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Nazi Party Sympathizers in Philadelphia Before the War (Part 1)

The following article was written by HSP volunteer Randi Kamine and is being posted on her behalf. Part two of the article will be posted next Wednesday. Many thanks to Archival Processor Megan Evans for helping prepare these articles for publication.

A slice of Philadelphia history may surprise those of us who live in and love our city. In the late 1930s and the early 1940s, Nazi party affiliates were active in several venues in and around the city. The German-American Bund, in particular, represented those whose sympathies lay with Hitler and Hitler’s Nazi movement.  Formed in 1933, the Bund’s membership consisted of American citizens of German descent. Its main goal was to promote a favorable view of Nazi Germany, although documents below show that their mission went beyond propagandizing to enlisting young sympathizers and even preparing for armed conflict. The Historical Society of Pennsylvania archives has photos and documents that trace the appearance and demise of this National Socialist movement throughout the Philadelphia region.

The Philadelphia Record Photograph Morgue (Collection V07) that resides at HSP presents a record of how journalists investigated and covered American Nazi activity from before the Second World War to the American Bund’s demise in the early 1940s. Among the photos are images showing items seized in raids by the FBI in homes purported to be local Nazi headquarters.

 One photo, dated October 5, 1942, displays rifles, radios, and photo enlargers, “seized in raids in alien homes” according to contemporaneous notes attached to the photo. 

"Seized in alien raids"

In another photo, dated August 13, 1942, Nazi uniforms, guns, and a Nazi flag are shown after they were “seized in yesterday’s raids.”  

"Item[s] seized by FBI agents early yesterday in a raid on the North Philadelphia home of an enemy (German) alien"

An August 8, 1942 report showing another photo is entitled Symptoms of Fifth Column in Chester.  The author writes,  “The contraband above, including rifles, revolvers, ammunition, cameras, radios and pictures of Hitler, was seized yesterday by FBI agents in extensive raids on the homes of enemy aliens in Chester and Marcus Hook.”  The radios seen in the photos were no doubt used to be in contact with the Transocean News Service which the Commission declared had over 70,000 people on its mailing list. The news service was a wireless German news agency headquartered in Berlin designed by the German Foreign Office and operated by the Propaganda Ministry.

"Seized yesterday [August 7, 1942] by FBI agents"

The photographs in the collection also depict the gatherings and activities of the Bund in and around Philadelphia prior to the war.

Boys at the Deutschorst Country Club, a recreational gathering place of the Bund, outside of Sellersville, Pennsylvania (July 26, 1937)

 Nazi demonstration at Reyburn Plaza, adjacent to City Hall, Philadelphia (1937)

In addition to contemporaneous photographs, HSP has several items that document the tenor of the times, particularly the fear that there existed a “fifth column” ambitiously at work to undermine the United States government. The reports of the famous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) give the reader an insight into this mindset. In the popular imagination the Dies Commission is associated with the rooting out of Communist sympathizers.  However, the Committee was originally created in 1938 to uncover citizens with Nazi ties within the United States. HSP has a copy of this initial report. Among its claims, the committee states that the official newspapers of the German-American Bund had advance information on what was about to transpire militarily in Germany. Editions of the paper, Weckruf und Beobachter (Wake-up-call and Observer), appeared in Philadelphia.

A commission report dated January 3, 1941 outlined what the committee perceived as National Socialism’s plans for the United States: “Both Stalin and Hitler have made it plain that their strategy in achieving their objectives in the United States includes the use of Trojan Horses or ‘fifth columns.’ ” The report quotes a statement Hitler made in 1934, “[Nazism] is destined to liberate the American people from their ruling clique and give them back the means of becoming a great nation. … I shall undertake this task simultaneously with the restoration of Germany to her leading position.” The report claims that German-American Bunds had 100,000 members.   (This figure is widely believed to be exaggerated. Historians have put membership as low as 25,000. However, mailing lists for newspapers and other propaganda are believed to have been closer to the 100,000 figure.)

Philadelphia figures prominently in the report when discussing the Kyffhauserbund.  The Kyffauserbund was a national veterans’ organization in Germany.  According to the commission report, a branch affiliated with the German organization was formed in the summer of 1937 in Philadelphia.  It appears that its primary function was to promote rifle and pistol practice.  From Philadelphia, the Bund spread to New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Michigan,  and Texas.  A leader of the Texas Kyffhauserbund is quoted in the 1941 Commission Report: “We did not need to unlearn anything when Hitler came to power.  We were already Nazis when he took the reins of the Reich.”

