Felix Sommerfeld, the future spymaster of Francisco Madero, Pancho Villa, and the German government, came to the United States the first time in February 1898 as an eighteen year-old. Felix’s destination was his brother Hermann’s residence on 27th Street in Brooklyn, New York. Hans Zimmermann, who would reenter Sommerfeld’s life in a very embarrassing way in 1915, was Hermann’s landlord and managed the apartments. Sommerfeld claimed in the immigration documents that he was “born in the USA,” maybe to circumvent immigration issues. He also listed his occupation as “Electrician.”
Two months after his arrival, on April 25, the Spanish-American war broke out. Within a week of the declaration of war, rather than pursuing his family’s plans to get an education, Sommerfeld joined the 12th Infantry Regiment in New York as a private in Company K on May 2, 1898. As he signed up, without any apparent reason other than maybe higher pay, he lied about his age, claiming to the recruiter that he was twenty-two rather than eighteen years old. Another enthusiastic youngster from Iowa lied about his age in order to qualify and enlisted in 1898. Just like Sommerfeld, fifteen-year-old Emil Holmdahl followed the call of President McKinley for 125,000 volunteers. Both signed up for two years’ service. Holmdahl later became a famous soldier-of-fortune in the Mexican Revolution and one of Sommerfeld’s daring rebel rousers on the U.S.-Mexican border. While Holmdahl shipped to the Philippines, Sommerfeld received basic training in Lexington, Kentucky. In the middle of September 1898, the German adventurer changed his mind and took leave. Rather than returning to his unit, the now nineteen year-old German deserted and returned to his bother Hermann in New York. On October 1, 1898 the army listed him AWOL. He later claimed to have received a letter from his mother notifying him that father Isidor had taken ill.
Lacking the funds to pay for his fare back to Germany, Sommerfeld stole $275 from his brother’s landlord, paid for the steamer to Antwerp and came home. Why he stole that much is unknown. The ticket to Germany cost less than $50. He possibly had to bribe someone to issue a passport to him since he was listed as a deserter. Felix’ relationship with his oldest brother was injured after the 1898 trip. It is likely that Hermann had a hard time forgiving his brother for “borrowing” $275 from his landlord, a good portion of the man’s annual income. Hermann died on the August 13, 1901, on a ship sailing to New York of unknown causes. Sommerfeld did not return to America until 1902 thus never having the chance to reconcile with his older brother.
In October 1915, by a fluke, it all came out. The swindled apartment manager saw Sommerfeld’s name in a newspaper report in connection with his deposition to the Grand Jury, which had indicted Franz Rintelen, the notorious German sabotage agent. Hans Zimmermann had waited a full eighteen years to get his revenge. Based on his tip, the police arrested Sommerfeld in the Hotel Astor on the warrant issued in 1898 and hauled him off to jail. The newspapers in New York covered the arrest in embarrassing detail since the German was quite a well-known figure in town in 1915. After posting bail, it took a crack lawyer a few months to have the charge dismissed for lack of evidence.
In the eyes of Sommerfeld the old warrant was a Bureau of Investigation plot. Sommerfeld’s Uncle Ed Rosenbaum commented on the episode and told federal agents in 1916: “Felix Sommerfeld was arrested in New York City on an old charge for the purpose of detaining him while they went through his room and searched for his private papers…they were not smart enough for Felix.” Sensing what was most likely the real reason for Sommerfeld’s arrest, the German Naval Attaché Boy-Ed even tried to get the German embassy to exert pressure on Zimmermann. “Since the possibility exists that …Zimmermann made his accusations against Sommerfeld with best intentions (because he also erroneously thought that Sommerfeld was an enemy of the German cause), I would like to inquire with the Imperial General Consul whether this private Zimmermann could not be approached tentatively and inconspicuously to suppress this disruptive and for the German reputation unfavorable affair.”
The German Consul, who had a less than cordial relationship with the Naval Attaché responded, “[S]ince your Excellency declare that German interests are touched by this case, I assume that over there [the Naval Department] more is known about Sommerfeld… I therefore subserviently suggest informing me in detail about the facts of the case.” Of course, the Naval Attaché had no intention to brief the Consul or, for that matter, anyone in the Foreign Department on Sommerfeld’s status as a German spy. Whether he informed the Consul or not, Sommerfeld had been “outed” in New York’s media. To quiet things down and limit the damage, Sommerfeld paid Zimmermann off first with $1,000, then $500 then another $500 ($42,000 in today’s value). Not only did these “gifts” cost him seven times of what he stole, Zimmermann now proceeded to milk Sommerfeld for what he was worth. After all, by this time Sommerfeld was undeniably rich, lived in a suite in the Hotel Astor, and as a German in the midst of spy panic, he was a ripe target for blackmail. There is no record of how much Zimmermann knew about Sommerfeld’s work for the German government. Sommerfeld had no choice but to keep Zimmermann quiet. He helped his former landlord move to a comfortable house on Long Island, gave him furniture, and a stipend of $75 ($1,575 in today’s value) per month. When he tried to stop payment in 1917, Zimmermann and at least one co-conspirator sent blackmail letters to Sommerfeld threatening with reopening the case of theft and getting it into the papers. While it already was a huge embarrassment for Sommerfeld to be in the papers in 1915, it obviously was the last thing he needed after America’s declaration of war against Germany in 1917 to face another arrest or any publicity on the matter.
Read more about the incredible life of Felix A. Sommerfeld in In Plain Sight, Felix A. Sommerfeld, Spymaster in Mexico and Felix A. Sommerfeld and the Mexican Front in the Great War.