New plots, fresh fears, old germs

Attacks: These aren't entirely unprecedented times: Anthrax was the weapon of choice for German agents in Maryland during World War I.

October 28, 2001|By Tom Pelton | Tom Pelton,SUN STAFF

Biological sabotage is an old story in Maryland.

The first plot to use anthrax as a weapon of war was cooked up here 86 years ago by foreign agents who met in a building at the corner of Redwood and Charles streets in downtown Baltimore.

The almost forgotten story of the Hansa Haus and "Tony's Lab" is a reminder that America has experienced biological attacks before in wartime.

The last germ attack in the United States was in 1915. World War I was raging in Europe, and the U.S. was supplying hundreds of thousands of horses and other goods to the British to help in their fight against Germany and its allies. America had not yet entered the war.

Germany, which had some of the world's most advanced biologists, launched a secret biological war against neutral countries -- the United States, Argentina, Norway and Romania -- which were supplying livestock to their enemies, according to Erhard Geissler's recent book Biological and Toxin Warfare.

The Germans and their foes used chemical warfare agents like mustard gas extensively during the war, and the Germans considered the use of disease directly against England. They studied a plot to fly dirigibles over English ports to pour 100-liter vats of bubonic plague bacteria, with the hope that it would infect rats that would spread among people. But that idea was shelved for both moral and practical reasons.

Instead, the Gemans focused their germ warfare program in Maryland and a secret lab set up by a German-American physician named Dr. Anton Dilger.

Dilger was a 29-year-old son of Germans who had immigrated to America during the 1860s or '70s, settling in Front Royal, Va.

Although Dilger lived for a few years in Virginia, he spent most of his youth at schools in Germany, earning a medical degree at Heidelberg University, and performing research on animal cells in a laboratory. When World War I erupted in 1914, he was still in Germany. But he returned to his family in the United States in April 1915, claiming that he needed a peaceful environment to recuperate from the stress he had suffered treating children who were injured when the French shelled a church.

This was just a cover story, however. Years after the war, investigators discovered that Dilger was a high-ranking agent with the German secret service, sent to the United States with cultures of anthrax and glanders, another disease especially devastating to horses.

Dilger and his brother Carl rented a house in Chevy Chase. In the basement, they bred huge quantities of the germs in a workshop that other German agents in the United States referred to as "Tony's Lab."

Baltimore meetings

That summer, they discussed their plan during a series of meetings in the German consulate in Baltimore, located in the Hansa Haus building at Charles and Redwood streets.

There, in the ornate, Hansel-and-Gretel-style building, Dilger schemed with the son of the German consul, Paul Hilken, and a steamship captain named Frederick Hinsch to sabotage several East Coast ports.

Members of this cabal detonated 2 million pounds of ammunition at the Black Tom freight terminal in New York Harbor on the night of July 29-30, 1916, rocking Manhattan with the greatest explosion in her history up to that time, according to Jules Witcover's book Sabotage at Black Tom. The blasts shattered nearly every window in Jersey City, forced the evacuation of Ellis Island and jolted people from their sleep nearly a hundred miles away in Philadelphia.

The Hansa Haus saboteurs also set fire to a warehouse pier in Baltimore Harbor and burned grain elevators in Canton.

Dilger paid a Baltimore longshoreman named J. Edward Felton, who had been working for Hinsch's steamship company, and about 10 other dock workers to spread disease among horses that the United States was shipping to England.

The doctor distributed glass bottles, about an inch and a half long, that had needles protruding from cork stoppers. At night, the longshoremen traveled up and down the coast, hitting livestock pens in New York City, Norfolk and Newport News, according to Geissler's book.

Wearing rubber gloves, the agents would walk along the fences, jabbing the needles into horses. They also poured anthrax into the animals' food and water.

Disputed results

Historians don't know how successful they were in spreading the disease.

Some articles about the incident claim that as many as 3,000 horses, mules and cattle destined for Allied troops in Europe died of anthrax, and that several hundred troops may have suffered anthrax infections on their skin from handling the animals.

Other historians, however, dismiss these numbers. The most recent book about the incident, published in 1999 by Geissler, concludes that "it is impossible to determine if the biological sabotage programme had any success at all."

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