The Kaiser’s Terrorist?



Much too often, particularly in times of national unease or war, mere suspicion will trump common sense and fact.  In such time freedom no longer rings, but xenophobia and jingoism will sound loudly throughout the land.  To be “other” is sufficient to have many hands raised against you.  This was amply illustrated in incidents that took place in West Terre Haute in 1918.

Many in Sugar Creek took closely to heart a warning issued by President Woodrow Wilson three years earlier.  “Hyphenated Americans,” he declared, were not real Americans.  “They inject the poison of disloyalty into the very arteries of our national life.”  Some in West Terre Haute thought that disease was spreading and the carrier was one Joseph Berger, an Austrian-American living in West Terre Haute.

In the early morning of July 11th two workmen at the Deep Vein coal mine north of town, M.C. Allen and Kenneth Marley, brought a struggling man pinned between them into the Terre Haute police station.  They told the police they had found him hiding under a coal crib at the mine.  Clutched in his hands were 8 sticks of dynamite.  They figured the foreigner was about to sabotage the mine.  It was enough dynamite to destroy the mine completely.  His name was Joseph Berger.

The police department’s best detective, Frank Fedderson, was called in to interrogate the prisoner.  As he sat down in Berger’s cell the “terrorist” told him a much different story.  It was all a lie he said.  He was being framed.  Berger said he was walking down the street in West Terre Haute minding his own business when two men drove up, grabbed him and shoved him into their car.  He did not know them.  They drove aimlessly around the area for a while and then they took him to the mine.  They shoved him to the ground and placed dynamite sticks around his body.  Berger said he was terrified as he thought they intended to blow him up.

Then they pushed him back into the car and drove across the bridge to Terre Haute.  And now he was sitting in jail for no reason.  It was all because he was a foreigner he said.  Berger told Fedderson he was Austrian-born and had emigrated to the United States in 1912.  He was a peaceable man.  He worked in various coal mines around Vigo County until a mine accident left him with injuries.  No longer able to work in the mines he became a laborer in several brickyards.

During his subsequent investigation Fedderson discovered Berger had been involved in an earlier “plot” in March 1918.  Then West Terre Haute Town Marshall C.W.Frost had arrested him for allegedly trying to sprinkle “poison” on the fruit and vegetable bins in several West Terre Haute groceries.  The “poison” found on Berger was sent to Indianapolis for testing.  It was determined that it was powdered magnesia, one of which uses was as a laxative.  It would not have killed anyone, but would send those who consumed it running for their outhouses.

With the poisoning charge no longer an option, Berger was found guilty of petty theft and sentenced to 60 days at a state penal farm.  He had only been free about 6 weeks when he was re-arrested. The Terre Haute police turned the Berger case over to the feds.  Berger was taken to the Marion County Jail on July 15th.  Under questioning by federal prosecutors, Berger changed his story, saying he had been sleeping under the corn crib when Allen and Marley found him.  But he did not have dynamite and did not plan to destroy the mine.

In August Berger was found guilty and sentenced to an internment camp for enemy aliens.

The Berger case was the biggest example of the rampant xenophobia of the time, but not the only one in the area.  Two days after the US entered WWl a Russian immigrant named William Polonius was falsely accused of demeaning the flag.  His fellow miners at the Speedwell Mine refused to work with him and about to mob Polonius when cooler heads prevailed.  The mine general manager had to intervene after Polonius told him that he had served three years in the Russian Army (Russia was on the Allied side) and loved America.  Tempers did not completely cool down until the next day, after Polonius’ neighbor in West Terre Haute came to his defense and said the Russian had always displayed the American flag on his porch.

This was an era when anything “German” was suspect.  Sauerkraut became “liberty cabbage” and East Germantown, Indiana sought to change its name to Pershing, after the American general.  West Terre Haute High School (Valley) had earlier ordered perhaps its finest teacher, Miss Piepenbrink to stop conducting the German language class at the school.  This was especially disappointing to my grandmother, who loved Miss Piepenbrink and her class.  She still rued the cancellation decades later. Across the river one of the few PhDs at Indiana State Normal School, and one of its finest scholars was fired for untrue charges that he supported Germany.  (The professor, John J. Schliecher, and his case became the subject of my first major scholarly article published in 1990).

Was Berger a terrorist  in the modern sense.  Quite likely not.  Did he really intend to destroy the mine, or was he a victim of over-eager patriot?.  There are no definitive abswers to that question. What happened to Joseph Berger after the war is uncertain.  It seems likely he was deported during the first major example of communist witch hunts begun by Attorney General Mitchell Palmer in 1919.  (The movie No God. No Master starring David Strathairn is an excellent depiction of the Palmer era.}


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2 thoughts on “The Kaiser’s Terrorist?

  1. Thanks for another fine article.

    At West Terre Haute High, according to my dad who was a 1920 graduate, the German books were burned in a bonfire – he didn’t say what year.

    1. I had not heard that. I will check into it. Thanks. It was likely the fall/winter of 1917-1918

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