Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, January 15, 2018

The Great Hindoo Spy Conspiracy: 1913–1918

201 Sansome Street, San Francisco
The elegant-looking building on the right located at 201 Sansome Street in San Francisco's Financial District is filled today with high-end condominiums. During the war it was the location of the German Consulate, and that made it a hotbed of espionage that predated America's entry into the war.

As part of the overall German strategy to undermine British interests around the world and deny war materials to the Allies, Consul General Franz von Bopp and his vice-consul and military attaché recruited both Indian Nationalists and Irish Sinn Fein sympathizers. Their activities with the Indian group became much more prominent, so the whole affair was known as the "Great Hindoo Spy Conspiracy."  Various federal court documents described what the principals were conspiring:

German Consul General
Franz von Bopp
To blow up and destroy with their cargoes and crews any and all vessels belonging to Great Britain, France, Japan or Russia found within the limits of Canada, which were laden with horses, munitions of war, or articles of commerce in course of transportation to the above countries. . .

[They] also provided support for the Ghadar movement (Urdu for "mutiny"), composed principally of Punjabi Indians seeking independence from British rule. The effort in America was focused  in California, to which Punjabi agricultural workers had migrated. There was also a cadre of disaffected Indian students at the University of California, Berkeley. Hence, San Francisco became the American base for what was a worldwide espionage ring.

Describing the adventures of the various spies, saboteurs, and agents provocateurs, the investigative efforts of the U.S. government as assisted by British intelligence, counter-agents and code breakers to apprehend them, and the peculiar initial 1916–1917 trial held while America was still neutral are beyond our limited space here.

All these preliminaries, however, were dwarfed by the sheer spectacle of the second trial in San Francisco, which gathered von Bopp and his German Consulate staff with all their "Hindoo" agents into a 31-man defendant pool. It was described by author Henry Landau, who wrote of German mischief in the United States during the war in his work The Enemy Within:

Ram Chandra, Ghandra Leader
Murdered in the Courtroom

The trial of these men was one of the most picturesque ever conducted in an American court. [Convened in November 1917 in the same San Francisco courthouse where Tokyo Rose would be tried decades later.]  The turbaned Hindus lent an Oriental atmosphere. Among the evidence were publications in six Indian dialects, also coded messages, all of which called for constant translation by interpreters and cryptographers. 

Witness after witness recited his amazing story of adventure. The action shifted quickly between the three focal points, Berlin, the United States, and India, with intermediate scenes laid in Japan, China, Afghanistan, and the South Seas. The climax occurred on the afternoon of April 23, 1918, the last day of the trial, when, in the crowded court room, Ram Singh shot and killed Ram Chandra, whom he suspected of betraying the organization. A moment later. United States Marshal James Holohan shot the murderer dead in his tracks.

A verdict of guilty was returned against 29 of the defendants. The officials of the San Francisco German Consulate were sentenced to additional terms of imprisonment plus fines. The Hindus, chiefly students, received lighter sentences, running from two months up to 18 months in the penitentiary. Von Bopp and his assistants served time until 1920, when they were paroled from Leavenworth prison.

Source:  Over the Top, December 2011

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