Palmer raids were a series of violent and abusive law-enforcement raids directed at leftist radicals and anarchists in 1919 and 1920, beginning during a period of unrest known as the “Red Summer.” Named after Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, with assistance from J. Edgar Hoover, the raids and subsequent deportations proved disastrous and sparked a vigorous debate about constitutional rights.
Following the Russian Revolution in 1917, America was on high alert, fearing Communist revolutionaries on their own shores.
The Sedition Act of 1918, which was an expansion of the 1917 Espionage Act, was a direct result of the paranoia. Targeting those who criticized the government, the Sedition Act set into motion an effort to monitor radicals, especially labor union leaders, with the threat of deportation looming over them.
Anyone who was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World union was particularly at risk.
1919 Anarchist Bombings
In the spring of 1919, a series of bombs targeting government and law enforcement officials were discovered.
In April, a package bomb was delivered at the home of former U.S. Senator Thomas Hardwick in Georgia. It exploded, but Hardwick, his wife and the maid who opened the package survived (albeit with severe injuries).
Later in the month, the office of Seattle mayor Ole Hanson received a mail bomb sent from New York City that failed to explode.
Days later, a postal worker read a newspaper item about the Georgia bombing, and the description of that package reminded him of a group of parcels he had dealt with a few days before that lacked proper postage.
The headlines that followed pushed a conspiracy narrative and set off a Red Scare wave in the country. There were riots in New York City and Cleveland centering around labor union-supported May Day celebrations.
On June 2, 1919, a bomb exploded at the home of Judge Charles Cooper Nott Jr. In New York City, killing two people.
The very same day, a bomb exploded in front of Palmer’s home in Washington, D.C. The anarchist planting the bomb, Carlo Valdinoci, was the only casualty of the explosion.
Other devices detonated in Boston, Cleveland and Philadelphia. Two anarchists working in a print shop traced to a flyer contained in each package were suspected, but were never convicted due to lack of evidence.
J. Edgar Hoover
A special division of the Bureau of Investigation—precursor to the FBI—charged with collating all information on leftist radicals was created by Palmer in 1919 in response to the bombs.
J. Edgar Hoover, a Justice Department lawyer at the time, was put in charge of the group. Hoover coordinated intelligence from various sources to identify those radicals believed most prone to violence.
Hoover’s analysis lead to raids and mass arrests under the Sedition Act in the fall of 1919, with well-known anarchist figures Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman among those arrested.
Police raided locations like the Russian People’s House in New York City, where Russian immigrants often gathered for educational purposes. Department of Justice agents stormed a meeting room and beat the 200 occupants with clubs and blackjacks.
An algebra class was interrupted by armed agents, with the teacher being beaten. The detained were ordered to hand over their money to agents, who were then directed to tear the place apart.
Dragged and shoved into patrol wagons and taken into custody, agents searched among the detainees for members of the Union of Russian Workers. The questioning that followed revealed that only 39 of the people arrested had anything to do with the union.
Palmer Raids Continue
Raids across the United States continued, with police pulling suspects out of their apartments, often without arrest warrants. One thousand people were arrested in 11 cities. Seventy-five percent of the arrestees were released.
In Hartford, Connecticut, 100 men were held for five months, during which time they weren’t allowed lawyers and were not informed of the charges.
Many of the alleged Communist sympathizers that were rounded up were deported in December 1919. The boat utilized for this, the USAT Buford, was nicknamed the Soviet Ark and the Red Ark. A total of 249 radicals were deported aboard the ship, including Goldman.
More violent abuses abounded: New York City deportee Gaspar Cannone was held secretly without being charged and beaten when he would not inform on others. When Cannone refused to sign a statement admitting to being an anarchist, his signature was forged.
During Goldman’s deportation hearing, she defiantly accused the government of violating the First Amendment and warned them of the mistake they were making. She would not return to America until 1940 when her dead body was shipped for burial.
Second Wave of Palmer Raids
More raids followed on January 2, 1920. Justice Department agents conducted raids in 33 cities, resulting in the arrest of 3,000 people. Over 800 of the arrested suspected radicals were living in the Boston area.
In Chicago, the state’s attorney and the police chief believed Palmer had tipped off local targets and thought rounding them up a day early was the only way to achieve the desired arrests.
Around 150 Chicagoans were arrested on January 1 in raids on union halls and radical bookstores. Only a portion of those went on trial, with the prosecutor alleging a hysterical Communist plot to shut off the city’s electricity and steal its food supply.
Abuses of arrestees were routine: In Detroit, nearly 1,000 men were detained and starved for almost a week in a small area without windows on the top floor of the federal building.
They were later transferred to Fort Wayne to be tortured during questioning. Family members of prisoners were assaulted in front of them as part of interrogation.
ACLU Is Created
The American Civil Liberties Union, or ACLU, was created in 1920 as a direct result of the Palmer Raids. It was suggested in a January 13 meeting to reorganize the National Civil Liberties Bureau as the ACLU, which held its first meeting on January 19.
The ACLU’s first action was to challenge the Sedition Act.
The ACLU took on cases defending immigrants that were being targeted and members of Industrial Workers of the World, as well as other trade union members and political radicals, directly combating the efforts of the Palmer raids.
Downfall of Palmer
Though the first raids were popular with American citizens, they eventually elicited much criticism, particularly after the second wave of raids, and Palmer faced rebukes from numerous sources, including Congress.
Palmer defended his actions in the press, but a subsequent report from a group of lawyers and judges revealing the extent to which due process had been disregarded caused further damage.
Assistant Secretary of Labor Louis F. Post joined in the chorus of criticism after reviewing deportation cases, claiming that innocent people were punished under Palmer’s efforts. Post invalidated well over 1,500 deportations. Only 556 arrestees remained deported.
An attempt by Palmer’s Congressional allies to impeach Post backfired, instead providing an opportunity for Post to publicly outline and decry Palmer’s abuses.
During hearings, Palmer questioned Post’s patriotism and refused to admit wrongdoing.
He predicted an armed Communist uprising on May 1, 1920, to justify further raids and other actions. When that never materialized, his plans fell apart and he was subject to near-universal mockery.
A career politician, Palmer sought the Democratic nomination for president in 1920 but lost to James M. Cox. Palmer died in 1936.
From the Palmer Raids to the Patriot Act. Christopher M. Finan.
1919 May Day plot helped spur 1920s deadly Wall St. Blast. New York Daily News.
A Byte Out of History: The Palmer Raids. FBI Archive.
Chicago sweep, Palmer Raids were the apex of the Red Scare. Chicago Tribune.