Vigilantism, 1937—Part II By Benjamin Stolberg

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Vigilantism, 1937—Part II
By Benjamin Stolberg
The Nation
August 21, 1937
Vol. 145, No. 8, P. 191


Last week I presented in detail the notorious Mohawk Valley Formula. It differs from all other vigilante programs in two important ways. First, it is intelligent. In fact, it is brilliant in its cynical and logical brutality. It is based on the experiences in the Remington Rand strikes of last year, from which it deduces a new technique of strike-breaking. And second, it shows big business how it can build a vigilante movement of its own. This mitigates the danger of a runaway vigilantism, organized and controlled by crackpots, adventurers, and gangsters. The Mohawk Valley Formula proposes to set up in each disturbed industrial community a citizens committee under whose amenable, respectable, and innocent auspices both the terror of the vigilante outfit and the reaction or corruption of the local authorities can be guided and exploited.

The ten scab commandments of the formula were followed with orthodox fidelity during the strike in Little Steel. And the thing worked. The strike was broken. There might have been another story to tell if the strike bad been carefully prepared and called at the ripe moment. But that is speculation. What actually happened is that the scientific strategy of big business vigilantism defeated the poorly planned guerilla [sic] tactics of the Steel Workers Organizing Committee.

In former days so-called citizens committees were merely sub-committees of the local chambers of commerce and other business men’s organizations. Under the Mohawk Valley Formula these citizens committees have become the local staffs of the vigilante movement. Johnstown, in view of its complete dependence on one big mill, was chosen as the ideal strike-breaking experimental station. The Johnstown Citizens Committee was actually organized between June 18 and 22, with Sidney D. Evans and other executives of Bethlehem Steel in the background. It was organized in protest against Governor Earle’s declaration of martial law on June 18, when the state authorities disbanded Mayor Shields’s 300 deputized vigilantes. The committee’s expensive labors are being subsidized by the steel companies. This is equally true of the citizens committees and law-and-order leagues in Massillon, Canton, Youngstown, all through the Mohawk and Mahoning valleys, where Little Steel is king. The Johnstown Citizens Committee has been the model whose tactics the other centers copied, usually with more violence, as the strikes developed.

The Johnstown Citizens Committee is made up of local business men and preachers. The chairman is Francis C. Martin, a local banker. The most vociferous member is the Reverend John H. Stanton, a typical Elmer Gantry in his views on labor. His close second is the Reverend George W. Nicely. The official Führer is Lawrence W. Campbell, secretary of the local chamber of commerce. Short, fat, bald, chinless, and ex-ophthalmic, Mr. Campbell is in a constant state of frantic excitement about the national role he expects to play in the Citizens National Committee. At the height of the strike he was forever rushing about taking down the names of pickets, inciting the authorities into provocative and illegal action, calling meetings of various subcommittees of his outfit. “Yesterday I saw two girls picketing during their lunch hour. Communists. They work here in a dress shop. So I called up their boss, and ten minutes later they were fired.” Little Lawrence is also a deep thinker: “America is great because of the separation of church and state. Now, the C.I.O., which is really a religious movement, is controlling the state. That’s where we lose our liberties. Don’t you think that’s a pretty good analysis?”

But Lawrence Campbell, for all his self-importance, is not the captain of his soul. His local mentor is Mr. Douglas Campbell, who represents the John Price Jones Corporation of New York City. And the John Price Jones Corporation, which in real life is Mr. John Price Jones, is the guiding genius of the Johnstown committee.

John Price Jones is as different from Lawrence Campbell as Tom Lamont from a small-town banker. Mr. Jones was born in Latrobe, not far from Johnstown. He married a Johnstown girl and has never quite lost touch with his old home section. He is Johnstown’s permanent friend in need. He is such a local patriot that he gave up his class reunion at Harvard to put the Johnstown Citizens Committee on its feet. Since his graduation from college he has made good in a big way. The John Price Jones Corporation is one of the largest publicity and money-raising firms in the country. Mr. Jones raised the money for the Salvation Army, for the Harvey Gibson Committee, which relieved New York City before the government stepped in, for Bishop Manning’s Gothic elephant, for the University of Pennsylvania. He is also a partner in Thornley and Jones, Inc., of 70 Pine Street, New York City. George H. Thornley was formerly connected with N. W. Ayer and Son of Philadelphia, who do the advertising for Henry Ford. And when Mr. Thornley heard about the Johnstown Citizens Committee he exclaimed: “I know that Edsel Ford will be interested in this great movement.”

Just two days after the hasty organization of the Johnstown Citizens Committee, on June 24, the committee had sufficient funds “from thousands of real Americans” to run a full-page ad in forty leading American newspapers at an estimated cost of $65,000. (In a previous article I mistakenly gave the figure as $55,000.) The ad protested against the federal and state authorities for refusing to give protection to the “back-to-work” movement, thus causing violence, chaos, and the breakdown of organized society. It was paid for almost entirely by Little Steel.

