The Harding Affair
Love and Espionage During the Great War
By James David Robenalt
Palgrave Macmillan Copyright © 2009 James David Robenalt
All rights reserved.
Espionage in Chattanooga
The plainclothes night watchman for the hotel, Thomas Stiff, knocked on the door.
He heard shuffling inside, and then it grew quiet. The door slowly opened and a woman in her middle years with thick auburn hair, swept back, gave him an imperious stare. Her eyes were piercing, and her manner suggested irritation. She was full figured and only partly dressed. Stiff considered her "disrobed." He knew from hotel records that she claimed the title baroness.
Stiff was accompanied by Officer D. G. Grant of the Chattanooga police department. Stiff called Grant to join his investigation when he found that an army lieutenant was not in the room in which he was registered for a second night in a row. Suspicious, Stiff and Grant stood outside the baroness's room, looking past her to try to see what was going on inside. The time was just after one in the morning, on December 13, 1917. Stiff had seen the lieutenant leaving the baroness's room the night before. "At least I thought it was him," Stiff would later testify. When he checked the lieutenant's room between nine and ten o'clock that evening, the lieutenant was there, but when he returned after midnight, he could not raise the man. He entered his room and discovered his army overcoat, but there was no sign of the lieutenant.
Although they lacked a warrant, Stiff and Grant brushed past the baroness and spotted the lieutenant under the bed, wearing his one-piece underwear. Slowly he emerged. He was young looking and could have been the baroness's son. Either the baroness or the lieutenant said they wanted to keep this thing quiet. Stiff asked the lieutenant who he was and what he was doing in the baroness's room. "This is my brother," she interrupted, shushing the young man.
"Funny your brother is in your room at this time of night," Stiff said with a sneer. Grant sniggered. Then Stiff grew serious. "You should consider yourself under arrest."
The lieutenant confessed he was not her brother. He did expect to marry the baroness, though, as soon as she received her divorce from her third husband. Stiff looked at them: The lieutenant was clearly half her age, and although she appeared in her early forties, she exuded a powerful sexual attractiveness. The lieutenant, however, looked like a boy off a Kansas farm. The young man asked Stiff if there was anything he could do to avoid going down to police headquarters. The night watchman said there was nothing he could do and told them to get dressed. The next morning, the baroness and the lieutenant were arraigned on charges of vagrancy.
She should have left town, but a local lawyer encouraged her to stay to try to control any newspaper story that might appear and to help the lieutenant fight any repercussions at the army base where he was stationed. In hindsight, it was some of the worst legal advice given in the history of Chattanooga because another arrest awaited the baroness. This time the charge would be espionage.
The American Protective League and Love Tricks of Women Spies
The arrest of Baroness Iona Zollner on charges that she was aiding and abetting the enemy in a time of war by extracting classified military information from an unsuspecting army lieutenant made national headlines. "Baroness Iona Zollner of New York, wife of a German army officer serving on the Flanders front, was held without bail for the Federal Grand Jury here today on the charge of violating the espionage act," the New York Times reported on December 25, 1917.
A month and a half later, the Cleveland Plain Dealer ran an article in its Sunday magazine entitled "Love Tricks of a Woman Spy." A fetching photo of the baroness appeared above the caption "Baroness Iona Zollner, arrested in the presence of an Army officer, and interned after the discovery of a secret code book and letters." She was described physically as "a beautiful brunette, at the most dangerous age in life—the ripe, full-blown era of 35, when women no longer wonder at the mysteries of life, and only long to defer the inevitable day when they will become memories." Her story was used as an example of how women spies had become an alarming force in a war where American loyalties were sharply divided. German Americans in particular were torn between love of their native homeland and loyalty to their adopted country. "In every great hotel in America, where the wealth, the fashion and the soldier blood of the particular locality come for display and for recreation, the great secret force of Wilhelmstrasse has its woman on guard."
"In war," the article warned, "the female of the species is more deadly than the male."
