On Sunday, June 28th 1914, an exposé with wide ranging consequences exploded on the first page of the New York Herald. As unbelievable as it sounds today, this second volley by the Carranza people against U.S. lobbyists and Villa supporters was so significant that the details of the scandal competed for first page headlines with the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife on the same day. Although we know now that the death of Franz Ferdinand precipitated the outbreak of one of the worst wars this earth ever had to endure, American papers were actually preoccupied with a Watergate-like scandal of 1914. The story involved Sherburne G. Hopkins, the American lawyer and lobbyist who represented the interests of Mexican revolutionaries in Washington and at the same time promoted the interests of his main clients, Henry Clay Pierce and Charles Flint. Both Pierce and Flint owned large interests in railroads, rubber plantations and oil in Mexico and had actively mingled in the Mexican Revolution for years.
The scandal had its origin just around the beginning of May, the time when Sommerfeld and Hopkins shuttled between New York and Washington, trying to sideline Carranza, and arranging the finance for the final push against Huerta. According to Sherburne Hopkins, burglars entered his Washington D.C. offices at the Hibbs building on 725 15th Street, NW in the middle of the night and “stole a mass of correspondence from his desk.” He suspected the burglars to be “Cientificos,” people who wanted to turn the clock back to Porfirio Diaz’ times. Hopkins naturally lumped all supporters of Huerta and any enemy of the Constitutionalist cause together under the “Cientifico” label. The Washington lawyer denied knowing who in particular was to blame for the heist, but “had certain parties under suspicion.” Clearly, he was implicating Huerta agents in the crime. Most astonishing is the fact that, despite the break-in and removal of not a few but hundreds of files from his office, Hopkins did not file a police report. At least such a report cannot be found. This is surprising since an earlier calamity concerning the prominent lawyer found its way into the local press on February 6th 1914, namely the apparent house fire in the Hopkins Residence caused by sparks from a fireplace. On November 18th 1914, the Washington Herald reported the theft of Hopkins’ coat and trousers in an apparent robbery. No further detail was given leaving the reader with the impression of a hapless Washington lawyer making his way home in his skivvies. Considering that the theft of Hopkins’ trousers made it into the paper, the burglary of his office most certainly had not been reported.
Sommerfeld had his own suspicions as to the identity of the thieves and implied the Huerta faction. Certainly, Huertistas would have been the obvious choice. Huerta’s grip on power in May was fading quickly. Money from Pierce and Flint flowed in dazzling amounts to his enemies. The attempt to rally his enemies to the flag and against the Americans had failed, mainly as a result of Hopkins and Sommerfeld’s efforts. The last chance to either achieve an orderly retreat from power, or cling to it for another few months, presented itself in the Niagara Conference. However, without Carranza taking part and without a cease-fire the chances of any tangible results coming from the conference were slim. A scandal was needed. An issue needed to boil to the surface that would deeply divide the American government and the Constitutionalist coalition. If the Mexican public and the revolutionary soldiers would lose their faith in the cause, if it seemed that their idealism had been corrupted by big business and foreign interests, then Huerta and the remaining conservative forces in Mexico had a chance to reverse their fortunes.
That exact possibility became reality the night a burglar rifled through Hopkins’ desk. Hundreds of letters between Hopkins, Carranza, Flint, and Pierce told a story of foreign interests using the Constitutionalists as puppets for their greedy ends. When reading the letters it seemed that the whole revolution had become a competition between Lord Cowdray and Henry Clay Pierce. When the loot appeared on the first page of the New York Herald on June 28th, Huerta had his scandal. Whether a diversion or lame excuse, Huerta’s delegates in Niagara immediately rejected any involvement and even asserted that the questionable correspondence had been offered to them for $100,000. Naturally, they claimed that they did not take the offer for ethical reasons. They also refused to disclose who offered the papers to them.
The Hopkins papers revealed the extent to which American investors fronted by Pierce and Flint had been involved in the Mexican Revolution. Not much of the overall story should have been a surprise. For years American newspapers had reported on the financial dealings of the Maderos with Wall Street. When after President Madero’s murder the rest of the family fled to the U.S., their support for Carranza was public knowledge. However, what made the Hopkins papers so combustible was the undeniable link between major parts of the U.S. government, oil and railroad interests headed by Flint and Pierce, and certain factions within the Constitutionalists headed by Pancho Villa. Sommerfeld defended the content and wrote that the letters told “the naked truth” and showed “ardent and intelligent support for the Constitutionalist cause.”
However, the appearance of impropriety was undeniable. While John Lind, President Wilson's special envoy to Mexico, officially negotiated in April 1914 with Carranza to bring about the Niagara Falls conference, he simultaneously represented the U.S. oil and railroad interests. The revelation of Hopkins' papers thus seriously undermined the Wilson administration’s attempt to be an "honest broker" on behalf of Mexico. The exposé suggested also a second, less favorable picture of the Carranza government. The mere fact of Carranza corresponding freely with Hopkins and Pierce seemed to suggest that Carranza was willing to sell Mexico’s infrastructure and natural resources to American finance if they helped him win the revolution. In a sense, these revelations threatened to reduce Carranza to the level of Porfirio Diaz whose sell-out had precipitated the revolution. Carranza would not let this stand and quickly issued a categorical denial of his government ever having accepted any financing from U.S. interests.
Like a pack of rats scurrying for cover, Hopkins, Pierce, Flint, Carranza, Cabrera, Vasconselos, Lind, Garrison, and Bryan all voiced public denials of ever having known anyone or dealt with anyone of the group. Only two parties smiled through the show: Senators Smith and Fall who loved to see the Wilson administration tumble, and Huerta’s representatives in Niagara who only had to gain from the revelations. The scandal effectively eliminated the easy access Hopkins had had to cabinet members of the Wilson administration. From now on, he had to work more in the background and send his confidante Felix Sommerfeld to be the public face of Mexican revolutionaries in the United States. This fit perfectly into Sommerfeld's plans. Within a month, the German naval attache in the United States, Karl Boy-Ed asked Sommerfeld to work for him and put him in charge of Germany's clandestine missions concerning Mexico in World War I.