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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
Before this message had been relayed to the appropriate Reichsant in Berlin, von Rintelen had settled into the Great Northern Hotel, opened a $500,000 account at a downtown bank, and rented a two-room office on Cedar Street. He hired agents to foment strikes at munitions plants and conspired with a deposed Mexican dictator to bring about a border incident that might involve the United States in war with Mexico.
Von Rintelen also experimented with the more routine methods of sabotage. Aboard the North German Lloyd’s Friedrich der Grosse , which the Allied blockade had bottled up in Hoboken, he put three stranded German merchant-marine captains to work making cigar-sized incendiary bombs. Smuggled into the holds of ships bound for England and France, these bombs caused fires when the vessels were four and five days out. Thirty-three fires were traced to them; finally, four were found intact at Marseilles aboard a Norwegian freighter that had sailed from Brooklyn, and the evidence they provided allowed Chief Flynn and Agent Burke to obtain indictments against von Rintelen and the bomb craftsmen. Rut by this time, von Rintelen had been recalled to Rerun in accordance with von Papen’s request. The British took him off a ship at Falmouth and ultimately sent him back to New York. He was fined §2,000 and sat out the war in federal prison.
This, in brief, was the history of the German subversion effort in America up to Saturday, July 24, 1915, the day that Dr. Albert was separated from his briefcase. Flynn’s men were still dragging through the heat to their repetitive assignments. Frank Burke had intended to take Saturday afternoon off for a ball game, but changed his mind when he got a call at the Custom House from Bill Houghton, one of the men tailing Editor Viereck. Houghton had just followed Viereck to 45 Broadway, the offices of the Hamburg-American Line, and suggested that Burke join him in case Viereck came out of the building with another man. So Burke and Houghton were waiting when at 3 P.M. Viereck emerged with a man who had all the earmarks of a German—and an important one at that, judging from the deference shown him by Viereck. The agents followed the two aboard the uptown el at Rector Street, and when the Germans sat in a cross scat in the center of the car, Houghton sat directly opposite them and Burke just behind them. Burke suspected that the other man might be Heinrich Albert, a man they had heard of but did not know, and decided to stay with him. Viereck got off at Twenty-third Street, trailed by Houghton. A young woman came on board and took Viereck’s scat. Dr. Albert was soon absorbed in a book, his briefcase resting on a scat against the wall of the car.
The train stopped at Fiftieth Street, and was almost ready to move again when Albert realized he was supposed to get off. He sprang from his seat and shouted at the guard to wait. No sooner had he readied the platform than the woman called to him that he had left his briefcase. Burke quickly said, “No, it’s mine,” picked it up, and sprinted for the front door. Albert meanwhile was trying to push back through the rear door, but a fat woman was planted there asking directions of the guard. Burke used the other passengers for cover and was not seen by Albert. However, after the train pulled out, leaving them both on the platform, Albert was between Burke and the stairs, so Burke partially covered the briefcase with his coat, stood against the station wall, and pretended to light a cigar.
After a hasty glance at the people on the platform, Albert rushed down the stairs. Since there was no train in sight and it might be more dangerous if Albert came back up, Burke followed him down the stairs to Sixth Avenue. Albert saw his briefcase and made a dash at Burke, who ran for a rapidly moving open surface-car headed uptown and jumped on the running board near the conductor. In a conversational tone he told the conductor that the man chasing after the car was a lunatic who had just caused a scene on the el. The wild-eyed Dr. Albert, running up Sixth Avenue, seemed to corroborate the story, so the conductor called to the motorman to pass the next corner without stopping. The car continued on, leaving Albert waving helplessly.
One glance at the briefcase convinced Burke that he had done a good Saturday’s work, and he wasted no time in notifying Chief Flynn. Flynn in turn reached his boss, Secretary of the Treasury William G. McAdoo, at his summer home in North Haven, Maine, and took the briefcase up to him. McAdoo and his assistants decided that the contents gave little basis for direct action, but proved beyond doubt that the official Germans in the United States were violating the neutrality laws. After consultation with President Wilson and his adviser, Colonel House, they decided to publicize part of the sensational find in order to alert the public and forestall further activities. McAdoo and Flynn selected some of the Albert papers and turned them over to Frank I. Cobb, editor of the New York World , offering him exclusive use of the documents if he would not say where he got them.