The Army Lawyer | Issue 1 2022View PDF
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While many readers will have heard of Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl, who was court-martialed for desertion and misbehavior before the enemy in Afghanistan,2 few know about the court-martial of a Soldier with a strikingly similar surname—Grover C. Bergdoll. What follows is the story of why this Bergdoll (apparently no kin to Bergdahl) was court-martialed not once, but twice for desertion in World War I—a unique prosecution that lasted twenty years and cost millions of dollars.

Born to a wealthy family in Philadelphia in 1893, Grover Cleveland Bergdoll3 was the youngest of five children; he had one sister and three brothers. The source of the Bergdoll fortune was beer, and the huge Bergdoll Brewery made thousands and thousands of dollars by providing beer to some 1,400 taverns and saloons in Pennsylvania.4

To say that Grover was a spoiled brat is an understatement. After his father died when he was three years old, his mother, Emma Bergdoll, took over the business. She bought her youngest son whatever he wanted and spent thousands of dollars on racing automobiles, which Grover raced with his brother, Erwin. In 1912, she also gave Grover the money to purchase a Wright Brothers biplane. At the controls of this contraption, Grover “terrorized the Philadelphia community . . . dive-bombing roof tops, racing locomotives, and chasing frightened bathers down the beaches of Atlantic City.”5

When the United States declared war on Germany in April 1917, Grover Cleveland Bergdoll was one of the first young men to register for the newly-instituted draft. On 15 August 1917, he received a notice from the Army that he was to report for a physical examination. But Bergdoll’s mother had been born in Germany and maintained close ties with her native country. Consequently, she convinced Grover—or he allowed himself to be persuaded—that he should not report for his draft physical.6

As the war got underway, anti-German sentiment increased greatly. High schools stopped teaching the German language.7 Richard Wagner’s music was no longer performed. Dachshunds were now called “liberty puppies.”8 German measles were “liberty measles.”9 Sauerkraut was “liberty cabbage.”10 While as many as 160,000 young men ultimately would evade conscription, Bergdoll’s wealth and German heritage made him stand out as a “draft dodger.” When his mother offered the head of the local draft board $1,000 if he would exempt her son from the draft, the situation only got worse for Grover.11 Later, when Grover disappeared from public view, his mother falsely informed the local media that he had fled to Mexico and was on his way to Spain. In fact, Bergdoll had not left the country, but was living part of the time in a house in Maryland.

Emma Bergdoll’s public pronouncements did have one important result: agents with the Department of Justice12 now began searching for Grover and, in July 1918, the U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania printed posters announcing that Grover was “Wanted” as a “serious offender against the laws of the United States” and calling upon members of the public to aid law enforcement in apprehending him.13

While the U.S. authorities tried to find Bergdoll, they were unable to locate him until January 1920 when a raid on the family home in Philadelphia revealed that Grover Bergdoll had been hiding there for months. He was taken into custody by the police and turned over to military authorities.14

Imprisoned in a cell in Castle William on Governor’s Island, New York, Bergdoll’s general court-martial for desertion under the 58th Article of War began on 4 March 1920. The government’s theory was that it had in personam jurisdiction because, when the Army’s Adjutant General notified Bergdoll that he must report for his physical examination, he “was automatically inducted” when he failed to report for that exam. He also had failed to return a questionnaire to the Army as required by the Selective Service Act, and this was a second basis for Bergdoll’s automatic induction into the Army.15

While one might think that this was a tenuous basis for court-martial jurisdiction, the trial judge advocate, Lieutenant Colonel Charles C. Cresson, insisted that it was sufficient. Bergdoll’s two civilian attorneys, Harry Weinberger and D. Clarence Gibboney, attempted to quash the court-martial’s jurisdiction by filing a writ of habeas corpus in U.S. District Court, but the federal judge dismissed the writ. Bergdoll’s general court-martial for desertion would proceed.16

With jurisdiction established, the outcome was not surprising. Bergdoll was found guilty of desertion and sentenced to five years’ confinement at hard labor. His punishment also included forfeiture of all pay and allowances and a dishonorable discharge.17

Now confined at Fort Jay on Governor’s Island, Bergdoll hatched an escape plan that seems farfetched today but apparently was not so viewed in 1920. He hired Brigadier General Samuel T. Ansell, who had served as Acting Judge Advocate General in World War I, to assist in working for his “release” from prison. While presumably this meant that Ansell would work to have Grover’s court-martial conviction reversed or set aside, Ansell also wrote a letter to Major General P.C. Harris, the Army Adjutant General, in which he asked Harris to permit Bergdoll to leave confinement for a most curious reason: to recover $105,000 in gold coins.18

