|THE BARONESS AND THE LIEUTENANT:|
|LOVE AND ESPIONAGE IN WAR-TIME CHATTANOOGA, 1917-1918|
|by Dr. James B. Jones, Jr.
Every Day in Tennessee History
Chattanooga was as patriotic as any city in America during World War I.
Citizens made significant sacrifices "to make the world safe for democracy."
Americans were also alert to the presence of spies who could sabotage the
war effort. Congress passed the Espionage Act on June 15, 1917. The law
provided stiff penalties for those found guilty of aiding the German enemy
and increased public rancor toward Germany and all things German.
Anti-German passions were strong in Tennessee. For example, on December 19, 1917, in Chattanooga the famous evangelist Billy Sunday told a standing room only audience about the war: "I know how it will end. I know that God is on our side....not on the side of the Germans...who...perpetrate such crimes as the Germans have on the women of France and Belgium." He was attacked on-stage by three pro-German men "said to be allies of the Hun." There were cries of "'Lynch him,'" but the police arrived to quell a what was becoming a riot. In mid-January, 1918, it was reported in the Chattanooga News that the renowned Dr. Kunwald, director of the Cincinnati Symphony orchestra, had been arrested by military authorities. He was held as a suspect German provocateur at Fort Oglethorpe. In May 1918 the Knoxville school board unanimously voted to remove the study of German language from the public high school curriculum. In August 1918 the Nashville the Tennessean editorialized that the "alliance between the brewers' organization and German-American disloyalty has been the closest...and the interests of the one are the interests of the other. The brewers of this country are almost entirely German or of German parentage..."
It was against this backdrop of anti-German patriotism that an espionage prosecution developed in Chattanooga. The provocative and seductive story of the Baroness and the Lieutenant was played out in Chattanooga and Knoxville in the winter of 1917-1918.
Fort Oglethorpe, just south of Chattanooga, was a major induction and training center, important to the war effort. Any effort to spy upon or disturb the movement of "Sammies" to fight the Kaiser would be considered an act of espionage.
On December 5, 1917, the Baroness Lona Shope Wilhelmina Sutton Zollner of New York City, the spouse of a captain in the German army, stopped in Chattanooga. She was ostensibly on a train trip to Florida. She registered at the Hotel Patten.
She signed the register "Baroness Lona Zollner," making no attempt to conceal her Teutonic ties. As the Chattanooga Daily News put it: "Eyes were turned in her direction whenever she passed through the lobby or sat on the mezzanine."
Soon after the Baroness arrived in Chattanooga, Lieutenant John William Spaulidng, stationed at Fort Oglethorpe and assigned to the Sixth United States Infantry, checked into the same hotel. He became "a frequent visitor in the city." The two even made trips to Fort Oglethorpe so Spaulidng could introduce her to his friends. Their love affair was not unnoticed by either the local constabulary or the U.S. Marshall's Office.
Shortly after midnight on December 13, both the Baroness and Lieutenant J.W. Spaulding were arrested in her room at the Hotel Patten. She was "partly disrobed," while her paramour was discovered "hidden under her bed and only partially clad." The baroness claimed the Lieutenant was her brother. The couple was taken to Judge O.G. Stone at police headquarters and charged with indecent and immoral behavior. They were released on bond.
After her release the baroness registered at the Park hotel. She and Lieutenant Spaulidng planned to continue their liaisons but the baroness was arrested by U.S. marshalls and incarcerated in the Hamilton county jail on December 15. Bond was denied. She was charged with being a dangerous alien who had visited Fort Oglethorpe for an undisclosed but nevertheless "dangerous purpose." United States District Attorney William T. Kennerly, based in Knoxville, had been kept advised of the goings and comings of the baroness by United States Marshal J.R. Thompson. She was to be held until December 22 when she was to be interrogated by United States Commissioner S. J. McAllester. According to the Chattanooga Sunday Times, Kennerly had learned that the baroness "frequently visited the camp at Oglethorpe...danced with the officers and probably has more than one under her spell....other activities...establish proof that she is a dangerous person, which [will be] reveal[ed] at the hearing."
