Fritz Duquesne: The Nazi Spy with 1,000 Faces

“Come and get me,” he taunted authorities, but this spy and killer could not be taken down—until his Nazi spy masters slipped up.

Alex Brook Lynn/The Daily Beast

“Col. Fritz du Quesne, a fugitive from justice, is wanted by His Majesty’s government for trial on the following charges: Murder on the high seas; the sinking and burning of British ships; the burning of military stores, warehouses, coaling stations, conspiracy, and the falsification of Admiralty documents.’” He carried on hostile operations against the British government in various parts of the world under the following names: Fred, Fredericks, Capt. Claude Staughton, Col. Bezan, von Ricthofen, Piet Niacud, etc. His correct and full name is Fritz Joubert Marquis du Quesne. Prior to the war he was known as Capt. Fritz du Quesne, a big game hunter, author, explorer and lecturer.”

-London Daily Mail, May 27, 1919

Frederick “Fritz” Joubert Duquesne was all of this and more—and worse.

More than 20 years after the Daily Mail's wanted notice, at 6:30 in the evening on June 25, 1941, Fritz Duquesne sat down with a man who went by the name Harry Sawyer in his small office in the old Newsweek Building on West 42nd Street, off Times Square in Manhattan. The men, having already met twenty times, knew each other well. But for the first time, Duquesne had agreed to meet in Sawyer’s office. Looking around the room, Duquesne asked what sort of business Sawyer carried on there. “Research…” Sawyer answered, in a heavy German accent. “The kind of business which would cover up almost any kind of sin.” Speaking with a vaguely upper-crust English accent, Duquesne warned Sawyer to take precautions when carrying around the papers he was about to give him. He then rolled up his left pant leg and withdrew a long white envelope from beneath his sock.

The envelope held photographs of various American military weapons, including rifles, tanks, an anti-tank device, a navy speedboat, and other war-fighting materials, some of it “deep-dyed secret,” gleaned from recent Army war games in Tennessee and other sources. While they talked, Sawyer unwrapped pieces of hard candy to suck on. Duquesne noted that candy like that could be used to hide “a very effective, though small, incendiary bomb.” Chewing gum worked better, he explained. When folded around a phosphorus compound, he said, “it could be planted…on docks through a hole in the pocket of one’s coat.” Personally, Duquesne told Sawyer, he preferred pipe bombs. He asked Sawyer to get him some fuses for bombs he planned to use to blow up machinery at a New York General Electric factory.

The document delivery completed, Duquesne walked out. Four days later, FBI agents arrested him. He would learn that Sawyer, whose real name was William Sebold, was a double agent, a Nazi intelligence officer cooperating with the Feds. Throughout their entire two-and-half-hour meeting, FBI agents had been watching from an adjacent soundproof room while filming their exchange through a two-way mirror and recording their conversation with bugs.

The press was electrified by the arrest of the 64-year-old Duquesne as part of what was described as “the greatest spy roundup in U.S. history.” The sweep of Nazi spies by 93 FBI agents around New York and New Jersey brought down a 33-spy network known as the “Duquesne Ring.” FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover branded Duquesne the “most important” of the lot.

Americans were riveted by the sensational revelations about Nazi fifth column perfidy during the six-week trial that began three months later. Duquesne’s testimony, in particular, seemed beyond belief. Some of it was pure hogwash, but the tabloids and newsreels lapped it up.

What was true was that Duquesne had lived a life of countless assumed identities, served numerous masters in many lands, and switched allegiances often. What had not changed was his venomous hatred of the British, a lifelong rage that led him to war, murder, espionage, sabotage, and ultimately, self-destruction.

Natural Born Killer

Duquesne was 12 when he killed his first man. Born on a farm on the southeast coast of South Africa in 1877, Duquesne was the son of a Boer mother and a farmer, hunter and trader father. The family house served as a trading post and when a Zulu customer became violent in a dispute with Duquesne’s mother he grabbed the tribesman’s spear and stabbed him through the stomach.

He departed for school in England not long after, where he acquired an upper-class English accent. When the brutal Boer War broke out between South Africa and the United Kingdom in the fall of 1899, Duquesne returned to South Africa, this time to fight against his adopted British homeland. He was eventually made a captain and leader of a commando unit, blowing up British trains and sniping at enemy soldiers. He was caught and made daring escapes three times, leaving dead bodies in his wake.

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Duquesne’s guerrilla tactics and reputation for silently stalking and killing his British foes earned him the nickname “the Black Panther of the Veld.” An American scout employed by the British army, Frederick Russell Burnham, was given the special assignment of tracking down and killing Duquesne. He failed, and in his autobiography wrote, “Much has been written about Duquesne, most of it rubbish. Yet his real accomplishments were so terrible and amazing that they make the yellow journal thrillers about him seem as mild as radio bedtime stories.”

