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Authors: Eric Burns

1920 (6 page)

BOOK: 1920
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The group's ruling elite, over the years, included such absurdly alliterative titles as Klokard, Kleagle, King Kleagle, Grand Dragon, Grand Goblin, Grand Cyclops, and Exalted Cyclops. In local units, the Klaliff might be the vice president, the Klokard the lecturer, the Kligrapp the secretary, the Klabee the treasurer, and the Kludd the chaplain. It is hard to imagine a young divinity student wanting to grow up to one day become a Kludd, but such apparently was the case.

When several of the local groups met, or when they joined one another in a national assembly, the gathering was, naturally, a Konklave.

In reality, though, the Klan was not in the least comical. Its various reigns of terror, spaced widely in time and place, may be loosely compared to latter-day outbreaks of the Inquisition—with one of the differences being that Klansmen hated more widely than did the religious zealots who began their reign of torment in the twelfth century. The Inquisition's target was heretical Roman Catholics. The Klan, meanwhile, hated not only Catholics, but Jews, Asians, African-Americans, and Europeans who were not from the non-Nordic countries of the north.

But like Bolshies and anarchists, they believed in the propaganda of the deed. They would ride across the countryside in the middle of the night and, stopping at the home of someone who had angered them, perhaps by nothing more than his very existence, perform the demonic act that had become their trademark, the burning of a cross on the lawn. Perhaps they would do no more for the time being; perhaps, though, they would go further, entering the house and shooting their foes or dragging them into the woods for lynching or the administering of other forms of torture that would have made Torquemada proud. Perhaps the torture would precede or be combined with the shooting or lynching. The Klan was an assortment of genocidal maniacs operating on a scale almost too small to be noticed and certainly too small to be effective in its grand aims. But it was large enough, in some parts of the country, to qualify as an association of mass murderers.

The Klan were considered possible suspects in the Wall Street eruption because, by 1920, they thought the United States had opened its doors too wide and indiscriminately to immigrants. They wanted the doors closed, bolted, chained, and were angry when legislators did not heed their demands. The explosion, then, according to this theory, was a message from Klansmen to the Establishment to keep America for Americans, and to define Americans only as the Klan did.

Federal officials didn't really believe that an incendiary device was something the Klan would employ, certainly not one set off in Manhattan; the group's modus operandi was to act against individuals, not to take on large institutions, and to wreak their terror in small towns or sparsely populated farm country, not major American cities. But all possibilities had to be considered; the group, then, was among those scrutinized by the BOI, however superficially.

It might have been the Klan that set off the bomb.

the United States didn't think so. Palmer believed the explosion was the work of the first two groups, which he tended to lump together into a single perilous mass; anarchists, he thought, were simply communists who had slid a step further down the scale of humanity, their methods more violent than those of communists and their beliefs similar—their membership rolls, in fact, probably including some of the same people. Further, Palmer had concluded that under the influence, if not the direct orders, of the dreaded Galleani, a batch of aliens had been responsible for a wave of bombings the previous year, a frightful introductory act.

In April 1919, a bomb sent through the mail exploded at the home of the mayor of Cleveland. Another device, similar in nature and also delivered by mail, damaged the residence of a Massachusetts state legislator. Attempts were made to kill judges in Pittsburgh, Boston, and New York, where the vestibule of the jurist's home was shattered. Neither he nor his family was injured; it is not even certain that anyone was at home. But such was the force of the blast that a young man approaching the house, apparently having after-hours business with the judge, was killed on the sidewalk. The only other injury in the series of April bombings was
suffered by a maid, who, in trying to open a package, had both of her hands blown off.

The United States, Palmer continued to insist, was under siege. A “blaze of revolution” was sweeping the country “like a prairie fire,” he stated, not toning down his language. He asked for $500,000 to investigate and combat radicals; Congress voted him the money as quickly as the ayes could be uttered. Further, writes Clifton Daniel, Palmer “announced that a plot existed to kill high officials and force recognition of the Soviet Union. Then, almost as if to prove it, a bomb blasted the front of [Palmer's] house on R Street in Washington.” It sounded “as if something had been thrown against the front door,” Palmer would later say; and it detonated, late at night, just as Theodore Roosevelt's married daughter, who lived across the street, was coming home from one of her nightly revels.

Alice [Roosevelt] Longworth in her capacity as ever present historian witnessed the midnight scene: “The pavement in front of the [Palmer] house was marred with glass and leaves—the front wall looked as if it might fetch loose at any moment,” she recalled. “Fortunately just before the explosion, the Palmers had gone to bed in the back part of the house. We went in to see Franklin and Eleanor, who lived just opposite. A leg lay in the path to the house next to theirs, another leg farther up the street. A head was on the roof of yet another house. As we walked across it was difficult to avoid stepping on bloody hunks of human being. The man had been torn apart, fairly blown to butcher's meat.”

No one ever knew who the man was, or what he was doing in such an upscale neighborhood so late at night. Some people guessed, not improbably, that he was the bomber, and an amateur in the role.

Two months later, with the Palmers again at home, another bomb exploded, once again on their porch. It was shortly after eleven on the night of June 2, 1919, almost bedtime, when, according to historian Robert K. Murray, “a terrific explosion demolished the front of his residence at
2132 R Street N.W. Windows in homes surrounding that of the attorney general's were blown in and startled neighbors rushed into the street to determine the cause. …

“Upon examination, it was discovered that the attorney general and his family were badly frightened but not harmed, and that the explosion had probably been premature. The bomb thrower evidently had stumbled on the stone steps leading up to the front door and had blown himself to bits with his own missile. Only fragments of his body and clothing were found, but enough to indicate that the bomb thrower was an Italian alien from Philadelphia.”

