18/10/1893 - 27/1/1966
Record updated 08-Jul-23
Grover Cleveland Bergdoll was a wealthy early aviator, racing driver and notorious World War I draft dodger who fled to Germany to avoid service.
Grover Cleveland Bergdoll was born in the Bergdoll 'Castle' in West Philadelphia. He arrived into the world with a broken arm and head injuries, a result of a difficult birth. The third of 5 children, his father, Louis Jnr, died when he was just 3. He suffered seizures well into his teens and his mother, Emma, lavished attention on him to the point where he could get away with just about anything.
His grandfather, Louis Snr., had arrived in the United States at Castle Garden on the ship 'Doris' on June 27, 1846, and had founded the Louis Bergdoll and Sons Brewing Co. in 1849. The brewery was a major contributor to Philadelphia's reputation as the brewing capitol of America. 1896, On his death his wife Emma Bergdoll took over the brewery.
Perhaps if the family had not been so wealthy, Grover would undoubtedly have grown up differently. However he came from one of Philadelphia's wealthiest families.
Grover had a $5000 a year allowance (About $160,000 a year today!) which coupled with his looks and obstinate nature were almost guarantee to get him into trouble.
He was very close to his oldest brother, Louis, who founded the Bergdoll Motor Car Company in 1908, and they spend considerable amounts of time together during Grover's teenage years travelling to races and hillclimbs on the east coast where Louis mostly raced cars carrying his name.
Louis was also interested in flying and in 1910 acquired a Bleriot XI from Rodman Wanamaker. The General manager at the Bergdoll Motor Car Company was one Willie Haupt, also a racing driver, and it was him who first flew this machine. Grover at this time also learned to fly and in March the following year, Louis gave the Bleriot to him.
In 1911 we find one of the first examples of Grover's continued belief that he could do whatever he wanted even in the outside world. In October he had entered his first race but crashed in practice. On November 11th he was driving it through Ardmore, Pennsylvania, when a Montgomery County police officer called Ignatius Mullen, jumped onto the running board and ordered him to pull over. Grover merely stepped on the accelerator whereupon Mullen pulled his gun and threatened to shoot. Ordered to drive to the Police Station, Grover drove home with Mullen still hanging onto the side of the car. Once home Grover ordered Mullen off the premises and when the officer refused, someone hit him over the back of his head with a car jack. Mullen then took refuge behind a tree as the person who had hit him opened fire!
Grover was charged with assaulting Mullen, driving his racing car without lights, speeding, driving an unlicensed car without a proper driving license and, oh yes, kidnapping! Fortunately no-one was hurt and amazingly Grover was only fined $75 by Judge Henry Weand.
This was actually not the first occurrence of this behaviour in the family. Two years earlier the family had hired one Albert Hall as a chauffeur not foreseeing the consequences. It was not long before a relationship started between him and Grover's sister Elizabeth (1888-1975).
When the family became aware of a blossoming relationship, Hall was quickly dismissed. However this did not have the desired effect and the couple continued their relationship now in a more public manner. Once Elizabeth came of age on May 7th 1909 she inherited £50,000, immediately left home, bought a house, acquired a marriage licence and duly wed Mr Hall.
It would appear that Mr Hall was maybe not the ideal choice of spouse and this was well illustrated when he entered a 70 hp Welch in the Fairmont Park Motor Races.
The race was organised by the Quaker City Motor Club in Fairmont Park as a charitable fund raiser. Choice vantage points went to the highest bidders at auction as did parking spaces, of which there were some 1,000 at appealing locations around the eight mile course. A grandstand contained almost 4,000 seats and 105 boxes. Again, these were available through auction.