Exterior of a home purported to be the headquarters of the Kyffhauser Bund, 1802 W. Erie Avenue in Philadelphia

 The extent to which the United States government was actually in danger is a subject for scholarly debate.  It is clear, however, that the Dies reports as early as 1938 saw such a danger and that Philadelphia’s German-American Bund and related organizations were objects of investigation.  The reports reflect what was to be written, or had been written, in Philadelphia newspaper reports mentioned above.

Political cartoons from the Philadelphia Record depict the conflict between anti-war groups and those people who had a clear impulse to join in the war on the side of the Allies -- first with financial help, and in the end with military involvement. Among those against the war, it was hard to discern the line between Nazi sympathizers and other anti-war activists.

"Man the Guns, Here Come the Chutists!," cries William Penn, which sport the labels "Lindy" and "Bundists" among other threats to American solidarity

Charles Lindbergh was often an object of scorn in Jerry Doyle’s repertoire of political cartoons written for the Philadelphia Record.   Lindbergh gave voice to Nazi fellow travelers and anti-Semites within the America First Committee -- where few members denounced him, and which in 1940-41 called for the United States to stay out of the war.  Lindbergh drew overflow crowds, and increased American First chapter membership wherever he spoke.   Several of Doyle’s cartoons lambast Charles Lindberg’s anti-war speech given in Philadelphia on May 29 1941. In one cartoon, a smiling Hitler is sitting on a couch holding hands with a fellow Nazi.  Joeseph Goebbels is standing by a radio.  The words “Lindbergh’s Philadelphia Speech” is coming out the speaker. The cartoon is entitled “An Appreciative Audience.”

This first segment of two of “Nazi Sympathizers in Philadelphia Before the War,” highlighted  photographs and political cartoons that are held at HSP.  This is but a sampling. Those interested in Nazism in America, citizen reactions to this movement, and generally, Philadephia before the war, will find a wealth of information in these collections. The second segment will look at some of the Philadelphia Record newspaper clippings that are in our collection.

The Mystery Bones of Philadelphia & Their Discovery in 1896

The Philadelphia area of the Delaware Valley, like other parts of the country, has its own archaeological  or paleontological mysteries.  Peter Kalm, the famous Swedish botanist, in his Travels Into North America, visited Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York and parts of Canada in 1748 & 1749, wherein he recorded a number of enigmatic discoveries. He noted everything from copper tools, mines, to that of wells, walls, and burnt bricks, found many feet below the surface of the earth, antedating the arrival of Europeans.

Also, John Fanning Watson, the early antiquarian & folklorist of Philadelphia, gives a number of accounts within his famed Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, published in the early 19th century, of well pits, pebble pavements, petrified trees, bones and other objects found many feet below the surface, located throughout the city of Philadelphia.

A specific mystery, is contained in the local newspapers of Philadelphia, particularly that of the Philadelphia Inquirer, for May 12, 1896, as found in an article entitled, “Giant Animal’s Bones: Curious Skeleton is Unearthed in a West Philadelphia Quarry.”  The story states that workmen at Fifty-Fifth Street and Wyalusing Avenue, at the Pemberton’s Stone Quarry, were blasting and uncovered a cavern, which “ran back underground some thirty feet.”  At the cave or tunnel’s end, “stood a skeleton,” which was “not unlike a mammoth,” with “four great tusks” and a number of large teeth, along with a bones lying nearby, which “looked like a human skull.” 

The above article goes on to attest that scientists from the Wistar Institute (which still exists today at the University of Pennsylvania), but more specifically its Curator, “Dr. Milton Greenman” (1866-1937),  had visited the cave, examined what was left of the bones (many having been carried off as souvenirs by the public), and declared in his belief it was too small to have been that of a mastodon, perhaps “a large bear,” though “in many respects the animal looked like a rhinocerous.”  The human skull, in his estimation being “that of an Indian,” both creatures having lived roughly four to five-hundred years ago.

