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The Inglorious Fourth of 1917

By THOMAS P. FARNER | Jul 05, 2017

The Fourth of July is always celebrated with fireworks, but in 1917 when President Woodrow Wilson decided to crack down on dissent, the fireworks took place in the streets and courtrooms. Moorestown, N.J., Quaker Alice Paul, president of the National Woman’s Party, had organized picketing of the White House demanding that President Wilson stop blocking a constitutional amendment giving women the vote. After six months of silence and peaceful vigils, government authorities suddenly decided this was a distraction to the war effort and started making arrests.

But Paul and her followers wouldn’t back down. The Washington Times of July 3 stated, “Early this morning a delegation of militants called upon Major Pullman and requested a permit for a demonstration without interference from the police. They were told that such a request would have to be submitted in writing.

“The militants left the District building determined to march from Cameron House to the White House without a permit.

“Mrs. Abby Scott Baker, press representative of the Woman’s Party, said that twelve pickets would go to the Executive Mansion shortly after noon today for picket duty.”

The New York Times described the scene at the White House on Independence Day when the women “attempted to carry out their threat to defy the police and picket the White House in force promptly at noon as an Independence Day suffrage demonstration. Large forces of police were on hand and drove the sentinels away.

“Police ripped two (banners) out of the hands of the suffragists. Lucy Burns, one of the leaders, was the only woman to resist arrest. She battled with a policeman for possession of a banner she carried, and finally triumphantly wrenched the pole from his hands. The crowd yelled: ‘Send them over to the Kaiser.’ ‘They are idiots.’ ‘They have no sense.’ ‘They ought to be sent up for life.’

“During the shouting Simpson rushed forward and tore down a suffrage banner. Suffragists, headed by Mrs. Abby Scott Baker, loudly demanded his arrest, but the police only smiled and busied themselves rounding up the suffragists. A few moments later two automobiles arrived and, amid cheers by the suffragists and ‘boos’ and cat calls from the crowd, the first delegation of suffragists was carried away to police headquarters.”

The next day, “Thirteen woman suffragists, put on trial in Police Court here today on charges of disorderly conduct and unlawful assembly as a result of their demonstration before the White House yesterday, protested that they were celebrating the Fourth in peaceful and patriotic manner when stopped by the police. The trial will be resumed tomorrow, the women being released on their own recognizance.

Acting as their own counsel, the women exhibited in court the banner carried in the demonstration, bearing a quotation from the Declaration of Independence, and cited it as proof of their patriotic intent.

“Policemen called to testify were cross-examined rigidly by Mrs. Helena Hill Weed, one of the defendants. In the course of this procedure Mrs. Weed addressed Police Judge Mullowny, saying: ‘I am not a lawyer and am not certain as to what I may properly ask.’

“‘You are doing a whole lot better than most lawyers,’ encouraged the court.

“Miss Lucy Burns, another defendant, also acted as counsel. The women pleaded not guilty, and demanded separate trials, but this was refused.”

The New York Sun covered the judge’s verdict on July 6.

“Eleven of the thirteen suffragists arrested at their Fourth of July demonstration in front of the White House were tried to-day and the alternative of a $25 fine or three days in jail was given them. They chose to serve the three days.

“The police judge offered to take their personal bonds on promise to stay away from the White House, but they refused and were taken to jail.”

While in Washington the suffrage pickets sat in jail and Alice Paul planned her next move. In New York the Russian anarchists Emma Goldman and her co-defendant, Alexander Berkman, were facing more serious charges: conspiring to convince men to refuse to register for the draft.

In the words of the district attorney in his opening statement to the jury, “The Government will prove to your satisfaction that at 20 East 125 St., New York City each of them ran a publication there, Berkman’s known as THE BLAST, Miss Goldman’s as MOTHER EARTH; that both published a June number which we claim is highly offensive to law and order, and which we claim further was directly published for the purpose of procuring people willfully to set themselves above the provisions of the Draft Act of May 18th. We will show that these two people were at all times in active unison and accord; that they sent out through the mails and otherwise literature tending to the result of resisting by every means in their power the laws of the United States duly enacted by the representatives of the people.

