Tag Archives: spies

An Indiana Banned Book List — World War I Comes to the Library

Banned Books Week is here.  We thought we’d take a look at a few volumes of “insidious poison” the Indiana State Council of Defense asked to be withdrawn from Hoosier library shelves in 1918, during the height of America’s involvement in World War I.  Hoosier State Chronicles neither endorses nor criticizes these books, many of which are hard to find and might even have been destroyed.  Some aren’t as interesting as the lives of their fascinating and controversial authors. But we do support your right to read and discuss them — if you ever happen to find a copy.

We focus on three books. A “behind the scenes” look at some of these titles reveal fascinating back stories.


Lake County Times, February 1, 1918
Lake County Times, February 1, 1918. Hoosier State Chronicles.

State and county defense councils emerged after America’s late entry into the war against Germany in 1917.  Indiana’s defense council was organized on May 19.

When it comes to freedom of speech, these groups had a sketchy record.  Though much of what they did was simply ordinary work to contribute to the war effort — arranging food drives, relief for wounded soldiers, the sale of Liberty Loans, and urging Americans to conserve grain — the councils had a dark underbelly.  The conservation of grain, for example, was an underhand way to enforce contentious “dry” laws, since corn and wheat were used in alcohol production — and alcohol was being labeled “German” and “foreign.”  Under the influence of women’s and church groups, Indiana ushered in statewide Prohibition in 1917, three years before the national ban on booze, and at the same time that insidious rumors about spies and terrorists were lurking in the press.  It’s an overlooked fact that the Prohibition movement was often tied at the hip to nativism, and that “unpatriotic” German beer-lovers were accused of wasting grain to undermine the war effort.

In many states, notably Iowa and Nebraska but also in Indiana, defense councils and local “Liberty Leagues” stood behind bans on the German language, an interdict that in some states forbade the speaking of any language other than English.  In 1919, Indiana made it a criminal offense to teach German to children in elementary schools — largely out of concern that militaristic foreign propaganda and love of the “old country” was being spread by German-language textbooks and pamphlets (which were allegedly being burned in Indianapolis.)  In many American schools, German classes weren’t offered again until the 1920s and the subject never recovered its pre-war popularity.  World War I also virtually exterminated the once-flourishing German-language press in the U.S.


Lake County Times, December 19, 1917
Lake County Times, December 19, 1917. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Much American news coverage drew on allegations from the British press, including illustrations and tabloid journalism.  The British had exploited and exaggerated the very real human suffering of the 1914 “Rape of Belgium” for political ends and to encourage the U.S. to enter on the British side.  Soon Hoosiers were reading about the sadistic sexual perversions of German commanders and soldiers, including accusations that the Kaiser’s “book of instructions” to officers authorized the rape and mutilation of children and the elderly.  Many of these events did occur, though reports weren’t rigorously fact-checked.  Yet American feminist writer Susan Brownmiller argues persuasively against the attempt to redeem German honor by downplaying the amount of rape during the war.


Lake County Times, April 8, 1918 (1)
“An official photograph of the club with which the German armies ‘finish off’ wounded soldiers. 32,000 of them were recently captured by the Italians.” Lake County Times, April 8, 1918. Hoosier State Chronicles. Whether such atrocities were true or not, graphic depictions influenced American public opinion. 

Defense councils typically consisted of ten or fifteen men and one woman, though “Woman’s Sections” were established in many states and counties.  Indiana’s State Council of Defense in Indianapolis was headed by Senator Charles W. Fairbanks, who had been Theodore Roosevelt’s vice-president.  Other male members of the committee included Irish-born former Indianapolis mayor Thomas Taggart (known as a Progressive);  H.R. Kurrie, president of the Monon Railroad;  former IU football coach and U.S. Representative Evans Woolen; and the famous Will Hays, granddaddy of film censorship in America.  Among the officers of the Woman’s Section of the State Council was Anne Studebaker Carlisle of South Bend — daughter of Clement Studebaker of carriage- and auto-manufacturing fame — and Mrs. Samuel L. Ralston, wife of the future governor of Indiana, who also happened to be a Klan favorite in the 1920s.


Time Mag(The much-misunderstood Will H. Hays, from Sullivan, Indiana, served on the State Council of Defense during World War I.  Hays was chairman of the Republican National Committee from 1918 to 1921, then served as U.S. Postmaster General, when he became known for his opposition to sending pornography by mail.  In 1934, he instituted the restrictive Hays Code to regulate the U.S. film industry, but the Hoosier native is also credited with helping the movie business get on its feet and provide truly quality films.  Time Magazine, September 13, 1926.)


The Indiana State Council of Defense was definitely interested in what Hoosiers were reading and took a strong interest in “education.”  In hindsight, its patriotism was part of an undisguised government program to promote optimism and a single view of the war.  In this sense, it was propaganda in the true meaning of the word, which comes from the Latin for “to spread” information — not necessarily the unbiased kind.

