‘Twenty Years’ by Mary Heaton Vorse from The Liberator. Vol. 4 No. 1 January, 1921.

Charles Ashleigh.

Mary Heaton Vorse has lunch with Ralph Chaplin, George Hardy, and Bill Haywood, talks with George Adredytchine, Vincent St. John, and Sam Scarlett, among the thousands of wobblies arrested, as they face the hammer of U.S. state persecution of the I.W.W. in this classic piece of reporting.

‘Twenty Years’ by Mary Heaton Vorse from The Liberator. Vol. 4 No. 1 January, 1921.

RECENTLY in Chicago, after a meeting, I went to get a sandwich with a group of labor men. As I looked around the table, it came to me with a shock that I was the only person there, but one, who was not condemned to a long jail sentence. For all the people at the table were members of the Industrial Workers of the World convicted in the famous Chicago case.

Ralph Chaplin sat next to me. I had been talking only a few minutes before with his wife, a girl of extraordinary loveliness. She had not come out with us to supper because she had gone home to put her little boy of seven to bed. I had seen them standing all three together, only a half hour before.

Ralph Chaplin is a gifted idealist, a poet, as well as a man of action. His quality of uncompromising courage made me think of Jack Reed. It is upon such youth that the strength of a people is founded, men ready to suffer and with gifts to make people understand the beliefs which have stirred their hearts. And his wife is like him. It made you feel right with life to see them together. They face a 20-year sentence. Ralph Chaplin is to be put in jail because he belonged to an industrial union, a legal organization.

Ralph Chaplin.

Ralph Chaplin was Editor of “Solidarity.” And that is why he was given twenty years. It was a pretty bad crime for anyone to hold a red card. The talented ones were selected for 20-year sentences. Apparently Judge Landis could not bear that a man of attainments and gifts should belong to the organization of the I.W.W. Charles Ashleigh is another poet. What had he done? He had been an I.W.W. He has a sentence of five years. He was one of those against whose sentence even Captain Lanier of the Military Intelligence protested. One wonders if the Captain had ever read the poem by his distinguished relative, called “Jacquerie.” And so Charles Ashleigh is among those who are slated for Leavenworth, where he has already spent two years.

Opposite me sat George Hardy, the. General Executive Secretary. He was one of those who got off easy. He only got a year and he has already served his sentence. No one knew exactly why some got long sentences or why some got short ones. Bill Haywood, at the head of the table, as a matter of course was given the maximum sentence; that means a death sentence if it is carried out.

Since the beginning of the war between 3,500 and 4,000 members of the I W.W. had been persecuted simply because they belonged to that organization. There are more than one thousand I.W.W. members in prison today. Almost without exception these men are in prison for their opinions either for things that they said or for things that they wrote. One hundred sixty-six of these are Federal cases; 98 were convicted in Chicago, 37 in Sacramento, and 28 in Kansas City, Kansas.

These men were convicted of a “conspiracy to unlawfully and feloniously and by force prevent, hinder and delay the execution of certain laws of the United States, concerned with the government’s preparation for and prosecution of the war.”

George Hardy.

The next day I went down to I.W.W. Headquarters to find out more details about the cases. There is nothing harder in the world than to try to find out the cause of an I.W.W. sentence. The men do not know what it is that they are supposed to have done-except that they belonged to the organization.

Take the case of Vincent St. John, for instance. St John is an old-time miner, and for some years he was general executive secretary, and then he gave up his position and left the organization and went back to mining. For five years before the war he was engaged with his hole in the ground down in South Mexico. St. John is a man economical of words. It is certainly like mining to try to get speech from him; but after hewing away for an hour or so, I learned that the scrap of evidence that was brought against him was a list of people who would be possible secretaries in Haywood’s place should Haywood be arrested. St. John’s name figured in this list. He had not even been asked if he would accept the position. He had never seen the list. But because of this jotted memorandum that contained his name and because of the fact that five years before he had been secretary of the organization, he has been given ten years.

As I write these things, they do not seem credible. Yet they are so.

“My case isn’t so much,” St. John told me. “Clide Hough’s case is a lot worse than mine. After all I was arraigned. That is more than Hough was.”