In an 11 May 1920 letter to Harris, Ansell explained that his client had buried these coins in “a metallic container” in “lonely spot on a mountainside.”19 Bergdoll was now very much afraid that someone would find this treasure and steal it from him. Consequently, Ansell requested that Bergdoll be permitted to leave Fort Jay to recover these gold coins, after which he would promptly return to prison.20

Amazingly, the War Department granted the request that Bergdoll be let out of his cell in Castle William to dig up the buried gold. Although Ansell and his law partner, Colonel Edward S. Bailey, had promised that one of them would accompany Bergdoll and his military guard, the two former Army lawyers decided at the last minute that they were too busy to join Bergdoll. As a result, on 20 May 1920, Grover Bergdoll left his prison cell in the company of two sergeants. The two noncommissioned officers were instructed to escort Bergdoll “somewhere” and then bring him back. When the two sergeants suggested that Bergdoll should be handcuffed while in their custody, they were told that there would be no handcuffs as these might “humiliate the prisoner.”21

Bergdoll never went to Maryland to dig up buried gold. Instead, the next day, he slipped away from his two guards and escaped. Despite a frantic search by local, state, and federal authorities, Bergdoll could not be found. While there was a report that he had disguised himself by dressing as a woman, and might have fled to Canada, the truth was that Bergdoll managed to board a passenger ship to Liverpool, England. After a few days in London, he crossed the English Channel and took the train to Germany, where he arrived on 24 July 1920.22

Bergdoll now set up house in a hotel in the village of Eberbach, located on the edge of the Black Forest. He chose Eberbach because it was his mother’s hometown, and Emma still had many relatives in the town. Grover’s “easy smile, firm handshake, and ready use of the German language”—he was fluent—quickly made him a local hero.23 He was, in the view of the residents of Eberbach, a “wronged martyr” who deserved their protection.24

Bergdoll claimed to have $105,000 in U.S. $20 gold coins. (Photo courtesy of author)

If Bergdoll thought he could live a peaceful life in an idyllic village, he was mistaken. On the evening of 26 January 1921, six men in an automobile came to a stop next to the car in which Bergdoll was a passenger. The men got out of their vehicle. Then, the individual nearest Grover pointed a revolver into the window of Bergdoll’s car and aimed at Bergdoll’s head. The man ordered Bergdoll to turn off the car’s engine or he would shoot him dead. Grover, however, had other plans. He lunged at the gunman, and shoved the weapon away. At the same time, the driver of Bergdoll’s vehicle stepped on the gas pedal and the car sped away. The gunman fired at the fleeing Bergdoll but missed him. A young woman who had just been married, however, was shot in the arm.25

Local authorities quickly captured the assailants. Two were Americans, and one of them was an Army sergeant assigned to the American occupation forces in Koblenz, located some 200 miles away. The other four were Germans who had been hired by the Americans to kidnap Bergdoll, bring him across the Rhine into the U.S.-occupied territory, and turn him over to American authorities there. Presumably, Bergdoll would be returned to U.S. soil to stand trial. The plan to bring Bergdoll to justice, however, now triggered an international incident. United States citizens had entered Germany, committed the crimes of attempted kidnapping and aggravated assault, and wounded an innocent woman on her wedding day. Major General Henry T. Allen, the commander of U.S. forces in Koblenz, immediately apologized for the attack and insisted that the American government had nothing to do with it.26

A little more than two years later, Bergdoll’s freedom was again in jeopardy when Army Lieutenant Corliss H. Griffis arrived by ship in France and then traveled to Germany. The purpose of Griffis’s trip: kidnap Bergdoll and return him to the United States for punishment. As Griffis later explained, he was outraged that Bergdoll “was living on the fat of the land while hundreds of American soldiers were lying under crosses” in cemeteries in France.27 To carry out his plot, Griffis hired a car and driver, as well as a Swiss citizen named Karl Schmidt who had been employed in a Paris detective agency. But the Griffis plan went awry, too. On 11 August 1923, when Schmidt and an accomplice named Sperber broke into Bergdoll’s hotel room to kidnap him, Bergdoll fought back. He bit Sperber’s thumb off of his hand and then managed to reach for a pistol—and put a bullet in Schmidt, who died moments later.28 Lieutenant Griffis would later be tried by the German authorities for attempted kidnapping and breach of the peace. He insisted that Bergdoll had “insulted America, and it was every American’s duty to punish him.”29 The German judge hearing the case was not persuaded. He found Griffis guilty and sentenced him to eighteen months’ imprisonment.30