The Report of the Woman’s Section, published after the war was over in 1919, demonstrates the interest the Indiana council took in promoting pro-war perspectives and how it went about making sure the government’s view came out on top.  The primary target: pacifists and the “apathetic,” a word typically spelled “slacker” in war-hungry American newspapers like the Lake County Times.


Report of the Indiana Women's Council of Defense


Report of the Indiana Women's Council of Defense 2


Report of the Indiana Women's Council of Defense 3


Report of the Indiana Women's Council of Defense 5

(Excerpts from Report of the Woman’s Section of the Indiana State Council of Defense, Indianapolis, 1919.)


The fiercest opposition to American involvement in World War I hadn’t come from German-Americans or “hyphenated” Americans of any stripe, but from isolationists and Socialists.  Among the most outspoken critics was Indiana native son Eugene V. Debs, who went to prison for protesting the draft, and Wisconsin Senator Robert M. LaFollette.  In the debate over intervention vs. isolation, graphic newspaper illustrations served not only to vilify German militarists — who may have richly deserved such treatment — but also the American labor movement, which criticized the war as a distraction from problems at home.  Socialists and pacifists were labeled enemies and “slackers.”

Thus it comes as no surprise that a number of the books and pamphlets on the 1918 Indiana banned books list weren’t written by German militarists, but by American and British labor activists.


Seymour Daily Republica, Seymour, Indiana, January 30, 1918
Seymour Daily Republican, Seymour, Indiana, January 30, 1918.

One of these books was a pamphlet called Morocco and Armageddon, penned by British pacifist and anti-slavery crusader E.D. Morel.

Anti-slavery?  In 1917?  Morel’s work combating illegal slave trading in the Congo Free State — Belgium’s huge African colony — linked him to British consul Roger Casement.  Their investigations into the atrocities of Belgian King Leopold’s Congo, which shocked the world, figures into the background of Joseph Conrad’s masterpiece Heart of Darkness (1899).  Morel’s investigations into greed and murder were supported by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Mark Twain, among many others.  The equally anti-imperialist Roger Casement was later executed by the British during World War I under allegations of being a German spy after he helped spark the 1916 Easter Rising of Irish Republicans in Dublin.  Casement’s fate was virtually sealed when the British government published excerpts from his diary that suggested he was a homosexual.

Labor leader Morel’s opposition to World War I, which he considered a distraction from the atrocities of colonialism — including Belgium’s, some of the worst — earned him a spot on the Indiana banned books list just about a year after Casement’s execution.  Morel was also severely critical of the harsh Treaty of Versailles, which many argue was an extension of the demonization of Germany and paved the way for the Second World War.


E.D. Morel
British pacifist E.D. Morel, hero of the investigations into King Leopold’s “Heart of Darkness” in the Congo, was one of the targets of the Indiana State Council of Defense.

Another major name on the list is the great anthropologist Franz Boas.  Born in Germany, Boas came to the U.S. and Canada in the 1880s to study the Native Americans of the Pacific Northwest and the Arctic North.  His studies of linguistics and culture made him one of the fathers of modern anthropology and folklore studies.  Boas later taught at Columbia University.  Having famously insisted that the origins of racial inequality are social, not biological, he later clashed with Adolf Hitler.  The German-American anthropologist, who died in New York City in 1942, helped many German and Austrian scientists escape from the Nazis.


Franz Boas
Ethnologist Franz Boas, whose anti-war pamphlet was recommended for censorship in Indiana, demonstrates a “Hamatsa’a coming out of a secret room” ritual from Canada’s West Coast, circa 1895. He would have had to jump through other hoops to keep that book on the shelf.

Boas had a different view of World War I though.  His pamphlet “Nationalism and Europe,” printed by the Germanistic Society of Chicago in 1916 — spelled “Germanatic” in the Hammond, Indiana, newspaper — runs to fifteen pages. While he starts with a dispassionate criticism of Slavic nationalism — which threatened to break up the German domination of central Europe and was one of the main causes of the war — Boas rips into American reasons for getting involved, even specifically criticizing American hypocrisy when it came to “making the world safe for democracy.”  After mentioning the sinking of the USS Maine and the famously yellow journalism of William Randolph Hearst that had propelled the U.S. into war against Spain back in 1898, Boas comments:

Boas clip
(From “Nationalism in Europe,” Franz Boas, 1916.)

One of the more disturbing figures to show up on the Indiana list was wrongly identified as “Edward Emerson.”  In fact, this is the controversial and little-known Edwin Emerson, Jr. (1869-1959).  No relation to the American philosopher Ralph Waldo, Edwin Emerson led a strange, complex life, much of it overseas.

