A publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Our Rich History: World War I — a confusing array of ethnic tensions as citizens are harassed, terrorized

Part 9 of a continuing series on World War I

By Paul A. Tenkotte
Special to NKyTribune

On May 20, 1918, Kelley-Koett Manufacturing Company of Covington sponsored a large advertisement in The Kentucky Post promoting the American Red Cross’s second national war fund drive. The campaign’s mission was to procure funds to feed the “starving women and children in the ruined districts of France and Italy.”

Assisting the American Red Cross, the ad noted, was vital to winning the war, and to securing the place of liberty worldwide. Appealing to Americans’ sense of patriotism, the ad declared that “All that life holds for you as American is at stake in this war, and you must fight for it to the utmost limits of your power.”

Kenton Countians responded generously to the American Red Cross fund. By Saturday morning, May 25th, The Kentucky Post proudly reported that the county had already exceeded its quota of $40,000 by an additional $30,000.

Red Cross fundraising ad, Kentucky Post, May 20, 1918, p.3

But exceeding its quota was apparently not enough for the General Campaign Committee (GCC) of the second war fund of the American Red Cross of Kenton County. Sadly, by late May 1918, the Northern Kentucky area was already laying the groundwork for what would become one of the nation’s most virulent hate campaigns against German immigrants. The GCC of the Kenton County Red Cross even passed a resolution declaring that anyone not giving to the Red Cross’s second national war fund drive, and financially able to do so, would be publicly shamed:

“That, in order that they be known to the world for what they are, we hereby recommend to the Executive Committee of this General Committee that to [sic] on our behalf, publish to the world thru [sic] the local press all such persons within our county, designating them as ‘Service Slackers’ and declaring them ostracised [sic], socially and commercially, until they repent and bring forth fruits of meet for repentance” (Kentucky Post, May 24, 1918, p. 1).

In the following month, the virulent rhetoric of the campaign turned ugly and violent at the hands of a vigilante group called the Citizens Patriotic League (CPL) of Covington. The CPL was founded in 1917 and claimed more than 1,000 members by 1919. On Wednesday, June 5, 1918, 200 members of the CPL traveled in 40 autos from Covington to Erlanger and back again. The assembly stopped at St. John Church in Covingon’s heavily German-American neighborhood of Lewisburg and harassed its pastor, Rev. Anthony Goebel.

In an article entitled “Seditious Hun Skunks” published in a propaganda piece entitled “Comment ‘One Hundred Per Cent America,’” the vigilantes admitted forcing Rev. Goebel to come out of the rectory onto his porch, during a thunderstorm, where they proudly noted that “he cowed and trembled and pleaded.”

An attorney, John B. O’Neal, “confronted the priest in the center of a surging throng of outraged Americans,” and accused him in these words: “You are a traitor to your country. You have been guilty of acts of pro-Germanism. This must stop. You are being warned that the Americans of this community will not permit any further evidences of disloyalty on your part.”

In suburban Erlanger, the CPL took Joseph Merk from his home to “Schaeffer’s saloon” where he was “compelled to deliver up the books of the German Pioneer Society.” In addition, Stephens L. Blakely, Kenton County Commonwealth Attorney, “instructed” Mr. Merk “to move to Cincinnati within five days.”

Returning to Covington, the League proceeded to harass two saloon owners, and then went to the grocery store of Simon Schollmeyer, where they “surged up the narrow stairs” to his residence, and despite hearing the “voice of a woman, behind a locked door,” broke their way into his quarters and dragged him out to the sidewalk. At Frank Rowekamp’s saloon, the League forced Rowekamp and Joe Grote, a Covington merchant, to “stand side by side upon a table that the crowd might view them,” slapping them in the “face several times” while Stephens Blakely verbally accosted them.

Propaganda, Citizens’ Patriotic League newsletter, June 1918

On June 24, 1918, the CPL repeated its harassing activities. Led by Stephens Blakely, Harvey Myers, and a Mr. O’Neal, the crowd traveled out Madison Pike in Kenton County to the farm of a law-abiding citizen, Paul W. Flynn. There, they kicked old Mr. Flynn, dragged him across the field, blindfolded him, threatened to hang him, fired shots at him, stripped him naked, and horse-whipped him until the blood ran down into his boots. Next, Blakely and the vigilantes went to the Schneider farm, where they hit 24-year-old John Schneider, stripped him, and whipped him with the horse whips taken from Flynn’s.

These two nights of anti-German harassment, called later “The Reign of Terror,” found their way into court. Joseph C. Grote pursued the litigation against Stephens L. Blakely and others in the Kenton Circuit Court in Covington. The testimony, taken from both the perpetrators and the victims, painted an ugly picture of hatred and total disregard for human life.

Rev. Goebel testified of his mistreatment: “I saw that I was up against a group, —a crowd. I tried to prevent being shoved out, I had in my right hand the doorknob, in the left hand I pressed against the door post. They beat me on my knuckles and shoved me out… They tore my shirt to pieces, they shoved me out to the porch … Abusive language was used against me, called me ‘pro-German’, ‘Traitor’ and other vile epithets …” The crowd then struck and kicked him, threatening to hang him.

On further examination, Rev. Goebel testified that he had actively supported the American cause in the war, that his parish had a “ladies Red Cross society,” and that he had personally subscribed to Liberty Bonds (“An Open Reply to John Richmond, President Blakely Club, Covington, Ky. Concerning Patriotic Activities,”14 July 1921, 1–15).

Ironically, the Red Cross’s ad proclaiming that, “All that life holds for you as American is at stake in this war, and you must fight for it to the utmost limits of your power,” was misunderstood by vigilantes with little respect for the protections and boundaries of democracy. Their violence in June 1918 shook the very foundations of a law-abiding immigrant group, the German Americans of Northern Kentucky.

We want to learn more about the history of your business, church, school, or organization in our region (Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky). If you would like to share your rich history with others, please contact the editor of “Our Rich History,” Paul A. Tenkotte, at tenkottep@nku.edu. Paul A. Tenkotte, PhD is Professor of History and Director of the Center for Public History at NKU.

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