On July 4, 1915, German saboteur Emil Marksz, choosing death over capture, commits suicide in a Seattle hotel room. Marksz is being sought for his role the May 30, 1915, explosion of a dynamite-laden powder barge anchored in the West Waterway off Harbor Island in Elliott Bay. The detonation, heard as far north as Everett and as far south as Tacoma, brought down plaster and shattered hundreds of plate-glass windows in Seattle buildings and homes. Property damage from the blast was estimated at $140,000. A subsequent investigation by British intelligence services determined the explosion was an act of sabotage carried out by Marksz and others to prevent the dynamite from reaching Vladivostok, Russia, and the Allied forces fighting on the Eastern Front. In San Francisco, several coconspirators will later be convicted in federal court for involvement in the Seattle blast and for other plots, both completed and contemplated.
Arming the Allied Powers
By May 1915 World War I had been in progress for 10 months. The Central Powers (Germany, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and Bulgaria) were intent on preventing war supplies from the United States, which had declared itself a neutral country, from reaching the Allied Powers (France, Great Britain, Russia, and Belgium) battling in Europe. To this end, the Germans engaged in unrestricted submarine warfare in the Atlantic Ocean and dispatched scores of agents to Canadian and American cities to carry out an aggressive campaign of espionage and sabotage. Since all the munitions for Russia were shipped to Vladivostok from the Pacific Coast, seaports from British Columbia to California were prime targets. Already, millions of dollars worth of supplies had been shipped through Seattle, destined for the war on the Eastern Front.
On Friday, May 14, 1915, the steam schooner F. S. Loop arrived in Puget Sound from San Francisco carrying a large shipment of explosives destined for Vladivostok. Upon reaching Elliott Bay, 15 tons of gelatin dynamite, manufactured by the Hercules Powder Company in Pinole, California, was transferred from the ship to a powder barge belonging to the Drummond Lighterage Company and moored at city buoy No. 3 in the West Waterway off Harbor Island. The dynamite, packed in 622 stout wooden cases, was considered entirely safe.
The shipment was supposed to be loaded aboard the Japanese steamship SS Kaifuku Maru, docked in Tacoma, for transport to Vladivostok. When information was received that an attempt would be made to blow up the ship before she left port, the captain of the Kaifuku Maru refused to accept the explosives. Arrangements were made to load them onto the British steamship SS Hazel Dollar, and the powder barge was to be towed by the Lillico Launch and Tugboat Company to the Northern Pacific Dock in Tacoma on Sunday, May 30, 1915. Every night since its arrival in Elliott Bay, Roy Lillico (1882-1934) had the company tugboat Manila and her two-man crew guarding the explosives against any unforeseen circumstance. On Saturday, May 29, Lillico dispatched the Manila to another location and hired a dock worker at random to watch over the powder barge for the night.
A Shattering Explosion
At 2 a.m. on Sunday, May 30, 1915, Seattle neighborhoods were rocked by a huge explosion that shattered thousands of plate glass windows and brought down plaster in scores of buildings and houses. The clock at the Colman Dock (later Pier 52) stopped at 13 seconds before the hour. The detonation was heard as far north as Everett and as far south as Tacoma.
Since there was neither lingering smoke nor fire, it took city authorities almost an hour to determine the origin of the blast. Meanwhile, wild rumors of earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, falling meteorites, and bombs abounded among the thousands of startled people who flooded into the streets. The mystery was eventually solved by witnesses who reported seeing a fireball more than 100 feet high over Harbor Island. Captain Alexis A. Paysse (1876-1932), the Port of Seattle's harbormaster, determined that the powder barge moored in the West Waterway had vanished. The shock wave capsized a fully-loaded coal barge moored nearby and seriously damaged the British cable ship HMS Restorer anchored off Harbor Island. The watchman hired by Roy Lillico had also disappeared, his fate unknown. Fortunately, the streets of Seattle were practically deserted when the barge exploded, and although there were numerous injuries from flying glass, no fatalities were reported.
Seattle Police Chief Louis M. Lang (1865-1943), awakened at home by the explosion, rushed to police headquarters and dispatched every available police officer into the city's business district to maintain order. Several instances of looting were reported, but police quickly established patrols to protect property in the damaged buildings. Meanwhile, the Seattle Fire Department was kept busy responding to numerous false alarms triggered by the blast. After surveying the damage in the downtown area, Fire Marshal Harry W. Bringhurst (1861-1923) estimated the property damage, mostly broken window panes, at $140,000.
Sabotage the Cause
Dynamite is formulated to be stable and will not explode even if mishandled, accidentally dropped, or exposed to fire. It requires a primary source of energy, such as a blasting cap, to detonate. For this reason, explosives experts were certain the destruction of the powder barge had been an act of sabotage. It seemed most likely that German saboteurs had gained access to the barge and planted a time bomb. Fire Marshal Bringhurst could offer no other explanation, although no hard evidence survived the blast to support that hypothesis.
