Most South Africans, even those who studied history at school, have never heard of the enigmatic Boer who fought, spied and sabotaged his way through three cataclysmic wars.
That seems a fairly strange historical legacy for a man who hunted big game with U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt, headed the biggest spy ring in the history of the United States and claimed to have been the man who sent Britain’s Lord Kitchener to a watery grave. And that’s not even half of it: globe trotting journalist, serial prison escapee and one time publicist for a company owned by John F. Kennedy’s father are just a few more incarnations of the man who was also known to some of his adversaries as the Black Panther. In fact, if you visit the FBI’s website today you will find the Duquesne spy ring still listed as one of the agency’s most famous espionage cases.
The story of Frederick ‘Fritz’ Joubert Duquesne’s life reads stranger than any fiction, and in many cases it is a fiction of his own creation. Most historical sources agree that he was a confidence trickster extraordinaire and that many details of his life were crafty embellishments or outright lies.
There has even been speculation that Dusquesne’s South African origin was also an elaborate fabrication and that he was one of the many European volunteers who came to South Africa before and during the Anglo-Boer War. Since much of what has been written about the man has its origins in a 1932 biography in which he collaborated, there may indeed be some grounds for doubt. There are enough indisputable facts though, for Duquesne to still be regarded as one of history’s most notorious spies.
Duquesne was born in 1877 in East London in the British controlled Cape Colony. Soon after his arrival his family moved to a farm in the Nylstroom area of the South African Republic, an independent Boer republic in the north of modern day South Africa.
His family must have been either fairly well off or well connected, because at the age of seventeen he was sent to Britain to study at a London university and thereafter attended the Royal Military Academy in Brussels. As a nephew of First Boer War hero and Commandant-General of the South African Republic, Piet Joubert, there seems to be motivation for the latter. Such an educational background would also explain the anecdotal evidence about his proficiency in several European languages and his charming, urbane personality.
Anglo-Boer war and a spy is born:
With the outbreak of hostilities between Great Britain and the Boer Republics in 1899, Duquesne returned to South Africa and joined a Boer commando. What followed was the first in a long series of capture and escape sequences that were to last for more than forty years.
- November 1899 – wounded at the siege of Ladysmith, receives the rank of captain in the artillery.
- 15 December 1899 – captured by the British at the Battle of Colenso, escapes in Durban.
- August 1900 – joins the Boer forces at the Battle of Bergendal, retreats to Mozambique after the Boers are defeated, captured by the Portuguese and sent to an internment camp in Caldas da Rainha, near Lisbon.
Using his apparently considerable charm, he convinced the daughter of one of the camp guards to help him escape, after which he made his way to Paris, then Aldershot in England, where he joined the British army. In 1901 he is posted to Cape Town in South Africa as a British officer.
Life long hatred of Britain and Lord Kitchener:
Whilst with the British army Duquesne found out that his parents’ farm in Nylstroom was destroyed as part of the scorched earth policy followed by the commander-in-chief of the British forces in South Africa, Lord Herbert Kitchener. This was followed by news that his sister had been raped and killed and that his mother was busy dying in a concentration camp. Pretty powerful motivation for his subsequent hatred of Britain and claimed assassination attempts on Kitchener.
Back in Cape Town Duquesne recruited twenty men to help him sabotage strategic British installations. Unfortunately for them, the wife of one of the conspirators betrayed them. Since they were all born in the Cape Colony, they were considered to be British subjects, which meant the death penalty on account of treason. All of Duquesne’s recruits were executed by firing squad, but he cunningly managed to cheat death by supplying the British with apparent Boer codes, which were later revealed to be fake. In stead he was imprisoned in the (at that time) 250 year old fortress, the Castle of Good Hope. He allegedly tried to tunnel his way through the meters thick stone walls with only the help of a spoon. He almost succeeded, but his escape was foiled by a falling rock, and he was found unconscious in his escape tunnel by a guard.
Following his unsuccessful escape attempt he was sent to a prison camp on Burt’s Island in Bermuda as one of the about 26,000 Boer POWs sent to overseas prison camps. In Bermuda he pretended to be an American and managed to charm members of the Boer Relief Committee to help him escape in June 1902.
A new life in the United States:
After his escape from Bermuda, Dequesne settled in New York, working as a journalist for the New York Herald, at that stage the most popular newspaper in the US and financier of Stanley’s African expeditions in search of David Livingstone.
He covered the Russo-Japanese war in 1904 and the Riff Rebellion in 1909 as a war correspondent in such far flung locations as Port Arthur (today: Lüshunkou in China) and Melilla in Spanish Morocco.
Not satisfied with just being a journaslist he reinvents himself as a shooting instructor, becoming President Theodore Roosevelt’s personal shooting instructor in 1910 and even accompanied the president on a hunting expedition to East Africa. This is followed up with several vainglorious articles about big game hunting for a variety of American newspapers and magazines. One article for the San Francisco Chronicle was ominously titled, Hunting Big Game in East Africa: Fire Hunting With the Congo Cannibals. Duquesne was either having the adventures of a lifetime or he had developed his legendary story telling abilities to new heights. During this period he also lobbied Congress to pass a bill in favour of the importation of African game into the United Sates.
Since he lost his whole family during the Anglo-Boer war and thus had no incentive to return to South Africa it is no surprise that he became a naturalised citizen of the United Sates in 1913.
