by John Patrick Schutz
Ninety-six years ago Nyack was involved in a three-sided World War I German spy ring, communicating with Hoboken and the Chelsea neighborhood in NYC. That espionage resulted in a number of sunken ocean liners and cargo vessels, the deaths of a large number of civilians, and an attempted germ warfare attack on American shipping. This story is doubly fascinating to me because it’s not often that two of my great interests ‘€“ the history of Nyack and the history of the great ocean liners – intersect.
By December 26, 1914, Europe had been at war for five months when a disgruntled Bosnian student decided to vent his frustration at the annexation of Bosnia and Herzegovina to the Austro-Hungarian Empire by sending several bullets through the space occupied by Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, resulting in a rather peeved Empire along with its’ German allies and the commencement of the rather too-optimistically labeled ‘€œWar to End All Wars.’€
Upon declaration of war in August, a number of the Great Ocean Liners like England’s Lusitania, Mauritania, Cedric and Olympic; France’s France and Paris; the Netherlands’ Noordam; and 30 ships of German registry, including the Krownprincessen Cecile (with a good portion of the German Government’s Gold Treasury Reserves aboard!), Vaterland, President Grant and Friedrich der Grosse were all trapped in American ports and told to stay in those neutral waters for an unknown time period. In New York Harbor, the English, French and American liners docked at what is now Chelsea Piers while the German, Dutch, and Norwegian liners docked across the river in Hoboken.
Literally thousands of European merchant marine officers, crew, stewards and stewardesses were on ‘€œextended shore leave’€ in NYC and Hoboken with nothing to do and little news from home. At the beginning of the war there was almost as much sentiment in favor of the Central Powers as there was for the Allies due to due to America’s polyglot population.
The German high command realized it needed spies in the USA. They also needed to find a way to get thousands of experienced sailors and officers back from Hoboken and on to German naval vessels. German and Austrian nationals and ex-pats formed a spy ring with offices in Chelsea using the engine rooms of the impounded liners in Hoboken to make fire bombs and germ-warfare canisters of tetanus, meningitis and hoof-and-mouth disease. The communications branch of the spy ring and a faked US passport factory were located in the St. George Hotel in Nyack. And who was the head of this very sophisticated ring? Johann Heinrich Count von Bernstorff, no less than the German Ambassador to the United States.
The Nyack passport forger was Lt. Hans Adam von Wedell with his wife the Baroness von Wedell serving as the courier and communications expert. The lieutenant’s M.O. was to get longshoremen and drifters on the New York, Hoboken and Nyack docks and piers to apply for US passports and then buy them back at a premium. The passports were given to sailors on trapped vessels and other reserve troops all over North America. The scheme succeeded in getting hundreds out on North European liners. The baroness frequently used the Lusitania to get to France and slip over the border to relay news to the German High Command from the German Ambassador turned chief of espionage, Count von Bernstorff.
As Autumn turned to Winter, the forger get cocky and started bragging in Nyack and NYC bars about what he was doing. Von Wedell began to feel the heat coming and pretended to flee to Cuba. Instead of leaving the country, he just left Nyack for a lovely drive up the Hudson returning to the St. George for Christmas dinner after services at Nyack’s Dutch Reformed Church.Von Wedell had arranged for passage for himself and four high-ranking reserve officers on the Norwegian liner Bergensfjord which was set to sail on on January 2, 1915. On December 26, he sent this communiquÃ© explaining his ‘€œdisappearance.’€
‘€œHOTEL ST. GEORGE: Felix Fieger, Proprietor, Nyack-on-Hudson, December 26, 1914.
His Excellency The Imperial German Ambassador, Count Von Bernstorff, Washington,
D. C. Your Excellency: Allow me most obediently to put before you the following facts:
It seems that an attempt has been made to produce the impression upon you that I pre-
maturely abandoned my post in New York. That is not true’€¦’€
As it turns out, the telegram of explanation would only serve to solidify Lt. & Baroness von Wedell’s guilt for posterity. On January 2, 1915 federal agents in a fast pilot-boat caught the Bergensfjord before she reached the Narrows and international waters. After lining up all the male passengers, federal authorities took the four fleeing German reserve officers into custody. Unbeknownst to the Feds, the von Wedell’s were aboard. However, lacking photos to identify the couple, the pair escaped capture by the the US agents. The Baroness arrived back on the Lusitania just in time to catch what she thought would be their ‘€œlifeboat home.’€
Unfortunately, only the bogus passport scheme was shut down ‘€“ the firebombs produced aboard the impounded Ocean Liners at Hoboken would go on to sink or burn a number of cargo, transport and passenger liners with serious loss of life. The germ canisters, part of a plot to infect migrant workers on the New Orleans docks, took too long to arrive and expired before they could start an epidemic. Though things could have been far worse, the fact exists that Nyack’s spies cause much pain and grief.
What happened to Lt. and Baroness von Wedell? Once the Feds found out that the pair had escaped, they wired London and a British naval courier vessel met and boarded the Bergensfjord as it approached the English Channel taking the couple into custody. However, before the British ship could return to the Admiralty, she was spotted, targeted, and with Teutonic efficiency, torpedoed by a German U-Boat and sent to the bottom with all hands on board, including the Lieutenant and his Baroness.
John Patrick Schutz is a realtor for Rand Realty in Nyack, NY. You can read his blog posts at AtHomeInNyack.