A sort of social bandit for the Prohibition era, Birger was born Shachna Itzik Birger to a Russian Jewish family that immigrated to the U.S.
Birger was a young saloon-keeper on the make when the U.S. decided to make a go of its first foolish drug war, Prohibition. And in the immortal tradition of drug wars, it made the enterprising purveyor a whole lot richer, and a whole lot violent-er.
This cinematic affair of armored car shootouts, aerial bombings, and gangland assassinations comes off with verve in A Knight of Another Sort: Prohibition Days and Charlie Birger. The bon vivant Birger, bursting with charisma, entertains at his gin joint, aids the misfortunate, corrupts the police, and merrily mobs up Williamson County.
That story reached its conclusion when Birger was arrested for ordering the murder of Joe Adams, mayor of a nearby town who had taken the Shelton Gang’s armored “tank” car in for repairs.
Birger said he hadn’t actually done that, but he went to the gallows grinning, and humorously chatted up reporters before the big show — cementing his myth with that legend-quality indifference to death.
“I’ve played the game and lost, but I’ll lose like a man,” Birger philosophized. “I’m convicted of a crime I didn’t commit, but I’ve committed a lot of crimes. So I guess things are even. We got too strong against the law, and the law broke it all up.” (From the Chicago Tribune, April 20, 1928.)
Birger shakes hands with so-called “humanitarian hangman”
by Phil Hanna.
Birger insisted on hanging in a black, not a white, hood — owing to his hatred of the Ku Klux Klan.
Birger is still a legend in southern Illinois, and a live one at that: he’s been in the news lately due to a weird custody fight over the rope used to hang him.
This macabre historical memento also happens to be the last rope ever used for any public execution in Illinois.
(Thanks to Robert Elder of Last Words of the Executed — the blog, and the book — for the guest post. This post originally appeared on the Last Words blog. Fans of this here site are highly likely to enjoy following Elder’s own pithy, almanac-style collection of last words on the scaffold. -ed.)
“It looks pretty dark, but if I have to, I guess I can take my medicine.”
-Morris Cohen, convicted of murder, Illinois. Executed October 13, 1933
A thirty-eight-year-old barber, Cohen got the electric chair for the murder of Officer Joseph Hastings during a robbery attempt at Chicago’s Navy Pier. A secondary headline in the Chicago Daily Tribune read “Record for Speedy Justice Is Set.” He had been executed less than two months after the crime.
Hanging has been the legal method of execution in the state of Illinois for 106 years, the first execution in the state being held at Belleville on September 3, 1821, when Timothy Bennett paid the penalty for murder resulting in a duel in which Timothy [sic -- the rest of the article refers to the victim as "Alphonso"] C. Stewart was killed.
According to the account appearing in an old history of St. Clair county, now in the state historical library, Timothy Bennett and Alphonso C. Stewart became involved in an argument while under the influence of liquor, on February 8, 1819, at Belleville. Friends interfered and sought to effect a reconciliation, but their efforts were unavail[ing]. Finally it was agreed to arrange a sham duel in the belief that the ridiculous issue would bring the two participants to their senses.
“The duel was arranged,” the account reads. “Jacob Short and Nathan Fike acted as seconds. When the word was given and the rifles discharged, it was proven the ‘sham’ duel was fought with powder and lead-at any rate Alphonso C. Stewart fell to the ground mortally wounded.
Special Session in Court
“Timothy Bennett was arrested and so were the seconds, Short and Fike. A special term of the circuit court was held March 8, 1919 [sic], under a special law of the legislature to hold said term. The officers of the court, John Reynolds, judge; John Hay, clerk, and W.A. Beard, sheriff, were all appointed by Governor Shadrack Bond.
“The grand jury found true bills of indictments for murder against Bennett and the two seconds after hearing the testimony of Reuben Anderson, James Parks, James Kincade, James Reed, Daniel Million, Ben Million, Peter Sprinkle and Michael Tannahill.
