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Radical Mainers: Sedition Act Crackdown on Pacifists and Leftists

A Hyper-Nationalist Movement Targets Immigrants, Pacifists & Dissenters

by | Aug 10, 2020

On Easter Sunday morning in 1917, the Rev. Charles R. Joy stepped up to the pulpit at the First Parish Church in Portland and delivered a fiery sermon that incited a frenzied mob and quickly ended his career in Maine. The 31-year-old Unitarian minister knew his words would likely land him in hot water, but as an avowed pacifist, he couldn’t stay silent.

Six days earlier, President Woodrow Wilson had stood before Congress and requested a declaration of war on Germany. The President, who had campaigned for re-election the prior year vowing to keep the U.S. out of the European conflict, cited German attacks on American merchant ships in the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean, as well as the infamous “Zimmerman Telegram,” an intercepted cable from the German Foreign Office that proposed a military alliance with Mexico. Many Americans were also still outraged by the German U-boat torpedo attack that sank the British passenger liner Lusitania in 1915, killing 1,198 people, including 128 U.S. citizens.

But to pacifists like the Rev. Joy, these arguments failed to justify sending millions of young men to fight and die in the trenches overseas. Before the war was over, 10 million soldiers would be killed on the battlefields of Europe and another 20 million would die from hunger. Ill prepared for the horrors of modern warfare, like gas attacks and machine guns, tens of thousands of troops would be slaughtered in a single day of battle over a few hundred yards of wasteland. 

Pacifists and leftists saw the “Great War” as a contest between competing empires over colonies, borders and spheres of influence. As the war’s critics pointed out, the U.S. had provoked Germany into attacking American ships by delivering supplies to its enemies. And the Lusitania wasn’t just cruising. The ship’s manifests were falsified to hide the fact the vessel carried a massive store of ammunition for the Allies.

In his landmark book, American Political Tradition, historian Richard Hofstadter noted the billions of dollars American companies were making from the war effort. “America became bound up with the Allies in a fateful union of war and prosperity,” Hofstadter wrote.

The Rev. Charles Joy. photo/courtesy Andover-Harvard Library

As the Rev. Joy stood at the pulpit on that fateful April morning, the young pastor denounced conflict with Germany as an “unrighteous war” and vowed he would never aid his country in such an immoral endeavor. “So long as I am your pastor, no war shall be recognized except the war on war,” he told his flock. “From this pulpit prayers shall ascend for Germans and Americans alike.”

That night, an angry mob gathered outside the church on Congress Street. They hoisted a dummy dressed to represent the Rev. Joy. Pinned to its chest was a placard that read: “The patriotic people of Portland resent your speech. Get out!”

“The inscription was read by hundreds who rushed to the spot before the flames had wrought havoc with the figure,” a newspaper reported. A few days later, the trustees of the church demanded Joy’s resignation and promptly received it.

When America entered World War I, a hyper-patriotic fervor swept the nation. It targeted pacifists like Joy, “slackers” who resisted the draft, and anyone perceived to be “pro-German.” Supporting the nationalist principles of “100 Percent Americanism,” the Maine Legislature passed several measures to promote patriotism in schools and in society at large, including punishment for anyone who desecrated an American flag. Lawmakers also considered a bill to “prohibit demonstrations against the established form of government of the United States or of the State of Maine.”

In March of 1917, as rumors swirled of German spies on land and U-boats plying the waters off our coast, Maine Gov. Carl Milliken and the Legislature established the Maine Committee on Public Safety. Also called “The Committee of One Hundred,” it comprised 100 businessmen and prominent professionals representing every county in the state.

The committee was charged with preparing for war, boosting enlistment, settling labor disputes, and reporting all sales of “dynamite, powder and other explosives.” The civilian group also established special police forces across the state to investigate “enemy aliens” and protect infrastructure and institutions. In 1917, Knox County Public Safety Chairman William T. Cobb reported that the committee had found “suitable armed guards” to stand at “exposed points of the water system, electric plant and gashouse, railroad station, telephone building and [the] Court House.”

Citizens were constantly warned to be on watch for spies and subversives. A U.S. Department of Justice bulletin published in Portland’s Eastern Argus declared, “Every German or Austrian in the United States, unless known by years of association to be absolutely loyal, should be treated as a potential spy.”

Mainers organized citizen vigilante groups to defend public property and surveil fellow Mainers for signs of disloyalty. People suspected of having anti-war or anti-American beliefs often lost their livelihood as a result of such suspicion. In March of 1917, three “foreigners” were fired from the Great Northern Paper Company, in Millinocket, due to their discussions about the war, according to the Lewiston Evening Journal.

Then, in June of 1917, Congress passed the Espionage Act, which essentially criminalized dissent. By a relatively close vote, Congress did remove language in the law that would have fined and imprisoned reporters for criticizing the President. But the Espionage Act shredded the First Amendment by making it a crime, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $10,000 fine, to “willfully” make “false statements with intent to interfere with the operation or success of the military or naval forces.” 

The Espionage Act also gave the Postmaster General authority to block mail and censor any material deemed critical of the war effort, including mail soliciting donations for the legal defense of radical figures like the anarchist Emma Goldman or members of the Industrial Workers of the World.

Movie producer and writer Robert Goldstein was convicted and sent to prison under the Espionage Act for making the silent film The Spirit of ’76. Prosecutors successfully argued that the film aided and abetted Germany by depicting one of America’s wartime allies, the British, committing atrocities during the American Revolution.

