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Goodhue County Loyalty Trials of 1918

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Black and white photograph of Joseph Gilbert seated, 1925.

Portrait of Joseph Gilbert, 1925.

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 legislature created the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety (MCPS) in April 1917. Legislators gave the commission great power to stop those who openly opposed the war effort. The MCPS 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 Lindbergh 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.

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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Chrislock, Carl H. Ethnicity Challenged: The Upper Midwest Norwegian-American Experience in World War I. Northfield: Norwegian-American Historical Association, 1981.

———. The Progressive Era in Minnesota: 1899-1918. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1971.

———. Watchdog of Loyalty: The Minnesota Commission of Public Safety During World War I. St. Paul: Minnesota Historical Society Press, 1991.

Douthit, David. Nobody Owns Us: The Story of Joe Gilbert, Midwestern Rebel. Chicago: Cooperative League of the USA, 1948.

Gieske, Millard L. Minnesota Farmer-Laborism: The Third Party Alternative. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1979.

Gilbert v. State of Minnesota, argued November 10, 1920, decided December 13, 1920, (254 U.S. 325, 41 S.Ct. 125) http://www.soc.umn.edu/samaha/cases/gilbert_v_minnesota.html

Goodhue County in the World War. Red Wing, MN: Red Wing Printing Co., 1919.

Johnson, Frederick L. Goodhue County Minnesota: A Narrative History. Red Wing, MN: Goodhue County Historical Society, 2000.

Jenson, Carol A. "Loyalty as a Political Weapon: The 1918 Campaign in Minnesota." Minnesota History 43, no. 2 (Summer 1971): 42–57. http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/43/v43i02p042-057.pdf

Kennedy, David M. Over Here: The First World War and American Society. New York: Oxford University Press, 1980.

Larson, Bruce E. Lindbergh of Minnesota: A Political Biography. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, Inc. 1973.

Morlan, Robert L. Political Prairie Fire: The Nonpartisan League, 1915–1922. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1955.

———. "The Nonpartisan League and the Minnesota Campaign of 1918." Minnesota History 34, no. 6 (Summer 1955): 221–232.
http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/34/v34i06p221-232.pdf

Rippley, La Vern J. "Conflict in the Classroom: Anti-Germanism in Minnesota Schools, 1917–1919." Minnesota History 47, no. 5 (Spring 1981): 170–183. http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/47/v47i05p170-183.pdf

"Seebach is Convicted of Disloyal Utterances." Minneapolis Morning Tribune, June 28, 1918, 1.

"Seebach Denied New Trial." in City News in Concise Form, Minneapolis Morning Tribune, October 9, 1918, 8.

"Seebach Escapes Prison; Need Only Pay His Fine." Minneapolis Morning Tribune, February 18, 1920, 10.

Tighe, Ambrose. "The Legal Theory of the Minnesota 'Public Safety Commission.'" Minnesota Law Review 3 (December 1918): 10, 14.

Related Images

Black and white photograph of Joseph Gilbert seated, 1925.
Black and white photograph of Joseph Gilbert seated, 1925.
Black and white photograph of Frederick A. Scherf's home splattered with paint.
Black and white photograph of Frederick A. Scherf's home splattered with paint.
Black and white photograph of the Minnesota Home Guard and the Motor Corps, c. 1918
Black and white photograph of the Minnesota Home Guard and the Motor Corps, c. 1918

Turning Point

The May 18, 1918, conviction of prominent Nonpartisan League leader Joseph Gilbert for speaking out against the World War I sends a clear message to Minnesota war protesters. Free speech in the state during the war will be strictly limited.

Chronology

March 14, 1918

A Goodhue County grand jury in the county seat of Red Wing indicts Joseph Gilbert and Louis Martin for violating the Minnesota Sedition Act.

April 6, 1918

The United States declares war on Germany. Ten days later the Minnesota legislature organizes the Commission of Public Safety.

May 4, 1918

A Red Wing court sends N.S. Randall, a Nonpartisan League organizer, to prison for sedition.

May 10, 1918

Joseph Gilbert goes on trial in Red Wing charged with making statements against American involvement in World War I. He is convicted and sentenced to a year in jail and a $500 fine. Gilbert appeals.

June 23, 1918

Louis Martin is put on trial in Red Wing for making alleged seditious statements in a Kenyon barber shop. He is convicted and given a one-year sentence and a $500 fine, plus costs.

July 2, 1918

Sixty-year-old Oscar Seebach is convicted in Red Wing under the Espionage Act for saying "This is a rich man's war" and claiming Germany would win it. He is sentenced to eighteen months in Leavenworth Penitentiary.

December 1918

Minnesota's Supreme Court hears Joseph Gilbert's appeal of his May conviction in Red Wing. The court rules against him.

December 13, 1920

The United States Supreme Court upholds Gilbert's original conviction by a 7-2 vote.

February 5, 1921

Joseph Gilbert reports to the Goodhue County jail in Red Wing and begins his one-year sentence.