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The Thrifty Spy On The Sixth Avenue El
Herr Doktor Albert was very careful with the Kaiser’s money. One day he saved a $1.25 taxi fare—and lost a million dollar’s worth of information
December 1965 | Volume 17, Issue 1
The most frustrated man in New York at 4 P.M. Saturday, July 24, 1915, was a very proper German lawyer named Heinrich Friedrich Albert who stood helplessly in the middle of Sixth Avenue at Fifty-second Street, watching a streetcar glide uptown with his briefcase and the details of the $40,000,000 spy, propaganda, and sabotage ring he operated. Dr. Albert, officially in America as commercial attaché and financial adviser to the Kaiser’s ambassador, Count Johann von Bernstorff, had saved a taxi fare of perhaps $1.25, but it seemed likely that he had just booted the entire structure of the elaborate German secret service network that was flagrantly violating United States neutrality in the European war.
To all appearances Albert was an impassive executive with a penchant for organization and efficiency virtually unmatched in the Kaiser’s service. However, at heart he was a penny pincher and bookkeeper, possessing virtues dear to every middle-class German. It was these virtues that brought the downfall of his splendid house of marked cards. As the German master spy, he had no business riding the Sixth Avenue el, from which his briefcase had been lifted a few minutes before, just to save a few cents.
Although he was spiritually naked without his briefcase, Dr. Albert hurried off to the German Club on Central Park South, where he held an on-the-spot conference with his ambassador’s Prussian military attaché, Captain Franz von Papen, and naval aide, Captain Carl von Boy-Ed, one of the Imperial Navy’s brightest young men. The three of them assessed the events of the afternoon. In their speculation over who now had the briefcase, Boy-Ed, von Papen, and Albert discussed several possibilities and settled finally on some common sneak thief. He would riffle through the papers, find them unintelligible, and return them in good order for a reward. Consequently, they dispatched a subordinate to the office of the New York Evening Telegram to place a classified ad, which appeared on July 27: LOST: ON SATURDAY, ON 3:30 HARLEM ELEVATED TRAIN, AT 50TH ST. STATION, BROWN LEATHER BAG, CONTAINING DOCUMENTS. DELIVER TO G. H. HOFFMAN, 5 E. 47TH ST., AGAINST $20. REWARD .
The niggling reward offer was characteristic of this organization, which had more than $38,000,000 available for the staggering assignment of secretly buying up or tying up America’s war production to prevent it from reaching the British and French. Albert had at his disposal some $27,000,000 in drafts from Germany as well as the proceeds of several successful $7,000,000 issues of short-term German treasury notes floated through a Wall Street investment house. Although lie often dashed off checks for hundreds of thousands of dollars to control munitions factories, he was also quite capable of haggling over an unaccounted-for fifty cents on an operative’s expense account. This great respect for details made Herr Dr. Albert’s group one of the best self-documented rings in the history of espionage. Acting like men who feared the Kaiser’s auditing department more than the enemy, Albert and his subordinates financed the most outrageous acts of arson and sabotage and then compulsively made complete records of persons, places, and payments. Check stubs listed details down to the last stick of dynamite. Even the ring’s chief security officer, a tough Hamburg-American Line detective named Paul Koenig, scrupulously kept double-entry books, accounting for every nickel he spent on spies, tipsters, and saboteurs.
Until the briefcase disappeared, Albeit was one of the least-known men in New York. A heavy-set six-footer with cross-cut sabre scars on his right cheek, a dimpled chin, and a stubby dark mustache streaked with gray, he was in the habit of riding back and forth on the el between his office at 45 Broadway and his comfortable quarters at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. His bulging briefcase was always with him, crammed with telegrams from Berlin, letters and wires exchanged with hired agents, records of financial dealings, and reports from subordinates.
The spy-ring brain trust was undoubtedly correct in assuming that twenty dollars would be worth more than these papers to a common sneak thief, but unfortunately for them the thief was not common. An agent of the United States Secret Service had snitched the briefcase and not only understood the documents but was absolutely fascinated by them. They formed the link that finally proved that the German secret service was operating a spy ring in America and that it was reporting directly to the German ambassador.
The United States Secret Service had been patiently at work for months, with few tangible results to show for its efforts, since diplomatic immunity protected the really important figures in the German ring. Before President Wilson’s executive order of May 14, 1915, authorizing surveillance of German Embassy personnel in the United States, the Secret Service and its chief, William J. Flynn, had to limit their operations almost entirely to the clerks, technicians, and errand boys in the spy organization. This was hardly enough exercise for Chief Flynn, a vigorous law-enforcement officer of the hammer-swinging school.