“I would like the expert physicians who are condemning me for my action, which has proven their ability, to take a perfectly sane and healthy woman, shut her up and make her sit from 6 A. M. until 8 P. M. on straight-back benches, do not allow her to talk or move during these hours, give her no reading and let her know nothing of the world or its doings, give her bad food and harsh treatment, and see how long it will take to make her insane. Two months would make her a mental and physical wreck.”
Nellie Bly, ‘Ten Days in a Mad House’ (1887).
In 1885 an ‘anxious father’ of 5 unmarried daughters wrote a letter to the Pittsburgh Dispatch desperate for advice, and worried about how his girls would cope out in the big, bad world without men to look after them. The paper replied in an editorial piece from their columnist Erasmus Wilson entitled ‘What girls are good for’. So, according to Wilson what are girls good for? Not a lot. In his diatribe Wilson decried working women as “A monstrosity”, stating the only place for a woman was in the home. He lambasted parents of working women for allowing them to enter the workforce, and suggested perhaps America should follow China’s 2 millennia long practice of some parents drowning female babies. If you imagine that even in 1885 such an exhibit of he-man woman hating misogyny would get some heat, you would be correct. A mountain of letters of complaint to the editor came flooding in. One in particular, an anonymous piece signed “lonely orphan girl” stood out for it’s remarkably direct and persuasive use of language, even if, allegedly, the riposte broke many grammatical conventions. The letter never got published, but so impressed managing editor George Madden that he wrote an open letter inviting the writer to come see him, all the same. The next day a 20 year old woman named Elizabeth Cochran, a former trainee teacher at Indiana Teacher’s college who had to drop out to help her mother run a boarding house, arrived at the office. Madden offered her a job as a reporter, which she took unhesitatingly. Cochran took on the nom de plume Nellie Bly, a name she borrowed from a minstrel song written by “Father of American Music” Stephen Foster.
Bly wrote for the Pittsburgh Dispatch for a few years, covering the lives of working women, the poor of Pittsburgh, and for some time official corruption and wealth inequality in Mexico; but looking for bigger opportunities, she moved to New York in 1887. That year she approached Joseph Pulitzer’s ‘The New York World’ (yes, that Pulitzer, of the prize… if you recall the mountebank Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln also wrote for them on occasion) wanting to report on the lives of poor immigrants in the Big Apple. While the New York World was not at all interested in that story they did have a challenging job for Nellie Bly, if she felt she was up to the task- infiltrate the remote, secretive Blackwell Island insane asylum. As she would a to a number of big challenges in her life, Bly took up the challenge.
On 22nd September 1887 Nellie Bly came up with a plan to get herself committed with the least amount of collateral damage. Under the guise of a young out of towner looking for work, she booked herself into a boarding house for working women, then began to act one part paranoid, one part clinically depressed, one part retrograde amnesiac. She, in turns, acted ‘mad’ till the boarding house owners called for two police officers to come over and take Nellie away. The police arrived and took her, first, back to the station, then second before the kindly Judge Duffy, who took some convincing to send Nellie to Bellevue hospital for examination. At Bellevue, Nellie easily convinced the doctors she was “positively demented” and beyond help, after a short examination by a couple of what passed for expert doctors at the time. While at Bellevue you get the first sense of a few things she would find at Blackwell Island later – but more of that in a second. She was soon sent off to the asylum.
In her ten days in the asylum, Nellie Bly uncovered a litany of horrors and mistreatment. First there was the ubiquitous chill – Although the asylum was freezing cold (she references this several times including talk on seeing others skin going blue with the cold) the staff refused to turn on the heat or provide sufficient clothing to keep inmates warm. Second, the long hours of sitting around in a main room; unadorned and overcrowded, on backless benches (six people crammed onto five spaces) – where one dare not speak, or move around for fear of abuse from the staff. Third the food sounded absolutely Dickensian. Bly describes on their arrival to the island the sickening stench coming from one particular building,
“We passed one low building, and the stench was so horrible that I was compelled to hold my breath….” This turned out to be the kitchen. Bly goes on stating she
“…smiled at the signboard at the end of the walk: “Visitors are not allowed on this road”. I don’t think the sign would be necessary if they once tried the road, especially on a warm day”. She goes on to describe inedible food, soups which were little more than water, blackened (possibly moldy?) bread, rancid butter.