“When the case was called for trial the sheriff reported that Bennett had broken jail and was at large. Short and Fike had their trial in June 1819, and were acquited [sic].
“Bennett was captured and jailed about July 1, 1821. A special term of court was held July 26, 1821. The grand jury found a new indictment against him for the same offense
Trial Starts Immediately
“Bennett was put on trial July 27, 1821, before Judge Reynolds and a jury. The jury rendered a verdict July 28, and found the presoner [sic] guilty. He had entered a plea of not guilty.
“The court then proceeded to pass sentence upon him in the following words:
“And it being demanded of him if anything for himself he had or knew to say why the court should not proceed to pass sentence upon him, he said he had nothing more than he had before said. Therefore it was considered by the court that he be hanged by the neck until he is dead, and that the sheriff of the county do cause execution of this judgment to be done and performed on him, the said Timothy Bennett, on Monday, the third of September, next, between the hours of ten in the forenoon and four in the afternoon at or near the town of Belleville.”
“Neither Bennett nor his friends believed that this awful sentence would ever be executed. The latter made strenuous efforts to have him pardoned. Failing in this, they tried to have the sentence commuted. But the governor remained firm and against all entreaty.
“On the day appointed for his execution, Bennett was hanged near West Belleville, near the site of the Henry Raab school. The execution was witnessed by a multitude of men, women and children.
On this date in 1927, Illinois conducted a public triple hanging, actually among the last public hangings in the state’s history.*
Charlie Duschowski, Walter Stalesky, Charles Shader, Roberto Torrez, Gregario Rizo and Barnardo Roa had busted out of the old Collins Street Prison in Joliet, along with a seventh man named James Price. In the process, they killed Assistant Warden, and former policeman, Peter Klein.
This has dirty Chicago politics from the Prohibition era all over it.
The events angered much of the general public, but among Chicago Mexicans, the fugitives became heroes. Will County officials investigated allegations that Klein belonged to a parole-selling ring headed by Will Colvin, chairman of the Board of Pardons and Paroles. The newspapers also reported that Chicago police had arrested Klein for selling bootleg liquor while still warden and for allowing prisoners to leave the prison and commit robberies so they could raise money for paroles. (Source)
At any rate, six of the men — all but James Price — were recaptured and condemned to die.
However, friends and relatives of the “doomed” Mexican trio began smuggling in saw blades with their care packages, and by March 1927, Rizo and Roa were hard at work sawing through their bars while the songbird Torrez covered them by belting out La Paloma for days on end.
Roa made a clean getaway, but Rizo and Torrez were taken after a few days in a south Chicago shootout. Now the proposed gallows club was down to five.
Nothing daunted, the three white folk in the party attempted their own breakout by picking their cell lock — joined by Rizo, who would find that the third time was not the charm. Taking sheriff Alfred E. Markgraf hostage, they attempted to drive out of the jail yard: Rizo was shot dead in the resulting fusillade, but somehow Charles Shader managed to scramble away in the mayhem as his compatriots were being re-arrested.
So now, with Shader, Roa, and Price on the lam and Rizo on the ice, only three guys remained to hang.
Left to right: Duschowski, Stalesky, and Torrez.
Notwithstanding the abysmal retention percentage, the prospect of a public triple hanging was a tremendous draw — no less so for the elusive desperadoes’ talent for grabbing headlines afresh every few weeks. A raucous crowd pressed around a sizable detail of riflemen who had good reason to suspect one last bid for freedom. (In a failure of showmanship, that did not happen.) The widow of the original victim even petitioned to throw the trap to drop them. (Ditto.)
So nothing remained but to visit justice upon them.
But not only upon them.
According to the July 17, 1927 Chicago Tribune, the curiosity of the spectacle made it an irresistible lure to yet another fugitive. What was it about Illinois jails in the Roaring Twenties?
Lincoln, Ill., July 16. — (AP) Albert “Blackie” Logan, escaped prisoner from the Logan county jail, is under arrest again here today, awaiting trial for safecracking. Logan ventured from concealment to see the three murderers of Deputy Warden Peter Klein hanged at Joliet. He was recognized by the sheriff.
