Day 518: The Super-Spy From South Africa

originally published June 1, 2013

Some stories are far too textured and layered to be adequately contained within a thousand words. Unfortunately, since I’m doing this on a purely voluntary, non-paid basis, I lack the time to double or triple my volume before my daily deadline. I try to be concise. Hit the broad points. Fill in the spaces with a little wordplay and maybe a throw-away joke involving bacon or tickling a mime. 

But sometimes, I find a subject worthy of an entire book. And sure, maybe someone has already written that book, but mine would be better, mostly because of those mime-tickling jokes. Fritz Joubert Duquesne is one of those subjects: he was a soldier, a journalist, a saboteur, a spy, and one of the most interesting lesser-known humans of the past century. 

One word of caution though – some scholars have cast a pallor of doubt upon some of the alleged facts of Fritz’s life. Keep that in mind, but don’t let it take away from the bio-pic-worthy awesomeness of this guy’s life story. 

Fritz was born in Cape Colony (now South Africa) to a Boer family. The Boers are descended from mostly Dutch settlers, and back then they tended to clash with the colonizing Brits in the area. Fritz was, however, schooled in London, and at seventeen he joined the British Army under Lord Herbert Kitchener. This didn’t take though. While walking with his troops across his own family’s farm, Fritz saw the end result of Lord Kitchener’s ‘scorched earth’ policy: the land was decimated, his sister dead, and his mother dying in a British concentration camp. 

This was Fritz’s origin story. He swore right then he would get his revenge on Kitchener and on the British. He tried to assassinate Lord Kitchener in Cape Town, but his attempt fell short. When the second Anglo-Boer War kicked off in 1899, Fritz fought for his people. He was captured and shipped off to an internment camp way up in Lisbon, Portugal, but his snappy good looks and suave demeanor charmed the daughter of one of the guards. She helped him slip away and flee to Paris. 

This was when Fritz decided to get his spy on. He rejoined the British Army and was posted to South Africa as an officer in 1901. The British must have been simply awful at paperwork, because nobody noticed that Fritz had been their prisoner just a few weeks earlier. In South Africa, Fritz recruited twenty men to sabotage some strategic British military installations. One of the men had a loose-lipped wife though, and they were all arrested. Fritz saved himself by giving up some of the Boer codes to the British – well, fake ones that sounded real enough for them to believe – while all twenty of his associates were executed by firing squad, including the guy whose wife squealed. 

Fritz tried tunneling out of his prison cell with a spoon, getting busted when a rock came loose and pinned him in the tunnel he’d dug. He was shipped off to a Bermuda prison, where he passed himself off as an American (again, terrible paperwork skills, Brits) until the end of the Boer War. He then slipped off the island and off to New York. There he got a legitimate job, working as a journalist for the New York Herald. A schmoozer to his bones, he quickly made a name for himself and hung out with the right people. He even became Teddy Roosevelt’s shooting instructor, accompanying him on a big-game hunting trip to Africa. 

When 1914 rolled around, Fritz became a German spy. He went down to Rio de Janeiro and began slipping time bombs disguised as boxes of mineral samples onto British ships. Twenty-two ships met the ocean floor thanks to Fritz Duquesne. After faking his own death, Fritz then scooted up to New York to attempt to make an insurance claim on the lost minerals aboard those British vessels. Talk about balls. 

Of course, his proudest act of sabotage was when he took out the HMS Hampshire in 1916. He boarded in Scotland, posing as a Russian Duke. While out on the Atlantic, Fritz signaled a German sub, which torpedoed the ship and killed almost everyone on board as Fritz rowed away in a lifeboat. Among the dead was Lord Kitchener, the very man who had launched Fritz on his anti-British crusade. 

You’d think the guy had lived enough life for one man. But Fritz was just getting started. 

Let’s get back to Fritz’s insurance fraud in New York, which occurred during the second half of WWI. He was arrested, awaiting extradition to Britain (where the really nasty charges were waiting for him), when he faked paralysis. 

For two years. 

Fritz remained at Bellevue Hospital in New York, waiting for his opportunity to flee. On May 25, 1919, he disguised himself as a woman, cut through the bars in his room, and leapt over a wall to freedom. Fritz disappeared at this point. Throughout the 1920’s he lived anonymously, freelance writing and even working as an agent for Joe Kennedy’s film company. He might have stayed in the shadows forever, but a woman in his company found out his actual identity and turned him in to the FBI. 

As the political scene in Europe began to approach another big war, Fritz went back to work as a spy. He recruited an elaborate team of 33 fellow disgruntled Americans, and sought to transmit as much info as they could over to Germany. One guy worked on an airline and had access to information regarding Allied ships that were heading east across the Atlantic. Another owned a restaurant, and eavesdropped some intel off his customers. 

The key member of Fritz’s group was William Sebold, who had served in the German Army during WWI. Sebold was in fact a double-agent, passing on information about the spy ring to the FBI. On June 28, 1941 – over five months before the US was even ankle-deep in the war – everyone in Fritz’s gang was rounded up and arrested. All thirty-three were convicted and sentenced to more than 300 years in prison. It remains the largest espionage conviction in American history, the heart of US-based German spy activity, and Fritz was at its head. 

This time there would be no costumed escapes, no Shawshank-esque tunnels. Fritz did his time in Leavenworth – thirteen years of it. If you thought child molesters get treated poorly by fellow prisoners in lock-up, just imagine how things went for a convicted German spy in the 1940’s. When he was released in 1954, Fritz was in rough shape. He spent the last two years of his life in City Hospital on Welfare Island (now known as Roosevelt Island, which would no doubt have given Fritz a laugh), where he died poor and broken. 

In a life more event-packed than Charles Foster Kane’s, Fritz Duquesne deserves a bigger place in history. He was married only once and left no heirs – his focus was his work. Had he slipped away before his team got arrested in 1941, who knows what other hijinks he might have launched against the Allies? 

Perhaps another thousand words-worth. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s