Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Sedition

Montana had one of the nation’s harshest sedition laws, making it illegal to speak out against U.S. involvement in World War I. Among the dozens of people who went to prison for this crime, Janet Smith was the only woman who did time at Deer Lodge. She and her husband William ran the post office at Sayle south of Miles City and had a ranch in the Powder River country. Mrs. Smith was famous for her cooking and often fed dozens of cowboys at her table. She stood accused of bragging that if the people revolted, she would be the first one to shoulder a gun and get the president. She called the Red Cross a fake and said the disabled, insane, and convicts should be killed to save food instead of the government’s restricting it from the rest of the population. The jury found her guilty. The judge gave her five to ten years, and she was taken from the courtroom sobbing.

Montana Historical Society Research Center, Montana State Prison Records

Her husband had also made seditious statements and was found guilty. Author Clemens P. Work in his book Darkest Before Dawn suggests that the isolation of ranchers like the Smiths made them particularly vulnerable, not realizing the implications of their casual talk. “In 1918,” Work writes, “what was skeptical became unpatriotic, what was thrifty became miserly, and what was opinion became sedition.” Janet Smith served twenty-six months before the Supreme Court reversed her conviction on the grounds that the language with which she was charged was not specific enough to convict her. William Smith was paroled at about the same time. What happened to the Smiths after their release has yet to be discovered.

Montana Historical Society Research Center, Montana State Prison Records

1 comment:

  1. But the good news is that in recent years, through a joint project of the UM Law School and the School of Journalism, those imprisoned so unjustly were each granted a posthumous pardon by Governor Schweitzer, in a ceremony in the Capitol Rotunda, attended by descendants of their families and others.

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