Wilhelm von Brincken

Wilhelm von Brincken (May 27, 1881 – January 18, 1946), also known as Wilhelm L. von Brincken, William Vaughn, William von Brinken and William Vaughan, was a German spy during World War I, who would go on to become an American character actor of the silent and sound film eras.

Wilhelm von Brincken
Born(1881-05-27)May 27, 1881
DiedJanuary 18, 1946(1946-01-18) (aged 64)
Los Angeles, California, United States
Other namesWilliam Vaughn, William Vaughan, William von Brinken
Years active1914–1944
Spouse(s)Alice L. Roedel
Milo Abercrombie

Early life

Von Brincken was born in Flensburg, Schleswig-Holstein on May 27, 1881. He was a reservist in the German Army, and he came to the United States as a military attaché to their embassy in Washington D.C., sometime around 1910. Once here he met his first wife, Alice M Roedel; they married and would have two children: Carl von Brincken (1911–1911) and Philip Morgan Roedel (christened Philip Roedel von Brincken) (1913–1985). Carl died several hours after his birth.[1]

Wilhelm Von Brinken made his debut acting in American films in The Redemption of David Corson (1914).[2]

Espionage activity

In 1915, he was transferred to the west coast, and assigned to the consulate in San Francisco.[3] While working at the San Francisco consulate, he was arrested at the beginning of World War I on espionage charges, due to his alleged involvement in a bomb-plot with his co-conspirators, C.C. Crowley, who worked at the German Consulate, and an agent of a German shipping line, Robert Capelle.[4] In February 1916, he was indicted, along with dozens of others, including the German Consul General and his vice-Consul, Franz Bopp and Baron E.H. von Schack, respectively.[5] Von Brincken was convicted and sentenced to serve two years in prison in the Hindu–German Conspiracy Trial for plotting to foment an insurrection against British colonial rule in India, this sentence to run concurrently with a similar conviction for his alleged participation in bomb and dynamiting plots against the government of Canada.[6] Von Brincken served his two-year sentence at Alcatraz Prison[7][8] and McNeil Island Penitentiary.[9]

Film career

After his release from prison in 1920, von Brincken became an American citizen in 1921. A fellow German expatriate, Erich Von Stroheim, included him in a group of former German military men who he invited to Hollywood to work on films.[10]

Due to his military background, he would be called upon as military expert as a technical advisor on films, including the Academy Award winning All Quiet on the Western Front (1930).[10]

Von Brincken returned to acting in Von Stroheim's 1928 film, Queen Kelly, starring Gloria Swanson.[11]

Over the course of his career, he would appear under several different variants of his name, such as von Brinken, as well as going under Anglicized versions of his name, such as William Vaughn and Vaughan, when it was politically correct to do so.[10]

In 1929 and 1930 he had small roles in several films before receiving featured roles such as in the Eddie Foy and Irene Dunne film, Leathernecking,[12] and playing the German ace, Baron Manfred von Richthofen in Howard Hughes' 1930 classic, Hells Angels.[13] Most of the rest of the 1930s would see him appear in numerous films, in both minor and featured roles.[14]

With the outbreak of hostilities in Europe in 1939, von Brincken was often cast in the role of a Nazi, such as in 1939's Confessions of a Nazi Spy;[15] the Fay Wray film Navy Secrets (1939);[16] and 1941's So Ends Our Night, which stars Fredric March, Margaret Sullavan, Frances Dee, and Glenn Ford.[17] Not only did he appear in dramas and suspense films, but he would also do comedies such as The Ritz Brothers' 1939 film, Pack Up Your Troubles,[18] and Once Upon a Honeymoon (1942), starring Cary Grant and Ginger Rogers.[19]


(Per AFI database)[14][20]

