Commies! And Other Bad Guys
Raid: "A Hostile or Predatory Incursion"
The FBI’s search by warrant of Mar-a-Lago has inspired considerable imagery: G-Men descending on a target of sinister activity ready for whatever battles may ensue. That’s not quite what happened at Donald Trump’s Palm Beach club and residence – unless you agree with the hair-on-fire folks attacking the FBI as a threat to their political goals.
By coincidence, this month is exactly the one hundredth anniversary of an FBI raid – it was still called the Bureau of Investigation, where J. Edgar Hoover was an up-and-comer – on a small resort in Bridgman, Michigan, a town in the southwest part of the state, on the shore of the great lake. The objective was to bust up a gathering of seventy-five or so alleged communists plotting their next moves in a plan to overthrow the U.S. government.
The site was Forest House, a modest collection of cottages run by Karl and Albertina Wolfskeel, who thought they were renting to a large singing group. It was less than five years after the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and three years after the Palmer Raids, in which the U.S. attorney general dispatched law officers around the country to round up subversives, the nemeses known as “Reds,” long before that color was identified with MAGA and Mar-a-Lago. Go figure.
The Bridgman raid has been described in impressive detail by Nick Bogert, a journalist, a historian of the area in Michigan where he now lives, and a cousin of mine in our large extended family. To read full article in the current issue of Michigan History you need to have a subscription or become a member of the Historical Society of Michigan at hsmichigan.org. (Six issues for $24.95. With membership $39.95)
Fortunately, Nick agreed to do a presentation at the Bridgman Public Library earlier this month and told the story one evening before a fascinated audience. I asked Nick for permission to share his script for the occasion, which he also illustrated with some slides and news accounts. When you have time, it isworth reading through for its depth of colorful details with resonance for our times..
This headline’s a grabber, no? I came across it at the museum. It’s actually a reprint. In late 1999, the St. Joe Herald-Palladium put together special sections with their coverage of the biggest stories of the 20th century, and the Great Bridgman Red Raid made the cut.// Richard Whitney’s 1924 book “Reds in America” made the claim //“The raid at Bridgman will go down in history as one of the most important events in the war against Radicalism and World Revolution.” That rhetoric sounds overheated now, but the 1920’s were an overheated time.// The Russian Revolution, of course, took place in 1917, and brought with it a lot of fears that Communism could spread to America.// And within a couple of years, there was indeed a US Communist Party, which split with the Socialist Labor Party and held its first convention in Chicago in September 1919.// In 1919, Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer— assisted by J. Edgar Hoover— mounted raids on leftist groups in more than 50 US cities, arresting thousands of people for violating the Sedition Act that had become law the year before // which made it a crime to— during wartime—“utter, print, write or publish any disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language about the form of government of the United States.// The ACLU was formed to challenge the Sedition Act, which was repealed in 1920, but there was a lot of fear that radicals— particularly foreign-born radicals— were working, through the labor movement, to undermine American government. // The nation was wracked by huge strikes that sometimes turned violent. Coal and steel workers and— in the summer of 1922— a huge strike of 400,000 railroad workers nationwide was underway, // with armed guards and police brought in to protect rail facilities. Ten people, mostly strikers and their families, died.// So that was the backdrop for the Communist meeting in the dunes near the tiny village of Bridgman. It was held at a resort owned by Karl Wolfskeel and his wife, sometimes referred to as Forest House. I’ve read an article that places the Wolfskeel Resort in what is now a very busy area… that red dot shows the approximate location—what is now the parking lot of Eagle Technologies, wedged in between I-94 and Red Arrow Highway. But in the 1920’s it was pretty far from the railroad tracks that downtown Bridgman was clustered around.// Communists had met at Karl Wolfskeel’s resort before, in 1920. Wolfskeel and his wife had no idea, by the way, who their guests were. They were told that they were hosting a singing society.// Meeting attendees came to Bridgman from across the country— NewYork to Seattle— in cloak-and-dagger fashion… hopscotching their way, switching conveyances frequently to make sure they weren’t being followed, most not knowing their eventual destination.// The route taken by the participant known to his colleagues as // “Comrade Day” is typical. Day was actually // Francis Morrow and worked in the shipyards of Camden New Jersey. He went across the river to Philadelphia to catch a train.