Charles Holmes Thrall - the spy

  • Posted on: 17 September 2009
  • By: David Thrale

Charles Holmes Thrall was a member of the Rockville High School, and then entered Yale until the great blizzard of 1888. At the height of the blizzard, he was helping his father, Julius, with his livery business, located in the center of Rockville. He was driving a sleigh and became unconscious and was not found for some tune. Some eye damage resulted and after living in darkened rooms for several months, at the suggestion of a doctor, he left for the warmer climate of Florida in 1889.

He worked as an electrician for a year or two in Florida and then was convinced by friends of the opportunities in Havana. Upon his arrival, he went to work for the electric company, where he became chief electrician after a short time. Two or three years later, his American friends set him up in business, the Charles H. Thrall Electric Company. As this company prospered, he purchased a stone quarry across the bay at Jesus Des Monte. Both operations prospered and Charles made many important friends.

He had dinner with some of these friends aboard the battleship USS Maine one evening, and as he was being rowed back to shore by one of his supervisors, the Maine was blown up and the Spanish American War had begun. Sixteen years later, when the Maine was raised. The Charles H. Thrall Electric Company, supplied the electric power on the job.

Leaving directly for Florida, he was enlisted by the Navy to serve as a spy. He was listed as correspondent by the New York Daily Telegram and worked from the flagship which lead the blockade off Havana. He was put ashore on four occasions, his primary mission was to evaluate gun placements.

The first mission went smoothly. On the second mission, he rescued a woman news correspondent serving as a spy who had become suspect. As a result; he became suspect, and a reward for his capture dead or alive was set at 2,000 pesos.

The third mission took him to Cabanas fortress directly behind Morro Castle. He successfully entered the fort as a peddler with a push cart full of fruit and candies. He obtained the required information and left, but he was realised almost immediately afterward and a full scale search began. Charles managed the 7 kilometers to the rendezvous, however, he could not make contact because of the search. He stood in a coral swamp for sixteen hours which caused severe lacerations and infection to his legs.

On his fourth mission, he was captured with Haydon Jones, a newspaper correspondent and chained to the floor of a four foot high cell, in the dungeons of Cabana's fortress. The date of his capture was 18 May 1898. They was held several weeks, expecting execution at any moment. However, President McKinley had been informed of his capture and negotiations were underway to trade prisoners. Eventually, the brother-in-law of General Weyler, head of the Spanish forces, another Spanish officer and two two servants, who had been captured on board the prize steamer "Argonauta," by the U.S. fleet, were traded for Charles' life. At least one newspaper carried an illustration of President McKinely and Charles shaking hands, with Charles thanking the President. A full account of which was printed in the New York World of May 22, 1898.

After the war Charles returned to Havana, reclaimed his quarry and reorganized the electric company. Both prospered for many years (25-30) He also built the first modern sugar mills in Cuba. There were several other interesting business ventures, including sugar beets in Texas power stations on the Rio Grande, and real estate.

In spite of the tremendous abilities of this man of old five feet two inches, his personal life was a series of unhappy developments. His first wife, Ida, spent most of their married life in semi-seclusion in a beautiful home in West Hartford. In the late 1930's, he discovered he had cancer of the tongue and throat. A great deal of money went for treatment and operations, not to mention years of pain and suffering. His daughter, Corrinne, who was extremely frail and delicate, committed suicide in her mid-twenties. His second wife, Florence, seemed to bring him the only personal happiness he knew.

For years, Charles spent hundreds of hours each summer in the Historical Library in Hartford and among the State archives, writing up the history of the Thrall family. He arranged his findings in an orderly fashion and made it possible for many of the Thrall clan who left Connecticut, to trace their ancestry. The handwritten records of his findings are preserved for posterity in the Historical Library in Hartford, Connecticut.


My name is Andrea Mansel, I am from Germany and I am writing my thesis about an American author who got involved in the Spanish-American War. My inquiry is: How truthful is the information posted here? It seems like this site is run by the descendants of the Thrall family. In the books that I have researched, there is some information about Charles H. Thrall, but they say he worked for the New York World and not for the New York Daily Telegram. Is the Daily Telegram some sort of office of the World? Were those two different papers? I would appreciate an answer.
Paula Mansel

David Thrale's picture


I am very pleased to hear about your interest. I am sorry I do not recall the source of this information. I obtained this in my early days of my interest in the history of my Thrall cousins in the States, and at that time was less diligent about citing the sources of information. Sorry.

If you do discover any more, I'd be very grateful if you could share this with us here. Good luck. owner: David Thrale | My blog | Family motto: In cruce confido

You may be interested to know that Stephen Crane, the renowned author of The Red Badge of Courage, wrote about Charles H. Thrall for the New York World, May 8, 1898. Crane interviewed him on a warship off the coast of Cuba.

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