Staff Columnist

That November when Cedar Rapids saw 'Reds' everywhere

The Nov. 14, 1919, Evening Gazette
The Nov. 14, 1919, Evening Gazette

We’re hearing a lot of scary cries of “socialism!” in 2019 from the politicians on the right as they assail Democratic candidates at all levels. Fearmongering, of course, is a grand American tradition.

Consider the Red Scare that 100 years ago this month gripped Cedar Rapids.

The Cedar Rapids Evening Gazette carried many front-page headlines in November 1919 chronicling federal, state and local efforts to round up Reds, Bolsheviks and assorted agitators operating in our very midst.

Free speech, due process, equal protection before the law and safeguards against illegal searches and seizures were among the civil rights trampled in pursuit of Red “varmints.”

Local headlines ran alongside huge national stories about coal strikes and labor unrest. Folks were worked up, and they didn’t even have Twitter.

On Nov. 8, 1919, The Gazette told of how pro-Bolshevik circulars had been found at Sinclair Packing. “Several people under suspicion are being watched,” the newspaper reported.

On Nov. 12, The Gazette carried the headline, “Reds Spread Propaganda Against U.S. on West Side.”

“I wish we could get our hands on the fellows that are doing this dirty work. It seems the literature is distributed secretly at night …,” said Cedar Rapids police Chief L.S. Morrison.

On. Nov. 14, 1919, the chief got his wish.

“RED ORGANIZER HELD AT MARION,” blared The Gazette’s front-page headline.

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Harry Tonn, an organizer with the Industrial Workers of the World, was picked up trying to cash a $25 check from the union at several Marion merchants. In later stories, he was identified as Henry.

“Tonn was taken to the sheriff’s office, searched and quizzed. He admitted his identity and said he was an organizer for the Reds,” The Gazette reported.

Tonn was held so he could be questioned by state and federal authorities. But he was not charged.

“The sheriff believes the check is good as it was issued by the Chicago office of the I.W.W,” The Gazette noted at the very end of the story.

On Nov. 15, Tonn was arraigned, with bond set at $5,000. He was charged with “criminal syndicalism” under a state law that “forbids any doctrine which advocates by word or printed matter any crime, sabotage or violence or any other unlawful methods of terrorism as means of accomplishing industrial or political reform.” No one in Iowa had ever been charged with the crime. He also was charged with “conspiracy.”

Law officers searched his room at the Royal Hotel and found IWW literature, documents and an itinerary for his organizing trip. It was all seized as evidence.

His arrest spurred more aggressive efforts to find more agitators.

“Go out and round up every Red in the district, we’ll prosecute them under every interpretation of the federal statute,” the local federal marshal was told by prosecutors, according to The Gazette on Nov. 17.

The dragnet ensnared Northwestern Railroad worker W.H. Finch.

“He’s Sorry Now He Let His Tongue Get the Best of Him,” The Gazette front page headline proclaimed. Below it was a remarkable public apology from Finch.

“I, W.H. Finch, having made certain remarks against the government of the United States and its welfare, take this opportunity to make a public apology, and announce my intention to be a loyal American citizen in the future.”

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The story below explained, “The government’s campaign against Cedar Rapids Reds took definite shape today with the rounding up of several outspoken men who have been utilizing every opportunity to support the nation’s belligerent and lawless factions. … The result was trembling of knees and chattering of teeth in frenzied fear and a sobbing appeal for one more chance.”

Finch, the paper reported, was brought before a “kangaroo court” made up of police officers, American Legion members and several lawyers. “Every witness poured forth some critical remark Finch had made,” The Gazette reported.

A frightened Finch pleaded ignorance. “I don’t know no more about the government than a hog knows about hip pockets. I’ve learned a lesson … I’ll keep my mouth closed tight,” he said, according to The Gazette.

In a real courtroom, Tonn wasn’t faring much better. On Dec. 4, his attorney argued the search of his room was illegal, to no avail. Tonn, who couldn’t make bail, was held until a grand jury was convened. That grand jury indicted him Jan. 9, 1920.

Tonn was a Michigan native, according to the paper, who worked for 16 years as a lumberjack as well as stints in the fields and mines of North Dakota. He was asked why he joined the IWW.

“I made up my mind it was a pretty good thing for a working man, so I joined,” Tonn responded.

He was convicted in February 1920 and was sentenced to three years in prison. The Iowa Supreme Court eventually ordered a new trial in February 1923, but solely on technical grounds, not due to multiple violations of Tonn’s constitutional rights. Although one justice, in dissent, captured the real issue.

“Liberty of mind and conscience does not, of course, justify any infraction of the law, but it does demand that the individual shall not be harassed by criminal prosecution for anything less than a well proved violation of criminal law,” the justice wrote.

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Tonn remained in jail until April 1924, when the county dismissed the charges. His release was noted on page 14 of The Evening Gazette. No word on whether he ever got that $25, or how fear prompted a community to abandon democratic principles, turn its back on the rule of law and send an American to jail for his political beliefs.

(319) 398-8262; todd.dorman@thegazette.com

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