Before the Civil War, Emerson’s father had written for Harper’s Magazine and worked with Noah Webster of dictionary fame.  During the war, Emerson, Sr., went to Europe as a secret envoy for Abraham Lincoln, where he tried to prevent England and France from recognizing the Confederacy.  Close to leaders like Otto von Bismarck and William Gladstone, “agent” Emerson was living in Dresden, Germany in 1869, when his son was born there.  Edwin, Jr., seems to have grown up entirely in Germany, but later came to the United States.  He graduated from Harvard in 1891, afterwards writing for the Boston Post and New York Evening Post and Sun as a foreign correspondent.

During the Spanish-American War — the war Franz Boas criticized for being an example of “How Americans Reason” — Emerson served in the Rough Riders with Theodore Roosevelt.  Due to his native fluency in German, however, he posed as a German newspaper correspondent in Puerto Rico.  Actually an American spy, Emerson acquired a critical map and helped spearhead the invasion of the Spanish island.  Colonel Emerson also served as Teddy Roosevelt’s regimental clerk in Cuba.  He then spent some time as a liaison in the Venezuelan army.

After the war, he went to Korea as a war correspondent and was imprisoned by the Japanese during the Russo-Japanese War.  Then in 1906, in the aftermath of the San Francisco earthquake, Emerson got married in San Francisco — in the house of Mrs. Robert Louis Stevenson (an Indianapolis native).  His new bride had actually declined his offer of marriage.  But he didn’t get her telegram. . . so she married him anyway.


Edwin Emerson, Jr.
Edwin Emerson, Jr., circa 1900. He was also hailed as “one of the world’s most noted fencers — in fact, an outstanding swordsman and international fencing authority.”

Emerson was one of just a handful of American journalists to report on the German side of the struggle during World War I, at a time when he wrote for the Chicago Daily News and other major papers.  In “The Destruction of Louvain,” the pro-German reporter downplayed the horrors of the Rape of Belgium.  As early as 1915, the New York Times had run an article on a speech Emerson was said to have given in Berlin.  The German press quoted him as saying that under similar circumstances, American soldiers would have committed the same outrages on civilians as German troops did at Louvain.  Understandably, this view did not win Emerson friends in America.  His pamphlet explaining his purportedly eyewitness perspective on the Belgian atrocities was banned in Indiana.


Destruction of Louvain


Just after the November 1918 armistice, the news correspondent was in Guatemala, where that country’s president accused him of being a German spy.  In the early 1920’s, he also got expelled from Austria and Switzerland as an undesirable alien and subversive.

Unfortunately, Edwin Emerson Jr.’s, politics soon took a turn for the worse.  By the early 1930’s, this friend of Germany had become one of the most outspoken advocates of Nazism.  In 1933 and 1934, on East 92nd Street in New York City, he helped found the Society of American Friends of Germany.  This group quickly merged with the Chicago-born Friends of the New Germany (Bund der Freunden des Neuen Deutschland), an organization of American Nazis also known as FONG.  The Friends later became the German American Bund, founded in Buffalo, which under police guard paraded through the streets of New York in 1937.  A pro-Aryan organization, forty percent of their membership was allegedly Irish.

The Dresden-born newspaperman, who now edited the first pro-Nazi newspaper in America — Amerikas Deutsches Post — met with the German Führer himself in February 1934.  The monthly paper had an English-language supplement, American Observer.  The German American Bund also published a bilingual weekly, Deutscher Weckruf und Beobachter (Wake-Up Call and Observer.)  In 1937, that paper became a youth magazine, but stopped publishing after Pearl Harbor.


Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle (Milwaukee, WI), September 22, 1933
(Wisconsin Jewish Chronicle, Milwaukee, Wis., September 22, 1933.) Emerson was placed on a list of suspected Nazi spies submitted to Congress in 1937 by Samuel Dickstein, a Jewish Congressman from New York. In 2000, Allen Weinstein, Archivist of the United States, uncovered Soviet documents suggesting that Dickstein himself may have been a spy for the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police.

The homegrown National Socialist groups that Emerson supported held multiple rallies at Madison Square Garden, events estimated to have drawn crowds of up to 50,000.  Just like during the First World War, individuals who opposed entry into the Second had complicated reasons that often strayed far from mere pacifism.  The controversial and probably anti-Semitic Charles Lindbergh, “fallen hero,” was among them.  Whether he deserved it or not, Lindbergh’s career was destroyed.

An author of books on Theodore Roosevelt, Herbert Hoover, Halley’s Comet and the Gutenberg Bible, Edwin Emerson, Jr., died in 1959 in San Francisco, California.  He was buried at Golden Gate National Cemetery — under a Rough Rider’s tombstone.

The Anarchist Soup Plot

La Grande Observer (La Grande, OR), November 23, 1916You like alphabet soup?  Well, if an anarchist chef prepared it, you’d better take your spoon and dig out these letters first:  A-R-S-E-N-I-C.