The meeting got off to a rather shaky start when it transpired that the necessary permits to travel at speed in the park had not been obtained and though practice had started, most drivers obeyed officials when ordered to stop. There was one exception, our friend Al Hall driving a Welch. Perhaps imbued with an inflated sense of self importance brought about by his new matrimonial status and wealth, he carried on and was promptly arrested by Sergeant Harry Hahn of the Park Guard. Elizabeth persuaded Hahn to permit her husband to return home to North Wynnefield Avenue, to get money to make bail. He agreed but on the way Al attacked him and threw him from the car! He was quickly apprehended as second time, this time by the police, and held on $1500 bail. Friends made bail but on return to court a few days later he pleaded guilty to seven of the eight charges. Four involving speeding and three for using his wife's driving licence. The eighth charge was for assault and battery to be heard at a later date by a grand jury!
Hall, convinced that he would take the start, was wrong and the Quaker City Motor Club were unimpressed with who he was and excluded him. Hall threatened to sue but didn't go through with it.
Anyway back to Grover!
Flying became his main passion and in 1912 he enrolled in the Wright School. On graduating he returned home and set up an airfield at Manos, just outside Philadelphia and called it Eagle Field. Grover had bought a Wright Model B Biplane for about $5,000 and made his first flight with it from Eagle Field on July 15 1912 and passed his FAI license in September and, as Grover became more proficient, he started performing exhibitions.
In December 1912 he was arrested again after crashing his car and injuring six people. When he appeared for his hearing he found he was facing another 25 outstanding warrants for offences including assault, running into a mounted policeman, driving without lights, discharging firearms in a reckless way, resisting arrest, driving without a license and shooting a police office with intent to kill.
Grover proceeded to issue warrants of his own against Chief Donaghy and the man he collided with in December the previous year. He also continued to speed and drove through Ardmore distributing leaflets stating "Good-bye, farewell, the Ardmore cops can go to hell!" Grover was promptly arrested and jailed for 13 hours. At this latest hearing the Judge, on hearing of the outstanding charges against him, ordered him to be turned over to the Media authorities, just west of Philadelphia, for contempt of court.
He was tried and convicted of reckless driving and assault and sentenced to three months in jail, a term he served surprisingly with exemplary behaviour.
Meanwhile the Bergdoll Motor Car Company failed sending Louis into bankruptcy.
On his release Grover announced his intention to study law at the University of Pennsylvania. He returned to flying and came in for criticism from the Aero Club of Pennsylvania for his low level antics. He travelled to Europe with a view to buying a faster plane with which to compete in but the trip proved fruitless as none of the main manufacturers would sell to him. Meanwhile he was scheduled to appear in court again on more of the usual charges.
In October 1913 his mother appealed to the Media courts to have Grover's $1000 bail bond returned which they agreed to do if Grover would appear in court in December. When his case was called, Grover couldn't be seen. However he was spotted outside the courts and was called over. His response was to start up his Erwin Special and race off. Pursued by the police and his mother, he drove in and out of the side roads, stopping at times to wave at his pursuers.
When he finally came to trial for the offences he committed back in 1911 he testified that he had taken Ignatious Mullen as a villain as he was out of uniform at the time. He avoided conviction!
Things quieted down for awhile, with Grover flying and racing the Erwin and in 1914 he raced at Brighton beach and Trenton. In October he crashed again this time driving the Erwin headlong into an oncoming vehicle. He then hit a tree before going through a hedge and turning over, where upon it caught fire. Both Grover and his passenger escaped but they did not avoid the attentions of his old friend Chief Donaghty and they were arrested and held pending a $500 bail bond.
In late 1914, after 748 flights, he packed the Wright Model B away in a hanger where it remained until 1933 when it was restored before being donated to the Franklin Institute. He returned to automobile racing and bought a new Erwin which he had prepared for the 1915 Vanderbilt Cup. However he crashed in practice and was thrown out of the car into a barbed wire fence. Undaunted he continued to race and to rack up motoring offences until on October 6th he was tracked down by the Bryant Detective Agency who had been retained by the authorities to bring Grover to justice. After a fight involving four detectives he was finally subdued and handcuffed. After removing a loaded revolver from the front seat of the Erwin, he was served with multiple summonses including one from his brother Charles seeking to have a commission look into his sanity.