Here is the incredible tale of Clide Hough. Hough is a fine young fellow of twenty-six, an American, a fighting wobbly. When registration day came, he with some other fellows paraded down to the county jail of Rockford, Ill., and gave themselves up, since they did not intend to register. He was sentenced to a year and a day in Bridewell, and while he was in jail, the famous alleged conspiracy of the I.W.W. took place. Bear this well in mind. Hough was in jail from Registration Day on. He was in jail when the Espionage Bill went through. He was in jail during the whole period in which members of the I.W.W. were supposed to have entered into a conspiracy against the United States to impede the draft. Yet they took him from the jail, brought him to Chicago, placed him on trial without arraignment and sentenced him to five years.

Clyde Hough.

Sam Scarlett was one of the 20-year men. There was no evidence that Scarlett had conspired, and he wasn’t an editor. But Sam Scarlett has had a hard time being an industrial unionist. He was one of the men held in the famous Mesaba Range case, held for murder as accessory after the fact, and kept in jail for I have forgotten how many months.

At the end of the trial when the judge asked Sam what his nationality was, Sam made the mistake of getting gay. He answered:

“I am a citizen of the world.”

“That will be about all,” said the judge. “Twenty years.” Andreytchine is another of the 20-year men. Andreytchine is a Bulgarian. He is a man in his early twenties, and with an education that far outstrips that of most university men in this country. He was opposed to Bulgaria’s alliance with Germany. But he was one of’ the dangerous intellectuals.  He edited the Bulgarian I.W.W. paper. When I see George Andreytchine I cannot realize it. I am so used to seeing him come in and out with his eager interest in things, always translating some article from some foreign paper, absorbed in an idea, full of enthusiasm. I cannot get it through my head that this sentence lies before him.

These cases are picked at random. They could be paralleled many times over. There are details connected with these Chicago cases which illuminates the attitude and methods of the Department of Justice. For instance, twenty-two people were indicted who during periods of from one to five years had had no connection with the I.W.W. The prosecutors just took the names of all the leaders and everybody who had ever been connected with the I.WW. periodicals, or who have held any executive position, and indicted them all. They did not take the trouble to find out if they were still with the organization.

Sam Scarlett.

They did not even take the trouble to find out if they are alive or dead. This is no rhetorical way of speaking. Murdered Frank Little, who had been taken from his bed and lynched in Seattle the summer before, was actually indicted for conspiracy.

If I am telling more about the Chicago cases than any of the others, it is because I happen to know more about them. It is not because the Sacramento cases and those of Kansas deserve less attention. Their lot was even harder, if possible, than those of the Chicago cases. For one year men were confined in Kansas without bail, in a jail of a scandalous reputation for filthy conditions. Men went insane in that jail. Among the Sacramento cases five men died. The doctor asked the release of a man dying of consumption. He died in jail.

The simple fact is that, when war came, the people who own things in this country seized on the war as a pretext to make a drive to break up the I.W.W. Their organizations have been raided. The police violence has merged on mob violence in the illegality of its action. I.W.W. locals and headquarters have been searched without warrant, papers have been illegally seized, furniture and property destroyed time after time. The story of the mob violence used against them is so dreadful a story that the full details are among the horrors that are only printed in private records.

Concerning all this welter of illegality one man had the courage to lift his voice in protest. This was Captain Alexander Sidney Lanier. He was a lawyer, who, as an officer in the Military Intelligence, studied the cases and came to the conclusion that, although he detested the I.W.W. and their works, it was his duty to write a letter to the President “to expose the grave injustice the record discloses.” He did this because he believed “that the indictment was fatally defective in that it does not give or convey to the defendants sufficient information of the nature and cause of the accusation against them.

Vincent St. John.

“That evidence is insufficient, on the whole, to show and establish beyond a reasonable doubt a conspiracy, as charged in the indictment.

