No anarchists were in 1908 Santa Rosa, but it seemed like they were under rocks everywhere else in America that spring as new incidents of terrorism kept roiling through the headlines. If you read the Press Democrat along with one of the San Francisco newspapers, here’s what you knew:
The terror spree began late February in Denver, when an anarchist gunned down a Catholic priest during mass. A few days later, it was reported nationwide that “Denver police are working on theory of a plot,” in part because a witness saw “two foreigners, apparently Italians, at the church, one of whom pointed out the clergyman.” Police discovered that the Italian killer was part of a gang of forty anarchists who had recently come to America, and men in six other cities were part of the plot.
On the very same day as the priest’s funeral, a young man rang the doorbell of George Shippy, Chicago’s chief of police. Shippy was immediately suspicious; the mayor had just banned famed anarchist Emma Goldman from speaking in Chicago, and authorities expected retaliation. The police chief grabbed the visitor and ordered his wife to search for weapons. A scuffle resulted and the chief’s adult son and chauffeur raced into the room. Shots were fired, and the son and driver were wounded. The visitor was struck by six bullets and soon died. Police quickly linked him to an anarchist group and a plot to also assassinate the mayor and captain of the detective bureau.
Rumors flew that the attacks on the Denver priest and Chicago police chief were part of a single conspiracy. In the weeks that followed, police were posted at Catholic churches in Chicago and elsewhere, and police chiefs in several cities received death threats.
The Secretary of Commerce and Labor directed immigration inspectors to work with local police to round up and deport suspected anarchists, a move applauded by newspapers nationwide. The Washington Post went furthest and called for “the scum of foreign countries” to be executed. The government suppressed an anarchist newspaper and President Roosevelt personally ordered the postmaster general to ban another publication from the U.S. mails. Teddy denounced anarchists as “the enemies of mankind” and their philosophy “an offense far more infamous than that of ordinary murder.”
At the end of March came the worst violence yet, as a card-carrying anarchist tried to throw a bomb into a crowd of policemen who were maintaining order in New York’s Union Square following a “desperate socialistic riot.” The explosive went off in the bomb-maker’s hands instead, maiming him fatally and killing a bystander. Identified as a “Williamsburg Anarchist” (a section of Brooklyn said to be a hotbed for socialists and anarchists), the police searched his rooms and found letters from famed anarchists Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman. To many, this was proof of a wide-reaching terror conspiracy against the United States.
Those were the facts as you believed them from reading the newspapers available in Santa Rosa, March, 1908. But here’s the believe-it-or-not twist: By the end of the month, every single actual link to the anarchist movement was proven false.
|The man who murdered the Denver priest said in a rambling first statement – translated from Italian, since he spoke no English – that he killed the Catholic priest because he really, really, hated Catholic priests: “I have grudge against all priests in general…my only regret is that I couldn’t have shot a whole bunch of priests in the church.” He told authorities that if he hadn’t been apprehended he was intending to visit four other churches and kill the priests there. Was he an anarchist? In another statement, he explained his political views were guided by the elderly shoemaker whom he had served as an apprentice in Sicily: “I had been inclined to anarchy, but I never understood its teachings thoroughly.” The reporter also noted “his talk is not coherent and he is evidently inventing stories as he goes along–stories that do not fit together.”|
|In Chicago, the coroner found that police chief Shippy had killed his would-be assassin in self defense. The jury heard no testimony that the deceased was an anarchist, despite stories that had appeared in the press describing in great detail his role in a conspiracy (San Francisco Call headline: “CHICAGO REDS IN BIG MURDER PLOT”). Shippy said he had premonitions that someone would try to kill him, and testified that he was suspicious of the man because he thought he saw the bulge of a weapon under his coat, and “he looked to me like an anarchist…there was overspread his face the most vindictive look I ever saw upon a human countenance.” (According to the New York Times’ coverage, another reason for suspicion was because “[he] apparently had dressed himself for death. He wore black clothes and overcoat, a new hat, and clean linen, all of fairly good quality.”) No evidence was presented that the bullets that wounded Shippy’s son and driver were shot by the visitor and not Shippy himself, firing wildly. The reason for the visit remains a mystery today, but the best explanation was that Lazarus Averbuch, a Russian Jew, was planning to return to his homeland and wanted to ask the chief of police for a letter stating that he was not a criminal, as was the custom when leaving a European city. Chief Shippy did not return to his position and resigned two months later. He died in 1911 from syphilis, the final stage of which can result in hallucinations and paranoia.|
