Sunday, June 21, 2009

Middleborough's "Red Scare", 1919-20

Before the days when McCarthyism sent Americans scurrying to check underneath their beds for Communists, America experienced its first "red scare" in 1919, in the wake of an aborted attempt by presumed alien radicals to mail 36 bombs to various American men of prominence and power, sychronized to detonate, appropriately enough, on May Day, 1919. Fueled by the apparent success of the Russian Revolution and the dramatic increase in immigration from Eastern Europe to this country, the fears of many Americans were that a similar revolution could occur here, and they were whipped into an anti-Communist frenzy led by U. S. Attorney General (and intended bombing target) A. Mitchell Palmer. A general strike in Seattle, the police strike in Boston, a major steel strike which saw martial law implemented in Gary, Indiana, and numerous race riots throughout the nation exacerbated growing fears of industrial and political unrest during early and mid-1919.

Despite May Day bombings at Boston and Newtonville which did bring the scare closer to Middleborough, the town remained free of any direct Communist agitation until October 1919.

While the Middleborough Nest, No. 1824, Order of Owls (or O. O. O.), a local fraternal organization certainly did not have a history of inviting Communist agitators to the community, that is precisely what it did when it lent its hall to two unnamed Middleborough men for what was to have been a "socialist rally" on October 28. The rally, in fact, was a Communist Party rally headed by John J. Ballam, the acknowledged leader of the Massachusetts Communists, and editor of the Worker, a Communist paper published twice a month at Boston.

Ballam, at the time of the Middleborough meeting, had only recently been released from a one-year stint in the Plymouth County House of Correction for violation of the Espionage Act. Just weeks prior to the Middleborough rally, Ballam had attended the first convention of the Communist Party of America in Chicago where Ballam acted as chairman on the sixth day.

At Middleborough, Ballam "gave expression to the most radical statements ever heard in this vicinity," stressing the importance of "Force and Revolution." Following "slurring talk of 'You Americans,' 'Your Religion,' etc.," Ballam "scored the American government in regular Bolshevik terms" and "told the audience that if they wanted any of the lands about them they were theirs; they should seize them and he advocated using force to hold the property if necessary." Ballam, himself, considered his Middleborough speech as going far beyond his previous forays in Communist incendiarianism. He "said that he had served a year in jail for his utterances and on occasion he had never said one-half as much as he had this evening."

What possessed Ballam to believe that Middleborough was ripe for socialist revolution is unfathomable as it was a staunchly conservative community. Though active locally, labor unions were not particularly strong, or excessively adversarial, and they were even sometimes suspect for their generally warm relations with management.

Ballam's appeal at the October, 1919, rally seems to have been directed towards newly-arrived immigrants in the community, yet it met with little response. Like residents elsewhere, Middleborough residents were too caught up in national differences to notice any grievious social or economic inequities which may have existed. In 1897, ten Armenians had walked out of Leonard & Barrows' shoe manufactory not because of economic or social inequities, but because the firm had hired a Turk whom the Armenians suspected of being an Ottoman agent. Nearly a quarter of a century later, these divisive attitudes lingered among the various nationalities locally, and could still prove the foil of international social revolution.

Ballam achieved little result for his efforts at Middleborough other than, undoubtedly, embarrasssing the Owls. He was arrested a month and a half later at New Orleans on board the steamship Mexico bound for Mexico, on an indictment by the Suffolk County Grand Jury charging him with making incendiary speeches and "advocating Bolshevism and Communism."
Middleborough was little troubled by the event, and the Gazette's coverage of the whole incident was simply and mildly headlined: "Some Radical Talk."

The following May, 1920, a second attempt to incite the populace was attempted by two unknown men who began anonymously distributing Communist circulars throughout town, but again with minimal success. The circulars, headed "Hail to the Soviets - May Day Proclamation by the Central Executive Committee of the Communist Party in America" apparently contained a rant similar to the one provided by Ballam several months earlier, calling for a cessation of work on May Day "as a demand for the release of industrial and political prisoners and as a demonstration of the power of the workers." Again, the community took little notice of the propaganda, other than curiosity, and notice of the item was not even deemed newsworthy enough for the front pages locally.

With these two salvos, Communist attempts to incite the local population to revolution in 1919-20 failed dismally. Confident and comfortable in its conservatism, and secure in the knowledge that ideas such as Ballam's held no appeal to the mass of local residents, Middleborough was able to avoid the worst excesses of America's initial "Red Scare."


Post a Comment