The baroness had been arrested near a sprawling army mobilization camp named Fort Oglethorpe just outside Chattanooga. She was not a German by birth but the daughter of a German American, described in the paper as Wilhelm Pickhardt, a New York millionaire. The paper reported that the baroness, a woman of multiple marriages, "by the travesty of fate" had a son by her first husband who was a cadet at the United States Naval Academy.
Wilhelm Pickhardt? That name sounded familiar to the postmaster in Marion, Ohio, a man named Frank Campbell, and he began to put things together. Pickhardt was an unusual name and Campbell had been intercepting and tracking mail between a Navy lieutenant named Adolf Pickhardt and a young woman in Marion named Isabelle Phillips, the daughter of Carrie and Jim Phillips, prominent Marion residents. "We have in our files tracings of his hand-writing secured from envelopes of the numerous letters received from him by Miss Phillips," Campbell wrote. Perhaps this Lieutenant Pickhardt was related to the baroness: a brother, a son, or a cousin?
It all seemed to fit. The Phillipses were known to be thoroughly pro-German. Carrie and Isabelle had spent a number of years living in Berlin just before the outbreak of hostilities. And Frank Campbell knew that Carrie Phillips had a secret connection to Marion's most prominent citizen, Senator Warren G. Harding. Campbell's antennae were up.
Campbell reported his suspicions of the connection between the baroness and the Phillipses to federal authorities and to a man named Asa Queen, the local chief of the American Protective League (APL) in Marion. The APL was a vigilante group of men who were leading citizens in their cities and towns across the United States, organized to support the Department of Justice and its understaffed Bureau of Investigation (later known as the Federal Bureau of Investigation) when the nation was drawn into the war in the spring of 1917. At the end of 1914, the Bureau of Investigation had only 122 agents and the Secret Service had just 50. The APL was a volunteer police force that sprang up literally overnight just after war was declared, made up of patriotic citizens, mostly entrenched businessmen who did not serve in the military. "They were the best men of the city," Emerson Hough, the official biographer and apologist of the APL, wrote in 1919 at war's end. "They worked for principle, not for any excitement, nor in any vanity, not for any pay....They were all good men, big men, brave and able, else they would have failed, and else this organization never could have grown." They carried badges. The official letterhead of the APL stated: "Organized with the Approval and Operating under the Direction of the United States Department of Justice, Bureau of Investigation." The APL started with one purpose: to ferret out German spies and saboteurs and those who would commit treason. "League members liked to refer to their organization as a web spun to entrap German spies," one historian has written.
At its peak, the APL had over 250,000 members in 600 cities. The fact that Marion, Ohio, a town of 12,000, had a branch of the APL, and a "chief" of that branch, attests to its pervasiveness. APL agents were officially prohibited by the Department of Justice and the Bureau of Investigation from exercising police power, but they routinely stopped, questioned, and frequently arrested fellow citizens suspected of disloyalty. They broke into homes, offices, and hotels; intercepted mail; and listened in on telephone calls. As with any such loosely defined group, their mission was murky and at times the goals shifted. They began to harass labor organizations, such as the International Workers of the World (the Wobblies). Leaguers illegally detained "slackers" (draft dodgers), assisting in the arrest of an estimated 50,000 men from the streets of New York City and nearby communities over a couple of days in September 1918.
Postmaster Campbell placed a call to the Post Office Inspector in Cincinnati on the afternoon of Wednesday, February 13, 1918. He told the inspector that he had uncovered a hastily planned trip by Jim Phillips and his daughter, Isabelle, to travel by train that afternoon south to Cincinnati and then to Lexington, Kentucky. Campbell thought the two were en route to Chattanooga to see Baroness Zollner in her jail cell and asked that they be followed. The Post Office Inspector brought in the local office of the Bureau of Investigation. What was the reason for Campbell's communication? Due to concerns that had been circulating since the summer of 1917, the Phillipses were already on a watch list maintained by the APL's national office in Washington, D.C. The Marion division of the APL had conducted its initial investigation into the family after a request, dated January 14, 1918, from Charles D. Frey, the APL's national director. The preliminary finding of the Marion APL branch was shocking:
Since [Frey's January 14 letter] we have concentrated considerable effort toward securing evidence against these parties. The Captain of the Merchants Division in our organization was detailed on the case and we are now convinced that these parties are German spies and they are receiving money from the German Government. We believe this to be an extremely serious case, and one that demands the services of the strongest secret services detective you have to wind it up.
