Montana pardons 78 for World War I-era sedition


Not long after Fay Rumsey was married in Sherwood, Mich., in 1901, he and his wife, Sarah, went west. They homesteaded along Sarpy Creek in southeastern Montana and raised 12 children.

Their world fell apart in 1918 when Rumsey, 49, was convicted under the state's harsh sedition law and sentenced to two to four years in prison.

He was among 78 people who were convicted of sedition in Montana during the waning days of World War I. Rumsey and 40 others were sentenced to prison terms of one to 20 years and fined from $200 to $20,000.

Rumsey's crime?

He said that "he wished the Germans would come in and clean up the U.S. and especially Sarpy Creek; that President Wilson was in cahoots with the money power of this country, and that if he was drafted he would not fight for the U.S. but would fight for the Kaiser," according to court records.

With Rumsey behind bars, the ranch quickly failed and was sold out of foreclosure for a few hundred dollars. Most of the children were sent to orphanages or were placed with other families - not to be united for many years, according to family members.

Rumsey was released after 12 months and moved back to Michigan, where he died of a heart attack less than three years later.

Yesterday, Gene Dalton of Rock Falls, Ill., a grandson of Rumsey, was among more than 40 relatives of those convicted who gathered in Helena at the state Capitol where, with the stroke of a pen, Gov. Brian Schweitzer granted a blanket posthumous pardon.

"This is very important," Dalton said in a telephone interview. "This is a time when you think you can say what you want - to just have freedom of speech. They - the convicted defendants - thought they did, but they really didn't."

For Dalton, 68; his wife, Shirley; and other relatives, the pardon was a long time coming.

Schweitzer said in a telephone interview just before the ceremony, "I think this sends a signal to the rest of the folks across the country that in times of insecurity and xenophobia, sometimes we lose our minds. It takes cooler minds and cooler heads to say; `This wasn't right.'"

The pardon ceremony was the realization of a dream of Clemens Work, a University of Montana journalism professor whose book, Darkest Before Dawn: Sedition and Free Speech in the American West, detailed the passage of the state sedition law and subsequent trials and convictions of ordinary citizens.

"I am so bowled over by the fact this is actually happening," said Work, who joined the families in Helena for the ceremony.

The convictions came at a time when farmers, ranchers, saloonkeepers and all manner of blue-collar workers were hauled into court for a variety of utterances considering unpatriotic. Many of them were little more than profane tirades fueled by drink.

After publication of the book, law students at the University of Montana, under the direction of professor Jeff Renz, gathered legal materials and prepared a request for pardons that was sent to Schweitzer last month.

Maurice Possley writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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