At the core of the mob that stormed the Capitol on January 6, causing five deaths and more than 140 injuries, were members of white-nationalist militias like the Proud Boys, the Oath Keepers, and the Three Percenters. Their brazen invasion of one of the nation’s most protected sites may have been new, but organized right-wing vigilantes have long been with us. Never did they loom larger than in the strife-torn United States of a hundred years ago. One vigilante described, for example, how he and some fellow “soldiers of darkness,” as he proudly called them, broke up an antiwar rally in Chicago’s Grant Park in August 1917:
Three of us worked our way to the speakers’ stand. When one particularly vicious orator began to incite the mob…I jumped on the platform and grabbed him. A few seconds later I landed on the heads of the people in front. My two companions rushed to me and, shoulder to shoulder, we battled for our lives.
America’s declaration of war on Germany in April of that year unleashed some long-simmering tensions: between Anglo-Saxon nativists and Catholic and Jewish immigrants; between business and labor, especially the most radical union, the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, or Wobblies); between whites and the Black Americans who were starting to move north in the Great Migration; and between the mainstream political parties and the Socialists, who made impressive gains in the 1917 municipal elections, winning an average of more than 20 percent of the vote in fourteen of the country’s larger cities, including New York. And these tensions overlapped. Big business owners were overwhelmingly Anglo; many Jews were Socialists and some Italians were anarchists; and the IWW was proudly multinational: when a Wobbly steelworker was killed by Pennsylvania state troopers a few years earlier, the eulogies at his burial were in fifteen languages. On top of everything else, millions of American men felt threatened by women who were moving into the labor force and were on the verge of gaining the vote.
American entry into World War I in Europe provided the perfect excuse for a burgeoning vigilante movement to ratchet up all of these wars at home, which it could now fight in the name of patriotism. The largest of the new groups, to which the enthusiastic attacker in Grant Park belonged, was the American Protective League (APL). It was the brainchild of Albert Briggs, a Chicago advertising executive. At forty-three, he was too old to play the part of the archetypal masculine soldier in the trenches of France, but like hundreds of thousands of similar American men he sought his own version of martial glory.
The big difference between today’s vigilante groups and those that formed in 1917 is that the latter were strongly allied with the government. Briggs traveled to Washington with a written proposal to form “a volunteer organization” of “citizens of good moral character” who would “work with and under the direction of the Chief of the Bureau of Investigation, of the Department of Justice, or such attorney or persons as he may direct, rendering such service as may be required.” The chief of the bureau (the predecessor to the FBI) gave him the go-ahead to form this unprecedented official auxiliary to the Justice Department. The APL was even granted the franking privilege of sending mail for free. When the attorney general mentioned the organization at a cabinet meeting, neither President Woodrow Wilson nor anyone else objected.
Like its counterparts today, the APL included many military veterans. Briggs’s deputy, Thomas B. Crockett, a relative of the famous frontiersman, had fought in the Philippine War. On the island of Luzon sixteen years earlier, he had won repeated mentions in army dispatches for capturing Filipino guerrillas and their supplies of food and weapons. One report describes how
Lieutenant Crockett, with Ilocano scouts, working in mountains north of Boso-Boso…captured one [guerrilla] with gun. On information received from prisoner, command marched all night and struck an outpost at daylight. Had skirmish, killing one and capturing one.
The phrase “on information received from prisoner” almost certainly means that the captured guerrilla was subjected to the notorious “water cure” torture routinely used by American troops in that war—pinning a suspect on his back, forcing open his mouth, and pouring in buckets of saltwater until he talked.
Briggs and Crockett set out to build APL chapters across the nation. Theirs was a hierarchical, overwhelmingly male organization set up along military lines, with each chapter having a chief in charge of captains, lieutenants, and mere members. Cities were divided into zones and in turn into districts, which multiplied the opportunity for positions of command. For men past military age, it was a dream fulfilled. You could hold an official-sounding rank, feel you were defending your country, and still come home for dinner.
For seventy-five cents, APL members could purchase a silver shield, the size and shape of those worn by police officers, with the organization’s name encircling the words “Secret Service.” When the US Secret Service eventually noticed this, the APL had to change the design, but by then tens of thousands of badges had been distributed to men loath to give them up. A later badge was gold-colored, surmounted by an American eagle, and included the bearer’s rank. “If there were no suspects handy,” writes the historian Joan Jensen, “the badge could always be used to obtain free admittance to theaters, subways, and parking lots.”
