Thursday, November 4, 2010

Not Your Average German Pirate

The plan was fairly simple, for its type.

Five men (four with experience at sea) would travel to New York, board the ship known as City of Sparta and seize control. If killing were necessary, so be it. Claming to be subjects of Germany, the men would find their way to the Captain’s private cabin and locate a certain chest. Inside that chest would be two thousand British pounds concealed in a bag. The men would enjoy the loot, continue to navigate the ship to their liking and become popular idols, perhaps even legends, among the German people. The brilliant nature of the scheme and seemingly high probability of its success were heartily reinforced by the fact that it was conceived under the influence of large amounts of alcohol poured in the saloons of Hoboken, New Jersey.

In March of 1916, Americans would read the morning newspapers and learn that a four hundred foot, three thousand ton vessel had, in fact, been seized. But the seizure only lasted for a period of nineteen hours. And there was only one “pirate” from Hoboken, not five. In addition, the ship was the Matoppa, not the City of Sparta. The Matoppa was a British freighter, but did not have two thousand pounds lying around in a bag anywhere. As a result, the lone "pirate" got his hands on a mere fifty dollars. The ship’s primary cargo could hardly be labeled as the traditional object of piratical lust: barbed wire and agricultural instruments.

Something had gone seriously wrong.

Authorities found themselves looking at a man who called himself Ernest Schiller. Schiller was tall, slender (but exceptionally muscular), smooth faced and impressed one as being educated. The New York Times observed his appearance was “that of a rational person,” but the more authorities talked to him, well, the more of a “puzzle” he became. A day of interrogation revealed that Schiller had lived in England for several years, had studied marine engineering and that he had been in America for only nine months. His parents were said to reside in Petrograd.

He claimed that he simply walked on board Matoppa, in the middle of the day, carrying a light lunch and a pair of revolvers. When he thought the time was right, he began rounding up the Captain and his chief officers, all the while telling them that he was taking the ship on behalf of Germany. Schiller said the roundup was accomplished with relative ease as the Captain and his chief officers were all “cowards.” Indeed, the "pirate" mocked them all by pouring glasses of whiskey and suggesting that they all toast to each other's health and that of the Kaiser - at gunpoint. In order to encourage general cooperation, Schiller also announced that there were bombs aboard the ship that could be detonated very easily.

But, after his capture, Schiller denied that he was acting on behalf of Germany and admitted that there were not really any bombs on the ship. He had done what he had done simply for the money that he had expected to be onboard the ship. If his Hoboken buddies had not “got scared and backed out,” Schiller insisted, the plan would have worked out much better. As such, he found himself without money or an exit strategy. The fake German "pirate" was quickly (and easily) captured when he tried to take a small boat on shore.

The interrogations and investigations were intense, but the picture began to muddy quickly.

In Boston, Ernst Schiller was known to have been employed in several factories under the name Frank Koch. Koch had been a steamfitter and machinist in the area for about three years. He “dressed fashionably” and was famous for the fairly unique manner in which he would “play” a “tune.” This would be done by smacking himself upon the head with a hammer. Yes, you read that correctly.

Three days after his capture, Schiller was confessing that he was really Clarence Reginald Hodson. Twenty-three year old Clarence was now claiming that he and three confederates had purchased dynamite for the purpose of blowing up still yet another ship, the popular passenger liner, Cunarder Pannonia. Again, this would have already happened had the fellow pirates from Hoboken not backed out. Hodson also claimed that he once served as a spy for the Germans while working in British shipyards and transmitted plans for submarines safely to Berlin. The British Secret service had become suspicious of him, however, and let him go on the condition that he leave the country.

George Hallar and Otto Milleder were soon identified as two of the Hoboken "pirates." Both men were captured and confessed that they had met with Schiller (who, at the time, was going under the name "Robinson”) and pretended to go along with his various plans. But Hallar and Milleder insisted they never really took Schiller seriously and were only going along with the chitchat because Schiller was giving them money. As Hallar put it, Schiller always had “plenty of money” and was “very generous” with it.

Meanwhile, Schiller was continuing to increase levels of uncertainty. As the Times reported it, the more he confessed, the more “reticent” the police became. Soon, it was suspected that he desired to be thought “insane.” Indeed, on April 4, it was reported that the German pirate Schiller-Koch-Hodson-Robinson was heading toward a “sanity test.” The District Attorney signed papers committing the prisoner to observation for a period of ten days.

An odd kind of admiration of Schiller actually began to develop in the press and there was even a hint of contempt for the crew which, somehow, was detained by a single man. But, a little over two weeks later, Schiller plead guilty to piracy and was sentenced to life in prison. In a statement, Schiller argued that he had not detained the ship for purposes of robbery. He was, instead, convinced that the ship carried munitions of war.

Schiller attempted to escape from prison on July 10, 1916. He was working in the tailor shop of the Atlanta penitentiary when he decided to make his dash for freedom. It was reported that he made it past several guards and evaded considerable gunfire before successfully scaling a wall. But the impressive effort resulted in eventual capture. He later told the warden that he had read about the arrival of the Deutschland and that he wanted to join its “gallant crew.” He added that he was “determined” to escape and “seek vengeance” on those that he hated; the English. On June 9, 1926, Calvin Coolidge commuted Schiller's sentence to time served.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Boston or Beacon?

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