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The First Man Convicted of Blasphemy in Maine

by | Nov 12, 2020

The crowd filing into St. Rocco Hall in Rumford could hardly contain their excitement on the evening of September 10, 1919. Their guest speaker, a Unitarian minister turned free-thought evangelist named Michael X. Mockus, had already given two lectures over the past four days, during which he’d delighted audiences with his theological and political provocations.

As he flipped through lanternslides of famous religious paintings, the Lithuanian freethinker took aim at some of the most deeply held tenets of the Christian faith, including the concept of virgin birth, which he ridiculed, and his assertion that Jesus’ mother “had a beau.”

“Religion, capitalism, and government are all damned humbugs, liars, and thieves,” Mockus declared.

According to witnesses, most of the crowd responded with laughter and applause. But others were offended by the atheist’s diatribe. On the third night, local authorities implanted themselves in the audience and were ready to pounce. The trial that followed made Mockus the first person in Maine convicted of blasphemy. It was perhaps the most famous free-speech case in the state during the Red Scare that gripped America after World War I.

Mockus was born Mykolas Ksaveras Mockevičius in Ramanavas, Lithuania, on October 26, 1864. According to Lithuanian-language sources, he immigrated to America in 1886 and worked in coal mines before moving to Detroit, where he labored in a cement factory. Like the vast majority of Lithuanians, Mockus was a Catholic, and he’d been fanatically devoted to his faith. But soon after coming to the United States he converted to Protestantism, and was later ordained at a seminary in Fairmount, Ohio.

By 1908, Mockus had again reexamined his faith, and embraced atheism. One of the earliest references to his activities appears in The Truth About God, a monthly free-thought newspaper published in Great Bend, Kansas, by an organization called the Church of Humanity. The paper carried the provocative slogan: “Dedicated to teaching the Discovery that God is a Myth, like Santa Claus.” In its February 1908 issue, the name of M. X. Mockus, of Detroit, appeared in a list of new members.

Within a few years, Mockus was beginning to stir up trouble. In 1913, the trustees of St. George’s Lithuanian Catholic Church, in Detroit, attempted to have him barred from their property. They accused Mockus of distributing “Socialistic literature” at the church’s entrance and “opening and closing the doors violently while services were in progress.” The trustees were able to prove that Mockus printed the circulars, but a judge found insufficient evidence of door-slamming to warrant an injunction.

Michael X. Mockus in 1917.

An extensive profile of Mockus appeared in the June 11, 1915, edition of the Chicago-based, Lithuanian-language newspaper Lietuva. Portraying Mockus as little more than a con man, the paper lamented what it characterized as the gullibility of Lithuanian-Americans, which it claimed made them easy targets for all manner of fraud. Lietuva also noted that Mockus had found favor among the Socialist press, which frequently reported on his activities.

The following year, Mockus ran afoul of one of New England’s archaic “blue laws.” Speaking in Waterbury, Connecticut — an industrial city known for its production of brassware and its 10,000-strong Lithuanian community — Mockus had made a number of declarations that challenged Christian dogma.

The statute used to convict him was reportedly enacted in 1642 and was seldom invoked. These unusual circumstances brought national attention to the case, which was covered by newspapers across the country. A story in the Washington Post suggests there were other motivations at play beyond the blasphemy charge: “The case is the outcome of a religious crusade against Sunday liquor selling in the district of this city called Brooklyn, where thousands of Lithuanians live.”

The Lithuanian Freethought Association, which had invited Mockus to speak in Waterbury, hired one of the city’s leading attorneys to defend him, and a well-known First Amendment advocate, Theodore Schroeder of the Free Speech League, also offered his services. Despite this excellent legal representation, Mockus was convicted and also lost his appeal. But it appears he left Connecticut without serving any prison time.

Undeterred by the conviction, Mockus resumed his lecture tour, and in the waning days of the summer of 1919, he arrived in Maine for speaking engagements in Lewiston and Rumford, two industrial centers with significant Lithuanian populations.

