The Spies Among Us
Two years before America entered WWI, a German plot sought to blow up crucial targets in Detroit and Windsor
This month marks the 100th anniversary of America’s entry into World War I on April 6, 1917. But nearly two years earlier, Detroit was the target of a plot to blow up a local manufacturing company plus a railroad tunnel to Canada and several targets in Windsor.
German immigrant and Detroit resident Albert Carl Kaltschmidt organized and paid a small group of fellow immigrants to destroy the Detroit Screw Works, which was manufacturing shrapnel for the Allied troops; the St. Clair Tunnel between Port Huron and Sarnia, Ontario; Peabody Co. in Walkerville, Ontario, which was manufacturing soldiers’ uniforms; and the Windsor Armories in Windsor. Other Windsor companies manufacturing munitions and supplies also were targeted.
Only the Peabody Co. was destroyed on June 21, 1915. Dynamite planted at the Windsor Armories, where Kaltschmidt hoped to kill 100 Canadian soldiers while they slept, failed to detonate.
According to a 1940 Detroit Free Press article looking back on the event (before the U.S. entered the Second World War), the plan was to wreck a gondola inside the tunnel, or “to send an explosive-laden ‘devil car’ into the tunnel ingeniously coasting on roller skates, one of the skates being produced as evidence” in the 1917 trial against Kaltschmidt and his co-defendants.
As for the Detroit Screw Works, “… guards and fences at factories and railroads thwarted most of Kaltschmidt’s daring plans.”
Kaltschmidt was one of a large group of German immigrants that began coming to Detroit in the 1830s. By the 1880s, they accounted for 20 percent of Detroit’s population, according to Detroit in World War I by Elizabeth Clemens. Prior to the war, they were considered “well-assimilated.”
Kaltschmidt certainly seemed comfortable. He immigrated to Detroit before the war began and lived in an apartment at 84 E. Hancock Ave. He was a member of the Detroit Tennis Club and was president of the Marine City Salt Company.
“But,” the Free Press reported, “he kept as a secret, naturally, that as early as 1915, he was busy buying dynamite, cutting it into small pieces, painting it black and tossing it surreptitiously into coal bunkers of vessels in the Detroit River.”
In May 1915, Kaltschmidt met with several German immigrants in the Kresge Building. “He told those assembled that their duty lay in the destruction of munitions destined for the Allies in Europe and asked for their help in blowing up a factory in Detroit,” according to the Historical Dictionary of World War I Intelligence by Nigel West. Kaltschmidt furnished the men with suitcases full of dynamite.
The money Kaltschmidt used to buy the dynamite and to pay the saboteurs came from Count Johann von Bernstorff, German ambassador in Washington, D.C., and Captain Franz von Papen, who later became Adolf Hitler’s vice chancellor.
But authorities had been keeping an eye on the gang for some time. So it didn’t take long for Kaltschmidt and five others to be indicted.
Kaltschmidt was charged with causing “to be set on foot in the United States a military movement against Canada; that he conspired to destroy the Detroit Screw Works and that he conspired to blow up the Grand Trunk tunnel at Port Huron,” according to a 1921 newspaper article.
The trial began Dec. 6, 1917, before federal Judge Arthur J. Tuttle, according to United States District Court for the Eastern District of Michigan: People, Law, and Politics by David Gardner Chardavoyne.
The prosecutor was D.A. John Kinnane. Defense lawyers were former U.S. Sen. John Murtha, Lazarus Davidow, H.W. Bailey, and S. Pointer Bradley. One Free Press article represents the temper of the times. It described Kaltschmidt as “defiantly erect, his face denoting all the veiled insolence and cynical pride of Prussianism. ... His square hewn face, with its huge jaw and tight clamped mouth, its arched nose and sloping brow, and the deep-set eyes, seemed menacing. Even the bulk of his powerful body added to the suggestiveness of his appearance.”
During initial proceedings, Bradley argued that the Civil Court did not have authority to try spies. Wrote Chardavoyne, “Kaltschmidt’s enjoyment of this technical distinction must have been blunted by Bradley’s next words: ‘Since the beginning of the war, spies have been tried in military courts and shot down like dogs.’ ”
The trial dominated newspaper coverage. On Dec. 22, 1917, the jury, after deliberating for 14 hours, convicted all but one defendant. Kaltschmidt was sentenced to four years in the U.S. Penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas, and fined $20,000.
He served only three years, to the disgust of Judge Tuttle, and was deported soon after. Apparently undeterred by his bad history in Detroit, he returned in 1927 for business purposes. He was permitted to stay two months. “At the end of his two months,” the 1940 Free Press article reported, “he did not report. Quicker than you could bat an eye, he was arrested by Government agents and booted out of the country.”