The Hitler Hoax

Long after the end of World War II,  persistent rumours continued to be heard that Adolf Hitler had somehow faked his death and was living in hiding while preparing for a Nazi comeback.  Certainly, it was true enough that countless high-ranking Nazis, many of whom were still wanted, had managed to flee to South America and relative safety (some even managed to hide in plain sight right in Germany).   If those Nazis could escape arrest why not Adolf Hitler?  

For many Nazi sympathizers (and there were still quite a few back then), the idea of a Hitler-led movement that would restore Germany to greatness had a strong appeal.   And it wasn't just in Germany.    People of German origin living  in countries around the world helped spread the rumours, spurred on by reported Hitler sightings in South and Central America, and even in the United States.  One elaborate rumour had Martin Bormann arranging for two innocents to be murdered so their bodies could be burned and passed as Hitler and Eva Braun.   In the meantime, the originals were spirited away to a hidden base at the South Pole (where a German colony was supposedly being planned).   Another rumour placed Hitler in hiding in a mountain retreat in southeastern Kentucky (and no, I have no idea what he would be doing there either).

Against this backdrop of wild speculation,  German-Americans living in Kentucky and West Virginia began receiving some very odd letters during the early 1950s.   The letters, which were often signed "Adolph Hitler", "Eva Hitler", or "General Kannengeiser" (who had the title of "chief of staff"), explained that the dictator's death had been faked by the Russians who then took him into custody.  After a few year though,  Hitler had managed to escape and flee to safety.  Not only had he managed to find his way to Kentucky, but the Fuhrer (in the letters, it was spelled "Furrier") was planning to marshal his forces for a "surprise attack" that would overthrow the U.S. government and create a new regime  that would restore Nazi power.

Except, of course, for the slight problem of Hitler and his fellow-revolutionaries needing money.   A great deal of it, in fact.   Despite claiming that the Nazis had 116 hidden factories in Kentucky and Idaho producing "invisible spaceships",  these daring revolutionaries were apparently short on cash.  Which was the point of the letters promising a place in the new regime to anyone willing to give generously to the cause.  We tend to be somewhat cynical about financial requests these days, considering the endless stream of scams that besiege us by email, but these letters apparently were successful enough to draw in t a few true believers.  It likely helped that stories speculating that Hitler was alive and hiding out somewhere in Kentucky continued to be run by many local newspapers.

Though we will likely never know for sure how many people were drawn in by the confidence scheme, one name that became especially important in the investigation afterward was a deceased stonemason named G.A. Huber.  A native of Bristol, Tennessee, Huber had apparently been targeted due to his German ancestry though relatives had no idea of what was happening until after his death.  When searching the modest shack where Huber had been living, the relatives discovered a series of money-order receipts totaling $10,000 or more.  This must have been quite a revelation considering Huber had supposedly died penniless.   They also found one hundred letters describing the "new revolt" as well as the important role that Huber would play in Hitler's new regime (one letter suggested that he would be "Furrier # 2", right after the "Furrier" himself). 

Spurred on by complaints from the Huber family, along with his own suspicions,  a postal inspector named W.W. Lewis launched an investigation.   After sending several "decoy" letters, along with a modest money-order for $5, Lewis managed to draw the letter-writer out of hiding to pick up a new money-order for $15 at a post office in Middlesboro, Kentucky.  It was there in August 1956 that the inspector managed to arrest the  "Furrier" himself.   Likely expecting someone fitting the traditional Aryan mold, the inspector must have been astonished to discover that his perpetrator was  a 60-year-old African American man named William Henry Johnson.

As investigators would later discover, Johnson was  a former coal-miner and part-time mountain preacher who apparently had quite an imagination as well.   When asked why he had come up with such a scheme, Johnson insisted that he had become involved after being hired as a private detective by an unnamed Chicago firm to act as an intermediary.    He then explained that he had only gone along with sending the letters and collecting the money in order to discover if Adolf Hitler was really alive.   Once he had enough proof, he alleged, he would have gone to the Federal Bureau of Investigations.   Unfortunately, he had a tendency to change his story somewhat during the course of the trial (at one point he claimed that some of Huber's relatives had been behind it all).  He also didn't show much empathy for his victims and testified that "if they (the victims) were crazy enough to send me money, I was crazy enough to spend it."

While there is no way to say for sure how many of Johnson's intended victims actually sent in money, one estimate of how much money he took in over a ten-year period was about $15000.  Even though the late G.A. Huber had supplied most of that, several other victims also came forward.   One of them, a Bristol, TN native named Charlie Brown (yes, really), actually testified on Johnson's behalf, after showing that he had gotten all his money back.    Brown must not have seemed like a likely Nazi supporter (he was African American like Johnson) but his contributions entitled him to the title of "Furrier #3" after Huber and Adolf himself. 

Along with testimony from the postmaster, W.W. Lewis, as well as a graphologist who verified that all the letters were in Johnson's handwriting, the court was also entertained by passages from the letters that Johnson had written.  According to one letter:  "God give me to all of you for to bring the superior race in to lead the world.  You is the next in line of great leaders to lead Germany and rule the world."  The letter also magnanimously offered to make Brown "assistant world ruller for his bravery act last week (in sending money.)"   Not only were supporters assured of important positions but also their "choice among diplomat German virgins that he might take a wife of our peoples to hand down German rulers to rule their race."

Whenever Huber or Brown began to express doubt and ask to meet Hitler in person, Johnson would invent a fresh "crisis" to ensure the Furrier was unavailable.  Whether it was because Hitler was ill, or trapped by FBI agents, or whatever, their glorious leader seemed  incapable of greeting his supporters in person.   In addition to requests for money, the letters would occasionally ask for clothing such as a sport coat and a pair of white shoes (size eleven) since "it is necessary for Adolph to dress sporty so he won't be recognized."  But Johnson could be whimsical at times as well, along with "Adolph" and "Eva Braun", some of the letters were signed "A. von Boguslowski" (postal inspectors were divided as to whether this "bogus" name was deliberate). 

While Johnson tried his best to lay all the blame on two mysterious men whom he insisted had dictated the letters to him, his final confession was a masterpiece in its own right.   "I am guilty of everything," he wrote.  "That is pertain to G.A. Huber and Adolph Hitler.  I am guilty of it all, and Charley Brown and W. A. Roger of Cincinnati, Ohio (Lewis' pseudonym) and beg the mercies of the Hon. Judge and Court.  And if you can forgive me and allow me another chance at freedom, I will prove my worthy and make a good citizen.   If not, and please be merciful to me, a poor guilty criminal."

In the end, it only took a jury 15 minutes to find him guilty.  Following this verdict, Judge H. Church Ford sentenced him to three consecutive three-year sentences in Federal prison.   The case was largely forgotten afterward and, Johnson, along with his victims faded into obscurity.  Today, Johnson's only real claim to fame is his inclusion in the Notable Kentucky African Americans database maintained by the University of Kentucky.  

If you can't be notable, it helps to be memorable.

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