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Camp Dix Battles Liquor, Prostitution

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Sep 20, 2017

While the declaration of war on Germany in April 1917 forewarned of battles to be fought in far-off France, there would be some skirmishes closer to home over controlling men’s hearts, minds and actions. Even before Camp Dix had a name, the Trenton Times on June 13 announced, “In line with the general policy of the Young Men’s Christian Association to provide for the development of the social, religious and educational activities of the men in the United States concentration (cantonment) camps throughout the country, the National War Work Council of the association will establish a Camp Y.M.C.A. at Wrightstown. President Wilson has authorized the work, which will be carried on under district supervision.”

This project would be an impressive undertaking.

“Wrightsville will call for about six of these buildings, which will be 40 (feet) by 120 (feet) each, possibly enlarged later as the work advances. The buildings will include a large auditorium with a stage, a moving picture booth, so arranged that the films can be shown on the screen of the main auditorium or on the screen on the camp grounds for use at larger gatherings; writing rooms where there will be tables, stationery, good books, magazines, daily papers, game tables, pianos, victrolas, also closed writing rooms, a counter of supplies and notions, and study class rooms.”

As work on Camp Dix proceeded, the government-run Official Bulletin declared on July 23, “The order establishing a 5 mile ‘dry zone’ and regulating moral conditions around military camps has been issued by the President.

“No person, whether acting individually or as an officer, member, agent, representative, or employee of a corporation, partnership, or association, or as an agent, representative, or employee of an individual, shall, in or within 5 miles of any military camp, except as hereinafter provided, sell or barter, directly or indirectly, any alcoholic liquor, including beer, ale, or wine, to any person. … this prohibition against serving or giving alcoholic liquor shall not apply to the serving of wines or liquors in a private home to members of the family.”

On Aug. 14, it reported the formation of the federal commission on training camps, whose goal was,:

“1. Elimination of commercial prostitution in the cantonment zones.

“2. Repression of clandestine prostitution.

“3. Control of alcohol and other aids to prostitution.

“4. Combating of gambling, use of drugs, and other harmful practices.”

Even before Camp Dix officially opened, one Ocean County town was experiencing problems. According to the New Jersey Courier of Aug. 24, “New Egypt is beginning to find Wrightstown camp all too close for comfort and peace of mind. Among the couple thousand or more workers there is of course a proportion of toughs and roughs, who terrorize in a way the whole country roundabout. And some of those who wear the uniform of Uncle Sam are as bad.

“Last Saturday evening a soldier in uniform drew his service revolver on the traffic officer at New Egypt, when the latter tried to get the automobile in which a bunch of soldiers were sitting, to move on, and not block the main street. It was alleged by those who saw it that the soldiers were under the influence of something stronger than pink tea.”

As construction on the camp continued, so did the problems of the little farming village. The Trenton Times of Sept. 11 stated, “Reports by army inspectors that the forces of evil are already collecting about the camp to prey upon the men of the new army has brought a big force of secret service men into Burlington County, under orders from Washington to clean out the harpies at once. Arrests and deportations from town in the vicinity of the camp will begin immediately, according to authoritative information. Several liquor dealers, who have been willing to sell to soldiers, both directly and indirectly, are also said to be in line for a taste of Federal military rule. Practically all of the complaints have come from towns outside the five-mile camp zone, where the lawless element has evidently thought it had only the civil authorities of local communities to deal with. It is said that the first of the enemies of the law, morals and health of the camp will be handled in a manner that will be an example to all others of their kind.”

There were problems inside the camp as well. Its own newspaper announced three days before, “Arrested by Secret Service agents in Camp Dix for having three quarts of whisky in his possession, as well as dice and gambling devices, James Edwards was brought before United States Commissioner Wilson at Trenton, N.J.

“Considerable whisky and some beer have been confiscated by the Secret Service men and the Police from men who brought it into Camp in small quantities, not knowing they were disobeying Federal Laws.”

On Sept. 14, the New Egypt Press covered a mass meeting where “‘What are we going to do with the Soldiers when they come to New Egypt?’ was thoroughly discussed.

“The matter of taking care of our girls was then given over to Miss Curtis of Trenton, whose address was very touching and right from the heart.

“Almost every County Official was present and remarks made by our Judge Howard W. Jeffrey, in which he said that Ocean Country was the cleanest county in the State and that New Egypt was the cleanest town in the county, made everyone feel proud of our little town. The purpose of the meeting was to keep our town clean.”

Only two days later, the Trenton paper announced the reaction from Washington was swift.

“Official announcement that Federal agents are to take stern repressive measures against New Egypt, which had become the centre for white way lights, caused consternation in other surrounding communities today. Negro troopers have been employed among others in gaining evidence, and they have been patrolling the surrounding country for several weeks. It is alleged against New Egypt that it has become the place of residence of women from red light districts of the larger cities. It has also been asserted that dealers there have been hiring civilian suits to soldiers to permit them to obtain drink.”

On the 21st, “Liquor establishments within five miles of the camp will be wiped out of existence, in the campaign which the government is conducting for the moral and physical welfare of its new soldiers at Camp Dix.

“Information to this effect comes through the office of Prosecutor Kelsey, of Burlington County, who has been asked to assist the Department of Justice to the extent of ascertaining the names of all the liquor dealers within the proscribed territory and formally notifying them of the government’s intention to enforce its prohibition on the liquor question on September 26.”

When the big day came, according to the New Egypt paper, “Three of the seven in the five mile radius of Camp Dix, who were ordered to quit business had their places wide open Wednesday and were doing a thumping business.

“Their attitude was in flat violation of orders sent out several days ago by Prosecutor Kelsey, Burlington County. ‘I’m doing business,’ said Brose E. Smithy, proprietor of the one bar at Wrightstown, ‘and I expect to go on doing business.’”

Some said they would fight. “There was a rumor current that all of the saloonkeepers in various parts of the country who are affected by the order at the cantonments have formed an organization to fight in the courts the dry rule under the compensation clause of the Constitution of the United States. All of them in this region who can afford it have engaged counsel.”

Most gave up, declining to fight the government. “It is understood that all the hotels have reconsidered the matter and have all closed their bars. Brose Smith at Wrightstown has a sign out, ‘closed, but will open soon.’ He no doubt expects the Kaiser will soon surrender.”

On Sept. 30, 1917, former U.S. Attorney General Wendell Wickersham addressed the troops of Camp Dix at the opening of the new YMCA building.

“It is a war of Christianity against Paganism. You, the chosen representatives of the great American Christian Association, are preparing to go forth to destroy an enemy who fights without regard to any of the rules of humane warfare; who regards neither the white flag of truce, nor the red cross of mercy; an enemy who employs every method of destroying life, whether of combatants or noncombatants, with every resource which perverted ingenuity or cunning science can devise. Your cause is a holy cause. The German cause is that of the devils … they should strike the blow that would made them masters of the world. But they neglected to reckon with God.”

Next Week: Are the pickets still there?

tpfcjf@comcast.net

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