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From the book
"The Authorized History of
The American Protective League"
by Emerson Hough
The Reilly & Lee Company, Chicago, IL 1919
Arts of The Operatives
The Midnight Camera - The Way of a Man and a Maid and a Dictagraph - Secret Inks and Codes - Stories of the Trail - How Evidence Was Secured.
It already has been stated that the American Protective League had no governmental or legal status, though strong as Gibraltar in governmental and legal sanction. The mails are supposed to be sacred - the Postmaster General has sworn they always shall be sacred. They are sacred. But let us call the A.P.L. sometimes almost clairvoyant as to letters done by suspects. Sometimes it clairvoyantly found the proofs it sought!
It is supposed that breaking and entering a man's home or office place without warrant is burglary. Granted. But the League has done that thousands of times and has never been detected! It is entirely naive and frank about that. It did not harm or unsettle any innocent man. It was after the guilty alone, and it was no time to mince matters or to pass fine phrases when the land was full of dangerous enemies in disguise. The League broke some little laws and precedents? Perhaps. But it upheld the great law under the great need of an unprecedented hour.
A man's private correspondence is supposed to be safe in his office files or vault. You suppose yours never was seen? Was it? Perhaps. It certainly was, if you were known as a loyal citizen a true-blood American. But the League examined all of the personal and business correspondence of thousands of men who never were the wiser.
How could that be done? Simply, as we shall see. Suppose there was a man ostensibly a good business man, apparently a good citizen and a good American, but who at heart still was a good German as hundreds of thousands of such men living in America are this very day. This man has a big office in a down-town skyscraper. He is what the A.P.L. calls a 'suspect.' Let us call him Biedermacher.
About midnight or later, after all the tenants have gone home, you and I, who chance to be lieutenants and operatives in the League, just chance in at the corridor of that building as we pass. We just chance to find there the agent of the building who just chances also to wear the concealed badge of the A.P.L. You say to the agent of the building, want to go through the papers of Biedermacher, Room 1117, in your building.'
'John,' the agent says to the janitor, give me your keys, I've forgotten mine, and I want to go to my office a while with these gentlemen.'
We three, openly, in fact, do go to Biedermacher's office. His desk is opened, his vault if need be it has been done a thousand times in every city of America. Certain letters or documents are found. They would be missed if taken away. What shall be done?
The operative takes from his pocket a curious little box-like instrument which he sets up on the table. He unscrews a light bulb, screws in the plug at the end of his long insulated wire. He has a perfectly effective electric camera.
One by one the essential papers of Biedermacher are photographed, page by page, and then returned to the files exactly and that means exactly. in the place from which each was taken. The drawers and doors are locked again. Search has been made without a search warrant. The serving of a search warrant would have queered' the whole case and would not have got the evidence. The camera film has it safe.
Pretty wife and kids the fellow has,' says the agent of the building, turning over the photographs which the simple and kindly Biedermacher, respected Board of Trade broker, we will say, has in his desk. He turns them back again to exactly exactly the same position.
Good night, John,' he yawns to the janitor, when they meet him on the floor below. Pretty late, isn't it?'
The three men pass out to the street and go home. Each of them in joining the League has sworn to break any social engagement to obey a call from the League headquarters at any hour of the day or night. Perhaps such engagements have been broken to-night by some or all of these three men. But no one has broken and entered' Biedermacher's office.
In Central office some data are added to a card, cross-indexed by name and number also, and under a general guide. Some photostats, as these pictures are called, are put in the case's' envelope. Nothing happens just yet. Biedermacher still is watched.
Then one morning, an officer of the Department of Justice finds Mr. Biedermacher in his office. He takes from his pocket a folded paper and says, In the name of the United States, I demand possession of a letter dated the 12th of last month, which you wrote to von Bernstorff in New York. I want a letter of the 15th of this month which you wrote to von Paper in Berlin. I want your list of the names of the United Sangerbund and German Brotherhood in America which you brought home from the last meeting. I want the papers showing the sums you have received from New York and Washington for your propaganda work here in this city. I want the letter received by you from seven Lutheran ministers in Wisconsin telling of their future addresses to the faithful.'
But, my God!' says Biedermacher, what do you mean? I have no such letters here or anywhere else. I an innocent! I am as good an American as you are. I have bought a hundred thousand dollars' worth of Liberty bonds, some of each issue. My wife is in the Red Cross. I have a daughter in Y.W.C.A. I give to all the war charities. I am an American citizen. What do you mean by insulting me, sir?'
