Meet Lotta Burke, Cincinnati Firebrand

She never met a radical cause she couldn’t get behind.

Back in the 1950s, the Cincinnati Public Library ran a program called Memory Ink, recording the stories of local senior citizens. According to The Cincinnati Post [April 11, 1956], one of the most active participants was Miss Lotta Burke, aged 86, described as “an early fighter for women’s rights in Cincinnati.” While true, that summary doesn’t begin to cover the range of her lifelong activism.

At the age of 86, Lotta Burke shared her memories with the Memory Ink project at the public library.

Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

It appears that the Memory Ink tapes and transcripts have been lost. That’s a pity. It would be fascinating to hear Burke’s memories. She was a suffragist, a socialist, a communist, a pacifist, a labor organizer, a campaigner against prostitution, a candidate for Board of Education, a supporter of Irish independence, and even, if one charge was correct, a bootlegger.

Lotta Burke was born in the autumn of 1869 in Cincinnati. Her parents, Milo and Bridget, were Irish immigrants; Milo was a laborer, Bridget a tailor. Lotta was the youngest of four daughters, and all the Burke women were seamstresses at one time or another. Lotta was sometimes a dressmaker, sometimes a stenographer, and sometimes sold household supplies. But she was always agitating for social justice.

Early meetings of the Susan B. Anthony Club and the Twentieth Century Club, two pioneering suffragist organizations in Cincinnati, list Burke not only as a member, but as an officer and a featured speaker. She was also corresponding secretary of the Cincinnati branch of the Socialist Party and a key speaker at their mass rallies. Through her Socialist activities, she befriended James Connolly, Irish nationalist and avowed Socialist who was executed for his part in the 1916 Easter uprising.

Every year at Cincinnati’s Labor Day parades, Lotta Burke had some role, mostly through her activity in the Women’s Union Label League, which promoted “equal pay for equal work, regardless of sex.” Although she never garnered enough votes to win, Burke ran as a socialist candidate for the Board of Education in 1913 and 1915. She told Memory Ink:

“In every strike that was called from 1908 to 1917, I was called upon to help.”

Lotta Burke was arrested for sedition in 1917 for printing and distributing leaflets advising young men to avoid the military draft during World War I. She was eventually exonerated.

Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

The advent of World War I brought Burke to national prominence in her efforts against the military draft. The Socialist Party was the only major political party opposed to U.S. involvement in the European war. The Socialists really were a major party in 1917, with 30 legislators representing 12 states and more than 1,000 municipal officials throughout the country. In Cincinnati, the Socialist candidate for mayor, Thomas Hammerschmidt, pulled almost 12 percent of the vote.

Cleveland Socialists staged a rally on May 20, 1917, to oppose the new Selective Service regulations. Burke attended the rally and brought home a flyer, which she took to a printer, ordering several hundred copies in preparation for a Cincinnati rally against the draft.

On June 1, 1917, as 11 Socialists were distributing the anti-draft leaflets in Clifton Heights, they were arrested by federal agents and charged with treason. Within a couple of days, Burke and Hammerschmidt were also arrested. The trial of the Cincinnati 13 dragged on for seven years, eventually reaching the U.S. Supreme Court, where charges were dismissed on what amounted to a technicality. Realizing that a charge of treason would not stick, federal officials had changed the accusation to “conspiracy to defraud.” After a trial and an appeal in which prosecutors demonstrated that the accused were quite open about their intentions, it was obvious there was no intent to defraud. Chief Justice William Howard Taft, according to Steven Wright’s review of the case in Queen City Heritage [Winter 1988], summarized the dismissal:

“Taft believed that it was unacceptable to include within the legal definition of ‘conspiracy to defraud’ a mere open defiance of the governmental purpose to enforce a law. Because the defendants did not utilize deceitful, dishonest, or crafty means to influence people to disobey a law, they could not legally be indicted with conspiracy to defraud.”

Even while on trial for sedition, Burke ramped up her radicalism by helping to organize an office of the Communist Labor Party in Cincinnati. That effort dragged her into the spotlight again when members of local American Legion Robert E. Bentley Post broke into the Vine Street Communist offices on November 18, 1919, demolished all the furniture and carried piles of literature into a bonfire in the middle of the street.

Burke filed suit, asking for $50,000 in damages from the American Legion. It was difficult seating a jury because so many potential jurors were veterans of the recent war and almost all were members of the American Legion. Finding a neutral venue was equally difficult, because so many judges were Legion members. Burke didn’t help herself as she blithely admitted commitment to the Bolshevik cause. According to The Cincinnati Post [June 4, 1920]:

“Lotta Burke, leader of the Communists, asserted she accepted ‘the call’ for union with the Bolsheviks of Russia.”

When the trial finally got underway, defense attorney Edward Colston argued, according to The Post [May 20, 1920], that radical conspiracy negated any damages:

“Colston argued the Communist Party was engaged in a criminal conspiracy to overthrow the government of the United States and that any property used in the furtherance of such a conspiracy has no standing in law. Since such property has no standing in law, those who owned it can not legally claim they suffered damages.”

In 1925, Burke was convicted of possessing a still to manufacture liquor at the height of Prohibition. The still, or parts of a still, were confiscated from a Socialist bookstore she managed on 15th Street in Over-the-Rhine. Burke claimed the equipment entered as evidence was, in fact, a water system from a friend’s river camp, dropped off at her store for safe-keeping. And the alcohol the revenuers found? That was an experimental cosmetic potion she was working on. The court didn’t buy it.

For the next 30 years, Lotta Burke’s politics didn’t raise many eyebrows. She was a regular at St. Patrick’s Day dinners and with the Hamilton County Old Age Pension Society. She died in December 1960 and is buried in St. John Cemetery in St. Bernard.

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