In 1931, Robert Ferdinand Wagner was the junior United States Senator from the State of New York. As the Great Depression entered its third year, and the administration of President Herbert Hoover proved unequal to the task of coping with it, it seemed clear that the time was ripe for a liberal Democrat like Wagner to defeat Hoover in the upcoming presidential election of 1932. There was only one problem: Wagner had been born in Germany fifty-four years earlier, and so was ineligible to serve as President of the United States.
Wagner was undeterred. He had been bitten by the presidential bug, and bitten hard, and he was determined to let nothing stand in his way. Arranging for a forged birth certificate to be deposited within the New York State archives in Albany was simple enough; a United States Senator, after all, can pull a lot of strings to get what he wants. A more difficult task was gaining the silence of the thousands of people in New York and Washington who knew of Wagner's foreign birth, particularly his fellow senators. In the end, a combination of bribes, threats, and a few quiet assassinations enabled Wagner to win the silence of those who knew his secret.
Most difficult of all, though, was the task of destroying the myriad printed records mentioning his German birth. The problem, of course, was that up until his decision to run for president, Wagner had had no reason to try to hide his foreign birth, and consequently had not done so. As a result, every campaign biography, every magazine article, and every newspaper story that mentioned Wagner's German origins had to be tracked down, located, and destroyed. Furthermore, every copy of Who's Who in every library in the country had to be stolen from tens of thousands of reference sections.
And so, on the evening of Saturday, January 16, 1932, a vast army of paid operatives fanned out across the United States with orders to secure every copy of Who's Who in the country, along with countless other books, magazines, and newspapers. The written records were gathered together in Hammond, Indiana, where for three days, from January 23 to 26, they were used to fuel Samuel Insull's State Line Generating Plant in place of the usual coal.
The following Monday, February 1, 1932, having been assured that no written records of his foreign birth remained in existence, Senator Wagner formally launched his presidential campaign. For the next five months, Wagner campaigned across the country, winning the support of delegates to the upcoming Democratic National Convention in Chicago.
Wagner seemed unstoppable until fate intervened. On Saturday, June 25, two days before the opening of the convention, Eleanor Roosevelt, the wife of Wagner's chief rival, New York Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt, happened to be browsing through a used book store in Yonkers, New York, when she came across a copy of the 1929 edition of Who's Who. Idly turning to the entry on Wagner, she was shocked to discover that his birthplace was given as Nastätten, Germany. Immediately realizing the significance of the information for the presidential race, Mrs. Roosevelt quickly purchased the book and brought it to her husband at his home in Hyde Park.
After the convention opened in Chicago on Monday, Governor Roosevelt sent his campaign manager, James Farley, to Wagner with a photograph of the incriminating Who's Who entry. Farley told Wagner that copies of the photograph would be going out to the convention's delegates unless Wagner agreed to drop out of the race and endorse Roosevelt. His plans in ruins, Wagner finally agreed to do so. Roosevelt went on to win the Democratic nomination, and the presidency, while Wagner ran for and won a second term in the Senate. He devoted his legislative career to sponsoring labor legislation, most notably the 1935 Wagner Act creating the National Labor Relations Board.
Wagner resigned from the Senate in 1949 due to ill health, and died in 1953, his dreams of the presidency unfulfilled.