Jan. 18, 1918: American intelligence agents arrest German spy in Nogales, Ariz.
While sources disagree on the exact date, when young Lothar Witzke crossed the international border into Nogales, Ariz., on January 18, 1918 carrying a Russian passport, he was already well-known to the Military Intelligence Division, or MID. He had been under surveillance as a known German spy and was suspected as an accomplice in the sabotage attack on Black Tom Island in New York Harbor that occurred on July 30, 1916. That explosion was described as a thunderous blast, felt as far away as Philadelphia and Maryland. It rocked the harbor, shattered skyscraper windows, and pelted the Statue of Liberty with shrapnel.
Black Tom Island was a wake-up call for many Americans. Many people, the president included, felt that their distance from Europe would buffer them from the violence over there. Germany was, after all, considered a friend, and thousands of her citizens lived productive, patriotic lives in America. Six months after the Black Tom explosion, British cryptographers would decode the Zimmermann Telegram, which is what propelled reluctant America into the War, but the Black Tom sabotage would elude justice for the next 23 years.
At the same time, people of Mexico were in the midst of revolution. The Punitive Expedition to chase down Pancho Villa had ended with no resolution and left many Mexicans with a dislike of American government. Ralph Van Deman, head of the fledgling MID in Washington, D.C., set up a number of listening posts along the Mexican border to monitor German communications and keep tabs on known espionage rings set up in that country.
One of these known agents was Lothar Witzke. A man of numerous aliases, Witzke was dispatched by his handlers in Mexico City to the United States. Little did he know that his companions were Allied double agents reporting Witzke’s every move to MID.
Dr. Paul Altendorf, known to American Intelligence as Operative A-1, reported his conversations with Witzke to Capt. Byron Butcher, a special agent with the Military Intelligence Division in Nogales, Ariz. Witzke was taken into custody, and a coded letter found in his luggage was sent to MI-8, the Army’s Code and Cipher Section, for decryption. It only took one night to decipher, and it read: “Strictly Secret! The bearer of this is a subject of the Empire who travels as a Russian under the name of Pablo Waberski. He is a German secret agent.”
After months of interrogation in a Texas prison, Lothar Witzke was sentenced to death — the only man thus sentenced in the U.S. during World War I. His sentence was later commuted to life in prison by President Woodrow Wilson.
For further reading:
“The Enemy Within: The Inside Story of German Sabotage in America,” by Capt. Henry Landau, G.P. Putnam’s Sons, New York, 1937
“Sabotage at Black Tom: Imperial Germany’s Secret War in America,” 1914-1917, by Jules Witcover, Algonquin Books, Chapel Hill, 1989
“The Detonators: The Secret Plot to Destroy America and an Epic Hunt for Justice”, by Chad Millman, Little, Brown, and Co., New York, 2006