// A train that took him to Cleveland, where he was instructed to/// take a boat to Detroit… // then on to Grand Rapids, where— three days into his trip, he meets up with 13 other convention attendees. // And in Grand Rapids, they’re all given train tickets to St. Joseph. While in Grand Rapids, Comrade Day alerts his family he’s headed to St. Joe. Theodore Draper’s “Roots of American Communism” says he sent a letter to his wife— mail service must have been a lot better back then. Why would Francis Morrow torpedo all the secrecy around the meeting’s location? Because Morrow— who the book describes as “a slight man of nondescript appearance” was a mole.// Special Agent K-97, paid by the Bureau of Investigation for information on radical activities—a dollar a day at first, later upped to $5 a day.// His letter home was passed on to William Burns, head of the BI (it wouldn’t be known as the FBI until the 1930’s). And Burns sends a message // to the Chicago Bureau— “Secret convention of Communist Party now in progress somewhere in the vicinity of St. Joseph, Michigan. Proceed at once to locate same and keep under discreet surveillance.” The Chicago bureau was headed // by agent Jacob Spolansky. Spolansky, according to Draper’s book was a former leftist who had “changed sides politically when the Bolsheviks came to power.” Spolansky heads to St. Joe, // taking agent Edwin Shanahan with him. Shanahan, by the way, would become the first Federal BI agent to die in the line of duty three year later, shot by a Chicago car thief. Spolansky and Shanahan set out for Michigan on August 19th. The Communists had been meeting for a couple of days already by then.// The party was riven by factions, and the Communist International had sent emissaries from Poland and Hungary to try to heal the divisions. There were three major factions— // the Geese (named because their leader sounded like a goose when he talked), // the liquidators, //and the rurals. Their differences revolved around how much to participate in the US electoral system (through the Workers Party) versus trying to foment violent revolution as an underground organization. The Geese— advocates of that latter position— seemed in control heading into the convention.// So the delegates arrive at the St. Joe train station— “the strange assortment of accents and faces mildly surprised the townspeople”, according to Draper. They head to the Wolfskeel resort… five cottages and a dining hall, isolated— only one road in and out.// Convention attendees had to follow strict rules to maintain secrecy: // They were not allowed to leave the grounds of the Wolfskeel Resort. // They were to be up at 6 in the morning, and get to bed by 10 PM. // There’d be no talking to strangers. Of course, they would need to maintain the fiction that they were there to sing when talking to the Wolfskeels or resort staff… and they weren’t even supposed to ask fellow conventioneers what their real names were.// They were only allowed to jump in the nearby lake at prescribed times. Most of their day would be spent meeting— sitting on benches made of planks on cement blocks— in the woods nearby.// So, Agents Spolansky and Shanahan get to St. Joe, and seek advice from // Berrien County Sheriff George Bridgman, who tells them his hunch is that the Communists are meeting somewhere near the village founded by his grandfather,// because there were so many isolated resorts in that area. When Bridgman’s postmaster confirmed that “a bunch of foreign-looking people” had recently arrived an headed toward the lake, the agents figured they were in the right spot.// Spolansky and Shanahan begin making the rounds of resorts— undercover, dressed in farmer’s overalls. Just after breakfast on the morning of August 21st, they arrive at the Wolfskeel resort, asking for a drink of water, and whether there are any rooms available. Spolansky spots a familiar face— // that of William Z. Foster, who the Herald-Press described as the “chief of all the radicals in America”. Foster lived in Chicago, was the editor of the Labor Herald, and had been a key organizer of the great steel strike of 1919.// In 1971, Foster would be honored on a stamp in the Soviet Union. After spying Foster, Spolansky knows he’s in the right place, and hurries off to pull together a posse. But he doesn’t realize that Foster also spotted and recognized him.// So Spolansky throws together a raiding party of four Feds and about 20 locals— the St. Joe paper said they were sheriff’s deputies… Draper’s book calls them “20 hastily mobilized townspeople. // You see Sheriff Bridgman and Spolansky in the front row center in a press photo after the raid. But while Spolansky and Bridgman had been organizing, the Communists were leaving, en masse.// 17 Communists were arrested in the Bridgman Raid— but 76 convention-goers had eaten dinner at the Wolfskeel Resort the night before. All night long, convention attendees were heading out of town on the night of Monday, August 21st.// Foster was among the first to leave. The Communists had a pecking order for getting out of town. First, three representatives of Comintern— the Communist International— a Pole, a Hungarian, and a dentist from Buffalo, Joseph Reinstein, who’d been in Russia for the revolution. They’d been sent to try to mediate between the Geese, Liquidators and Rurals. Next were members of the Central Committee of the US Party, then those who’d been indicted for earlier activities (people on bail or newly-released from prison), then noncitizens, and US citizens with no criminal records last. The News-Palladium said delegates had been told to sleep with their clothes on and their packed bags by their sides so they’d be ready to go when it was time to evacuate. When the Feds moved in on the morning of the 22nd, a Bridgman cabdriver named William Haas was there, ready to take more folks to the train station in Benton Harbor. Haas told authorities he’d been ferrying people to the depot since 1 AM.