At one point in the war, Duquesne returned to the family farm. There he discovered the remains of British soldiers’ grim handiwork. Not content to burn the farmstead to the ground, they had gang raped and then shot his sister, hanged his uncle, and kidnapped his mother. Donning a British uniform, Duquesne went to the nearest camp, where he found his mother, starving, infected with syphilis, with a sick infant in her arms. As he left, he shot two officers dead.

Duquesne swore a lifelong oath to wage war against the English, and vowed personal revenge on General Herbert Horatio Kitchener, commander in chief of British South African forces.

“Come and Get Me”

Captured once again, however, this time Duquesne was dispatched several thousand miles overseas to a penal colony on an island off Bermuda. Once again, he managed to break free. He swam to Bermuda, where he waylaid and swapped places with a steward aboard a yacht bound for America. Arriving in the Chesapeake Bay, Duquesne jumped ship and made his way to New York City. He eventually found work as a bill collector for the New York Herald, but his sensational adventure stories were the stuff readers craved, and Duquesne found a big audience as a writer. He became a regular reporter and, by 1906, was the Herald’s Sunday editor.

President Theodore Roosevelt read his articles about big game hunting and invited him to the White House in January 1909 to advise him on an African hunting safari he was planning. With Roosevelt’s imprimatur, Duquesne found that his life story made him a popular lecturer.

When the First World War broke out in 1914, Duquesne’s abiding hatred for the English resurfaced. The loathed Kitchener now served as Britain’s war secretary, the cabinet minister in charge of the nation’s military. Posters of Kitchener, with his enormous handlebar mustache and pointed finger—declaring, “Britons…[Kitchener] Wants You. Join Your Country’s Army! God Save the King”—went up around England, and his image was popularized in America. Enraged, Duquesne went to the German consulate. His secret agent career began.

He slipped into hiding in plain sight in South America where, under various aliases, he delivered anti-German speeches as a ruse. Duquesne also boxed up “mineral samples” and “orchid bulbs”—in reality crates full of explosives—for shipment to England. Duquesne claimed his explosive-laden crates sunk 22 ships. Though that total seems doubtful, his minerals and orchids did blow up several ships.

In February 1916, Duquesne packed a trunk of motion picture film and boxes of minerals bound for the U.S. aboard the British ship S.S. Tennyson. He took out insurance on the costly highly flammable film. There was a large explosion and fire at sea. The British put a bounty on Duquesne’s head. Duquesne shortly faked his own death in Bolivia and found passage to England.

While his account cannot be confirmed, according to Duquesne, he eventually reached the Netherlands where he reestablished contact with German intelligence. His German minders had a job for him: Kitchener would soon sail to St. Petersburg to confer with Russian allies. An English-speaking Russian nobleman and diplomat had been slated to accompany Kitchener on the sea voyage. The Germans kidnapped the Russian and assigned Duquesne to impersonate him and find a way to assassinate Kitchener.

On June 5, 1916, the HMS Hampshire steamed out of Scapa Flow into the North Sea with Kitchener and the disguised Duquesne—or so he always claimed—aboard. Duquesne said that he dropped water torches over the ship’s side to alert lurking German U-boats. An hour after leaving port, the ship blew up in a massive explosion and quickly sank. Only 12 of the 655 souls aboard survived.

At the last minute, Duquesne insisted that he leaped over the side of the ship into a raft and onto the waiting submarine. From there, Duquesne claimed that he went to Germany where he was secretly awarded the Iron Cross. There are photos of him with Germany’s highest military honor, though no German records survive to verify his claims.

Duquesne supposedly went back to the U.S., aboard the German submarine Deutschland, surfacing in Baltimore on July 10, 1916. At this point, he transformed himself into a wounded veteran Australian horse officer, sporting a riding crop and the name Captain Claude Staughton. He set off on a national speaking tour and again proved an audience favorite.

The New York police, however, now wanted Duquesne for the Tennyson fire and murders—and for the fraudulent insurance claims he had filed for the film he lost in the disaster he caused! Faking insanity, he was briefly imprisoned in Bellevue Hospital in New York. Again, he escaped, this time going to Boston. For years he had friends from all over the world send taunting postcards to the New York police, inviting them to “Come and get me,” and signed “Fritz.”

As Major Frank de Trafford Craven, Duquesne went to work for future President John F. Kennedy’s multimillionaire father Joseph P. Kennedy’s movie company, Film Booking Offices of America. When Kennedy cofounded RKO pictures in 1928, Duquesne moved back to Manhattan on its publicity staff.

