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This Week in Illinois History provides a 90-second snapshot of an event significant to Illinois history. Join Host Clint Cargile as he covers big events while also exposing little-known pieces of Illinois history.

This Week In Illinois History: Chicago’s Nazi Spy (August 9, 1942)

Herbert Haupt
Library of Congress (https://lccn.loc.gov/2002707640)
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Herbert Hans Haupt

On August 8, 1942, the United States held the largest mass execution by electrocution in the nation’s history. Six men were put to death as Nazi spies and saboteurs. One was 22-year-old Herbert Hans Haupt, an American citizen living in Chicago.

Haupt’s parents brought him to Chicago in 1925 when he was six years old. They became naturalized citizens in 1930. Haupt graduated from Lane Tech High School and began training as an optician. He was handsome, popular and had a reputation as a ladies’ man.

In 1941, he and a German friend traveled to Mexico and then to Japan. They found work on a merchant ship that took them to German-occupied France. Haupt would later describe this trip to the FBI as a vacation.

While Haupt was in France, Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, and Germany declared war on the United States. Haupt claimed he became trapped there until German agents found him and recruited him to be a spy. He was trained in the art of deception and sabotage but claimed he went along with the program only as a way to get back home.

Haupt became one of eight German saboteurs tasked with bringing the war to American soil. Their mission was to disrupt manufacturing and infrastructure while striking fear in the civilian population.

They arrived by U-boat: Four in New York. Four in Florida. Each group snuck ashore, hid their clothes and bomb-making materials, then dispersed across the country. Haupt returned to Chicago.

But before Haupt or any of the saboteurs could act, two of them went straight to the FBI and confessed. The FBI quickly rounded up Haupt and the others. The story became a national sensation, and President Roosevelt signed a proclamation ensuring the men would face a military tribunal and be prosecuted as spies. The two informants were given prison sentences and later deported. Haupt and the other five saboteurs were executed.

Haupt's parents were put on trial in Chicago two months later. It was the first treason trial ever held in Illinois. Haupt’s father received a death sentence and his mother was sentenced to 25 years in prison. The sentences were later overturned and they were deported to West Germany.