Historically speaking ... from the Palmer Raids to the Bridgman Raid

prev
next

– PHOTO COURTESY OF THE STEREOSCOPE
 

The Trials of the Nascent American Communist Movement

by Patrick E. Mears, Partner, Barnes and Thornburg, LLP, with assistance from Stan Rubins*

This article is reprinted from the Winter 2010 issue of the Stereoscope, The Journal of the Historical Society of the United States District Court for the Western District of Michigan. It is used by permission of the author. Many thanks to James Mitchell of Varnum for original permission to use material from the Stereoscope.
“It is not William Z. Foster, Charles E. Ruthenberg, Rose Pastor Stokes and other communists who are on trial today in Michigan, but it is the state of Michigan itself that is in the dock and on trial before the nation and the world. If the idiotic and criminal ‘criminal syndicalist’ law enacted by political crooks to seal the lips of industrial slaves is allowed to prevail then the state of Michigan ought to be fenced off as a peonage plantation, and decent, self-respecting people warned to keep away under penalty of being gagged and locked up.”

– Eugene V. Debs,
The Liberator, May 1923

The Bridgman Raid
On Tuesday morning, August 22, 1922, on the shores of Lake Michigan, three-quarters of a mile from the village of Bridgman, George C. Bridgman, the sheriff of Berrien County and grandson of the village’s founder, 20 of his deputies, and 4 federal agents converged upon the Wulfskeel Resort, otherwise known as the “Forest House,” a summer resort consisting of five cottages and a main dining room built in the tree-shrouded sand dunes.1 This group of law enforcement officers raided the resort after gaining knowledge that the leadership of The Communist Party of America (“CPUSA”) was conducting an underground convention there.

This meeting had convened on August 17 without incident at the resort, which had hosted a similar convention of the CPUSA two years earlier.2 The resort’s owner rented his cottages to this group believing that its members were part of a “singing society.”3

Even though the prior convention had passed without trouble, the delegates to the 1922 event nevertheless were subject to a number of written restrictions, entitled the “Regulations of Grounds Committee.” Among these rules were the following:

1. No man can leave the grounds without the permission of the grounds committee. All persons leaving the grounds must register when leaving and report when returning.

* * *

3. Persons shall go bathing only before breakfast or after supper. All persons going in bathing must wear bathing suits.

4. No persons shall mingle with strangers.

5. No person shall be allowed to send messages or mail letters.

6. No incriminating literature or document shall be kept in baggage or in rooms. All such matter shall be turned over to the committee every
evening.

11. All persons are prohibited from throwing away papers or written matter of any kind. All written notes no longer desired must be handed to the committee for destruction.

12. No one shall disclose or ask for the legal name of any person present.4

Not only were the delegates subject to tight supervision when they arrived in Bridgman, but they also were sent on their train journeys not knowing their final destination. One delegate, Francis A. Morrow with the CPUSA alias of “Day” (of whom we will hear much more later), came from a party district encompassing Philadelphia; Washington, D.C.; and Wilmington, delaware. He travelled from his home in Camden, New Jersey to Cleveland, then on to Detroit, from whence he rode the rails to Grand Rapids and then finally to Bridgman. It was only in Grand Rapids that Morrow discovered his ultimate destination.5

This convention was called by the CPUSA as a result of the decision of the Communist International or “Comintern”6 to send representatives to the United States in order “to help [the CPUSA] in overcoming the still existing difficulties. [The Comintern] already had to contend with even greater difficulties than yours in some countries, and learned to overcome them.”7 The “difficulties” referred to in this March 30, 1922 letter from the Comintern to the CPUSA were the factional rivalries arising from the merger in 1921 of the two competing American Communist parties — the Communist Labor Party of America and the “old” Communist Party of America.

