200 Plus

Registration Fighters Go to Jail

By THOMAS P. FARNER | May 24, 2017

For almost a month the U.S. government-run Committee on Public Information had issued dozens of stories preparing American men for the great registration day, June 5, 1917. The idea put forth was that if you registered you were in effect volunteering to be drafted; thus this wasn’t conscription, but Selective Service. On May 31, newspapers across the nation ran stories similar to the one in the Lakewood Citizen.

“All men from twenty-one to thirty must register. … This newspaper publication is the only notification you will get.

“A prison sentence is the penalty for failure to register.

“The government has adopted a plan to facilitate and simplify the filling in of conscription registration cards June 5.”

Some of the helpful hints included “Write your birthday (month, day and year) on a piece of paper before going to the registrar and give the paper to him the first thing.

“If you do not remember the year, start to answer as you would if someone asked you your birthday, as ‘August 5.’ Then say, ‘on my birthday this year I will be (or was) _____years old.’”

What wasn’t explained to the men were the instructions to the registrar at the lower left-hand corner of the card, which stated “if person is of African descent tear off this corner.” The Army being assembled to fight for democracy was to be segregated.

“Have you a father, mother, wife, child under twelve or a sister or brother under twelve solely dependent upon you for support?

“Do you claim exemption from draft? Specify grounds.

“Because you claim exemption from draft, it by no means follows that you are exempt.

“In stating grounds you claim as exempting you use one of the following … If you claim to be a member of a religious sect whose creed forbids its members to participate in war in any form, simply name the sect.”

On June 3, the Washington Post published reports from around the country.

“New York, – Among other anticonscription plots which have cropped up for Uncle Sam’s iron hand to deal with is the Emma Goldman anarchist plan to organize an American soldiers’ and workmen’s council.

“Cincinnati, – With the arrest of two men tonight, who are accused of having an anticonscription literature in their possession, thirteen men are now being held by United States government authorities on charges of treason.

“Kansas City, – Five men held in jail here on Federal charges of conspiracy to defeat the army draft registration refused today to sign registration cards.

“Wichita Falls, Tex. – De. E. Priest, secretary for the local branch of the Farmers and Laborers’ Protective Association; Phil Claiborne and A.A. Hernades, members of the organization, were arrested today by Federal officers charged with anticonscription activities.

“Cedar Rapids, Iowa. – Eight men were arrested by Federal authorities here today charged with spreading antidraft literature.”

Finally the big day arrived. The Official Bulletin, the newspaper printed by the Committee on Public Information, announced, “That same absence of trouble and general response to the provisions of the selective draft law that characterized reports received at the Department of Justice last night was reflected in the telegrams received to-day from the department’s representatives in the widely separated section of the country.

“No Disorders in Jersey.

“New Jersey: Practically complete reports from 20 counties of the 21 and 13 cities of the 14 of over 30,000 in population total 261,243 registration. Close estimate on remainder will make grand total at least 303,797. Absolutely no disorder or resistance reported.”

The Trenton Times the same day carried “Up to noon today, two arrests were made in this city of persons claimed to be of military service age and who neglected to register yesterday. They are Thomas DePalma, of 1212 South Clinton Avenue, and Martin Cepiga, of 23 Elm Street. They will be arraigned this afternoon either before United States Commissioner Wilson, at the Federal Building, or Judge Rellstab, in the United States Court. The prisoners were turned over to the Government authorities by the police of the Second District, by whom the charges were preferred and the arrests made.”

It would appear rather than refuse to register and be arrested, those opposed just didn’t show up. The government had a response to this tactic.

“The registration being completed, the four district boards of the city are now making up the lists for posting in public places and for publication generally. This is for the purpose of having the names convenient for drafting and also so that they may be carefully scrutinized by residents of the city for the names of persons thought to be of military service age who failed to register. Cases of this character reported will be carefully investigated by the Government and the local secret service units. Arrests will follow in cases where persons known to be of the proper age failed to so declare themselves.”

In Ocean County, the citizens showed their support for the government, and according to the New Jersey Courier, “Ocean County was the first county in the state to get the returns in to Governor Edge of its complete registration. … There was not a disturbance in the county registration day. … Registration day was a quiet and business like affair in Ocean County. Parades and public meetings were held in most of the larger towns, but they only served to emphasize the main thought of the day, that the young men of the community were offering all that they had, their lives and their entire future, to the nation.”

Now that registration was completed, the Courier explained what would happen to those who had stepped forward.

“The methods of drafting have not yet been announced by the war department, but it has been hinted at as follows:

“Each registration district will be expected to supply a certain number, which will be based on the population. All the names will be placed in a jury wheel, it is expected, and the required number drawn haphazard. After this is done those drawn will have an opportunity to claim exemption because of having dependents to support, for physical disability or other reasons. A second drawing will be held to fill the places of those exempted and this will continue until the quota for each district is filled.”

During the period the government had flooded newspapers with stories about the draft, it had clamped down on reporting war news, and in the vacuum rumors began to spread across the country similar to the one published by the Altoona Tribune on June 7.

“Newspaper office telephones jingled and tingled with calls from Altoonans last night – the army of skeptics about the efficiency of the war censor increased – and windows were watched eagerly for bulletins when the canard about a big naval battle was again sprung in the city.

“Railroad men coming to the city brought the ‘news’ from Harrisburg, where it was said to be posted in an evening newspaper office window. The talk on the streets, in theatres, restaurants and offices was centered about the sea fight. The rumor, like all reports, gained in volume as it increased in momentum. First one American boat was lost – then two, and three, and four – but what’s the use?”

The story grew to a point where two days later Secretary of the Navy Adolphus Daniels issued a statement in the Official Bulletin.

“The country is being poisoned by rumors of battle and disaster that are absolutely without the slightest foundation in truth. Reports from the Commandants of naval districts, telegrams from newspapers, and letters from individuals have forced me to the conclusion that there is an organized conspiracy on foot to alarm and distress the people of the United States.

“Among the most persistent of these false reports is one that declares that a naval engagement has taken place between the German fleet and the combined fleets of England and the United States, and that in this battle 60 English and American ships were sunk or disabled, two of the number being the Pennsylvania and the Texas.”

Just how bad had the rumors gotten?

“In collaboration of this falsehood there is the added rumor that the hospitals at the various Atlantic Coast Naval yards are filled with crippled sailors and marines, and that the various hospitals of New York City are equally crowded with wounded men. By way of circumstantiality it is being rumored widely that a passenger arriving on one of the Holland-American lines steamers has stated that his vessel passed through the battle area after the engagement and that the sea was thick with floating bodies. All of these outrageous falsities are accompanied by the explanation that the Washington authorities are in a conspiracy with the press to keep the truth from the people.”

Daniels denounced the “fake news,” saying, “No such engagement has taken place. The American fleet has not been in action. No ship has been lost. There are no wounded sailors or marines in any hospital.

“The declared policy of the Navy Department is one of absolute openness. If disaster comes no effort will be made to minimize it. The people of the United States are asked to trust in this pledge and to aid in stamping out this campaign of rumor that is so plainly the product of disloyalty.”

The first days of June 1917 had added two new terms to popular language: A “slacker” was one who didn’t volunteer to fight, and “fake news” was something not approved by the Committee on Public Information.

Next Week: Hunting slackers.


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