This Tale is part one of a script for an episode of the Tales of History and Imagination podcast. Click here for the episode..
“We can never cease to be ourselves.” – Joseph Conrad, ‘The Secret Agent’ (1907).
“Let the man who has to make his fortune in life remember this maxim. Attacking is his only secret. Dare, and the world always yields: or, if it beat you sometimes, dare again, and it will succumb.” ― William Makepeace Thackeray, ‘The Luck of Barry Lyndon’ (1844).
Hi folks welcome to Tales of History and Imagination, my name is Simone. Today’s tale is a bit of a long one, as there are a load of twists and turns in this guy’s life. I totally think of this as a picaresque tale. In the picaresque the protagonist, you can’t always say the hero cause sometimes they are not very heroic- is a likeable rogue, lowly born, who has to live by their wits and charm in a cruel, often corrupt world. The protagonist rolls from one misfortune to the next, often going from bad to worse till you think it can’t get any worse.. then it does. Think Voltaire’s Candide, Henry Fielding’s A History of Tom Jones, a foundling, or Cervantes Don Quixote in books.. Or, if you’re thinking TV shows, Dexter, Breaking Bad or Better call Saul.
Given I make this podcast in New Zealand I’m adding a kiwi title to that list, author and politician John A Lee’s book Shiner Slattery, based on real life tales of a conman called Ned Slattery, who lived in the Otago region in the late 19th century. Shiner Slattery could be described as a snollygoster- from the Pennsylvanian German schnelle geeschter, a quick spirit. Snollygosters are shrewd and not at all swayed by principles. They are always on the look out for the next hustle, and always look out for number one.
On the podcast today we will look into the picaresque life of one Ignaz Trebitsch-Lincoln, more dodgy snollygoster than hapless Candide, roguish Tom Jones or senile Quixote. This week’s episode dear listener, season one episode 2 “Let us work without reasoning” the life of Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln.
(Theme music – Ishtar’s The Enemy Within)
Ignatius Timothy Trebitsch-Lincoln, also known as, Timothy Lincoln, the reverend I.T Trebitsch, Patrick Keelan and Chao Kung, self-professed reincarnation of the Dalai Lama, was born to an orthodox Jewish family in Pak, Hungary on 4th April 1879. He grew up in the capital, Budapest. His father, Nathan was a wealthy businessman who owned a fleet of barges on the Danube river. His mother Julia came from the well to do Freund family, who later married into the Hungarian nobility. The surname Trebitsch suggests – (just quickly check out the weekly blog next week for a little sidebar on Jewish surnames, I found it interesting so am posting) – that his family probably came from Trebic, Czechoslovakia. Little is known of his childhood.
Ignaz was a middle kid in a huge family… Julia had between 14 and sixteen children, several dying in infancy. His brothers were particularly academically gifted – and though Ignaz shone with languages – he lacked discipline and bombed out of school. A reason for his academic failure may have been the trauma caused by his father gambling away the family fortune on the stock market in Ignaz’s mid teens – something which left deep emotional scars on him at such a formative time. Ignaz enrolled in the Hungarian academy of dramatic art in 1895 with plans to become an actor, but he never completed his first year. Records from the academy make Ignaz out as a bright underachiever. He was petulant, prone to violent outbursts, and mad at the world.
In any picaresque novel there is a point where the hero, or protagonist is banished, leading to their travels. Voltaire’s Candide is thrown out of castle Thunder Ten Tronckh after kissing the daughter of the baron. William Makepiece Thackeray’s Redmond Barry, of Barry Lyndon flees after thinking he killed a man in a duel. In Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln’s case he turned, unsuccessfully, to theft. In 1897 he was accused by a local man of stealing a gold watch, just as police from over the border in Trieste showed up in Hungary to question him on similar accusations. Seeing a prison term coming he legged it. In his own autobiographies (he wrote two) Ignaz claimed he first travelled throughout North and South America though this is probably a lie. What is certain is soon after he fled, he showed up living rough on the streets on London’s East End. An Anglican mission made up of former Jews, the London Society for the promotion of Christianity among the Jews took him in.
One of the missionaries, Reverend Lypshytz, saw promise in Ignaz as a potential preacher or missionary for the society, so Ignaz was sent to Bristol to study the bible. He soon got bored and returned to London. In London he stole a watch from Reverend Lypshytz’s wife and jumped a ship back to the continent.
