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A Return to Justice: UM helps win pardons for 78 convicted of sedition
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Research View is published twice a year by the offices of the Vice President for Research and Development and University Relations at The University of Montana. Send questions, comments or suggestions to Rita Munzenrider, managing editor, 327 Brantly Hall, Missoula, MT 59812, or call (406) 243-4824. Production manager and designer is Cary Shimek. Contributing editors and writers are Patia Stephens, Shimek and Vince Devlin. The photographer is Todd Goodrich. For more information about UM research, call Judy Fredenberg in the Office of the Vice President for Research and Development at (406) 243-6670.
It was World War I and patriotic fervor was running high when, on April 13, 1918, a mob of some 25 people appeared at the doorstep of Herman Bausch, a pacifist and farmer near Billings.
While his wife watched with their baby in her arms, the mob strung a rope over the limb of an apple tree and threatened to lynch Bausch. His crime? Refusing to buy Liberty Bonds supporting the war efforts.
The family was forcibly taken to town, where Bausch was held, interrogated and physically threatened by the growing mob, then arrested. The words he spoke during the altercation were cited in his arrest and subsequent trial:
“I do not care anything about the red, white and blue,” Bausch allegedly said. “I won’t do anything voluntarily to aid this war; I don’t care who wins this war. ... We should never have entered this war and this war should be stopped immediately and peace declared.”
On May 4, 1918, Herman Bausch was convicted of sedition and sentenced to four to eight years at Montana State Prison in Deer Lodge. He ended up serving 28 months. He was one of 79 Montanans convicted that year and the next for voicing their opposition to the war.
The Montana Sedition Act of 1918 – strictest in the nation – had made criticism of America, its leaders, its policies or its flag a crime punishable by fines of up to $20,000 and 10 to 20 years in prison.
Eighty-eight years later, on May 3, 2006, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer pardoned Bausch and 74 of the other convicted men and three women at a ceremony at the state Capitol in Helena. (One person already had been pardoned in 1921.) The 78 posthumous pardons were the first ever issued in Montana.
Some 40 descendants of those pardoned were on hand for the ceremony, as were a UM faculty member and students who initiated the Montana Sedition Project. The pardoning attracted widespread national media attention, including articles in the New York Times and the Washington Post.
The effort began with UM Professor Clem Work, author of the 2005 book “Darkest Before Dawn: Sedition and Free Speech in the American West” (University of New Mexico Press). Work had researched his book in archives around the country, especially those of the Montana Historical Society. A quiet, thoughtful man who directs the School of Journalism’s graduate studies program, Work never expected his scholarly tome to cause so much hoopla. But at a reading last October at Missoula’s Fact and Fiction bookstore, he was asked by an audience member, “What’s next?”
He responded, somewhat fancifully, “In my box of dreams – I hope someday these people will be exonerated.”
Those words were enough to light a fire under another audience member, UM law Adjunct Assistant Professor Jeff Renz. Together, Renz and Work cooked up a “pardon project,” setting a small group of journalism and law students to work researching state law and genealogy and tracking down family members. Information about the project can be found online at http://www.seditionproject.net.
Gov. Schweitzer had read “Darkest Before Dawn” and welcomed the pardoning petition. He had grown up hearing how, during the same wartime hysteria, his immigrant grandparents’ pastor had been forbidden to preach in their native German.
The ceremony, designed “from the heart” by Work, included reading of the names of each pardoned person by students who worked on the project. Next, a grandson of Herman Bausch, Drew Briner, read excerpts from the unpublished prison memoirs of his grandfather:
“I am opposed to war,” Bausch wrote, explaining his refusal to buy war bonds. “All war, I think, is aggressive and oppressive – but if Wall Street plutocrats insist upon further bloodshed, why then, let them also finance it. … I will not contribute to continuation of this world calamity.”
Not all those convicted of sedition were as articulate or principled as Bausch. Many were crass, vulgar and drunk. Nonetheless, their words should have been protected as free speech under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
At the ceremony, Briner read of Bausch’s agony at being on a prison work crew when his toddler son, Walter, fell ill and died:
“While my own flesh and blood was being lowered seven feet into the bowels of the earth, I was standing in the mire, also seven feet beneath where the grasses grow, shoveling mud and stagnant waters, paying for the crimes I had not committed against the laws of God and man.”
Most of those convicted of sedition were first- or second-generation German or Austrian immigrants. Enforcement of the sedition laws was capricious and often motivated by xenophobia, revenge or jealousy. Several accusations were made by those who coveted their neighbor’s land.
According to local legend, one woman convicted of sedition, a black homesteader in Two Dot, sold her land to her prosecutor in order to pay her $200 fine and avoid jail.
Research by Work, Renz and their students discovered families that fell apart under the stress of having a family member imprisoned.
Other families buried the memory beneath generations of secrecy and shame. People came to the pardoning ceremony from across the country to see their ancestors vindicated.
Some also came to see their families reunited. Marie Van Middlesworth, an 89-year-old daughter of a convicted man, traveled from Medford, Ore., to meet her nieces and nephews for the first time.
Van Middlesworth and her 11 siblings were split up when their father, Fay Rumsey, was imprisoned. The homestead was lost and the children were sent to orphanages or farmed out to other families.
Work, his eyes misty, says finding the families and seeing them reunited has been the most rewarding part of his sedition research. The work of locating families continues via a network of genealogy volunteers and Web sites.
“Shame is just a psychological thing, but whole families were torn apart,” he said. “Generations later they’re still finding each other.”
Bausch wrote of mourning the death of his son, the loss of years, money and crops, and “the tears and anguish of my wife, her rude awakening from idyllic regions of beauty and innocence.
“I shall start out afresh to plant and build upon the ruins of the past,” he wrote. “My hopes are modified but not diminished. I have not lost faith in the good, the holy and the true. But I have found that contest in battle must precede all true progress, all enlightenment, and in that spirit I shall strive and labor onward.
“I end this with a prayer for the early establishment of world peace, for a greater humanity, a greater love among men.”