As for the three escapees:
Shader was recaptured and hanged on October 10, 1928. It was the last hanging in the state’s history.
Price made it to New York, where he eventually wound up in prison for robbery. Illinois got him back in 1937, gave him a long prison term, and eventually paroled the guy in the 1960s.
Roa made it to Mexico, dodged a couple of near-miss extradition attempts, and was never returned to the tender mercies of Illinois. His fate after 1948 (the last time he was arrested, and an extradition fell through) is unknown.
* They were also the first executed in July of 1927, which was important because July 1 was the date Illinois adopted a switch to the electric chair. The change was not retroactive to crimes before that date, however, so it was the gallows for these fellows and several others into the following year.
On this date in 1906, still implausibly claiming his innocence, “Johann Otto Hoch” was hanged for the murder of his wife.
Though Hoch died “merely” for that one homicide, he was suspected of numerous others in a prolific career of avaricious bigamy.
Born as Jacob Schmidt in Germany a half-century or so before he hanged, Hoch immigrated to the U.S. in the 1880s and started wife-hopping for fun and profit, recycling names almost as frequently. (Hoch just happens to be the alias he was using when arrested: actually, it was the name of one of his victims, “a warped keepsake stored in an evil mind.”)
It’s a classicscam, really: woo, wed, and walk out — taking the spurned spouse’s assets with. Rinse and repeat. In 1905, Charlotte Smith of the Women’s Rescue League estimated that “no less than 50,000 women who have been married, robbed and deserted by professional bigamists.” (Chicago Tribune, Sept. 5, 1905)
“Marriage was purely a business proposition to me,” Hoch eventually admitted.
Sometimes Hoch was content to vanish with the cash (with nice twists, like a hat left by a riverbank to suggest drowning). Other times, he went above and beyond the standard in the professional-bigamy industry and availed the expedient of loosing the matrimonial bonds (and the purses of life insurers) by graduating himself to widowhood.
Precisely how many women he poisoned off with arsenic isn’t known exactly, but it’s thought to range into the double digits. And when he was on his game, he was known to churn through the ladies at breakneck speed. His last murder victim, and the one he hanged for, was Marie Walcker of Chicago … but as Marie lay dying of her husband’s expert ministrations, Johann, bold as brass, proposed to Marie’s sister Amelia. Those two “lovebirds” married a week later and within hours, the groom had disappeared, pocking $1,250.
Call Amelia doltish if you will, but she went straight to the police. It turned out it was Hoch who recklessly set himself up for capture with this whirlwind double-dip courtship, and the very freshly buried evidence of his recent malignity was easily retrieved from his late ex’s stomach. When arrested in New York, Hoch had a hollow pen full of arsenic.
Naturally, the marriage proposals poured in as Hoch awaited trial early in 1905.
Hoch was actually within moments of hanging in July 1905 when his defense team finally managed to raise the last $500 necessary to lodge an appeal. That’s right: justice with a co-pay. The legislature had considered, but had not passed, a law giving every death-sentenced person the right to appeal to the Illinois Supreme Court, and in lieu of such a measure, an appellant had to pony up for the privilege.
In the late 19th and early 20th century, investigative techniques and jurisprudence marched double time to keep pace with new techniques — from photography to the unwieldy system of Bertillonage.
A variety of American institutions — the U.S. Army, a number of prison systems — had begun systematically cataloging their respective inmates’ fingerprints in the preceding years, but it was in the Jennings case that the system really earned its whorls. It was the first U.S. murder case pinned on fingerprint evidence.
Thomas Jennings, a paroled burglar, was arrested near the scene, and his fingerprints shown to match those left in the grieving Hiller household. A prosecution expert even gave a courtroom demonstration of dusting for prints.
This was as novel to judges as to jurymen, and given the dearth of other positive evidence against Jennings, the Illinois Supreme Court was called upon to deliberate upon the humble dactylogram. In the summer of 20111911, it stopped Jennings’ hanging just hours before it was to take place.