Back in Hungary he tried his hand at journalism, but it wasn’t in his skill set, so he stole another gold watch and used the money to move to Hamburg, Germany. In Hamburg he met Margarethe Kahlor, who he would later marry, converted to Christianity in 1899, and resumed his theological training. In 1900 he bid farewell, for now, to Margarethe and sailed for Montreal, Canada, where he joined an Anglican mission set up to convert the Jews of Montreal. In 1901 Margarethe sailed out, with her son from a previous relationship, and the two married.
The Canadian Mission.
So how did he do in Canada? Disastrously. First I should point out he was there to convert a Jewish population who had largely escaped the racism and violent pogroms of Europe to the new world -where they were free to be themselves as much as they were there to make their fortunes… so good luck winning them over. In his time in Canada, try as hard as he might, Ignaz never converted a single soul. He did however have a small, already converted flock to minister to. In the Autumn of 1901 Ignaz and Margarethe tied the knot. In December 1901 his supervisor retired and Ignaz found his chapter taken over by the London Society for the promotion of Christianity- the group who had lodged him, and he had stolen from a few years earlier. Managing for some time not to make any waves in the job, in 1903 he demanded a pay rise or he would quit. The society invited him to quit then, and Ignaz and family sailed for Britain.
On his departure the society discovered quiet is not always good – he had scarpered owing hundreds of pounds to several other missionaries and left behind a huge unpaid gas bill at the chapel. The London Society fired him on his return, though he soon charmed the Archbishop of Canterbury into giving him a job as a curate in Kent. He was unqualified for the role so the church insisted he up skill, and as it turned out Ignaz just wasn’t up to the training. By September 1904 he had moved on from this role. Besides finding the study too difficult, in Montreal there was plenty of conflict with the Jewish community- some of whom openly hated him- and he missed the cut and thrust of the conflict. On the family front Margaret- she had now Anglican-ised her name, gave birth to their son, Ignatius. His father in law had also passed on, leaving Ignaz enough money to explore other options. He handed in his notice to the Archbishop, who noted “I don’t think it is a great loss”.
Timothy Lincoln, MP.
Ignaz changed his surname to Trebitsch-lincoln – he was a fan of US president Abraham Lincoln- and bought a town house. Perhaps thinking parliament would be a good place to find the arguments he so missed as a missionary, he began to read every book on economics and politics he could get his hands on. Within 18 months he was working for the temperance movement, as Secretary for abolitionist Benjamin Seebohm Rowntree. Rowntree sent him all over Europe, to study the living standards of the working class on the continent. Despite having an open cheque book, Ignaz never appears to have stolen from Rowntree. He did however use this time to make connections with many politicians and officials. In 1911 Rowntree published ‘Land and Labour, lessons from Belgium’ a book which carried an acknowledgement to the researcher “Mr Lincoln, MP”. In 1910 Ignaz, now Timothy Lincoln, had successfully run as the Liberal party MP for Darlington. The campaign was short, but very ugly– Ignaz and Margarethe ‘damned foreigners’ to their opponents, were pelted with rotten eggs, banana skins and occasionally rocks on the campaign trail – making attack by milkshake these days look a little tame – he took the seat by just 29 votes.
His time as an MP was short. Ignaz got elected in January due to a snap election called over the Liberal party’s “People’s budget” being blocked by the house of lords. The people’s budget was an attempt to tax the rich a higher rate on income over £2000, around £225,000 in today’s money – they wanted 5% of this, a shilling in every pound. The Liberal Party also wanted to bring in an inheritance tax. The money raised would be used for social welfare reforms. The Liberals would need to call a second snap election, in December 1910, to finally secure a mandate for the Parliament act of 1911- an act to limit the Lords from being able to veto such legislation from going through. The act eventually passed after King George V threatened to create enough Liberal party peers in the house of lords to let the bill pass- if the Lord’s didn’t get out of the damn way.
Because of this short parliament Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln only served for a year. He didn’t have the money to run for his seat in December 1910. There is a question whether Austria had leaked documents on his past as a petty criminal to the Liberal party, but it appears he jumped. No-one pushed him. While an MP he only made 3 speeches, asked 7 questions in parliament, but did feature in a cartoon in Punch magazine, see the website and our social media pages…the cartoon is racist but was still highly prized by Ignaz himself. He didn’t have the money to run for two reasons: one MPs in 1910 were yet to get paid for the job and Ignaz had been spending big and two, he had bought an oil company in 1910, in part from his own money and partly from money loaned him by his former employer Seebohm Rountree.
