Read Dark Invasion: 1915: Germany's Secret War and the Hunt for the First Terrorist Cell in America Online
Authors: Howard Blum
Once again, for Ivana
And, as always, with love
And to the memory of Annette Kuhn
“She got everything she needs
She’s an artist, she don’t look back.”
The interest of history lies not in its periods but in its problems.
The lessons to America are clear as day. We must not again be caught napping with no national intelligence organization. The several Federal bureaus should be welded into one, and that one should be eternally and comprehensively vigilant.
ORK POLICE COMMISSIONER
The Dark Invader
ITLE OF THE MEMOIR WRITTEN BY
INTELEN, THE GERMAN SPY NETWORK’S CHIEF OPERATIVE IN 1915
Prologue: “The Spell of Belief”
Front page of the
, July 4, 1915.
Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers,
Library of Congress [http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn84026749/1915-07-04/ed-1/seq-1/])
his is a true story. It was inspired by an article in the Central Intelligence Agency’s in-house publication
Studies in Intelligence
. Written by a member of the CIA’s history staff and published one year after the 9/11 attacks against America, the article was subtitled “Protecting the Homeland the First Time Around.” Reading the piece, I began to realize that Captain Thomas J. Tunney, who led the New York Police Department’s Bomb Squad from 1913 to 1917, was for all practical purposes the first head of Homeland Security. Intrigued, I set out to learn more about him and his activities.
In the nonfiction spy tale that follows, I tell how a sophisticated foreign intelligence organization launched a covert campaign of terror—bombs, germ warfare, and murder—against an unsuspecting turn-of-the-century America, and how Tunney and his men, at first overwhelmed and overmatched, rose to the challenge of defending the home front. This book is not an attempt to give the reader a comprehensive history of a reluctant America’s entry into World War I. Rather, it shares the mysteries Tunney’s team confronted and reveals, in their struggle to solve these, a dark and startling corner of the growing drive toward war.
In writing this account I was greatly assisted by the memoirs, diaries, and letters of the people involved, as well as by government documents, legal papers, and contemporaneous newspaper reports. All the material, including dialogue, in direct quotations comes from one of these sources. A complete chapter-by-chapter sourcing follows at the end of this book.
The Heads of the German Network
—master spy running Abteilung IIIB (the German secret service) in Berlin
—German ambassador to the United States and titular head of Abteilung IIIB’s operations in America
—military attaché to the German embassy and desk officer in charge of sabotage operations
—naval attaché to the German embassy assisting von Papen in directing sabotage operations
—commercial attaché to the German embassy, and the American network’s paymaster
—self-styled “dark invader” overseeing “the Manhattan Front”
ORST VON DER
—Abteilung IIIB operative and saboteur
—agent in charge of false passports
—security officer and enforcer
—principal agent coordinating the network’s germ-warfare operations
—longtime undercover agent in America and inventor of the “cigar” bomb
—sabotage operative recruited by his cousin, Koenig
—Abteilung IIIB professional working closely with von Rintelen
—German soldier and engineer sent to America to assist von Rintelen
—head of operations in Baltimore and involved in both the germ-warfare campaign and the attack on the Black Tom munitions depot
—a former sea captain assisting in the ship-bombing operations
—onetime opera singer running the network’s safe house, a bordello on West Fifteenth Street in Manhattan
)—Harvard professor and wife murderer recruited by the network as an assassin
Officials in Charge
—intelligence liaison to President Woodrow Wilson
—New York City police commissioner
—Deputy commissioner supervising the city’s counterintelligence team
—head of Section V, the British Secret Intelligence Service’s New York station
The Counterintelligence Team
—relentless head of the New York Police Bomb and Neutrality Squad
—Tunney’s loyal right-hand man
—veteran undercover operative
—master of disguises
—German-speaking officer possessing a Romeo’s charm
—the team’s deep thinker
Prologue: “The Spell of Belief”
f Erich Muenter hadn’t walked across the Harvard campus to Emerson Hall on that wet February day in 1906 to borrow a book, he would never have seen the student pull the short-barreled black revolver from his pocket, aim, and, just as his arm was grabbed, fire. And then things might have been different.
It had been raining all morning, but as Professor Muenter made his way from the tiny classroom where he taught German to the formidable redbrick building on the opposite side of the muddy Harvard Yard, the storm suddenly became torrential. He tried to hurry, but his condition—“tuberculosis of the bones,” the doctor had diagnosed with a helpless finality—made walking even in the best of weather an awkward exercise. By the time he reached the pillared portico of Emerson Hall, he was soaked.
“What is man that Thou art mindful of him?” challenged the inscription carved above the massive entrance doors. Charles Eliot, the pious Harvard president, had personally selected the lines from the book of Psalms only weeks before the building had opened to students the previous year. But Muenter held little countenance for religion or, for that matter, any philosophy that questioned his rightful place in the scheme of things. He bristled with an egotist’s combative certainty; humility never had a chance to take root.
