The U.S. Naval Academy was not immune to the anti-German hysteria that gripped America during World War I. In February 1918, a midshipman, William Beresford Krebs Shope, was forced to resign from the Academy due to the suspicion that his mother, Baroness Ione Zollner, was a German spy—and that he was a witting or unwitting accomplice.
Shope’s personnel jacket, maintained in the Naval Academy’s archives, details his experience and the controversy surrounding both him and his mother. While these records do not provide any new evidence about whether or not they were actually involved in espionage, they do portray Baroness Zollner as something of a nuisance, and they raise the possibility that spying was not the only reason for forcing Shope’s resignation.
Was the Baroness a Spy?
James David Robenalt’s book The Harding Affair provides context to Shope’s midshipman records by filling in Baroness Zollner’s background.1 Although she was a U.S. citizen, her father was a native of Germany, and she was twice married to German Army officers. The first provided her with her title, while the second left her to rejoin the German Army on the Western Front after the war broke out.
As a distant relative of the Roosevelts through marriage, Zollner may have used her connections to get her eldest son appointed to the Naval Academy, which would allow her to meet other aspiring naval officers and gain access to a military installation. When one of her son’s classmates, John Spaulding, failed out of the Academy, she again used her political connections to get him a commission in the Army and visited him while he was stationed at Fort Oglethorpe outside Chattanooga, Tennessee. The two were discovered together in her hotel room in varying states of undress in the early morning hours of 13 December 1917.
In her possession at the time was a letter between the two that laid out a code he intended to use to inform her of his port of departure for Europe once he received his orders. Other letters she had were so bizarrely worded that they plausibly could have been coded messages. Knowing that the American troops would tip the scales on the Western Front, German leadership was anxious to learn how soon to expect them on the field. Also, German U-boats might be able to target troop transports if they knew when and where they were leaving port. A local prosecutor, perhaps overzealously, decided to use all of this evidence to pursue espionage charges against Zollner. However, the case never made it past the grand jury stage, and the end of the war also brought an end to the government’s interest in the baroness.2
One Midshipman, Two Plebe Years
Shope, meanwhile, had a bumpy career at the Naval Academy, although his initial difficulties had nothing to do with spying. His records show that he attended the Severn School, a prep school dedicated to helping Academy hopefuls qualify academically, and then started his studies a week after the 1915–16 school year had begun. He also missed time during his first semester due to sickness and injury. As a result he was deficient in several subjects to such a degree that the faculty and administration concluded it would be impossible for him to pass at the end of the year. However, he had a good aptitude for service rating. Following the advice of the administration, he resigned from the Academy, reapplied for the 1916–17 school year as a plebe, and started fresh. He largely avoided academic issues after that.3
When the United States entered World War I on 6 April 1917, in the midst of Shope’s second plebe year, he and his mother quickly appeared on the Academy administration’s radar screen. His jacket contains a set of notes, dated 26 May 1917, that sketch out Shope’s ethnicity and his relationship (what little there was) with his stepfather-colonel in the German army. The notes do not identify an author. A few days later, the Academy’s superintendent, Captain Edward Eberle, received a letter from Zollner’s attorney showing she was exempt from the recently passed Enemy Aliens Act. The act barred male citizens of belligerent nations against the United States from coming within a half mile of any government installation, which would include the Academy. Apparently Zollner’s citizenship had been raised, and there was a question as to whether the act applied to women as well.4
‘Certain Pro-German Activities’
Other questions arose as well, and the Office of Naval Intelligence also undertook an investigation of Zollner in the spring of 1917 based on reports of “certain pro-German activities” it had received. There are no reports in the Academy’s records, but Zollner accused an unnamed midshipman of slander for reporting “[she] asked ‘questions.’”5 The Commandant of Midshipmen, Captain Louis Nulton, stated he received a report from Midshipman C. J. Lamb of “Mrs. Zollner’s interests, activities, and inquiries concerning movements of ships and Naval matters.”6
Whether these accusations were part of Naval Intelligence’s investigation or whether they occurred later is not reflected in Academy records. However, the investigators concluded the reports they looked into were “based on gossip” and “malicious exaggeration” and stated Zollner was “thoroughly loyal to the United States.”7 Later that fall, Naval Intelligence provided the Academy with transcripts of statements by Zollner about her family history and her intention to divorce her husband, as well as newspaper clippings and obituaries from 1895 to 1910 about members of her immediate family, but made no comment about its investigation or suspicion of her.8
The Academy’s suspicion of Zollner, however, carried over into the 1917–18 academic year and soon extended to her son. Soon after classes started, both Zollner and Shope wrote Eberle inquiring about the conditions under which they could visit each other. Zollner claimed her son was “very anxious for me to remain for the semester” but wanted to know whether she’d “be granted the same privileges I always enjoyed, or [if] I shall be restricted.”9 Shope’s letter a few days later acknowledged the restrictions placed on his mother based on the Enemy Aliens Act, but still asked whether she might “come down and see me at different times, provided she remains outside the half-mile limit.”10
Commandant Nulton discussed the situation with Shope and reported the conversation with Superintendent Eberle. Nulton acknowledged that Shope’s mother “received an exemption by the Department of Justice from the law forbidding enemy aliens to come within one-half mile of a Naval Station,” but that “her case was settled by the Superintendent during the last Academic Year, and Mrs. Zollner was forbidden to enter the Naval Academy.”
