In my years of studying New York City’s cemeteries, I’ve come across many astonishing and touching life stories that have been forgotten over time and deserve more attention than a mere mention in my usual cemetery profiles. Here I present one of these remarkable stories of human experience, as part of a series called Lives Unearthed.
The sun shone brightly and a cold March wind blew when nine-year-old Einer Sporrer was buried in Holy Trinity Cemetery in Brooklyn in 1937. The turf over recent graves in the cemetery was spongy and beginning to show hints of green—signs of the arrival of spring. Around the new grave that was to be Einer’s the undertaker had spread imitation grass rugs to conceal the raw earth. Mary Sporrer, a plump, Bavarian woman, pressed close to her husband and sobbed as the small white coffin was placed on the apparatus that was to lower her daughter into the grave. John Sporrer, tall, grim-faced and impassive until then, could no longer control his grief. His face twisted and tears welled in his dark eyes. Slowly, the casket was lowered. John Sporrer gently placed a white carnation down the hole that had received his only child. Mary Sporrer tossed one after it. And nearby, a group of girls in dark berets and brown leather jackets stood in strict military attention as their right arms snapped up in a Nazi salute.
These girls were members of a unit of the German American Bund, one of several pro-Nazi groups formed by German immigrants living in the United States in the years preceding World War II. Shortly after Hitler came to power in Germany in January 1933, the Friends of New Germany, the American National Socialist League and other associations formed to promote German culture and cultivate a Nazi following. The German American Bund, the most successful of the American Nazi groups, formed in 1936 and reached 20,000 members at its peak. The Bund spread Nazi ideology—fascism, anti-Semitism, and anti-communism—through publications, meetings and rallies, and had camps where youths and adults participated in military drills and athletic activities. Members wore uniforms modeled on those of Germany’s Nazis and gave the Nazi salute during Bund gatherings.
Largely forgotten today, American Nazism was a small but powerful national movement that was of widespread concern in the 1930s. The U.S. government scrutinized American Nazi activities from the movement’s earliest days. Congressional hearings led to the dissolution of the Friends of New Germany in 1935 when they concluded that the group was receiving direct financial support from the German government and that its leaders were foreign agents. A few years later, the House Un-American Activities Committee launched an investigation into the German American Bund. Newspapers reported on these organizations with growing alarm. In the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in March 1937, columnist Clara Gruening Stillman cautioned that Germany’s “sturdy unofficial representatives in America are busily drilling by the tens of thousands in spiffy new uniforms, surrounded by swastikas and pausing now and then to practice the Nazi salute. Many are American citizens, many will become so, they will throng into our army, our business centers. Always with a divided allegiance they will make it their business to know about our weak spots than we do. They have votes. Have they guns, too?” The public reacted as well—when the Bund held a rally at Madison Square Garden in February 1939, New York City deployed over 1,700 police officers to hold back the crowd of 10,000 anti-Nazi protestors who demonstrated against the event.
Though American Nazism had a presence in German-American enclaves throughout the country, New York City was the center of this movement. In an investigative series that appeared in the New York World-Telegram in August 1935, reporter William A.H. Birnie declared Yorkville, the then-heavily German neighborhood on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, “the stronghold of the American Nazis,” with 2,000 “enrolled Nazis” living there. Nazis were concentrated in the German sections of the other boroughs, too—in Brooklyn there were 1,100, in the Bronx 400, and in Queens and Staten Island perhaps 500 more. It is difficult today to understand—or accept—reasons our citizens would have joined these groups, but Birnie offers a perspective regarding the mindset and motivations of some of the average members. “Most of these American Nazis are German born,” Birnie says, and “take their Nazi-ology like their schnapps—with moderation. They enjoy hearing about the glories of the Vaterland under the new regime, but they don’t bother themselves much about crusading in their adopted country. To them the American Nazi movement offers simply another of those sociable Vereins [clubs] they never can resist joining.” Many German Americans who had “little or no interest in spreading Hitlerite propaganda in the United States,” Birnie writes, were attracted to these groups merely because they sponsored extensive programs of social and athletic activities.
John and Mary Sporrer came to New York from Bavaria, Germany, in 1929, leaving Einer behind with her grandmother. The Sporrers settled in Ridgewood, Brooklyn, a section along the Brooklyn/Queens border (part of the present-day neighborhoods of Bushwick, Brooklyn, and Ridgewood, Queens) mostly populated by German and Italian families at that time. Ridgewood was the hotbed for Brooklyn’s Nazi activity—the Friends of New Germany had its headquarters two blocks from the Sporrers’ home and its successor, the German American Bund, frequently held meetings and rallies in the neighborhood. After years of saving their money—John working as a boiler operator for a Manhattan hotel and Mary as a helper at a Brooklyn laundry—in 1935 the Sporrers were able to bring Einer to New York, where she enrolled in a Ridgewood parochial school and joined a girls unit of the German American Bund.
