As centennial commemorations across the country honor American men and women that served in the First World War, put their courage in stark perspective with the seedy story of Grover Bergdoll, a man who fled rather than fight.
First, some background.
Bearing the namesake of the 22nd (and 24th) POTUS, Grover Cleveland Bergdoll was born with a silver spoon. Or perhaps a silver tap is more appropriate.
The scion of a beer baronetcy in Brewerytown, he took readily to the life of the leisure class.
Exterior photograph depicting the back of Bergdoll Brewery ca. 1941. From the Philadelphia Record photograph morgue [V07]
Racing automobiles at 80 miles per hour on country roads as a teen, a public outcry met the issuance of his driver’s license in 1912.
“Bergdoll literally burned the Lancaster Pike,” ran the Evening Public Ledger, referring to his penchant for purposefully backfiring as he passed trucks hauling hay, setting them ablaze.
The “Devil of Delaware County” also took to the period’s other mechanical marvel: the aeroplane.
Purchasing a Wright pusher – now at the Franklin Institute – Bergdoll became one of the city’s pioneering pilots. The Manoa shopping center occupies the land that served as his personal airfield.
Undated photograph of Bergdoll and his brother, Edwin, preparing to take flight. From the Bergdoll family papers [MSS021]
Bergdoll made the first flight from Philadelphia to Atlantic City. On later trips, local press accounts record his knack for dive-bombing unsuspecting swimmers at the Shore.
Our captivation with celebrity is nothing new. Then – as now – the public was enamored with the affluent lifestyles of the rich and famous.
Long before TMZ struggled to keep up with the Kardashians, the press banged about with Bergdoll and his brothers. Newspapers from Philadelphia to Topeka followed the “Playboy of the Eastern Seaboard.”
Rapture turned to rage following America’s entry into the First World War and with it, the passage of the Selective Service Act.
Though he registered, Bergdoll failed to turn up for his physical examination.
Speculation abounded as to why. Was it that Bergdoll was denied a commission as an officer in the air corps? Was it simply that service would conflict with his social life? Regardless, let’s be clear: Bergdoll was not a conscientious objector.
Clipping showing Bergdoll’s “wanted” status ca. 1918. From the Philadelphia Record photograph morgue [V07]
As anti-German hysteria kicked up across the country and sauerkraut became “Liberty Cabbage,” Bergdoll’s fame and background worked against him. A second generation immigrant, this “son of a German mother” became a clarion call for the worst of American paranoia.
“Your paper called me a pro-German,” Bergdoll wrote to the Public Ledger while on the lam. “That statement is an infamous lie and a rank falsehood.”
His mother didn’t help matters. “If there were any other country that he would have to fight, I would be willing to let him go,” she said, as if any mothers – rich or poor – had a say in the matter.
Funnily enough, Bergdoll would have likely received an employment exemption from overseas service had he showed up for his physical. His listed profession, “manufacturer of automobile parts,” was a much-needed home front occupation.
Bergdoll evaded authorities throughout the remainder of the war, despite many reported sightings in the area. It was not until 1920 that he was finally apprehended. Police kicked down the door of his Wynnefield manse and – after battling with his revolver and blackjack-wielding mother – found the draft dodger hiding under the pillows of a windowseat.
Photograph of Bergdoll ca. 1931. © International Newsreel. From the Philadelphia Record photograph morgue [V07]
Amazingly, Bergdoll escaped his captors shortly thereafter. Spinning a tale of gold he buried in Maryland and worried that it would be found before his prison sentence was up, he convinced the police to let him out – under armed guard – to retrieve it. He gave them the slip, fleeing to Canada before boarding a ship for Germany.
In the process he confirmed the public’s worst suspicions regarding his national sympathies.
For nearly two decades, Bergdoll lived it up in Germany, marrying a gardener’s daughter and raising a family.
But the American public – and federal authorities – were not quick to forget.
“Of the 337,649 Americans who evaded the…draft, Bergdoll was the nation’s No.1 slacker,” Life magazine asserted.
Bounty hunters and federal officials often crossed the Atlantic to nab him, but Bergdoll soon earned the sobriquet “Fighting Slacker.” In one altercation, he bit the thumb off of one assailant and shot another dead.
“I am through with Americans. I have lost all respect for Americans because they have hounded me and by underhanded methods,” Bergdoll is quoted as saying in the local Eberbach press.
But as the years wore on, homesickness – and the confiscation of his fortune – began to gnaw at his “playboy, wastrel soul.”
He tried another approach to annul the prison sentence awaiting him stateside.
“A fortnight ago, a beauteous young German woman arrived in the U.S. with two little girls in blonde pigtails, a flaxen-haired boy waving a U.S. flag, a babe-in-arms,” reported Time magazine. “They were Dodger Bergdoll’s wife and children, come to visit his 76-year-old mother in Philadelphia and petition the federal government to pardon him.”
Bergdoll’s wife, Berta Frank Bergdoll, with her youngest daughter and sixth child ca. 1930s. From the Bergdoll family papers [MSS021]
His mother was even more emphatic in her plea. In a filmed, pathos-drenched clip, she sat next to a portrait of President Franklin Roosevelt and wished aloud, in her thick German accent, “that our great president will pardon my boy and make me a happy mother again before I die.”
The president didn’t reply.
Bergdoll’s mother, Emma Bergdoll, with her grandchildren ca. 1930s. From the Bergdoll family photographs [PG118]
By 1939, matters worsened for Bergdoll on both sides of the Atlantic. The Feds were planning to strip his American citizenship and Hitler’s Wehrmacht was issuing its own draft notices.
The now-pudgy and mustachioed Bergdoll finally relented and boarded a ship for New York. He was arrested upon arrival and sent to Fort Leavenworth to serve his sentence.
Once out of prison, his health and marriage collapsed. He would die “demented and forgotten.”
“Grover Bergdoll Cleveland, the most publicized draft dodger of World War I, died of pneumonia yesterday in the Westbrook Psychiatric Hospital… he was 72 years old,” ran the headlines in 1966.
Bergdoll, holding a book before his face, upon arrival in New York ca. May 25, 1939. From the Bergdoll family papers [MSS021]
Grover wasn’t the only member of his family to shirk service. His brother Erwin also fled instead of fighting before eventually turning himself in and spending nearly three years in prison. Bergdoll’s eldest son, Alfred, dodged the Korean War draft.
“The man who took Grover Cleveland Bergdoll’s place when the draft evader, now a fugitive in Germany, failed to answer the call, died a hero in the Argonne forest after being cited by the commanding general of his brigade for bravery in action in one of the most noteworthy battles of the war,” reported the New York Times.
That the story of this soldier – Russell C. Gross – is forgotten is a poignant reminder of the arbitrary whims of the public’s attention and memory.
But perhaps it was fate. President Cleveland paid a substitute to avoid serving during the Civil War.
On May 31, veterans of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq will read the words of First World War soldiers and share their own prose, poetry, and art at HSP. Free and open to the public.