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Otto Eberhardt: From Bandleader to Traitor

Otto Eberhardt (48), while in the First Territorial Volunteers

The Pioneer Band had many leaders over its nearly 50-year run, but none were as controversial as Otto Eberhart. While he was a noted cornetist, he was also a soldier who would betray his adopted country and end his life in ignominy. The last four years of his life would be a whirlwind of drama.

Eberhardt was a German who first came to the U.S. in about 1893 as cornetist for the German Imperial Band, representing Germany at the World’s Fair. He was the son of a noted musician father and an aristocratic mother in Berlin. When the fair was over, he decided to stay in the U.S., moving to the west coast. He was married in San Diego, but the marriage didn’t last. He separated from his wife and in 1897 moved from Los Angeles to Phoenix.

While first finding employment in a fellow German’s saloon, he soon found a place as leader and cornet soloist for the Pioneer Band. He led the band for less than a year, leaving for the Capitol City Band but in April, 1898 the Spanish-American war broke out. By July he enlisted in the First Territorial Infantry as Chief Musician under Governor Myron H. McCord, mustering at Fort Whipple with plans to fight in Cuba.

Eberhardt was, by all appearances, patriotic to his adopted country. During enlistment at the Hotel Adams, Eberhardt brought in another German who was also a musician. As reported in the Arizona Republican,

The preliminary steps of his entrance into the Army had been taken when the new recruit began comparing Germany with America in general and the German army with the American army particularly. The comparison was favorable to Germany. The chief musician replied that though he loved his fatherland he would not hear a word against his adopted country. The conversation then grew personal and an encounter was prevented by the interference of bystanders. A few hours later the musicians met on Washington Street. The German-American subject was renewed and a fight ensued. The result was in favor of America.

The First Territorial never saw action, as they only got as far as Georgia before the Spanish gave up. The war ended in August. So in 1899, looking for the next assignment, Eberhardt went to Washington and enlisted in the U.S. Marines as Musician First Class in the Marine Corps Band, where he was a featured cornet soloist.

But we were not yet done in the Philippines. With the United States taking the place of the Spanish, Filipinos soon resented their new overlords and war returned in early 1899. By the end of the year, it was guerilla warfare. In mid-1900 Otto Eberhardt enlisted in the 27th Regular Infantry commanded by Colonel Bell and headed for the Philippines by way of Hawaii.

In Honolulu, Eberhardt “committed an offense for which Col. Bell reduced him to the position of a private soldier.” What the offense was, we can only guess. But in his miliary positions, Eberhardt had always been a musician, considered a commissioned officer; he was enraged at getting busted to Private. It was said that he “threatened vengeance” but was ignored.

When the regiment arrived at San Mateo in the Philippines, within days Eberhard deserted to the nearby insurgent camp of General Geronimo. Wary of being discovered, he changed his name to James or Jacobus Benjamin Eberhardt. For the next year, he would fight and kill his former compatriots in the U.S. Army.

His downfall came as he fell in love with Senorita Isabella Cimarron, a local Filipino woman. Isabella seems to have been something of a spy, living in San Mateo where the Americans were garrisoned but regularly visiting the camp of General Geronimo. Eberhardt went into San Mateo, in disguise, to see Isabella, but was betrayed to the Americans by another woman. The Americans saw and recognized him, and ordered him to stop. Eberhardt ran, and was shot and killed.

Eberhardt’s demise would have passed unnoticed, but the story of a German national being killed in the Philippines while fighting for the insurgency got picked up in the German press. Someone in Germany with contacts back in Phoenix sent word that Otto Eberhardt, once proud bandleader and patriotic American soldier, died as a traitor.

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