By Kathy Hughes
Kathleen Nash was a renowned jewel thief, and, in a roundabout way, I am her namesake. Her arrest, trial and conviction was a widely covered sensation in the immediate post-WWII newspapers, and, at the same time, my parents were desperately seeking a name for their newborn daughter. Kathleen was to be it.
Kathleen Nash was a U.S. Army captain stationed in the town of Kronberg, located in occupied West Germany. Her post put her in charge of an Army Officer’s club established in Friedrichshof castle, hurriedly vacated by the royal Hesse family. It was rumored the family left a large cache of fabulous, royal jewels and family heirlooms hidden in the castle. Lo, the story proved to be true. One of Nash’s subordinates quietly reported to her that he had found a large stash of valuables buried in the castle basement, a find which Nash neglected to pass onto her superiors.
Instead, she confided the treasure trove to her fellow officer, paramour and would-be accomplice and husband, Colonel Jack Durant. Fatefully, the two conspired, along with a friend and third accomplice, Maj Watson to recover the treasure for themselves.
Who were the German royalty? The last German emperor, or Kaiser, was Wilhelm whose grandmother was Victoria, the eldest daughter of Britain’s Queen Victoria. Her daughter, also Victoria, married German Kaiser Friedrich II, scion of the Hesse dynasty. Even after the establishment of the German Republic and until the present day, the German nobility retained their social rank, estates and fortunes. Today’s British, Danish, Swedish, and Greek royal families all share Teutonic roots, as did the famous, deposed Russian Tsar.
Now, a brief detour to Britain: the present Duke of Edinburgh (husband to Queen Elizabeth) was born “Phillip, Prince of Greece and Denmark,” and his older sister was Princess Sophia, also of Greece and Denmark. They were members of the Hesse family, related most closely through their grandmother, Victoria, Queen Victoria’s daughter. In 1946, in preparation for her wedding, Princess Sophie asked to wear the family heirlooms when it was discovered the Hesse royal jewels were missing from the castle. This raised the alarm, and Captain Nash was asked about their whereabouts.
Nash succeeded in putting off approaches over the jewels until she managed to leave Germany in anticipation of her discharge from the Army. Not only was she able to return to the U.S., but also she married her co-conspirator, Colonel Durant. As his wife, she knew she could not be forced to testify against him, and she was aware that the authorities were in hot pursuit. Each of the three accomplices took a portion of the jewels and variously sold, gave away or hid the loot.
Some of the jewels were never recovered, but both Nash and Durant were arrested, tried, and convicted in a sensational courts martial. It was the largest jewel heist on record, being valued at $2.5 million, and the recovered fabulous jewels were publicly displayed in an unbelievable, gleaming array, before being returned to the Hesse family.
As part of their defense, the Durants as a couple attempted to claim the jewels were legitimate spoils of war. They also defended that the Army had no jurisdiction over their case as they were already being discharged. Neither defense worked and Nash was sentenced to only five years in prison, while Durant’s sentence was 15 years; Watson received a three year sentence, but was released on parole (it is speculated that his family had wealthy connections).