John,' says the officer to his drayman, go to that desk. Take out all the papers in it. Here's the U.S. warrant, Mr. Biedermacher. Rope em up, John.' John ropes up the files, and the papers go in bulk to the office of the U.S. attorney on the case. Now, all the evidence is in possession of the government, and the case is clear. Biedermacher is met quietly at the train when he tries to get out of town. Nothing gets into the papers. No one talks secrecy is the oath. But before long, the big Biedermacher offices are closed. Biedermacher's wife says her husband has gone south for his health. He has to Oglethorpe.
You think this case imaginary, far-fetched, impossible? It is neither of the three. It is the truth. It shows how D.J. and A.P.L. worked together. This is a case which has happened not once but scores and hundreds of times. It is espionage, it is spy work, yes, and it has gone on to an extent of which the average American citizen, loyal or disloyal, has had no conception. It was, however, the espionage of a national self-defense. It was only in this way that the office and the mail and the home of the loyal citizen could be held inviolate. The web of the A.P.L. was precisely that of the submarine net. Invisible, it offered an apparently frail but actually efficient defense against the dastardly weapons of Germany.
It must become plain at once that secret work such as this, carried on in such volume all across the country three million cases, involving an enormous mass of detail and an untold expenditure of time and energy, were disposed of meant system and organization to prevent overlapping of work and consequent waste of time. It meant more that that there was needed also good judgment, individual shrewdness and of course, above all things, patience and hard work.
For instance, John Wylaufski is a deserter reported to National Headquarters missing from Camp Grant, Illinois, possibly hiding in Chicago. The order goes to the Chief in Chicago, who hands it to the right district lieutenant. The latter finds in his cards the name of an operative who speaks Wylaufski's native tongue. The latter goes to the neighborhood where Wylaufski lived, inquires especially in regard to any sweetheart or sweethearts Wylaufski may have had. It is certain he left some ties somewhere, that he has been seen, that he has written at least a line, or will write. His running down is sure. The League has found thousands of deserters, located thousands of men who had refused to take out their second naturalization papers, thousands who were skulkers and draft evaders. The could not escape the Web which reached all across America, unseen, but deadly sure.
The great average intelligence of the League members alone made the extraordinary results possible. These were no ordinary hired sleuths of the mysterious detective type, gum-shoe artists with a bent for masks and false eyebrows. On the contrary, the officers and operatives were men of standing, of great personal intelligence and sober good sense. They dropped their private affairs, in which they had been successful, to obey the League call at any time. They studied their new duties regularly and faithfully, as best they could and they learned them.
The methods of such men varied widely. They had attended no outside school, had no special governmental training. Their success depended on the natural alertness of the American character. For instance, one gentleman prominent in the work, we will say in New York, was sent after a draft evader whose name, racially considered, did not tally with his personal description. The operative found his case originated in a foreign part of the city. His man had originally lived in a certain flat. Some boys played ball near by. The operative strolled by to watch, engaged two or three in conversation. Yes, a dark man some said he was a Turk had lived there. He had moved, they didn't know where.
He used to work in a laundry, they thought. Very well, a Turk and a laundryman would naturally be found in some other laundry, possibly near his own people. The case was carried on until, in a laundry in another part of the same city, a new man was found he had a new name, but the same face. Eventually he was put where he belonged.
The psalmist of old voiced his complaint that there were three things in the world which he did not know, three things which he could not find out: the way of a ship upon the sea, the way of the serpent on a rock, and the way of a man with a maid. The trouble with Solomon was that he seems not to have owned either a geometry, a microscope or a dictagraph. These used respectively in connection with the problems described above might have helped him out considerably.
A.P.L. operatives at Nyack, New York, had Solomon beaten by a city block. They installed a dictagraph in a room frequented by one A., who was impersonating an officer, declaring that he was Chief of the Secret Service from New York to Boston.' His game was to advertise for women to engage in espionage work, saying that the Government would pay a big price and would also buy clothes and hats for the operatives and put them up at the best hotels. It was suspected very keenly that Mr. A. was neither employed by the Government nor acting as an officer and a gentleman ought to act. He did not know anything about the deadly dictagraph which A.P.L. had placed in his apartment. hence, he conversed quite freely with a certain Mrs. U, who had answered his advertisement and at whose apartment he was paying a call. They seem first to have talked about the apartment itself, the conversation going as follows:
Mrs. U: Isn't it nice? I'm crazy about it. He is a curio dealer, the owner of the apartment. Here is the dish closet. Here is the kitchen. Look and see the bedroom. I haven't got my bed linen yet. Sit down and I'll talk to you. Oh, I've got to get rid of this hat; my head aches.
