"Double Agent" author Peter Duffy. PHOTO BY RAN GRAFF
By Peter McDermott
When the “SS Washington” docked at Pier 59 in New York on Feb. 8, 1940, the representatives of the press were waiting, as was the custom, to interview the rich and famous. The main attraction on that day was the Irish writer Liam O’Flaherty, who was best known for “The Informer.”
O’Flaherty’s celebrity, though, was derived not so much from his novel, which won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize in 1925, as the multiple-Oscar-winning adaptation directed in 1935 by his distant cousin John Ford.
Unbelievably, another paying passenger was a real-life informer, indeed one of the most successful and important in American history. And there also were quite possibly Nazi agents on the liner’s kitchen and wait staff.
On his trip home to Mülheim to visit his mother, Wilhelm “William” Gottlieb Sebold was strong-armed into agreeing to spy for Germany when he returned to the U.S. Soon afterwards, he told officials at the American consulate in Cologne what had happened and offered his services to his adopted country.
Back in New York, he was formally recruited as the first counterspy in the FBI’s history (the term “double agent” wasn’t widely in use at that time).
Author Peter Duffy’s “Double Agent,” which has won praise from both the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, tells the story of a case that led to 33 convictions in New York, just days after the attack on Pearl Harbor and within hours of Hitler’s declaration of war on the United States. A 34th arrest warrant had been issued for a mysterious Irishman named Sean Connolly who disappeared into history, never to be seen again.
Duffy came across the largely forgotten case when researching an article for the New Republic about Fr. Charles Coughlin, the 1930s radio priest.
He was intrigued by the fact that the most successful FBI counterespionage operation in its history depended upon one man, Sebold, who had taken all of the risk upon his shoulders.
“The reporting at the time was fuzzy,” Duffy added about his reasons for pursuing the story. “And nobody knew what had happened to him [Sebold].”
The new book, his third, is a return to the era of his first: “The Bielski Brothers,” an account of one Jewish family’s resistance to the Nazis in Belarus.
His second book is set in Roscommon, the ancestral county of one of his grandparents (two others were Italian American, while the fourth’s roots were in Tipperary).
“The Killing of Major Denis Mahon: A Mystery of Old Ireland” is a reexamination of a well-known 1847 murder. Like his latest, it concludes with a trial and convictions.
It also involved the author immersing himself in the documents and publications from a world that’s gone. Indeed, the German Upper East Side or Yorkville, the capital of the community in America, is as much of the past as Famine-era Roscommon, even if it might be easier to reconstruct in the mind.
Duffy made maps with the help, for instance, of advertisements in German-language newspapers of the time.
The neighborhood’s heart was Manhattan’s 86th Street, between 2nd and 3rd Avenues. Only one or two buildings remained unchanged from that time, while the 2nd Avenue elevated was taken down in 1940 and the 3rd Avenue elevated in the 1950s.
Analyses of the 1930 Census reveal that there were 350,000 non-Jewish German- and Austrian-born immigrants in New York City; the equivalent today is the combined number of immigrants from China, Taiwan and Hong Kong. Many of the Germans had left at the time of the near chaos and instability of the Weimer Republic and some of them believed that Hitler’s Nazi government had restored a sense of pride.
“They felt that Germany was again a player in the world,” Duffy said.
A small, if significant minority showed its support for the Nazis by organizing and parading under the banner of the German American Bund. It claimed 17,000 New York (almost all foreign-born) members at its height in 1936 and 1937.
“I read the daily newspapers pretty closely,” Duffy said. “That was a fascinating experience.”
For one thing, he was surprised at the extent to which the German spy was a “stock figure in American popular culture in the 1930s, [and] part of the folklore of New York.”
Hollywood also played a big role, with efforts like “Confessions of a Nazi Spy,” starring Edward G. Robinson in 1939. That was inspired by the recent case of Guenther Rumrich, a dishwasher who had been recruited to spy by the Nazis. FBI Special Agent Leon Turrou – who had botched the investigation into Rumrich following his 1938 arrest in Manhattan – wrote the book that provided the source material for the Robinson movie. Turrou, Hollywood and the press seem agreed that German spies were everywhere.
The 1914-18 war was still fresh in the mind, too. The authorities remembered the campaign of sabotage directed by German officials against targets in America and the, sometimes fatal, public vigilantism in reaction.
Overt Nazi sympathizers could provide good copy, too. The talented top organizer of the Bund, Fritz Kuhn, was brought down by his embezzlement of the membership dues, which he used to fund his complicated love life. The papers variously referred to him as the “flirtatious Fuhrer,” the “Teutonic two-timer” and the “hotsy-totsy Nazi.”
Nikolaus Ritter, a Luftwaffe officer assigned to the Abwehr, who on a trip to the U.S. in 1937, recruited the first members of the "Duquesne Spy Ring." KATHERINE A. WALLACE
Sebold was dropped into this community that contained, on one end of the spectrum, a spy ring operating out of the Casino Tavern on East 85th Street and, on the other, socialists who had been interned by the Nazis in concentration camps.
The counterspy was highly-strung and prone to mysterious ailments. The FBI wondered if he really had what it took for such a dangerous mission. One handler wrote: “Sebold has an honesty complex. In fact, he is so honest that I am afraid some day he will give himself away because of his inability to act his part.”
But his main handler, Jim Ellsworth, a devout Mormon from Utah who became a close friend of Sebold’s and his wife, had confidence in him.