// It’s hard to figure why the Feds wouldn’t have noticed the exodus. The local paper reported that four agents lay in “the dark ravines near the resort on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday nights, and carefully mapped out their campaign.”// The Herald-Press reporter along for the raid described it: “Eight deputies approached the resort from one side, eight covered the other side and rear, and the sheriff, who had been joined at Bridgman by the Federal agents, with a second automobile load of officers, drove straight into the front yard of the resort.” The paper added “the Reds offered no resistance” and that they’d been taken to the county jail for “a grilling examination by authorities.”// But remember— one of those arrested was Francis Morrow, the informant. When he was arrested, he had a little trouble convincing the feds he was on their side. // According to Theodore Draper’s book, “The slight little man convinced Spolansky of his identity by drawing a rough map showing where the records of the convention had been buried.” Many convention records had been burned, but many were in two sugar barrels, lined with burlap buried — covered with tar paper, then 8” of sand, then leaves in the dunes near the meeting site.// Authorities put the seized documents and typewriters and other materials on display, along with the suspects…and the paper quoted one Federal agent as crowing “We’ve got pretty near enough to hang them.” // The newspaper account surmised that items seized showed clearly that the “chief purpose of the convention was to devise a program by which the combined railroad and mine strikes might be used to overthrow the federal government, and set up, in its stead, ‘a proletariat of the workers’, in other words, a soviet.” // Indeed, the papers seized were introduced in subsequent trials, but they were far short of the smoking gun authorities envisioned. // Once Francis Morrow convinced Agent Spolansky that he was, indeed, Agent K-97— had his face wrapped in bandages as though he’d been beaten severely. Indeed, until witness lists were filed 4 months later, none of the Communists arrested knew that Francis Morrow was a mole. // William Z. Foster— arrested in Chicago a few days after the raid— was first to be brought to trial in the spring of 1923. He was charged under Michigan’s Criminal Syndicalism statute. // // Michigan was one of 18 states which had adopted these Constitutionally-suspect laws. The complaint against Foster alleged that he had advocated for “crime sabotage, violence, and other unlawful methods of terrorism” as a means of achieving political change. // And that he’d done so both through his writings and by voluntarily assembling with the Communist Party in Bridgman. Critics claimed it was a clear attack on First Amendment rights for expression and assembly.// Eugene V Debs, who had run for president 5 times on the Socialist Party ticket, wrote that If Michigan's “criminal syndicalist” law was allowed to stand “then the state of Michigan ought to be fenced off as a peonage plantation, and decent, self-respecting people warned to keep away under penalty of being gagged and locked up.”// Foster himself was more restrained when reporters asked for comment on the charges against him— “Boys, I am as dry of news as the Sahara desert is of water,” he told the press.// It took 4 days to pick a jury to hear the Foster case. // Some in the jury pool said they had received mailings from the ACLI urging them “not to support the present Communist trials”. // Finally, 11 men and one woman were seated. The last man seated on the right was Theodore Dryer of Galien. The newspaper misspelled his last name, but Theodore Drier’s two sons ran the Drier’s Butcher Shop in Three Oaks. And the lone woman juror was Minerva Olson of St. Joseph. Female jurors were still a rarity— women had only won the right to vote a few years earlier. Minerva Olson would prove to be a pivotal voice in the jury room. // Sheriff Bridgman was the first witness, defense lawyers’ questions suggesting that evidence in the barrels might have been altered or planted. The Sheriff had two admit that Federal agents had easy access to the room at the county jail where documents and pamphlets seized at Bridgman had been stored in the months before the trial. // On the trial’s third day, the documents were dramatically brought into the courtroom by a squad of men.” // The newspaper said one of them— the program and constitution of the Communist Party, was held to be the most damaging piece of evidence of all. // The paper also reported that rowdy photographers shot flash pictures and “overturned staid court conventions”. I’m still baffled by that account, because I’ve been unable to find even a single photograph of the courtroom duringthe Foster trial. // Agent Spolansky testified for the