Black Tom



Sabotage and World War I

By Christine Wallace

On June 28, an editorial in the New York Times pleaded with Kaiser Wilhelm to back off encouraging an Austrian ultimatum. Yet, Kaiser Wilhelm II, who took the throne in 1888, insisted that Germany have a "place in the sun." By August, Kaiser Wilhelm invaded Belgium causing Great Britain and France to declare war on Germany. In the first Battle of the Marne, the British and French succeeded in blocking the German advance. Each side had 500,000 casualties (Zinn 351). A long war of attrition lay ahead.

Count Johann von Bernstorff was the German Ambassador to the United States and Mexico between 1908 and 1917. He was a social and charismatic man who was popular in America. Immediately after the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the German Ambassador was sent to Berlin to meet with leaders in "Section 3B," Germany's military intelligence center. Von Bernstorff was given $150 million to buy munitions in the U.S. and to conduct other espionage activities in a neutral country whose loyalties to the enemy were widely suspected in Berlin. Since the onset of the war, America was producing a good amount of munitions, sending most the material to England and France. After President Wilson enabled American banks to extend credit to warring nations, munitions sales continued to increase to the Allies. The disparity would continue to multiply, unless Germany put a stop to the munitions trade.

In the early phase of the war, Britain drew protest in Washington for interfering with neutrality. By February 1915, the British had seized contraband food on its way from America to Germany, and denied it to Germany. The British formed a blockade and initiated a policy of starving Germany. In retaliation, Germany created a war zone where British (and American) ships would be subject to the wrath of the submarine.

On February 4, 1915, the Kaiser signed this Declaration:

The waters around Great Britain, including the whole of the English Channel, are declared hereby to be included within the zone of war, and after eighteenth inst. All enemy merchant vessels encountered in these waters will be destroyed, even if it may not be possible always to save their crews and passengers. Within this war zone neutral vessels are exposed to danger since, in view of the misuses of neutral flags ordered by the government of Great Britain...and the hazards of naval warfare, neutral vessels cannot always be prevented from suffering from the attacks intended for enemy ships. (Witcover 75)

A clause in the Hague Convention did permit munitions traffic by neutrals. In fact, the clause was inserted at Germany's request. However, von Bernstorff tried to impose and embargo on the ruinations sales between the Untied States and the warring nations. When von Bernstorff's plan was ultimately rejected by President Wilson, the Germans resorted to other measures to lessen the shipment of American munitions to the allies. Von Bernstorff insisted he was only acting in his role as German Ambassador, but the acts of sabotage started as soon as he returned from Berlin. With the help from his assailants, military, commercial and naval attaches, von Bernstorff paid funds for false passports to send German Americans back home to fight; for the destruction of canal and munitions factories. In January, 1915, von Bernstorff received a telegram from Zimmerman in the German Foreign Office which stated:

You can obtain particulars as to person suitable for carrying on sabotage in the U.S. and Canada from the following persons...In the U.S., sabotage can be carried out in every kind of factory for supplying munitions of war. Railway embankments must not be touched. Embassy must in no circumstances be compromised. Similar precautions must be taken in regard to Irish pro-German agenda (Witcover 78)

While the U.S. war machine geared up to supply the Allies, trained German saboteurs (although small in number at the beginning of the war) went largely unnoticed. On January 1, 1915, an unexplained fire broke out in the John A. Roebling wire-cable manufacturing plant in Trenton, New Jersey. Two days later, a ship in Brooklyn exploded. Berlin then sent a new leader on the scene who was disassociated with the Germany Embassy, Captain Franz von Rintelen (known as the "Dark Invader"). Von Rintelen began to recruit help to make a small "cigar" like bombs that would explode without leaving a trace. The first place that these bombs were used were on ships carrying munitions to the Allies. Von Rintelen's recruits sank several ships or caused fires that required so much water on deck that the munitions on board were subsequently ruined.