“The Government will prove further that these people at public meetings have done their very best to inflame the populace to such an extent that it will defy the laws of the United States in every particular; but a violent attempt made by these two disturbers of law and order to induce people willfully to refuse to register …”

In an age before cell phones or recording devices, officers had written down Goldman’s words. On July 4, the Times reported, “Miss Goldman also tried to prove that she talks so fast, when on the rostrum, that it is almost impossible for the most expert of stenographers to record correctly what she says. Her purpose was to prove that a police record of a speech she made in the Bronx, the day before registration, was not a true report of what she said at the meeting.

“The report which caused the defendants to make every effort to discredit was made by William Randolph, a Police Department stenographer. The report which was submitted as a correct record of what Miss Goldman had said at the Hunts Point Palace meeting, on the evening before registration day, was read into the record of the trial by Assistant United States District Attorney Harold A. Content.

“In the course of her speech Miss Goldman said, according to the police report, that she would rather die the death of a lion than live the life of a dog, and that at this particular period in its history, the United States is more in need of ‘real democracy’ than is Germany. The President Miss Goldman said on that occasion, had been elected on the slogan, ‘he kept us out of war,’ and she added that as soon as re-elected he plunged the country into war.”

Then came what appeared to be a key moment in the trial.

“‘It is not our war,’ the report of the speech continued, ‘and we will not be conscripted. We will fight conscription with our every power. There will be so many people who refuse to register that there will not be jails enough to hold them. This Government will realize very soon what it is up against. I would die before I would register.’

“Randolph was the last Government witness. When the defense opened he was recalled and Miss Goldman and Berkman tried to prove that he was not an expert stenographer. Miss Goldman made Randolph take pencil and paper and then started to speak. She told him to take down what she said. She talked so fast that a watch showed she read off 100 words in half a minute. On a second test she read 125 words in 40 seconds, and on neither occasion was Randolph able to record everything that she read from the manuscript.”

The Burlington Free Press two days later suggested there might be some bigger issues involved in the defendants getting a fair trial. “For the second time since Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman, anarchists, have been on trial in the federal court here for conspiracy to obstruct operation of the selective draft law, several of their radical sympathizers were ejected from the court room to-day for refusing to stand when a military band played ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ in city hall park adjoining the federal building.

“All the persons in the court room arose except Miss Goldman and Berkman and five of their followers – two women and three men. Court attendants spotted the five offending spectators and escorted them to the street with little confusion. Officials paid no attention to the defendants.”

On July 9 the case went to the jury. The verdict was guilty. The judge then addressed the defendants, saying, “In the conduct of this case, the defendants have shown remarkable ability, an ability which might have been utilized for the great benefit of this country had they seen fit to employ themselves in behalf of this country rather than against it. In this country of ours, we regard as enemies those who advocate the abolition of our Government and those who counsel disobedience of our laws by those of minds less strong. American liberty was won by the forefathers, it was maintained by the civil war, and to-day there are thousands who have already gone, or are getting ready to go, to foreign lands to represent their country in the battle for liberty. For such as these, who would destroy our Government and nullify its laws, we have no place in our country. In the United States law is an imperishable thing, and in a case such as this I can but inflict the maximum sentence which is permitted by our laws.”

The Asbury Park Press continued, “In addition to the severe sentence Miss Goldman and Berkman are liable to be deported. Berkman is not a citizen, but Miss Goldman claims citizenship only on her father’s application.

“The jury deliberated 40 minutes, and as they filed into the court room it was expected, if their verdict was against the prisoners, a demonstration would be made by many Anarchists present. There was no disorder, however, and when Judge Mayer passed sentence the Anarchists appeared completely awed.

“Emma Goldman and Alexander Berkman started for prison in custody of Federal marshals in a few hours after the verdict had been returned.

“Berkman will be taken to the Federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Ga., and Miss Goldman will be taken to the state penitentiary at Jefferson City, Mo.”

Independence Day 1917 will never go down as a glorious fourth. But while Wilson had succeeded in silencing Goldman for the duration, Alice Paul would never give up, and the more she was attacked, the harder she would fight.

Next Week: Naming Camp Dix and silencing Alice Paul.


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