One of the weirdest stories ever to spill out of the annals of Midwestern crime is the tale of a bumbling European anarchist named “Jean Crones” who, at a banquet in Chicago in 1916, attempted to assassinate the city’s Roman Catholic archbishop, the Governor of Illinois, and three-hundred priests, bankers, and city officials — not with bullets, but with bouillon.  The “soup poison plot” belongs in any encyclopedia of infamy but is also a fascinating glimpse into one of American labor’s most turbulent decades.  Yet few have ever heard of it.  As part of our ongoing series on hoaxes, hysteria and rumors in the news, Hoosier State Chronicles wants to resurrect this old, mostly forgotten story.

When modern anarchism came to the U.S. in the late 1800s,  it was closely tied to the struggles of German, Italian, and East European immigrants.  While hurling bombs and bullets was probably ill-considered, the social problems these immigrants faced were dire.  Anarchism’s philosophical roots, however, were among Europe’s elite.  (One early proponent of anarchy was the British philosopher William Godwin, husband of feminist writer Mary Wollstonecraft and the father of Frankenstein‘s author, Mary Shelley.)  Iron-fisted reactions to Europe’s 19th-century revolutions spurred philosophers and workers to declare that “Property is Theft” and to strive for the abolition of all governments, including democracies. Because anarchists promoted ideas like “free love” (which critics confused with promiscuity), state and church authorities tried to wipe it out.

While few anarchists ever committed acts of murder and mayhem, extremists occasionally wreaked havoc on American cities and police forces.  By the time of World War I, headlines about real and mythical anarchist bomb plots were common news.

Since most anarchists immigrated from countries with state religions, their animosity toward priestly authority was no surprise.  During the Russian Revolution and on into the 1920s and ’30s, radicals in Russia, Mexico and Spain launched all-out wars on religion — desecrating churches and even “executing” statues of Jesus, not to mention priests and nuns, who often suffered especially macabre fates.

Yet if Chicago’s anarchists had wanted to assassinate any powerful “prince of the Church” in 1916, the worst choice was probably George Mundelein.


George Mundelein, circa 1916
Archbishop, later Cardinal, George W. Mundelein in 1916.

Mundelein was born into a poor working-class immigrant neighborhood, Manhattan’s Lower East Side, in 1872 and grew up in tenement housing.  Son of a German father and Irish mother, his dual ethnic heritage was a major reason why, in 1915, the young Bishop of Brooklyn was chosen to head Chicago’s archdiocese, which was teeming both with diversity and ethnic conflict, even among fellow Catholics.  At age 43, Mundelein was the youngest American archbishop.  Over the years, the head of Chicago’s Catholics turned out to be a major pro-labor voice, an important ally of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, and a staunch enemy of Nazism and anti-Semitism — including that of Father Charles Coughlin, a controversial American priest whose radio show in Detroit often attacked Jews and bankers.  A friend of the Catholic Labor Movement, Mundelein reiterated to American Catholics that “Our place is beside the workingman.”

George Mundelein, then, was a strange target for an aspiring assassin’s vial of poison on February 12, 1916.   The scene of the crime:  Chicago’s prestigious University Club.


South Bend News-Times, February 12, 1916
South Bend News-Times, February 12, 1916.

Dining Room, University Club of Chicago, 1909
Dining room of the University Club, 1909.

Coming to honor both Abraham Lincoln’s birthday and Mundelein’s installment as archbishop, about three-hundred guests attended — from Illinois Governor Edward F. Dunne and ex-Governor Charles Deneen to Chicago’s ex-Mayor Carter Harrison, Jr.  The other guests were mostly Catholic priests from all over the U.S.

As Chicago’s health commissioner, city police investigators, and a chemist from the University of Chicago later determined, someone had slipped enough arsenic into a pot of chicken bouillon to kill two-hundred people or more.  Various accounts were floated around of how the University Club avoided becoming the scene of what would have been Chicago’s worst mass murder — worse even than the crimes of the “arch-fiend” H.H. Holmes back in the 1890s.

One version was that a “miracle” occurred.  Ninety-six unexpected guests came at the last minute, prompting kitchen staff to resort to a time-honored remedy:  watering down the soup.  Yet the real disaster was averted by slow eaters.  As Monsignor Evers, pastor of St. Andrew’s Church in New York, told the Chicago Daily Tribune, some guests were “so engrossed in conversation” that they missed out on the soup altogether or only ate a spoonful or two.  By that time, their neighbors were starting to have stomach cramps.


Chicago Daily Tribune, February 14, 1916
Chicago Daily Tribune, February 14, 1916

With many diners complaining of sudden pains, a doctor at the banquet suspected the animal fat used to prepare the soup stock must have gone sour — normal food-poisoning, that is.  He went back to the kitchen and quickly prepared an “emetic of mustard” to induce vomiting.  It’s unappetizing to consider, but the elegant dining room must have become a surreal, disgusting scene — yet the doctor’s speedy remedy probably saved many lives.  Scores were sickened, some violently, but only one guest, Father John O’Hara of Brooklyn, died.  Although Archbishop Mundelein was unaffected by the lethal soup, Chicago kept him under a guard of 150 mounted police and detectives for the next few days.