WW1 and spying for the Germans:
Dequesne’s enduring hatred for the British made him an easy target and by 1914 he was recruited by the Germans to become a spy and saboteur. Calling himself Fredrick Fredericks and with a cover story about doing scientific research on rubber plants, he based himself in Rio de Janeiro. Over the next few years he is credited with sinking 22 ships by planting time bombs disguised as cases of mineral samples on British ships.
In a act of brazen arrogance he fraudulently claimed the insurance for the ‘mineral samples’ he planted on the sabotaged British ships, and was subsequently arrested in New York in 1917. Damning evidence connecting him to sabotage were found in his possession: news clippings about the ship bombings and a congratulatory letter from the Assistant German Vice Consul in Nicaragua.
The British authorities requested Dequesne’s extradition on the grounds of murder, faking of documents and conspiracy against the British Crown. The Americans agreed to extradite him if the British returned him afterwards to face the music for the fraud charges. It looked like Duquesne’s game was finally up with a lengthy prison sentence or even execution awaiting him.
The resourceful spy had some more tricks up his sleeve though. In a performance worthy of an Academy award he pretended to be paralysed for two years, before escaping from a hospital’s prison ward disguised as a woman. For the next twenty years Duquesne lived under various assumed names, working as a freelance journalist and even becoming a film company publicist for Joseph Kennedy, father of president John F. Kennedy. During that time he also collaborated with Clement Wood on his ‘biography’.
After his identity was revealed to the FBI by a woman in 1932, the British requested his extradition again, but were refused on the grounds that the statute of limitations had expired.
WW2 and the end of the line:
In the run up to America’s entry into WW2 Dequesne was put in control of a large spy network tasked with sabotage and military espionage within the United Sates. His luck finally ran out in 1941 when he was arrested by the FBI as the leader of the biggest spy network in United Sates history, after extensive surveillance of his group’s activities.
In court he asserted that his actions were revenge against the British for their crimes against the Boers and his family during the Anglo-Boer war. This time there was to be no escape though and Duquesne was sentenced to 18 years imprisonment at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas. He was released due to ill health after 13 years in 1954 and died penniless and without any family in a New York welfare hospital two years later at the age of 78.
Actual FBI surveillance footage of Fritz Duquesne’s spy ring: (Includes a creepy, bulbous-eyed speech by J. Edgar Hoover)
At least two of Fritz Duquesne’s stories have been proven to be figments of a rather fertile imagination, or maybe the orchestrations of a master manipulator. Coincidentally the source for both seems to be the 1932 hagiography, The Man Who Killed Kitchener, the life of Fritz Joubert Duquesne, by Clement Wood.
The Kruger millions:
During the Anglo-Boer war Duquesne was supposedly in charge of a convoy of ox wagons transporting a load of gold to the Mozambican port of Lourenço Marques (modern day Maputo), for shipment to Europe. A disagreement on the way resulted in violence which left pretty much everyone except Duquesne and a few porters dead. The legend continues with Duquesne getting the porters to hide the gold in a local cave and then riding off on one of the oxen. However extensive analysis of the records of the Transvaal Mint and the relevant gold mining companies revealed no substantial ‘missing’ quantities of gold. Furthermore it is commonly accepted fact that the Boer republics were bankrupt at the time of the supposed ox wagon convoy.
The man who killed Kitchener:
Probably Duquesne’s most audacious claim was that he was responsible for the sinking of the HMS Hampshire in 1916 , which claimed the life of Lord Kitchener, his old nemesis and British Secretary of Sate for War during WW1. Ever the flamboyant showman, he claimed to have taken on the identity of a Russian Duke, Boris Zakrevsky who joined Kitchener on board the Hampshire.
At some point during the journey he supposedly signalled the German submarine that sank the ship, but not before jumping into a life raft which was later picked up by the Germans. According to Duquesne he was awarded the Iron Cross for his work, and he does appear in several photos wearing a German uniform adorned with an Iron Cross and other medals. Unfortunately all German records that could support or refute the authenticity of his medals are either missing or were destroyed during the war.
Today it is generally accepted truth that the HMS Hampshire struck a mine laid by a German U-boat, leading to the death of almost everyone on board, except for 12 crew members. Kitchener’s body was never found.
Whether he was a suave raconteur or a latter day Baron von Münchhausen, Fritz Dequesne’s life story is a colourful footnote to some of the most tumultuous eras in South Africa and the world’s history. On a contemporary level, Duquesne’s ignominious final years as a lonely, broken old man should be considered a timeless warning against political myth making and mindless, all consuming hatred.
Staring at the eerie 72 year old FBI mug shot of the man who grew up on a farm in South Africa and went on to become one of the world’s most notorious spies, you can’t but wonder if the whole truth of Fritz Duquesne’s stranger than fiction life will ever be known.
Books and films about Fritz Duquesne:
The man who killed Kitchener; the life of Fritz Joubert Duquesne by Clement Wood (1932)
Counterfeit Hero – Fritz Duquesne, Adventurer and Spy (Biography) by Art Ronnie (1995)
The House on 92nd Street (film based on the Duquesne spy ring) – won an Oscar for best Original Motion Picture Story (1945)
The Man Who Would Kill Kitchener (documentary) – South African film maker Francois Verster (1999)