‘Resentful, Insubordinate, and Disloyal’
Upon learning the same restrictions would continue, “Midshipman Shope impressed me unfavorably by his manner,” Nulton wrote, “which indicates that his blood relationship to his mother is the dominating factor in his life and that this association directly affects his loyalty to the Government.” Although Shope was “perfectly respectful from a military point of view” during the interview, Nulton thought him “inwardly resentful, insubordinate, and disloyal.”11
Some of this negative attitude comes through in Shope’s letter to the Superintendent, when he asks whether houses surrounding Annapolis’s State Circle, a few blocks from the Academy’s walls, and a couple theaters fall within the half-mile prohibited zone and requests “a written statement of my mother’s status, since I understood the Secret Service had exhonorated [sic] her of all suspicion.”12
Nulton’s conclusion following the interview was “that the Government be given the benefit of the doubt in this case and that Midshipman Shope be either requested to resign or be dropped, as I do not consider him safe or loyal under his present influence.”13 The Superintendent took no action at that point other than sending Shope a short reply saying Zollner “has been denied entrance to the Naval Academy” but he “does not exercise jurisdiction in the City of Annapolis or elsewhere.”14
In December, Nulton conducted a second interview with Shope asking whether he or his mother knew of his stepfather’s whereabouts. Shope stated, “I have not known for the last six months; eight months,” and his mother “has not known since last February or March.” He added that “his mother is suing for divorce from her husband” but “would probably re-marry” after the war.15 The date of this interview, 14 December, is notable because it occurred one day after Zollner’s arrest in Chattanooga. There was no mention of the arrest in the transcript, but there is also no other explanation of why this interview was conducted nearly two months after the prior documents in Shope’s jacket.
Baroness Zollner’s arrest and trial turned out to be the final nail in Shope’s coffin as far as the Academy was concerned. William Kennerly, the federal district attorney for Tennessee’s Eastern District, was intent on convicting her on espionage charges, being “satisfied that she is guilty of an attempt to obtain important military information from Lieutenant Spaulding for the purpose of transmitting same to the German Government,” and tried to enlist Captain Eberle’s help in doing so. In January 1918, Kennerly subpoenaed the Superintendent to appear at Zollner’s bail review hearing, then sent the terms of her bail along with copies of correspondence between Zollner and Shope. Kennerly suggested “the advisability of adopting any reasonable rules and regulations looking to the censoring of letters from this defendant to her son.”16
The letters forwarded by Kennerly contain annotations marking the suspicious passages and describing when during Shope’s time at the Academy they were written. There is no indication of who made these annotations. The first letter, written by Shope just after receiving his first appointment to the Academy, describes his visit “as usual down to the German storekeeper and his wife and the German Sailor” when he “learnt there to sing ‘Deutchland [sic] Uber Alles’ (Kennerly also enclosed the lyrics to the song translated “Germany Over All”).17
The second letter, from a W. P. Cottrell in Los Angeles to Shope (their relationship is not explained), includes a request that Shope send “a few of those sketches and drawings you make of soldiers, etc,”18 which Kennerly described as “showing the size of the naval strength of the various countries, their military strength, [and] the uniform and insignia of the different organizations.” He admitted he thought “these sketches appear to be somewhat valueless from a military standpoint.”19
In the third letter, written during Shope’s first plebe year, he invites his mother to an upcoming ball, explaining, “I as a freshman may not dance [but] these two friends of mine will show you a good time” and adding “the two midshipmen are both pro-German.”20
The final letter was written in the summer of 1916 while Shope was awaiting his second plebe year to begin and was stationed on board the USS Wisconsin (BB-9), which was anchored “about six miles out to sea.” Written in May or June, the letter was intended to dissuade Zollner from spending the summer in Annapolis as “I will be on the ship from Monday till September and you can’t go on the ship for some damn reason or other.”21 This was the passage identified as incriminating, but it should be noted the letter was written before the United States entered World War I and Zollner was banned from the Academy.
