The German Pirate
in Delaware Waters

Brig. Gen. Kennard R. Wiggins, Jr. DE ANG (Ret.)

About one year before America entered the war, in March 1916, a German saboteur was afoot in
the waters off the Delaware Capes.  Ernest Schiller was the lone German who captured the
British freighter Matoppo for nineteen hours, and came ashore near Lewes.  

Originally, he and three other cohorts had laid a plot to take over another British liner, the ship
known as
Pannonia and seize her by force from the officers and crew. There was thought to be
two thousand British Pounds on board. They intended to spend the money to spread German
propaganda. The brilliant nature of the scheme and seemingly high probability of its success
were heartily reinforced by the fact that it was conceived under the influence of large amounts of
alcohol poured in the saloons of Hoboken, New Jersey. On the big day, however, in the cold
soberness of daylight, two of the conspirators got scared and a third dropped out.

Schiller had planned to sink the liner by holding up her officers, and blowing it up, or opening
the seacocks.  He remained determined however, despite the lack of support from his comrades.

Ernest Schillers real name was Clarence Reginald Hodson, son of an Englishman and a German
mother, Emma Koch.  He and his parents were residents of Petrograd Russia until age 11. He
was smooth faced, well educated, tall and slender. He spoke excellent English as well as
German.  His parents separated and he moved to Germany to live with his mother. He later
became a naturalized British subject.  He said, “I hate the English.  I consider myself a German.”

Schiller had some maritime experience, studying marine engineering and purportedly was a
German spy in the UK reporting shipping manufacturing to the Fatherland.  He fell under
suspicion and came to the United States about nine months before his arrest.

Schiller said, “The British arrested me for singing
“Die Wacht am Rhein” in a London restaurant.  
They handled me.  I made up my mind to get even.  When I found myself on Matoppo I decided
you can turn your misfortune into good fortune.”


The plot to dynamite the
Pannonia had failed, so Schiller determined to do something on his
own. In New York he stole aboard the British freighter
Matoppo bound for Vladivostok.  After
stowing away for four days in an upper deck lifeboat accompanied by some sandwiches and two
revolvers, which the captain later described as “horse pistols” Schiller testified, “I thought I had
four other men stowed away in other parts of the ship.  I waited all day and into the night and
at last I felt the sea rise and fall.  I knew we were out and I went to work as soon as I was able
to get my legs working.”

Schiller added, “After I held up the captain in his cabin, the first officer came in and I covered
him.  “Who in Hades are you?” he snapped. “A German.” said I.  He put his hands up and then
I made them sing
“Die Wacht am Rhein”. Schiller said the roundup was accomplished with
relative ease as the Captain and his chief officers were all “cowards.” Indeed, the "pirate" mocked
them all by pouring glasses of whiskey and suggesting that they all toast to each other's health
and that of the Kaiser - at gunpoint.

He cowed the officers with his guns and smashed the wireless set.  The captain believed Schiller
had confederates on board with bombs. “The captain began to beg me not to kill any of them or
to hurt his ship.  He spoke of his wife and children and said if anything happened to his men,
(the ship had a crew of about 50) or his ship, he would lose his ticket and he and his wife and
his children would be homeless.”

Schiller continued, “Going to the bridge, I asked the officer on duty if what the captain said was
so, and he confirmed it, and I resolved that I would not kill anybody, but would probably land
them and sink the boat. I planned to go ashore myself, taking two officers as hostages.  And I
had the ships course changed to the southwest.”

“As the night went on I walked about and tried to think what I should do.  The thought came
to me of taking the ship to Mexico and selling her, but I learned that British Cruisers wait along
the coast.  At last I concluded it would be best for me to abandon ship.  Changing the course to
due west, I ordered the officers to go to sleep.  Then I tried to sleep myself, with one eye open
but I could not.  As it grew light outside I heard the noise of the ships whistles and saw a vessel
that I thought must be a British Cruiser.  I resolved to ram her.  But when she got nearer you
could see she was a United States fruit boat.”

Schiller added, “The morning was misty.  I ordered full speed ahead for the coast.  The Chinese
cook to make coffee for all hands.  The Chinaman giggled as stood over the galley fire.  He was
the only person aboard who appeared able to derive any fun out of the situation.“

Schiller concluded, “The officers appeared to be in a trance.  I ordered the captains gig lowered
and the ship steered to a point near the lighthouse that was visible on the Delaware coast.  But
the captain said there were sandbars there.  So he put me off in the small boat further up the
coast. Then he played me false by breaking his word to me and hoisting a signal that there was
a pirate aboard.  The boat from the coast guard station put out and the men made me a
prisoner.” After his 19 hour piracy he added, “That is all.  That meek and terrified English
captain had broken his word!  I had thought when an Englishman gave his word he would
always keep it. I hate the English.”

Schiller denied that he was a pirate.  “A pirate is a kind of bandit who would not stop at
murder.  The main reason why my plan to sink the Matoppo failed was because I did not want
to kill anybody.”  

He was arrested at Lewes and then moved to New York, and finally brought to Wilmington for
trial in U.S. District Court where he pled guilty.  “Technically , I am a British subject.  Therefore
they would accuse me of treason and shoot me if was freed on this charge.“  Schiller received a
life sentence.  He attempted to escape from prison on July 10, 1916. He was working in the tailor
shop of the Atlanta penitentiary when he decided to make his dash for freedom. It was reported
that he made it past several guards and evaded considerable gunfire before successfully scaling a
wall. But the impressive effort resulted in eventual capture. He later told the warden that he had
read about the arrival of the
Deutschland and that he wanted to join its “gallant crew.” He added
that he was “determined” to escape and “seek vengeance” on those that he hated; the English.

His term was commuted in 1926 by Calvin Coolidge.

Delaware Military History
Ernest Schiller,
AKA Clarence Reginald Hodson