Unlike today’s militias, the vigilantes of a century ago had strong backing from big business. Prominent APL supporters in Chicago—almost all of them Anglo-Saxon Protestants—included the CEOs of the First National Bank, the Chicago and North Western Railway, the Chicago Telephone Company, and Montgomery Ward. In Detroit, Henry Ford provided funding, and a Ford executive supervised four hundred APL operatives. The New York chief was the president of the Metropolitan Trust Company. Law enforcement was also represented: the Chicago police chief belonged, and other members came from private detective agencies with long experience fighting unions.
With technical help from the Bureau of Investigation, APL members sometimes carried out clandestine break-ins, gathering or copying letters and documents from suspects’ homes and offices. “The League has done that thousands of times and has never been detected!” its official history proudly claimed. Sometimes members dressed up in army uniforms to ride trains full of draftees and listen for disloyal talk.
Some local police and sheriffs’ departments officially deputized APL members so they could make arrests, but in other cities no one bothered with such formalities. In the atmosphere of wartime urgency, almost anything could provide an excuse for action. In one six-month period, for example, the APL chapter in Seattle claimed to have carried out more than 10,000 investigations, resulting in 1,008 arrests. The cases included 449 “Seditious Utterances,” 677 “Disloyal Citizens,” and 36 “Aliens and Citizens Living in Luxury Without Visible Means of Support.” In Philadelphia, the APL arrested a factory worker who, it declared, was sending Morse code messages about troop movements with a machine-driven trip hammer.
All this vigilance was sanctified by stern warnings about enemy espionage that filled the speeches of public officials from President Wilson on down. But corporate enthusiasm for the APL had nothing to do with German spies, almost all of whom had fled the country or been rounded up. (Many were found after their paymaster fell asleep on a New York City elevated train in 1915 and, on getting off, left behind a briefcase full of agents’ names, which was promptly grabbed by the American counterspy tailing him.) Instead, moguls like Ford saw the APL as a powerful new tool for fighting labor organizers, above all the Wobblies. So did the government. On July 17, 1917, the attorney general sent all APL chapters a letter about the IWW, asking
that special efforts shall be made to ascertain all of the plans of the members of this organization, the names, description and history of its leaders, its sources of income, the character of its expenses, copies of all literature issued by it and all other data.
APL members joined the police in raids on IWW offices, got fifty Wobblies fired from military plants in Philadelphia, and purged Wobbly farmworkers from wheat fields in South Dakota. A local Justice Department official approvingly called that state’s APL branch “the Ku Klux Klan of the Prairies.” In the southern Illinois town of Staunton, APL men severely beat, tarred, and feathered a Wobbly leader and his attorney. “This work done,” reported a newspaper,
members of the league proceeded to make a personal canvass of Staunton, asking each person to sign pledges of loyalty to the Government…. At least a hundred persons whose patriotism has been under suspicion were made to kiss the American flag in public.
If there were no Wobblies to hunt, APL members scoured libraries, demanding that they remove books deemed pro-German or left-wing.
Although the APL was by far the largest group of its kind, claiming 250,000 members by the end of 1917, it was by no means the only one. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, black-robed vigilantes called the Knights of Liberty, who included the city’s police chief, whipped, tarred, and feathered sixteen Wobblies. In New York City forty-nine men—and, unusually, three women—signed up for a group called the American Defense Vigilantes, whose aim, the press reported, was to “hunt for pro-German soap box orators.” A man who tried to give an antiwar talk a few days later at the corner of Broadway and 37th Street found himself promptly arrested. Similar organizations sprang up elsewhere, with names like the Home Defense League, the Anti–Yellow Dog League, and the Sedition Slammers. “It is the duty of every good citizen,” a New York Times editorial declared, “to communicate to the proper authorities any evidence of sedition.”
In the United States of that era, the boundary between law enforcement officers—local, state, or federal—and citizens who assumed the right to arrest or punish people was hazy at best. As the country expanded in the nineteenth century, it had often depended on vigilantes and sheriffs’ posses to push Native Americans off their lands or round up cattle and horse thieves, while in the South informal militia groups searched for runaway slaves and Home Guard vigilantes chased down deserters from the Confederate Army. In the century after the Civil War ended, lynch mobs in the South (and sometimes in the North) murdered more than 6,500 people, the great majority of them Black. This was the heritage that lay behind the explosion of vigilante activity that began with American entry into World War I and did not tail off until several years later.
