Reds in America - Richard M. Whitney

Present Status of the Bridgman Cases

After a number of delays and postponements the first of the cases arising out of the Bridgman raid, that of William Z. Foster, was called at St. Joseph, Michigan, March 12, 1923. Nearly the first week was devoted to securing a jury. The trial ended on April 6th. After being out a little over 31 hours, the foreman advised the court it would be impossible to arrive at a decision and the jury was discharged. It had stood six to six from the first ballot.

The second case, that of Charles E. Ruthenberg, was called for trial April 16th. Less time was required to secure a jury and less time, in the trial of the case. The jury after being out for a few hours returned a verdict of guilty. The defendant filed notice of an appeal and pending decision of the Supreme Court, was admitted to bail. The main contention upon which appeal was based was that the criminal syndicalist law of Michigan, under which Ruthenberg was found guilty, is unconstitutional. Up to this time, (February 1st, 1924) the Supreme Court has not handed down its decision.

The question has often been asked "Why was conviction secured in the case of Ruthenberg and not in the case of Foster?"

The State probably had the weakest case against Foster than it did against any of the defendants. In the first place, Foster was not arrested on the ground but was arrested later in his Chicago offices. He insisted then, and on the witness stand, that he was not a member of the Communist party and Ruthenberg, who was on the stand as a witness in Foster's defense, swore Foster was not a member of that organization. It was shown by evidence that while Foster was at the Bridgman convention held by the State to have been an illegal gathering under the law, and took part in the proceedings by making an address, he left the convention before the adoption of the resolution which the State largely depended upon to show the character and purpose of the meeting.

To understand the contentions of the prosecution, the following from the open statement of Hon. O.L. Smith, assistant attorney general for Michigan who headed the State's counsel is apropos. Mr. Smith said:

"That the members of the jury may have clearly in mind at the outset of this case, the fact issues involved in the prosecution, I desire to make a statement, as short as possible, of the facts upon which the prosecution will ask the conviction of the defendant, William Z. Foster. I wish to call attention to the statute under which this prosecution is brought. Criminal syndicalism is defined as the doctrine which advocates crime, sabotage, violence or other unlawful methods of terrorism as a means of accomplishing industrial or political reforms. Advocacy of this doctrine is the crime prohibited by the statute. Under the statute it is our contention that this prohibited doctrine may be advocated:

"First, by word of mouth or writing;

"Second, by printing, publishing, editing, knowingly circulating, books, papers, documents or written matter in any form containing and advocating the prohibited doctrine;

"Fourth; by organizing, helping to organize, become a member of, or voluntarily assembling with, any society, group or assemblage of persons formed to teach and advocate the prohibited doctrine.

"It is under the fourth mentioned of advocacy of this prohibited illegal doctrine, that the defendant William Z. Foster, is charged with violating the Michigan law."

The defense took the position and brought evidence to sustain that position, that Foster, was not a member of the Communist party of America which taught the proscribed doctrine; that he was not a delegate to this convention; that he was there as an invited guest and to make an address; and that the reason for his accepting the invitation and making the address was to secure the support of the gathering for his magazine Labor Herald. Further, that Foster's whole work was in the interest of the working people; that he had been recognized as an able leader of the wage-earners, and to sustain this, considerable stress was laid on the fact that he headed the organization of the steel workers for the American Federation of Labor and was put in charge of the activities of that organization when the strike was called.

Again, the State up to the taking of testimony, was deceived as to the probable nature of the defense. For some weeks previous to the calling of the case, the defense had taken a large number of depositions throughout the country, all of which were to sustain the allegation that the raid and finding of the illegal and incriminating documents was a "frame-up" on the part of the government and private detective agencies. Much publicity was given to all these depositions. However, when the case was called, no such depositions were offered in evidence, and the defence based its whole case on the grounds that Foster was not a member of the Communist party that even if he was, the Communist party was not an illegal organization but was merely a group of people who believed in carrying government ownership to its ultimate conclusion, that is, the "socialization" of all industries. The defense took special care to leave the impression that in the "socialization"' process, the lands of the small farmers were not to be involved. This was done because a majority on the jury were farmers. The defense laid great stress on the fact that the prosecution was only "persecution of a well known labor leader." The contention, no doubt, had great weight with a number of the jurors.

Then again there was a woman on the jury. This is not to question the honesty or integrity of this woman juror but she was evidently more or less emotional. Her sympathies were successfully aroused. She was made to believe that Foster was a high-minded person, working at great personal sacrifice, to aid the "struggling masses." From her training, her environment, her surroundings, her innate honesty of purpose, she was unable to grasp from the mass of testimony that Foster was heading a great conspiracy against civilization and Christianity. Because of her high-mindedness, she was wholly incapable of grasping the fact that here could be such a conspiracy.

The prosecution was not as well versed in communism, its purposes, methods plans and ideas, as was the defense. This enabled the defense, often skillfully, to steer shy of dangerous grounds and avoid the injection of dangerous utterances. The ratheT verbose and weighty language employed by the average communist writer went over the heads of a large number of the jurors. One must not overlook the fact that the jury was composed of twelve honest, sincere, loyal persons whose contact with the world had not been sufficiently extensive to enable them to grasp the seriousness of the plans proposed by Communism. Being honest themselves, being loyal and patriotic, they could not be made to understand the utter dishonesty and disloyalty of those who were guiding the destinies of the Communist party and all of its allied movements.

In view of these facts, that there was a "hung jury" in the Foster case, is not surprising. It had not progressed two days in the taking of testimony, until it was the unanimous belief at the press table that a "hung jury" would result.

With but a week intervening the case of Charles E. Ruthenberg was called. Here the evidence was stronger for the prosecution. Ruthenberg was arrested on the grounds. He admitted he was not only a member but an official of the Communist party of America, and while he disclaimed any purpose to change the government by "force, violence and acts of terrorism" he clearly indicated by his rather frank method of testifying, that he believed a "revolution" would be necessary to establish communism.

The jury composed largely of farmers was a most intelligent body of men. They were alert; were not swayed by emotions and were ready to render their decision on the facts as they gained them from the evidence, and in accord with the law as laid down by the judge.

In the Ruthenberg case the State was acquainted with the character of the defense. It had found the weak points of the defense in the Foster trial, and through more complete examination of the documents secured in the raid, was able to present this incriminating evidence in a manner which was more intelligible to the jury. As stated, the result was a conviction of Ruthenberg after a few hours.

In both cases the State was ably represented by Hon. O.L. Smith, Assistant Attorney General; Charles W. Gore, Country Prosecuting Attorney; Charles Bookwalter, Assistant County Prosecuting Attorney, and Max Burger, a government expert on the doctrines of Communism, and whose knowledge of this subject was a material aid to the State. Credit should also be given to the government agents who took part in the raid and were called as witnesses for the State. Special credit should go to Frank Morrow, known as "K 97," whose cleverness enabled him to become an accredited delegate to this Convention and who was able to convey information to the government that the meeting was to occur. The raid and prosecutions followed.