In 1905, the world was shocked at the extraordinary news that the United States Federal Treasury had been robbed. Worse, that the thieves had got away with as much as $100 million, an unimaginable fortune at the time.
Strangely however, it was the German press who broke the news. On the 1st of April, 1905, the Berliner Tageblatt, the popular German language newspaper, as the first to the story.
According to the newspaper, all the silver and gold in the US Federal Treasury had been stolen by a group of thieves. The thieves were believed to be funded by some American millionaires.
The robbery involved an amount of more than $268,000,000, with the thieves supposedly only escaping with a portion, estimated at $100 million. After the robbery took place, it was said that the US Government was trying to cover the crime, embarrassed at the theft and hoping to avoid the public fallout.
How did the Robbery Take Place?
One of the most curious questions relating to the US Treasury theft is how exactly it took place. In the United States Treasury, the millions were protected with the use of a very complicated system known as the Holmes Electric Protector.
With such solid protection, burglary was thought to be almost impossible. The system involved alarm signals on each of the thirteen treasury vaults. The moment the alarm signal would sound, nearly 1,500 soldiers, policemen and Secret Service agents would be present there immediately. In such high security, the theft of a hundred million dollars was quite surprising.
The Berliner Tageblatt provided detailed information about the route taken by the thieves in order to achieve the greatest theft of the time. It took nearly three years to plan and execute the scheme of robbing the silver and gold in the United States Treasury.
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At first, the criminals who said to be working under the direction of American millionaires took a building opposite the Potomac River from Washington DC’s Treasury building. They disguised the building as an factory.
The factory had the firm name Myers, Mead & Co. It seemed to be a plant for machines and electric apparatus. However, the main purpose of the building was to use it for tunnelling purposes. The whole building was to be used for hiding the entrance to a subterranean tunnel.
From the grounds of the factory, a tunnel was dug by the criminals that were nearly a mile (1.6 km) long. It was nearly thirty feet (9 m) below the bed of the river. The end of the tunnel was directly under the US Treasury.
From this end of the tunnel, thirteen upward shafts were dug. Each of the shafts led to one of thirteen vaults in the US Treasury. It made it easy for the thieves to cut out the foundations of all the chambers and then remove all the content present in them.
All the silver and gold were quickly removed from the US Treasury. They were then transported using electric cars through the tunnel. The silver and gold were then loaded in small submarines.
There were a minimum of twenty submarine boats in which the treasures were transported. The submarines were believed to have been built in Europe specifically for the purpose of burglary. They were fitted up like the ships used for lifting lost treasures present at the bottom of the sea.
The submarines were taken silently out of the river to the large ships that were waiting in the open sea. Once all the silver and gold were loaded into the ships, the criminals departed with the treasure at full speed. After that, the criminals were never seen again.
The news was published in the Berliner Tageblatt in such a detailed manner that it seemed quite believable to the people. However, in reality, the US Treasury theft was an April Fool’s Day hoax.
The newspaper completely succeeded in making people believe that it was a true story and that the US Treasury has been robbed. It was able to fool much of the German media. In no time, the news had spread out to different places.
The theft was even reprinted by a number of newspapers as one of the most astonishing crimes ever seen. The news had spread from Germany to Hungary, Austria, and several other nearby countries. One of the magazines even went on to create an illustration that showed the location of the tunnel dug by the criminals below the Potomac. The illustration was again printed in several newspapers.
However, it was soon revealed that the entire story of the theft was a hoax. The Berliner Tageblatt newspaper was quite happy with the success of its joke on April Fool’s day. Soon after the revelation, the hoax became the front page news across the world.
The reporters in America were surprised as to how their German counterparts could so easily fall for the hoax that seemed to be an absurd claim. A number of Americans believed that the main reason for the success of the US Treasury theft story was the fanciful image of the United States in the minds of several people in Europe. They had a perception that America was a Wild West ruled by millionaires where it was possible that such a great robbery could take place.
Who Started the Hoax?
The hoax of US Treasury theft was actually written by Louis Viereck, who was the New York correspondent for the Berliner Tageblatt. He was known by his pen name L. Triang and was, among other things, the illegitimate son of Kaiser Wilhelm I.
A number of American papers found out that the hoax of US Treasury theft bore a lot of resemblance with a book named The President: A Novel. The book was written by Alfred Henry Louis.
The novel involves a story in which a scheme was plotted in order to rob the treasury by making a tunnel through an old sewer. The story of criminal millionaires hijacking the government of America was indeed a solid prank to trick people on April Fool’s day. They fell for it, anyway.
Top Image: Had robbers really stolen $100m from the US Treasury in a daring heist? Source: Jamesteohart / Adobe Stock.
By Bipin Dimri
Hoaxes.org, 2015. The Hundred-Million-Dollar Robbery of the U.S. Treasury. Available at: http://hoaxes.org/weblog/comments/robbery_treasury
Burgess, B, 2016. History’s Greatest Hoaxes: The US Treasury and the 200 Million Dollar Robbery. Available at: https://tvprofil.com/gb/show/4712509/history-s-greatest-hoaxes
Gibson, C. 2016. April Fool’s Day Is A Garbage Holiday: Here Is Its Terrible History. Available at: https://www.courant.com/ctnow/hc-april-fool-s-day-is-a-garbage-holiday-here-is-its-terrible-history-20160331-story.html