Attack on a Cincinnati Reformer
Posted On: 09/07/2017 - 12:11pm, Posted By: Christine Engels, Archives Manager, Manuscripts Department
Not all Americans were supportive of WWI or of war in general. Keeping the US out of the war was a key tenet of Woodrow Wilson’s 1916 reelection campaign. Pacifism was supported by a wide variety of people for many reasons and included people like Henry Ford, Jane Addams, Eugene Debs and Helen Keller. Before 1917 Europe seemed much more disconnected from the US than it would later, and many people wished to keep it that way though support for aid to Europe remained high. Some of the pacifists were part of the Socialist movement and it was this connection that caused so much trouble for Cincinnati minister and reformer, Herbert Bigelow.
Herbert Bigelow in an undated photograph.
Herbert S. Bigelow (1870-1951) was a proponent of the Social Gospel ethos popular in Progressive Era America. Born in Elkhart, Indiana, by 1900 Bigelow was preaching in Cincinnati at the Vine Street Congregation and later at the People’s Church once his radical ideas had distanced him from more mainstream Christians. The Social Gospel was a movement among Protestants that believed in using Christian ethics to bring about social justice to all aspects of life, including politics. Inspired by these beliefs Bigelow ran for office and worked with the growing Charter Party in Cincinnati to reduce corruption in politics. He ultimately was on Cincinnati City Council, in the US House of Representatives and was also part of the important 1912 constitutional convention in Ohio that brought sweeping reforms.
“Bigelow’s Patriotism” with copy of telegram sent to Secretary of War, Newton D. Baker, September 8, 1917 regarding his position on the war.
Note from M. L. Darbour, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania to Bigelow. Bigelow received letters of encouragement from all over the country.
Though Bigelow’s political career is fascinating he is also well-known for a violent incident that occurred on October 28, 1917. Bigelow was about to speak at a meeting of the Socialist Party in Newport, Kentucky about his opposition to the draft when he was kidnapped and taken to an empty field where he was whipped, purportedly “in the name of the women and children of Belgium.” By this point in the war Bigelow was no longer a strict pacifist. He supported the war against what he saw as the brutality of Germany but he preferred our army be voluntary rather than conscripted. His attackers were not concerned with this nuance but were instead continuing a tradition of anti-Socialist sentiment taken to a violent extreme.
Letter from Rabbi Isaac Mayer Wise to Bigelow, October 29, 1917. Wise does not agree politically with Bigelow but was appalled by the violent attack.
Title page of the ACLU’s publication about the attack, March 1918.
The Herbert S. Bigelow Papers contain many letters and telegrams from shocked and outraged Americans of all political persuasions. Edward F. Alexander was his lawyer and his papers include correspondence with the people he enlisted for assistance, including Bigelow’s friend, Secretary of War Newton D. Baker. However, the investigation went nowhere since neither Kentucky nor Ohio were interested in pursuing the case. Even help from Roger Baldwin, the head of the American Civil Liberties Union, was fruitless though he did organize a rally in New York City to raise awareness of the attack.
Grace Mack of Newport, Kentucky met with threats for her assistance to Bigelow.
Click here for more information on Herbert Bigelow's life and career in Cincinnati.