1917 May 2

War Opponents Tarred and Feathered in San Jose, CA


A pro-war vigilante group calling itself the “Knights of Liberty” attacked and assaulted a group of suspected anti-war activists on this day. George Koelzer was tarred and feathered, while H. Steinmoltz, an Oakland tailor, was hung from a tree until unconscious. It is not clear from surviving accounts whether these men were actively against World War I or were simply of German background.

The San Jose incident was just one of innumerable vigilante attacks on anti-war activists, suspected draft evaders (called “slackers”), and people suspected of pro-German sympathies during World War I. Such actions by private individuals was arguably even more effective in silencing dissent during the war than were government actions, such as prosecutions under the Espionage Act.

For other outrageous vigilante actions, see the “slacker raids” on July 3, 1917 and September 3, 1918, and the kidnapping of Reverend Herbert Bigelow near Cincinnati on October 28, 1917.

Read the Civil Liberties Bureau report on wartime violations of civil libertieshttps://blogs.princeton.edu/mudd/2012/09/the-birth-of-the-civil-liberties-bureau-and-the-national-civil-liberties-bureau1917-1919/

Learn more: Paul L. Murphy, World War I and the Origin of Civil Liberties in the United States (1979)

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