Shortly after the United States entered World War I, the Bangor Daily News commented on the popularity of a term that suddenly seemed to be everywhere:
The word “slacker” was borrowed from England when we entered the war. It wasn’t exactly American — Americans had never used it familiarly in the ordinary work and talk as the British had. But we needed some such term to serve a sudden need, and it did pretty well.
The article suggested that “quitter” might be a more appropriate term for American usage. “Doesn’t that fill the bill?” the paper asked. “Let’s have no more talk of ‘slackers.’”
But despite the paper’s objections, “slacker” won the day, and in the years that followed it was deployed for a wide range of purposes. Money not invested in war bonds became “slacker dollars.” “We drafted them,” proclaimed one advertisement, and, “these tires are no slackers.” An effort to collect unused music records to send to soldiers became a call to send “slacker records” to the front line.
The ubiquity of this term testifies to the intense, hyper-patriotic social pressure that bore down on every aspect of life during the war years. When successful military registration drives were held, local correspondents for Maine newspapers proudly proclaimed that no slackers were to be found in their towns. Campaigns by ladies’ aid societies and the Red Cross were enthusiastically covered in the press, often with the pronouncement that there were “no slackers” among the women of those communities.
No one wanted to be seen failing to do their part for the war effort, and with good reason. In March of 1918, Maine’s Committee on Public Safety issued a statement encouraging the use of tactics (left unspecified) to stamp out unpatriotic behavior, even behavior that did not rise to the level of criminality:
We are confident that the majority of our cities throughout the state do not fully understand that in many localities in this state there are men and women in different stations in life who, while too cowardly to indulge in word or deed for which they may be punished by the law, are making such effort as they dare to discourage patriotism of the rugged kind. Such vary from the mild pacifist to the crank and near traitor. We wish to call upon our public safety committees in every locality to use means and methods to meet each individual situation, and to make it uncomfortable for people of the character above described. Suppress it. It weakens the morale of our citizens, encourages the slacker and may pave the way for overt acts. Nip it in the bud.
On Nov. 3, 1917, a “peculiar incident” was described in the BDN: a Bangor woman had declined to take a food conservation pledge card from a canvasser. She’d explained that she had run her household economically for many years and didn’t think she needed any advice from the government. Later, however, the woman was said to have changed her tune when told that the “slackers, backsliders, German sympathizers and general kickers” might have their names printed in the newspapers. She reportedly rushed right to the Chamber of Commerce office and signed the documents to obtain a window card.
But the most contempt was reserved for the actual “slackers” — young men of military age who, for personal or political reasons, refused to join the ranks or otherwise attempted to evade service. The names of men who failed to appear for the draft were published in the local papers, and anti-slacker messages were projected onto movie screens across Maine.
A film titled The Slacker, starring Emily Stevens, was released in July of 1917 and was shown all over Maine that summer and fall, in theaters such as Bangor’s Bijou, the Orono Theatre, Biddeford’s City Opera House, and Belfast’s Colonial Theatre. The Man Without a Country, a film with similar themes, based on a story originally written about the Civil War, was shown at Bangor’s Graphic Theatre in November of 1917. Mrs. Slacker, starring Gladys Hulette and Creighton Hale, was shown at The Nickel in Bangor in July 1918. Child actresses Jane and Katherine Lee starred in Doing Their Bit. An advertisement for a screening of the film at the Graphic Theatre in September 1918 featured the tagline, “A Play that Shames the Slacker.” Patriotic stage plays were also produced by various ladies’ aid societies and other civic organizations.
Conscientious objectors were rounded up, as Maine’s Adjutant General, George McL. Presson, called on local sheriffs to “Get the slackers.” According to numerous accounts, “slackers” and conscientious objectors were often arrested, beaten, tortured, and placed in solitary confinement.