|The Union Square bomber was not connected to the demonstration earlier that day, when mounted police had brutally suppressed a crowd of up to 25,000 who had gathered to protest the desperate unemployment situation. (Because of the 1907 bank panic, unemployment in New York state had reached 36 percent, with 200,000 estimated to be out of work in New York City alone.) The bomber instead was a 19 year-old Russian immigrant who had lived in the U.S. most of his life and who had a grudge against police because he had been recently clubbed by an officer. “The police are no good,” he said before he died of his wounds a month later. “I hate them. I am sorry that I did not make good…It was the police that I wanted.” The incriminating letters found in his apartment from anarchist leaders turned out to be mimeographed fund-raising appeals.|
But not many knew that the anarchy conspiracy was bunk; few papers at the time ever published followup articles to correct errors, no matter how whopping. The public was left with the assumption that a dangerous cabal of murderous anarchists was plotting an ongoing campaign of terror. In truth, by 1908 the winds of anarchism had mostly blown through in America, with only six newsletters nationwide – and one of them lasting only a single issue. Of that dwindly group of true believers, only a tiny sliver still advocated violence as a means to an end. No one was deported under the Secretary of Commerce and Labor’s anarchy crackdown edict.
In those days the Press Democrat didn’t offer much coverage of national news events except for a paragraph or so on the front page; for the attacks blamed on anarchists, the PD offered four short items, an op/ed reprinted from another paper and the three inflammatory editorial cartoons shown here. No updates corrected the wildly inaccurate earlier stories, but again, that was typical. Readers nationwide were left with the muddled impression that anarchists, certain immigrants, organized labor, and anti-clerical fanatics all fit under the same umbrella of “Reds.” Most dishonest of all was trying to also wedge in the large Socialist Party – the PD’s wire story about the Union Square unemployment protest called it a “desperate socialistic riot…of the anarchists,” for example. The main threat the Party posed was to the Democratic/Republican status quo, as over 420,000 ballots were cast later that year for the Socialist presidential candidate, about three percent of the popular vote.
If scholars wanted to pinpoint the beginning of the Red Scare that consumed the remainder of the American 20th century, March 1908 would be a good choice. (This was also the year that there were fears that Japan was planning to invade.) The country was so riven with fear of anarchist bogeymen that the Indiana town of Wawaka (pop. 800) received a letter demanding $750 or the whole town would be blown up. The letter was signed “Anarchists.” Unbelievably, this obvious prank was taken seriously.
Make no mistake: The phony anarchist scare was entirely the fault of yellow journalism and not an actual threat. Nor was it a scheme by the government, police, church, or politicians to demonize the “Reds,” although each of these groups made stuff up or repeated rumor as fact. But at the same time, those organizations benefited by channeling the public’s fear into more popular support for violent police suppression of protest and free speech by reformers. And that in turn generated more headlines about the lurking Red Menace. A classic analysis of this period, “The Search for Order,” sums up how the country became more divided as a result:
“Straws in the wind appeared everywhere around 1908. Critics who had only grumbled about national reform earlier now cried “socialism” and “communism.’ Organized labor received particularly heavy abuse, with each hint of violence reported as the first gun of civil war…the various organizations that brought unionists and businessmen together for conversation and adjustment were dying from disuse. In grays rather than purples, the atmosphere surrounding labor relations darkened a bit year by year.”
RECOMMENDED FOR FURTHER READING
America, 1908 by Jim Rasenberger
The Anarchist Scare of 1908 by Robert J. Goldstein
The Search for Order, 1877-1920 by Robert H. Wiebe