The Secret Service said it was his “unusually inquisitive” nature about military matters that tipped off personnel about a German man working as a waiter in the officers’ mess at Camp Dodge, according to the Des Moines Register in 1917.
John Conrad Ebert, 24, was arrested by federal agents on Saturday, November 24, 1917, at the camp.
The agents had him under surveillance for about six weeks. He was charged as a suspected spy for Germany.
Ebert had left his homeland in 1913, traveling to the United States where he took out naturalization papers but never completed the process. He had worked at a variety of jobs across the country. Although he was trained to be an expert stenographer, he worked at jobs that did not require his special skills.
Along the way he had worked for a railroad, steamship company, wagon factory, and the Pabst Brewing Company in Milwaukee, Wis. He always came to jobs with a “bundle” of references from former employers from New York to San Francisco.
That was another red flag for the Secret Service. They had long suspected there was a chain of German spies operating from coast to coast. They believed Ebert was part of a bigger network.
And the suspected spy was known to have four brothers back home in the German military. In addition, a sister worked as a Red Cross nurse on the French front. She was using an assumed name, but the French Secret Service was sharing information with their American counterparts about the Ebert woman. It was thought Ebert passed along secrets he learned at Camp Dodge to his relatives, who shared the information with the German government.
Under interrogation, Ebert was reluctant to provide helpful information. The Des Moines Register described his responses:
“How did you happen to leave Germany when you were liable to military service?” US agents asked.
“I received a pass to leave the country,” Ebert replied.
“How long did the pass cover?”
“One month,” he said. He didn’t have an answer for why he overstayed his visit. He did admit he had been offered a job with the Great Western Railway Company in Des Moines but had not taken it. Rather, he took the job as a waiter at Camp Dodge.
“Why didn’t you accept the job when you arrived here?” interrogators asked.
“I thought the waiter position out at the camp was the best job,” Ebert explained. He couldn’t remember who offered him the job at the camp, but he said it paid $60 a month with board.
The Secret Service said they had enough evidence on Ebert to hold him without bail. He was bound over to a federal grand jury. They expected he would go on trial in December in federal court in Des Moines. They said most likely Ebert would spend the duration of the war in Leavenworth prison, according to the Jacksonville Daily Journal.
“Alleged German Agent Waits Jury,” Ottumwa Semi-Weekly Courier, Nov. 27, 1917.
“Army Construction Camp Turned Over to the War Department,” Iowa City Press- Citizen, Dec. 14, 1917.
“German Waiter at Camp Dodge Held as Suspected Spy,” Des Moines Register, Nov. 26, 1917.
“Internment of German Spy Suspect Ordered,” Jacksonville Daily Journal, Nov. 28, 1917.
“88th Division Marking Time,” Denison Review, Dec. 12, 1917.
Cheryl Mullenbach is a former high school history teacher and public television project manager. She is an award-winning author of non-fiction books for young people. She was featured on C-SPAN’s “Book TV” for her talk at the FDR Presidential Library and Museum’s Reading Festival. Her Iowa history column about people, places and events from the past inspire Iowans to treasure their history.