Montana History April 03, 2018
by Jessica Wick This Is The Single Craziest Thing You Never Knew Happened In Montana
Spend more than five minutes in Montana and you’ll promptly realize one thing: We love our freedom here. So imagine how unbelievable it is that our state once passed a law that severely restricted our freedom of speech. It’s true, and unfortunately, many Montanans suffered because of it.
Around the time of World War I, tensions were a little high in Montana.
A high number of Montanans were against America entering the war -- and, in fact, Jeanette Rankin, the first woman elected to Congress, voted against it. But once the U.S. did enter the war, many pro-war Montanans felt that any criticism of it (or the president) was treasonous.
The Montana Sedition Law was passed in 1918, making it illegal to speak out against our involvement in World War I.
This meant that you could be sitting at your local watering hole with your friends, and if the conversation turned to war, you could be arrested and sent to jail for what you said.
The law was strictly enforced. 76 men and three women were convicted of sedition in Montana in 1918 and 1919.
40 men and one woman were locked up in the state penitentiary in Deer Lodge, sentenced to up to 20 years.... simply for stating their opinions. One man was sentenced to 7- 20 years for saying the wartime food regulations were a joke.
Perhaps the saddest story is that of Herman Bausch, a young man who immigrated from Germany at the age of 16 and wanted to live the American dream. He promptly became an American citizen and taught himself perfect English.
Bausch worked hard and had a small farm in what is now Billings, a wife, and an infant son when he refused to buy Liberty Bonds and allegedly said the U.S. never should have entered the war. Bausch ended up spending 28 months in prison... and his infant son died of the flu during that time. Once he was released he tried to go on with his life, but his now 85-year-old daughter Fritzi says he was never the same. He was always depressed and broken -- all because he exercised his First Amendment rights.
Women were punished just as severely as men.
Janet Smith was the only woman to serve time at Deer Lodge. She and her husband ran the post office at Sayle (south of Miles City) and had a ranch in the Powder River country. She was arrested for saying that if the people revolted, she'd get a gun and lead the way, and she also spoke out against the Red Cross. Her husband was also convicted.
Although many of these people spoke without thinking (typically with the help of alcohol), they posed no real threat to the government. Yet they served a collective 65 years in prison.
On May 3, 2006, Governor Brian Schweitzer signed a Proclamation of Pardon for 78 people convicted of sedition (one man was pardoned in 1921).
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