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Tiptoe Around the Powerful

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Grover C. Bergdoll in the cockpit at Eagle Field.Never make politicians look stupid. Vote against them if you want. But expose them as incompetent, and they’ll come after you.

As an example, consider all those who, between 1917 and 1939, made it a top priority to capture and punish a German brewer’s son who refused to go to war. Grover Cleveland Bergdoll successfully dodged the draft for all those years while federal officials held hearings, postured and fumed—and mostly ignored thousands of other draft dodgers.

Bergdoll was 24 when the ordeal began. By the time the public servants were finished with him, he was 51. “Bergdoll had insulted America!” said Corliss Hooven Griffis, who unsuccessfully tried to kidnap Bergdoll from his refuge in Germany in 1923. “It was every American’s duty to punish him. German soldiers who fought against us may now be my friends. Cowards and traitors may never be.”

Born in Philadelphia, Bergdoll was the grandson of a German immigrant who’d founded a brewery here in 1846. At its height, the Louis Bergdoll Brewery at 29th Street and Girard Avenue supplied more than 1,400 saloons and taverns. All that beer supported a lavish lifestyle, which included sending Louis Jr. back to the Fatherland for a German bride: Emma Barth of Bavaria. Louis Sr. died in 1894 and Louis Jr. only two years later, leaving Emma with five kids and the business.

Grover was Emma’s third child, named for then-sitting President Cleveland. Emma admired the 24th president for avoiding military service during the Civil War by paying a substitute.

None of the Bergdoll children got much supervision. Emma was busy managing the brewery and other business holdings. Grover, meanwhile, had a blast. In 1912, at age 18, he bought a Wright biplane and terrorized the community—panicking horses, dive-bombing rooftops, racing trains and chasing bathers at the Jersey Shore. (The plane is now at the Franklin Institute.)

Grover and his brother, Erwin, spent thousands on racing cars. “Speeding tickets, arrests, accidents and complaints soon became synonymous with the name Bergdoll,” wrote historian Roberta E. Dell.

The Erwin Bergdoll house.In 1915, Grover turned 21 and came into a million-dollar inheritance. He also moved into a stone house in Wynnefield purchased for him by his mother. Later, Erwin received a stone mansion in Broomall, located where the southbound Blue Route exits to West Chester Pike.

In June 1917, Grover registered for the draft, which he likely gave little thought. (He was busy building a balloon at home.) The United States had declared war against Germany in April, and a mass mobilization was underway. Emma, however, was offended by the shrill anti-German propaganda.

With little initial support for war, Woodrow Wilson’s administration offered overheated rhetoric about German barbarism. Amid the hysteria, schools canceled German classes, Beethoven was excised from concerts, and sauerkraut was renamed Liberty Cabbage.
 

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According to Dell, Emma considered the U.S. an aggressor against “her brave little country.” Grover’s relatives lived in Germany. Would he have to shoot them?

In August, Grover disappeared. Vacation, he later claimed. Grover had a relatively high draft number, so could have reasonably expected delay before being called. But when he returned in September, events had leaped forward. Grover’s number had already been called. His lawyer would later charge that the head of his draft board—a neighbor whose children Grover had spanked when they climbed a special cherry tree—had illegally moved his number up to get even.

Again, Grover disappeared. It had worked when he was wanted for speeding. Often, the Philadelphia police just forgot about everything. But the feds were different. And Grover’s speeding raps had never unleashed the sort of fury now directed at what the newspapers called the “son of a German mother.”

Anti-German prejudice has deep roots in America. Both Benjamin Franklin and John Adams grumbled over German colonists’ lack of enthusiasm for the Revolution. One historian has estimated that 60 percent of German-descended colonists were either neutral or loyal to George III, himself of German descent.

In the 19th century, Germans—many Catholic—were targets of the anti-immigrant, anti-Catholic Know-Nothing movement that later melted into the Republican Party. When the Civil War came, those German Catholics remembered whom their enemies had been and were slow to sign on with the Union cause. After the Irish, Germans were the most under-represented group in its army.