Mr. L: Oh, what a nice lamp.
Mrs. U: Isn't it lovely? See, you can turn the lights on here. Look, this is the telephone downstairs. There's one thing; they are very strict here. You have to be careful. Sit down there.
(pause of a minute)
Mrs. U: I can't swallow a pill to save my life. Now, I'll tell you what I have to say. Do you know I like that picture? I think it must have been a calendar. You know he said he would buy me anything I wanted. He is some kid, that boy. This is just like the headache I had two weeks ago. I had such a headache. All day Sunday I was in bed and I couldn't get any relief. It's just the same old way all along. It is so trying. Now, I want to hear all about your trip. I am terribly interested. Tell me all about it.
Mr. L: Now, tell me exactly what you told him.
Mrs. U: Sit down. Here's what I told him.
Mr. L: What's his name and all about him?
Mrs. U: Well, the first time I met him he told me all about the story of his life. Then, some time after that I met him again. ''Hey kid,' he said, 'you know a lot of people in Wall Street; take me down there and introduce me to some of them.' I said 'I have a friend who is very well connected.' Well, I saw him again and I told him that I had met you, and that you were right close to the Government offices and you got inside news. Of course, I didn't tell him that you were in the Secret Service of the Government. You don't want me to tell him that, do you?
Mr. L: No, not at all. I'll decide what I want to tell him.
Mrs. U: Do you think he could be a spy?
Mr. L: Yes, he could be. He acts just like one. He acts like a perfect damn fool.
Mrs. U: Well, how to they act?
Mr. L: They act just this way. That's their game.
Mrs. U: Oh, I get so excited about your work.
Mr. L: Yes; you know, if you were to catch a spy like that, it would be worth $5,000 to you.
Mrs. U: $5,000! Would it really? Who would pay that?
Mr. L: The Government.
Mrs. U: Oh, it's so exciting! You must think me silly, but I can't help getting all excited about this Secret Service work! And you're the head of it, too, aren't you?
Mr. L: I am not the head of it all. I am only the head of certain branches. You know there are different branches.
Mrs. U: Which are you in?
Mr. L: In the Treasury Department.
Mrs. U: In the Treasury Department?
Mr. L: Yes, I'm the head of the Treasury Department and three other Departments besides. Four of them altogether. There are seventeen different branches, you know; I have full charge of this one.
Mrs. U: No wonder you're so busy! Well, have you caught any spies lately?
Mr. L: Oh, yes. We get them right along. I got forty last week.
Mrs. U: You know, we have known each other a long time now, haven't we? You know it's funny how you meet people through advertisements. Nearly everybody that I met in a business way I met through advertisements. And everybody that I met that way turned out to be a factor in my life! I met a good friend of mine, a girl, through an ad. And then, I have got some very good positions through advertisements. And then, I met you through that ad in let's see was it the 'Times'?
Mr. L: No, the 'Herald.'
Mrs. U: Tell me about that girl that you said you had that was so good. is she still catching spies?
Mr. L: Yes; she got fourteen last week.
Mrs. U: Gee! She must have worked overtime....Did she had to do what you wanted me to do?
Mr. L: Oh, yes, you see she was crazy about the work.
Mrs. U: Gosh, you know that is very interesting to me. How many girls did you get from that advertisement? I guess you think I am a fool, but I get so interested, and I like to have you tell me all these things.
Mr. L: Oh, I don't remember. You know, I think the spies would take to you and I don't blame them. I know I would.
Mrs. U: Do you think they would like a red-head? Is there any demand at all for them.
Mr. L: Oh, I couldn't see all of them
Mrs. U: I guess you're busy now with all these German submarines around, aren't you?
Mr. L: Oh, yes, indeed; very busy. They are very dangerous people.
