Sunday, October 23, 2016

Grover Cleveland Bergdoll, the Most Hated Man in America

Grover Cleveland Bergdoll (1893-1966) was once described as “the most hated man in America.” What did he do to deserve that moniker in 1918?

He was a slacker.

We don’t use that term much nowadays. We say “draft dodger.” And in 1918, that was about the sleaziest thing you could be.

Bergdoll was an early aviator. At the age of 19, he bought a Wright Model B biplane for about $5,000, or $100,000 or more in today’s money. His father, Louis Bergdoll, was a wealthy brewer, and Grover was considered to be one of the pampered rich.

He made over 700 flights in the plane, and was known as a daredevil. He was one of 119 flyers who trained with Wilbur and Orville Wright at their factory in Ohio. Orville described Grover Bergdoll as one of the best natural pilots he had ever met.

In 1910, Bergdoll and several other American pilots went to Mexico to serve in Pancho Villa’s four-plane air force as he fought a revolution.

When World War I started, Bergdoll didn’t want to serve the United States. He offered himself as an aviator to Germany, but was reportedly turned down. Instead, he hid out for two years with the help of his mother. The authorities’ search for him made headlines across the country. His family owned property in several states, and it was rumored that he hid at some of those during the manhunt.

Wanted Poster, circulated circa 1919, Public Domain

He was arrested in 1920 at his mother’s house, after being found hiding inside a window seat, but then escaped after six months in jail to Germany, where he had relatives in Eberbach.

Newspapers said he managed the escape by telling his jailers he had buried a pot of gold somewhere in Maryland. He was willing to take them to recover it. They stopped at his mother’s house in Philadelphia. During the evening, Bergdoll excused himself to take a phone call and climbed out a window. He ran to Canada, and from there to Germany.

Bergdoll home in Philadelphia
Photo By Davidt8 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Rumors circulated about the buried gold, reputedly $150,000, and apparently the government believed it was true. The Washington Times reported on Sept. 18, 1921, that the U.S. Department of Justice was on a treasure hunt to find the cache.

Cartoon 1933, Olean Times-Herald
"Bergdoll killed one of two
assassins found in his room/
Lives quietly, but in constant fear"
In Germany, Bergdoll eventually married and had children, but was always in fear of capture. Several attempts were made to catch him. In 1921, two U.S. army sergeants wanted to size him in Eberbach, but their warrant was only for the U.S.A. Still, after exchanging words with him at a local railroad station, it is reported that Bergdoll fled in his car and they fired at the departing vehicle. A 17-year-old girl was apparently wounded in the hand by one of their bullets, and the Americans had to face charges by the local police.

In 1923, an unauthorized gang of five men attempted to capture Bergdoll at a hotel in Eberbach. Two of them hid in his room. When Bergdoll entered, a fight ensued. Bergdoll shot one of them to death and injured the other. The survivor and the three other conspirators were caught and sentenced to prison terms.

Bergdoll sent pleas to the U.S., hoping for a pardon. Meanwhile, his airplane was in storage. In 1933, it was donated to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, where it remains. It is said to be the most intact Wright airplane in the world.
Bergdoll's Wright Model B plane
now hangs in Franklin Institute's Aviation Hall

In 1939, Bergdoll returned voluntarily to the United States and was put on trial. At this time, he admitted the “pot of gold,” which treasure hunters had sought for years, was a hoax. He was sentenced to jail, and stayed in prison until 1944 or 1945. Most of his property that had been confiscated by the government was returned to him.

When released from prison, Bergdoll went to live at his farm in Downingtown, Penn. He died in Richmond, Virginia, in 1966, of pneumonia, at the age of 72.

A couple of sidelights to this convoluted tale:

The man drafted next in line after Bergdoll (often said to be the man “drafted in Bergdoll’s place”), Russell C. Gross of Philadelphia, was killed in action in France and posthumously cited for bravery. The media made much of this hero’s sacrifice, sometimes making it sound as if it was Bergdoll’s fault he was drafted and killed.

A Philadelphia newspaper reported, “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. . .”
Later in the same article, however, it stated more calmly that Gross “was the first man called by the draft board after Bergdoll failed to respond.”

Bergdoll’s brother, Erwin, was also a slacker. Erwin and Grover both failed to show up for their physical exams when they were drafted in 1917. Best known as a race car driver, Erwin spent time in Leavenworth for draft evasion and apparently moved on with life.

I discovered the story of Grover Bergdoll while researching my World War I-era novel, River Rest. To enter the drawing to win a copy (paperback or e-book), leave a comment and your contact information.

Susan Page Davis is the author of more than sixty published novels. She’s always interested in the unusual happenings of the past. Her newest books include Tearoom for Two, The Seafaring Women of the Vera B., Mountain Christmas Brides, and River Rest. She’s a two-time winner of the Inspirational Readers’ Choice Award, and also a winner of the Carol Award and the Will Rogers Medallion, and a finalist in the WILLA Awards and the More Than Magic Contest. Visit her website at: .


  1. Very first I thought this post was about President Grover Cleveland. Glad I was wrong. I'd love to win a copy of River Rest.

    1. Thanks, Debbie! Yes, you'd think it was a patriotic family that named him after a president. But then, youngsters have minds of their own.

  2. Quite the story of one who was so skilled with airplanes and perhaps could have been very instrumental in a training role with pilots/aircraft in the war.....if he had so chosen rather than escaping. I really enjoy history and genealogy, but it seems we don't hear quite as much about WWI as we do WWII, probably since we were involved for a shorter time and we weren't originally attacked. The book setting during this time frame sounds very interesting. dixiedobie at yahoo dot com

    1. CC, Susan is having trouble getting on the Internet. She emailed me and asked that I post her response to your comment: Thanks, CC. You are absolutely right--he had such great potential! In my book The Crimson Cipher (set in 1915) I also mention several real incidents of sabotage in the U.S. before we officially entered the war. We stayed out until it was so blatant we couldn't any longer in good conscience. The attacks on factories, bridges, ships, etc., was more widespread than most people today realize, and much of it was carried out by German Americans. So maybe that is part of what led to the great hatred people focused on Bergdoll.

  3. Very interesting story! There are so many people in history with fascinating lives-- although they might not think so!

    1. Donna, Susan is having trouble getting online and asked me to send you her response to your comment:
      Thanks, Donna! I agree. I always keep learning more.

  4. The winner is Donna Robinson. Thank you ladies for taking part and for putting up with my computer issues!

  5. I have a oak nightstick fashioned by Bergdoll in 1940 while he was incarcerated, presented to my Great Grandfather 1st Sergeant David Dorsey. It has a brass plaque attached that describes that the oak used was from a timber taken from Castle Williams on Governors Island NY. Now I am trying to figure out when, where and how their lives crossed.

  6. R.L., that is fascinating! A real family heirloom with a story.

  7. I have tried to locate which jail he was assigned too and what led to his insanity after being released. I am so curious.