It was clear from Bly’s description of bathing conditions the inmates were not bathed enough, and when they were, they bathed in ice cold water, were scrubbed by the same few flannels and were dried off with the same few towels – this included inmates with untreated sores. The inmates were also dressed in the same clothes for up to a month at a time. Adding to the horrors, sleep for any decent length of time was out of the question – the noise of the nurses moving up and down the hallways at night reverberated like they were in an echo chamber. If that didn’t wake you, then he nurses opening the door to look in – having to turn a heavy, noisy lock each time to do so, was bound to wake you up. Speaking of those doors, they were death traps, should a fire break out. All individually locked, with no safety to unlock all the rooms at once should an emergency occur, there would be no chance of getting anyone out alive if the worst happened.
That Bly comments that, in her opinion, many of the women incarcerated are as sane as herself one might choose to accept, or dismiss as they see fit. Certainly in some of her conversations it seems clear some of the inmates were suffering from, at most, depression or anxiety. Some you do question if they are suffering from anything besides being trapped in an asylum. Bly mentions of a French inmate, Josephine Despreau, who appeared to have been locked up over a misunderstanding, and who did not have enough English to defend herself. A Sarah Fishbaum, who was locked away on the word of her husband, after she either flirted with or had an affair with a man other than her husband. She mentions a German maid by the name of Margaret, who was locked up after getting into a fight with co-workers who had deliberately messed up a floor she had spent hours scrubbing. What does seem pretty obvious is both the unprofessionalism of the doctors (one gossiping with the nurse in front of Bly, asking if she had read the newspaper articles on her case, in front of Bly), and of their great disinterest in helping, or even properly assessing their inmates. The nurses are disturbing in other ways, Bly reporting of their propensity to act violently towards the inmates. She mentions one case where “an insane woman” was dropped off to the island, and the nurses greeted her with a beating. When a doctor noticed the inmate’s black eye the nurses claimed the beating must have happened before the inmate arrived. Then there was the case of Mrs Cotter, to quote Bly
“One of the patients, Mrs Cotter, a pretty, delicate woman, one day thought she saw her husband coming up the walk. She left the line in which she was marching and ran to meet him. For this act she was sent to the Retreat. She afterward said: “The remembrance of that is enough to make me mad. For crying the nurses beat me with a broom- handle and jumped on me, injuring me internally, so that I shall never get over it. Then they tied my hands and feet, and, throwing a sheet over my head, twisted it tightly around my throat, so I could not scream, and thus put me in a bath tub filled with cold water. They held me under until I gave up every hope and became senseless.”
After ten days she was rescued by her colleagues at the New York World. She would record her experiences of Blackwell Island in a six part expose, which would later be compiled into a book, ‘Ten Days in a Mad House’. The uproar over the treatment of the inmates would lead to a grand jury investigation, which led to an overhaul of the asylum.
Bly would go on to write several similar exposes in her career, taking down sweatshops, corruption in jails, and bribery from lobbyists; though perhaps today is best known for having taken on the challenge of following in the footsteps of Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg (Around the World in Eighty Days, 1873), documenting her circumnavigation of the globe in just 72 days. Nellie Bly would retire from journalism in 1895, after marrying the wealthy industrialist Robert Seaman. When Seaman died in 1903 she took the reigns of his factory, but would return to journalism in 1920. Elizabeth Cochran, known to the world as Nellie Bly, star investigative reporter, would herself pass on, from pneumonia, January 27th 1922.
This Tale is part one of a script for an episode of the Tales of History and Imagination podcast. Click here for the episode
“Necessity, they say, is the mother of invention, but fear too, is not barren of ingenious suggestions.”– Joseph Conrad, ‘The Secret Sharer’, from ‘Twixt Land and Sea (1909).
Hi folks welcome back. Before the break we’d left off with Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln’s sentencing to prison, not for his attempted espionage- in all fairness there is no evidence that he was guilty of more than being a wannabe in this respect – but of fraudulently obtaining large sums of money, by way of a forged note in the name of his former employer, the abolitionist Benjamin Seebohm Rountree. So, some of you may ask, how did he spend his time in jail? The answer of course he spent every waking hour free to him writing long, begging letters to his former friends in parliament begging them to be released. In 1918 the prison barred him from writing any more letters, parliament having grown tired of his correspondence and he had a nervous breakdown. Moved to the prison hospital, he alternated between deep depression and all out rage. All the while Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln fantasized about the revenge he would have on his persecutors once released from jail. In December 1919 he was stripped of his British citizenship, released from prison, and deported to the Netherlands. This was the first good luck he’d had in some time as Romanian forces occupied Budapest, Hungary at the time, and he was still wanted in Romania for fraud charges relating to his oil business. From the Netherlands he moved to Germany.