It would take a few more reports, but eventually cooperating agents of the Bureau of Investigation would uncover what they believed to be an even greater threat to national security. It was common gossip in Marion, Bureau Agent Howard Stern found out in detailed interviews in Marion in March 1918, that Senator Warren G. Harding was having an affair with Carrie Phillips, Isabelle's mother. "In fact, it seems to be open and notoriously known, as stated by different citizens of Marion, that whenever Mr. Phillips leaves town that Senator Harding is always in Marion," Stern wrote.
How had this state of affairs arisen? What was the relationship between the senator from Ohio, a man who would be elected president of the United States, and his neighbor, whom fellow citizens had concluded was a German spy?
Letters discovered in October 1963 but placed under seal in the Library of Congress provide many of the answers.
"The Sweetest, Dearest Little Brother You Ever Saw"
In some ways, Warren G. Harding seemed like the most unlikely person to become enmeshed in an extramarital relationship. Certainly there was little in his background to foreshadow it.
Harding came from a big family, stable and loving, one that was strongly grounded in an evangelical Christian faith. His mother and father were a good match. Warren was the oldest of eight children (two of his siblings would die on the same day in childhood), and he was so close to his mother that, even as an adult, he delivered flowers to her every Sunday, whether or not he was in town.
His parents, George and Phoebe, met as children and fell in love as teenagers. In May 1864, at the height of the Civil War, they eloped when they were not yet in their twenties. Just before George Tryon Harding enlisted in the Army as a musician drummer boy, he and Phoebe Dickerson, the youngest of nine children (eight of them girls), hitched up horses to his wagon and drove to nearby Galion, Ohio, with one of Phoebe's older sisters as a witness, and secretly married. No one told their parents. At nineteen, Tryon, or Try as he liked to be called, joined the 136th Ohio National Guard Infantry under a three-month enlistment and went off to war. Phoebe returned to her parents. The marriage came to light several months later, when Try contracted typhoid fever just as his regiment was returning to Ohio. When Phoebe demanded to be by his side, her father insisted on an explanation, and she told the truth.
According to a story he often repeated, Try met Abraham Lincoln in the White House before returning to Ohio, calling on the president with a few fellow soldiers to pay their respects. As Try recalled it, after an hour wait, Lincoln appeared. Try announced that he and his friends were boys from the Buckeye State who wanted a glimpse of him so they could tell the folks back home they had seen the president of the United States. Lincoln thanked them for their service and said, "The Buckeye State has been loyal to me, and I certainly appreciate it." Try noticed the enormity of Lincoln's hands. "The President took the right hand of each of [us] in turn between his two hands in greeting [us]," he told the editor of the Ohio History journal years later. Lincoln excused himself due to the press of business but said as he departed, "And now you can tell your people at home that you have seen the handsomest man in the United States."
Although he eventually recovered from typhoid, Try was discharged as a convalescent with a certificate of disability. He took Phoebe to a rough five-room frontier farmhouse that had been built by his great-great-grandfather in Blooming Grove, Ohio, some miles outside Marion. Blooming Grove is the locale where one of Harding's ancestors allegedly married an African American woman. The rumors never could be substantiated.
Try Harding was a complex but contented man. He would say that the family's homes, though humble, were always "full of love, sunshine and gladness." (Continues...)
Excerpted from The Harding Affair by James David Robenalt. Copyright © 2009 James David Robenalt. Excerpted by permission of Palgrave Macmillan.
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