In May of 1918, Congress passed the even more repressive Sedition Act, which made it a crime to “utter, print, write, or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States, or the Constitution of the United States, or any language intended to … encourage resistance to the United States, or to promote the cause of its enemies.”

Within a month, famed Socialist leader Eugene Debs was arrested under the Sedition Act for delivering a blistering speech against the war. “The working class have never yet had a voice in declaring war,” Debs told a throng of 1,200 supporters from a bandstand in Canton, Ohio. “If war is right, let it be declared by the people – you, who have your lives to lose.”

In Maine, educators were closely scrutinized due to fears they could taint young minds with treasonous sentiments, and many teachers were ostracized, silenced or fired. Districts across the state dropped German from their language-course offerings.

In February of 1918, Bates College professor Frank D. Tubbs set off a firestorm by criticizing President Wilson’s handling of the war. During a lecture at the Baptist Men’s League, in Rockland, Tubbs said the U.S. “ought to get out of the war as quickly as possible.” According to Rockland’s Courier Gazette, the professor was interrupted immediately after that comment by audience members who accused him of being “pacifistic” and “traitorous.”

Rockland was “aflame with rumors, discussions and protests, a state of mind akin to mob frenzy,” the paper wrote. One attendee of Tubbs’ talk reported the “disloyal speech” to the chairman of the Knox County Committee on Public Safety, who passed the complaint along to authorities in Boston. The Knox County District Attorney requested a copy of Tubbs’ remarks. The Courier praised the audience’s protests, writing that the prospect of Tubbs being invited to Rockland again was “very remote — as long as Americans control the country.”

Tubbs managed to weather the storm, but University of Maine professor Dean Walz, who was of German ancestry, was fired for comparing German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck to Abraham Lincoln, and for making frequent references to Germany and its culture during a lecture. Although numerous UMaine students came to his defense, calling Walz’s firing a “crucial injustice,” university administrators did not back down.

The superintendent of Bucksport’s schools fired Lucinda Heath Hopkins, a teacher who’d worked in the district for 17 years, simply because she took driving lessons from a German. The driving instructor was an “Alien Enemy of the United States of America, under suspicion and under investigation … by the Government,” the superintendent claimed. Hopkins sued the district for unlawful termination and, two years later, she was awarded a year’s salary by the Maine Supreme Judicial Court — but she never got her job back.

In June of 1917, Maine’s Committee on Public Safety launched an investigation of a game warden named Frank L. Perry, of Bangor. Perry had reportedly been kicked out of a store for saying Wilson and oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller “are no better than murderers and ought to be shot,” that “the people of the Lusitania and other vessels lost deserved to be sunk,” and “every American soldier who goes to France ought to be shot.”

It’s impossible to know how true any of these reports of “seditious” talk actually were. Many Mainers were targeted just for having a foreign accent. On June 4, 1918, a German restaurant owner named Charles Miller was beaten and nearly lynched for supposedly saying the Germans were “too strong for the Allies.” After an assailant punched Miller and knocked him to the ground, a large mob gathered and someone yelled, “Get a rope!” Miller managed to flee through the back door of a friend’s house.

In March of 1918, a Lithuanian from Lewiston named Peter Yurkstar was arrested on a charge of “profanity,” but the real reason was that he didn’t appear to be sufficiently pro-American. It seems that Yurkstar, who’d worked at a shoe factory, declined to contribute when a representative of the Salvation Army walked through the cutting room soliciting donations for the war effort. One of his co-workers also claimed Yurkstar said, “The American soldiers are no good for me. They can’t make me fight.”

Headline of an article in the Lewiston Evening Journal.

The Lithuanian was reported to federal authorities, but they couldn’t find a federal law that Yurkstar had broken, so he was hauled into municipal court. Facing a six-month sentence, Yurkstar denied, through an interpreter, that he had ever spoken against the government or the troops. He said he’d given $1.50 to a soldiers’ fund at Christmastime, and didn’t donate to the Salvation Army because he’d seen police in other cities chase them off street corners. Yurkstar said he was going to night school to become a “good American,” and he promised to give to the Salvation Army in the future.

Jews in Maine were also singled out for closer scrutiny and suspicion. Anti-Semitic “Judeo-Bolshevik” conspiracies claimed Jews were secretly behind the Russian Revolution of 1917 and were conspiring to do the same in America.

The Lewiston Daily Sun described a Jewish peddler named Joseph Cohen as “too fluent a talker for his own good” after he was arrested in Lewiston for allegedly saying Wilson received $50 million for declaring war and that Liberty Bonds were worthless. The newspaper described the 50-year-old Russian Jew as “a sweet talker” fluent in “English, German, French, Hebrew and possibly other languages.” Although the arresting officer admitted the evidence of Cohen’s seditious comments was “circumstantial,” the claim was backed by several “competent witnesses.”

Cohen denied he made the statements and insisted someone was lying about it because they had a grudge against him. The police chief eventually released Cohen, but said he would remain under “constant surveillance” and openly questioned whether the Russian was actually a German spy.

Maine’s tiny German population was also closely watched by authorities during the war. A new state law required all Germans to register with town clerks, and loyalty oaths were demanded. As the Bangor Daily News editorialized, “alien residents … German or otherwise, will do well to obey our laws with scrupulous care, for … a comparatively light penalty may now be treated as treason, the usual punishment for which is death.”

The paranoia and repression took an emotional toll on new immigrants and established Mainers alike. In October of 1918, the Kennebec Journal reported that a 36-year-old Presque Isle woman named Sabra Beem committed suicide because she “feared officers were searching for her in the belief that she was pro-German.”



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