The Comintern representative dispatched to address the CPUSA was a professor of mathematics and a 50-something former Polish revolutionary and comrade-in-arms of Karl Radek8 and Rosa Luxemburg9 named H. Valetski whose party alias was “Brooks.” He was described by Benjamin Gitlow,10 one of the founders of the CPUSA, as “a rather aristocratic Polish intellectual who, notwithstanding his origin, looked like the American cartoonist’s idea of a Russian Bolshevik — hooked nose, disheveled mop of hair on hits head, an unkempt and unruly beard, looking rather ridiculous in the ill-fitting white linen suit that accentuated the angularity of his frame. But you could not help liking and respecting him, once you saw his eyes, sparkling with intelligence, wisdom, wit and sheer human charm.”11 Two other Comintern representatives accompanied Valetski on this mission. The first was Joseph Pogany, a member of the Hungarian Federation of the CPUSA. The other representative was Joseph Reinstein, an American who had entered Russia illegally during the 1917 revolutions and had remained there for years working in the Soviet Commissariat of Foreign Affairs under Georgy Vasilyevich Chicherin12 after Lenin’s seizure of power in the October Revolution.13 Reinstein also represented the Red International of Labor Unions, otherwise known as the “Profintern,” which had been formed in Moscow in 1921.14

The Bridgman underground convention had a number of items on its agenda. The opening session of the conference, which was conducted in a natural amphitheatre formed in the shape of a cup in the wooded dunes, was opened by the National Secretary of the CPUSA, Jay Lovestone.15 The first order of business was the address to the 45 district delegates, members of the Central Executive Committee of the CPUSA and editors of various party publications by Professor Valetski concerning party unity, which speech was made by him in German and translated by a delegate.16 Also on the agenda was an address by William Z. Foster of Chicago (party alias “Borden”) on his work in the Trade Union Educational League (“TUEL”), which was associated with the Profintern.17 The TUEL was organized in order to encourage left-wing activists in established unions to support the militant struggle for workers’ rights. Shortly before this convention, a new Central Executive Committee of the CPUSA had been elected, whose members included Charles E. Ruthenberg (party alias “Damon”), Jay Lovestone (party alias “Wheat”), and Benjamin Gitlow (party alias “Low”).18

The convention was briefly interrupted by the unexpected arrival at the Wulfskeel Resort of two plain-clothes federal agents, Jacob Spolansky and Edward Shanahan from the Chicago office of the U.S. Department of Justice. Spolansky and Shanahan previously discovered that this convention would be conducted by the CPUSA and determined to take action against the attendees acting in concert with Michigan law enforcement officers.19 On the morning of Sunday, August 20, Spolansky and Shanhan walked to the Wulfskeel Resort and came upon a crowd of people there.20 The two undercover agents asked Mrs. Wulfskeel whether there were any available rooms at the resort to rent.21 Having told them “no,” Mrs. Wulfskeel permitted them to drink water from a pump, whereupon the agents returned to Bridgman.22 The delegates, however, were alerted to potential danger by this visit and, after discussion, it was decided that the delegates should depart on Monday, August 21 rather than the next day, which was the final day of meetings.23 William Z. Foster was the first to leave, renting a cab to drive him back to Chicago.24 The order of departure thereafter was as follows: first, all foreigners and unnaturalized aliens would leave; next, all persons under indictment would depart; and last, all “citizens” could move out.25 Most delegates left the resort after 11:00 p.m. on Monday, August 21, under cover of darkness.26 In the morning, only 17 people remained at the resort, including Charles E. Ruthenberg, a member of the CPUSA Central Executive Committee; Francis A. Morrow; Bud Reynolds of the Carpenters Union in Detroit; Cyril Lampkin of Detroit; and Thomas O’Flaherty, a brother of the famed Irish author, Liam O’Flaherty.27 Those who escaped this dragnet included the three Comintern representatives, Earl Browder,28 Benjamin Gitlow, and Jay Lovestone; and three women delegates, Rose Pastor Stokes,29 Ella Reeve (“Mother”) Bloor,30 and Rebecca Sakaroff.

