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The Maine Ku Klux Klan Fueled the Political Career of Rabid McCarthyite Ralph Owen Brewster

The February edition of Radical Mainers

by | Feb 11, 2021

Maine Governor and U.S. Senator Ralph Owen Brewster.

It was well below zero on a February night nearly 100 years ago when 175 members of the Industrial Workers of the World rallied in the streets of Greenville following a clash with the local branch of the Ku Klux Klan. Twenty-one-year-old union leader Bob Pease, of Bangor, told the Portland Press Herald the IWW had come to organize the loggers. But the hooded vigilantes had been “bought” by local merchants and lumber interests to violently remove the Wobblies, threatening them with “stake and torch.”

“We are going to stick,” Pease told the Press Herald, “and if the Klan starts anything, the I.W.W. will finish it. The slave drivers, the Great Northern Paper Company and Hollingsworth and Whitney people do not want us here, but we are too strong for them.”

“Why are they against you?” the reporter asked.

“Because we want good wages, eight hours a day in the lumber camps and clean linen on our bunks,” replied Pease. “The day of the old logging camp and the lumberjacks is about over with.”

The disturbance began after 40 Klansmen marched to a boarding house where union organizers were lodging and demanded they immediately leave town, or they’d be forced out. The next night, Sheriff Roscoe Macomber had a guard posted at the house to protect the Wobblies. He instructed his deputies to arrest anyone starting trouble.

The selectmen in Greenville also ordered the IWW to leave. All the other boarding houses in town, as well as the local YMCA, denied the unionists entry, so Pease announced the men “would walk the streets and would build bonfires to keep from freezing.” Responding to a call for support, Wobblies from surrounding lumber camps poured into town. The reporter noted that many of these lumberjacks were French Catholics — frequent targets of the Klan.

Two weeks later, on Feb. 17, 1924, Bangor police raided a Lumber Workers Industrial Union meeting at the IWW headquarters on Hancock Street in Bangor. The officers seized a document Pease was holding and ordered the crowd, most of them Finns, to disperse for allegedly violating “Sunday Laws.”

A few weeks later, three IWW leaders were put on trial for conspiracy. Their alleged crime: calling for a boycott of anti-IWW businesses in Greenville. The courtroom was packed.

The Wobblies’ defense argued it was no more criminal to be a member of the IWW than a member of any other fraternal organization, like the Masons or the Odd Fellows. Supreme Court Judge John Morrill did not agree. He sentenced Pease to “not less than eighteen months or more than two years of hard labor” in the state prison at Thomaston for his part in what the judge called the “radical disturbance at Greenville.” Two other IWW lumbermen, 24-year-old Willard Parent, of St. Isadore, Quebec, and 21-year-old George Fuzley, of Lynn, Mass., were sentenced to do up to 15 months of hard prison labor. As the men were led out of the courthouse, Pease shouted to a group of supporters: “Good luck, boys! Keep the ball rolling!”

Seven months later, on Oct. 12, 1924, the Bangor Daily News reported that Maine Gov. Ralph Owen Brewster, who’d just sailed to election victory with a groundswell of Klan support, had informed the American Legion of a troubling discovery. On a recent visit to the state prison, the Republican governor found IWW members distributing “Red propaganda.” A “vast amount of Red literature” had been seized, the paper reported.

By 1924, the Red Scare that followed the First World War was winding down, but the chauvinist, xenophobic, pro-capitalist ideology of “100 Percent Americanism” persisted. As Rita Mae Breton wrote in her thesis, “Red Scare: A Study in Maine Nativism, 1919-1925,” the Red Scare “left in its wake an intolerance of immigrants which would soon effect stringent immigration laws, a hatred of communism, a suspicion of organized labor, and a desire for conformity and maintenance of the status quo.”

In the Roaring Twenties, the Klan found fertile ground in Maine under the leadership of King Kleagle F. Eugene Farnsworth. Maine’s Anglo-Protestant majority had long harbored anti-Catholic sentiments, and as Irish, Italian, Polish and French-Canadian Catholic immigrants flooded into our mill towns, sectarian tensions flared.

