The Night the American Legion Rioted in Cincinnati

What’s a little post-WWI anti-Communist hysteria among friends?

As the echoes of World War I artillery faded, the U.S. confronted a new threat from Russian Bolshevism. Anything that suggested unconformity seemed to insinuate Bolshevik influence, from the new jazz dances to laxative preparations. Here’s an excerpt from an advertisement [February 19, 1919] for Nujol, a laxative developed by the Standard Oil Company:

“Are you a Bolshevik? Bolshevism is based upon violence, relies upon force, is deaf to right or reason. To force the bowels to move by taking castor oil, pills, salts, mineral waters, etc., is to outrage nature and ‘Bolshevik’ the body.”

Charged with destruction of property in the American Legion raid on the offices of the Communist Labor Party, attorney (later Judge) Gilbert Bettman testified that Bolshevism meant the “socialization of women” as if they were another form of property.

Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

In this atmosphere, anything that looked like Bolshevism was labeled anti-American. A top target was unionized labor, particularly the International Workers of the World (I.W.W.), nicknamed the “Wobblies.” A group of Cincinnati businessmen announced in January 1919 that they would join a nationwide effort to stamp out Bolshevism, because any attack on business was an attack on America itself.

It was in this environment that Lotta Burke, a union organizer in the clothing industry, opened an office for the Communist Labor Party at 1314 Vine Street. Burke was fighting charges that she and other members of Cincinnati’s Socialist Party had interfered with the draft of soldiers to fight in World War I. Those charges would eventually be dismissed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1924.

Cincinnati’s Communist Labor Party membership could not have been very large. Estimates reported by the newspapers range from around 100 to 600 card-carrying members, but the lower figure is probably closer to the truth. The Communists couldn’t even afford their own office, instead renting a desk in the office of the Machinists Union. Still, the very existence of that desk enraged the newly civilianized soldiers who had endured combat “over there.”

On November 18, 1919, members of the Bentley Post of the American Legion met to discuss the arrival of Communism in the Queen City. Legionnaire A.N. Cooper, a clerk at the First National Bank, according to the next day’s Cincinnati Post, stood up and asked for volunteers to “clean out a place where there was stored some damnable I.W.W. literature.”

On the morning after the riot, the offices of the Communist Labor Party (and their landlords, the Machinists’ Union) were in shambles. Front windows were smashed. Pictured are A.N. Cooper, a bank clerk who instigated the riot, and J. Paxton Hill, holding an American flag seized in the attack. The flag was returned to the Machinists’ Union.

Image extracted from microfilm by Greg Hand

Three hundred veterans leapt to their feet and marched up Vine Street to the Communist office. It was after hours, so the door was of course locked. The legionnaires lifted men up to the second floor to open windows, and they discovered printed copies of “An Open Letter to President Wilson” by Socialist attorney and novelist Joseph Sharts, tracts by Vladimir Lenin, and stacks of pamphlets. According to The Post:

“These were thrown into the street, where they were piled up and set on fire. Citizens of the neighborhood joined in the proceedings and saw to it that no pamphlet was left unburned. The police arrived, and, after being told what was up, helped keep the fire burning, according to the raiders.”

Cincinnati Mayor John Galvin was furious. He denounced the riot and said it was worse than a lynch mob.

“A mob is a mob. I don’t care who composed it. As long as I am mayor of Cincinnati, mob rule will not be tolerated.”

Safety Director John R. Holmes launched an investigation into why the police failed to stop the attack and neglected to arrest any of the perpetrators. He threatened disciplinary action if he discovered that police participated in the destruction.

It was all talk. Even though dozens of American Legion members openly claimed responsibility, no one was charged with anything. In January 1920, Burke filed a civil lawsuit against 48 members of the American Legion, seeking $50,000 in damages.

In their response, the Legion proudly took full responsibility for the riot and destruction of property, especially the literature. They claimed, however, that all of the property was being used in a criminal conspiracy against the U.S. Constitution and therefore had no standing in law.

It was difficult to find a judge to hear the case. The only sitting judge who was not a member of the American Legion was Frank Gusweiler, and he reluctantly agreed to oversee the trial. It was even harder to find a jury. Not only were many prospective jurors members of the Legion, even more openly expressed prejudice against any kind of Socialist, Communist, or radical organization.

Once the trial began, Lotta Burke candidly agreed that the Communist Labor Party sought “fundamental changes in the political and industrial systems” of the United States that would “revolutionize both the governmental structure and industry.”

Legion witnesses did not deny that they’d broken into the Communist Labor Party offices or that they’d destroyed furniture and equipment while looking for the offensive literature they burned in the street. Instead, almost all legion testimony focused on the evils of Communism and Bolshevism. As far as the Legion was concerned, Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky were on trial in a Cincinnati courtroom.

One of the defendants, attorney Gilbert Bettman, spent hours describing how the Bolsheviks confiscated private property, assassinated elected representatives, and consolidated power in a dictatorship that destroyed society. Bettman, who would later serve on the Ohio Supreme Court in the 1940s, testified:

“And do you also understand that communism also means the socialization of women? In my opinion, communism would break down the moral fiber of the people. There would be no individual homes, and that would mean the breaking down of home life which would lead ultimately to the socialization of women. That would be bound to happen under communism.”

After more than a week of testimony, the jury deliberated just 38 minutes before voting unanimously to dismiss the case against the American Legion. Judge Gusweiler told the court:

“Law and order must be maintained. Yet, where property is destroyed or damaged under the circumstances indicating that it is being used in the furtherance of a criminal conspiracy to bring about a subversion and downfall by violence of our country or state, the owners cannot complain or recover in damages.”

The Communist Labor Party didn’t have the funds to pay court costs, much less to appeal. The little one-desk office remained vacant.

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