One week earlier, on May 22, 1915, an arsonist had destroyed two armored vehicles and damaged one rail car sitting on the Northern Pacific Dock in Tacoma. Concerned that an attempt would be made to sabotage the SS Hazel Dollar, the Russian consulate in San Francisco employed the Burns Detective Agency to guard the freighter while docked at Tacoma. Alarmingly, this was the facility where Lillico Launch and Tugboat was supposed to deliver the powder barge. An explosion of such magnitude on the Tacoma waterfront would have been disastrous.
British Vice Consul Charles Ernest Lucian Agassiz in Tacoma assigned an intelligence agent, J. F. Sweene, to find the saboteurs responsible for the explosion. Almost immediately, Sweene identified Emil Marksz (alias Professor Hugo Topefel, alias G. S. Denz), a member of Germany's espionage corps in the United States, as the primary suspect. Marksz was well-known to counterespionage agents monitoring the activities of German spies on the Pacific Coast.
Stalking the Saboteurs
Sweene's investigation revealed that Marksz had arrived in Seattle two weeks before the explosion. He sought employment as a machinist with the Seattle Construction and Dry Dock Company, giving himself a plausible excuse for loitering along the waterfront. Through a network of undercover operatives who had infiltrated the German spy ring, Sweene learned that Walter L. Scholz, alias Herman Schultz, a 32-year-old demolition expert, had assembled the bomb in an abandoned shack located along the Duwamish River, south of Harbor Island. It was composed of five sticks of dynamite in a metal box, with an alarm clock as a detonating device. The dynamite was obtained from a cache hidden in the underbrush on the side of Pigeon Hill in West Seattle.
The clock had been purchased from pawnbroker Louis Breslin's shop at 211 Second Avenue S. With the alarm set for a specific hour, it was soldered inside the box, the explosives added, and the exterior of the metal case waterproofed with tar. At about 10 p.m. on Saturday, May 29, 1915, Marksz rowed down the West Waterway in a skiff and planted the device on the powder barge. Afterward, he rendezvoused with a confederate under the West Spokane Street bridge and was driven to King Street Station where he purchased a train ticket for Portland, Oregon. He exited the train at Centralia, however, to meet with Scholz and learn of the plot's success. (Scholz was arrested on October 24, 1915, in New Jersey in connection with a conspiracy to destroy munitions factories and vessels carrying war supplies to the Allies in Europe.)
Sweene tracked Marksz to Portland and then to San Francisco. Within the week, he learned that the suspect was staying at a rooming house in Alameda, across San Francisco Bay, and put him under surveillance. Several days later Marksz returned to San Francisco and took refuge with the proprietor of a German delicatessen on Turk Street. He stayed in hiding until Sunday, June 20, 1915, when he departed for Portland by train. He spent a week there, conducting clandestine meetings with fellow espionage agents monitoring activities on the waterfront. On Saturday, June 26, 1915, Marksz took a train to Seattle and rented a room at the Hotel New Star at 414 Jefferson Street.
Escaping Justice, Embracing Death
On the following Tuesday Marksz purchased a .45-caliber revolver from Charles Aronson's hardware store at 214 Railroad Avenue, using the alias G. S. Denz. He also purchased a box of cartridges, removed two and handed the remainder back to the Aronson, remarking that the two would be enough for his purpose. To avoid being captured and questioned by intelligence agents, on Sunday morning, July 4, 1915, Marksz put the gun to his head and pulled the trigger. At 2 p.m. that day Sweene knocked on the suspect's door, but there was no reply.
At noon the following day, after an all-night surveillance, Sweene approached the hotel's proprietor, Ritage Nishimura, and asked if his roomer from Germany was in. Nishimura went upstairs to the room and, receiving no response to his knock, opened the door and found Marksz dead on the floor. Police responded immediately and the body was removed to the City Emergency Hospital morgue at 4th Avenue and Yesler Way. Seattle Police Captain Charles Tennant (1876-1933) and his detectives searched the room and personal effects for clues to the man's identity, but all they found was a receipt for the revolver made out to G. S. Denz. Every scrap of paper had been removed and every identification mark cut from the clothing. Later, Sweene went to the morgue and identified the corpse as Emil Marksz, the saboteur whom he had been tracking for the past five weeks.