Chicago Daily Tribune, February 14, 1916 (2)
Chicago Daily Tribune, February 14, 1916

The foiled murder plot was quickly traced to a certain “Jean Crones,” assistant chef at the University Club, who was said to be about 30 years old.  Crones “often inveighed” against social inequality, said the Club’s officials.  When police raided his apartment, the “souper anarchist” was gone, but investigators discovered a stash of anarchist literature (“a library of hatred”), a chemical laboratory, and all the evidence of poison they needed to go after him.

As the manhunt spread out, Jean Crones, or someone masquerading as him, began to tease the police with flippant letters, taunting them for being unable to find him.  These letters and other baffling clues began to pour in from all parts of the country.  As the story made national news the next day, a hotel in Binghamton, New York, reluctantly announced it was confident that Crones had once been their assistant chef.  “Crones was remembered by his fellow workers here as a dabbler in chemistry and photography. . . One day the whim seized him to have his own likeness snapped, and he had one of his kitchen comrades aim the camera.”  The resulting photo and an artist’s sketch were plastered over many American newspapers.

What happened next turned into a comedy of errors that went on for years.


Scranton Republican, February 21, 1916
Scranton Republican, February 21, 1916.

During the run-up to World War I, when the loyalty of German-Americans was constantly under suspicion, unfounded reports came in that Crones was a German immigrant and a saboteur and spy for the Kaiser.  Other reports had it that he was French or Italian.  A biography of the celebrated anarchists Sacco and Vanzetti claims that “Jean Crones” was actually an Italian named Nestor Dondoglio. The Chicago Police Department officially called off its search for the mysterious fugitive in 1919.  But Dondoglio evaded police until 1932, when he died on a farm in Connecticut where an Italian family had given him shelter.

Whoever he was, for several years after the failed “soup plot,” Jean Crones became a sort of bogeyman stalking America from sea to shining sea.  Soup-poisoner spottings occurred all over:  in rural Mt. Airy and Oxford, North Carolina;  the mining town of Leadville, Colorado; and towns so obscure, they weren’t even spelled right in newspapers (like Spalding, Nebraska, and Moberly, Missouri.) Crones — or a clever prankster, or a team of anarchists — harassed the police from New York City to Portland, Oregon.  A chef from Iowa City was arrested simply because he looked like the photograph taken in Binghamton, as was a chef from Chicago while passing through Springfield, Ohio.

Maclay Hoyne, Illinois State Attorney, surmised that the “poison souper” invented the so-called “McKinney-Finn powders,” which Hoyne declared “was given by waiters to non-tipping patrons in local hotels and cafes.”

Most of the so-called “appearances” of Jean Crones, however, are probably imaginary — or even deliberate hoaxes.  Some cases sound like the police might have used the poison-soup scare as an excuse to terrorize workers.  Others had more comic twists.


South Bend News-Times, November 25, 1916
South Bend News-Times, November 25, 1916. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 25, 1916
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, February 25, 1916

Wilimington Morning Star, February 2, 1916
Wilmington Morning Star, February 2, 1916.

Logansport Pharos-Tribune, February 24, 1916
A watchman in Logansport, Indiana, spotted the “poison souper” at a railroad crossing there less than two weeks after the crime, as did hundreds of other Americans. Logansport Pharos-Tribune, February 24, 1916.

Within a few days of his apparent escape from Chicago, the phantom assassin or his clever doppelgänger was out on the West Coast, teasing Chicago police at a distance, sending his own fingerprints by mail, and threatening to kill “some bishop” out in Oregon:

Fort Wayne Daily News, February 23, 1916 (2)
Fort Wayne Daily News, February 23, 1916.

On St. Patrick’s Day that March, Chicago Catholics were still jittery enough that the Irish Fellowship Club had to appoint an official food taster for its annual banquet.  He tasted every dish for over an hour.

Prank-minded Americans were probably just having some fun with the police and the press.  By the summer of 1916, the spate of “J.C.” sightings was still pouring in:

Chicago Daily Tribune, July 23, 1916
Chicago Daily Tribune, July 23, 1916.

Chicago Daily Tribune, May 14, 1916
Chicago Daily Tribune, May 14, 1916.

Two of the most humorous and unlikely sightings occurred on the East Coast.  In Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that May, locals were convinced that Crones had become a nun:

Oshkosh Daily Northwestern (Oshkosh, WI), May 15, 1916
Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, Oshkosh, Wisconsin, May 15, 1916.

Pittsburgh Daily Post, May 15, 1916
Pittsburgh Daily Post, May 15, 1916.

