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Every so often, something turns up on some branch of the family tree which calls for a google search. Census listings and vital statistics records just don't do the story justice. Slacker speed-fiend Grover Cleveland Bergdoll is one of those cases. His story can be told largely with newspaper headlines. In his day, he was almost as notorious as the Lindbergh kidnapper or Bonnie & Clyde. A wee bit of background:

Ludwig Bergdoll (1825-1894) is a fine example of an immigrant success story. His grandson Grover, on the receiving end of abundant inherited wealth, had little to recommend him.

Ludwig, who changed his name to Louis in the U.S., had modest beginnings. His father, a blacksmith, died when he was eight. A few years later, he went to nearby Heidelberg to learn the brewer's trade. He and a sister came to Philadelphia in 1846. After working in several breweries, he founded his own. He was a pioneer in selling beer in individual bottles, and for a time, Bergdoll beer was a major brand nationally, being sold widely in taverns. When he died in 1894, he left an estate worth $4-5 million, a shitload of money back then.

His wife died later the same year and his son, who inherited the business' management, followed just two years later. Louis Jr's widow, Emma, was born in Germany and had been in the U.S. about 11 years when she was left a rich 35-year-old widow with 5 children. She had started as a servant in the Bergdoll household, and a decade later was in command of a significant fortune and a variety of businesses and real estate holdings.

That's the background. Follow below the fold for the tale of a spectacular ne'er-do-well wastrel, who spent much of his life in the headlines, all of it being bad news.



I guess this letter shouldn't be much of a surprise:

Mr. Grover C.A. Bergdoll, Philadelphia

Dear Sir:
    I am returning herein your application for a 1917 automobile license, together with check in the sum of ten dollars to pay for same, as the Department does not deem it advisable to issue you a license.

Yours very truly, F.B. Black, State Highway Commissioner

Some rich guys, finding themselves in such a quandary, might have hired themselves a driver. Bergdoll?  Not so much.

What could possibly go wrong with that?

The mayor of Atlantic City was not pleased when he landed on the beach, warning him not to do it again.


He had a close call, avoiding landing on a high school. Did that make him more careful?  Of course not. It didn't stop him from buzzing a horse race. A horse race?!?!


Meanwhile, back on the ground, he had a rather spectacular crash during a race, where he got tangled up in barbed wire that tore up his face. And other crashes, too.


It should have been obvious enough why he kept getting in trouble with the law without entering law school.  At any rate, he didn't last long there.

Then, things changed. War broke out in Europe. Talk about a buzz kill. Grover didn't like it when the army wouldn't take him as a flight instructor for WWI, so he flew the coop. This was what he was best known for.

This is the house he called home before he fled, offered up for sale spring 2011.

The beer-brewing business thrived in late-19th-century Philadelphia, and no family had more of hand in that success than the Bergdolls, who developed the process of cold-brewing. The German emigres built this detached brownstone in the then-ritzy neighborhood of Fairmount, and one scion, Grover Cleveland Bergdoll, dodged the draft for WWI by hiding out amid this opulence. Over the years, the 14,000-square-foot mansion was split up into apartments, but with the recent gentrification of the neighborhood, the sellers are hoping to cash in on a conversion back to single-family living, with some modern improvements. The house features extensive gardens, parking for eight cars, exceptional original details, and eight bedrooms; plus, it's just a short walk to the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Still, has it been tainted too much by cowardice to command a $7M price?

His mother, mentioned briefly above, was something else herself.  Grover had sneaked back into the country for Christmas, and was apprehended hiding in a spider hole window seat, after Emma had an armed standoff with the cops. He was sentenced to 5 years in jail in a military court martial.

Incredibly, a few months later, he was let out of jail to retrieve what he claimed was a secret cache of buried gold. Instead, he escaped in his own car while supposedly answering the phone at his mother's house. Keystone cops or what? And he was off to Germany, via Canada.

With Grover underground, the heat fell on Emma, who naively worsened her situation by offering to buy her son an exemption from the draft as [President] Cleveland had bought his. Naturally, draft officials reported this bribery attempt—and the thick German accent in which it was made. Arrested and charged with helping Grover escape, Emma was finally released with a $200 fine.
She got off light with no jail time. That fine was spare change for her. And with her son nowhere to be found, the papparazzi of the day had to content themselves with following his mother around.

