On July 24, 1915, a hot New York afternoon, Heinrich F. Albert and George Sylvester Viereck rode the elevated train on 6th Avenue from their lower Manhattan offices to uptown. Two U.S. secret service agents, Frank Burke and W. H. Houghton, shadowed the pair. At the 23rd street station Viereck left the train. Houghton followed the propagandist. Burke stayed on and watched Albert on the way home to his apartment at 105 East 51st.

Heinrich F. Albert, German Commercial Attache in New York in 1915. Briefly German Secretary of Treasury in the Weimar Republic

Heinrich F. Albert, German Commercial Attache in New York in 1915. Briefly German Secretary of Treasury in the Weimar Republic

…a young woman boarded the car and took the vacant seat beside Dr. Albert and began reading a book. To reach his home, Albert had to take another car at 59th str., but when the train reached that point he was reading and was not aware that the train had halted until it was about to proceed again. The stuffed brief case [sic] was between Dr. Albert and the side of the car. When it occurred to him that he must get off, he jumped up and told the guard to wait a minute. As he got to the platform, the young woman called that he had forgotten his brief case [sic]. Burke told the girl the case was his, grabbed it up and headed for the station platform by another exit from the car … Dr. Albert meanwhile was struggling to get back into the car, his passage impeded by a fat woman in the doorway. By this time Burke had reached the platform, looked back and saw that Dr. Albert was visibly agitated. Other passengers on the platform provided Burke with some concealment, but the stairway leading to the street was beyond the excited German. Sparring for time, Burke partially concealed the briefcase under his coat, and leaning against the platform wall, acted as if he were having trouble lighting a cigar. Dr. Albert glanced hastily about the platform, then dashed downstairs to the street below. Burke followed him. Dr. Albert was in an increasingly disturbed frame of mind. He walked out into the street, the better to scan the line of pedestrians. As an open trolley car clanged past, Burke ran out and leaped on its running board. But Dr. Albert had seen him and began pursuit. Burke told the trolley conductor the man pursuing them was deranged, so the car did not stop for him.

What would become known as the briefcase incident uncovered the existence of an obscure secret organization with headquarters in New York City, called the War Council by one of its members. Agent Frank Burke and his colleague had in fact snatched the satchel of its chief, Heinrich F. Albert.

German officials in New York tried desperately to identify the culprits. Never quite establishing that the U.S. Secret Service was behind the theft, German agent and head of security of the German embassy, Paul Koenig, informed Albert that an “independent newspaper writer” named George Calvert had proffered a selection of the papers to the World editor, Timothy Walsh. Calvert, according to Koenig, had links to the Treasury Department. Indeed, Calvert likely was Frank Burke’s cover identity. The German secret service agent listed all the names of journalists involved in handling Albert’s papers and their addresses. Although Koenig did not specifically mention it, one can easily deduct that between August 2 and August 13 German agents scoured New York in attempts to lay their hands on these documents through any means possible. However, all the while they rested safely and protected in the U.S. Treasury Department.

Initially not sure who had taken the briefcase, Albert placed an ad in the New York Evening Telegram on July 27: “Lost on Saturday. On 3:30 Harlem Elevated Train, at 50th St. Station, Brown Leather Bag, Containing Documents. Deliver to G. H. Hoffman, 5 E. 47th St., Against $20 Reward.” Nobody, of course claimed the reward nor returned the briefcase to Albert’s secretary, Georg Hoffmann.

After examining the contents of the briefcase, the American government decided on August 2, 1915 to give them to the New York World. The newspaper notified Albert on August 13, the day of Rintelen’s arrest, that they had his papers in its possession. Desperately trying to thwart the publication, the German embassy sent the sixty-six year-old Second Counselor of the German Embassy in Washington, a member of the royal aristocracy of Prussia, and former member of the German parliament, Hermann Prince von Hatzfeld zu Trachenberg, to speak with Secretary of State Robert Lansing. The unsuspecting German diplomat did not realize that Lansing knew all about the issue since he had arranged for the World to get the documents. The entreaty came to naught. The World ran first page exposés on Albert and the activities of the Secret War Council between August 15 and 18.

Albert’s papers revealed the German ownership of the Bridgeport Projectile Company, the investments in American munitions, market-cornering efforts, investments in newspapers, bribes to American politicians, links of the Deutsche Bank representative, Hugo Schmidt, to the German operation, and payments of the German government to George Sylvester Viereck and the Fatherland. Every day new headlines seemed to top the ones of the day before. A. Bruce Bielaski, Secretary of State Lansing, and President Wilson convened emergency meetings to figure out how to react to the revelations. German Ambassador Count Bernstorff found himself cornered by anxious journalists wherever he went. The articles smothered whatever goodwill the general American public could still muster for Germany after the sinking of the Lusitania. English propaganda wallowed in the revelations that had found their way from Albert’s satchel to the headlines of American dailies.

Editorials both damned and pitied the German efforts. A New York Evening Globe editorial titled, “Insult to the American People,” compared the German support of the American peace movement to an insult “as much as if she [Germany] had deliberately fired at our flag.” The New York Evening Post wrote, “The pro-Germans have a right to carry on a propaganda [sic], to establish legitimate press bureaus and circulate news; the difficulty of it is that they have gone about it so badly… Here the boasted German efficiency has utterly failed. Germans are wonderful as organizers and soldiers, but in the higher realms of psychology and the spirit, Heaven [sic] knows, there are none to compare with them for wrecking their own cause.” Even the Secret War Council’s own, The New York Evening Mail, pondered, “If she [Germany] charged England with having incited the German propaganda in America by subtle intrigues, she would bring a charge against her enemy which, if true, would show what a dangerous and intelligent foe England is.” The Brooklyn Eagle demanded serious consequences: “The documents published by the New York World prefer such a serious indictment against agents of the German government that action should at once be taken in Washington.” 

Albert himself confided to his wife, “The Evening Sun speaks of ‘bovine stupidity’ [with respect to the letters and checkbooks English officials confiscated from von Papen in January 1916]… I for instance do not feel at all insulted at the ‘bovine stupidity’; I am obliged rather to admit frankly that this reproach is not so entirely unjustified, applying not to v. P. [von Papen] alone but myself too. For, no matter how valid excuses you may give for the disappearance of a brief-case [sic] or few carrying letters which get seized, it is the result after all which determines and marks such things as ‘bovine stupidity.’” Albert’s self-flagellation seemed appropriate. The revelation of his papers made virtually the entire portfolio of German secret service activities in the United States public.

Read the whole story of German intrigue in the United States in The Secret War on the United States in 1915, The Mexican Front in the Great War, and soon to become available The Secret War Council.