And in Luzon, New York, an undercover sleuth wearing false hair and whiskers was arrested by a town cop, who was confident that he had nabbed the elusive Crones.  The man turned out to be a 26-year-old private eye from New York City who was investigating a theft of $250 from the Hygienic Brush Company.  In spite of his legitimate alibi, county prosecutors charged the man with “masquerading.”

Middletown Times-Press (Middletown, NY), February 28, 1916
Middletown Times-Press, Middletown, NY, February 28, 1916.

The real Jean Crones never surfaced.  Yet the fictional specter he evoked — that of the violent, supposedly illiterate immigrant bent on destroying American institutions and lives — took on a frightening reality of its own at a time when immigrant loyalty was suspect.  It is often forgotten that the Communist witch hunts inaugurated by Senator Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s were preceded by a more substantial “Red Scare” after World War I.  Italian anarchists detonated bombs in Washington, D.C., in 1919 — an attack that nearly killed Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt — and possibly carried out the 1920 Wall Street attack, which killed 30 people.  The reaction threatened to close America’s doors to immigrants.

Like most Catholics, Archbishop Mundelein was a staunch supporter of immigration.  He blew off threats of assassination by anarchists and the hostility of anti-Catholics, saying:  “I have come to Chicago to help and bless its people all I can, and I think this is the best way to disarm prejudice.”

A fiery and brilliant editorial in the Kentucky Irish American, a pro-immigrant paper published in Louisville, conjures up the fear that the figure of “Jean Crones” actually created among “nativists.”  For immigration’s enemies, the anarchist threat was reason enough for Congress to all but close down Ellis Island.  Ironically, the Hans Schmidt mentioned in this editorial was a German-American Catholic priest convicted of murder and sent to the electric chair at Sing Sing on February 18, 1916, just a week after the anarchist soup plot in Chicago.

Kentucky Irish American (Louisville, KY), April 15, 1916 (2)
Kentucky Irish American, April 15, 1916.

Kentucky Irish American (Louisville, KY), April 15, 1916 (1)


Cardinal Mundelein, the target of one of those rare immigrants who turned to violence, spent the next few decades speaking out on behalf of the working poor.  Perhaps the shocking event at the start of his days as leader of Chicago’s Catholics brought home the need for justice in his city and elsewhere.

He died quietly in his sleep in October 1939, an honored man.

Mundelein's Body, 1939 (2)
Mundelein during his funeral mass, Holy Name Cathedral, Chicago, October 4, 1939. An impressive Chicago Tribune photo gallery celebrates his life.

Mundelein 1
Cardinal Mundelein in 1933.

The Hoosier Actress — and Spy? — Who Became a German Silent Film Sensation

Fern Andra 3

“Eine der beliebtesten und bekanntesten Schauspielerinnen des deutschen Stummfilms… One of the most beloved and best-known actresses of the German silent movie industry.”

That’s the verdict of Die freie Enzyklopädie, Germany’s homegrown Wikipedia.  Yet this actress who skyrocketed to about a decade of European fame wasn’t German.

In the days when German Expressionism was pushing cinema forward — Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was probably the greatest film of the 1920s, alongside the silent horror classics Nosferatu by F.W. Murnau and Robert Wiene’s The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari — Fern Andra was almost a household name in Germany.   Yet her roots were deep in the American Midwest.   In addition to acting in bloody horror flicks, Fern worked as an American spy, married a German baron and a boxing champion, fell from the sky almost to her death with one of Germany’s great fighter pilots, and even tangled with one of the most evil men in history.


Fritz Lang 1

(Weimar-era German cinema was known for its revolutionary costume artistry, stage design, and the creative genius of its women.  One of the great characters of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was a “gynoid” robot called Maschinenmensch. C-3PO’s cinematic grandmother was played by actress Brigitte Helm, who died in 1996.  Lang’s movie was based on a novel by his wife, Thea von Harbou.)


Fern Andra was born Vernal Edna Andrews in 1894 in Watseka, Illinois, a small Kankakee Valley farm town about fifteen miles west of Kentland, Indiana.  Her parents were William P. Andrews and Sarah Emily Evett, also known as Sadie.  When Fern’s father died in 1898, Sadie remarried Frank St. Clair, a vaudeville actor, circus performer, and tight-rope walker.

Learning stunts from her stepfather, Fern began her stage career at the Stephens Brothers Opera House in Watseka.  Aged ten or eleven, she headed to Chicago with a theatrical troupe, performing at the Globe Theatre.  Between about 1905 and 1913, Fern went to school in Hammond, Indiana, where her mother and stepfather had relocated.  Sadie St. Clair owned or rented a house at 184 State Street and later lived in Gary.  Her daughter was remembered as a “Hammond girl” and would often come back and visit her family in northwest Indiana.

It’s not clear how she evaded her classes in Hammond, but by age fifteen she was part of the Millman Trio.  Headed by the famous high-wire walker Bird Millman, the trio performed for President Taft at the White House in 1909.  (Born Jennadean Engleman, Bird later became a dancer in the great “theatrical juggernaut,” the Ziegfeld Follies.)

