In the Shadow of War: Spies, Love and the Lusitania
St. Patrick's Cathedral
March 2, 1915
IT WAS HARD for Josette to believe her childhood friend, Julian Laurent, was dead. Sitting in St. Patrick’s Cathedral where Julian would be eulogized during the morning Mass, his death finally seemed real. His parents received the devastating news in February. Thousands of Allied soldiers had died that day. There was no way to send their bodies home or to bury them individually. Instead, a deep trench – a common grave – had been dug near the battlefield. Mr. and Mrs. Laurent brought a portrait of their son to the service – it had been painted after his graduation from Harvard. It rested on an easel near the stairs that led to the altar.
The morning air was heavy with an icy chill that crept clear to her bones. Shivering, Josette buttoned the top button of her coat. The fact that St. Patrick’s Cathedral was a cavernous edifice of stone and marble and stained-glass windows didn’t help, either. This was the first Mass of the day, and at seven a.m., the heating system, such as it was, hadn’t yet warmed the interior of the massive structure.
Josette, her twin sister, Yvette, and their mother sat in a pew located at the far-left side of the crowded cathedral. They wore their warmest black mourning attire. Mother, always dressed as if she was off to the opera, had selected her black ensemble trimmed with white rabbit fur. Her hat had an over-sized brim and was covered with fake flowers and netting that hung to the level of her brows. Mother always dressed to impress. But then, that was Mother.
Speaking in monotone Latin, Bishop Hayes, wearing a beautiful long purple robe, struck a commanding figure. “Sanctus, sanctus, sanctus,” he said, interrupting Josette’s thoughts. He stood beneath the large golden cross, his back to the parishioners. After making the sign of the cross, he steepled his hands at chest height.
Looking around the massive interior, Josette noticed that the early morning light beamed a rainbow of colors through the stained-glass windows, scattering a diffused glow over the nave and rows of pews. This was one of the holiest times of the year in the Catholic faith. The weeks of Lent were underway and, as such, the edifice was made even more beautiful by the addition of silky, royal purple fabric draped across the statues and crucifixes.
Wearing a serene smile, the Bishop began to speak the special eulogy prayer in English. “Many of us have gathered here in the light of God, the Holy Mother, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, to pay homage to one of our parishioners, Julian James Laurent. He was baptized in this church and served the Lord as one of our very special altar boys. We are honored to have Mr. and Mrs. John Laurent, his parents, here worshipping with us today.” He paused, nodding to Julian’s family seated in the front center row.
Bishop Hayes continued. “Let me open with a passage from Ecclesiastics 44, Verse 9. ‘And some there be, which have no memorial, who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they had never been born.’” He paused, his gentle gaze clearly locked on Mr. and Mrs. Laurent. “Though Julian’s earthly remains rest with his fellow soldiers in a field in France, you can be sure he is with God. Lo, they are all with God.” He raised his arms, looking to heaven. “‘And their bodies are buried in peace; but their name liveth evermore.’ They may be gone, these young brave men, but they will never be forgotten. And now, let us pray.”
Josette hadn’t seen much of Julian since he was sent away to boarding school as a teenager. And then, he had gone on to Harvard University. Glancing at his portrait again, Josette’s eyes welled with tears. She opened her purse, retrieved a handkerchief, and dabbed away the moisture from her cheeks. Julian’s parents had begged him not to sign up as a soldier with the British army. Mrs. Laurent said that when Julian read the newspaper accounts of how the German army had marched across Belgium, a neutral country, and laid waste to its capital, murdering innocent citizens and poisoning wells in the process, it had been the last straw for the conscientious young man.
Heavy footsteps echoed on the cold, marble floor, snapping her out of her reverie. She turned as a man wearing a long, brown coat walked by. Without so much as a glance at her, he stopped at the end of the next pew. Balding, with a thin fringe of very dark hair around the bottom of his head, he carried a huge cigar with a glowing end in his right hand. No one dared to smoke inside the cathedral. Everyone knew that. Josette was shocked.
The odd man stood there silently without genuflecting – obviously not a Catholic – and then settled in the empty spot in front of her. Surprised at his strange behavior, at the fact he was smoking a cigar, Josette stuffed her handkerchief back into her purse, snapped it closed and tapped him on the shoulder. He half-turned to look at her.
“Excuse me, sir,” she whispered. “You need to snuff out your cigar.”
With that, he twisted completely around and shot a foul glower at her, his eyes filled with hatred. A tingle crawled up her spine, and she drew back. She was sorry she had said anything. Those eyes. Dark. Cold. So angry. Then he turned forward again.
