Spies in the Spanish-American War: Blueprint for Future American Intelligence

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Upon seeing the letter in print, Carranza immediately charged that its contents had been forged. Carranza was subsequently arrested and in turn sued Joseph Kellert, chief of the Metropolitan Detective Agency in Montreal, for false arrest. He accused Kellert of stealing the letter. The Carranza letter caused a large diplomatic stir involving Canada, Great Britain, the United States, and Spain. The letter was shown to the British ambassador in the United States, Sir Julian Paucefote, who in turn sent it to Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain. All this took place amid legal haggling over whether or not to deport Carranza from Canada.

Ambassador Paucefote met with Wilkie along with another man named Calderon Carlisle, who was a legal adviser to the British embassy in Washington. Carlisle, who was fluent in Spanish, verified the authenticity of the letter. But the matter was far from over. On June 11, the governor-general of Canada, Lord Aberdeen, officially asked the Spanish government to recall Carranza to Spain. The Spanish government refused to go along with the request, saying that Carranza was an innocent victim of an American-Canadian plot. In the end, Carranza, as well as Captain Juan Du Bose, who had served as the chief attaché at Spain’s Washington embassy, quietly returned home.

A Nation Embarrassment and a Blueprint for Covert Affairs

In 1899, a year after the end of the Spanish-American War, the final chapter to the Carranza letter was finally revealed. It proved to be a huge embarrassment to both Wilkie and the Secret Service. The Montreal Star wrote an article on the activities of one George Bell, a Canadian citizen who made an incredible allegation. Bell said that he had broken into Carranza’s Tupper Street residence, stolen the letter, and given it to Wilkie. Bell said that Wilkie had used a forger to falsify the letter. Bell said he was telling his story because Wilkie had failed to pay him the full amount owed, giving him only $50 of the $1,000 he had promised to deliver.

The newspaper published both versions of the letters. The American press soon picked up the Montreal Star’s version; reaction was swift. Soon there was another unexpected twist. Ralph Redfern, who was employed by the Secret Service in its Boston office, said that he, not Bell, had pilfered the letter from Carranza’s residence. Redfern claimed the original letter, proving American allegations, was on file at Secret Service headquarters, but over the years it mysteriously disappeared.

In the wake of the Carranza affair, Wilkie and the Secret Service took a hit in the press for the way the agents had conducted themselves at the time of the Tupper Street break-in. The Secret Service was damaged even more when its agents failed to protect President William McKinley from an assassin’s bullet on September 6, 1901, at the hands of anarchist Leon Czolgosz while the president was attending a trade show in Buffalo, New York. The Montreal spy case was promptly forgotten, but over the years it would become apparent that the resourceful Wilkie had set the blueprint by which American intelligence agents would function, at home and abroad, in the modern age.

This article first appeared on the Warfare History Network.

Image: Wikimedia Commons