Mrs. Hilda Matthey: Civic Worker or Spy?

Hilda Amalia Mueller Matthey was born in Davenport on July 16, 1869 to Christian and Elfrieda Mueller. She married Dr. Heinrich Emil Matthey on March 3, 1890, at her parents’ home on 530 Ripley Street. They made their home at the southeast corner of Main and Sixth streets.

According to her obituary, Mrs. Matthey was a member of several clubs and civic societies:

  • Davenport board of education – first woman member, served 12 years, vice president 1929-1930
  • Chamber of Commerce – first woman member, first chairman of the Women’s committee
  • Lend-a-Hand Club – social secretary, President for 4 years
  • Iowa State Tuberculosis Association – secretary/treasurer, served 8 years
  • Davenport Visiting Nurses Association – executive committee, served 26 years
  • Red Cross – executive board, board of directors “since the war”
  • Tri-City Symphony Orchestra – organizer
  • Music Students Club – organizer
  • Woman’s Club – charter member
  • Round Table Club – honorary member
  • Harmonie Chorus – President, 4 years


But could she have been spy? And for which side?

Hilda’s husband, Dr. Henry Matthey was named head surgeon of Castle Holzen, a German Red Cross military hospital in Ebenhausen, in January of 1915. On March 19, 1915, Mrs. Matthey applied for a passport for herself and her son, Carl Henry Matthey. They were headed to Switzerland and Germany “to visit my relatives and husband,” as she stated on her passport application.

 Hilda and her son left Davenport on April 2nd headed for New York, where they sailed to Copenhagen on April 7th. On the voyage there, a British cruiser tried to hold up the ship, but a German submarine chased after it and the cruiser escaped.

After landing in Copenhagen, Hilda and Carl made their way to the German border. Dr. Matthey had planned to meet them in Copenhagen to escort them to Munich, but by the time he got there, Hilda and Carl had already left. Dr. Matthey then sent out several telegrams to various points along the journey, hoping to reach them. Mrs. Matthey received and replied to some of the telegrams.

The German secret service became suspicious of the telegrams and confiscated them. They were already on the lookout for western women spies and thought Mrs. Matthey might be one.

 Hilda and Carl stopped in Flensburg, in northern Germany to visit some of her relatives. While they were there, the authorities showed up and informed Mrs. Matthey that she was suspected of being a spy. Mounted police surrounded the house and they searched her and kept her under surveillance.

Lucky for her, she carried in her possession letters of introduction from Germany’s ambassador in Washington, Count von Bernstorff, as well as letters from German Red Cross delegates in the U.S. When the German officials examined the letters and her passport, they realized they had made a mistake. Once Dr. Matthey arrived and identified himself as the surgeon in charge of Lazarett Holzen, German officials apologized for their mistake and let Mrs. Matthey go.

It is ironic that the Germans thought she might be a western spy, given the humanitarian work she had done for Germany. Prior to her trip, Mrs. Matthey had organized the local branch of the Von Steuben German Relief Society in Davenport, and had traveled to Muscatine, Iowa in the hope of forming a chapter there. That organization aimed to alleviate the suffering in Germany due to the European war, extending aid for wounded prisoners of German and other armies.

Mrs. Matthey was one of the few women allowed to visit the battlefront in Poland and had access to military hospitals and prison camps. Because of her husband’s position, she was able to visit placed where the ordinary visitor would not be permitted. She also toured though Galicia, Germany, Austria, Serbia, Belgium and part of France.

Hilda wrote letters and postcards to her friends and family in Davenport, in which she shared her experiences treating the wounded and her opinion that Germany had “already won the war”. Of the Russians she wrote: “They are strong and husky fellows and it seems to be lack of patriotism and moral strength. Possibly their officers are inferior.”

Hilda and Carl Matthey returned to New York on September 20, 1915. Dr. Matthey finished his two-year term as head surgeon and returned to New York a year later, on September 26, 1916. About six months later, the United Stated Congress signed the declaration of War with Imperial Germany.


Works Cited

“Germany is Winner Says Mrs. Matthey.” Muscatine Journal 13 September 1915: p. 2.

“Mrs. Hilda Matthey, Civic Worker, Member of Pioneer Family, Dies; Funeral at 3 Monday.” Davenport Democrat and Leader 19 October 1947: p. 14.

“Mrs. Matthey Leaves for the Fatherland.” Muscatine Journal 3 April 1915: p. 7.

“Mrs. Matthey to be here December 15th.” Muscatine Journal 30 November 1915: p. 6.

“New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957.” n.d. Ancestry Library. 18 April 2012.

“Suspected of Being a Spy Davenport Lady Had Thrilling Experience on the Frontier of Germany.” The Daily Times 13 June 1915: p. 15.

“U. S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925.” n.d. Ancestry Library. 18 April 2012.

“Will Extend Aid to Fatherland.” Muscatine Journal 5 March 1915: p. 15.


 (posted by Cristina)


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