Mrs. U: Do you always have to teach those girls that you have in the Secret Service? You know I have been reading all about this spy work and this Secret Service thing since I saw you. I am so much interested. They go by numbers, don't they, instead of names? Well, if I was in the service, would you look up all about where I was born, and who my people were, and everything like that? Would you do that to see if I had any German blood I'll tell you why I ask it, because the Y.M.C.A. people told me that they would have to look me up very carefully and that they would have t find out if any of my people were born in Germany ...How long have you been in the Government Secret Service?
Mr. L: Twenty-five years.
Mrs. U: Twenty-five years! Oh, dear, and no one would ever know that you were in it.
Mr. L: Come here oh, you're just a little kiddie.
Mrs. U: Oh, now, wait a minute, just wait a minute!
The operatives who were listening to this partially reported conversation in the janitor's room did not wait even a minute. They broke down the door and arrested Mr. L. He was turned over to he United States Secret Service and arraigned before the Assistant District Attorney. His activities as an employer of espionage agents thereupon ceased abruptly. He was a cheap and dirty impostor.
It was found in hundreds of cases and the knowledge was invariable suppressed that an alien suspect's sudden and mysterious shifts and changes, his suspicious and watchful conduct, his evasive acts, all had to do with nothing more that the fact that the man has a mistress or so in another part of the city. The woman in his case very often was not the woman in the case at all, for there was no case, so far as the League was concerned. But countless men were quietly warned. Often with tears they implored the secrecy which was given them. There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of men in America whose private lives are known to the League and not known in their own families. There is yet to be known the first case where any advantage ever was taken of the unintended victim caught in the general meshes of the Web; but it may be interesting for any of those of guilty conscience who by chance may read these lines, to know that their lives are filed away, cross-indexed, for future reference in the vast archives of the Department of Justice at Washington!
The extent of these woman cases as they were known, is very considerable, and the per cent of suspect spy cases which simmered down to a petticoat basis is a very large one. A great part of the work of the League was done in finding the woman, if not in searching for her specifically. The League brought up from the deep-sea soundings of its steels meshes all the sordid and unworthy phases of human life on the part of both men and women. But while combing out the discards of human intrigue, the League often found the evidence it really sought. This was without fail used mercilessly and coldly.
One case, handled by the Central Division in Chicago, we may call the Otero case. Word came from El Paso that a certain prominent Mexican, a revolutionary and political leader with aspirations for a very high state office in that republic, had come into the United States and was headed north, probably for Chicago. Nothing was know about him and his purpose excepting that his name was given. The League at once began making inquiries about Senor Otero. It was found that he was traveling in a special car. Obviously, therefore, he was a man of money. Ergo, he would go to a good hotel , and he probably would make a reservation in advance. Inquiries were made by telephone at all the leading hotels in Chicago, which in practically all cases were members of the American Protective League. Senor Otero was found to have reserved a large site at the Blackstone, and had made the time of his arrival known. From that time on, he was in the hands of the American Protective League, although he never knew it. The boy who took his bag at the door was an A.P.L. operative, the bellhop who responded to his summons was an A.P.L. operative, his waiter at the table was A.P.L., his night taxicab driver was A.P.L. In fact, the A.P.L. put Senor Otero to bed and woke him up in the morning, followed his activities during the day and knew what he was doing all night. It was not discovered that he was engaged in any plot against the peace of the United States, but was apparently active in the more pleasant task of spending some money he had gotten hold of in Mexico. If relatives or friends of the Senor Otero would be pleased to know how he spent it, the nature of his associations in Chicago by day or night and if they can persuade the Department of Justice to advise them, they can find the entire record of his stay in Chicago. Had he been engaged in any suspicious acts against this country, his return to Mexico might not have been so peaceful.
If an A.P.L man knew the chemistry of any synthetic or invisible ink, he would not make the secret public any more than would M.I.D. Many devices for making and using these inks, however, are very generally known, although it is believed that Great Britain and France have gone farthest in classifying and developing them. A piece of a necktie has been taken from one German, a corner of which, snipped off and put in a glass of water, would make an invisible ink. A shoestring has been known to do the same thing, a small piece of it making enough for a letter or more. A shirt-stud has been described by a foreign operative which, when unscrewed and dropped into a glass of water, would do the same thing and leave no trace. With what chemicals were these articles treated in order to make the ink? Ah, that is another matter. If the author knew, he could not tell. One thing is sure, it is not likely that the most inventive writer of detective stories could imagine anything more ingenious or more baffling than some of these well-known methods in use by our own men.