But its final word in December 20111911 only fitted the homebreaker’s noose.
We are disposed to hold from the evidence of the four witnesses who testified, and from the writings we have referred to on this subject, that there is a scientific basis for the system of fingerprint identification, and that the courts cannot refuse to take judicial cognizance of it …
Such evidence may or may not be of independent strength, but it is admissible, with other proof, as tending to make out a case. If inferences as to the identity of persons based on voice, the appearance or age are admissible, Why does not this record justify the admission of this fingerprint testimony under common law rules of evidence.
Courtrooms all around the world soon agreed, and within a generation the awesome investigative power of the fingerprint had fugitives going so far as to slice or burn off those incriminating little pads of flesh — the crime scene gold standard until the advent of DNA testing.
Jennings was hanged this date in a state-record five-man batch (the others, Ewald and Frank Shiblawski, Philip Sommerling, and Thomas Schultz, had all committed an unrelated murder together).
While there may be serious doubt about the wisdom of capital punishment it is at present imposed by the law of this State, and if it is to be applied in any case then it should be in this … Any man who will live off of the shame of a woman and beat her from time to time as he would a dog, and finally kill her, must expect to suffer the penalty of the law.
-Illinois Gov. John Altgeld denying clemency to George Painter (Jan. 25, 1894)
On this date in 1894, the Land of Lincoln bloodily botched (but ultimately accomplished) the hanging of George Painter.
Painter died for the sordid murder of prostitute-lover-income source Alice Martin.
Painter insisted he was out at the pub when Martin was throttled and bludgeoned to death in their mutual bed, but the timelines left the alibi leaky and a patch of bloody on the reprobate’s coat undid him.
Despite swearing his innocence on pains of being “condemned to a flaming hell for all eternity” and winning three gubernatorial reprieves as his appellate lawyers scrounged up sketchy supportive testimony from various lowlifes, matters were pretty solidly against him by the end. So much so that the seemingly-sturdy rope, “of the same coil with which the anarchists were hanged,” snapped jaggedly when Painter was dropped.
The condemned killer’s body carthwheeled from the jolt of the rope’s end, crashing headlong into the concrete floor. Doctors advised that Painter’s neck was broken and life gone or ebbing … and puzzled executioners, unsure what to do with this unusual semi-successful botch, hauled the hemorrhaging near-corpse back up the scaffold, strapped it up, and dropped it again. You can’t be too careful.
Although the subject of Loerzel’s book, the immigrant sausage-maker Adolph Luetgert, was not put to death for his trouble, we were thrilled that the author sat down with Executed Today to find out a little bit about how criminal justice looked in Chicago on the eve of the 20th century.
ET: One of the aspects that you cover in Alchemy of Bones that’s also present in the Painter case is circumstantial evidence of uncertain probative value. What’s a definitive piece of evidence to a late 19th-century juror?
RL: Obviously if we had a time machine and we could go back 100 years and reinvestigate some of these cases with today’s forensic science, I think we would find a lot of cases of miscarriages of justice. It’s hard to tell looking at these cases today when all you have is these newspaper articles and court transcripts. You can look at it with common sense and try to determine from what people are saying whether there might be some element of doubt.
Today there’s been this huge change with the introduction of DNA evidence and we’ve suddenly discovered that a huge number of people on death row or in prison who are innocent. And that has caused a lot of people to question the reliability of eyewitness testimony and the identification of suspects.
All these things — the testimony of witnesses who say they saw something or said, yeah, that’s the guy — that’s what people in the 19th century were being convicted on. We’re talking about an era when even fingerprints weren’t being used yet.
In the Luetgert case one of the key things was that they found some bone fragments. The Luetgert case is one of these rare murder cases where for all intents and purposes there was no body found. We have some of those cases still today where someone is missing; all the circumstances seem to point to the fact that someone is dead. And prosecutors and police face an additional hurdle — they have to persuade a court that a murder actually happened.
