In 1919, newspapers around America published American Defense Society warnings.
Providing the addresses of the nearest police headquarters, the warnings read, “Every German or Austrian in the United States, unless known by association to be absolutely loyal, should be treated as a potential spy. Be on the alert. Keep your eyes and ears open. Take nothing for granted. Energy and alertness may save the life of your son, your husband or your brother. The enemy is engaged in making war in this country, in transmitting news to Berlin, and in spreading peace propaganda, as well as lies about the condition and morale of American military forces. Whenever any suspicious act or disloyal word comes to your notice, communicate at once with the police department or with the local office of the Department of Justice.”
Two years earlier, 33-year-old Walter Forstner of Cranston had been arrested upon arrival in Los Angeles, after his questioning of other travelers had aroused their suspicions that he may be a dangerous alien.
Walter was born in Pforzheim, Germany, and had come to America aboard the vessel “Patricia,” arriving in New York on Nov. 24, 1907, when he was 23 years old. He and his older brother, Wilhelm, established Forstner Chain Corporation, manufacturing keychains, suspenders and belt buckles, as well as the F. Speidel jewelry company.
An investigation began and it appears Walter was let go, as he was arrested again one year later, along with Wilhelm and seven other German men involved in the jewelry industry. Referred to as “dangerous aliens,” they were charged with being in engaged in trade with the enemy as well as taking part in pro-German propaganda work.
The brothers were first confined at the Rhode Island State Prison and then sent to a federal detention center in Georgia, where they remained locked up for more than a year.
A massive raid took place at their companies and it was discovered that they had been sending gold to Germany in the form of jewelry. The raid also resulted in agents finding German war bonds on the property.
The companies were seized and the Fortsners’ property sold at an Alien Property auction. Despite spirited bidding, assets valued at over a million dollars went for a little over $300,000.
By 1921, when the brothers were freed, all of their success and prestige was gone. However, they went right back into the jewelry manufacturing business and built their reputation over.
On June 13, 1923, Walter petitioned to become a legal United States citizen. Five months later, he signed an oath of allegiance to America. In 1942, he registered for the World War II draft. In later years, he enjoyed the freedom to travel all over the world, including home to Germany.
After leaving Rhode Island, he settled in New Jersey where he died and was buried in 1979. Kelly Sullivan is a Rhode Island columnist, lecturer and author.