Mr. Bryon R. Newton, collector at the port of New York, gave out a curious story on the work done by the Customs Intelligence Bureau, created as a lookout for smugglers and others. This service was employed in searching ships, examining baggage, looking out for explosive bombs, invisible writing, and so forth. Mr. Newton's story appeared in the New York Herald of July 14, 1918, and from it one incident may be taken.
Through the Boarding Officials, a passenger who arrived the other day has furnished interesting material for the Intelligence Bureau investigators. The passenger, who for some time had been a resident of Germany, although an American citizen, said he had been approached in Dresden by German agents and asked if on his return to the United States he would obtain military and other information of interest to the Imperial German Intelligence Bureau. He was furnished with a code to be used by him for forwarding information to Germany and also with a formula for manufacturing an invisible ink, and with paper to be treated by a special process for correspondence. The passenger, in evidence of what he stated, offered four collars to the customs officials. They appeared to be ordinary negligee collars of cream-colored material double, turn-over collars, medium height, such as many men wear with sport shirts of for informal occasions.
The passenger explained the purpose of these collars as follows: take a soup plate and I put boiling water in it and let it stand for about a quarter of an hour, after which I throw away the water. The plate being warm, I place one of these collars in it. I pour over the collar one hundred grams of boiling water and let it stand for half an hour. Then I wring out the collar, and the water that remains is my invisible ink. The call it pryogram. It looks like water, it is not poisonous and it can be drunk. I wash my hands, since they are wet with this ink, and take the paper and fold it crosswise and begin the letter, writing two fingers from the edge. I let it dry and then take a glass of water and put about one teaspoonful of ammonia in it. With a piece of wadding dipped in this solution of ammonia and water, I rub the paper both ways, and thus prepare it on both sides. After this I place the paper in this wet condition between blotting paper and under heavy books or a trunk for three hours. You will not be able to recognize the paper any more. It looks like foreign writing paper, very thin and glazed. I can write anything I choose on this letter now. When they get the letter and develop it the writing appears positively black. I head the letter Dear Bob and they know it is a code letter. When I am through with the letter I use the word Schluss, because in developing it, they want to know if they have the entire letter, and that word ends it up.
This passenger also told the examining officials that in carrying addresses without an address book, the German agents usually take a bone button of an overcoat or a large button of some sort and on the reverse side scratch the address with a diamond, sometimes also scratching instructions which they cannot carry in their heads. after this they treat the button with shellac, or, as they call it in Germany, spitituslak. That fills the crevices and dries rapidly. On reaching the destination, they use pure alcohol to wash off the shellac. They also write addresses on this paper and work them into leather buttons.
Cipher and code are part of the education of certain intelligence officers, but into a discussion of these matters we may not go, as they are secrets of the American Government. Our own experts were able to decipher and decode all the secret messages bearing on the great German plots in this country, but this was not usually A.P.L. work. Of course, the lay reader, or more especially the A.P.L. member, may know that a cipher means the substitution of some symbol, or some number, or another letter, for each letter of the alphabet. Or the real letters may be transposed, one to stand for another, in such a way that only the sender and receiver may understand. That looks hard to read?
Not at all. It is easier than code. It is said that any cipher message can be unriddled in time.
A code is a scheme agreed on by which the two parties substitute certain whole words for the real words of the message. A code message might seem wholly innocent, let us say, just a simple comment on the weather. But suppose bright and fair meant in code The Leviathan sailed this morning and suppose the Leviathan were a transport carrying twelve thousand troops to France! Unless the de-code artist is indeed an artist, he cannot know what interchange in ideas had been agreed upon for interchanged words; and there are not twenty-six letters, but 26,000 words which may be transposed in meaning. The big German spy work that is, the chain of messages that passed between the German Embassy in America and the Imperial Headquarters in Berlin was done in enciphered code. They had first been written in German before coding, and after coding, the code was put in cipher. None the less, we read them and von Bernstorff, Dr. Albert, et al., are no more on our soil.
This is specialized, expert work of the most delicate and difficult sort, and is not for the average amateur. Sometimes the latter had more enthusiasm than knowledge in his ambition to be a real sleuth, and in such cases, perhaps something amusing might happen, where zeal did not jump with discretion.
American Protective League memorabilia from
the Murray Collection were loaned to the
International Spy Museum in Washington, DC.
The special exhibit...
The Enemy Within: Terror in America - 1776 to Today
toured in major U.S. cities and Presidential libraries.