prosecution, as did the informant // Francis Morrow (Foster later called Morrow a “little ferret-eyed sneak of a man some 39 years old”. characterizing his testimony as “a mass of brazen lies”.) // The first witness for the defense was Charles Ruthenberg of Cleveland, head of the Workers Party— another convention attendee. Even the Herald-Press, which tended to extol the prosecution in its reporting, // had to admit that Ruthenberg was “ a suave and shrewd proponent of international communism,” and referred to him as a star witness. // The paper described the cross-examination by prosecutor Charles Gore // as “a contest of verbal hide and seek”, saying Ruthenberg held his own when “subjected to a cross-examination that would have overwhelmed on with less self-control, less apparent nonchalance and nerve” // Foster the took the stand in his own defense, saying he was not a Communist, but a guest at the convention…admitting he hoped the US would be ruled someday by a “dictatorship of the proletariat”, but denying he advocated violence.” He denied having filled out a questionnaire at the convention that the prosecution had presented as key evidence. The papers said he was soft-spoken, though questioning from prosecutors drew “angry answers and blazing eyes.” // Jurors got the case after closing arguments on April 2 and— after 36 hours, taking 38 votes— found themselves deadlocked, 6-to-6, on the question of Foster’s guilt. // The papers reported that that lone woman juror, Minerva Olson, had been the leading voice for acquittal… they even reported that before the judge declared a mistrial, though, of course, jury deliberations are supposed to be secret. // Olson, for her part, said “I did my duty as I saw it, and made my decision from the evidence.” Adding that Foster had clearly been at the Bridgman convention, but “there was no real evidence that he had, by reason of that fact alone, committed a crime.”..// Her stance got her a fan letter from none other than famed defense lawyer Clarence Darrow, who had defended his share of radicals accused of violence. Darrow compared the Foster case to the Salem witch trials: // “I have tried so many cases that I know the courage it takes to stand up against public sentiment…. Sometime the world will look back at the corrupt and ignorant prosecutions as we now look at the cruelty of the witch craft trial and convictions.” Minerva Olson was an unlikely defender of left-wing activists. I found a 1955 article describing her being honored by the American Legion. It did not mention her role in the Foster case. // Within two weeks of the Foster mistrial, Charles Ruthenberg— the star witness in the Foster case— was brought to trial, again for violating Michigan’s Criminal Syndicalism statute.The prosecution had some advantages in this case. // While Foster )on the left)claimed to be just a guest at the Bridgman meeting, Ruthenberg was much more central to convention business. // A quick aside— this shot of the two standing outside the courthouse in St. Joe has them wearing these buttons made for their supporters. // The St. Joe paper called Ruthenberg “boastful of his allegiance to the Marxist faith.” He had a long history of fiery advocacy. Some of the documents seized in Bridgman bore his handwriting. // Francis Morrow testified that was // “under the direction of Charles Ruthenberg” that the meeting was broken up after the discovery that the Feds were coming. // And the jury in Ruthenberg’s case was all-male— 9 of the 12 were farmers, many with sons who’d served in the world war. The Herald -Press predicted that “Ruthenberg’s alleged anti-war activities will prove a hard pill for Berrien’s peach growers to swallow”. Ruthenberg had been active trying to disrupt the draft. // Again, Ruthenberg proved a good witness in his own defense, the Herald-Press once again using the word suave to describe his demeanor on the stand as he had in Foster’s trial. He claimed the Palmer Raids had forced Communists underground, and that a major topic for discussion in Bridgman was whether to come back into the open and participate in US Elections through the Workers Party, of which Ruthenberg was the National Executive Secretary. // Indeed, defense lawyer Frank Walsh argued // the raid had “prevented the Communist Party from adopting a new and less red program, drafted by Ruthenberg with the purpose of amalgamating the Communist and Workers party organizations into a ‘legal’ political group” // After about four hours of deliberation, jurors found Ruthenberg guilty. They voted 9-3 and then 10-2 for conviction before reaching unanimity. But even in victory // Prosecutor Charles Gore sounded tentative,// saying he wouldn’t proceed with further prosecutions while Ruthenberg appealed— “We may as well find out if the Michigan anti-syndicalism act is constitutional or not.”