With those sorts of cases, you had some bones that were found. The forensic science of the time — you coudn’t run a DNA test on it. Part of the question was, were those bone fragments even human? Is it possible that pig bones or cow bones were found in a sausage factory? Of course it was possible.
The Luetgert trial was one of the first cases which had testimony from anthropologists, which was a pretty new field at the time. They brought in some experts from the Field Museum.
How did that go?
It wasn’t necessarily the greatest start — but it was sort of like the criminal justice system started to take some baby steps toward bringing science into the courtroom.
Later, in the 1920s or 30s, there was a landmark case called Frye. They still today have the Frye rule — when courts look at a witness to determine if he is an expert. In the Luetgert case, they didn’t do that, and it was kind of a carnival. A high school chemistry teacher was one of the people they put on the stand to testify about the bones.
Luetgert’s crime, murdering his wife and dissolving her or possibly stuffing her into the sausages, was so much more infamous than Painter’s. Why didn’t Luetgert get the death penalty?
Then as now, it was somewhat arbitrary which criminals would get the death penalty and which would get a prison sentence.
In Illinois during that era, there were a lot of people convicted of crimes and sent to prison for much less than a life sentence. They had a system there of “indeterminate sentence” where they would sentence someone to a wide range of possible terms, maybe from two years to 50 years; it was really flexible and vague with the idea that it was a more humane way of dealing with criminals.
It probably also put the thought in the minds of jurors that, do we want to put this guy in prison and he might be getting out in a few years?
In the Luetgert case, there was some outrage that if you were going to convict a person of this crime, you have to sentence him to death. Some people thought that they sentenced him to life in prison because, what if his wife is still alive? There were all these stories coming out at the time of the trial where people thought they had seen Mrs. Luetgert.
So there was the thought, what if we hang him and a year later, Mrs. Luetgert shows up?
None of the jurors ever came right out and said it, but it’s possible that that doubt played some role in the decision not to sentence him to death.
Luetgert’s case got national media attention which Painter’s did not. Was it a milestone for that kind of treatment? What was the media landscape for crime reporting at the time?
There were a few other cases during that era, so it’s hard for me to say that this was the first. But it was certainly an early example of a sort of 19th century equivalent of what we experience with, for instance, the O.J. Simpson trial.
Newspapers covered it in great depth. In Chicago they had a dozen newspapers at the time; they would print page after page of transcripts and reports — far more detailed than anything you see in trial coverage in newspapers now.
It actually looks like a lot of newspapers around the country did what we today call news aggregating. We complain about sites like the Huffington Post … well, a 19th century newspaper in a small town in Iowa would just publish a huge long excerpt of a story from a Chicago newspaper. And sometimes they would credit it and sometimes they wouldn’t.
Compared to present-day one- and two-paper cities, that’s still quite a difference.
There’s a lot of media out there now. If you look on the web, blogs, news aggregator sites, TV and radio. We still have a lot of media coverage now, it’s just spread out into a lot of different channels.
I was frankly shocked when I was researching how detailed some of the articles were. It helped me as a researcher. Interestingly, the readership included a lot of people who were not necessarily well-educated, yet newspapers wouldn’t hesitate to run page after page of transcripts. Nowadays, I think you’d have an editor saying, “give me 10 inches.”
Having written the book on the case, do you think Luetgert was rightly convicted?
I believe so. More than the forensic testimony, Adolph Luetgert’s behavior after his wife disappeared sort of points to a guilty conscience. He feared that certain people would go to the police and he either offered them jobs or threatened them.
Though this is precisely the sort of fuzzy circumstantial evidence those 19th century juries were acting on.
That’s absolutely true. In some of these cases you look at, what’s the difference between a man acting suspicious and an innocent man being wrongfully accused? There’s some overlap there.
On this date in 1892, Patrick Boyle was hanged in Edwardsville, Illinois.
Boyle was a hobo who, whilst off a-tramping with a fellow-vagrant outside Nameoki, Ill., robbed said vagrant by shooting him in the back.