The baroness was "a striking personage...of winning manner and voluptuous figure. She is vivacious, a characteristic that evidenced itself even while under the fire of the examination...." Certainly "she would be able to charm secrets out of army officers or others she might get under her spell." Government officials were quoted as saying: "If this woman has not yet succeeded in wringing information of value from young officers [it is because]...they know nothing or because she does not want to learn them."
She granted an interview to a Daily Times reporter. She was warmed from the chilly jail cell by a handsome set of furs drawn tightly over her shoulders. "Between intermittent sobs she talked freely of the charges against her, hysterically denying any relations with the German government." According to the careworn and fatigued baroness:
My God, the ignominy of this affair....To think I have done everything for my country, and not anything against it....and now I am being held here a prisoner ....This thing will kill me if it injures my dear boy [at Annapolis], for I have nothing to fear myself.
Her personal effects were gathered in the cell. "On a bench was a package of cigarettes and the prisoner smoked as she talked. 'I learned to smoke while in the old country. Society women in New York smoke and we think nothing of indulging. Smoking is very soothing....Before coming to Tennessee I did not know that a 'bone dry' law made the brining of whisky into the state a criminal offense," she said. "We have our wine at home and whisky has been prescribed for me by my physician."
Her interest in Lieutenant Spaulidng was obvious and she made no attempt to conceal her affection for the young soldier. She said "he was a dear, sweet boy, and to safeguard him she gave him a letter in which she asked of the Germans should he fall into their hands, that they at least be kind to him." "'Don't you think it is very cruel,' she asked the reporter, 'to keep me in this dreadful place? My God, boy, do you think if I was guilty of an incriminating act that I would have come to this city and registered in the name of Baroness Zollner?" She agreed that her coming to Chattanooga was very foolish. "'It is true,' she said, 'that my husband...is an officer in the German army.'" At one point in the interview the baroness "reached for a magazine, and a roach ran from under the cover. "'Oh, these horrible bugs,' she exclaimed. 'And to think I must sleep here tonight. This will be impossible!'"
The baroness lived in a restricted zone in Washington, D.C., that was set aside for enemy aliens. Zone residents were under constant surveillance by the Secret Service. The baroness also lived in opulent surroundings on New York City's Madison Avenue. She was born in the United States, and was "apparently supplied with an abundance of money." One of her deceased husbands was a Bavarian baron, hence her title. She lived in England for a number of years, had sailed around the globe, and was the owner of a vast rubber plantation near Singapore.
She continued to insist that the Lieutenant was just a close family friend, but admitted her "partly disrobed" appearance when the hotel detective entered her room. Lieutenant Spaulidng had only come into her room to get an aspirin tablet. "There was nothing unusual about the Lieutenant being in her room" the baroness affirmed. He had proposed marriage to her and he had come to her room to discuss matrimonial matters. They quarreled and she "took a spell with her heart and fell asleep, to be awakened by the house detective. Spaulidng was under the bed, and he had his clothes with him." She explained that he hid under the bed because "he would compromise her if found there at that hour of the night -- it was about 2 [sic] in the morning." Even with such admissions the Baroness "stated that at no time had her conduct been other than that of a lady."
It is doubtful anyone believed her and there was evidence indicating the baroness was a spy. One of her letters was addressed to a Knoxville woman who was married to a “dangerous alien.” Other documents found in her room was apparently in some sort of cipher and seemed to address the sailing times and ports departure of various ships. According to a newspaper report: "The young officer has been under the spell of the woman, or else in reality [is] a friend in the strangest and most mysterious circumstances [known here] for some years." The baroness and the lieutenant had been the objects of a long standing and ongoing investigation for more than a year before their affair was uncovered in Chattanooga. According to the New York Times: "She said she had been investigated at Washington and Annapolis, and was permitted to move about under the known status of an enemy alien."
Baroness Zollner retained local attorney C. C. Abernathy to defend her. His plea for a writ of habeas corpus was buoyed by the news that the baroness had suffered a nervous breakdown. She was now under a physician’s care. Since being confined in the Hamilton County jail cell she slept uncomfortably in a chair, refusing to sleep on the infested prison cot. Her request for a writ of habeas corpus was refused.
