10 facts about the mystery of the missing Kaiser’s bust

The bust of Kaiser Wilhelm I was stolen by a mob of soldiers one night in 1916 and paraded around Kitchener. Then it disappeared. What happened to the bust after that night is a mystery that still intrigues region residents decades later.

A hundred years ago today, three young men removed the bust of Kaiser Wilhelm I off a memorial in Victoria Park, and tossed it into the park’s lake.

Though the bust was pulled out of the lake and given to the Concordia Society for safekeeping, it was stolen by a mob of soldiers one night in 1916 and paraded around Kitchener. Then it disappeared.

What happened to the bust after that night is a mystery that remains unsolved.

This is an attempt to separate facts from fiction when it comes to the legend of the Kaiser’s bust. We enlisted the help of local historian Rych Mills and the Kitchener Public Library's Karen Ball-Pyatt. 

1. Kaiser Wilhelm I was the first ruler of a unified Germany

Wilhelm was King William IV of Prussia. In 1871, Prussia defeated France in 1871 in the Franco-Prussian war and Germany became a unified nation state. William became the first emperor, or Kaiser Wilhelm I.

The bust of Kaiser Wilhelm I sits on top of the Friendans Denkman, or Peace Memorial in Victoria Park, around 1903. Also visible is one of the two bronze medallions gracing the monument. The bust went missing in 1916 and what happened to it is one of Kitchener's most enduring mysteries. (Waterloo Historical Society Collection, Grace Schmidt Room, KPL)

2. The bust of Kaiser was purchased for $250 from Germany

Mills says local resident Karl Müller led the effort to buy the bust, which was ordered from Martin and Pilzing Company in Berlin, Germany. The bust itself weighed 150 pounds and was about four feet high.  Depending on how inflation is calculated, the $250 purchase price of the bust amounts to between $5,000-$7,000 today.

3. The bust was part of a memorial to celebrate peace in Europe

The Kaiser’s bust sat on top of the Friedans Denkman (or Peace Memorial) in Victoria Park.

There were also two bronze medallions hung on the sides of the granite memorial featuring Otto Von Bismarck, first chancellor of the united Germany, and Helmuth von Moltke, the Prussian Army chief of staff.

The monument and bust were unveiled on August 13, 1897 in a large public ceremony featuring singers and bands, townspeople, the Toronto-based German consul and the mayor of Berlin, which is what Kitchener was called at the time.

4. The bust was tossed in the Victoria Park lake sometime overnight between Saturday, August 22 and Sunday, August 23, 1914

Three men pulled the bust off of the memorial and tossed in the Victoria Park Lake, just a few weeks after the start of the First World War.

On Sunday morning the bust was spotted in the lake and some local boys were enlisted to pull it out. Then the bust was given to the Concordia Society for safekeeping.

A few days later, Alan Smith, John Ferguson and Fred Bolton were arrested in connection with the theft. They were charged under the park’s by-laws and pled guilty to the incident, though it appears they were not sentenced. 

The bust of the Kaiser after it was pulled out of Victoria Park Lake on August 23, 1914. Three men were charged a few days later for toppling the bust and tossing it in the lake. From left, the park's boatkeeper R.E. Bush, Otto Knechtel, Gordon Maier, an unknown man, and Clayton Maier. The man in the tie in the third boat behind the group is Carl Knechtel. (Waterloo Historical Society Collection, Grace Schmidt Room, KPL)

5. The bust was taken from the Concordia Society on February 15, 1916

Soldiers from the 118th Battalion and members of the public broke into the Concordia Society’s building on King Street W., vandalized the building and took out the bust, paraded it around, spat on it and hit it with sticks.

The theft and vandalism were part of a rising wave of anti-German sentiment in the region, which eventually prompted the city to change its name from Berlin to Kitchener later that year.

Then the bust was taken to the battalion barracks on Queen Street South, now the Bread and Roses Co-op, where it was used for target practice, according to Mills.  The next day, soldiers from the 118th took the medallions off the peace monument in the park. A photo shows the monument also had been spray-painted, so the park board ordered it demolished.

Soldiers with the 118th Battalion pose with two medallions pulled down from the Peace Memorial in Victoria Park, in 1916. The two medallions, depicting Germans Otto von Bismarck and Helmuth von Motke, are visible in the middle of the photo. (Kitchener-Waterloo Historical Society )

6. The 118th Battalion had a high desertion rate

Almost 20 per cent of the soldiers in the 118th battalion deserted, according to the Laurier Military History archive at Wilfrid Laurier University. Local leaders wanted to prove that despite the area's high concentration of residents of German heritage, they were loyal to the King and could raise an entire battalion, according to the archives.

But between Dec. 1915 and Dec. 1916, 92 soldiers deserted. Many of these men were eventually rounded up and shipped overseas, archival information indicates. In a letter, the battalion’s commanding officer, Lt. Col Lochead, wrote he struggled with recruiting locals because of the "general disloyalty of the community."

7. Theory: The bust was taken to London, Ont.

Mills believes the Kaiser’s bust was taken with the 118th Battalion to Camp Carling in London, Ont.. At that point, it’s not clear what happened to the bust, though Mills suspects it was left behind after the soldiers moved on to Camp Borden, then shipped out overseas.

"Ninety nine per cent it was just left in London and went into their scrap metal drive down there sometime during the war," said Mills. 

Historian Rych Mills holds a piece of granite from the plinth that held the bust of the Kaiser. The plinth was knocked off the peace memorial and can be seen resting on the ground of the bottom left of the framed photo. The memorial was taken down in 1916, after the bust was stolen. (Large photo: Andrea Bellemare/CBC Smaller photo: Kitchener Public Library/Grace Schmidt Room)

8. One of the men who helped throw the bust in Victoria Park lake was killed in the war

Ferguson, Bolton and Smith, who tossed the bust in 1914, all enlisted, but only John Ferguson died during the war. The Berlin Daily Telegraph reported that Ferguson was wounded fatally in France on October 30, 1917.

9. Theory: The bust was turned into napkin rings

Two articles in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record, one from 1956 and one from 1966, feature two anonymous sources claiming that the bust was melted down and made into napkin rings bearing the the crest of the 118th Battalion. 

One of the napkin rings was donated to the Doon Pioneer Village, by the anonymous man quoted in 1966. He claimed he was in the 118th Battalion and that he was the fourth man who threw the bust in the lake in 1914. The other napkin ring and the medallion of Bismarck from the peace memorial belong to a Toronto collector.

"We have no way of knowing if, indeed, they were made from melted down bronze from the bust," said Mills.

A photo of one of the napkin rings rumoured to be made from the bronze of the Kaiser's bust. There's some debate over whether the bust itself was made into napkin rings, though the consensus seems to be it was melted down. The napkin ring is part of the collection of the Waterloo Region Museum. (Photo provided by Waterloo Region Museum, Region of Waterloo.)

10. Wherever the bust is, it’s not in Victoria Park Lake

"Now, there are any number of rumours that, oh, it’s buried in a backyard somewhere in Kitchener, that it was taken back to Germany, which makes no sense,  that it was thrown back in the lake. The lake has been dredged six times since then [the bust's theft], it’s never shown up," said Mills. 

Others hope the bust might still show up. 

"There are so many myths and stories around its disappearance that it’s impossible to say with certainty that the Kaiser’s bust survived the kidnapping or was melted down. As an eternal optimist, I hope that, one day, he’ll be found in a garden shed, awaiting his return to Victoria Park," wrote Karen Ball-Pyatt, the local history librarian at the Kitchener Public Library. 


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