Attorney Harry Weinberger represented Bergdoll at this second trial by courts-martial. After the proceedings were over, Weinberger sued Bergdoll for failing to pay him his $75,000 legal fee. In this 15 April 1940 photograph, Bergdoll (right, in dark coat) leaves the Supreme Court in New York City, where he had appeared to answer Weinberger’s lawsuit. (Photo courtesy of author)

Bergdoll now settled into a quieter existence. He married a local woman, Berta. His first child, a boy named Alfred, was born in July 1927. The following year, Grover and Berta had a second child, whom they named Emma (after Grover’s mother). While apparently happy in Germany, Grover decided that he should return to America in June 1929. It seems that he was worried about the state of the economy, and the increasingly speculative New York Stock Exchange. Consequently, Bergdoll decided it was time to slip back into the United States to collect the $105,000 in gold coins that he had hidden—not in the ground, but in his home in Philadelphia. It had been nearly ten years since Bergdoll had been in the United States.31

Berta and the two children sailed directly to the United States from Germany. Grover, however, took a more circuitous route. Under an alias, he traveled first to Montreal before taking the train to New York City and then Philadelphia. Since he was using an alias—and since his face no longer appeared in newspapers—no one recognized him.32

Once home, Bergdoll quickly located the gold coins, which were “in a closet on top in the wall and which was cemented shut.”33 After using an axe to break through the cement, Grover gathered up the gold. But life in Philadelphia was difficult; Bergdoll was afraid to be seen in public. As a result, he hid in the home for the next four years; only Berta and his children ventured outside. In 1934, with Berta’s visa now expired (she was still a German citizen), the Bergdoll family decided that they all should return to Eberbach. Shortly after arriving in Germany, Berta gave birth to a fourth child (she and Grover had had a third child while in Philadelphia).34

Germany had changed for the worse during the Bergdolls’ absence. Adolf Hitler and the National Socialists had come to power, and Grover quickly decided that the Nazis were not to his liking. On the contrary, Bergdoll was now convinced that he wanted his children to grow up “in the freedom of America.”35 Berta returned to the United States—alone—to advocate for clemency for her husband. Bergdoll himself wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, requesting that he be given lenient treatment. The answer from Roosevelt’s Attorney General, however, was: “No Clemency.”36 Bergdoll would have to return to U.S. soil and take his chances.37 Rather than making an open and public return, however, Bergdoll decided once more to secretly enter the United States. In late 1935, using yet another alias, he traveled from Germany to England, and then took a ship from Southampton to Quebec. After arriving by train in Philadelphia, Grover Bergdoll went into hiding once again at his family home in Philadelphia.38

Three years later, in 1938, Bergdoll finally realized that if he were ever to have any freedom, he would have to surrender to the U.S. authorities. But he had to return to Germany so that he could legally enter the United States under his own name. As it was, he was in the United States on a false passport and a false identity. Consequently, Bergdoll returned to Germany in late 1938.39

In January 1939, Bergdoll’s attorney notified the U.S. Secretary of State that his return to America was imminent and that he intended to surrender. In April, as Bergdoll’s lawyer was requesting guidance from the Army as to how and where Bergdoll should surrender, events took an unexpected course: Congressman Forrest A. Harness introduced a bill in the House that would preclude “any person convicted of desertion . . . who has heretofore proceeded to a foreign country to escape punishment” from being admitted to the United States.40 The import of this bill was clear to all: were it to be enacted, Bergdoll could never return to American soil.41

While some commentators—and Bergdoll’s attorney—insisted that this legislation was ill-advised, if not unconstitutional, Harness’s bill unanimously passed the House on 15 May 1939. For Grover, time was now very much of the essence. On 25 May, the same day that Harness’s legislation reached the U.S. Senate, Bergdoll arrived in New York City as a passenger on the German liner S.S. Bremen. He was immediately taken into custody.