In the meantime, Lieutenant Spaulidng was under arrest and confined at Fort Oglethorpe. Federal officers wanted him as a witness at the hearing. Lieutenant Spaulidng was to face a courts-martial for violation of the sixty-first article of war that dealt with personal conduct. "The circumstances of his arrest in Baroness Zollner's room," read an article in the Chattanooga Daily Times "hidden under the bed and only partially clad...will...be investigated even...[if it is] determined that he is innocent of intrigue with an alien enemy."
The hearing on the 22nd lasted eleven hours. Baroness Zollner was called to the stand in a weak condition, and for more than an hour her voice was barely audible. As the inquiry moved forward she grew spirited. Kennerly charged that she was an enemy alien because of her two marriages to German army officer Major von Kolberg, whom she divorced due to his "disgrace because of his degeneracy" and to Captain Zollner. She was introduced to the German General Staff as a consequence of her marriage to von Kolberg. Worse than that, she had been presented to the Kaiser and the Kaiserin. Kennerly disclosed that she had made the acquaintances of prominent officials in the German and American armies, and a U.S. Representative and officials of the bureau of inspection. It did not look good for the baroness.
Adding to the intrigue of her drama was testimony concerning her visits to Monte Carlo, Nice, Jahore, and ownership of vast property holdings in Maylasia. Light was shed on her influence with British Major General Sir Alfred Turner. In 1914 she persuaded Turner to release Captain Zollner from a prison camp. She told of the captain's subsequent movements from England to America to Germany. Before American entry into the war she accompanied and coached Baron Von Loevenfeldt who, was on an American speaking tour at Andrew Carnegie's invitation.
The baroness testified that she helped Spaulidng pass his qualifying examination for officer's candidate school. They met at Annapolis, Maryland, in late 1916. He would be dismissed from the Naval Academy in February 1917. She advanced Spaulidng money for lodging and railroad tickets. They met on a number of occasions at Ocean Shores, N.J., and Washington, D.C. The beleaguered, badgered, besieged, buffeted and bothered Baroness was in to Washington on several occasions to see Spaulidng after he attained his lieutenancy. Kennerly delved deeper into her rendezvous with Spaulidng at the Patten hotel. She maintained that at "no time had her conduct been other than that of a lady."
The United States District Attorney honed in on her recent liaisons with the lieutenant:
Do you mean to say that you have had no immoral relations with Spaulidng?/I have not./He was found in your room wasn't he?/He was./He was disrobed, was he not? and you were only partly dressed. How do you explain that?/I had quarreled with Mr. Spaulidng and he returned to my room when I was in the act of retiring. He stated that he was going to stay all night. I told him he had better not. I was stricken with one of my spells, and laid down dressed as I was. I was awakened by a knock on the door. Lieutenant Spaulidng was still in the room./You stated that you knew nothing of Mr. Spaulidng undressing?/No./You knew he intended staying all night?/Yes./You didn't put him out, did you?/No./You say you have no recollection of what he had on, but you remember that you both dressed so you could be taken to police headquarters?/Yes./He spoke to you in endearing tones, did he not, saying: "When are you going to get your divorce, dearie?"/I do not remember.
The only mention of the words "German spy," came in a telegram from federal operatives in Boston. Spectators were aghast. The telegram indicated the Baroness's sister-in-law claimed her husband knew his sister, the baroness, was a spy and that he himself had furnished her with information from a cantonment in Massachusetts.
The baroness explained that her reproachful brother was an alcoholic. She had refused to continue subsidizing his drug dependency and refused to aid her brother's former wife, whom he divorced because of her own impecunious condition. Her ex-sister-in-law, explained the baroness, was motivated by spite and revenge.
The prosecution endeavored then to show that the baroness's friendship with military and government officials was for the purpose of furthering her "activities as a servant of the German government." She was a dangerous enemy alien required to inform intelligence services of her whereabouts or lose her freedom to travel. While she had permission to visit Chattanooga, she had no permission to visit Fort Oglethorpe. She admitted going to the fort twice. This was the only tangible evidence of any possible violation of the Espionage Act. Julian B. Shope, the New York lawyer, and brother of Charles Warren Shope, Baroness Zollner's first husband, testified as to her good character. When the proceedings recessed the baroness was taken back to her cell. Her only visitor was her son. The inquiry continued on Christmas Eve Day.