New York Times, reporting on the verdict:

Newspapermen sought Mrs. Bergdoll for a statement. "No statement, " Mrs. Bergdoll exclaimed. "No statement," she repeated as she swung a satchel in one hand and the green parasol in the other, both menacingly.
And then there were the bounty hunters, one of whom he shot dead:
Grover’s troubles weren’t over. In 1921, his car was surrounded by six men wielding guns. Two U.S. soldiers and four hired Germans planned to carry him to U.S.-occupied territory. But Grover pushed away the man at the window and his driver floored it in a hail of bullets. One shot wounded a woman in the backseat. Though arrested and convicted, the would-be kidnappers were released after pressure from Washington.

Next, Corliss Griffis and several hired men jumped Grover in his room. But Grover, who carried a gun, killed one assailant in the struggle. The rest were arrested and convicted, then pardoned after 2 million Americans signed petitions for their release. In New York, Griffis was welcomed with ticker tape.

Meanwhile, his replacement in the draft was killed in France:

And that's not all.

Time Magazine, April 22, 1926: Some hundreds of curious-minded peasants streamed into the little town of Mosbach last week to attend the trial of Grover Cleveland Bergdoll, famed Philadelphia draft dodger, who was arrested (TIME, Feb. 22) on a charge of having seduced, three years ago, Fraulein Leisel Schmidt, Heidelberg schoolgirl, then 14.
He was about 30 at the time of his assignation with the schoolgirl.

His mother continued to make efforts to get her son out of his troubles.  I'm not sure she actually helped his case much.  The Bergdolls hadn't had much luck with the Republicans, so Emma went on a new campaign when FDR was elected.  After a letter to the President-elect failed, she wrote to soon-to-be First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt.

Emma Bergdoll did not think much of what's called the "special relationship" with Britain these days.

The record of the court martial clearly proves (by the Government’s own witness, the Adjutant General of the State of Penna) that the court martial had no legal jurisdiction over the case and that Grover, if he was to be tried at all, could only be tried before a Federal Court by a jury of his peers, as is provided for by the Constitution.  You know that a civilian (especially a pacifist) being tried by soldiers has about as much chance of being acquitted as Christ had in his trial before the Jewish High-Priests!
As an illustration that public sentiment (on the whole) is not against “slackers” and “draft Evaders” I cite the case of former president Grover Cleveland.  He campaigned three times for the presidency of the U.S. and in each case he got the majority of the popular vote although in one election he lost out through the vote in the Electoral College.  And he got all those votes in spite of the fact that he was a “slacker” during the Civil War (where the unity of the nation was at stake).  He paid $600 to hire a substitute to do his fighting for him.  The fact that the Draft Law of that time permitted him to hire a substitute does not relieve him of the moral end of it.  This fact was used by the Republican party, in Cleveland’s first campaign especially, and was cried from the house-tops all about the nation; but the people did not pay any attention to it at all.  And it would be the same in the event that your noble husband granted my son a pardon and restored him to me.  In fact, now that all the world is talking of doing away with and outlawing war, the pardoning of a man who long ago opposed war would show the good faith of the American Government.

So our speed-fiend slacker was inspired by his namesake, a former President who bought his way out of the military draft.  Despite all that had come before, the Bergdolls didn't seem to have a clue why the public had no patience with them.  It is worth noting that two of Emma's sons, Charles & Louis, changed their names (to Charles Braun and Louis Bergson)  in a effort to escape the notoriety associated with their headline-grabbing mother and brother.

Ultimately, Grover returned to the U.S. in 1939, after Congress passed a bill, unanimously, that would strip him of his citizenship, leaving him stuck in Nazi Germany and eligible for the military draft there.  Despite having successfully slipped into the country on multiple previous occasions, this time he never made it to shore, being apprehended while still on board ship.  He spent several years in federal prison.  Once released in 1946, he got most of the assets the feds had been holding returned to him, so he didn't have to try and find someone who would hire him.  His mother did not live to see him out of prison.  His wife, whom he married while an exile in Germany, divorced him in 1960.  He died at Westbrook Psychiatric Hospital in Richmond, VA in 1966.

It's hard to imagine a more suitable poster boy for the virtues of a nice, hefty inheritance tax.

Originally posted to Genealogy and Family History Community on Fri Aug 10, 2012 at 09:02 AM PDT.

Also republished by History for Kossacks.