From June 24 to July 15 Johnstown was for all practical purposes under the control of the citizens committee. The Mayor and the police force were its agents. Its publicity blasts succeeded in frightening Governor Earle into lifting martial law, which he had invoked to enforce the status quo, thereby keeping the Cambria plants closed at the time. When martial law was lifted, the Governor merely left a skeleton force of the state motor police under Captain William A. Clark, whose jurisdiction was confined to the mills and their immediate vicinity. Earle of course really wanted the state police to remain impartial. But Captain Clark, an old cossack in the force for many years, simply double-crossed the Governor by acting as a stooge for Bethlehem Steel and its innocent front, the citizens committee.

On July 3 Captain Clark called in the press with a grave air. He had big news. At 3 a.m. the Pennsylvania Railroad police had arrested a George Layton, 21, a former reformatory inmate, for throwing three sticks of dynamite on the tracks of the Cambria carrier, the Conemaugh and Blacklick Railroad. Fortunately the dynamite failed to explode. The prisoner was cooperatively detained by the local, state, and Pennsylvania Railroad police. He had no lawyer. While the Captain was talking, the telephone rang and the local police informed him that Layton had implicated two railroad workers, Calvin Updyke and George Owens, who had fixed him to do the job. The Captain was pleased at this splendid police work. But immediate inquiry at the Brotherhoods of Railway Conductors and Trainmen disclosed the fact that Updyke had been a “loyal” company stooge for 35 years and Owens for 20. They had been the ringleaders in the formation of the company union. Obviously somebody had made a bad slip, and Bethlehem Steel was caught framing itself. These tactics no doubt also explain the explosion of a stick of dynamite inside the Gautier gates of the Cambria on June 15, and the dynamiting of the two water mains which feed the Cambria.

Three hours after Updyke and Owens were detained, the company whitewashed them on the ground that some bad mistake must have been made. Same thirty hours later they were released. And on July 6 Layton implicated Louis A. Pegg, the chairman of the striking trainmen on the Conemaugh and Blacklick.

The strike was petering out. And the success of the new vigilantism gave the citizens committee movement the idea of organizing itself on a national scale. The Johnstown Citizens Committee was chosen to call a national convention for July 15 in Johnstown. Lawrence Campbell claimed that thousands of letters of enthusiastic approval were pouring in, some inclosing small checks and bills. But the letter that interested me most was from Senator Copeland of New York:

I have done my best for you. I took the matter up with Senator Bridges and some of the other Senators. I was deeply moved by your letter.

Finally on July 15 representatives of various citizens committees, law-and-order leagues, chambers of commerce, big industries from a dozen states, and a few riff-raff vigilante movements met in Johnstown to form a Citizens National Committee, dedicated to the “inalienable constitutional right to work.” Dr. Gustavus W. Dyer, professor of economics at Vanderbilt University, hailed the meeting as “the rising sun for the protection of American liberties.” “Thank God for Tom Girdler,” shouted J. G. Lester, chairman of the Massillon Citizens Committee, “I think we ought to send him a telegram congratulating him for smoking out those Communists, John L. Lewis, Madame Perkins, and President Roosevelt.” The National Labor Relations Board was attacked viciously. The gist of all the arguments was again that government had “broken down,” failing to protect the worker in his right to earn a living. On July 16 another expensive full-page ad was run, again paid for largely by Little Steel, And this time the ad had a definitely provocative and sinister appeal to vigilantism.

The chairman of this newly organized Citizens National Committee is the Reverend John H. Stanton; the national secretary is Lawrence Campbell. The rest of the committee consists of obscure reactionaries, some of whom, especially those from the South, have long vigilante, anti-Semitic, Negro-hating, labor-baiting records.

The Johnstown Citizens Committee technique was applied all through the Little Steel area. The Mahoning Valley Citizens Committee, whose chairman is the Reverend Roland Luhman of Youngstown, ran three characteristic full-page ads in the Youngstown Daily Vindicator. The two leading spirits in this Youngstown vigilante outfit are Carl Ullman, president of the Dollar Savings and Trust Company, and Walter O. R. Johnson, a lawyer, who is also head of the American Legion. In the Ohio cities the citizens committees were less well organized than in Johnstown. But their terror was more intense because of the ultra-willing collaboration of Governor Davey, who used the National Guard as an open strike-breaking agency.

To sum up, the present vigilante drive is better organized, better financed, and more dangerous than any of its predecessors. It is in the initial stages of organization by big industry itself. It exploits all the local reactionaries and crackpots through citizens committees and law-and-order leagues. And it exerts pressure on the local authorities “to do their duty.” I have shown how the thing works in Johnstown. In his brilliant piece of reporting in The Nation of August 7, Paul Anderson showed how they did the job in Massillon, where two workers were killed and fifteen wounded. The connection between the Chicago Memorial Day massacre and Republic Steel came out in the La Follette hearings.


Henry Ford plays in vigilantism the same independent game he has always played in industry. He has always hated “Wall Street.” He still hates it. And today he is our biggest vigilante-independent. At River Rouge he has his own private underworld to terrorize the workers.