In court the next day Kennerly introduced new evidence, letters between Bedford Shope and his mother. One "letter described the rough roads to and from Fort Oglethorpe, the 'abysmal topography' of the land contiguous to the cantonment, and their 'rough huts' erected for the soldiers with their small iron bed furnishings." Kennerly seemed to be stretching his point that this was concrete evidence of her guilt as a spy.
Other information gleaned from the hearing was sensational. Attorney Abernathy attributed the baroness's transgressions to Lieutenant Spaulidng, a "fool boy" who was madly infatuated with her. "Love is blind" he told the court. Even though she was 44 and he was 22, no one could say that they did not love each other. It was Spaulidng who was responsible for the woman's humiliation, for the complex situation she found herself in in Chattanooga. The defense concluded noting that the baroness had a little daughter, Nonie, back in New York who missed her mother. Abernathy's courtroom voice was so overcome with pity that "he stopped off short and tears appeared in the eyes of the defendant."
Composing himself, the defense attorney narrated the permutations of her life. Born the daughter of an eccentric german-millionaire, Wilhlem Pickhardt, in New York City, whose $3,000,000 brown stone mansion at the corner of Seventy-fourth and Madison in New York ("Pickhardt's Folly") had been demolished to make way for a business building. She owned real estate all over the globe, was a world traveler, had married five times, had won the trust of high level officials in Germany, England and America, and she was related to the Roosevelt family by marriage. She was pro-ally. In 1916, for example, the baroness gave an entertainment in New York for the benefit the orphans of French soldiers. She vigorously denied the charges of espionage.
Lieutenant Spaulidng was the next witness. He testified that he loved the baroness and believed she loved him too. He acknowledged that he had given her a code to enable her to keep up with his movements should he ship out, but it was the same code he gave his sister in Kansas. He wanted to marry the baroness. He acknowledged having urged her to come to Chattanooga to be beside him because he was "'proud' to have others see her with him." During Kennerly's cross-examination of Spaulidng it was learned that the baroness was prone to having "melancholy spells" in which she had attempted suicide. Aside from his love for the baroness Spaulidng had more mercenary motivations, as Kennerly demonstrated:
You contemplated marrying the baroness to get possession of her rubber estate, didn't you? /I did sir. I was going to be her manager. She offered me the position./When the house detective knocked on the baroness's door at the Hotel Patten, where were you?'/I don't know. Under the bed, I think./Were you on the bed before hand?/I was, sir. Reclining there./Who got off the bed first. You or the baroness?/I did, sir./What did you do?/I tried to find a place to hide, sir. The courtroom reverberated with laughter.
After the court recessed Commissioner McAllester held that probable cause had been demonstrated. The baroness was held to the federal grand jury without bail in the Hamilton count jail. There she remained incarcerated. On New Year's Day, 1918, Judge Edward T. Sanford of the United States district court in Knoxville granted a hearing of the writ of habeas corpus after hearing her plea for bail on the 16th. Meanwhile the press in Knoxville was familiarizing the public with the baroness. The Knoxville Journal and Tribune, for example, reported the baroness was suffering not only from a nervous breakdown but also with a severe sore throat. Late on January 7 it was announced that the baroness's health was ebbing. The attending physician recommended that she be allowed immediately to leave the jail cell "or the result will be fatal." C. C. Abernathy claimed that her condition greatly had been impaired and she was worsening every day.
As the bond hearing approached the baroness was moved to Knoxville. The effect of the long confinement in the Hamilton county jail was perceptible. Her appearance was careworn and gaunt. "She stated that her imprisonment" the Chattanooga News reported "on account of its absolute injustice had seriously impaired her health and from an apparently strong vivacious woman she has changed to a thin and weak one." The distracted baroness was incapable of speaking above a whisper because of her laryngitis. In the Knox county jail she conversed with newspaper reporters and smoked cigarettes "to steady her nerves." She was courteous to visitors and congenial in her rasping speech. She claimed confinement in jail was the cause of her nervous breakdown. "She said she felt badly unnerved and requested...a nurse or some good companion with whom she could talk and who would cheer her in her depression." Both of her sons were in Knoxville to support their mother. Reports said that Attorney Kennerly would introduce new evidence to question the 100% Americanism of her sons, especially the midshipman, Beresford Shope.
