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History's Headlines: Spy v. spy: The mystery of Dr. Theodore Otto

History's Headlines: The mystery of Dr. Theodore Otto

In the spring of 1916, the emissaries of Kaiser Wilhelm's Germany were up to the tips of their spiked helmets in intrigue. Some were in Mexico, others were in Japan. And others sat in offices in Manhattan. But all had one purpose in that third year of World War I: to keep the United States from joining their enemies Britain and France on the battlefields of Europe. To do this they depended not only on money and material but also on men, men whose loyalty to the Fatherland would exceed what they owed America.

A German diplomat told the American ambassador in Berlin that there were half a million "trained Germans" and Irish revolutionaries in America who would spark chaos across the country if America joined the Allies. "And there are half a million lampposts across the country to hang them from if they try," the ambassador replied.

One of those who agreed to do the Kaiser's bidding was Dr. Theodore Otto of Allentown. Or did he? Almost 100 years later- like all great spy stories- no one can say for sure.

The Kaiser's men operated from the German Embassy in Washington. Ambassador Count Johann von Bernstorff was courtly and gracious. He could play golf and poker with American men, waltz and flirt with American women and knew how, when it was required, to simply listen.

Although he accepted the ancient adage that a diplomat was a gentlemen sent abroad to lie for his country, the chief disappointment of the Count's life was trying to convince his masters in Berlin that by their intrigues they doing that which they most hoped to avoid, driving America into the arms of the Allies. At war's end he returned home, but, horrified at the rise of Hitler, fled Germany- never to return.  

Bernstorff's subordinates had a different view. They were click-heels types who were eager to take orders from the erratic monarch whom Theodore Roosevelt called "that autocratic zigzag." Chief among them was embassy undersecretary, Wolf von Igel.  Among his associates was Captain Franz von Papen, who planned the so-called Black Tom Powder Explosion that blew up supplies produced by Bethlehem Steel for the allies in New York harbor.  Years later he was to become Chancellor of Germany and play a role in Hitler's rise to power.

At 11 a.m. on April 18, 1916 things came to a head for Wolf von Igel. He was seated at his desk on the 25th floor of 60 Wall Street (ironically the site today of a modern skyscraper that houses the American headquarters of the Deutsche Bank) when three FBI  men burst into the room.

"We have a warrant for your arrest," shouted agent Joseph Baker. A stunned and horrified von Igel began to shout back. "This means war, this is German territory and you have no right here."  Fists flew and at one point Baker drew his gun, but did not fire it. After an hour long battle, that included an attempt by three Germans to lock the American agents in a walk-in safe that bore the Imperial German coat of arms on its door, it ended. As a large crowd of office workers who had heard the ruckus lined the hall, von Igel was hauled off to jail.

It took a long time for the Justice Department to go through the von Igel papers. It was not until September 22, 1917, six months after the U.S. had entered World War I on the side of the Allies, that the name of Dr. Theodore Otto emerged from them in an Associated Press story that appeared with banner headlines in the Morning Call.

Otto had raised suspicions among his neighbors when he first came to Allentown from Quakertown circa 1910. Newspaper accounts give his birthplace as New York, but his son Henry said his father was born in Germany.

The family home at 130 S. 14th Street was no mansion. But everyone wondered where this man, who apparently had no job and traveled frequently to Germany, got his money. And, with the Lehigh Valley home to Bethlehem Steel- the largest single supplier of munitions to the Allies-and many other war related industries, it aroused even more suspicion.

Otto's letters to von Igel as printed in the newspaper certainly sounded suspicious. He offered his services as willing to establish contacts in local plants using his role as a doctor as a cover. Otto added that he had been talking to the employees at the Traylor Manufacturing Plant in Allentown who expressed a willingness to give him information about the shells produced by Traylor. Most of the men, according to Otto, thought the British inspector was not too bright.

There was no evidence that von Igel ever took Otto up on his offer but then some argued it was not something that would be written down. The Morning Call however was convinced that there was "strong suspicion" that Otto was "an important link in the chain of the German spy system in this country."

Otto defended himself in a long letter published in the Call. His money came from medical text books, he wrote, not spying. He noted at the time he wrote those letters the U.S. was still a neutral country and that he would never act against the country in wartime. Otto said he was "loyal to the core."

Henry Otto recalled many years later that his family actually came to appreciate the FBI men who provided them with protective custody in 1917-18. When the war ended so did much of the suspicion.

In 1932 when Dr. Otto was nominated by a German group for the Nobel Prize for literature for his work on the poet Schiller he was hailed in the press and crowds flocked to his lectures. 

On November 12, 1942 Otto died in his country studio in Coopersburg in a fire, apparently caused when he fell asleep while smoking. Whatever secrets he may have had died with him.

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