By 1914, when World War I broke out, 20-year-old Fern had gone to Europe, where she was a popular stunt performer and minor stage actress.  That year, she found herself trapped in Germany.  But since the U.S. didn’t go to war against the Kaiser’s armies until 1917, she wasn’t considered an enemy alien and was even offered movie contracts. As “Fern Andrée,” she had already appeared in silent short films called Das Ave Maria (1913) and Mondfischerin (“The Fisher of the Moon,” 1914).  During World War I, the midwestern actress starred in over twenty German films.  She had probably become fluent in the language by then, but since these movies were all silent, her nationality wasn’t important. . .  until she was accused of being an American spy.

Fern Andra -- Ogden Standard-Examiner (Ogden, Utah), November 27, 1927
Ogden Standard-Examiner, Ogden, Utah, November 27, 1927.

The details are sketchy, but sources agree that Fern — who now went under the sultrier stage name “Andra” or even “The Andra” — was at least detained by German police.  In the 1950s, she claimed that her personal acquaintance with Kaiser Wilhelm himself saved her.  “I was accused of spying for the Allies,” she remarked:

It was true, but not for the reasons they thought. Actually, I was a courier, memorizing coded messages and repeating them to American contacts in Copenhagen…  I was lucky. I was a movie star at the time, living in Berlin and a friend of the royal family.  To save me, it was arranged for me to marry Baron Frederick von und zu Weichs, a member of the Hohenzollern family.

The rumor in America, however, was that Fern had been condemned to death by a firing squad.  Gossip about her death came out in the Hammond paper just three days before the war ended.


Fern Andra - LC Times, November 8, 1918
Ogden Standard-Examiner, Ogden, Utah, November 27, 1927.

Bavarian Baron Friedrich von und zu Weichs was said to be a nephew of Zita, the last Empress of Austria.  Fern and Friedrich were married September 28, 1918, and the “Hammond girl” immediately became Baroness Weichs.  About a month later, just a few weeks before the war ended, her husband was killed on the Western Front.

Fortunately, she’d come into some money.  By 1919, when the former Hoosier girl made the front page of the Lake County Times, Baroness Fern, who had briefly been detained as a P.O.W., was running her own film company in Berlin.


Fern Andra -- LC Times, May 3, 1919
Fern Andra — LC Times, May 3, 1919Lake County Times, May 3, 1919.

Lake County Times, May 3, 1919. Hoosier State Chronicles. 
Fern Andra -- LC Times, May 3, 1919 (2)
Lake County Times, May 3, 1919. Hoosier State Chronicles. 

Though its military was banned and its economy was in shambles, as the Jazz Age dawned, Germany entered a period of cultural brilliance known as the “Weimar Era.”  Berlin in the 1920s was chaotic but saw the rise of iconic German geniuses like the Bauhaus architects, Expressionist filmmakers and painters, and some of the best-known German philosophers and writers.  Fern Andra was part of this incredible, if often bizarre, cultural cocktail.

In 1920, she played a leading role in a new Stummfilm (silent film) called Genuine: A Tale of a Vampire.  Made by filmmaker Robert Wiene, Genuine was filmed in the same vein, part-horror/part-fantasy, of Murnau’s vampiric Nosferatu.  Fern plays a high priestess, named “Genuine,” who steps out of a painting and comes to life, then turns to bloodsucking.  In one scene, Andra caused a sensation by appearing in an outfit that had merely been painted onto her body.  Though it starred the actress hailed by many as “the most beautiful girl in Europe,” Wiene’s film wasn’t well-liked and critics called it a failure.  Twenty-first-century moviegoers would like it even less, but its stage design and outrageous costumes are still interesting — if only for the background, which evokes the kind of graffiti you could see sprayed on the side of a Burlington Northern freight car.


Fern Andra in Genuine
Fern Andra played a painting come to life in the 1920 film Genuine.

Genuine
Genuine played at the Marmorhaus on the Kurfürstendamm in 1920.

Fern Andra 1
Fern in a characteristic Weimar-era outfit.

When Genuine hit the silver screen, World War I was over.  But in 1921, Fern Andra was involved in a famous accident that cost the life of one of Germany’s greatest fighter pilots.

Lothar von Richthofen was the younger brother of Manfred van Richthofen, best-known to Americans as the “Red Baron,” Germany’s ace warrior of the sky.  Manfred was shot down and killed over France in April 1918, but Lothar was almost as famous.  After the war, he worked as an airmail pilot and taxied passengers between Hamburg and Berlin.

On July 4, 1922, while flying Fern Andra and her director Georg Bluen into Hamburg’s Fuhlsbüttel Airport, Richthofen’s engine gave out and the plane crashed.  The great pilot was killed, but Andra and Bluen, though injured, survived.


Lothar von Richthofen
Lothar von Richthofen died while flying Fern Andra to Hamburg in 1922.