Rural Mainers descended from old Puritan stock feared the “Catholic tide” would one day overwhelm the state and take control of the levers of power. Reflecting this, the Maine Klan was primarily concerned with combatting what it considered the pernicious influence of the Roman Catholic Church. The KKK targeted Maine’s Franco-American population not only with acts of intimidation, like burning crosses, but also by working through the political system.            

While a candidate for governor, then-State Sen. Brewster drew praise from the Klan for championing the 1923 referendum in Portland that replaced the city’s mayor-and-aldermen form of government with a council-at-large system, by which leaders are elected in a citywide vote, rather than by residents of specific neighborhoods, or wards. Klansmen thought the ward system gave Irish Catholic and Jewish Portlanders too much influence in city politics.

As a candidate in the 1924 Republican primary, Brewster also pushed for a Constitutional amendment to ban religious educational institutions, like Catholic parochial schools, from receiving public funds. The measure narrowly failed in Maine’s Legislature, but supporting it helped earn Brewster the Klan’s endorsement in February of that year. The so-called “Blaine Amendment,” named after U.S. House Speaker and 1884 Republican Presidential candidate James Blaine, had been adopted by all but 11 states. Yet Blaine’s home state of Maine never passed it. This left the divisive issue open to exploitation by opportunistic politicians appealing to the anti-Catholic vote.

By the end of the Twenties, the Maine Klan was in sharp decline. According to Mark Paul Richard, author of Not a Catholic Nation: The Ku Klux Klan Confronts New England in the 1920s, Klan membership in this state dropped from more than 61,000 in 1926 to just over 3,000 in 1927. By 1930, there were only 226 self-identified Klansmen in Maine.

Brewster’s divisive governorship, which ended in 1929, also opened a rift in Maine’s Republican Party. When Arthur R. Gould, an anti-Klan Republican, easily won a U.S. Senate seat despite having been denounced by Gov. Brewster during the election, it was clear Brewster’s influence was waning.

In 1928 Brewster launched a primary challenge against a fellow Republican — incumbent Sen. Frederick Hale, another member of the anti-Klan faction — and lost in a landslide. Four years later, Brewster lost another race, this time against Democratic U.S. Rep. John G. Utterback.

Fears of communist infiltration may have calmed during this period, but they never went away. In the 1930s, the Klan in Maine (what was left of it) redirected its focus toward battling communism. A letter sent from Hugh S. Kelley, of the Realm office in Scarborough, in 1935, shows that the letterhead used by the Maine Klan bore the slogan, “COMMUNISM WILL NOT BE TOLERATED.” Brewster finally won a U.S. House seat in 1934, and then a U.S. Senate race in 1940.

In 1941, George Farnsworth, representative for the philanthropist William Bingham II, received a request from Sen. Brewster to provide financial support for monitoring labor unions and other groups for signs of communist infiltration. In securing Bingham’s approval for the scheme, Farnsworth claimed the “Communistic situation here in Maine is beyond belief.”

At Brewster’s suggestion, Kelley, the Scarborough Klansman, was employed to carry out the surveillance. The arrangement, which lasted about a year, appears to have yielded nothing. It was cut short due to wartime gas rationing, which Kelley said made it impossible to continue his work.

This lost episode of red-baiting in Maine was brought to light by historian Stanley Russell Howe in his 2017 biography of Bingham, William Bingham 2nd: A Life. The links between Kelley and the Klan were discovered after that book’s publication.

Brewster’s associations with the Klan have long been a subject of speculation, but this detail, which shows direct collaboration between Brewster and a Klan leader, is revealed here for the first time. (George Farnsworth appears to be related to Kleagle Eugene Farnsworth, but distantly, and there remains insufficient evidence to prove whether he or Brewster were secretly members of the hooded order.)

In the late 1940s, a second Red Scare began. During this period, better known as the McCarthy Era (after infamous Sen. Joseph McCarthy, of Wisconsin), a new wave of paranoia about communist influence in American politics and media gripped the nation.

Brewster became an important ally of Sen. McCarthy. But as with his earlier identification with the Klan, this association eventually cost him his political career. Moderation prevailed in the Maine Republican Party of the early 1950s, when Maine’s other Senator was the noted McCarthy critic Margaret Chase Smith. Despite being the incumbent, Brewster was defeated in a Republican Party primary and resigned his Senate seat at the end of 1952.

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