoting the letter, he only  
paraphrases it:
, N.Y.

        To the Editor,

        In reply to Mrs. B who inquired about the naming of the  
Northern Spy apple, everybody around here knows that the Northern Spy  
apple was named for the “hero” of that notorious dime store novel The  
Northern Spy, but nobody will come out and admit it.

        Yours truly,


According to the OED, the first use of dime novel was 1859 and dime  
store 1918, but since the text of the letter is a paraphrase, the  
original 1853 wording may have been different.

A short summary of the book is provided on an apple blog:
"He went south, presented himself as a slave catcher, and asked the  
plantation owners to permit him to talk with the slaves in order to  
find out how they escaped.  Instead, he told the slaves about his own  
escape route.  He advocated killing any Federal marshal who caught a  
runaway slave. He and his abolitionist friends lured slave catchers  
into an ambush, robbed and killed them."

To corroborate the story, I've been looking for any evidence of the  
existence of the character or book The Northern Spy, but have struck  
out in World Cat, JStor, and GoogleBooks.

John Henderson
Ithaca College Library
who has been to East Bloomfield, but hasn't seen the original Northern  
Spy orchard

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