The Oil Baron
In 1911 Ignaz, had thrown all his energy, and many others money into the oil business in the Galician region which borders modern day Ukraine and Poland. He Invested tens of thousands of pounds of others’ money – a considerable fortune, not into drilling holes, but purchasing established pipelines to move others’ oil to market.. Had he done some more research he’d have found the Galician fields were almost exhausted. By mid 1912 the company, the Anglo-Austrian petroleum syndicate, had been placed into liquidation. Ignaz did have a 2nd iron in this fire at this point however, also paid for by other peoples’ money – drilling for oil in the Bustanari district of Romania .While this seemed to be running far more successfully, by 1913 it was clear that his oil fields were under performing. The end of his oil empire came soon though, when King Karol of Romania, alongside the Turks, Greeks and Serbians declared war on neighboring Bulgaria. The second Balkan war of June 1913 led to the banks foreclosing on Ignaz, leaving a convoluted financial mess which took receivers a decade to unravel. Short of cash and desperate, Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln returned to old ways, but with a new angle – borrowing money wherever he could having forged a letter from his former boss Seebohm Rountree. The letter agreed to go guarantor for a £750 loan, around $18,000 US today. Ignaz hoped that he could use the money to salvage enough from the oilfields to pay everyone back but with the outbreak of WW1 this was not to happen. Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln added another accomplishment to his list, that of fraudster.
The Secret Agent
During the Great War Ignaz had moved from his palatial lodgings, back to a cheap boarding house back in England. He found the British were less welcoming to him this time round. Some people had caught on to his dodgy dealings, but wartime England had also become much more xenophobic- one tale has it his children’s former nanny reported him to the police for the crime of being Hungarian. He found work in the war office censoring Hungarian and Romanian letters, but only lasted a few weeks when he was caught writing notes in the margins, which would have given away the mail had been read and vetted.
He borrowed more money using false documentation. At the end of 1914, his fraud uncovered, and also the Romanians sentencing him in absentia to 7 months’ jail for misappropriation of funds, Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln turned to a new avenue… international espionage.
Through a connection he approached MO5, as MI5 was then known, with a plan. His plan was to sneak into the Netherlands, convince the Germans he had turned against the British, then feed false information to the Germans. MO5 turned him down on the offer. Soon after he left for the Netherlands. There has been speculation he went there to carry out his plan as a freelancer anyway, though some believe he had decided to just go work for the enemy- hurt that the British didn’t want him. He went to German intelligence and offered to spy for them.
The Germans took him on as a spy and sent him back to London. Back in London he approached MO5 again offering them supposed codes from the Germans and again asking to work for them. The noose was tightening around him over his fraudulent loans and he desperately needed money quick to pay back the debts. MO5 this time kept him sitting on a maybe while they ran his offer past those higher up- but Ignaz, in a panic to make a quick buck, went and sold his life story to a number of newspapers. This included his life as a spy. MO5 wiped their hands of him. Seeing all was lost Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln fled for America, two days before authorities issued a warrant for his arrest.
On arrival in New York Ignaz managed to borrow some money from one of his three brothers who was now living in the big Apple. On the boat over he had begun and affair with one of the female passengers, an affair which continued in New York. The supposed James Bond had also begun an affair with the daughter of his new landlord.
From New York he attempted to sell British secrets to the German consulate but when they showed no interest whatsoever he again turned to the papers, writing two rambling articles for the New York ‘World’ about his life as a master spy. In this article he gave his reason for turning on Britain as systematic xenophobia and ill treatment of Germans and Austro-Hungarians in Britain. While he got paid for the articles he immediately drew the ire of the united kingdom, who otherwise would have let him be- busy as they were with a war at the time. The Americans were not terribly interested in arresting Trebitsch Lincoln, so MO5 used the Pinkerton detective agency to arrest him. In August 1915 Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln was detained at Raymond Street jail in Brooklyn, and on 10th September an American judge ordered his extradition back to England.
Ignaz did manage to buy some time by convincing American intelligence he could De-code German messages they had been intercepting. This also gave him a regular day release from the prison to an intelligence facility. In January 1916, on the way back to jail he managed to escape out of a toilet window in a restaurant. He was recaptured 35 days later, and this time extradited back to Britain, where he was found guilty- not of treason- but of the lesser charge of forgery in July 1916 and sentenced to 3 years in prison.
This seems a good time to take a break, we’ll be right back.
(excerpt from Ishtar’s Space Radio)
I’ll be back this time next week folks, check out the podcast for both parts of this tale… or hang on till next Wednesday… things are about to get a little crazy for Ignaz… Simone
This Tale is part one of a two part series. To read the rest of this story click here.