Chapter Six

Spies, Lies and Low Life    


In New York in neutral America war fever was in the air, despite the fact that the United States had no intention of joining in. Expatriates from both sides in the conflict were rallying, albeit from a distance, to their country's cause. There was a big German community in New York and the German Secret Service was trying hard to band them together to go back home and fight.

The job was taken by an attache to the German Embassy, Captain Franz von Papen, a man who was to survive both world wars and the Nuremburg trials, before dying at home in bed in 1969.  A contemporary report of the day said:  “The German Secret Service in America gathered together  German reservists who had been peaceful farmers, shopkeepers or waiters, all over the United States, were mobilized for service, and paraded through Battery Park in New York shouting "Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles !" to the strains of the Austrian hymn, while they waited for Papen's orders from a building nearby, and picked quarrels with a counter procession of Frenchmen screaming the immortal "Marseillaise."

Up in his office sat the attache, summoning, assigning, despatching his men on missions that were designed to terrorize America as the spiked helmets were terrorizing Belgium at that moment.”

In the turmoil, the German Embassy came up with a plan to speed reservists, wanting to fightn back to the fatherland. It knew that it was going to be tough to slip past Jack and the might of the Royal Navy with German passports. This is a passage from The German Secret Service in America 1914-18: “Throughout August, 1914, it was comparatively easy for Germans in America who wished to respond to the call of the Fatherland to leave American shores. A number of circumstances tended swiftly to make it more hazardous. The British were in no mind to permit an influx of reservists to Germany while they could blockade Germany.

The cordon tightened, and soon every merchant ship was stopped at sea by a British patrol and searched for German suspects. German spies here took refuge in the protection afforded by an American passport. False pass- ports were issued by the State Department in considerable quantities during the early weeks of war issued unwittingly, of course, for the false Passports applicant in most cases underwent no more than the customary peacetime examination.

Each additional precaution taken by the Government placed a new obstacle in the way of unlimited supply of passports. The Goltz method was easy enough, but it soon became impossible to employ it. The necessity for sending news, The German Secret Service in America through to Berlin by courier was increasingly urgent and it devolved upon Captain von Papen to systematize the supply of passports.

The military attache in November selected Lieutenant Hans Adam von Wedell, who had already made a trip as courier to Berlin for his friend, Count von Bernstorff. Von Wedell was married to a German baroness. He had been a newspaper reporter in New York, and later a lawyer. He opened an office in Bridge Street, New York, and began to send out emissaries to sailors on interned German liners, and to their friends in Hoboken, directing them to apply for passports. He sent others to the haunts of tramps on the lower East Side, to the Mills Hotel, and other gathering places of the down-and-outs, offering ten, fifteen or twenty dollars to men who would apply for and deliver passports. And he bought them!

Von Wedell was to spend many months living it up in New York and gathering false passports. Little did he know he was to share the same fate as a 16-year-old Worcestershire boy who was risking his life on the rough, freezing seas on the other side of the world.


written by Chris Bishop