This dismal afternoon Professor Muenter’s always feisty, self-important attitude—a demeanor that famously filled timid Harvard undergrads struggling through German 101 with fear and anxiety—was further sharpened by the fact that he was drenched. The best Muenter could do, though, was to slap his damp, center-parted brown hair into place, give his shabby Vandyke a restorative tug or two, wipe his wire-framed glasses dry, and try to fix his customary confident, bemused expression on his sallow face. He might be soaked to the bone, but he’d still make it clear that he was a man of whom anyone, even the Harvard president himself, would be wise to be mindful.
The long trek up the three winding flights to the university’s new psychology laboratory was difficult; his spindly legs, the muscles weakened by his degenerative illness, didn’t do well on stairs. But Muenter was determined. At an off-campus German Society gathering he’d recently made the acquaintance of the lab’s director, the celebrated professor Hugo Munsterberg, and the two men quickly found they had much in common.
It didn’t seem to matter that Muenter, thirty-five years old and as thin and boyish as an undergraduate, could easily have passed for the portly forty-three-year-old bald-headed professor’s son. Nor was their bond simply that they both had been born in Germany, still savaged their English with a distinct guttural rumble (although the younger man’s accent was significantly fainter; after all, he’d been living in America for nearly half his life), and that both proudly held a cherished, even on occasion reverential, allegiance to the Fatherland. Rather, their budding friendship was built on a deeply held common interest in the criminal mind.
Professor Munsterberg had come to Harvard at the urging of William James, the philosopher, to set up the first scientific laboratory in the nation to explore the psychology of crime. And while Muenter’s bachelor’s degree from the University of Chicago was in German, as a graduate student at Kansas State University he had investigated the motives (or more often rationales, he’d correct with a sly precision) that drove individuals to commit crimes. His research had resulted in a paper entitled “Insanity and Literature.” Now at Harvard, although he was pursuing his doctorate in German literature, Muenter retained his fascination with the mental mechanisms that create criminals.
When Muenter explained all this to Munsterberg, the professor immediately invited the younger man to visit his lab and to borrow any books he wanted from his personal library. Today, undeterred by the weather or the climb, a curious and enthusiastic Muenter had come to take advantage of the professor’s generosity.
What a world Muenter entered! The top floor of Emerson Hall was a warren of rooms through which wound a snaking trail of electrical wires connected to ingenious machines that, Munsterberg boasted, could do nothing less than “reveal the secrets of the human mind.”
As christened by the psychologist, the devices included an “automautograph,” to measure arm and finger muscle movements under stress; a “pneumograph,” to measure variations in breathing caused by emotional suggestions; and a “sphygmagraph,” to record the halts, jumps, and rapid beatings of a guilty heart. These machines, Munsterberg promised, “reduced a knowledge of the truth to an exact science.” In fact, in a widely read interview published in the
New York Times
, a resolute Munsterberg had proclaimed that “to deny that the experimental psychologist has the possibilities of determining the truth-telling powers is as absurd as to deny that the chemical expert can find out whether there is arsenic in the stomach.”
Months later, when questioned about Muenter’s tour of the laboratory on that rainy day, the professor would also be reminded of his bold comment to the newspaper—and his choice of metaphor would come back to haunt him with a chilling prescience. But that afternoon the renowned criminologist had no suspicions. In fact, he invited his young friend to sit in on a class that was about to begin.
Muenter was standing in the back of the lecture hall, listening to the professor with interest, when the outburst occurred.
“I want to throw some light on the matter,” a student interrupted, rising to his feet as he spoke.
All at once another student jumped up to challenge him. “I cannot stand that!” he shouted.
“You have insulted me!” the first student angrily replied.
“If you say another word—,” the second student warned, clenching his fist.
The first student drew a short black revolver from his coat pocket.
In a fury, the other student charged at him.
At the same moment, Professor Munsterberg hurried from behind his lectern, managed to put himself between the two students, and grasped the gunman’s arm.
Suddenly the gun went off. Clutching his stomach, one boy slumped to the floor.
The classroom was pandemonium. Shrieking students jumped from their seats, eager to escape. But Erich Muenter, it was observed, stood rigidly at the back of the room, watching all that went on around him with a calm, unruffled fascination.
Nor did Muenter show any reaction when in the next instant the “wounded” student, grinning broadly, dramatically rose to his feet.
Calling the astonished class to order, Professor Munsterberg instructed the students to write an exact account of what had just happened. Tell me
what you saw, he reiterated.
As the students wrote, their professor explained that this was an exercise to demonstrate the fallibility of even eyewitness testimony in a criminal case. The search for truth, he lectured, may be well intentioned, but memory is always subjective. The shrewd courtroom defense attorney can use the power of suggestion to defeat most attempts to get at the truth. Similarly, the professor went on, the expert criminal can manipulate people so that they’ll believe what he wants them to believe.
When the students read their reconstructions aloud, it was clear that Professor Munsterberg’s thesis was correct: no two students offered identical versions of the “shooting.” And when the psychologist tried to influence their memories with his own probing questions, their recollections grew further distorted. “Truth,” the professor concluded, “exists only as an invention created under the spell of belief.”