“There was not,” he stated, “a scintilla of evidence against Charles Ashleigh, Leo Laukie and Vincent St. John,” and “they were absolutely innocent and wrongfully convicted.” And, finally, this man, whose class and training made him the enemy of the I.W.W., says:

“While I am of the opinion that these men were convicted contrary to the law and evidence, solely because they were leaders of a revolutionary organization against which public sentiment was justly incensed; and that the verdict rendered was a foregone conclusion from the beginning in obedience to a public hysteria and popular demand, due to the psychology of the times, I feel that the inclusion in the verdict and sentence of the three defendants above named was a gross miscarriage of justice and an outrage than every consideration of right and the peace and good order of society demand should be corrected.”

Things look dark. The Circuit Court of Appeals has refused a rehearing. All that now remains to be done is to carry the case before the Supreme Court by a writ of certiorari. Writs of certiorari are very seldom issued by the Supreme Court; it only does this in cases of great legal importance or of great public moment. It does not look as if there were a bright chance for the Supreme Court’s being persuaded of the need of doing this. So that, if a writ of a rehearing is refused and a writ of certiorari is denied, everything is over as far as the legal end goes. There is nothing to hope for then, but a pardon.

This persecution of the I.W.W. was no new thing. There had for years been a newspaper campaign of hatred against them, which had obscured them with such a haze of lies that the average citizen in this country knew less about them than about Voodoo. The average person in this country has no idea that they are first cousins to the industrial unions placidly pursuing their functions in every European country. Most people believe the I.W.W. to be an organization of malefactors who destroy property after they have got their hands on it.

For a long time I didn’t understand this hatred. The I.W.W. had a long distance philosophy which implied education and not violence as its principal weapon. The persecution seemed like the old witchcraft hysteria.

Many conservative craft unions were far more violent. Many such organizations had their “educational fund.” Everybody knew what that fund was for. Its purpose was to educate employers not to employ scabs, by means of sudden and violent destruction of property on which the scabs were engaged in working.

George Andreytchine.

Why was it that the I.W.W. was subject to merciless persecution rather than such organizations? After a time I began to see light. These “conventional” unions had no revolutionary program; they were merely out to eliminate abuses within the present scheme of things. The people in power in the United States have never been excited about crime and violence -they have been used to both and they used both. America is a violent country. Not even the thought of organized violence is very painful to this young republic with the West removed only by a short generation from the time when every man was his own policeman. You could do almost anything in this country and get away with it. You could murder and you could lynch. Why this outcry against an organization from employers who employ thugs and professional gunmen, until the I.W.W. becomes a national bug-a-boo? After a while I got at the root of the employers’ relentless fury. You may break any law in America with impunity. But there is an unwritten law you break at your peril. It is: Do not attack the profit system.

The I.W.W. was the first labor organization in this country with a clean-cut revolutionary program. It was out to eliminate the wage system. Its quaint idea was, and is still, though facts seem to disprove the theory, that this can be done simply by “building a new society within the shell of the old.” Already their building has been a bloody path punctuated with lynchings.

The employers could not stand intelligent, purposeful revolt. So the incomprehensible hatred of the I.W.W. was the instinctive gesture of the herd of owners. The herd of owners was being attacked. Whenever they heard the word I.W.W. their sensitive pocketbooks gave a jump.


When a new idea assaults the power of established authority, authority always screams out that morality has been affronted. It makes no difference if this idea is that the world is round or that women should vote or that the workers should control industry. It is because the I.W.W. believes that the workers should control industry that they are tucking away the leaders in jail for twenty years.

But it is not a sensible thing to do. There is a saying which goes: “When the young men see no visions the people perish.”

When a country imprisons men like Ralph Chaplin and George Andreytchine it has given an account of itself to history. It is the act of a panic-stricken and dying order.

The Liberator was published monthly from 1918, first established by Max Eastman and his sister Crystal Eastman continuing The Masses, was shut down by the US Government during World War One. Like The Masses, The Liberator contained some of the best radical journalism of its, or any, day. It combined political coverage with the arts, culture, and a commitment to revolutionary politics. Increasingly, The Liberator oriented to the Communist movement and by late 1922 was a de facto publication of the Party. In 1924, The Liberator merged with Labor Herald and Soviet Russia Pictorial into Workers Monthly. An essential magazine of the US left.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/culture/pubs/liberator/1921/01/v4n01-w34-jan-1921-liberator-hr.pdf

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s