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Comment Preferences

  •  German-Americans in WWI (32+ / 0-)

    I was planning, for this week, a compare & contrast of two different kinds of German-American experience vis-a-vis the Great War.  But what's in this diary was more than enough.  I kept finding more, and more, and more.  And believe me: I've left a lot of the Bergdoll story out.  (At any rate, that means I can toss additional tidbits out in the comments.)

    So I'm up again next week with the second story.  It's quite different than this one, but still deals with German-Americans and WWI.  Instead of headlines, the next story draws heavily on passport applications, including several emergency passport applications.

    Would you like to host an upcoming Friday GFHC Open Thread?  Our GFHC concierge is unavailable this morning, but will be checking in later.

    Current schedule

    Aug 17  Land of Enchantment
    Aug 24  Alexandra Lynch
    Aug 31  jeanette0605
    Sep 7    open for adoption
    Sep 14  open for adoption
    Sep 21  open for adoption

    Grab all the joy you can. (exmearden 8/10/09)

    by Land of Enchantment on Fri Aug 10, 2012 at 05:23:00 AM PDT

  •  Thanks, this is a fascinating read! (14+ / 0-)

    The German-American experience is of great interest to me as my paternal grandmother came from a family of German immigrants who got to America in the 1880s.

    I'm excited to read the second story!

    There are, in every age, new errors to be rectified, and new prejudices to be opposed. ~Samuel Johnson (1709-1784)

    by slksfca on Fri Aug 10, 2012 at 09:23:00 AM PDT

  •  What an amazing story! (11+ / 0-)

    Tabloid anti-heros have always been with us, I guess, but this guy beats 'em all--then and now.

    Wonderfully researched and told, I might add, LofE.

    "If you are sure you understand everything that is going on around you, you are hopelessly confused." Walter Mondale

    by klompendanser on Fri Aug 10, 2012 at 09:28:32 AM PDT

    •  I had heard a little bit (9+ / 0-)

      ... about the draft dodging.  As in: a distant cousin doing genealogical research contacted me a decade or so back, and mentioned it.  I had many "holy cows" while researching this, though.

      One side story (of many):  The brewery argued a case to the Supreme Court - which decided to let the lower court's decision stand.  At issue was $1350 of taxes on barrels of beer, and what kind of evidence was necessary to prove such a case.  They had paid the tax, but then fought it.  Both partners in the brewery were dead and gone by the time it was finally resolved.

      Another:  They were pioneers in cold beer, as opposed to how Europeans to the present day drink their beer warm.  Towards that end, Bergdoll built ice warehouses to keep the beer cold through the summer.  I learned a lot about the history of beer preparing this diary, especially in Philly, where the Pennsylvania Dutch (really Deutsch) played a major role.

      Grab all the joy you can. (exmearden 8/10/09)

      by Land of Enchantment on Fri Aug 10, 2012 at 09:35:33 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Wow! What a story. (8+ / 0-)

    Thanks for sharing it with us in such a wonderful way. Must have taken lots of time to do. I know it would have taken me.... forever, prolly!

    Where in your tree does this chap pop up? (I hope I didn't miss the answer in the diary.)

    Inspiration is hard to come by. You have to take it where you find it. --- Bob Dylan.

    by figbash on Fri Aug 10, 2012 at 09:28:55 AM PDT

  •  Oh, I meant to say that I loved the term (7+ / 0-)

    "turned turtle" as used in one of the newspaper stories about one of Grover's many auto crashes. I'm gonna remember that one. I'd not heard it before.

    Inspiration is hard to come by. You have to take it where you find it. --- Bob Dylan.

    by figbash on Fri Aug 10, 2012 at 09:31:14 AM PDT

  •  whew! What a story (8+ / 0-)

    So, how does this family fit into your tree?

    Sounds like paper records for this family would fill up a filing cabinet or two.

    Actually, I was thinking this story could make a great book and googled around to see if someone wrote one already. That led me to this video footage.

    •  My grandfather & his father & brother (7+ / 0-)

      ... were avid genealogists for 50 years.  For another 60 years, their papers sat, ignored, in various basements & attics.  I put it all in a database, from which I learned I was starting with about 3500 names.

      I have many branches, up and down, and smaller sub-branches for inlaws and step-relations.  I'm interested in the stories, and will sometimes travel far afield for an interesting side branch.  I'm not interested in making my personal connection to any of the people I write about public.  Next week's story, involving a spy, I'm not even going to put full names in, so it won't come up in google searches.  (I did a Grieving Room story that way, too.)