That evening as Muenter—clutching the borrowed book, its specific title long forgotten—made his way back to the rooms he shared with his pregnant wife and their daughter on Oxford Street, he found himself still thinking about all he’d seen. Time after time he played back in his mind the demonstration he had witnessed, and the students’ contradictory and easily manipulated recollections of events. It had been an education.
But there was another reason the demonstration held his thoughts. It confirmed his long-cherished theory that the perfect crime was possible. Cast a “spell of belief,” and you could get away with anything. Even murder.
Professor Erich Muenter, circa 1905, before he sported a Vandyke.
IN THE MONTHS THAT FOLLOWED
, Muenter was busy. His long days on campus were crowded: a heavy teaching load, the graduate philology seminar required for his doctorate, and research on his thesis. Yet, whenever he could grab a moment, he traipsed to the top floor of Emerson Hall to select another arcane volume from Munsterberg’s vast personal collection. As the oppressive Cambridge winter finally gave signs of turning into a welcome spring, despite all the academic demands on his time, the focus of Muenter’s attention shifted anxiously to his pregnant wife. Leona was sick, and getting sicker. With her April due date approaching, her pregnancy had grown increasingly problematic.
The birth of their first child had been unmarred by complications; Helen was now a bubbly blond three-year-old who had inherited, admirers were quick to point out, her mother’s ready smile. But the final weeks leading to this new baby’s scheduled arrival had been an ordeal. Leona suffered bouts of excruciating abdominal pains.
Doctors were summoned, but the best they could do was recommend that Leona be confined to bed. Muenter made sure his wife obeyed. However, when the pains didn’t subside, he lost patience. He dismissed one physician, then another. Instead, he decided that, with the help of a pair of hired nurses, he’d look after his wife himself. He’d accomplish more than any of the ineffective quacks who’d been consulted. His love for his wife would do more good, he diagnosed, than any medical degree.
Over the next ten fretful days, the nurses, a Miss Case and a Miss Dietrich, said they had never witnessed such solicitous attention from a husband. The professor was at his wife’s bedside day and night. Why, the professor even insisted that he, and he alone, prepare the beef broth that was poor Mrs. Muenter’s only source of nourishment, since she couldn’t hold down solid food. The professor, they told concerned neighbors, would cook it just so, shooing them out of the kitchen, and then he’d sit on the side of his wife’s bed and lovingly spoon-feed her. If Mrs. Muenter protested that she had no appetite, Nurse Case recounted with admiration, the professor would not be deterred. He insisted that his wife swallow every last drop, for her sake and the baby’s. Such devotion, the nurses gushed. Such a good husband.
Muenter’s ministrations succeeded. On April 6, as the doting professor at last agreed to leave the bedroom and allow the nurses to take charge, Leona gave birth to a healthy baby girl. The child was named Mary after Leona’s favorite aunt.
The next three days, the nurses would fondly recall, were joyous. Not only was the infant flourishing, but Mrs. Muenter seemed on the mend. Her appetite had returned. One night she even ate the plate of boiled chicken Miss Case had prepared, and then surprised them further by asking for a second helping.
Yet by the week’s end Leona was once again eating nothing but her husband’s spoon-fed broth, and, more of a concern, the pains had returned. This time they were worse than ever. She suffered, and the nurses watched with sympathy as her husband suffered along with her. His pain and anguish as his wife’s condition deteriorated tugged at their hearts.
When Leona died on the morning of April 16, Muenter was devastated. Neighbors heard him howling like a wounded animal. “I don’t know what to do,” he sobbed helplessly to Nurse Dietrich.
By late afternoon, though, the professor had pulled himself together and come up with a plan. A Cambridge undertaker had already removed his wife’s body, but now Muenter decided that his wife would have wanted to be buried in Chicago with her parents in attendance at the funeral. Would the two nurses accompany him and the children on the train trip to Chicago? he asked. He’d like to leave tomorrow. Better to get this over and done with for the children’s sake, he explained through his tears. Of course the nurses agreed, sobbing along with him, their tears as much for the brokenhearted professor as for his poor wife.
That evening when Muenter tried to make arrangements for the body to accompany him on the next day’s train, there was a complication. Mr. A. E. Long, the undertaker, said that the body could not be removed from the funeral home until a certificate identifying the cause of death had been signed by a doctor. That meant, Long explained, that there would need to be an autopsy. After the procedure was completed and the certificate duly signed, the body could be shipped wherever the professor desired for burial.
Muenter flew into a rage. He insisted that he be allowed to take his wife home to Chicago so she could be buried in the presence of her grieving family. He shouted that the undertaker had no right to interfere.
Long apologized, but he remained adamant: a rule is a rule.
Muenter considered; and then he broke down in tears. He pleaded that he just wanted to bury his wife. He wanted her to find some peace at last. He cried and cried, his body shaking with grief. He was inconsolable.