It was justified, for he grew into his role and indeed flourished in it. And aside from raised eyebrows about a brief stint upstate working with a Yiddish-speaking socialist camp (which the defendants’ lawyers made hay of during the trial, by suggesting he was a communist), he was accepted by the Nazis. It helped that he was a regular guy who had served in the trenches in the 1914-18 war.
“He was guileless and headstrong,” Duffy said. He pointed to his trip back home in 1939 as the act of someone who was determined, but also naïve.
“The Germans called him Tramp,” Duffy said. “He had a wandering gene.” Indeed, it was the lack of harassment, going from town to town in his early years in America, that contrasted starkly for him with Germany.
Ellsworth wrote later in life: “He told me that he found everything in this country wonderful. He could go from city to city without registering with the police as he had to in Germany. He could follow any occupation he pleased.”
Sebold, with the Feds’ help, set up a radio station in a cottage on the north shore of Long Island to transmit to and receive messages from Hamburg. Intelligence agents were most concerned about gathering engineering secrets that would be crucial in the coming air war.
The political backdrop was the reluctance of broad swathes of American opinion, from sections of the left and of the right, opposed to involvement in another European war.
Some public figures were overtly sympathetic to the Nazis, such as aviator Charles Lindberg, who was a national hero, and the anti-Semitic Coughlin.
Duffy’s essay for the New Republic took issue with the linking of modern-day media figures like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, whom he sees as rather benign, with the Canadian-born cleric, who he believes is “one of the top-10 worst Americans in history.”
The church’s liberal press, notably Commonweal magazine and the Jesuits’ America, had been expressing their concerns about the anti-Semitic priest, but eventually the continuing rise of the militant Coughlinite-inspired Christian Front, which had a strong Irish-American following in the big Eastern cities, would come to worry the mainstream Catholic leadership.
Some Christian Front members in New York became involved with a paramilitary conspiracy, which it hoped would inspire a fascist-type revolution. An Irish-American Front leader, Joe McWilliams, ran for Congress in New York in 1940. “[Journalist] Walter Winchell called him Joe McNazi,” Duffy said.
Some prominent Irish leaders pushed back against the Christian Front. “[The Transport Workers’ Union’s] Mike Quill was very courageous against Coughlinism,” Duffy said.
But the fascist threat was fading as the FBI’s 16-month operation was closing in on the New York-area Nazis.
In last weeks of the investigation, the FBI set up three rooms in the Newsweek building at Times Square, where Sebold chatted with the Nazi agents.
The subsequent court case was the first time that Americans became aware of the concept of secret filming, which later became famous with the TV show “Candid Camera.”
Publicly, the 33 when arrested were referred to as members of the “Duquesne Spy Ring,” though there were four separate rings and a few freelancers involved. The Boer War and World War I veteran Fritz Duquesne, who gave his name to the group, was among those that Sebold interviewed on camera.
The court heard from the colorful and eccentric South African, but also from the case’s femme fatale, Lilly Stein, who was born in Vienna to Jewish parents, and fellow Nazi spies such as Erwin W. Siegler, the chief butcher on the “SS Manhattan” and later the “SS America.”
“The Irishman Connolly told Sebold [in the Times Square office] that he wanted to strike back at the English, who had hanged his father,” Duffy said.
When the FBI came to arrest Connolly, however, he had fled.
“He was the one who sensed that something wasn’t right. He’s laughing somewhere,” Duffy said. “Or his descendants are.”
Bill and Helen Sebold after the war. COURTESY OF SHIRLEY CAMERER
Meanwhile, the other 33 were sent off to prison and the FBI was congratulating itself on a job well done.
The agency had no counterespionage plan in place when visiting Nazi official Nikolaus Ritter set up the Duquesne ring in the late 1930s. Director J. Edgar Hoover, however, used all of his political skill to transform the failures into more powers for his agency.
“When a public is full of fear and there’s a public sense that foreign intrigue is running amok in the country then an agency like the FBI will do all it can to grab all the power it can to meet that fear,” Duffy said.
It wasn’t assumed, as it was during World War I, that every German was a potential spy, but many immigrants were taken into custody and “any German with a shortwave radio was going to be spoken to at some point,” Duffy said. “There were raids in Yorkville and in Ridgewood in Queens.
“The FBI learnt how to become a counterespionage agency on the Germans,” he added.
President Roosevelt said he didn’t want to fund a secret police force that would spy on Americans but rather one that would allow “our own people to watch the secret police of certain other nations, which is a very excellent distinction to make.”
It wasn’t a distinction that Hoover would adhere to. For he used the very powers he was given during this period to monitor Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the 1960s and also to infiltrate and disrupt groups opposed to the Vietnam War.
“I don’t think any shade of public opinion would defend Hoover’s actions in the Sixties,” Duffy said.
Meanwhile, Sebold was still living, although in poor health and sometimes in near poverty.
Family members were amazed when they found out about his life as a counterspy. One niece recalled that he was a largely silent man who acknowledged people with a grunt, but that his “warm eyes” showed he was teasing.
Duffy, who lives in Manhattan with his wife, the New York Post journalist Laura Italiano, and their daughter, writes in his book: “The young relatives would’ve never imagined that their Uncle Bill was a man of formidable moral and physical courage who led one of the great spy missions of American history, a landmark figure deserving of a place among the nation’s most deserving war heroes.”
William G. Sebold died of a heart attack on Feb. 16, 1970 at Napa State Hospital in California.
“Double Agent: The First Hero of World War II and how the FBI Outwitted a Nazi Spy Ring” is published in hardback by Scribner and is priced at $28. For more on the author, go to PeterDuffy.net.