For all his genius as a garage mechanic, old Henry does not understand the world he lives in. Proud of his ignorance of history, he has never heard of Herr Thyssen of the Ruhr, who subsidized Hitler and now is on an enforced though luxurious vacation in South America. Ford brought into River Rouge the underworld gangs of Detroit and their leaders, who now control the plant. And the man who did this job is the notorious Harry Bennett.

Harry Bennett is a war product. During the war he was in the navy, where he acquired some reputation as a prize-fighter. Finally he drifted into Michigan and into Ford’s. There he got into the personnel department and, being undeniably a gentleman of considerable parts, he gradually came to control it. In time he built up the Ford Service Men—with the aid of one Joseph Palma, who is now the Ford agent at Staten Island and—of all things!—the Fusion president of the borough of Richmond. The backbone of the Ford Service organization is today the Down River gang of Detroit under the leadership of one Angelo Caruso.

There are about 800 underworld characters in the Ford Service organization. They are the Storm Troops. They make no pretense at working, but are merely “keeping order” in the plant community through terror. Around this nucleus of 800 yeggs there are, however, between 8,000 and 9,000 authentic workers in the organization, a great many of them spies and stool-pigeons and a great many others who have been browbeaten into joining this industrial mafia. There are almost 90,000 workers in River Rouge, and because of this highly organized terror and spy system the fear in the plant is something indescribable. During the lunch hour men shout at the top of their voices about the baseball scores lest they be suspected of talking unionism. Every man suspected of union sympathies is immediately fired, usually under the framed-up charge of “starting a fight,” in which he often gets terribly beaten up. Nor is the Ford Service terror only intramural. Workers’ homes are under constant surveillance. Harry Bennett’s power extends beyond Dearborn to Detroit. In certain localities in Michigan judges and other state officials cannot run for office without a petition with a specified number of signatures. It is said that Bennett conveys such petitions on the belt line, and in one afternoon the prospective candidate has all the signatures he needs.

During the first half of July the American press carried on its front pages the story of the violence precipitated by Harry Bennett’s vigilante movement at River Rouge. This publicity is increasingly resented by Messrs. Sorenson and Cameron, the Ford production manager and Ford’s secretary, respectively. They feel that the Ford Service organization hurts the company, and instead they want to push a disguised company union named the Ford Brotherhood, Incorporated. This fake Union was organized last June by a small lawyer in Detroit named William S. McDowell, who specializes in half a dozen such incorporated unions. But the Ford executives do not know how to get rid of Harry Bennett, whose complete hold on Henry Ford was developed because of the old man’s tremendous fear, even before the days of the kidnapping racket, that Edsel or one of his grandchildren might be kidnapped. Bennett developed a regular little garrison to protect the Ford family. And he got himself on Ford’s personal pay roll in complete independence of the plant executives.

The fact is that the gangsters are in control of River Rouge today. And the leading authority on the Michigan vigilante movement among the newspapermen in Detroit told me that even Ford himself is afraid—fantastic as it may sound—of the gangster organization he has reared.

Except for the Ford terror, vigilantism in Michigan is less efficiently organized, though probably more widespread, than in Pennsylvania and Ohio. In Michigan, as well as in Indiana and Illinois, the vigilante movement is still largely local, disconnected, and erratic, in the hands of illiterates and loons. Their literature lacks the polish of the big advertising agency and the effectiveness of high-pressure management.


Big business is engaged in a mighty, well-planned, slanderous, and violent campaign against the whole New Deal program. Its main attack of course is directed against the C.I.O., which represents the awakening of the American masses, and the defeat of which would mean the rout of the New Deal. The Administration has met this attack—by withdrawing. Such an attitude can lead only to an increase in vigilantism. During the next congressional recess the government should map out the legislative “must” program to fight this menace. The President should make a series of national broadcasts to build an electoral fire under the reactionary Democrats in Congress. No Vandenberg castration of the Wagner Act should be permitted. Indeed, the Wagner Act should be clarified, strengthened, and made enforceable. Unequivocal legislation prohibiting every expression of vigilantism should be promptly enacted. What’s wrong with the New Deal is not the gradualness of its economic reforms but its incapacity to enforce these reforms. A democracy which fails to enforce itself is not a democracy but an involuntary prologue to fascism. As long as every American knows that eighteen strikers can be killed with impunity, while Tom Girdler defies the federal law, just so long the New Deal will not work; will indeed work less and less. And vigilantism will grow.

The other and greater anti-vigilante force is, of course, organized labor itself. The responsibility of men like John Lewis and Phil Murray is historic. Labor must be organized intelligently, strategically, quickly but not hastily. The C.I.O. cannot afford a long apprenticeship of trial and error. Major errors may be fatal. And above all, the C.I.O. must root out mercilessly every expression of political factionalism within itself. For nothing is as dangerous a foil to fascism as a mass movement of labor which permits sectarian bitterness to divide its strength.

[Mr. Stolberg’s concluding article will appear in an early issue.]

About homelessholocaust

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