“How dreadful!” The words slipped out of her mouth. Josette scooted to the right, as far away from him as she could, so that her body was close to her sister’s. Yvette’s head was lowered in prayer. Josette tapped her on the arm, glancing at the ill-mannered lout. “Can you believe it?” she whispered to Yvette from the corner of her mouth, her gaze still locked on the back of the man’s hatless head.
Yvette looked puzzled. “What in the world is going on?” she said in such a low tone, her words were barely audible.
Widening her eyes, Josette said, “He’s smoking!”
Yvette drew back. “What? Oh, my heavens!” she said softly.
“Shhh,” Their mother mouthed with an angry expression.
Josette and her sister pressed back in their seats. A thought ran through Josette’s mind. If the man wasn’t a Catholic, then he must have been a friend of Julian’s. That seemed highly unlikely to her, since he was rude, disrespectful of being inside a church. And looked at least forty. Julian was in his late twenties, for heaven’s sake.
She heard more footsteps approaching. Another man passed, pausing in the aisle beside the pew where the first man sat. Italians, she surmised, noting their coloring and features. This one, likely in his late twenties, had a full head of curly, coal-black hair and long sideburns. And then she noticed that he, too, carried a lighted cigar.
Josette let out a gasp. She and Yvette exchanged confused glances. Before Josette could say anything to the newly arrived Italian about the matter of smoking, the bell sounded signaling the worshippers to kneel again. Both Mother and Yvette went back to the kneeler. But not Josette. Instead, she watched as the seated man motioned to the younger man, indicating he should continue walking towards the front of the cathedral. With that, he ambled forward slowly, stopped, crossed himself and kneeled to pray near one of the enormous stone pillars at the front of the sanctuary. But why there? In the walkway? Why didn’t he slide into one of the empty pews?
Josette scooted left, back to the end of the seat, stretching her upper body into the aisle to see what he did next.
The Italian who knelt in prayer wore a long, black, split-back woolen coat. It had frayed elbows and looked as if it had faded several shades. Something, a large lump, seemed to make his coat pocket jut out.
The scrub woman, who had been cleaning the vestibule area when they entered the cathedral earlier, moved in Josette’s direction. She dusted a window sill, the gate across the aisle, a pillar base, and then strolled over to wipe the carved end of Josette’s pew. The woman smiled.
Josette forced a smile in return. The poor young dear was certainly homely—a large nose, rutted skin covered by a thick layer of caked powder, and bright red lipstick. And then a second cleaning woman appeared. Even more unattractive, she wore baggy clothes and had her faded red hair plaited into a long braid that hung down her back. The two scrub women exchanged knowing glances.
It was all so strange. Why were they cleaning while a Mass was underway?
Still holding his cigar, the unpleasant man in front of Josette rose, stepped into the aisle, pushed past the cleaning ladies, and bolted up the aisle. The shorter of the two cleaning ladies lifted her skirt, exposing a man’s laced shoes, and scurried after him.
Flabbergasted, Josette watched as the red-haired woman dashed down the aisle. In an abrupt move, the kneeling man reached inside his coat and pulled out a good-sized, strange-looking object bound with what looked like copper wire. Placing it on the floor against the marble pillar, he touched the glowing tip of his cigar to a thick cord protruding from the object. It only took a few seconds for the cord to ignite. He got to his feet just as the cleaning lady arrived and grabbed his shoulders. The pair struggled. The Italian pulled himself free and sprinted for the aisle. It was obvious the cleaning lady wasn’t a woman, but a man dressed in woman’s attire. He dove for the fleeing man, wrestling him to the floor.
The shock of what was happening swept through Josette’s body like a lightning bolt. “It’s a bomb!” she said in a near shout, as she got to her feet.
Yvette and Mother looked up with terrified expressions.
“Quick! Run!” Josette said.
Without responding, Yvette and their mother were beside Josette, pushing their way up the aisle with the other parishioners from nearby pews who had seen the commotion. The elderly, bespectacled usher who had guided them to their seats that morning, bolted past, sprinting in the direction of the explosives.
Josette glanced back just in time to see the usher’s gray wig fall to the floor as he leaped on the lighted explosives.
STANDING OUTSIDE the cathedral’s front entrance with dozens of parishioners who had escaped during the turmoil, it seemed quite strange to Josette that there were still hundreds of worshippers inside and that the Mass had continued.
Nearby, a rotund woman sat on the top step sobbing loudly, face buried in her hands. Her husband stood over her, trying to calm his wife. No one in the crowd seemed to know what to do next. Their faces reflected confusion, fear.
Yvette was visibly shaken. “Why? Why did they want to blow up the cathedral?” she asked Josette. “They could have killed all of us.”
