(by Student #19 AMH 2010 1115)
Leonard Foster, an American laborer is the subject of my research. He was arrested at 22 years of age in 1918 and sentenced to 5 years in Mcneil Island Penitentiary. Leonard was accused of violating section 3 of the Espionage Act in Tacoma Washington. I picked this case not only because I am curious to see exactly what he did to get arrested but also his life as a laborer. America today still has many issues concerning labor and I am interested to see some of the issues from 1918. In order to understand who he was and why he was arrested I decided to research different aspects of this case.
I began by researching what America was like during 1917/1918. I found that although the United States had tried to remain uninvolved in World War I, they were pushed to declare war with Germany in late 1917. Having so many immigrants in the U.S. from Germany and other allied countries, the administration was worried that people would rebel against their policies or cause trouble. Therefore, they created the Espionage Act of 1917. This act made it a crime for any person to convey information intended to interfere with the U.S. armed forces. It also made it a crime to promote success of the country’s enemies. This of course did not stop people from rebellion. In fact, during the war, hundreds were arrested for breaking this act but ironically not a single person was convicted of spying or sabotage under the act. Officials used this act against anyone who seemed to oppose them in any way.
Many people in America had unfair working conditions during this time. As a matter of fact, Americans had struggled with poor working conditions and terrible wages way before 1917. As a result, workers began forming different organizations that protested for less hours of work, better wages, and fair compensation. These organizations pulled the attention of many laborers in America and were termed labor unions.
While i searched for more information about Leonard Foster, I couldn't find any information about his heritage or if he had any family members. So I decided to look for more details about his arrest. I was able to find a second record on Ancestery.com from Mcneil penitentiary. On this record his name was among six others that were all arrested on the same day for the same crime of violating the Espionage Act. These gentlemen were F.A Martin, J. Perry, J.E. Casey, W.A. Hodges, P. Mullen, and J.B. Phelan. There were also all laborers from Tacoma Washington. This raised a red flag for me. It indicated that whatever he did or was accused of doing, he did not do it alone.
I decided to look up old newspapers from Tacoma Washington around the time of his arrest. As I read different articles I found a haphazard arrangement of topics. From how to become a better wife, to people getting murdered, to different sales of bread. Newspapers put everyone’s business on blast which gave me confidence that I would find something on Mr. Foster. After hours of reading peculiar stories on Tacoma’s daily newspaper I found different excerpts mentioning the arrest of seven members of the I.W.W. One of the excerpts explicitly mentioned the names I had found before on the Mcneil Penitentiary records. Which meant that Mr. Foster and his friends were all a part of the I.W.W.
Intrigued by this finding, I did some research on what I.W.W stood for. It was a labor union named the Industrial Workers of the World. Wobblies were their nickname. Their aim was to organize workers so that they can jointly force employers to grant better pay, shorter hours and better conditions. What made this group different from other labor unions that existed before them was that they allowed both skilled and unskilled workers with no preference to gender or race. The Wobblies believed that all workers should be united as a social class. This group included many immigrants from all over the world. Unfortunately, this group had radical views on abolishing the capitalist system which gave them a terrible reputation. This reputation gave officials the initiative to arrest any member of the group they believed to be opposing them. To back them up, they used the Espionage Act to their advantage claiming that the members of the I.W.W. were interfering with the U.S success with the war.
In one of the publications of Mr. Foster in the Tacoma Washington newspaper, it stated that him and his friends were arrested at Camp Lewis construction barracks. Upon further investigation, I found that Camp Lewis began construction in 1917. It was composed of 62,433 acres that had been donated to the U.S. federal government for the military camp. Which meant that most of the citizens in this area of Washington were in support of the war. Around 10,000 workers constructed 1757 buildings for the housing and training of soldiers. Although the camp was still under construction, thousands of soldiers were already living on the property. With everything going on with the laborers in the area, I got a good idea of what might of happened with Mr. Foster and his friends.
As I continued searching in old newspapers for any trace of Mr. Foster and his friends I found another excerpt that stated why they were arrested at Camp Lewis. They were said to “be showing soldiers their extensive plots and propaganda to disrupt work at the camp.” It also mentioned that “disloyal remarks to the government were made in the conversation”. Although there are some incidents of Wobbles aggressively protesting against the American Federation of Labor, I do not believe Mr. Foster and his friends committed this crime. They were laborers that were struggling to make meets end and wanted better conditions for themselves. The Wobbles wanted everyone to unite as one and for that reason showed pride in their membership. I believe that if they wanted to really disrupt work at the camp they would have brought a lot more members of the I.W.W with them. It does not make sense that 7 of them would try to initiate conflict at a camp with thousands of soldiers all around them.
To prove my theory I continued my research on the Wobbles during this time period. I found a book written in 1918 by Paul Frederick Brissenden, entitled The I.W.W : a Study of American Syndicalism. He was an American labor historian that had experienced first hand what it was to be raised by a hard working farmer. Before writing this book he worked for the U.S. Commision on Industrial Relations which was a commision created by the U.S. congress in 1912 to scrutinize the U.S. labor laws. This meant that Paul Frederick was highly informed of the work conditions all over the U.S. before he began his research on the Wobblies. As I read the preface of his book I found that many I.W.W members had been treated unfairly by officials. Because of the violent protests of some members they were all being classified as bad and corrupt. Officales and other citizens also provided information to the press that was often exaggerated or falsified to turn public opinion against laborers.
By 1918, the specific number of crimes alleged to have been intended by I.W.W members was more than seventeen thousand. Most of these with no trustworthy evidence regarding the anti-war activities. Paul Frederick wrote about how the I.W.W. had been misrepresented over the years and how this aided the government's attempts to shut them down. The popular belief of the Wobblies in 1918 among employers, public officials and the public generally corresponds with the idea that they are dregs of society. In fact, any man without a job or with little resources was labeled as a Wobbly to some officials and were treated poorly because of it. The Wobblies main focus was to better their labor conditions, not to interfere with the war. But because the Espionage Act gave officials the right to arrest anyone they seemed to be going against their efforts with the war, they used this to their advantage to silence the laborers.
This is why I think Mr. Foster and his friends were arrested unfairly. They were members of the I.W.W. to fight for better lives and were criticized for it. I think that they were on Camp Lewis as construction workers and might have gotten in a dispute with some soldiers that were residing at the camp. The dispute might have escalated and since the soldiers had an upper hand they accused them of going against the Espionage Act.
All of the seven members in my research lead to dead ends. I want to find out why and will continue my research to find out how they continued their lives. I wonder if they went on to have better job conditions or if they had families who supported them or even died from the Spanish Flu that killed many in the area around this time. I was only able to find that after the arrest two from the group, J.Perry and J.E. Casey both enlisted to the military on September 12th 1918. A few months after getting arrested. Maybe they enlisted while in prison. Or maybe they had an early release and were forced to enlist. Whatever the case may be, I am determined to continue my research and find out.