Photographers captured images of the girls from Einer’s Bund unit extending their arms in the Nazi salute outside the church where her funeral rites were held and again at her grave. One reader of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle was “shocked to see in today’s Eagle a photograph, taken at the funeral of Einer Sporrer, showing a group of so-called ‘American girls’ raising their arms in Nazi salute,” and called the Bund’s “attempts to foster foreign ideals an abuse of privileges granted to them in America.” Surprisingly, however, both the press and the public generally ignored the Bund girls’ salute and Einer’s connection to American Nazism. For there is another layer to Einer’s story, more shocking to most than her link to this troubling group. Einer was the victim of a horrific crime, the first in a string of attacks against children that panicked New York City in 1937 and sparked fears nationwide.
On the morning of March 20, 1937, the body of blue-eyed, blonde-haired Einer Sporrer was found stuffed in a burlap bag on the stoop of a house three blocks from her home. One of the police detectives called to the scene remembered that two months earlier he had arrested Salvatore Ossido, a 26-year-old barber whose shop was a few doors down from the Sporrer’s, for an attack on a young girl. Within hours Ossido had confessed to enticing Einer into his shop the day before with the promise of a few pennies if she would clean the back room. There, in the dingy ten-by-ten foot room, he crushed her skull with a hammer and raped her. Ossido then hid her body in the burlap bag and continued his day, shaving several customers and playing cards with friends in his shop while Einer’s body lay in the back room. That evening, he walked around the neighborhood for hours while the Sporrers and police were frantically searching for Einer. Returning to the shop after midnight, he carried the bag to the stoop where he left it to be discovered.
There was an immediate public outcry when it became known that Ossido was free on bail on a charge of attacking another girl when he committed Einer’s murder and that he had previous convictions for rape and molestation. Experts, politicians, and community groups called upon authorities to consider what laws must be passed, what parents must do, what medical or psychological treatments were required to protect children from “sex criminals.” The frenzy of public agitation incited by Einer’s murder calmed within a few weeks but was reignited when two similar crimes occurred in quick succession four months later. On July 31, eight-year-old Paula Magagna was found raped and murdered in a tenement house in Ridgewood, less than 10 blocks from the barber shop where Einer was slain. When the nude body of Joan Kuleba, just four years old, was found strangled and molested in a Staten Island beach bungalow on August 13, the city fell into full-blown “pervert hysteria.” The attacks added, as one newspaper reported, “explosive impetus to a campaign against sex crimes already running full tilt in the courts and police department.” In an August 15 article entitled “Open War on Sex Crimes,” the New York Times described a meeting of 1,000 irate residents of Ridgewood—where two of the murders had occurred—who met with members of the police department, the state legislature, the district attorney’s office and various civic agencies. Speakers warned parents “not to permit little girls to roam the streets in scanty attire such as so-called ‘sun-suits’ or open-work playsuits,” to “train your children to keep away from lonely places,” and to “refuse candy or other gratuities from strangers.”
Articles about the murders of the three girls were picked up by the national press and published in newspapers throughout the United States. Media reports of “dangerous sex deviates who exist in all large cities in numbers of which the average citizen has no comprehension” fueled fears that a wave of sex crimes was in full surge throughout the nation. Time magazine reported on the phenomenon in an August 1937 issue and other popular magazines featured articles about the apparent plague of sex crimes against children. In a syndicated piece that ran in September 1937, FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover proclaimed that “the sex fiend, most loathsome of all the vast army of crime, has become a sinister threat to safety of American childhood…No parent can feel secure that his children are safe from attack.” The publicity given these crimes revealed that very little had been done in big cities to protect children against predators. In response, police departments in New York, Chicago, and other metropolitan areas formed specialized units to keep records on sex criminals. Community groups, municipalities, and state legislatures launched investigations into sexual violence and crimes against children and proposed legal reforms. Though it would be decades before substantive changes were made to protect children, the media-induced panic produced by this string of sex crimes against New York City children in 1937 provoked, for the first time, a broad discussion of the problem.
As the 1930s came to a close, there was a lull in the anxieties about sex crime against children, Einer Sporrer’s name disappeared from the news, and her murderer was dead, executed in the electric chair at Sing Sing prison. The German American Bund fell apart after its leader was arrested for embezzlement in 1939, and public concerns of American Nazism waned. In 1942, John and Mary Sporrer had another daughter, the only child they would have after Einer. This daughter lived the long and full life that Einer did not, and rests today in the same grave with her parents and the sister she never met, in Holy Trinity Cemetery. The Sporrers’ grave is marked in the distinctive manner used for most of the plots in this German Catholic cemetery—with a simple hollow metal monument that is painted to look like stone. Visited on a day this spring, the grave was adorned with a palm cross in observance of Easter and the monument had a fresh coat of gray paint with gold lettering that sparkled in the sunshine. Tended with care, there are no signs at Einer Sporrer’s grave of the dark events that cast a shadow over her life and death in 1930s Brooklyn.