More mysteriously atlases or maps of the time, do not show a Pemberton Stone Quarry at 55th and Wyalusing, neither have any papers survived of Dr. Greenman for 1896, either from the University of Pennsylvania’s Archives nor at the Wistar Institute.  Neither does the Academy of Natural Sciences appear to have any data concerning the discovery as well. 

Naturally, scientific hoaxes were prevalent and published frequently within the nation’s newspapers during the 19th century, but the article in question is quite specific in its location, persons involved, as well as theoretical interpretation of said artifacts. Nothing is recorded in regard to any one receiving any gain or profit from the discovery.

Some two months later in late July of 1896, a number of papers, both in and out of the state, recorded how, “the skeleton of what is reported to be a small mammoth,” was unearthed in West Philadelphia, along with the skull of an Indian, both of whose remains were sent to the “Wisconsin Institution,” no doubt a misprint or error for the Wistar  Institute. After that, the story goes cold. I leave it up to the reader to perhaps uncover any further information about the whereabouts or exact definition of what was actually found if anything and share it with the author and our readers-at-large.

New Issue of PA Legacies Made Available to Non-Members

To mark the World Meeting of Families and papal visit, HSP is making freely available the newest issue of its illustrated history magazine, Pennsylvania Legacies.

The issue explores the history of Pennsylvania’s Catholics, with articles examining the diversity—and sometimes conflict—within the early Catholic Church, the essential work of Catholic women religious in the 19th century, the organization and activism of African American Catholics at the turn of the 20th century, the important role of Catholic parishes in supporting immigrant communities, and much more.

The Home Missionary Society of the City and County of Philadelphia

In 2015, The Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP) launched HSP Encounters, a new digital resource comprised of an ever-growing number of genealogical and biographical databases.

HSP Encounters is an ongoing project in which records and materials deemed of high research value are digitized and made available to Friends of HSP online, in searchable form. Historical essays incorporated in the system describe each database as well as establish historical context for the records contained. 

To highlight the databases in HSP Encounters, we'll be featuring historical essays describing the database's context and contents on Roots & Branches. The inuaugral essay, written by Laura Michel, looks at the Home Missionary Society of Philadelphia database.

HSP Encounters is available to all researchers while inside the Reading Room. Remote access is a benefit to Friends of HSP. HSP also offers a Research-by-Mail service, with professional researchers delving into the collection in reponse to specific queries, as well as a Rights & Reproduction service for those wanting an archival-quality print of HSP's collection materials. Friends of HSP receive 40% off Research-by-Mail requests & 10% off archival prints. 

The Home Missionary Society of the City and County of Philadelphia was an organization that sought to spread its spiritual message of Christian piety through religious education and aid to the poor. Their reach was considerable—the Home Missionary Society of Philadelphia visiting book, 1883–1889 contains information collected during close to 5,000 visits to poor families, who were potential (and usually, actual) recipients of aid during the six-year period. Recipients of aid ranged from widows like Louisa Webb struggling to support her now-fatherless son who, tragically, was also a "chronic invalid" to single men such as Patrick Cohlen, an "aged" Roman Catholic enduring the final years of his life an ocean away from his native Ireland. In these and the thousands of other entries contained in the visiting book, valuable genealogical, demographic, and biographical information is provided for individuals and families who– generally absent from tax rolls, unable to afford a church burial, without a sufficient estate to be probated, and often without personal papers to leave behind–can otherwise be absent in the standard genealogical (and historical) record.

The impressive mobilization of people and resources by the Home Missionary Society of Philadelphia to visit the home of destitute Philadelphians such as Anna Hester, her husband–"a shoemaker out of work," and their three children and, upon determining the legitimacy of their need, providing the family with groceries, is illustrative of a larger trend in this period. As the nineteenth century reached its mid-point, a growing number of Philadelphians found themselves troubled by what they perceived to be a growing social and moral destitution in the metropolis and, indeed, throughout the country. One response to the apparent moral blight was the Home Missionary Society of the Methodist-Episcopal Church for the City and County of Philadelphia, founded in 1835 by members of the Union and St. George's Methodist Episcopal churches. Their primary objective was clear: "to promote the extension of the Redeemer's Kingdom, by means of preaching, prayer, and exhortation, and by the establishment of Sabbath-schools, distribution of Bibles, testaments, and other Books of a religious nature." The early successes of the group's missionary efforts, however, were tempered by their burgeoning awareness of the profound poverty present in Philadelphia. Buoyed by a social climate that encouraged benevolent deeds among the middle-class as both fashionable and honorable, the objectives of the organization were officially expanded in April of 1845 to include relief of the poor and care for destitute children. Additionally, by dropping the "of the Methodist-Episcopal Church" from its name, the Home Missionary Society of the City and County of Philadelphia officially became a nonsectarian organization with aims that were, as the subheading on the title page of its 1846 Annual Report proclaims, "Christian, but not Sectarian."