The clothing was a polka-dotted necktie, which enabled the man to be identified as Carlo Valdinoci. “This was a big loss to the anarchist movement,” Bill Bryson believes. “Though just twenty-four, Valdinoci had become a legend in the underground. Federal agents had recently tracked him to a house in West Virginia, but he had escaped just ahead of them, adding to his reputation for cunning and invincibility.” He would escape, however, no more.

Two bombs had now been directed at Palmer's house in two months. He, his wife, and their daughter were unharmed; still, the attorney general could be forgiven for wanting revenge.

But he didn't, having been brought up to rein in such impulses. He came from a family, in fact, that belonged to the Society of Friends, or Quakers, for which pacifism is a principal tenet. He and his wife and children frequently attended meeting, sometimes speaking up, sometimes just listening and reflecting, as is the way of such services. But however they responded, their devoutness was unquestioned.

It was for this reason that, in 1913, when Palmer was distinguishing himself as he served the third of three consecutive terms in Congress, he had turned down the position of secretary of war. “The more I think of it, the more impossible it becomes. I am a Quaker. As a Quaker war secretary,” he said, “I should consider myself a living illustration of a horrible incongruity.”

Nonetheless, Palmer was not a man to be bullied, nor to yield to opposition he deemed unjust, a threat to deeply held beliefs. He was known to his supporters as the Fighting Quaker. To his detractors, however, who
held his religion against him and believed it made him timid in times of crisis, he was the Quaking Fighter.

He looked more like the former. Palmer was a tall man, handsome, a little over six feet tall and capable of filling out his three-piece suits with an easy ruggedness. At this stage of life, his hair was beginning to gray; he wore it brushed neatly to the side in two modest waves. Photographs seem to show that he was more comfortable with a stern expression on his face than a grin, but friends described him as congenial, if almost always distracted, during these days of great tribulation.

seek revenge, not just for the attacks on his house, but, more important, for what seemed a growing challenge to his country and its leading citizens. Thoughts of the vexing incongruity between his faith and his duties continued to plague him but could no longer dictate his actions; he had taken an oath, and his first responsibility was to fulfill it, to serve and protect the United States as best he could. In this case, that meant taking the offensive.

Choosing the second anniversary of Russia's Bolshevik revolution, late in November 1919, as his date for striking, he “initiated the first of his major deportation raids,” Susan Gage tells us, “arresting more than a thousand members of the little-known Union of Russian Workers, an anarchist organization composed mainly of Russian immigrants. He justified the arrests as an antiterrorist measure … and a model for future action to contain the dynamite threat.”

Palmer hoped to be the Republican candidate for president in 1920. His attack on radicals would be all the talking points he needed, but he also required a slogan. Whether it was his idea or someone else's is not clear, but henceforth Palmer proclaimed that he was waging war on “the Great Red Scare.” It seemed to catch the public fancy.

The future action, the second of the two so-called “Palmer Raids,” came on January 2, 1920. With many Americans still feeling the high spirits, full stomachs, and pulsing headaches that followed New Year's hijinks, Palmer ordered the “most spectacular” of his forays yet against perceived enemies of the state, resulting in the most spectacular of headlines. According to one New York paper, the



New York Times
added these details:

Meetings wide open to the general public were roughly broken up. All persons present—citizens and aliens alike without discrimination—were arbitrarily taken into custody and searched as if they were burglars caught in the criminal act. Without warrants of arrest men were carried off to police stations and other temporary prisons, subjected there to the “third degree,” their statements written categorically into mimeographed question blanks, and they [were] required to swear to them regardless of their accuracy.

Many of those who wrote statements did not want to, refusing to confess guilt when they knew they were innocent. In that case, they were beaten until they changed their minds. When officials denied the beatings, Palmer's assistant, the young, pudgy, and ambitious J. Edgar Hoover, was asked to investigate. “I was sent up to New York later by Assistant Attorney-General Garvan,” Hoover said, “and reported back that there had been clear cases of brutality in the raids.”

The truth, however, at least according to some claims, was something far different. Bill Bryson reports that “some six thousand to ten thousand people (accounts vary widely) were arrested in at least seventy-eight cities in twenty-three states. Again, there was much needless destruction of property, arrests without warrants, and beating of innocent people. The Great Red Scare proved not to be so scary after all. In total, the authorities seized just three pistols and no explosives.”

Regardless of the truth, and there was a wide range of possibilities in which it could have resided, neither series of Palmer raids uncovered a criminal mastermind, a plot of coast-to-coast proportions, an arsenal of weaponry, or a massing army of anarchists preparing to strike. The
Palmer raids, which had started out so promisingly for their namesake, would in time prove the end of his presidential aspirations.

among several newspapers that supported Palmer's beliefs and actions. “There is no time to waste on hairsplitting over infringements of liberty,” it proclaimed. And, according to Robert K. Murray's assessment of popular opinion, neither was there time to waste on anything else concerning Palmer's second wave of assaults.

The January raids dazzled the public. The mass of Americans cheered the hunters from the sidelines while Attorney General Palmer once again was hailed as the savior of the nation. In view of the obvious abridgement of civil liberties which the raids entailed, such support can only be explained on the basis that the public mind was under the influence of a tremendous social delirium—a colossal fear which condoned monstrous procedures and acts. Against a background of three major fall strikes, the Centralia murders [a conflict between socialists and American Legion members in Centralia, Washington, on the first anniversary of Armistice Day], and exaggerated press and official claims, that fear seemed so real it was positively overpowering. Said the Washington
Evening Star
, “This is no mere scare, no phantom of heated imagination—it is cold, hard, plain fact.”

BOOK: 1920
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