After arresting the 17 men, the deputy sheriffs searched the grounds for evidence, first finding at the amphitheatre a tin washtub in which a number of papers had been recently burned.31 Further searches uncovered two wooden sugar barrels buried in the sand and covered with roofing tiles and leaves, which barrels contained the individual portfolios of all of the attendees.32 These papers were taken into evidence, along with Ruthenberg’s personal copy of the Program and Constitution of the CPUSA confiscated from his suitcase.33 The sheriff, his deputies, and the federal agents then drove back to the city of St. Joseph with the prisoners in order to book them.34 The State of Michigan, with federal assistance, would thereafter try first William Z. Foster and then Charles E. Ruthenberg under the state’s recently enacted criminal syndicalism law.

To be continued in the Jan. 4 issue of the Grand Rapids Legal News.

Endnotes: Editor’s note: Some of these endnotes have been abridged, but they include references for further reading.

1Record in Ruthenberg v State of Michigan on appeal to the United States Supreme Court, pp. 5-6 (hereinafter cited as “Record”); N.Y. Times, August 23, 1922, p. 1, col. 7.

2Theodore Draper, The Roots of American Communism, p. 369, The Viking Press, Inc., New ork, New York (1954) (hereinafter cited as “Draper”).
3Id.

4Record, pp. 38-39.

5Record at p. 36; Draper at p. 38.

6The Comintern otherwise known as the “Communist International” or “Third International,” was founded by the Bolshevik Party in Moscow in ...1919. This was an
international communist organization controlled in large part by the Soviet Union, whose member[s] were scattered throughout the world. ... The Comintern was dissolved in 1943 [during] World War II. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comintern

7Draper at p. 363.

8Karl Radek, whose birth name was Karol Sobelsohn, was born [in] 1885, ... in the Austrian Hungarian Empire. He became involved in the Polish Social Democratic movement in 1904. He met Lenin in Switzerland before the October Revolution... In 1920 he was appointed as a secretary of the Comintern. During Stalin’s Great Purge in the 1930s, Radek was convicted of treason and was executed by the NKVD while in prison. Wikipedia, http//en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karl_Radek.

9Rosa Luxemburg was a Polish revolutionary who was born in 1871 ... in Russian-controlled Poland. She was a co-founder of the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland and for most of her adult life was its principal theoretician. In 1898, [in] Berlin, ... she became active in the left wing of the German Social Democratic Party [founding, during World War I] the left wing Spartacist League. After Kaiser Wilhelm II abdicated... in...1918, the League plotted to seize political power in Germany. [T]he League, along with other leftist parties, took armed action to seize power, but the uprising failed... [Luxemberg was] killed by the Freikorps on Jan. 15, 1919. Her mutilated body was thrown into the Landwehr Canal... German Communists have since commemorated [her] death every January 15. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rosa_Luxemburg; Stephen E. Bronner, Rosa Luxemburg: A Revolutionary for Our Times, Columbia Univ. Press, New York, 1987

10Benjamin Gitlow was a founder of the CPUSA who, in later life, metamorphasized into a militant anti-Communist. Born in 1891 in New Jersey, Gitlow was the son of a Jewish mother and father who had emigrated to American from Russia to escape religious and ethnic discrimination there. At age 18, Gitlow joined the Socialist Party of America... In ... 1919, Gitlow was arrested, along with Charles E. Ruthenberg, Isaac E. Ferguson, and James Larkin ... and charged with violating New York’s Criminal Anarchy Law of 1902... Gitlow was convicted in 1920 and spent two years in Sing Sing., [after which] he was employed by the CPUSA as a union organizer... In 1925, the United States Supreme Court upheld the guilty verdict rendered in 1920 against him... Gitlow v. New York, 268 U.S. 652 (1925). Gitlow thereafter ran for vice president of the United States as the nominee of the Workers’ Party... In the 1930s, Gitlow rejected radicalism and became a voluble anti-Communist. [H]is autobiography [was] entitled I Confess: The Truth About American Communism. In July 1965, Gitlow passed away in Compound, New York.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Benjamin_Gitlow.
11Draper, pp. 363-364.

