"Persecution Up to Date" (Unity)




"Persecution Up to Date" (Unity)




Conscientious objection


Fort Leavenworth (KS)


Holmes, John Haynes


Swarthmore College Peace Collection


Swarthmore College Peace Collection


Copyright is retained by the authors of items in these papers, or their descendants, as stipulated by United States copyright law.








Persecution Up To Date—


The two following letters were received the first of this month by the office of the Civil Liberties Bureau, New York City. They were written by two "conscientious objectors confined in the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The facts narrated have been verified by abundant testimony from independent sources. This tale, added to others which have to do with solitary confinements, beatings-up, midnight baths under ice-cold showers, etc., gives a perfect picture of persecution as it is practiced not by Spanish inquisitors in the Middle Ages, but by U.S. army officials in this "Year of our Lord," 1919:


U.S.D.B., Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

April 25, 1919

Dear Evan:

...We have left this cantonment. Tuesday we political objectors, twenty-five strong, with the exception of Lunde and Abrams, were brought to the Post Guard House to join the thirty-five men who were recently taken to from the "hole" (solitary confinement). Eight religious objectors who were here were taken to the cantonment. We do not know the reason for this move.

Last night after lights were out we were talking in low whispers. When the O.D. came in, sometime between ten and eleven o'clock, the guard ordered every man to his bunk. As soon as we were in our bunks a stream of water was played upon us all with a small hose. This was done without provocation or warning. Some of the men who had retired got out of their bunks as they became wet. They protested and became targets of the the stream. This was not enough. The fire department, headed by the O.D., brought in a three-inch fire hose with which we were all deluged.

We were drenched. The cell was flooded. The water around the cell was a good three-inches deep as it was over the ankles of the boots worn by the guard and firemen. The force of the water lifted Bernstein from his top bunk, which was near Roderick's and mine, and tumbled him to the floor. He, Bernstein, became hysterical and yelled. The water was still played on him and as he rose from the floor the water knocked him prostrate over the adjoining bunk occupied by Shotkin. His yells were drowned as he became choked with water. The stream was then played on all. It hit me in the back turning me nearly over. We were like rats caught in a hole and drowned. Bernstein had not become unconscious but we had to assist him into a corner bunk which was not absolutely drenched. Here he sat with others wrapped in semi-wet blankets which had been protected by bunks nearer the hose which got the worst of it. The rest sat or lay in drenched or partially soaked bunks.

During the beginning of the affair the O.D. was heard to remark, "Give them lots of it." His orders were carried out. A guard said that we had been asking for a bath and now we would get one. We did. Several times since our arrival here we have made inquiries regarding bathing facilities. Toilet facilities are so bad that it is necessary to keep urinal pails in the cells. I should have told you that 26 men occupy one cell and 24 another on the lower floor of the guard house. Our cell with the 26 in it was the only one subjected to the water, although garrison prisoners on the floor above were singing and talking in ordinary tones.

This morning boys in the next cell proffered dry blankets and coats, but the guard said he had orders to permit nothing in to us. Our blankets and clothes are hanging around the cell but they will not by dry by night. The straw mattresses will not dry out for days. In the meantime we are doing our best in fatigue clothes, which most of us had wrapped in raincoats and were thus partially protected. We have no underwear or socks and it is difficult to keep warm.


Fort Leavenworth, Kan.

April 24, 1919

Dear Folks:

Last night which we shall term "Wet Wednesday." We (26 of us), occupying one of the cage-like cells here, were subjected to the famous old therapeutic treatment. This, as punishment for a slight infraction of the prison rules namely, whispering after "lights out." During the entire stay in this guard house, the men have been accustomed to sit on their bunks and carry on conversation in a very low tone of voice or whispers. Apparently no one took exception to this up to now.