// The case finally reached Michigan’s Supreme Court a year later and, in December 1924,// that court upheld the conviction… saying Ruthenberg may have “urged an open party to carry on [legal] activities, but his purpose was… to further the ends of the underground or illegal party…the destruction of republican or parliamentary forms of government by direct action and criminal force” // In early 1925, Berrien County Judge Charles White handed down a 3-10 year sentence. // Afterward, Ruthenberg handed out a statement to the press, // saying in part— “I am a Communist…I deny that there is anything criminal in the principles.” “I am not charged with any act in the State of Michigan except that of ‘assembling with’ the Communist Party of America.” But he went to the state prison in Jackson for a couple of weeks, released on bail as the Federal appeals process began. // By the fall of 1926, the case had reached the US Supreme Court and, in a preliminary vote, justices were prepared to uphold Ruthenberg’s conviction by a 7-2 vote. // But one of the two dissenters was Louis Brandeis, who wrote a stinging dissent, // saying Michigan’s criminal syndicalism law created a “new felony of voluntarily assembling”. // Brandeis said that the law punished the act of assembling “however remote the danger apprehended and however improbable that serious evil will eventually befall”.// And he argued the Michigan statute aimed “not directly at the practice of criminal syndicalism, but at the preaching of it.” A clear violation, Brandeis thought, of the First Amendment. But just weeks before the Supreme Court would have upheld his conviction, // Charles Ruthenberg died of a ruptured appendix. His body was cremated, his ashes interred in the wall of the Kremlin. And, of course, the case against him became moot.// But Brandeis re-purposed his Ruthenberg dissent, taking much of the language and reasoning and applying it to a concurring opinion in another 1927 case, Whitney vs. California. Though Brandeis voted to uphold California’s criminal syndicalism law, he wrote perhaps the greatest-ever defense of free speech by any Supreme Court justice. // None of the other men arrested in the Bridgman raid ever stood trial. Indeed, by 1933 the Berrien Prosecuting Attorney, Harvey Holbrook, said bringing charges had been a mistake. “It may be said without criticizing anyone the prosecution was the result of the hysteria that followed after the termination of the World war.” // // Holbrook laid to rest further prosecution, saying it “might be regarded as a form of legalized persecution”, adding the “Communist movement would receive a lot of free advertising unduly favorable to its cause”.// So what was the lasting effect of the Bridgman raid? It brought the party aboveground. As a writer for the Herald-Palladium put it in 1991—“there was no putting Humpty-Dumpty back together again.” // That same article quoted a St. Joe author named Clare Adkin as saying the raid “created an unappreciated national identification for Berrien County, Michigan as the birthplace of the American Communist Party.” /
As Nick described, there was an informant who had tipped off the feds to the meetings. There were only two trials, one of which involved William Z. Foster, who later served as General Secretary of the Communist Party of the USA from 1945-1957. His trial ended in a hung jury because the foreperson MInerva Olson, pressed for Foster’s aquittal.
The notion that neatly dressed gentlemen, who were lined up for a group shot that looks strikingly similar to a comparable shot of law enforcement, posed a serious threat to the government of the United States is quaint – especially in contrast to the mobs who went to the Capitol on January 6, 2021, with violent intent.
The FBI’s “hostile or predatory incursion” on Trump’s property – if that is what it was – is in its way a direct descendent of the perceived communist dangers a century ago. The investigations around the insurrection at the Capitol are focused on efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 presidential election and Trump’s role in supporting the plotters and planners. Strikingly, Trump and his supporters are still likely these days to invoke the threat of communists and socialists – another nefarious group in their view – although their own avowed politics are very far right-wing and autocratic.
Many years ago, on a trip to Palm Beach, I was invited to visit Mar-a-Lago after Trump bought it but before he turned it into a private club. Its previous owner, Marjorie Merriweather Post, had sold it to the National Park Service, which returned it to the Post Foundation, from whom Trump bought it in 1985 for $10 million – an incredible bargain, he would thereafter claim. It was already lavish and very large – 62,500 square feet and 126 rooms – and destined in the hands of its new owner to become even more gilded.
Trump was not there at the time. My family, including our two small children, were shown around by a butler, who was polite enough. I noticed that two other members of the staff were following us, probably to be certain that we didn’t purloin any souvenirs.
In the one hundred years since the Bridgman raid, a great deal of history has transpired. And yet the analog of a federal force tasked to round up evidence of a possible criminal conspiracy reflects a strain of American culture that seems to be deeply embedded in who we are.
None of us will be around to see it, but I wonder whether there will be a presentation at the Palm Beach Public Library in one hundred years with pictures and slides about the great Mar-a-Lago raid. And will there still be the belief that our democracy is at risk from activists and politicians with designs on seizing or maintaining power?
This is just so fabulous…well worth the price of admission & then some! Thank you, Peter!!