A Nazi Spy

The beginning of the end of his extraordinary career came on December 3, 1937. Knowing Duquesne’s previous espionage and sabotage work, Nazi Germany’s Abwehr, its military intelligence service, contacted him. The 60-year-old Duquesne began feeding Germany material gathered from newspapers and requests he sent to companies for information about their aircraft. Little of it had much value.

As tensions rose in Europe, the Nazi government hoped to get more useful material and to prepare for the likely possibility of the U.S. eventually joining the fight. The Abwehr needed somebody to operate their growing American spy network. They thought they had their man in William Sebold, a naturalized German-born American who had fought for Germany in World War I and once held a low-level job with an aircraft manufacturer. While Sebold was on a visit to his mother in Germany in 1938, the Abwehr threatened to harm his family if he didn’t cooperate. They sent him back to America with a new identity—Harry Sawyer—charged with making contact with Duquesne and other spies and then relaying their findings back to Germany. But Sebold proved loyal to his new homeland. Even before sailing for America, he went to the U.S. consulate in Cologne and told them about the Abwehr’s plan.

Learning about the Abwehr’s espionage plot, the FBI determined on using Sebold to crack the entire Nazi spy ring. Starting in February 1940, “Harry Sawyer” became the FBI’s first double agent. The G-men set up Sawyer’s bugged “research” office in the Newsweek Building, where they could watch and record Germany’s spies coming and going. The FBI agents set up a short-wave radio station from which they transmitted heavily redacted versions of the secrets gathered by Sawyer’s spies back to Germany.

At the time, Duquesne was operating a business known as the “Air Terminals Company” in New York City. After establishing his first contact with Duquesne by letter, Sebold met with him in Duquesne’s office. Fearing electronic surveillance, Duquesne insisted they go out to speak. He always refused Sawyer’s invitation to meet at his Newsweek Building office. Finally, on June 25, 1941, he came there to make a drop. The FBI got him on film. Four days later, the G-men closed the net, arresting 33 Nazi spies, most of them German-Americans. Among those who arrested Duquesne was a neighbor and friend he had never realized was an FBI agent. His mugshot shows a sallow, tired-looking, long-faced man with heavy brows and a high forehead. His swashbuckling days were done.

He did, however, still enjoy an audience. Duquesne was the first defendant to take the stand in the six-week trial that began in September. The practiced public speaker regaled the jury and the audience with dramatic and often fantastic tales from his life, from the days of the Boer War through his many escapes and on to his time in America.

Unhappily for the defendants, their attorneys’ summations were scheduled to begin on December 8, 1941. The Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor the day before. The jury needed only eight hours to reach guilty verdicts on all counts against Duquesne and the other defendants. Some got as little as 15 months in prison. Duquesne got 18 years.

Fritz served 12 years, gaining release on September 19, 1954; he was 77, a sick and broken man. He fell frequently, was partly deaf, and had a bum shoulder. A stroke left him partly paralyzed. He returned to New York City and a welfare nursing home. He died of a stroke on May 24, 1956, at the age of 78.

Two biographies, both long out of print, recount Duquesne’s life. Clement Wood’s 1932 The Man Who Killed Kitchener covers the early years full of Scarlet Pimpernel bravado and pulp novel heroics and calls Duquesne “one of the bravest and noblest men who ever lived.” Art Ronnie’s 1995 Counterfeit Hero ultimately condemns Duquesne for “four decades of spying, fraudulent activities, lunacy, and masquerading.” The truth lies somewhere between the two.

Peter Duffy’s Double Agent, about Sebold’s life and the FBI operation that finally brought Duquesne and his Nazi spy ring down, came out in 2014. Brave and loyal Sebold’s end proved a sad one. The FBI moved him into an early version of the witness protection program. He went to California and worked at a federal arsenal, but lost his job. He became a chicken farmer, but grew increasingly paranoid. Perhaps his fears were not entirely unfounded, given his heroics as the double agent who brought down a Nazi spy operation. He was committed to Napa State Hospital in 1965 and died of a heart attack five years later at age 70.

J. Edgar Hoover took great pride in bringing the Duquesne spy ring down. After World War II, a movie came out called “The House on 92nd Street,” based on the case. The FBI gave full cooperation to its making. J. Edgar Hoover even spoke in the introduction and real FBI agents served as extras in the movie.

Even today, the FBI keeps a history on its webpages about the counterespionage case that broke up the largest spy network to that point in American history—and sent Fritz Duquesne to prison, a man nobody had ever managed to hold before.