Josette shook her head and exhaled a breath. “I don’t know, Yvette. I just don’t know.”
Mother looked dazed. Yvette slid her arm around their mother’s shoulders. “It’s all over now. Everything is fine.”
“As Father would say, ‘the plot was foiled,’” Josette said, attempting to lighten the moment. Yet, she knew if the bomb had exploded, the big support column would have been seriously damaged. It probably would have toppled over, bringing down part of the roof onto the worshippers below – hundreds of innocent men, women and children could have been killed.
Who were these terrible men, and why were they so calloused, so angry…such cold-blooded killers? Josette wondered. Where could anyone go these days to stay out of harm’s way? Even churches were no longer safe. A sense of anger, of sudden determination rose from deep inside her. “You stay here with Mother,” Josette instructed her sister. “I’ll be right back.”
Josette approached a nearby police officer who was speaking to a small group of people. “Pardon me, sir.”
He excused himself and turned to face her. The clean-shaven young officer looked quite dashing in his crisp, dark-blue uniform. “Yes, miss? Are you and your family doing all right?”
“We’re well, thank you. I have a question, however. Those cleaning ladies. And the usher. They were men, weren’t they?” She already knew the answer.
“They was all New York Police Officers at their finest.”
“And those men? The ones who attempted to blow up the church. Who were they?”
“The Department has been tracking them two Italians for quite a while. They’re part of a group of anarchists based right here in the City.”
“That’s a chilling thought, sir,” she said, drawing in a deep breath. “I read in the newspaper that they’ve been setting off bombs all over the country.”
“I’m afraid it’s true, miss. But we got the ones here in Manhattan dead to rights!”
“Well, then. Thank heavens for all of you brave men who risk your lives to keep us safe, and most especially the officers who kept those men from carrying out their deplorable plan.”
The officer puffed out his chest like a rooster about to crow. “I’ll pass that along to the men, miss. And don’t you worry. Them Italians won’t be planting no more bombs around here. They’re handcuffed and on their way to Police Headquarters. You’re safe and sound. You have the personal guarantee of Willie Crabtree, at your service.”
“Pleased to meet you, Officer Crabtree,” she said, politely bowing her chin. “I’m Josette Rogers, daughter of Henry Rogers. Would you please ask Captain Tunney to telephone my father at his office to tell him his family is doing well? It’s my understanding that the captain and my father are acquaintances.”
“Of course, Miss Rogers.”
“One more question, if you don’t mind, Officer Crabtree. Why do you think so many of the parishioners didn’t evacuate the cathedral when we did?”
He shrugged. “I suppose since the ruckus was all the way over on the far west side of the cathedral where all of you was sitting, the folks all the way across on the other side just didn’t hear nothing. St. Paddy’s is like a gigantic cavern, isn’t it now?”
“If you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to get going. I’ll be sure to give your message to Captain Tunney.” With a tug on the cap’s brim, he descended the stairs to a waiting police vehicle.
Josette stepped back to where Yvette and their mother waited.
“Mon Dieu, Mon Dieu! Mother muttered. We forgot communion.” She blinked several times, looking like a confused child. “We should go back inside, n’cest-ce pas? To finish.”
“Let’s go home,” Yvette said, taking their mother’s hand. “Come with me.”
“I’ll hail a taxi. Mr. Herrmann wouldn’t be here with the car to pick us up for quite a while,” Josette said.
The threesome made their way to the curb in front of the grand cathedral. The police cars were gone. The sidewalk that had been roped off to the public was now open. The ever-present throngs of pedestrians pushed their way along Fifth Avenue at a hurried pace, late for this or that, as if nothing had happened. Life, it seemed, had already returned to normal.
And yet, as she and her sister helped their mother into the back seat of the taxi, Josette knew it might be a long time before life in New York City would truly be normal again. Too many men were unemployed. People, and especially the immigrants, were starving. According to the New York Times, Italian anarchists had turned their anger towards Catholic churches; a gruesome way to express their bitterness against the wealth of the Catholic hierarchy. The church’s wealth, the anarchists believed, should be used to feed the poor. Josette could sympathize with their argument, but not the violence that had followed their protests.
On top of that, the war overseas had already claimed the lives of a generation of young men not only from England, France and Russia. The Germans and their allied countries were suffering greatly as well. Rumors of German spies swirled everywhere. The United States, the world, everything was in turmoil.
At that moment, Josette set her mind to help with efforts to keep America from becoming involved in what was now being called, “The Great War.” But what could she, a woman who hadn’t quite yet reached the age of majority, hope to do?