      Grab all the joy you can. (exmearden 8/10/09)

      by Land of Enchantment on Fri Aug 10, 2012 at 09:40:24 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  great find! eom (5+ / 0-)

      "If you are sure you understand everything that is going on around you, you are hopelessly confused." Walter Mondale

      by klompendanser on Fri Aug 10, 2012 at 09:44:39 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  I just checked the video!! (7+ / 0-)

      Totally cool!!

      I found the ship's manifest when he was arrested, the same time of the newsreel you posted.  (I missed that in my research.)  A newspaper article I read told the fake name he was traveling under, which I do not now recall.  But the ship manifest had his real name, along with notes about him being apprehended.

      Apparently, he snuck in and out of the country an unknown number of times under alias names.  Sometimes even as ship crew, which was more honest work than he did at any other time in his life.

      Grab all the joy you can. (exmearden 8/10/09)

      by Land of Enchantment on Fri Aug 10, 2012 at 09:57:21 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  I think the word is "rape", not 'assignation'... (7+ / 0-)
    He was about 30 at the time of his assignation with the schoolgirl.
    As noted in the diary, she was 14.

    'Course, at the time, it seems that the charge would have prob'ly been a variation on sexual indecency.

    Quite a record.

    Cheers, Land...

    •  Well, yes. (7+ / 0-)

      I do tend to go for understatement.  In the end, like so many other times, he got off very light on that one.  As has been the case with the wealthy & privileged through much of history.

      When his mother went to trial for helping him escape, including pointing a gun at cops, she got off with a $200 fine, which was small change for her.  Even though she was convicted, the judge felt leniency was in order, because it was understandable that a mother would try and protect her son.

      Grab all the joy you can. (exmearden 8/10/09)

      by Land of Enchantment on Fri Aug 10, 2012 at 10:00:38 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  ...this is wonderful... (7+ / 0-)

    ...figgy and silks are totally into this as well.  I don't even know how or where to mom tried for decades and failed.  My grandfather (father's side) would never speak of his family and did his best to destroy all and any records (I believe it was because he was born in 1888 and his father had married a Blackcrow Native American...back then that was a real stigma in the white communities because, as you know, the USA was in the middle of exterminating Native Americans).

    Ignorance is bliss only for the ignorant. The rest of us must suffer the consequences.

    by paradise50 on Fri Aug 10, 2012 at 09:38:49 AM PDT

    •  I have, lately, come across (8+ / 0-)

      ... records of Indian Censuses.  They were conducted separate from the regular US Census.  And, at some point, tribal members got "enrolled" with their blood quantum recorded.  So there's some records around.

      Back in Colonial days in my tree, there was a child born with no father recorded, and bearing the mother's last name.  No way in hell to figure out what happened there, from centuries of remove.  The tiny bit of family lore passed down is three words: Our great shame

      In another case, there was a bastard child who ended up a great success.  President of Harvard College, and hosted DeToqueville on his travels through the US, who wrote about him.  In that case, someone in my tree later claimed paternity, though one wonders how reliable that is?  The research on same was done around 1890s, 1900, so much closer to the time.  But still, it's hard to know.

      I have also found a few early colonial relations, men, who took up with Indians.  One was captured, in Maine, as a boy, and went native.  Later, his entire family and most of the village was massacred (he was off pissing or checking a cornfield at dawn and escaped) and he eventually returned to white settlements again along the Maine/New Hampshire border.

      Another took up with an Indian woman on Martha's Vineyard, but then the offspring mostly got lost through not having records tracked.

      I worked with a woman in NM who had 1/4 blood quantum from San Juan Pueblo (now Ohkay Owingeh) which would make her legally Indian.  But she was raised to think of herself as "Spanish", a category one still finds in New Mexico.  Which is to say, you're totally right in the points you raise about Indian blood.  Oral history does something entirely different than official vital statistics records when it comes to tracking genealogy.

      The most extensive records, going the farthest back, so far as I know, come from Scandinavian cultures.  Though I did encounter someone, on one of those Mormon family history websites, tracked back to Charlemagne, then all the way to the biblical Garden of Eden.  Adam's father was listed as "living."