For his part, Superintendent Eberle seemed more restrained in his correspondence with Kennerly. Eberle refused the subpoena, saying, “I cannot leave my duty in command of the Station in time of war without orders from Secretary of Navy and without serious prejudice to public interest.”22 He reported that “Midshipman Shope has been given orders that all communications to his mother, Mrs. Zollner, either direct or indirect, must be submitted to the Commandant of Midshipmen for censoring and he has also been directed to deliver to the Commandant of Midshipmen for censoring any communication, either direct or indirect, from his mother, Mrs. Zollner.” But he did not react to the letters Kennerly sent other than to thank him for sending them and requesting “anything of a damaging, or incriminating or suspicious nature” regarding the Academy’s midshipmen be passed on as well.23
However, Superintendent Eberle still took action by sending Kennerly’s correspondence, along with the letters between Shope and his mother, to the Navy’s Bureau of Navigation. In this communication, he reviewed the decision to bar her from the Academy and Shope’s response, saying, “instead of endeavoring intelligently and cheerfully to accept the Superintendent’s instructions, he appeared to be persistently stubborn in his attempt at misunderstanding, although not the extent of open disobedience or disrespect.” Copying Commandant Nulton’s recommendation almost verbatim, Eberle concluded:
The retention of Midshipman Shope at the Naval Academy is not to the best interests of the Government, particularly in view of the investigation of the recent charges against Mrs. Zollner and her apparent influence over her son; and it is believed that the Government should be given the benefit of the doubt as to Midshipman Shope’s obligation and loyalty to his oath, and that he should be called upon to resign, otherwise that he be dropped or dismissed.24
The bureau’s response does not appear in Shope’s personnel jacket, but Eberle sent letters to Baroness Zollner and District Attorney Kennerly indicating that Shope had resigned, effective 25 February 1918.25
A Penchant for Promiscuity
As before, Eberle’s letter to Kennerly was short and to-the-point, avoiding any hints of his personal belief in Zollner’s guilt or innocence. Kennerly, in reply, once again took the opportunity to state his belief in guilt of spying and espionage but lamented “the apparent lenient way in which she has been dealt with by some other parties with whom she has come in contact.”26 Surprisingly, a court document included in Shope’s personnel jacket shows that Kennerly failed to present Zollner’s case to a grand jury, leading to a dismissal of the charges in May 1918.
It would take another couple of months for the dust to settle after Shope’s resignation, during which time more disturbing allegations about his mother would come to light, albeit ones not necessarily related to spying. First, though, John Spaulding, the former midshipman, now Army lieutenant, who had been arrested with Zollner in Chattanooga, sent a letter to his Senator, Robert L. Owen, in an attempt to get Shope reinstated at the Academy. In the five-page defense of Shope and his mother, which made its way to Eberle via Senator B. F. Tillman, Naval Affairs Committee Chair, Spaulding asks, “Is it just that he should resign because his mother loves me.”27 Although being found together in a hotel room after midnight not fully dressed is probably sufficient evidence of a romantic relationship between Zollner and Spaulding, this passage proves it.
Spaulding may not have been the only person at the Academy conducting an affair with Zollner. In Shope’s letter inviting his mother to the Academy ball with the promise of upperclassmen to dance with, he requested, “don’t bring the black dress that is all open in the back because I think it’s a bit to decolete.”28 Furthermore, a year after exonerating Zollner, the Naval Intelligence Office conducted another investigation of her, and Lieutenant Commander O. W. Fowler of that office sent Eberle’s aide, John Downes, a request to obtain a statement from Midshipman G. L. Richmire, who claimed to have information about Zollner. Richmire’s statement contained more evidence of pro-German sympathies but added:
She was most conspicuous in her behavior, often drunk at the dinner table and when in this condition was profane and coarse. She constantly had midshipmen out there and gave them liquor to drink and on numerous occasions her actions and familiarity with them were not above suspicion. She also received visits from one or more instructors attached to the Naval Academy.29
Such behavior would have made Zollner unwelcome at the Academy even if she wasn’t passing on the information gleaned from her son and other midshipmen to German contacts. In his correspondence, Eberle never deviated from the official reasons given for demanding Shope’s resignation. Replying to Senator Tillman about Spaulding’s letter, Eberle reiterated, “the Government should be given the benefit of any doubt in time of war, and that it was not to the best interests of the Government for Midshipman Shope to remain at the Naval Academy.”30 His wording was much the same to appeals from Shope, his uncle, and the family attorney, who all sent separate letters in May and June 1918 requesting Shope’s reinstatement following the dismissal of Zollner’s case, or failing that, his support of Shope pursuing a commission in the Marine Corps.31
However, Eberle also never said he thought Zollner guilty of spying and certainly did not show the same exuberance to see her brought to justice that Kennerly and others did. One can conclude that he wished her gone from Annapolis, and his interactions with her son clearly demonstrated that would not happen as long as Shope was at the Naval Academy. Her arrest with Spaulding finally gave Eberle the excuse he needed to demand Shope’s resignation, but the question remains about what held greater sway for Eberle: a secret code established by the two lovers, or the proof of their relationship in the first place.