German saboteurs were finally caught when a French ship changed its schedule, and the planted bombs were swept off the deck. The French government sent the "strange lead pipes" to Detective Tunney of New York City, and an investigation followed. Von Rintelen had to lay very low, and sabotage activities transferred to other, non violent-measures, including purchasing munitions, simply so the Allies could not have it. On May 7, 1915, the Lusitania, the pride of the Cunard fleets, sunk off the coast of Ireland after a German submarine fired a torpedo. More than 1,200 people drowned, including 124 Americans. As for munitions, ship manifest revealed rifle cartridges, bullets, empty shrapnel shells, and eighteen cases of non explosive fuses. President Wilson reacted to the Lusitania disaster by trying to persuade Germany to forgo unrestricted submarine warfare. Berlin ultimately treated all of Wilson's requests as toothless. (Witcover 108)

Von Rintelen was was eventually ordered home to Berlin but even without the "Dark Invader," sabotage continued. In July, 1915, Dr. Heinrich Albert, the commercial attache for von Bernstorff mistakenly left his briefcase on a train in New York. It was immediately found by a Secret Service agent. The papers were given to President Wilson, and then they were slipped to the New York World. In the portfolio were plans of many of the schemes planned by the saboteurs, and a veil of suspicion was present over the Ambassador and his attaches. Soon it became clear that even the Austro-Hungarian Ambassador the United States, Constantin Dumba, was plotting to take down American munitions plants. President Wilson requested the recall of Ambassador Dumba, and ultimately of two of von Bernstorff's attaches, von Papen and Boy-Ed.

Sabotage continued, however, Loyal agents of von Rintelen, von Papen and Boy-Ed proceeded to explode munitions factories, ships, and even infect horses with eh anthrax virus outside of Baltimore. Germs were transferred to horses through needles or in food and water. President Wilson addressed Congress early in 1916 about the threat of German sabotage, and the recall of von Papen and Boy-Ed, the military attaches who worked for Ambassador von Bernstorff. Wilson spoke to Congress about the need for legislation to counter German spies and the German-Americans who helped the sabotage efforts.

On July 29, 1916 at 2:08 a.m., an explosion rocked "Black Tom Island" in Jersey City, New Jersey. Black Tom Island was no longer an island, since land had been filled in for easier access. The spot was used to load, store and transfer commodities brought by barges and freight cars of the Lehigh Valley Railroad Company, the owner of the massive facility on the Island. The explosion was so huge that New York City turned their lights off for 20 minutes, while shells explode into the sky like fireworks. People in the underground tubes were completely stuck, cemeteries unearthed, and windows shattered everywhere. the telephone lines between New York and New Jersey were completely dead, and new immigrants at Ellis Island were evacuated. At first, the IWW was suspect. Workers gave conflicting reports about where the fire stared, and what the cause was. Some even said it was just the carelessness of the night workmen. (Witcover)

Damages on Black Tom Island totaled $20 million, hundreds were injured and at least 4 people were killed. Up to this point, almost 50 explosions had occurred around the country, with about half of those in New York or New Jersey, Interestingly, the explosion at Black Tom was deemed an accident.

Soon, detectives for the New York City Police were contacted by Anna Chapman, whose mother had a boarder named Michael Kristoff. Ms. Chapman and her mother, Mrs. Rushnak, described Kristoff's behavior to the police, and they became suspicious. He was described as having large sums of money, and he came home on the evening of July 29th frantic and panting "What did I do?" Police followed and arrested Kristoff, an immigrant from Hungary. It was soon believed that he did not act alone, and that possibly the Imperial government was responsible for the major explosion.

While President Wilson campaigned and won the presidential election of 1916, on a "no war" promise, plans were underway for more sabotage operations. On January 11, 1917, a large fire in a Kingsland (Lyndhurst), New Jersey munitions plant occurred. The plant was owned by Canadian Car and Foundry Company, a Montreal-owned firm that had large contracts from Britain and Russia to manufacture shells. At the plant, there were 1,400 workers turning out three million shells a month. One January 11 in the mid-afternoon, shells burst through the air for more than four hours. Damages were set at $17 million, although miraculously no one was killed. The Canadian Car and Foundry Company's investigation led immediately to a Polish immigrant named Theodore Wozniak who was recently hired at the plant.

On February 1, 1917, Germany initiated unrestricted submarine warfare, and the United States broke off diplomatic relations with the Kaiser's government. Von Bernstorff headed to Berlin after a series of failed peace deals between the President and Berlin. However, before von Bernstorff's departure, Admiral Hall in Great Britain intercepted the infamous "Zimmerman Telegram," a German attempt to lure Mexico into the war on her side. The telegram went from Zimmerman in the Foreign Office to von Bernstorff in Washington. Germany promised lost territory in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona to Mexico. Hall decided to share the telegram with President Wilson, as it was perfect bait to show how von Bernstorff was working both sides. The Zimmerman telegram convinced many Americans that war with Germany was turning into a necessary affair. Wilson declared war on April 2, 1917. Four days after his Declaration of War, an explosion at a plant in Eddystone, Pennsylvania killed 112 people.