Ignaz joins the Far Right. Now as many of you know Weimar Republic era Germany was a politically fraught place, with many political extremists; some furious over the alleged ‘stab in the back’ which ended WW1 others buoyed on by the fall of four major empires in the war. Some no doubt both. Many were vying to topple the new republic. Germany was hardly the only one, of 28 European democracies in existence just after WW1 very few would still be democracies by WW2 – but Revolution was in the air in Germany and this suited a bitter and twisted man like Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln. In Germany he turned to writing, for the far right wing paper Deutsche Zeitung. While there he made friends with Colonel Max Bauer, a former staffer to General Ludendorff. Bauer was a far right winger and anti Semite.
In 1920 Ignaz was sent to the Netherlands to meet with the son of the deposed Emperor, crown Prince Wilhelm in an effort to win his support for a revolution- but the crown Prince refused to meet with him. He came back from The Netherlands though claiming they had met. Much of his writing in this time was aimed at discrediting former Kaiser Wilhelm and praising the crown Prince.
In March 1920 he was involved in the Kapp Putsch, a short-lived revolution against the Weimar republic that was initially more successful than Hitler’s Munich beer hall putsch of 1923.
The Kapp Putsch In February 1920 the British demanded 900 Germans involved in WW1 be handed over for war crimes. The German government refused to do this but did order two marine brigades containing some of these men, in Berlin to disband. This was the trigger for the putsch. Rather than disband, the brigades; led by Generals Ludendorff, Luttwitz, Colonel Bauer, Ignaz and a bureaucrat named Wolfgang Kapp prepared themselves for conflict and demanded the restoration of the monarchy under the crown prince. Luttwitz was immediately stood down and orders were given for his arrest, alongside the others. On 12th March the conspirators decided to march on Berlin and seize power and on the 13th they took over Berlin to virtually no resistance.
Now taking over a city and proclaiming it a state, and governing a state are two very different things. They had absolutely no idea how to do the latter.. Well bureaucrat Kapp, now Chancellor Kapp, may have had a few ideas but the generals disliked him and went out of their way to ignore anything he said. Ignaz was made director of foreign press affairs. The international community almost unanimously condemned the putsch, and the people of Berlin made their feelings clear by going on a general strike from day one of the regime. Things were not going well and none of these guys knew how to govern. Just five days after the Putsch, having lost control and fighting amongst themselves, Kapp resigned and fled to Sweden. General Luttwitz fled to Hungary. The Weimar republic sent in the army to retake the city and Ignaz fled Berlin under the name Wilhelm Ludwig.
The White International Ignaz hid in plain sight for some time in Munich, where he became involved with a network of far right revolutionaries, that included several future Nazis. Sent to Hungary with Col Bauer by the network, to make connections with their far right, the two almost got arrested on a train headed to Austria. They only just managed to escape the German soldiers chasing them. They met with Hungarian and Russian fascists and began plotting, under the name the White International, to first seize power in their own countries, then the rest of Europe. By September 1920 Ignaz, perhaps tired of slumming it, or perhaps having come to the realization he was surrounded by thugs and gangsters who did not look kindly on Jews – one of the plotters a Major Stephani had made it known he wanted Trebitsch Lincoln dead- began to look for an escape route. One morning he packed his bags and fled in the wee small hours when no-one would notice, with a big pile of documents on the White International. Two thugs sent after him tracked him to Vienna Austria but didn’t kill him, as they needed to find out where the documents were hidden first.
Ignaz gave them the slip and fled the country. He tried to sell the White International documents to France, then Britain- without luck- then the Czechs. Czechoslovakia bought the documents, though they, suspecting much in the White International papers was fraudulent short paid him. Czech intelligence leaked the contents of the documents to the press. In 1921 Ignaz had moved back to Vienna, Austria, and attempted to sell more documents to the Japanese, USSR and USA. By this time his family had rejoined him, and they were desperately trying to get a visa for the USA… all the while terrified some death squad sent from the White International would find and kill him. The USA turned down his visa. While fighting the Czech government for payment in full he faked his own death and took on the name Thomas Lorincz.