12George Chicherin was a distant relative of Alexander Pushkin, the great Russian poet... [H]is father was a diplomat in the Tsar’s foreign service. After graduating from St. Petersburg University..., he gradually became radicalized. During the 1905 Revolution he was forced to flee Russia because of his anti-government activities and lived abroad until 1918, [when] he returned to Russia to work in the foreign office as Leon Trotsky’s deputy. ...[A]after Trotsky resigned, Chicherin was appointed commissar for foreign affairs, a post he held until 1930. ...

13Boris Reinstein was descried as “one of the chief mentors and guides of virtually every American communist who came to Moscow” in the 1920s. Draper, p. 149. ... Arthur Ransome wrote that Reinstein appeared as “a little old grandfather” who was “a prodigy of knowledge about the revolution” and tireless in helping Americans. Id.

14The Profintern was formed in Moscow in July, 1921 as an international body to coordinate Communist activities within trade unions. I twas dissolved in 1937.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Profintern.

15Jay Lovestone, born ... in 1897, in Lithuania..., emigrated with his parents to the United States in 1907, settling in Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Lovestone was a founder of the “old” Communist Party of America in 1919 and, in 1921, was appointed editor of the CPUSA newspaper, The Communist. In 1929, Lovestone was expelled from the CPUSA because of his support for Trotsky in his power struggle with Stalin over leadership of the USSR... Gradually, Lovestone redirected his energies into union activity, and, like Gitlow..., adopted the anti-Communist mantle. ... http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jay_Lovestone.

16Record, pp. 44-45

17... TUEL was established in Chicago in 1920 by William Z. Foster and other left-wing union activists. TUEL was utilized by the CPUSA and funded by the Comintern to infiltrate and control the American ... labor unions. www.answers.com/topic/trade-union-educational-league.

18Record, p. 37. 19Record, pp.19-20. 20Record, pp.19-20. 21Record, pp. 12-13. 22Record, pp. 12-13. 23Record, pp. 45-46. 24Record, p. 51. 25Record, p. 51.

26Record, p. 51.

27Liam O’Flaherty...was a prolific author, his most memorable work being his novel The Informer, ... made into a film in 1935 by his cousin and American film director, John Ford. Liam was a member of the Irish Communist Party for most of his life. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liam_
O%27Flaherty.

28Earl Russell Browder was born in Wichita, Kansas [in] 1892, and became a member of the Socialist Party of America in 1907. In 1920, Browder joined TUEL and was employed as the managing editor of its monthly magazine, The Labor Herald... In 1946, he was expelled from the CPUSA. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earl_Russell_Browner. See also Joseph R. Starobin, American Communism in Crisis: 1943-1957, Harvard University Press, Cambridge (1972)

29Rose Pastor Stokes was born in the small Jewish shtetl in Russian-controlled Poland in 1879, and .. emigrated to England... [then] moved to Cleveland ... In 1903, Rose married James Graham Phelps Stokes, a ... wealthy businessman who ... founded the Intercollegiate Socialist Society with Upton Sinclair, Jack London, and Clarence Darrow. Rose ... became a leader of the Socialist Party of America, an outspoken feminist, and militant labor organizer... http://en.wikipedia.
org/wiki/Rose_Pastor_Stokes

30Ella Reeve Bloor... was born in 1862 on Staten Island... [S]he was a co-founder of the Social Democratic Party in 1897 with Eugene V. Debs... In the early 1920s, she became a member of the CPUSA and was a member of its Central Committee 1932-1948.

31Record, p. 7. 32Record, p. 7. 33Record, p. 14.  34Record, p. 6.

*Stan Rubins was at the time of this writing a Cooley Law School student who emigrated from the collapsing Soviet Union in 1991 and who, Mears writes, “assisted me greatly in the preparation of this article.”