The verdict: A war, the Wobblies and charges of espionage in Chicago

August 17, 2011

The United States was at war. In a Chicago courtroom, 101 people had been on trial for opposing the war. And on this August 17, the jury announced its verdict.

The year was 1918. The war was World War I.

In April 1917, the U.S. had declared war on Germany and Congress passed the Espionage Act shortly thereafter. The law and its later amendments made it a crime to interfere with the war effort, which included "disloyal speech."

The Industrial Workers of the World--nicknamed the Wobblies--was a radical industrial union headquartered in Chicago. The IWW had opposed U.S. entry into the war. In September 1917, the Justice Department raided several IWW offices throughout the country, seized union documents and took 165 Wobblies into custody.

When the trial began in April 1918, 101 people had been charged, the largest number ever in a federal court. The presiding judge was Kenesaw Mountain Landis.

The prosecution argued that the IWW was trying to undermine the war, accusing the union of such things as resisting the draft, advocating industrial sabotage, and conspiring with the enemy. Many aggressive IWW tracts were read into the record.

Supporters of the IWW claimed the feds were making wild exaggerations without real evidence, and that the government was trying to break a union it feared. Whether that was true, public opinion seemed to be solidifying against the Wobblies. Meanwhile, the trial moved slowly on.

Big Bill Haywood, the most famous IWW leader, testified on August 13. Four days later, the prosecution rested it case, before turning it over to the defense.  But the defense also rested, without a final presentation.

Suddenly, after four months, it was decision time. Judge Landis read his instructions to the jury - instructions so involved that they took an hour and a half to complete. Then at 4 p.m., the jury retired.

Their deliberations took less time than the judge's instructions, and at 5:10 p.m. the jury returned its verdict: guilty for all.

The defendants were stunned. They hadn't expected this. "I believe Judge Landis's instructions pointed clearly to an acquittal," a shaken Haywood told reporters.

At sentencing, the defendants were given heavy fines and prison terms ranging up to 20 years. Haywood jumped bail, finding refuge in the Soviet Union. He died there in 1928.

In 1919, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the Espionage Act. Some of its more extreme provisions were later repealed, but it's still on the books. And the IWW is still around, still headquartered in Chicago.