Before long, the vigilantes who fancied themselves protectors of the nation began battling in new ways. In March 1918 Charles Schoberg, a sixty-six-year-old cobbler in Covington, Kentucky, thought nothing was out of the ordinary when several men came into his shop one day to check the voltage level in his electric meter, and he ignored them as they worked. But he was astonished four months later when he and two friends were arrested and charged with treason.
The visitors who said they were fixing Schoberg’s meter were hired by a local vigilante group, the Citizens’ Patriotic League, and they were planting a bug. Microphones were larger in those days, and they had trouble concealing it. The only place large enough was the base of Schoberg’s grandfather clock. From it they ran wires into the building’s basement. Between March and early July detectives working for the league sat there in shifts taking notes on what they heard, exasperated by the tick-tock and hourly chiming of the clock.
Prompting the surveillance were some customers of Schoberg’s who claimed they overheard “pro-German” remarks while getting their shoes repaired. Although Schoberg and his two friends were tried in federal court for violating the Espionage and Sedition Acts, they were actually arrested and indicted by the county prosecutor, who was the president of the Citizens’ Patriotic League. The three bewildered men were accused of attempting to bring American military forces into “contempt, scorn, contumely or disrespect.” The eavesdropping detectives and shop customers testified about conversations in which they heard Schoberg say, “This is a damn war for money…. Somebody is getting rich. Not me.” According to witnesses, Schoberg had claimed that Abraham Lincoln was of German origin and “that his father’s name was not Lincoln, but was Lunkham.” Schoberg had also been heard “singing in a language that was not English.”
One of Schoberg’s fellow defendants was accused of calling the top German commanders, General Erich Ludendorff and Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg, “great generals”—a reasonable observation in the spring of 1918, when the two had just sent the Allied armies reeling in retreat. It made no difference that these statements were all part of private conversations. All three men were swiftly convicted and given sentences ranging from five to ten years. The Citizens’ Patriotic League also forced an end to all teaching of German in local schools and, after the war, demanded a ban on the teaching of any modern foreign language in American elementary schools.
Nothing aroused the rage of the American Protective League’s middle-aged patriots more than young men who might be shirking their military service. The APL soon began conducting “slacker raids” all over the country, rounding up suspected draft dodgers. The first of these took place in Minneapolis on the chilly night of March 26, 1918, in a mood of heightened tension over the ominous German offensive launched in France a few days earlier. A convoy of trucks pulled up to a row of boarding houses and cheap residential hotels that housed single men who worked for the area’s factories, meatpacking plants, or farms. Out leapt 120 APL men with their police-like badges, plus sixty-five Minnesota National Guardsmen with combat boots and long Krag-Jørgensen rifles left over from the Spanish-American War. The guardsmen stationed themselves at each building’s entrance, while APL members banged on the doors of every room, demanding that each man show his draft card. The raiders also surrounded a local performance of the Ringling Brothers circus while the APL searched for “slackers” in wagons and tents.
Additional raids took place over the following months: a thousand men were seized in Des Moines, 250 in New Orleans, a thousand in Cleveland, and seven hundred in Atlantic City, where APL members stood at the exit of each pier and did not let men leave until they showed their draft cards. In Chicago, the APL’s birthplace, more than 10,000 members participated in a raid. At movie theaters, vaudeville shows, and a double-header Cubs game, each draft-age man had to show his card. Badge-wearing vigilantes checked every arriving train or steamboat. APL operatives even appeared at the beaches in bathing suits, wading into Lake Michigan to question swimmers. More than 150,000 men were grilled, of whom one in ten were taken into custody while their draft status was checked. When jail cells and Bureau of Investigation offices overflowed, they were housed in warehouses and on the Municipal Pier, spending the night on a concrete floor. Altogether, more than 1,400 Chicagoans were found to be draft evaders or deserters and were shipped off to the army.
The largest raid, in the fall of 1918, was centered on New York City. It lasted three days and was carried out by more than 20,000 APL members, working with police, federal agents, and active-duty soldiers and sailors. Some 650 cars and trucks transported those seized to two armories in the city and two more in New Jersey. In railway and subway stations, ferry terminals, hotels, theaters, and restaurants, vigilantes corralled military-age men. When one group was seized near Fifth Avenue, the raiders commandeered a passing truck to take them to an armory, but the driver couldn’t show a draft card, so he was arrested as well. George Miller, a twenty-three-year-old flagman in the subway system, was so afraid of being caught that he hid for three days in a shelter in a tunnel at 145th Street, until a fellow worker turned him in. Later, Attorney General Thomas Gregory boasted that, with the “invaluable” help of the APL, “it is safe to say that never in its history has this country been so thoroughly policed.”