Before World War I, German-Americans organized to challenge British influence. After the war, they turned en masse against Woodrow Wilson’s Democrats. In scores of German-settled Midwestern counties, Democrats’ share of the vote fell 25-50 percent between 1916 and 1920. During the war, however, chasing a “German” draft dodger was good politics.

With Grover underground, the heat fell on Emma, who naively worsened her situation by offering to buy her son an exemption from the draft as Cleveland had bought his. Naturally, draft officials reported this bribery attempt—and the thick German accent in which it was made. Arrested and charged with helping Grover escape, Emma was finally released with a $200 fine.

Meanwhile, Erwin Bergdoll’s draft number was called, and he joined Grover on the run. The pair wasn’t very discreet, wrote Dell, dividing their time between a Maryland hotel and their homes in Wynnefield and Broomall. Grover vented in a letter to the Philadelphia Ledger, offering to turn himself in if he was allowed to serve as a flying instructor. “Your paper calls me a pro-German. That statement is an infamous lie and a rank falsehood,” he wrote.

Fugitive draft dodgers weren’t supposed to talk back. So now the feds upped the ante, reclassifying Grover as a deserter. In wartime, deserters were shot.

After three years, the feds finally noticed that sightings of Grover peaked around the holidays. In January 1920, Grover and Erwin—home to spend Christmas and New Year’s with Emma—were asleep in their respective houses. Emma had spent the night with Grover in Wynnefield. At dawn, Philadelphia police kicked in the door. Emma, grabbing a revolver and a blackjack, met the officers at the door, where she knocked one to the floor. Grover was found in a window seat. Erwin escaped, later turning himself in.
 

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Outside the home, “men and women, wild eyed and tight lipped, screamed at him, calling him a traitor as he passed,” wrote Dell of the mob that had gathered on Grover’s lawn. “Others cursed him and his entire family.”

Sentenced to five years, Grover then produced a story about $150,000 in gold buried in Virginia. He worried that it would be gone when he got out. Strangely, military authorities allowed him out with two guards to dig it up. During a brief stop at his mother’s house, Grover stepped away to answer a phone and escaped in his own car, which was conveniently parked outside. Eventually, he crossed into Canada and sailed for Germany.

But Grover’s troubles weren’t over. In 1921, his car was surrounded by six men wielding guns. Two U.S. soldiers and four hired Germans planned to carry him to U.S.-occupied territory. But Grover pushed away the man at the window and his driver floored it in a hail of bullets. One shot wounded a woman in the backseat. Though arrested and convicted, the would-be kidnappers were released after pressure from Washington.

Next, Corliss Griffis and several hired men jumped Grover in his room. But Grover, who carried a gun, killed one assailant in the struggle. The rest were arrested and convicted, then pardoned after 2 million Americans signed petitions for their release. In New York, Griffis was welcomed with ticker tape.

In 1927, Grover married a German girl with whom he would have six children. In 1933, hoping to be included in Franklin Roosevelt’s general amnesty for war offenders, Grover was disappointed to learn that the proclamation had been phrased to exclude him. U.S. politicians were still vengeful.

By 1939, Jewish and other refugees were fleeing Germany. Perhaps this gave a Southern representative, Forest Harness, his sadistic idea. In April, Harness introduced legislation to revoke Grover’s citizenship, thus barring him from the country. In effect, that would make him a prisoner in Nazi Germany. “Do the rigors of the Hitler dictatorship chafe his wastrel, playboy soul?” Harness taunted from the House of Representatives.

The bill passed unanimously. Warned that it would likely pass the Senate in May, Grover opted to come home. If he was on U.S. soil first, the bill would be moot.

And that’s how it happened. Seized at a New York pier, Grover wound up in Leavenworth for seven years. His lawyer released a public apology for the past 22 years. In it, Grover mentioned the Statue of Liberty, “which gloriously greets all the refugees coming to the United States.”

To his surprise, Grover received letters of support from friendly strangers. Perhaps, his contrition had finally broken the spell of public anger. Or, as likely, his case had become old, and our public servants had other issues to posture over.

Mark E. Dixon welcomes comments. Write a letter.

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