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Same plot, different props: Radicalization then and now

Let’s use some of what we’ve learned in the last century to foil both the plot and the props. 

El Paso funeral
Friends and family gather for the visitation of Juan Velazquez five days after the mass shooting at a Walmart store in El Paso, Texas.
REUTERS/Callaghan O'Hare

Information from a number of sources indicates that on Sept. 5, the Catholics of St. Paul will — at the direction of the Pope himself — rise up and attack and kill all of the Protestants in the Capitol city.

Fortunately, that prediction was for Sept. 5, 1893, so you can relax.

The source was Walter Teller Post, a 26-year-old railroad clerk who had recently emigrated to St. Paul from Holland, Michigan, as well as fellow members of the American Protective Association (A.P.A.).  

The source of that source is “Bring Warm Clothes,” a history of Minnesota as told through personal letters and photos compiled by former Star Tribune reporter Peg Meier.

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The number of mass shootings we are experiencing is unprecedented, but as Post’s letter reminds us, paranoia-fueled prejudice has been with us for a very long time. In a letter dated April 1893, Post notified his parents that he had just joined the A.P.A, which he described as:

a secret society of no political party but who are sworn to vote for no Catholic to any office what ever, to employ no Catholic when a Protestant can be got, also enter in no agreement with a catholic to strike, we swear to denounce Roman Catholicism, and the Pope. It is not even known but few out side of the society that there is such a society in the city and members are sworn not to tell the names of any member. we work in secret, as we are not strong enough to make an effect at the next municipal election. do not mention this out side of the family.

He then described to his parents how the Catholics had locked up control of the entire local government, including the schools, in order to carry out their diabolical plan:

The fifth of next Sept. has been fixed by the Pope in his Encyclical letter as the time when all Catholics will be absolved from the oath of Alegiance to the U.S. and then they are to fall on the Protestants and will be doing God[‘s] service by killing them right here in this city they are drilling and have arms and ammunition stores in the cellars of their churches, these are facts. the A.P.A. have had detectives watching them and several things have occurred to confirm their suspicions. one was a mysterious explosion in a Catholic store.

Fortunately, Walter Post survived both the fictitious Catholic insurrection and his A.P.A membership, and went on to live a normal life. He married, bought a house, had a son. He eventually lost his job with the Northern Pacific after it was purchased by James J. Hill (whom Post described as “the wage earners worst enemy.”) He lived the rest of his life in South Bend, Indiana, and died in 1930.

Dr. Craig Bowron
Dr. Craig Bowron
We can laugh about the buffoonery of it now, because it didn’t happen. Post was not radicalized in any way we might understand the term in 2019, and from what we know, all he ever spilled in this epic religious battle was ink, not blood. 

He was not radicalized because in 1893, if one’s thinking was way out in left field, it was very difficult to find other left fielders who might attempt to validate and perhaps elevate these paranoid delusions. Bizarre and wholly (or in this case holy) illogical conspiracy theories are like a nuclear chain reaction: They require a critical mass of particles (flawed thinking particles, or in this case, people) in close enough proximity to sustain a reaction. 

Post was literate, but even so, his late 19th-century options for connecting with like-minded people were almost entirely word of mouth, and almost entirely local. And it’s difficult to organize and grow a secret society in secret. Whereas, with just a few key strokes, Walter T. Post circa 2019 could easily tap into a hidden-in-plain-view national or global network of similarly deranged people, wherein his odd thoughts and simmering hatred could be nurtured and stoked.

Even if Post’s railroad typewriter could have been somehow magically hotwired to give him high speed internet, he would have lacked access to a weapon that could cause mass casualties. He couldn’t have rented a room at a hotel and shower concert-goers with 1,100 rounds of high-velocity ammunition in 10 minutes, as the Las Vegas shooter did. He couldn’t have killed nine people in 30 seconds, as the Dayton shooter did. 

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Times and technology have changed, but certain aspects of human nature haven’t. How ironic it is that in an age of unprecedented knowledge, of nearly endless data and information, modern humans remain incredibly vulnerable to a “good” convincing story — one that plays to our suspicions, our preconceived notions, our localized world view; one that stirs our most primal emotions of fear, anxiety, and distrust of the unfamiliar. We might walk into a firing squad if it smelled like cinnamon rolls and coffee. The story was that good

We love a story so much that, if need be, we’ll start with a story and work backwards to the facts. Walter Post was willing to do that. In a June 1893 letter to his parents he wrote, 

I was out at Uncle Ned’s [St. Anthony Park] yesterday after noon and had quite an argument with him on the Catholic question. he thinks about as you do that is he don’t believe in it. but I do not see any reason not to believe in it when all the evidence [from the crack detectives at the A.P.A. no less] goes to show it. and the only reason the join with the protestants on the temperance question is just as a policy of theirs to blind and fool the protestants.

One of the most powerful aspects of Meier’s “Bring Warm Clothes” is that we are allowed to see these Minnesotans most private, honest thoughts — our real selves; rather than a highly spun, on-message message that’s read off a teleprompter and aims to describe what we’d like to be. Or what we’d like the audience to think we are. 

106 years later, it’s the same plot but with drastically different props: URLs and AR-15s. Let’s use some of what we’ve learned in the last century to foil both the plot and the props. 

Craig Bowron is a physician and writer in St. Paul. 

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