In 1923, the Hoosier beauty married German middleweight boxing champion Kurt Prenzel, who had been interned as a POW at Knockaloe on the Isle of Man.  In 1925, Prenzel saved his wife from being bitten by a supposedly rabid dog and suffered a bite that kept him from boxing for about a year, a fact that reportedly figured into their divorce around the time he emigrated to New York City in 1928.


Fern Andra and Kurt Prenzel
Fern and her second husband, German boxing champion Kurt Prenzel, circa 1925. He had fought African American boxer Jimmy Lyggett, Sr., around 1920.

Ogden Standard-Examienr, Ogden UT, November 27, 1927
Ogden Standard-Examiner, Ogden, Utah, November 27, 1927.

In addition to acting, Fern wrote or directed about twenty German films, but called her German film career quits in 1927.  Her last movie made there was Funkzauber (Radio Magic).   Until about 1930, she remained active in the Hollywood film business, and even married actor Ian Keith in Tijuana, Mexico, in 1934.  Keith would star as Octavian in Cecil B. DeMille’s Cleopatra and as Bill Thorpe, a Louisiana gambler, in the John Wayne film The Big Trail.  Andra and Keith divorced in Chicago a year after their wedding.

Meanwhile, she was paying visits to her mother, Sadie St. Clair.  In the 1930s, Sadie was living at 636 Washington Street in Gary, Indiana, in “a crowded flat over a furniture store.”  The address is right across the street from one of Gary’s most iconic and photographed ruins, the abandoned City United Methodist Church.  Though it has sat empty and gutted since the late 1970s, plans are on the table to transform the old church into a European-style “ruin garden.”  The German Expressionists would have been the first to use this gloomy Rust Belt ruin in their films.  One can easily imagine the specters of F.W. Murnau and Robert Wiene creeping out of the choir stalls, and Fritz Lang would have been fascinated by the fiery steel mills and modernist clamor of Gary before the city slipped into decline.


Lincoln Evening Journal, Lincoln, Nebraska, December 22, 1923
Lincoln Evening Journal, Lincoln, Nebraska, December 22, 1923.

Fern Andra with Mother
Fern with her mother on board a steamship, circa 1930. Sadie St. Clair, daughter of Midwestern pioneers, died in Hessen, Germany, in 1955. Her ashes were scattered in the Iroquois River in northern Illinois.

Springfield Republican, Springfield, MO, February 28, 1924
Springfield Republican, Springfield, MO, February 28, 1924.

Ferna Andra passport photo 1921 (5)
Andra’s emergency passport application, 1921.

Though she was spending most of her time in California by this time, Fern’s involvement with Germany wasn’t over.  In the early 1930’s, she challenged the rise of Nazism.  The militaristic party of thugs opposed almost everything Weimar culture stood for, to the point of burning its books and destroying its art.

There had once been unconfirmed rumors that Fern had had a love affair with Adolf Hitler’s “Minister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda.”  Andra apparently knew the despised propagandist Joseph Goebbels before his rise to power, and she remembered him later as a “mousy tutor.” (Goebbels had studied philosophy at the University of Heidelberg and was the perfect example of a good education gone awry.)  In 1937, Andra and Goebbels clashed over the freedom of foreign artists to be active in Nazi Germany.  She had even testified before the U.S. Congress about the Third Reich’s discrimination against non-Aryan artists.

Engaging in a “verbal fusillade,” according to one account, Goebbels and Andra got into a fight during which the Propaganda Minister threatened to imprison her.  He then systematically went about trashing her reputation, even claiming that she was a Hungarian impostor, not an American.  If sources are correct (and there’s a chance they’re exaggerated) Fern escaped by plane into Romania, then headed back to the United States.  Since she spoke fluent German, she aided the Allies during World War II by broadcasting radio messages into Germany.  Her enemy Goebbels, Hitler’s master of lies, committed suicide in 1945 — after murdering his own children.

Fern Andra continued to visit and live in Germany after the war.  In November 1954, she was photographed talking to Baroness Kunigunde von Richthofen, mother of Manfred and Lothar.  They met up at the American Civilian Club in Wiesbaden.


Fern Andra with Richthofen's mother 2
Fern Andra, right, with “The Red Baron’s” mother, Wiesbaden, Germany, 1954.

Fern and her fourth husband, a playwright and soldier from Connecticut named General Samuel Edge Dockrell, seem to have lived in Wiesbaden and New England until the early 1970s, but often visited the Midwest.  They eventually moved to South Carolina, where Dockrell died two days after they got there.

Baroness Fern Andra, Hammond girl, succumbed to cancer at Azalea Woods Nursing Home in Aiken, South Carolina, at age 80 on February 8, 1974.

Her fame vanished in the 1940s, and few Americans would know her name today.  But Hoosier State Chronicles would like to put her back out there as one of the most interesting women who has ever lived within the borders of our state.