The recipients of relief as recorded in the Home Missionary Society of Philadelphia visiting book reflect this non-sectarian mission. While religious denomination is a category recorded by representatives of the society visiting the potential recipients of aid, there is no indication this information ultimately impacted if or what kind of help was provided. In a typical example, of the seven visits representatives made on December 22, 1883, seven families were granted relief by the society, none of whom were members of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Mrs. Smith, a Presbyterian, who was struggling to provide for her two children after her husband fell ill with pneumonia, was given a half ton of coal. Similarly, Susan Kilburn, a Baptist, whose husband was "injured by [an] accident," was given a quarter-ton of coal so that she, her husband, and child would not freeze during the cold winter months. Margaret McMullen and her family–members of the Episcopal Church, as well as two more Baptists, another Presbyterian, and a Roman Catholic family were also deemed to be appropriate recipients of aid that day in late December of 1883. In fact, not only is a diversity of Christian sects found in the record book, a handful of Jewish Philadelphians, including Amelia Unoskey, who had four children and a husband suffering from tuberculosis, also obtained assistance from the society.

As the entries of the visiting book attest, it was not mere hyperbole when the semi-centennial history of the Home Missionary Society observed that recipients of aid came "from all nations, climes, tongues, and kindred, of all ages and both sexes, these weary-laden, poverty-stricken sick and wounded children of Adam." In addition to providing information about the denominational affiliation of Philadelphians in need of support, representatives of the society also noted the name, street address, race, place of birth, and family size in the visiting book. The interviews conducted to verify the legitimate need of a family or individual were done with the female in charge of the household–widowed or otherwise–though single men are sporadically listed as recipients of relief. In general, aid went to families that lacked a male breadwinner, a condition induced by a variety of circumstances including death, illness, unemployment, neglect (more than a few husbands were deemed to be "worthless") and abandonment. Indeed, a glimpse into the causes and experiences of poverty can be found in the short descriptions included by society representatives in many of the visiting book entries.

The demographic information found in the visiting book highlights the racial and ethnic diversity of late nineteenth-century Philadelphia. Although a plurality of recipients of aid from the Home Missionary Society were natives of the city, many others were migrants from more rural parts of Pennsylvania or came from surrounding states such as Delaware, Maryland, New Jersey, and New York. More still were immigrants to the United States from Western European countries including Ireland, England, Scotland, and Germany. Also of note is the racial make-up of the recipients of assistance–the society frequently provided aid to black, or "colored," families, including Alice Tilford, a widow with a son who was "subject to fits." As was the case with their white counterparts, many were not natives of Philadelphia but came from nearby states or even the Caribbean. As varied as the backgrounds of those receiving assistance from the Home Missionary Society were, the type relief provided to individuals and families was fairly standard. As need was often greatest during the winter months when jobs were more scarce and illness more frequent, coal was a vital resource provided by the society to those in need. In many cases the one-quarter or half ton of coal provided was accompanied by groceries and, on some occasions, clothing or cash. Other recipients of aid did not receive coal, but some combination of groceries, cash, and (least often) apparel. A few indefatigable individuals undertook the society's visits to poor families, who were identified in the visiting book only by their initials (E. H. T., J. W. F., and J. B.). The majority of visits were by J. B., then by J. W. F. Most of the visits were during winter when many families struggled to keep their homes warm and supply other needs as well. Three members of the standing committee of the society's board in 1885 were Emanuel H. Toland, J. W. Field, and John Barry; these gentlemen evidently were the organization's representatives who visited and then authorized aid to thousands of homes of poor Philadelphians. 

Copies of the original records may be obtained via HSP’s Research-by-Mail service (researchbymail@hsp.org). 


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