Spies like Schwabe: More Wilde (Nights) Discoveries

Geoffrey Schwabe (L) and Edgar Schwabe (R)

Researching the confidence tricksters and spies in Maurice Schwabe’s orbit required extreme patience and a lot of record keeping. I had my own version of those boards in the crime films where the cops post photos of suspects and tie them together with pieces of yarn. I created dossiers in a program called Scrivener listing each character’s aliases, physical traits and a timeline of everything I knew about them. You never knew what detail would later become significant. (And which would turn out to be a lot of noise.) Even now, I am sure there are details in my files the significance of which have yet to be revealed.

One of the big mysteries that was never fully revealed what the question of Maurice’s brothers. Criminals and the police who investigated them spoke of the criminal “Schwabe brothers,” or “the homosexual Schwabe brothers.” Some of the detectives who studied the group suspected that the Schwabes were the center of the operation. The problem is, Maurice had three brothers. Which brother or brothers conspired with Maurice? I was never able to pin it down definitively, but there are quite a few clues.

In order to try to answer this question, I spent a lot of time trying to track the movements of the Schwabe brothers. One early source that seemed to offer little of value was the correspondence of Eleanor Pray, an American who lived in Vladivostok, Russia when Edgar Schwabe was the commercial agent there. Geoffrey Schwabe was also there working with his brother. The letters had a few mentions of Schwabe, a bit of color about the region, but nothing that jumped out at me.

Later some Japanese documents came to me. A few of the letters were in English but most of the file was in Japanese. Not only was it in Japanese, it was in an old formal script that most Japanese people can no longer read. It took some time to find someone who could tell me what the file said. It clearly showed, however, that Edgar Schwabe, with his brother’s assistance, offered the Japanese plans for the harbor and neighborhoods of Vladivostok with all the forts and their elevations, drawn to scale, a map of the route to be taken by the Russian army with a book giving all the details of the villages and rivers on the route, and a plan of all the of forts and barracks at Harrasbach. In the end, the Japanese did buy secrets from Schwabe.

On the evening of February 8, 1904, the Japanese launched one of the most successful surprise attacks in history against the Russian port of Port Arthur. It was not until I decided to go back to Pray’s correspondence that I realized the attack had been no surprise to Edgar. Pray recorded that she had been visited by Edgar on February 7 at noon. Edgar told Pray and her husband that war was about to be declared, either that night or the following day, “… so we should plan accordingly,” Eleanor Pray wrote home. “Servants are all leaving tomorrow morning and I shall send this letter on that boat.”

If you have an interest in pre-World War I espionage, you will find more in Wilde Nights and Robber Barons. You can order from your favorite local book store. Also available in the UK at Amazon UK in the U.S. via Amazon or get an autographed copy with a special Oscar Wilde bookmark directly from the author. (When you buy directly from me, you get a signed copy and I get to keep more of the profits. Thanks for your support.)

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