Having had enough of him the Czech government contacted Austrian police, laying a complaint against Trebitsch Lincoln for attempting to con them. The police raided his hotel room, arresting him and finding multiple fake Id’s, documents linking him to the White International, Kapp putsch and other incidents, along with a pistol. In court he was found not guilty of fraud, and the Czech government were ordered to return the documents back to him. They did sentence him to time served for using false Id, and deported him from Austria in June 1921. Hiding out in Italy he, now living as retired British Colonel Thomas Longford, was yet again turned down for an American visa, but did manage to sneak into the USA as businessman Patrick Keelan. In 1922 the Americans arrested him. Rather than deport him, the Americans gave him the opportunity to leave of his own accord. He did soon after, making his way to China.
Ignaz finds warlords… Having arrived in Japan in 1922 Ignaz jumped on a literal slow boat to China, intending to head to Szechwan, then cross the border into Tibet, where, in an article he wrote in 1925 he claimed “my purpose was to start trouble in Central Asia”
This would be no mean feat. China at the time was in a state of massive unrest, with fractured groups running different parts of the country. Szechwan found itself in the middle of a bloody fight for control of the area by two rival warlords. On his journeys through the area, often posing as an Australian journalist, he seems not to have rubbed too many people up the wrong way. He spent time with a warlord, General Yang Sen, as an advisor.
In the war in the region Yang, a modernizer and a bit of a tyrant, would come out the winner. British reports of the aftermath stated they believed a modernizer in the area should have meant all kinds of lucrative contracts, but a Patrick Keelan- Ignaz- was poisoning Yang’s opinion of the British. Keelan was also trying to get a large investment from Yang to start his own business out there. By the time the British had id’ed him and sent warnings through diplomatic channels, Ignaz had disappeared. He showed up several months later in the company of a rival warlord, on a trip to Europe.
While in Europe he met with his friends Bauer and Ludendorff and almost got dragged into another putsch, this time in Munich… featuring one Adolf Hitler. Of course Ludendorff was a part of this putsch, but Bauer was in Switzerland arranging employment for himself with Ignaz’s employer General Ch’I, as a mercenary. Trebitsch Lincoln reunited also with his family, who sailed back to China under the surname Trautwein. When Bauer never showed up Ignaz returned to Europe, to find he had travelled to Moscow instead. On returning to China with the bad news he and General Ch’I decided to part ways too. Some time in late 1924 the family sailed for Europe. In 1925 he left his wife Margaret, and children, for good and set off again, for the USA. In New York he sold stories of his adventures in China to the New York World, the paper who published his spy stories of 1915.
Ignaz finds spirituality… In August 1925, a now deeply depressed Trebitsch-lincoln returned to China. In the depths of his depression, he had an allegedly mystic experience in October 1925, finding Theosophy – a spiritualist movement drawing on Buddhism, the Kabballah, Egyptian imagery and other Eastern religions to create a new agey belief system – established in 1875 by the occultist Helena Blavatsky. Blavatsky makes an interesting digression but I will save this for another episode…
Ignaz set off for Adyar in the South of India to study at the Theosophical society’s headquarters, however he got waylaid somewhere and in 1926 re-appears in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he was studying to become a Buddhist monk under the identity Dr Leo Tandler. He had become disillusioned with Theosophy on the ship over and de-camped on the way. His family were also in the news in 1926. They had returned to England and his son, Ignatius junior, had joined the army. Junior had a sideline in crime like his dad, in his case home invasions. While burglarizing a house he managed to wake the owner, Edward Richards. A fight ensued and Ignatius junior shot Richards dead. As he was a member of the military, Ignatius was tried by a military court – and was sentenced him to death. Ignaz was granted a visa to see his son one last time, if he could get there before the execution, but got there too late.
In the Netherlands speaking with reporters it was clear Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln had taken leave of his senses somewhat. He claimed while in the Far East he had developed supernatural powers and had telepathically communicated with his son regularly on the way over. Rather than being grief ridden he spent most of the interview discussing how he would like to bury the hatchet with Britain and return for good. Soon after, however, he reappears in historical records trying to get into Tibet. He was refused entry.
He reappears in 1927 as a Buddhist preacher in San Francisco, USA. In late 1927 he shows up in Hong Kong, from there trying and failing to get a visa to enter India, Burma, Thailand, and Sri Lanka. Reports surfaced in November he was in Peking giving public lectures and petitioning the Panchen Lama for permission to enter Tibet.
