Friday, February 20, 2015

The Night the Dynamite Went Off

Franz von Papen
A hundred years ago, on a winter’s day every bit as brutal as the days we are now enduring, a young man in work clothes stepped off a Maine Central passenger train and onto the snowy platform of the Vanceboro station. His luggage held, among other things, the uniform of a Lieutenant of the German army and eighty pounds of dynamite, enough to blow up a good-sized railroad bridge. Werner Horn was on a mission from Franz von Papen, military attaché to the German embassy in Washington, who ran a network of spies and saboteurs all over the U.S. and Canada. Some believe that it was Horn himself who torched the Roebling plant in Trenton, New Jersey, the week before; if it wasn’t him, it was another of von Papen’s agents.

Werner Horn
After hiding his dynamite in a woodpile, Werner Horn checked into a hotel. From there he skulked about the town eyeing the railroad bridge over the St. Croix River to Canada, with whom Germany was then at war, and checking the schedule of the trains that ran over it. The plan was to disrupt the traffic of war materiel to St. John, New Brunswick, whence it was shipped to Europe. Werner Horn did not want to kill anyone. He may or may not have been accompanied by a mysterious Irishman, a man who was never found. Accounts differ.

The Bridge
Vanceboro was, and is, a small town where nothing ever happens. The presence of a foreigner was a source of entertainment. When anyone asked what he was doing, Horn said he was looking for farmland. In Maine, in the middle of winter, this was risible. My grandfather Gallison was running a little store at the time, the place where the townsfolk used to gather around the pot-bellied stove and swap stories. I can well imagine how they must have laughed at the Dutchman—I think he said he was Dutch—who wanted to farm that rocky soil with its short growing season.

On the night of February second they all laughed out of the other side of their mouths. In the small hours Werner Horn set off his dynamite, damaging the bridge slightly but blowing out half the windows in Vanceboro. The freezing residents wanted to lynch him next morning. By then he had surrendered to the town sheriff, rather than fall into the hands of the Canadians, who would doubtless have shot him out of hand. He had changed into his uniform particularly to keep from being executed as a spy.

The Penobscot Exchange
To avoid a lynching the American authorities hustled him out of Vanceboro and shipped him to Machias to serve thirty days for malicious mischief (for starters. Other charges came later). He stopped in Bangor for lunch, at the Penobscot Exchange, a hotel where I once ate a liverwurst sandwich that made me sick. But I digress. What Werner Horn had for lunch was clam chowder, corned beef, spaghetti and raspberry pie. Newspaper reporters were allowed to talk to him, including one from the Bangor Daily News, which ran a story about the case earlier this month. One tactless fellow asked him what he had been paid to do the job.

“I did not blow up the bridge for money. I am a soldier, not a mercenary. I acted for the good of the Fatherland!” Actually von Papen had written him a check for $700.00, a fact that came to light later that year in the spymaster’s papers, which were confiscated when he was run out of the USA for sabotage. But perhaps Horn had used up the money for explosives, train tickets, and hotel bills, and so didn’t consider it pay.

The bridge was repaired within days. Werner Horn spent years in jail. After the Americans entered the war they turned him over to the Canadians, who, surprisingly, did not kill him. Eventually he went mad due to an advanced case of syphilis which somehow had gone untreated and he was repatriated to Germany, the war being over. Von Papen went on to enjoy a fairly distinguished career in German politics, all things considered, and although he helped Hitler rise to power he was acquitted of war crimes at the Nuremberg trials. You can hear him speaking in his own defense on YouTube. I would find his speech more enlightening if I spoke better German.

© 2015 Kate Gallison

1 comment:

  1. You hooked me with that raspberry pie bit... tjs