The APL’s zeal prevailed even over the protests of draft officials, who complained that they hadn’t yet registered and classified all of the country’s millions of eligible men. Estimates of the number arrested in the New York raids range up to 50,000; at least 300,000 men were stopped and interrogated. Many were held for several days when their relatives’ desperate telegrams and phone calls to overwhelmed draft boards failed to draw prompt responses. Anxious family members thronged the streets outside the armories, waving birth certificates of the men inside. A group of women who stormed the gates of one armory were repulsed by the police. The New York roundup produced some of the first real pushback the APL received: a flood of protests from representatives and senators and disapproving editorials in several of the city’s newspapers. But the raids continued for the remainder of the war.
After the Armistice of November 11, 1918, there was no need to chase down draft dodgers or imaginary German spies. By this point some Justice Department officials were starting to become leery of the enthusiasts they had encouraged. On February 1, 1919, the department ordered the American Protective League closed down. But the government soon learned an uncomfortable truth that still applies today: vigilante groups, especially those that have had official encouragement, are difficult to disband.
APL members were profoundly reluctant to stop their derring-do and found excuses aplenty to keep flashing their silver and gold badges. After all, the Bolsheviks had taken over in Russia and were preaching world revolution. General strikes broke out everywhere from Switzerland to Seattle—the first on American soil. Soaring inflation and four million discharged American soldiers competing for scarce jobs produced the stormiest labor upheavals the United States had ever seen: in 1919 one out of every five American workers went on strike, in occupations ranging from coal mining to stage acting. Such unrest gave the APL the perfect pretext to stay active. Its chapters reorganized as the Committee of Thirteen in Minneapolis, the Loyal American League in Cleveland, the Patriotic American League in Chicago, and other names elsewhere.
The target of vigilante violence then became, above all, organized labor. In Gary, Indiana, for example, 35,000 workers from the US Steel Corporation’s giant complex of plants were on strike. When the state’s governor appealed for federal troops, they came swiftly, led by Major General Leonard Wood, a hero of the Indian and Philippine Wars, who leapt at the chance to burnish his credentials in his as yet undeclared campaign for the 1920 Republican presidential nomination. He welcomed the aid of several vigilante groups, one of which, known as the Loyal Legion, was composed of military veterans. A member described an attack by his “posse” on striking steelworkers:
Every one of us had a deputy’s star in his pocket, a heavy gun under his left shoulder, and a blackjack in his right hand. A bunch of these foreigners…met us this side of the tracks, and we went into them…. Our method of work was to grab a man’s right arm with the operator’s own left hand, then bring down the blackjack across the hand bones or wrist of the man thus caught…. We have a nice hospital in Gary. There were thirty-five people in there the next day with broken wrists and hands.
By mid-1920, however, labor turmoil had subsided, and it was clear that the Russian Revolution was not going to spread to the United States. When the Republicans chose their presidential candidate, it was not General Wood but the genial Senator Warren Harding, who campaigned for a “return to normalcy” and won a landslide victory that November.
Although the various vigilante organizations mostly withered away, many of their members drifted into another: the Ku Klux Klan. Like the APL, the Klan with its titles like Kleagles and Klaliffs echoed the military’s elaborate ranks—as well as its promise of violence. Not just in the South but across the country the Klan enjoyed a remarkable resurgence, reaching its all-time peak of an estimated four million members by 1924. Many Klansmen, including the leading strategist of the group’s rebirth, Imperial Wizard William Simmons, were former members of the American Protective League.
In many ways, the Klan was the APL with hoods, hostile not only to Blacks but to Jews, Catholics, labor unionists, and immigrants. It appealed to the same sense of social and economic loss and displacement to which Donald Trump was able to speak so skillfully nearly a century later. “The Nordic American today,” wrote a prominent Klansman in 1926, “is a stranger in…the land his fathers gave him.”
The Klan’s members and sympathizers ranged from senators, governors, and Supreme Court justices to a youthful New York real estate developer named Fred Trump—who was arrested, wearing a hood, when a 1927 march of some one thousand Klansmen through Queens turned violent.* Ninety-four years later, his son would launch the crowd of vigilantes who invaded the Capitol.