1920 January 22

Civil Liberties Bureau: WWI Conscientious Objectors Tortured in Military Prison


The National Civil Liberties Bureau charged on this day that conscientious objectors to participation in World War I were being tortured by military authorities on Alcatraz Island, California. (The war had ended 15 months earlier, but the COs were still being held as prisoners.) Robert Simmons, serving a 10-year sentence for refusing to cooperate with the draft, had been transferred to a special punitive “iron cage,” where he was forbidden to “sit down, lie down, or fully stand,” alleged the NCLB. The iron cages had been manufactured in the prison machine shop under orders from the presiding Army colonel.

(In fact, the ACLU, which replaced the NCLB, had been founded three days earlier on January 19, 1920, but this report was issued under the NCLB’s name.)

Learn more about the history of COs: Felicity Goodall, We Will Not Go to War: Conscientious Objection During the World Wars (2011)

Read: Louisa Thomas, Conscience: Two Soldiers, Two Pacifists, One Family – A Test of Will and Faith in World War I (2011)

Learn more about the NCLB and the ACLU: Samuel Walker, In Defense of American Liberties: A History of the ACLU (1990)

Learn about the rights of COs today at the GI Rights Hotline here.

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