Yesterday some of the men were seated on their bunks after dark conversing as usual, when suddenly about 10 p.m. sn officer appeared. The sentries turned on the lights; the officer walked around the outside of our cage, looked at us but never said a word to us. He retired and in a few moments reappeared with a few sentries, who dragged along a garden hose. They turned on the water, shouting, "To your bunks." Those of us who had not yet retired went to our bunks without even removing our clothing. The soldiers, however, turned the hose on all the men, even those who had already been in bed an hour or more and were already asleep. The officer ordered his soldiers to "Let them have it; give them plenty." This continued for a while although every one of us was in his bunk. Some of the men, especially those who awoke from their slumber, resented this treatment, voicing their protests. The water was turned off and the soldiers and officers left. In a short while he returned with soldiers from the post fire department. I recognized them as such because they wore long rubber boots and the fire department badge. They dragged after them a three-inch fire hose. Not a sound was heard from any of our men. We were all in our bunks under cover of the blankets. Some went to bed fully clothed, others in their underwear or pajamas. The officer looked in at us, and although every one of us was perfectly quiet, he ordered the water turned on. The firemen dexterously but truculently turned the stream onto every bunk in this cage. After a few minutes of this, the water in the corridor reached such a height that the officer (a captain) retreated to the stairway. From this elevated position he directed this formidable procedure.

Bernstein, who occupies the upper berth of a "double-decker" bed, was thrown out of his bunk by the force of the water. He fell on the concrete floor, and when he at-

-tempted to stand up, the firemen turned the hose on him again, directing the stream to his neck and back. Again the force of the water picked him up and hurled him on to an adjoining bunk. He became hysterical and gave vent to heartrending screams. It seemed to me that the firemen felt commiseration for us, for just a moment they directed the stream to the steel wall. But on order from the Captain to "give them plenty" awoke them to their duty. They continued to administer this panacea while Bernstein continued his pathos-evoking shrieks of hysteria. You can imagine the force behind a three-inch fire hose, with the water turned on full. The hose was directed along the floor soaking almost all our belongings. They turned it onto the ceiling from where it poured down on us like a deluge. For variation it was turned on the bunks, saturating mattresses, blankets, bedding, and underwear. Miraculously, we escaped getting the direct steam in our face, for the power of it might easily kill a person, break one's eardrums or injure him otherwise. We were now soaking wet, our teeth chattering and our bodies quivering from the cold, so much that the beds vibrated with us. Finally, apparently satisfied, the officer ordered the water turned off. During the entire seance not a word was uttered by either the firemen or the besieged, except the Captain's orders from the stairway, from where he directed the work while we were locked helpless in our cage, unable to seek shelter. The firemen discontinued the hose and left us to pass the night as we saw fit. By this time Bernstein's shrieks had diminished to means, but fortunately he was not hurt otherwise. Needless to say we passed an almost sleepless night in our soaking wet bunks. No attempt was made to give us dry clothing; the soldiers simply left us to shift for ourselves. To fight off the chill, two, and in some bunks three men, crowded on one mattress in attempt to keep a bit warmer with the aid of what little heat was left in our bodies.

Strange to say, up till now no one has contracted pneumonia. This morning we hung up all our clothing and bedding to dry. We pace up and down our cage, wearing such dry (?) clothing as we have, a raincoat, a semi-wet blanket or the like. At this writing, about 3 p.m., no one has come here to offer us relief, although our bedding, mattresses and blankets are still wet and we face the prospects of passing another night in damp beds.

Through it all, the iridescence of this waterfall, which likened a hurricane, appealed to my aesthetic senses, and I could not help but admire this miniature Niagara.

Did you ever see a fire sale? That's what this place looks like today, with a motley array of drenched stuff, ranging from shoes to mattresses, hanging around all the bars of the cell.

For the opinions and conduct or the "conscientious objectors" who were the victims of this outrage, we do not at this time ask any slightest sympathy. We are ready to agree for the moment that these men have failed in their duty to the nation, have defied the laws and have justly been sentenced to imprisonment. We simply submit that, in this age of the world' history, there is no excuse for any kind of such treatment of prisoners as is described in these letters. The vilest criminal, confined for the most hideous of crimes, should not be locked up and half drowned like a rat in a trap. Even with the worst offenders, there are certain rudimentary principles of decency to be recognized, certain basic elements of pity to be invoked. This wretched business at Fort Leavenworth is persecution pure and simple, and it is persecution practiced by responsible officials of the United States government. Our duty, as citizens of this government, is plain—first, to send our indignant protests to the War Department in Washington, demanding investigation and punishment of the officers guilty of this outrage; secondly, to give unremitting service to the movement for amnesty, which can alone solve the vexatious problems involved in this whole matter of "conscientious objectors."

John Haynes Holmes.


Holmes, John Haynes, “"Persecution Up to Date" (Unity),” Conscientious Objection & the Great War: 1914-1920, accessed February 27, 2021, https://cosandgreatwar.swarthmore.edu/items/show/849.

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