The victim was in good enough shape after this attack to comply with Boyle’s directive to turn out his pockets (yielding 95 cents) and cough up his bindle (yielding a couple of shirts) … and still doing well enough after transacting the business end of the stickup to hike back to Nameoki as Boyle made his getaway.
Sadly for him, the wound (however non-debilitating) was discovered to be mortal, and he passed away. But of course, he was around long enough to incriminate Boyle.
It didn’t take long for the law to catch up with Boyle, although he escaped once and made it 35 miles in handcuffs before recapture.
(A body can get around in manacles when he’s properly motivated.)
Once firmly in custody, legal matters advanced with the dispatch customary to the poor: according to the St. Louis Republic, the case was called in the morning; “a jury was selected by noon”; “The case was given to them at 6 o’clock, and at 10 they brought in a verdict.”)
Boyle was considered somewhat feebleminded and some clemency petitions led Gov. Joseph Fifer* to grant a dramatic last-second stay prior to Boyle’s planned hanging Jan. 16. But the stay was only good for one week, to give his supporters enough time to make a then-unusual appeal to the Supreme Court. It didn’t work.
* Fifer is a bit (in)famous for having just the previous year pardoned killer Thomas Neill Cream, who used this unexpected liberty after his first murder to strike out across the pond and become one of England’s more notorious serial killers. On the other hand, Fifer couldn’t find any mercy for the surviving Haymarket men.
Where the rail splitter failed, fortune prevailed.
“A few days — or nights rather — before that set for his execution,” we read,
a friendly auger passed to him afforded the means of escape. Just then delays were dangerous to poor drunken Bill Weaver, for Sheriff Lewis had the rope and scaffold ready, so he did not await a farewell word from friends, but sped away to the North, as the winds go. At that time the tangled forests and the untramped prairies afforded unexcelled means for seclusion and escape, and the condemned man, once a mile from town, might well bid farewell to every fear of being caught and hanged, as he doubtless did. Years afterward Weaver was heard from in far Northern Wisconsin, a useful, law-abiding citizen. No effort was ever made to bring him back from his delicious exile.
On this date in 1918, German coalminer Robert Prager was lynched near Collinsville, Ill., for making disloyal utterances against the United States as his adoptive country entered World War I.
Basically the most visible and famed victim of patriotic anti-German bellicosity, Prager ironically is rather difficult to reconstruct as an unambiguous anti-war activist. After his mob execution, a baker would even come forward to say that he had been thrown in the clink when Prager accused him … of badmouthing a patriotic display. Prager himself had tried to enlist in the Navy and been rejected for medical reasons.
“Prager was, in fact, as loyal to the United States as any native-born citizen, and his innocence was attested to by many who knew him,” according to Donald Hickey in the summer 1969 Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society. “Two of the men with whom he boarded attested to Prager’s loyalty. One said that although Prager was a radical socialist, he had said he was ‘all for the United States’ when this country entered the war.”
But he was a socialist, and a German, and seems like the sort whom others might have found personally unpleasant. It is in the midst of a tiresome local dispute with a union leader (the union also rejected him) that Prager came to the unwelcome attention of the rabble: the union leadership accused him of being a spy, which led Prager to post handbills around town denouncing this lot for their scurrilous accusation. This obviously did him more harm than good and as the public conviction that Prager was disloyal took hold, it overran the halfhearted efforts of the town’s putative authorities to keep a semblance of order.
A mob on April 4 captured Prager at his home, paraded him, made him kiss the flag — momentarily rescued and hustled off to jail by police and a mayor who tried to talk the mob out of its design — then shanghaied from his “protective” custody cell and taken to the outskirts of Collinsville for hanging on a tree.
Eleven men stood trial for the affair over three weeks. Once the matter was finally rested with the jury, they were instantly acquitted.
There was wild applauding and cheers from ‘most everyone present. Relatives, friends and acquaintances rushed toward the bar to shake hands with the defendants. …
There was a peculiar coincidence at the trial Saturday. The Jackie Band was in Edwardsville for a patriotic demonstration.
