James Ellsworth

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James Ellsworth pictured with his wife, Nellie

James C. Ellsworth was the handler of the first double agent in FBI history and part of the subject of Double Agent: The First Hero of World War II and How the FBI Outwitted and Destroyed a Nazi Spy Ring, written by Peter Duffy. Duffy used Ellsworth’s journals that provided a timeline of events in the case. Ellsworth had recorded the events after the arrests had been made.

Ellsworth, a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, had served as a full-time missionary to Germany and was uniquely qualified to work with German-born William G. Sebold, who was the double agent. Ellsworth had served in the city where Sebold was born. Ellsworth spent 16 months handling the case that eventually led to the arrest of 33 spies—still the largest espionage case in American history.

The Deseret News quoted author Peter Duffy as saying, “I think that the point of the story is that it happened in 1941, which is a period when the war was going on in Europe but the United States was not involved yet. This case shows that it was one double agent and a crew of FBI agents who were the few people who were actually fighting World War II. The first Americans engaged in World War II were these individuals.”[1]

According to the Deseret News article about the book and Ellsworth’s life, the spiritual elements of the case were not included in the book, but were felt by Ellsworth’s family. His son Tom said, “Dad was in the FBI for 20 years. He was in some very scary situations where he was in danger and never had to draw his gun. He always felt like he was protected. Now, my mother didn’t feel that way, but those were the times when she taught me how to pray.” “She had incredible faith. She would tell me to go to my closet and pray for father’s safety. And so I would. And of course, he always came home fine.”[2]

After the successful completion of his counter-spy case, he was appointed assistant to the Special Agent in Charge of the Bureau in Los Angeles. Later, he was in charge of the field divisions in New Mexico, Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri. After his retirement from the FBI, he became a banker. He eventually worked as a security consultant to all of the 22 banks in 11 western states owned by Western Bank Corporation.

James Ellsworth was called to serve as mission president in Frankfurt, Germany, in 1971 and later a sealer in the Los Angeles California Temple.

He also served in many volunteer organizations.

Ellsworth was born on April 8, 1908, in Thatcher, Arizona. He attended college at the University of Utah and the Kansas City Law School. He and his wife, Nellie, were the parents of five children. He passed away on January 13, 1998.