When I first downloaded Alfred Gartner’s 1918 patent for an exploding package for “candy, nuts and the like” I figured it would just make a quirky 4th-of-july packaging story. What tripped me up were the tantalizing hints of scandal and intrigue surrounding the inventor.
Gartner’s invention coincided with the start of WWI, but there was something about his inclusion of the “on to Berlin” slogan in his patent drawings that seemed important, although I couldn’t say why.
When I put up Friday’s post about Gartner’s “explosive patriotic packaging,” I thought that was all that I would ever had to say about it. I had questions, but I imagined that the answers were nowhere to be found.
Yesterday, however, on the fourth of July, I felt compelled to dig just a little bit deeper into Alfred Gartner’s “history” and what I found was way more about him that I ever expected to know.
The picture of Gartner above was taken for a 1916 passport application—an application in which he sought permission to travel to Austria and Germany. This application set off an investigation into Gartner’s business affairs, which, as it turned out, were pretty nefarious.
IN RE: Alfred Gartner, German suspect
Special Agent Jesse H. Wilson Jr.’s Report (4/30/1917):
Gartner is man weighing well over two hundred pounds, fairly tall, between fifty-five and sixty years of age, grey headed, smooth shave. His most striking characteristic is his puckered mouth and his habit of speaking without perceptible movement of the lips.
Yes, this was the same Alfred Gartner who was the grifter featured in a 1913 NY Times article, indicted for defrauding a repertory “show of midgets” with his $5,000,000 “Civic Circus” scheme.
And, yes, this was also the same Alfred Gartner who was the patent attorney, disbarred in 1918 for “gross misconduct.” (More about that later)
But wait, there’s more!
In 1901 he and his law partner, John W. Steward, established the “Independent Tin Can Company” to capitalize on Walter Thompson’s patented “Solderless Side Seam for Tin Cans.”
The Independent (Tin) Can Company of New York, the American Solderless Can Co., New Jersey, were not can making concerns, each owned certain patents (and nothing else) which after a trial proved to be unsuccessful and were abandoned.
The Steel and Metal Digest, 1914
This experience must have left a bad taste in Walter Thompson’s mouth. Where he had once collaborated on inventions with Gartner, by 1917 Thompson was so angered by Gartner’s business practices that he sent a letter to the Department of Justice describing him as “a thoroughly conscienceless, unprincipled petty swindler of working people, servant girls and waitresses, a great schemer to get money without work and a hard drinker.” (More about this later…)
Gartner was also accused of selling (or attempting to sell) patent secrets to the Germans, munitions to the Austrians and shoes to the Russian army.
Because of the passport application, an investigation was launched by the Department of Justice’s newly formed “Bureau of Investigation” (later to be renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation). Gartner, once a wealthy “man of means” was now under suspicion of being, either a German sympathizer or perhaps something worse.
Despite my indifference to history in its usual forms, the declassified FBI files about Gartner’s case were, for me, a fascinating read. Were Gartner’s patriotic inventions a sincere expression of his national allegiance? Or was he, as an Austrian-born naturalized citizen, seeking cover from wartime suspicion by wrapping himself in the American flag?
Judge for yourself, after the fold…