On 5 October 1939, a thirteen officer court-martial panel found Bergdoll guilty of desertion in time of war. He was sentenced to three years’ confinement at hard labor and a dishonorable discharge. The entire trial had taken only three hours.42

Bergdoll was transferred from a cell on Governor’s Island to the prison at Leavenworth, Kansas. While confined there, and after the United States entered World War II, Bergdoll offered to enlist in the Army Air Forces. He almost certainly thought that his prior experience as a pilot might make him useful to the war effort. Not surprisingly, however, Bergdoll’s offer to serve was refused.43

Grover Cleveland Bergdoll was released from prison on 7 February 1944. He and Berta and their children lived for a time on a 260-acre farm near Philadelphia. Within a matter of months, however, Bergdoll suffered a mental breakdown. Berta sold the farm, and the family moved to Virginia. In 1962, Grover was committed to the Westbrook Psychiatric Hospital in Richmond, Virginia. He died there of “chronic degenerative brain disease” on 27 January 1962.44 He was 68 years old.

So ends the remarkable story of the Soldier who was twice convicted of desertion during World War I. Emma Bergdoll, who perhaps loved her son too much and had provided the financial means for him to have a life in Germany, lived to see Grover released from prison. But she died only a few months later. And the Bergdoll fortune? It was gone. Prohibition had ended the days of the Bergdoll family’s brewery in 1920, and it never reopened after the Eighteenth Amendment was repealed in 1933. TAL



Mr. Borch is the Regimental Historian, Archivist, and Professor of Legal History and Leadership at The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School in Charlottesville, Virginia.



Notes

1. Roberta E. Dell, The United States Against Bergdoll 9 (1977).

2. In 2009, Sergeant Bowe Bergdahl “walked off a U.S. military outpost in eastern Afghanistan and spent the next five years in enemy captivity.” Alex Horton, Bergdahl Avoids Prison Time for Deserting Post, Wash. Post, Nov. 4, 2017, at A1. After being freed and returning to the United States, Bergdahl was prosecuted for desertion and misbehavior before the enemy. In November 2017, he was sentenced to a dishonorable discharge at proceedings held at Fort Bragg, North Carolina. Id. Then-President Donald J. Trump, who had earlier described Bergdahl as a “traitor,” called the punishment a “complete disgrace.” Id.

3. While the Bergdolls were not related to President Grover Cleveland, it was fashionable in the nineteenth century to name children after well-known politicians. Cleveland had just been elected to a second term as U.S. President in 1893, so it made sense for Bergdoll’s parents to name their newly-born son after him. As immigrants from Germany, the Bergdoll parents may also have wanted to highlight their ties to the United States by naming their son after Grover Cleveland. My great-great-grandfather, Dewitt Clinton Wamsley (1843–1927), for example, was named after New York governor and U.S. Senator DeWitt Clinton (1769–1828).

4. Dell, supra note 1, at 19.

5. Id.

6. Id. at 28.

7. Id. at 30.

8. Id.

9. Id.

10. Id.

11. Id. at 30, 67.

12. At this time, the Department of Justice had “special agents” who conducted investigations as part of the Office of the Chief Examiner. The modern Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) did not exist until J. Edgar Hoover “drastically restructured and expanded” the organization in the 1920s. This Day in History, July 26, 1908, FBI Founded, History, www.history.com/this-day-in-history/fbi-founded (July 23, 2021). Only in 1935 was the bureau designated as the “Federal Bureau of Investigation.” Id. For more on the birth of the modern FBI, see David Grann, Killers of the Flower Moon (2017).

13. Dell, supra note 1, at 37.

14. Id. at 48–49.

15. Id. at 68.

16. Id. at 69.

17. Id. at 75.

18. Id. at 80.

19. Id. at 82.

20. Id. at 81–82.

21. Id. at 85–86.

22. Id. at 117. The U.S. House of Representatives held lengthy hearings into Bergdoll’s escape, and the culpability of various individuals, including Brigadier General Ansell and Colonel Bailey. Not surprisingly, the investigation concluded that Bergdoll had fooled more than a few individuals in planning his escape. H. Select Comm. to Investigate Escape of Grover C. Bergdoll, Escape of Grover Cleveland Bergdoll, H.R. Rep. No. 67-354 (1st Sess. 1921).

23. Dell, supra note 1, at 131.

24. Id.

25. Id. at 133.

26. Id. at 133–34.

27. Id. at 176.

28. Id. at 180–81.

29. Id. at 192.

30. Id. at 190, 194–95.

31. Id. at 208–09.

32. Id. at 210–11.

33. Id. at 211.

34. Id. at 214.

35. Id.

36. Id. at 215.

37. Id.

38. Id. at 218–19.

39. Id. at 219.

40. Id. at 221.

41. Id.

42. Id. at 244–45.

43. Id. at 247.

44. Id. at 253.

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