To read a set of news clips focused on the Black Tom Affair and other acts of espionage click on the image of the headline below ↓


  • Witcover, Jules. Sabotage at Black Tom. Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 1989.
  • Zinn, Harold. A People's History of the United States. Perennial Classics, New York, 2003.




Black Tom Primary Sources


Spies, Intrigue and Espionage:

Paying German Spies

A series of correspondence from Madrid to Berlin about several secret agents employed by the German government. Topics covered include submarine attacks on the coast of Long Island; the sabotage of Australian wheat shipments; and the payment of spies. (From the collections of the National Archives & Records Administration)

Irish Sympathizers

A secret correspondence from Arthur Zimmermann, Foreign Secretary of the German Empire, regarding the suitability of using Irish sympathizers in sabotage efforts against the United States. (From the collections of the National Archives & Records Administration)

Albert's Worried

Extracts of a letter from Dr. Heinrich Albert, the commercial attache for von Bernstorff Albert, to his wife. In this letter, Dr. Albert appears dismayed about the discontinuity of his correspondence and urges his wife to be careful about using certain addresses when responding. (From the collections of the National Archives & Records Administration)

The Blue Book Message:

The Blue Book Message

An example of espionage technology employed by the German's and eventually deciphered by the Allies. This secret message, which led to the identity of several german agents, was written in a 1917 copy of Blue Book magazine with a type of "lemon juice" ink that was invisible until heated. (From the collections of the National Archives & Records Administration)

Authenticity of the Blue Book

A transcript from Edward Oscar Heinrich of the Mixed Claims Commission which argues the authenticity of the blue book magazine and the unlikely probability that it was a fake. (From the collections of the National Archives & Records Administration)

More on the Blue Book

In this letter from 1932, Attorney H.H. Martin of the Mixed Claims Commission debates the inability of the Blue Book secret messages and also expresses concern about whether the books were real or not. (From the collections of the National Archives & Records Administration)



The Case Against Germany:

Examination of Theodore Wozniak

Proceedings from the mixed claims commission about the Kingsland Explosion of 1917. These transcripts detail a 1931 case pitting the United States of America on behalf of the Lehigh Railroad Company, Agency of Canadian Car & Foundry Company against Germany. In this compelling testimony, Theodore Wozniak admits how he alone set the Kingsland fire but also reveals a vast network of spies, government officials and foreign nationals involved in the scheme. (From the collections of the National Archives & Records Administration)

Who was Theodore Wozniak?

War Department documents detailing the activities of Theodore Wozniak, including the accuracy of his Kingsland testimony and the actuality of his relationship with foreign dignitaries. (From the collections of the National Archives & Records Administration)

Was Wozniak to Blame?

In this sworn statement, Victor Joseph Frangipane of Lyndhurst gives details about his job as a foreman of the Canadian Car & Foundry munitions factory and his role in implicating Theodore Wozniak as the perpetrator of the Kingsland fire. (From the collections of the National Archives & Records Administration)

The Complete Wozniak

A sworn testimony from 1934 in which Wozniak gives a complete telling of his life story. Born in 1884, Wozniak claimed to be a subject of Austria but was a Slavophile of Russian nationality. He came to America in 1912, where he first worked as miner in Scranton before his infamous tenure at the Kingsland munitions plant. Also included is a schematic of building 30 of the Kingsland Munitions plant. (From the collections of the National Archives & Records Administration)


Black Tom & Kingsland Misc.


Map of Black Tom

An exhibit map of Black Tom explosion area from the Mixed Claim Commission, United States and Germany. (From the collections of the National Archives & Records Administration)



More Maps


Another set of maps depicting the location of the Kingsland's explosions and the Black Tom explosion (From the collections of the National Archives & Records Administration)




The Docks


Photos of Black Tom before the blast. (From the collections of NARA)



Kristoff Wanted Poster

A wanted poster for the capture of Michael Kristoff, a boarder from New York City who was suspected of having a role in several explosions, including the blast at Black Tom.