Many female Knoxvillians were curious about the notable baroness. For example, the police were called out to disperse "a crowd of more than 200 persons who congregated...outside of a restaurant in which the baroness was eating." Policemen had to clear a path through the crowd to the taxi which was to take her to the county jail. "No malice was manifested against the titled prisoner, the crowd being intent only upon seeing her." Future incidents involving hostile women would accent the bond hearing. At the hearing it was revealed that authorities had confiscated a letter written by Beresford Shope the night of his graduation from the U.S. Naval Academy preparatory school. In it he stated that he visited a senior German-American citizen in Annapolis who ran a curio shop. From the elderly man he learned the German national anthem. Even more damning was his statement he was very proud to have learned to sing "the Prussian battle song." Still more shocking as it was ridiculous was the report that "[f]rom the early hours of night until the wee small hours of morning did young...[Shope] sing 'Deutschland Uber Alles.'"
At a few minutes after 9:00 A.M. on the 16th Baroness Zollner took her seat at the bond bail hearing. She appeared well composed when she entered the court room, but her hand twitched as she took the oath. District Attorney Kennerly asked Judge Sanford to clear the standing-room-only courtroom of all spectators and witnesses. The crowd of spectators, mostly women, who Madame La Farge-like had brought their knitting, were annoyed. According to the Knoxville Journal and Tribune: "The large number of society women seemed especially disappointed at not being allowed to remain and hear the evidence, and many of them waited outside the doors for hours hoping to get another glimpse at the baroness, whose...auburn hair seemed to be the center of attraction." Spaulidng was not brought to the hearing.
There followed the by now hackneyed reiteration of her arrest in the hotel room with the lieutenant. She admitted having been in touch with Captain Zollner at least 15 times since he rejoined the German army in 1914. She received thirty-six letters from him since that time. Still the baroness proclaimed her complete loyalty to President Wilson and stoutly maintained that she was innocent of any violation of the Espionage Act. Judge Sanford recessed the court until 2:30.
But the court did not resume because the Baroness was released unexpectedly on $2,500 bond. Judge Sanford ruled that the personal letters introduced as evidence were titillating and provocative but they but were immaterial to the bail-bond case. Thus he had no recourse but to grant her bail.
Conditions placed upon the release of the Baroness Zollner agreed to refrain from communicating with American military personnel and anyone in Austria and Germany for the duration of the war. The only exception was her son at the Naval Academy. She must live at her New York Madison Avenue address and to notify District Attorney Kennerly of her whereabouts and actions twice each week. She was not excused from her espionage trial to be held later in Chattanooga. The baroness and her two sons left soon thereafter for Chattanooga.
Once back in Chattanooga, the Baroness Wilhelmina W. Sutton Zollner was "radiantly happy, and very exuberant." According to one newspaper report "Gone were the signs of the imprisoned woman, overshadowed by the accusation of German spy....Youthfulness...and charm returned...." The baroness harbored no acrimony, saying: "I cannot express my gratitude nor my appreciation of the splendid treatment I have received....I...shall never forget those who have been good to me, kind to me." She left Chattanooga the January 21. Baroness Zollner never did stand trial. The evidence was circumstantial.
While the baroness enjoyed her freedom at her 780 Madison Avenue address in New York her worst fear was realized -- her son Beresford Shope was forced to resign from the Naval Academy. According to the New York Times he resigned "on account of letters written to his mother...showing he was in sympathy with pro-German views." Baroness Zollner remained under close federal observation and probably lived up to the conditions of her bond. Lieutenant Spaulidng was courts martialed, found innocent, served in Europe, was promoted to Captain, and settled later in Kansas where he served with the National Guard.
If the baroness was a spy she was hardly a Matta Hari. The young lieutenant could scarcely be considered a fountainhead of military secrets the German enemy might covet. Most likely the two were in love, but it was a love destined to unravel in the intense anti-German climate of opinion in America. Information on the fate of the baroness and the lieutenant in the post-war world is sketchy at best, but if there were further intimacies it is doubtful they took place in Chattanooga.
© 1999 by Dr. James B. Jones, Jr., All rights in the above article are
No portion may be reproduced in any form without the express permission of the author.