When a shower of rain came up the musicians were sent to the court house where it had been arranged to give a program. At 2:40 o’clock judge Bernreuter ordered a recess after the completion of arguments and before reading the instructions.
Then word was sent that the band might play until court re-convened. The first number of all concerts is the Star Spangled Banner and it was played Saturday.
The strains from the Jackie Band caused tears to flow down the cheeks of Riegel. He was still crying when he returned to the court room.
As the jury came in with its verdict the band was at the head of a procession of draft boys and in passing the court house played “Over There.”
While Prager’s murder stands as the most emblematic event of anti-German intimidation during America’s months in the Great War, it was far from the only one: many others nearly as ugly stopped just this side of homicide. Papers were rife with reports of German immigrants being made to kiss the flag; clapped in jail for suspect utterances; of being menaced by mobs.
A number of federal lawmakers, as well as former presidents William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt, condemned the lynching, mostly in the familiar coded terms with which lynchings were opposed in those days: one would rather let justice take its course. Mob rule is itself disloyal. Etc. (See Hickey)
But the right-thinking potentates of the war party were also finding themselves relieved that a polity which had re-seated the current president on the slogan “he kept us out of war” would so pliably turn towards bellicosity. This charade so mechanically familiar in our time was still an arcane and uncertain art in America’s imperial adolescence.
“The recent lynching of a German in Illinois and violent outbreaks of the same character in other parts of the country,” intoned the Washington Post, “have awakened the Department of Justice to the need of a law which will enable government officers to prosecute pro-Germans rather than leave them to be dealt with by mob law.”
Oh. Danke very much.
An unsigned editorialist in the paper’s April 12 edition opined so nauseatingly brutal and specious that in another age it would have earned its author an immediate contract with Fox News:
The question whether or not the laxity of the laws against treasonable utterances has been responsible for the people’s acts in taking the law into their own hands has been much debated of late.
While sedition may have been encouraged to some extent because of the comparatively mild risks involved, it is quite probable that the pro-German intrigues would have been carried on if the risk had been greater. This suggests the thought that other reasons must be looked for to account for the general revulsion of public sentiment against the treason spreaders and the prompt punishment meted out to them in so many instances.
A plausible explanation is found in the fact that the open and ingenuous American mind had been fed up on German lies to the point where it broke out in fierce revolt. At the beginning of the war, and even after the entrance of America into it, there remaineddebatablepoints in many minds. Though of a minor nature and scarcely affecting the larger issue, these points were emphasized by enemy agencies which had been at work from the beginning. But as the truth has been laid bare the indignation of the people has grown stronger. The fact that the rounding-up process has been most vigorously conducted in the middle West tells its own story in this respect. It was that section which was slowest to wake up. There the enemy propaganda apparently worked with most success. So it is there that the people have arisen unitedly in their righteous wrath against the treason talkers.
The comparative absence of outbreaks of this character in the East is explainable on the same theory. In the East the public mind toward the war was much earlier divested of errors. Consequently the enemy agents were more wary in their utterances, not because of any greater stringency of the law, but because of their appreciation of the temper of the people.
In spite of excesses such as lynchings, it is a healthful and wholesome awakening in the interior part of the country. Enemy propaganda must be stopped, even if a few lynchings may occur. The people know what they want. They are not seeking to subvert law and order.
Other powerful institutions were not quite so sanguine as the Post: the lynching was discussed hours after it occurred in the U.S. cabinet, no doubt mindful that it was also being denounced in the German Reichstag. And indeed all concerned marshaled these animal spirits of the populace towards killing men by the thousands under the auspices of the state rather than singly by drunken small-town mobs.
Fears of German reprisals against American prisoners never seem to have materialized; neither is there any other documented lynching in the short course of America’s World War I involvement that was conducted on unambiguously “patriotic” grounds.
* Any number of other papers joined the Post in this campaign, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Chicago Tribune. A few weeks later, they got their wish — the Sedition Act, under which the Socialist Eugene Debs was arrested for speaking against the war.