      Grab all the joy you can. (exmearden 8/10/09)

      by Land of Enchantment on Fri Aug 10, 2012 at 09:51:59 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  You might be surprised what there is to be (6+ / 0-)

      found online these days. It would probably have made all the difference in the world to your mom's efforts.  

      You can get a free trial at but beware! Once you do a free trial that's the last one you'll get. Try plugging in grandparents names and places/apprx dates of birth and see what you get. If nothing likely pops up, then you've got a harder job at hand.

      You might be surprised at what and where the Great Google might lead you. I've found stuff that way that really knocked my socks off. These were not wealthy or famous or infamous ancestors either, just hard-working farmers for the most part.  Of course, you need to have some dates and places there, too, or you could end up with nothing but Facebook pages. LOL.

      Inspiration is hard to come by. You have to take it where you find it. --- Bob Dylan.

      by figbash on Fri Aug 10, 2012 at 10:07:47 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  ...what's wrong with me? (don't answer that)... (4+ / 0-)

      ...that should have been Blackfoot Native American...

      Ignorance is bliss only for the ignorant. The rest of us must suffer the consequences.

      by paradise50 on Fri Aug 10, 2012 at 10:14:21 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Blew my mind, (7+ / 0-)

    really Land of Enchantment. I have read some pretty good diaries here with the group, but this one is up there with the best.

    I have lived in Wisconsin for many years and know first hand that in Milwaukee the beer industry is mostly controlled by German people who started brewing brewskie as soon as they came to this country.

    I may be wrong, as I am not German myself but living in this state where cities with names like German Town and New Berlin tells me that many people from Germany live in this state.

    About this Burgdoll dude, I think money really went to his head, or he was drinking brewski`s laced with some very powerful shit in them. I think this dude was lucky to have lived in those times.

    Mitt Romney would have loved him today and who knows, might even had been considered a running mate.

    Running from reporting his own taxes.

    Aw I`m just kidding about this Burgdoll guy. I think he was indeed lucky in many ways. Again Land of Enchantment, very good diary. I can`t wait to read the next one when you come to the plate to write another.

    Old men tell same old stories

    by Ole Texan on Fri Aug 10, 2012 at 10:21:36 AM PDT

    •  Brewery founder, Ludwig/Louis Bergdoll (4+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Jim H, slksfca, paradise50, klompendanser

      ... had a serious work ethic, which he enforced upon his children.  One of his sons was killed in a workplace brewery accident - a metal band popped loose from a barrel IIRC - at the ripe old age of 11.  I've been tracking all the offspring of the Bergdoll family, and have found that for the most part, they didn't much go in for education.  (There were a few, very few, exceptions.)

      And given his own history, Ludwig had a soft place in his heart for widows and orphans.  He adopted two orphans himself, was charitable on relief issues for widows and orphans in his lifetime and in his will.

      As to slacker Grover Bergdoll, he created his own "bad luck."  No doubt on that score.

      Grab all the joy you can. (exmearden 8/10/09)

      by Land of Enchantment on Fri Aug 10, 2012 at 10:39:41 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  little progress for me (4+ / 0-)

    this week (and summer). The Mrs. finally nagged me enough to start building a treehouse for the kids. That's been taking up any free time I've had (not to mention watching the Olympics).

    The other day I did manage to steal away a little time to review a hanging leaf on my tree. I've been wanting to find a direct male descendant of my gg-grandfather Harris to approach about doing a Y-DNA test with familytreeDNA (which has a very large Harris surname project with almost 600 participants).

    Even though this gg-grandfather had 7 sons, only 3 of them had children - one of which (my g-grandfather) only had one daughter (my grandmother, obviously) who survived into adulthood. The other two (twins, btw) each had only one son. One of them I haven't found any children for (married in 1935 and no kids on the 1940 census).

    This leaves one male descendant who died in 2005. After reviewing his obituary again, I realized he had 2 sons and it listed the names of their wives and where they were living at the time (only 7 years ago, so fairly recent). A careful google search of the online white pages found them! Now I need to summon the courage to cold-call them.

  •  Wow! What a fascinating story. (0+ / 0-)

    Ugh, what a self-absorbed jerk!  He sure didn't mind letting his mom get herself in trouble on his behalf, did he (even though they seem to have deserved each other)?

    Great diary.  I can't wait for this Friday's installment.

    P.S.  Sorry I'm so very late getting to your diary.  I didn't have access to a computer while I was out of town.

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