Second Marriage to Milo Abercrombie

In November 1915, von Brincken married again to the San Francisco socialite Milo Abercrombie (1895-1977). Born in Houston, Texas, Milo was the niece of John W. Abercrombie, U.S. congressman from Alabama and acclaimed by noted portraitist Harrison Fisher as "California's greatest beauty".[21] They had two children, Wilhelm Friedrich (1918-1980) and Maria A. (1917-2010). She divorced von Brincken in 1919 during his imprisonment and legally changed her and their two children's last name back to her maiden name, Abercrombie, so her children would not be "ashamed" of their name.[9] Despite the divorce, von Brincken remained devoted to his former wife and she was able to remarry again, thanks to him. When the Roman Catholic Church forbade Abercrombie's intended marriage to U.S. Navy lieutenant Lyman K. Swenson, due to her divorce, von Brincken came forth and disclosed his earlier marriage to Alice Roedel. As both Roedel and von Brincken were Catholic, that marriage was sanctioned by the Church. Thus, the Church did not recognize von Brincken's later marriage to Abercrombie. Abercrombie and Swenson, who had both refused to marry unless it was sanctioned by the Catholic Church were then free to wed. Abercrombie and Swenson were married on August 11, 1920 by Father John Byrne at St Mary's Cathedral in San Francisco.[22] At the wedding dinner that night, von Brincken's young son with Abercrombie, referred to as "John" and "Buster" in the press, was a "guest of honor" and toasted by his new stepfather and the officers of the submarine H-6 that he commanded, pledging, "the little chap's future to the uniform of blue."[23] Swenson and Abercrombie had two children, Lyman K. Jr. ("Robert") and Cecilia. Abercrombie obtained an interlocutory decree of divorce from Swenson in May 1925, with the final decree a year later. Several months later, in October 1925, the newspapers speculated that Abercrombie would marry another naval officer, Lieutenant Commander Hugo W. Koehler, reputed to be the "wealthiest officer" in the Navy.[24] The third generation of a wealthy St. Louis brewery family,[25] Koehler had been a naval intelligence and U.S. State Department spy in South Russia during the Russian Revolution.[26] Swenson had introduced Milo Abercrombie to Koehler in Honolulu. Koehler was in Panama with his ship, USS West Virginia (BB-48) when he read a newspaper account that he was engaged to marry Milo Abercrombie. Brushing it off, Koehler curtly told the press, "Some error," while Abercrombie did not take it so lightly. "I have been deeply humiliated", she told reporters, her eyes "wet with tears". "This is a most unkind blow of fate. I cannot possibly understand how this false rumor got about." [27] Two years later, Koehler married Matilda Pell, the ex-wife of U.S. Congressman Herbert Pell (D-NY) and mother of future United States Senator Claiborne Pell (D-RI).[28] In a bitter child visitation court battle in 1927 that went all the way to the California Court of Appeals, Abercrombie lost custody of her children with Swenson to him, after making baseless accusations that he had molested their four-year old daughter, Cecelia. The appellate court excoriated Abercrombie, "[I]in furtherance of a manifest determination to prevent him from ever seeing the children again, under any circumstances, she was instrumental in inspiring and promoting a scheme directly involving one of the children which had for its obvious purpose the ruination of respondent's character as a man, the bringing about of his complete disgrace as a naval officer, and the destruction of the love and affection which his children had theretofore manifested toward him." Swenson v. Swenson (1929) 101 Cal.App. 440.[29][30][27] In 1929, Lyman Swenson married Loretta B. Bruner (1897-1979). His son, Lyman K. Swenson Jr. ("Robert") (1923-2016) was also a US Naval officer.

In January 1946, while in New York City, von Brincken would suffer a ruptured artery. He was rushed to St. Vincent's Hospital, where he died on January 18, 1946.[7] He would be buried in Forest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.[1]


  1. "Wilhelm Von Brincken". Find a Grave. Retrieved December 19, 2014.
  2. "The Redemption of David Corson: Detail View". American Film Institute. Retrieved December 19, 2014.
  3. "Von Brincken in Court; German Attache and Associates Arraigned in San Francisco". New York Times. December 19, 1915.
  4. "Released on $10,000 Bail". The New York Times. December 5, 1915. p. 2.
  5. "More Plot Indictments; German Consul General and His Alleged Aids Again Accused". The New York Times. February 11, 1916.
  6. Los Angeles Times. May 1, 1918
  7. "Film Director Dies; Former German Spy". The New York Times. January 20, 1946. p. 42.
  8. Jones, John Price (1917). The German Spy in America. Hutchinson & Co. pp. 58–62. Retrieved December 19, 2014.
  9. "German Plotter is Freed from Prison: will be Deported". The Bemidji Daily Pioneer. Bemidji, Minnesota. January 9, 1920. p. 8. Retrieved 24 February 2017.
  10. "William von Brincken profile". AllMovie. Retrieved December 19, 2014.
  11. "Queen Kelly: Detail View". American Film Institute. Retrieved December 19, 2014.
  12. "Leathernecking: Detail View". American Film Institute. Retrieved December 19, 2014.
  13. "Hell's Angels: Detail View". American Film Institute. Retrieved December 19, 2014.
  14. "William Von Brincken". Retrieved December 19, 2014.
  15. "Confessions of a Nazi Spy: Detail View". American Film Institute. Retrieved December 19, 2014.
  16. "Navy Secrets: Detail View". American Film Institute. Retrieved December 19, 2014.
  17. "So Ends Our Night: Detail View". American Film Institute. Retrieved December 19, 2014.
  18. "Pack Up Your Troubles: Detail View". American Film Institute. Retrieved December 19, 2014.
  19. "Once Upon a Honeymoon: Detail View". American Film Institute. Retrieved December 19, 2014.
  20. "William von Brinken profile". American Film Institute. Retrieved December 19, 2014.
  21. "Von Brincken - Abercrombie". Evening Star. Washington, D.C. November 7, 1915. Retrieved 24 February 2017.
  22. Oakland Tribune. August 12, 1920 pg. 1
  23. Sausalito News, 'NAVY OFFICER AND HIS BRIDE ON HONEYMOON', August 21, 1920
  24. Oakland Tribune. October 14, 1925. p. 2AA
  25. Immigrant Entrepreneurship: German- American Business Biographies, 1720 to the present
  26. Our Man in the Crimea: Commander Hugo Koehler and the Russian Civil War. P.J. Capelotti. University of South Carolina Press. (1991)
  27. The Philadelphia Enquirer. Dec. 8, 1929, magazine section, p. 6
  28. New York Times. June 3, 1927
  29. Swenson v. Swenson (1929) 101 Cal.App. 440.
  30. Children of a New World: Society, Culture, and Globalization. Paula S. Fass (2006) NYU Press. pg. 146
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