Thanks to the booming paper industry, which created an ever-increasing need for mill workers, Rumford had a thriving immigrant community in the early decades of the twentieth century. As a result, the town was both more ethnically diverse and more economically stratified than most of the farming communities that surrounded it. These conditions made Rumford one of the few places in western Maine with a significant pocket of radicalism.

In 1912, a chapter of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) was organized in Rumford. This happened after the “Bread and Roses” textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, and the subsequent trial of Arturo Giovannitti and Joseph Ettor, who were held responsible for the death of a female striker despite being three miles away at the time (they were eventually acquitted). Protest meetings were held in Rumford and buttons and postcards were sold to support the Ettor-Giovannitti defense.

The Rumford “Wobblies” appear to have disbanded shortly thereafter, but former IWW members were likely among the founders of the local Lithuanian Socialist Alliance, which invited Mockus to speak in 1919. (Several accounts cite the name of the organization as the “Lithuanian Liberal Society.”)

On the third night of his lecture series in Rumford, police arrested Mockus and charged him with three counts of blasphemy. As had happened in Connecticut, officials in Maine invoked an old statute written to protect the religious beliefs of state residents.

Ordinarily such charges would be recognized as a clear violation of the Constitution’s free-speech clause. But when Mockus took his slides to Rumford, he arrived during an era when fear and suspicion trumped reason and the foundation of American democracy — the Red Scare.

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That the ethnic tensions apparent in Waterbury also played a role here is evident from Associate Justice John A. Morrill’s declaration. “Freedom of speech in this country is not license, it is nothing of the kind,” the judge said. “These people who have appeared upon the witness stand have shown readily enough into what grade of society they fall; not from their own fault, it is their misfortune; but they come to this country — and I wish every one of them could hear what I say — they come to this country; we owe them nothing; we give them everything.”

The jury in Maine found Mockus guilty and he was sentenced to two years of hard labor at the state prison in Thomaston. But, once again, he skipped town before he could be incarcerated. His case was later appealed to the Maine Supreme Court, which upheld the conviction in a decision handed down on March 25, 1921.

A few weeks later, the Crystal Lake Herald, in Illinois, reported that Mockus, who’d been holding a series of more lightly attended meetings around Chicago, had left the area for “parts unknown.” A few sources claim he went to Mexico and lived there for five years or more, but those accounts are questionable. What can be confirmed is that Mockus passed away in a nursing home in Oak Forest, Illinois, in 1939, at the age of 75, having managed to keep a low profile during the last two decades of his life.

Several months after the Rumford affair, the Lewiston Evening Journal ran a lengthy story linking Mockus’ visit to what it claimed was a larger conspiracy. The article, farcical in several of its details, was pieced together from “a few guarded statements of the police … statements of private citizens who have talked with those immediately concerned, and so on.”

The newspaper claimed that agents of the newly formed Soviet government had been in Lewiston. The alleged plot was said to include three men, referred to as the “rougher,” the “polisher,” and the “finisher.”

Mockus, the “rougher,” was “the only one whose name … got into the newspapers,” the Journal reported. He’d spoken to Lithuanian audiences in Lewiston for four nights before moving on to Rumford and being arrested. It was claimed that the second man, the “polisher,” was an associate of Russian leader Vladimir Lenin and the revolutionary Leon Trotsky.

There was scant evidence to support the newspaper’s more speculative claims, but the Journal likely told the truth when it reported: “Meetings at which foreign languages are spoken have been under surveillance by the police, and whatever intention there was of organizing communist bodies has been given up.”

The visit by the “polisher” had allegedly transformed the Socialist Alliance in Rumford into an “out-and-out communist organization,” the paper claimed. So authorities disbanded it, burned its charter, and warned its members not to attempt to form another organization. With Mockus convicted and leftist organizing activities quashed, police could now confidently tell the Journal that the “situation is cleared up,” and the threat was over.

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