Cloak and dagger mailbag

More on Sellersville’s Nazis, Quakertown’s spy and a notorious Bensalem double agent.

My recent column on Bucks County spies turned up new revelations from readers like Sally Sondesky of the Bensalem Historical Society. Sally reacted to my bit about British master spy Joseph Galloway who owned the Growden Mansion of Bensalem and fled to England to avoid prosecution as a traitor during the American Revolution. “Great article in the paper today,” Sally said. “Bensalem had another spy who bought Growden Mansion. One article I read states he was worse than Galloway.”

Meet James Wilkinson.

James Wilkinson.
Gen. Zebulon Pike.
Aaron Burr.

The young medical student from Maryland who was enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania enlisted in the Continental Army during the Revolution. He married Anne Biddle of the prominent Biddle family of Philadelphia and bought Growden Mansion at a forfeiture sale in 1779 after Galloway fled. Four year later Wilkinson put it up for sale after the Army ordered him to western Kentucky. There in 1784 “Agent 13″ took a secret oath of allegiance to Spain for which he received a Spanish pension.

To foster his financial interests on the Mississippi River, Wilkinson tried to convince Kentucky to join Spanish Louisiana. All the while, he was relaying top secret information to both the U.S. and Spain as a double agent. After the U.S. purchase of Louisiana in 1803, Wilkinson became governor and commanding Army officer in the territory. He put into motion a plan with Aaron Burr to wrest control of Mexico from Spain. In 1806, Wilkinson sent Army Brigadier Gen. Zebulon M. Pike who grew up in Solebury to establish a favorable route for conquest. When word leaked out about the plot, Wilkinson accused Burr and arrested him. Tried for treason, he was found not guilty. Suspicion then fell on Wilkinson. A series of courts-martial and congressional investigations were inconclusive.

Theodore Roosevelt.

Wilkinson eventually obtained a land grant in Texas from Mexico shortly before his death in Mexico City at age 68. In 1854, public disclosure of correspondence between Wilkinson and the Spanish governor of Louisiana proved he was a spy. President Theodore Roosevelt later declared, “In all our history, there is no more despicable character.”

“Large swastika on the wall”

Mariana Agnew Hoffman of Doylestown added a few personal memories after I wrote about the Deutschhorst Country Club outside Sellersville. Mariana was a child growing up on West Clymer Avenue near the club, really a summer camp devoted to German dictator Adolph Hitler in the 1930s. An ancient grist mill converted into a home on the 40-acre property served as local headquarters of the 200,000-member German-American Bund.

“The house you described was known to my family as ‘the old mill’, ” recalled Mariana. “My parents were aware of many cars parked there on weekends with paper bags concealing their license plates. Our farm was the last occupied property before the intersection with Cathill Road. I remember my grandmother asking me to walk down the unpaved road, then tell her if there were cars parked in the woods just beyond our property line. They were!

“Later I was told my mother had reported information to the FBI and there were some arrests. My parents apparently had some understanding about the Bund. A later occupant of the house told us about a large swastika on the wall.”

U.S. Nazi leader Fritz Kunz after leaving court to boos in Masachusetts in 1939.

Fritz Julius Kuhn, the “American Fuehrer”, appeared before 2,000 Nazi-uniformed supporters at the camp on Sept. 3, 1939, the day Germany invaded Poland. Kuhn ultimately was prosecuted and deported to Germany where he died in 1951. “Sometime in the 1940’s my grandmother found part of a grave marker near our house,” added Mariana. “It was handmade of clay with the name of Peter Biehn, dated 1769. My parents said that date coincided with the date for the old mill. The marker was donated to the Hilltown Historical Society.”

“Family of spies”

I also heard from Robert Leight with more information about Russian spy Hede Massing who ran a bed-and-breakfast in Upper Bucks. It was on her farm in Haycock Township. There in the mid-20th century, she directed “a family of spies” gathering contacts for the Soviet Union, according to Robert.

With her husband Paul Massing (a German sociologist), Hede purchased the former Courtney farm. As a cover, the couple hosted paying guests for years while Hede, a former Austrian actress, recruited contacts for Soviet intelligence. Most famous was Alger Hiss. Ending her career as a spy, she fingered Hiss and was a key witness in his conviction and imprisonment after World War II.

Hede Massing, Soviet spy recruiter who operated a B&B in Haycock Township.
Soviet spy Alger HIss recruited by Manning testifying before Congress.

Hede described her activities in “This Deception”, a memoir published in 1951. She continued operating her B&B for nearly three decades. To promote her book, she gave lectures on the evils of Stalinism. After “Bride’s Magazine” publisher Wells Drorbaugh bought the farm, Hede moved to Washington Square, N.Y. where she died in 1981 at age 81.

Sources include “An Artist in Treason: The Extraordinary Double Life of General James Wilkinson” by Andro Linklater published in 2009 by Walker Publishing Company, and “Insidious Foes: The Axis Fifth Column and the American Home Front” by Francis MacDonnell published in 1995 by Oxford University Press.