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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
At least Flynn had been able to apprehend some of the lesser Germans over passport forgeries. The British were in effective control of the North Atlantic in 1914 and were making it difficult for Captain von Papen to ship home for war duty the German-national reservists who were working in the United States. When the British Navy took to boarding neutral ships and taking off German passengers, von Papen determined to provide his men with neutral-country passports. A forgery bureau was opened at 11 Bridge Street, in lower Manhattan, under the direction of an enterprising German reserve officer and former New York newspaper reporter named Hans von Wedell.
In short order von Wedell spread the word among naturalized Germans that they must obtain their United States passports and deliver them to the German Club. He supplemented this supply by canvassing the Bowery for bums who qualified for American passports and who, for ten or twenty dollars, would hand them over. Mexican, Swiss, Norwegian, and South American passports were similarly obtained. At Bridge Street, where each applicant was photographed and then given a passport whose description of the bearer most closely suited the photograph, there was sometimes a line of loyal Germans waiting in the street. In a few months, von Wedell processed hundreds of passports that successfully passed the British blockade, before he was recalled to Germany for another assignment. His successor, Carl Ruroede, made the mistake of buying four passports from one of Chief Flynn’s operatives, an agent named Albert Adams. Adams collected thirty dollars per passport and also flattered Ruroede into demonstrating the process of altering them while he watched. When the Norwegian steamer Bergensfjord sailed down New York Hay a week later, it was trailed by a U.S. revenue cutter. Agents boarded her and arrested the four Germans travelling on the passports Adams had sold. Ruroede got three years in Atlanta, and the intended repatriates were fined $200 each—paid by von Papen through an intermediary. Also aboard the Bergensfjord however, were Hans von Wedell and his wife, bound for the Fatherland with passports of von Wedell’s own contrivance. These were not questioned. But von Wedell did not get safely home. Before reaching Europe, he was taken oil the liner by a British patrol boat, which then struck a mine or was torpedoed, and carried von Wedell to the bottom of the sea.
Chief Flynn came closer to big-game hunting when he poked into one of Captain Boy Ed’s major naval schemes. Boy-Ed kept an office at 11 Broadway under the alias of Nordmann, and it was here that he worked out a plan to use American ports for a big fleet of German naval auxiliaries. The objective was to provide supplies for German cruisers that had been wandering the seven seas like a dozen Flying Dutchmen, cut off from Germany by the British blockade. Boy-Ed and Dr. Karl Buenz, head of the New York branch of the Hamburg-American Line, spent $750,000 of Albert’s funds to acquire a fleet of fourteen ships in New York, Norfolk, New Orleans, and San Francisco. They were outfitted and prepared for rendezvous with the stranded cruisers. When their American agents applied to Customs for clearance papers, Chief Flynn pounced. He proved that the cargo manifests were fraudulent and that every ship in the fleet was a German naval auxiliary. Buenz and three others were tried and convicted, but Boy-Ed, swathed in diplomatic immunity, was left alone.
On May 7, 1915, the liner R.M.S. Lusitania was sunk with a loss of 1,198 lives; before she sailed, an insolent advertisement appeared in American newspapers, signed by the German Embassy, warning Americans not to travel on British ships because of the risk of being torpedoed. U-boats were becoming active against American freighters, and to top it all oil, the barrage of propaganda from German-American newspapers was getting heavier. The Fatherland , a pro-German New York weekly whose financial backing had been a subject of speculation since its appearance in the early days ol the war, carried a piece justifying the sinking of the Lusitania . The Fatherland’s editor, Munich-born George Sylvester Viereck, compounded the insult by predicting that Wilson would lose the German-American vote in 1916. In a masterpiece of bad timing, von Papen bucked the rising tide of resentment against his country and refused to cancel a performance of Lohengrin at the Metropolitan Opera for the benefit of the German Red Cross on the evening New York got the news about the Lusitania . Von Papen later wrote: “The performance duly took place amid scenes of near hysteria both inside and outside the theatre. The Ambassador decided at the last moment not to appear, and requested Boy-Ed and myself to act as official representatives. While the performance aroused scenes of great enthusiasm in the auditorium, Boy-Ed and 1 were publicly insulted during the interval by a group of British and American journalists, and the violence of the street demonstrations outside left us in no doubt about the rift that had been caused between the two countries.”