In 1930 he briefly returned to Europe to publish another autobiography… In 1931 Ignaz is ordained a Buddhist monk, taking on the name Chao Kung. Kung settled in Shanghai. In 1932, as hostilities increased between China and Japan, Kung wrote a rambling booklet calling for all wars to end, though in part another semi-biographical piece. With the money raised by the sale of this book he set off for Europe in 1933 looking to establish a Buddhist monastery in Germany. He gave a few lectures but ultimately failed, when Hitler’s rise to power saw a hardening of attitudes towards him and he was again sent packing. He, however didn’t come alone. Remember his Canadian adventures as a protestant missionary where he could not convert a single Jew? 13 Europeans followed Chao Kung back to Shanghai, taking residence with him. He promoted himself to Abbot to celebrate.
He tried, again, to return to Germany in January 1934, writing to Adolf Hitler directly for permission. It is unlikely the letter was actually read by Hitler, although the request was declined by the foreign ministry, citing his Jewish origins as the reason. In February the Belgians granted a visa to him, under the name Chao Kung – possibly unaware of his back story. He had to stop in Liverpool, England on the way however, and they deported him and his followers back to China. Several followers decided to part ways with the Abbot. On the way back he tried to get into Japan, but was sent packing from there too.
One of the departed followers gave insights into life following our abbot – telling of extreme hardship and poverty, 16 hour working days where you were rarely allowed to speak, a meal a day and constant bullying from the Abbot. A picture emerged of Trebitsch as a paranoid megalomaniac who acted like he had millions of followers rather than a handful, and who believed the powers of Europe were conspiring against him to thwart his mission of peace.
He began writing letters to, and paying for ads in Chinese newspapers to both complain about his treatment in Europe, and to threaten Christian missionaries living in China. Writers in the paper fired back at him, stating his past fraudulent behavior and involvement with fascist groups, and not his Buddhist faith, was responsible for his rejection in Europe. All the same his letters caught the eyes of a few wealthy Shanghai residents, who started financially backing him. Trebitsch aka Kung used money gifted to him by his new backers to start an organization, The League of Truth, whose logo bore a reversed swastika and whose aims were to be
“For Truth, justice, kindness, against lies, injustice, hatred everywhere and in everything”.
The general tenor of the pamphlets was that the world was in a mess, in no small part because Europe would not allow Abbot Chau Kung in. In 1936 he wrote of an impending apocalypse, because the “very elements are revolting”, at the evil that had taken over the world. Nothing particularly remarkable about this, there were clear indicators another world war was around the corner.
In 1936 he moved to Tientsin, publishing a final book, Dawn or Doom of Humanity in 1937. He called out all of humanity as stupid and called on the world’s governments to change their ways. Soon after Japan invaded and occupied much of China including Tientsin. Trebitsch wrote a pro Japanese pamphlet soon after, praising them for their treatment of the Chinese – which if you have read anything on the 2nd Sino-Japanese war and the atrocities carried out, does seem rather laughable. He called on the Chinese to
“free yourselves from the corrupting influence of the Kuomintang and Soviet: liberate yourselves from the selfish influence of Occidental nations, and you will find that Japan is your true friend, ready to help you”.
While Trebitsch may not have been completely mad in stating the factional wars between the communists and Kuomintang had been ugly and weakened the nation, and the occidental empire builders- the great European colonizers -were a blight on Asia. Yet again he had proved himself treasonous, and not to be trusted. Trebitsch wrote
“be not deceived a new empire has risen in the world – the greater Japanese empire. This new empire will surely bring about more just, more tolerable, more peaceful conditions on this earth, than the Christians have done. Let China abandon this futile, suicidal and wholly mistaken amenity to Japan, and peace and prosperity will ensue”.
Now I should mention this lackey-ism may have been driven by money. His patronage had dried up and his new monastery was going broke after the Japanese invasion. This would hardly be the first time we have seen him running with the hares and the hounds for cash. It has been suggested the Japanese were paying him to write pro Japanese propaganda. British intelligence responded angrily to this, their final note on on the dossier of Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln was “I think the only comment I can make on this is ! ! !”
His pamphlet was commented on in a New York Times editorial saying about him “now he wears a Japanese coat. But he can turn it very quickly”. Soon after writing his treacherous pamphlet he wrote a letter to the regent of Hungary and former ally in the White International, Admiral Horthy, begging to be allowed to return to Hungary. He sent the letter via an emissary, Margot Markuse, a Latvian national and his favorite nun at the monastery, also known as Tao Lo. Hungary refused re-entry. In December 1937 the Panchen Lama died. The Dalai Lama had passed 5 years earlier and neither had been replaced yet. In the midst of this reports came through in 1938 Trebitsch was on his way to Tibet, claiming to be the reincarnation of both Lama.