In August of 1917, the BDN reported that an Old Town resident, Dello Madore, had not registered for military service, and was to be arraigned before United States Commissioner Charles H. Reid. Madore was arrested by a Deputy U.S. Marshal in a remote woods camp where he was working as a contract laborer. Madore explained that he’d been laid up with an injured foot on the registration day that June and thought he was too late to register afterwards. He pleaded guilty and was released after he pledged to enlist in the Navy. In November, Abraham Hendelman, a British citizen, was arrested in Lewiston for not having filled out a registration card. It was reported that he was to be deported as soon as authority could be obtained from Washington.
On April 6, 1918, the Lewiston Evening Journal ran the frantic headline, “Hundreds of Deserters in Lewiston, Bath and Bangor; Police Directed by Federal Authorities to Take Drastic Action.” On May 1 of that year, the Lewiston Daily Sun reported that a socialist who refused to serve in the military was arrested. On May 3, a story appeared in the BDN describing rumors that “hundreds, if not thousands of Canadian slackers might be hiding out in the woods of Northern Maine.” The evidence: “the fact that one of the big lumbering concerns has not been obliged to come to Bangor for its log drivers this spring indicates that a new source of labor supply has suddenly been developed up north.”
Kustaa Maki, a Finnish citizen, was arrested in August of 1918. “Kastaa Maki, Shy of Khaki,” rhymed a mocking headline in the BDN, “Patriotism Failed; Cause He Tried to Dodge the Draft Foolish Finn is Jailed.”
Unsurprisingly, the enthusiasm with which the anti-slacker campaigns were conducted led to a number of innocent men being caught up in the frenzy and wrongly identified as slackers. This often provoked embarrassed or aggrieved responses from their families. Relatives and friends of Owen Lee Hutchins, of Bucksport, were reported to be indignant after his name appeared on a list, published by the Hancock County draft board, of men who failed to appear for an examination. In fact, Hutchins was already in England or France, having enlisted the same day he registered.
Ira C. Wakefield, of Harrington, was reported as a delinquent for failing to report to the draft board, but a letter he sent home to his family, later published in the BDN, established that he was in France with the 639th Aero Squadron. Edward W. O’Malley, of Eastport, appeared on a list of slackers sent out by the Washington County Exemption Board, but O’Malley was in Waco, Texas, with the 44th Squadron at the time. After the war, the significant number of errors on the slacker lists was acknowledged by the American Legion. In 1921, the Legion urged that the lists be re-published so corrections could be made, due to concern that soldiers unfairly included on the lists, who subsequently applied for pensions, could encounter problems that would cause them difficulty and embarrassment.
Perhaps the most notable slacker case in Maine came to a head on June 17, 1918, when a 28-year-old war resister named Frank Morrell, of the tiny Aroostook County town of Bridgewater, was found dead, hanging from his cell door in the county jail in Bangor, where he had been held pending transfer to federal prison. On May 28, the Kennebec Journal had reported that Morrell was arrested after helping his wife’s half-brother, Roy McNinch, hide from the authorities after deserting from Camp Devens, in Massachusetts, the previous November.
A former sheriff from Houlton rounded up a posse to hunt down McNinch and eventually found him barricaded in a “lonely hut” with a .38 caliber rifle, in the wilderness 15 miles outside town. McNinch reportedly threatened the lawmen that he would never be taken alive, but they broke down his door in the middle of the night and hauled him out of bed. Morrell, who worked as a lumberman, was charged with failing to register for the draft and aiding a deserter.
Under the headline “Slacker Gets His,” the Houlton Times reported that Morrell was sentenced to three months in prison, though he would never serve his time. His death by hanging was ruled a suicide due to “insanity,” but we’ll never really know whether Morrell simply couldn’t take the humiliation of being branded a “slacker” for the rest of his life, or if there was foul play.
For all intents and purposes, the massive pro-war media campaign, coupled with a healthy dose of state repression, was phenomenally successful in boosting enlistment and preventing pacifists, conscientious objectors and other dissenters from acting upon their moral opposition to the violence of “The Great War.”