Rolling Up a Ring of Saboteurs
However, this was not the end of the investigation. The day after the destruction of the powder barge, Vice Consul Agassiz swore out a warrant for the arrest of Louis J. Smith, alias Walter Brown, suspected of being a German agent. Smith had recently purchased 450 feet of fuse and a case of DuPont 60 dynamite (60 percent nitroglycerin) from the DuPont Explosives Company in the city of DuPont in southern Pierce County. It was an explosive of unusually high potency, commonly used in ditch blasting and tree-stump removal. Smith, who was renting a bungalow at 4210 N Ferdinand Street in Tacoma, had attempted to book a passage on the Kaifuku Maru but was unable to do so. His plan was to plant a suitcase containing a timing device and 40 pounds of dynamite aboard the vessel and then quietly disappear. Realizing the authorities were looking for him, Smith brazenly barged into Tacoma police headquarters with a coil of dynamite fuse and demanded to know what they wanted. He claimed the fuse and dynamite were for a stump-blasting project on a small farm that he was purchasing in Puyallup.
Three weeks before the Elliott Bay blast, on May 7, 1915, a German U-boat had torpedoed the British ocean liner RMS Lusitania off the coast of Ireland, claiming the lives of 1,198 passengers, including 128 American citizens. The sinking immediately turned public opinion against Germany, and President Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) tasked the U.S. Secret Service with investigating the activities of German diplomats, aides, and agents. Working in secret in Tacoma, the investigators concluded that Smith was responsible for the Northern Pacific Dock arson and involved in the powder-barge explosion. They decided to let him run, while monitoring his activities.
Meanwhile, other investigators continued collecting evidence against the German spy ring headquartered in San Francisco. In August 1915 federal agents arrested Smith for plotting to dynamite the Port Huron railroad tunnel in Michigan. He agreed to cooperate in return for immunity from prosecution and testified before a federal grand jury in San Francisco concerning German plots to commit acts of sabotage in the United States and Canada.
Smith identified Charles Carlos Crowley, 57, a former special investigator for the U.S. attorney's office in San Francisco and former chief special agent for the Southern Pacific Railway, as the man who ran the spy ring for the German consulate general. On Friday, November 26, 1915, federal investigators arrested Crowley on a complaint charging conspiracy to sabotage vessels within the jurisdiction of the United States and to destroy maritime facilities on the Pacific Coast. The primary overt act in furtherance of the conspiracy was the destruction of the 15 tons of explosives in Seattle the previous May. Additional overt acts included arson on the Northern Pacific Dock in Tacoma and plots to destroy three vessels loading large shipments of war supplies destined for Vladivostok. Crowley was given the opportunity to cooperate with the government, but he rejected the offer.
On December 13, 1915, the federal grand jury indicted Crowley; his assistant, Margaret W. Cornell; and 28-year-old Lieutenant George Wilhelm Von Brincken, the German military attaché in San Francisco, for conspiracy to interfere with and destroy commerce with Great Britain, France, Belgium, and Russia, and using the U.S. mail to incite arson and murder. The indictments were based primarily on the testimony of Louis J. Smith, who had been recruited by Crowley and paid by the German government to carry out various acts of sabotage. Superseding indictments, handed down on February 14 and March 4, 1916, added to the list of defendants Franz Bopp, 53, Imperial German Consul General at San Francisco; Baron Eckhard H. Von Schack, 35, German vice consul; and Johannes H. Van Koolbergen, a soldier of fortune serving a prison sentence in Canada. Several more overt acts in furtherance of the conspiracy were also set out.
On Monday, December 4, 1916, trial commenced in U.S. District Court in San Francisco before Judge William H. Hunt and continued for five weeks. U.S. Attorney John W. Preston had 250 witnesses under subpoena from all parts of the country to give evidence regarding German sabotage, and Louis J. Smith was the government's star witness. The defense admitted that Crowley, Cornell, and Smith had been employed as agents by the German consulate general, but only to investigate neutrality violations, not to commit acts of sabotage. Bopp maintained he had a mandate from the German government to monitor the movement of munitions as well as ships and trains carrying war supplies destined for the Allied forces in Europe.
The trial concluded on Wednesday, January 10, 1917, and at 4 p.m. that day the case was submitted to the jury. After three hours of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict that the defendants were guilty on all counts. On January 22, 1917, Judge Hunt sentenced the German delegation and Charles Crowley to two years imprisonment at the McNeil Island Federal Penitentiary and a $10,000 fine. Cornell was sentenced to serve one year and a day at the women's facility at San Quentin State Penitentiary in California, with no fine. Van Koolbergen, who was convicted in absentia, was already serving a sentence at a penitentiary in New Westminster, Canada, for passport fraud and plotting sabotage against Canadian Pacific Railway facilities.
The conviction in federal court of German Consul General Franz Bopp and his staff was the first time that foreign diplomats were prosecuted and imprisoned for acts of espionage and sabotage on American soil. The United States entered the war as a combatant on April 6, 1917. By the time the armistice of November 11, 1918, ended the war, 116,516 American troops had died (more of influenza than in battle), 204,002 were injured, and 4,432 reported missing in action.