This summons was to split the family irrevocably with Louis and Charles on one side and Emma, Erwin and Grover on the other. Ultimately the commission found Grove mentally sound. Both Louis and Charles distanced themselves by changing that surnames to Bergson and Braun respectively.
With America entering WWI, Grover was said to have offered his services to the German Government and when they turned him down he reluctantly registered for the draft June 5, 1917. He also apparently applied to join the Army Air Service but was refused and when the draft board called him for his physical, he went into hiding assisted by his mother.
He was finally caught in January, 1920, and charged with draft dodging and desertion. He was taken to Governors Island, New York, to await his court-martial when he was sentenced to five years in prison.
But that was not the end of the matter. He was sent to Fort Jay to serve his sentence, but in May, Grover told the authorities about $150,000 in gold that he had buried in the mountains in Virginia while he was in hiding. He said he wanted to recover the gold and managed to get permission to return home to Philadelphia with two sergeants as guards to dig up the treasure. It was however a trick and Grover slipped out of the house and with his chauffer they made their way using fake passports to Canada and from there to Germany where they took up residence in Eberbach.
Lieut. Col. John E. Hunt, the commanding officer at Fort Jay, was court-martialled for neglect of duty in connection with the escape. (His brother Erwin who had also been on the run for two years for desertion also gave himself up in 1920.)
For Grover now living in Germany life was not all a bed of roses. There were a number of attempts to forcibly repatriate him to the USA. On one occasion two Sergeants, Carl Naef and Frank Zimmer, held Bergdoll up at gun point as he sat at the wheel of his car at a wedding. Bergdoll escaped with the Bride and Groom onboard and a shot fired after him slightly wounded the bride. Naef and Zimmer were apprehended by the other guests and were both given short prison sentences.
A second attempt was made in 1923 when Roger Sperber and Karl Schmidt hid in his rooms with others waiting in car outside ready to drive their prisoner across the French lines. In the ensuing attack, Grover bit off Sperber's thumb and shot and killed Schmidt. The other conspirators were also captured and given jail sentences.
Grover was also shot at a number of other times. By now he was wanting to return home and made a number of appeals to President Roosevelt for clemency but to no avail. He applied for an American passport in 1927 but was informed him that he didn't need a passport to return to America and that he couldn't have one to go anywhere else.
He moved to Switzerland and married a German girl. Then in 1927 he heard news of Lindberg's historic transatlantic flight. This must have stirred his passion for flying once more and he attempted to acquire a suitable plane to make a crossing the other way. Once again he failed to get the machine he wanted.
In 1935 his wife travelled to the USA with their two girls to visit Grover's 76-year-old mother and to petition the Government to pardon him, give back his confiscated $800,000 fortune, let him return to the USA. Bergdoll himself announced that he would surrender to stand trial in Federal Court if the five year sentence against him were annulled.
Finally in 1939 he gave up and returned to the USA aboard the German liner Bremen listed on the passenger manifest as Herr Bennett Nash. During his trial he claimed that he had twice returned to the USA since he had fled in 1920 and hidden in his Philadelphia home, once apparently for four years.
He was sentenced to three years hard labour in addition to his five year sentence for draft evasion. In 1942 he applied to the Government to be allowed to enlist in the Army Air Corps to help defeat Hitler. Grover was by now 49 and his offer was turned down. He was released in February 1944 when he returned to his 260-acre farm outside Downington, PA.
He was divorced from Berta in 1960 having had eight children together. One of them, Alfred followed in his father's footsteps and became a draft dodger in the Korean War.
Suffering from mental illness, he spent the last years of his life in the Westbrook Psychiatric Hospital, with his son, Alfred, and lawyer, David Meade White, acting as his guardians. He died there from pneumonia in 1966. He was 72 years old.
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