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Just don’t call it a ‘rich man’s war’: Goodhue County loyalty trials of 1918

Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Frederick A. Scherf home, splattered with yellow paint, in reaction against Charles A. Lindbergh, Sr.'s speech, Red Wing, 1918.

Speaking out against U.S. involvement in World War I had its hazards for Minnesota citizens. In Goodhue County such talk resulted in imprisonment.

In April 1917, Americans rallied to support the United States’ decision to declare war on Germany and enter what became known as the First World War. Thousands rushed to enlist in the military. A wave of anti-German feeling also swept over the nation. German-Americans, along with socialists, pacifists and political radicals, came under suspicion of disloyalty.

This was true in Minnesota as well. Some leaders worried that the state’s large foreign-born population might not support involvement in the largely European conflict. As a result, the Minnesota legislature created the Commission of Public Safety (CPS) in April 1917. Legislators gave the commission great power to stop those who openly opposed the war effort. The CPS singled out people suspected of pro-German sympathies along with socialists and members of the Nonpartisan League (NPL), a pro-farmer group.

In Goodhue County, anti-German zealots took action against those they believed disloyal. At a mid-March 1918 Kenyon pro-war meeting, townspeople learned an organizer for the Nonpartisan League was in town. The crowd captured George Breidal, the NPL man, and made him kneel and kiss an American flag. They paraded Breidal to the railroad depot and put him on the next train out of town.

Charles A. Lindbergh, Sr., a Swedish-American and the Nonpartisan League candidate for governor, led a parade of 150 cars across western Goodhue County in spring 1918. The caravan faced heckling along the way. A Stanton Township crowd pelted Lindbergh with rotten eggs and hanged him in effigy. Cannon Falls’ authorities steered the NPL autos out of town, avoiding awaiting protestors. A Lindberg trip through Red Wing met with red paint-throwing citizens. A mob chased him across a field and onto a passing train.

Reports came in that yellow and red paint had been thrown on houses and businesses of suspect German-Americans throughout Goodhue County. Newspapers documented such attacks in Zumbrota, Cannon Falls, Red Wing and Goodhue but most such incidents did not receive publicity.

gilbert portrait
Courtesy of the Minnesota Historical Society
Joseph Gilbert in 1925

On March 14, 1918, a Goodhue County grand jury in Red Wing indicted Nonpartisan League leaders Joseph Gilbert and Louis Martin for violating the Minnesota Sedition Act of 1918 by making disloyal statements in Goodhue village and Kenyon. While they awaited trial, the grand jury charged another NPLer, N.S. Randall, for speaking out against the war. All three would be imprisoned for their actions.

In separate trials, Goodhue County juries convicted Gilbert, Martin and Randall. They found Randall had publicly criticized the draft, Gilbert told an audience the wealthy avoided military service, and Martin stated Germany counted on Germans in America to win the war. Jurors took just four minutes to find Gilbert, a prominent state and regional NPL leader, guilty. Following their trials, Gilbert and Martin were sentenced a year in jail plus a $500 fine. Their Nonpartisan League lawyers appealed.

On June 27, 1918, John C. Seebach, a sixty-year-old Red Wing miller, was convicted of saying it was a rich man’s war that the Germans would win. A judge sentenced him to eighteen months in Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary.

Joseph Gilbert’s appeal, meanwhile, reached the Minnesota Supreme Court in December 1918. World War I had ended in victory for the United States and its allies. With the war over, his defense hoped for a reversal. They didn’t get it.

The United States Supreme Court agreed to hear the appeal of Gilbert’s Goodhue County conviction. On December 13, 1920, the justices, by a 7-2 vote, found Minnesota’s Sedition Law constitutional and that Gilbert’s right to free speech had not been violated. Martin and Randall were more fortunate gaining retrials. They were never brought to court. In February 1920, President Woodrow Wilson commuted Seebach’s prison term but fined him $3,000.

Joseph Gilbert reported to Red Wing’s Goodhue County jail on February 5, 1921. Shelves were available for his books, and he had a small table for his portable typewriter. He began a year of reading and study behind bars. Supporters worked to get Gilbert a pardon. The Minneapolis Star printed petition blanks to be signed and mailed. The prisoner objected, saying that he had done nothing for which to be pardoned.

Upon his release a year later Gilbert was not bitter. He called his imprisonment “the height of nonsense.”

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