This may be apocryphal however, as it seems in March 1938 he had moved back to Shanghai, now with only two followers. He spent the rest of his life moving between cheap accommodation and a YMCA, where he would eventually die. In 1939, just before Christmas, it was recorded he made a public plea for world peace, and for all governments, but the Finnish and Japanese, to resign immediately. He threatened if the governments refused to do so there would be terrible consequences. The Tibetan supreme masters would unleash forces never seen before on the earth. In 1940 he made another proclamation, that he was headed to the USA to discuss peace with president Franklin Roosevelt. America responded that he would be denied entry. At this point the world press, just like MO5 had had enough of Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln.
One final act- Abbot Chou Kung, Nazi. Reports of his final years come mostly via German intelligence. In 1941 the Nazis took him on, now aged 61, as a spy. Their plan was to send the Abbot to Tibet to turn Tibetans pro-Nazi, and anti the Allies – then to set up a radio station which could be used to transmit pro Nazi propaganda across to India, undermining the British.
India was under British rule till after the war, in 1947 and still considered the jewel in the British crown. There was, at the time a great deal of hatred towards the British among swathes of the population. Tibet may also have been amenable. At this point the greatest European adventurer to explore Tibet was a rabidly anti-Semitic pro Nazi Swedish explorer called Sven Hedin. Indian politician Subhas Chandra Bose had similarly fled from India via Afghanistan, to Nazi Germany, where he began pumping out pro Nazi propaganda. Setting up something a little closer to home did seem a smart move to the Nazis. German intelligence wrote to Berlin asking for the resources to put his plan into action but there was never a reply.
While waiting Trebitsch did what he always did when impatient, went off the script in a mad way. He arranged a sit down with Colonel Joseph Meisinger of German Intelligence to request a sit down with Hitler himself. Trebitsch claimed he was an envoy for an unofficial world government based in Tibet, and he would like to make peace with the Nazis. He promised once he was alone with Herr Hitler, three Tibetan wise men would materialize out of the wall as proof of his great supernatural powers. Remarkably, rather than dismissing him as a nut Meisinger wrote to the Gestapo singing his praises and requesting the sit down with Hitler. The consul General also wrote a letter back, warning the Gestapo that Trebitsch was a small fish in Buddhist circles, and not to be trusted. Both letters ended up on the desk of foreign minister Von Ribbentrop, who refused Meisinger’s request. After this the Germans distanced themselves from Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln.
In 1942 British newspapers however did publish a story claiming Trebitsch was in Tibet broadcasting propaganda to India in a slightly Toyko Rose-ish manner. This was not the case but somehow the story of the plan had leaked. Truthfully he went quiet until just prior to his death, giving one final newspaper interview in July 1943. He talked about his life, and how after the war he would like to re-settle Jews from Europe on undeveloped Buddhist land just outside of Shanghai. On 6th October 1943 he was admitted to hospital with intestinal problems, which required an operation. He died in post operative care.
Conclusion. Well folks there we go – a long, shaggy dog tale of a life, piquaresque in it’s stumbling nature. Our protagonist began life a respectable middle class Jewish kid, and shambled through life a petty thief, missionary, politician, oil tycoon, fraudster, spy, far right revolutionary, and finally an Eastern holy man with messianic aspirations. I personally wonder if he was sociopathic, with his short attention span, need for drama and clear criminal versatility…not to mention his affairs in New York, superficial glibness which served him throughout life – if not quite well enough- and blatant self promotion at the news of his son’s death. It does appear whatever his personality disorders may have been, later in life he suffered from deep depressions and some kind of progressive mental health ailment.
I also have no doubt at times in Britain the young MP Lincoln did face horrendous discrimination – much as I want to laugh at the thought of him sitting across from some high ranking Nazi explaining some scenario that wouldn’t be out of place in Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare at Goats, there is something sad in his decline.
For decades he was a nuisance to several government departments across several countries. He clearly made for good copy for numerous newspapers too as his life took on one unlikely twist after another. He also mixed in some very dangerous company and probably lead to the financial ruin of more than a few people over his life. I do want to find some redeeming quality to Ignaz Trebitsch Lincoln, he is after all the protagonist in our picaresque tale, but in the end I find myself telling this tale cause he was an interesting guy with an insanely unusual life.
This Tale is part two of a two part series. To read the rest of this story click here.
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)
Beginnings 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.