The most likely answer is a combination of the two, but there’s actually more proof for Zollner’s inappropriate behavior with midshipmen than of her spying for Germany. Robenalt chronicles her case carefully, but while she behaved in odd ways and had ample opportunity to access military information, there was never any evidence of her sharing it with her husband or any other German officials. Meanwhile, the letter from Spaulding, other testimony Robenalt cites, and the circumstances of the Chattanooga hotel-room arrest firmly establish the Zollner-Spaulding relationship, with a strong suggestion it began while he was still at Annapolis.
Whatever wrongs his mother committed, it appears to be a shame that Shope paid a price for them. According to the information he supplied to the U.S. Naval Academy Alumni Association, he eventually joined the Naval Reserve, received campaign ribbons for both world wars, and retired in 1950. If his mother was a spy, he doesn’t appear to have been a willing accomplice, just an unfortunate side note in an intriguing tale of love and espionage in an age of paranoia and uncertainty.
1. Baroness Zollner was a distant relation of Warren G. Harding’s mistress, who also was suspected of being a German spy, in part due to Zollner’s notoriety.
2. James Robenalt, The Harding Affair (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), 32–35, 133, 161–63, 291–97, 264–65, 309–310, 333.
3. William Shope, midshipman, to Edward Eberle, Superintendent, United States Naval Academy, 30 January 1915, Personnel Jacket, Office of the Registrar, Dean of Admissions, Records of the United States Naval Academy, Record Group 405, Special Collections & Archives, Nimitz Library, United States Naval Academy; Thomas Kurtz, Aid to the Superintendent, to Louis Nulton, Commandant of Midshipmen, 29 January 1916, Box 47, Folder 14, General Correspondence, 1913-1922, Office of the Superintendent (Entry 36), RG 405; Eberle to George Loft, House of Representatives, New York, 8 February 1916, Personnel Jacket, RG 405.
4. Unsigned notes. Personnel Jacket, RG 405; James Owens, attorney at law, to Eberle, 30 May 1917, Personnel Jacket, RG 405.
5. Zollner to Eberle, 14 July 1917, Personnel Jacket, RG 405.
6. Nulton to Eberle, 1 October 1917, Personnel Jacket, RG 405.
7. Roger Welles, Director of Naval Intelligence to Eberle, 31 May 1917, Personnel Jacket, RG 405.
8. O. W. Fowler to Eberle, 20 October 1917, Personnel Jacket, RG 405.
9. Zollner to Eberle, 28 September 1917, Personnel Jacket, RG 405.
10. Shope to Eberle, 2 October 1917, Personnel Jacket, RG 405.
11. Nulton to Eberle, 1 October 1917, Personnel Jacket, RG 405.
12. Shope to Eberle, 2 October 1917, Personnel Jacket, RG 405.
13. Nulton to Eberle, 1 October 1917, Personnel Jacket, RG 405.
14. Eberle to Shope, 3 October 1917, Personnel Jacket, RG 405.
15. “Interview with Midshipman W.K.B. Shope, 3rd Class,” 14 December 1917, Personnel Jacket, RG 405.
16. Kennerly to Eberle, 22 January 1918, Personnel Jacket, RG 405.
17. Shope to Zollner, 28 March 1915, Personnel Jacket, RG 405.
18. Cottrell to Shope, 12 May 1915, Personnel Jacket, RG 405.
19. Kennerly to Eberle, 22 January 1918, Personnel Jacket, RG 405.
20. Shope to Zollner, undated, Personnel Jacket, RG 405.
21. Shope to Zollner, undated, Personnel Jacket, RG 405.
22. Eberle to Kennerly, 14 January 1918, Personnel Jacket, RG 405
23. Eberle to Kennerly, 26 January, 1918, Personnel Jacket, RG 405
24. Eberle to the Bureau of Navigation, 28 January 1918, Personnel Jacket, RG 405.
25. Eberle to Zollner, 26 February 1918, Personnel Jacket, RG 405; Eberle to Kennerly, 26 February 1918, Personnel jacket, RG 405.
26. Kennerly to Eberle, 2 March 1918, Personnel Jacket, RG 405.
27. Spaulding to Owen, 3 March 1918, Personnel Jacket, RG 405.
28. Shope to Zollner, undated, Personnel Jacket, RG 405.
29. Downes to Fowler, 7 June 1918, Personnel Jacket, RG 405.
30. Eberle to Tillman, 9 March 1918, Personnel Jacket, 1918, RG 405.
31. Owens to Eberle, 22 May 1918; Eberle to Owens, 23 May, 1918; Shope to Eberle, 18 June 1918; Julian Bedford Shope to Eberle, 21 June 1918, Eberle to Shope, 24 June 1918, Personnel Jacket RG 405.