A few days after print publication, Knight's syndicated newspaper column, which moves twice a week, will be posted. The most recent will appear at the top.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Labor activist imprisoned, tortured for resisting World War I

Bill Knight column for Mon., Tues. or Wed., Nov. 7, 8 or 9

This week is Veterans Day, which began as Armistice Day marking the end of World War I. This month also is the 90th anniversary of the release of a unionist who refused to take part in the conflict, was tortured and imprisoned until eight years after “the Great War” ended.

Ben Salmon was born in October, 1888, son of a carpenter and a guy who worked most of his life, selling newspapers as a boy, then working as a messenger, and later as an inspector for the Burlington Railroad, Standard Oil, local government and as a journalist for the weekly publication.

It was while he was at the Colorado and Southern Railroad working as Assistant Chief Clerk that Salmon became active in labor, organizing the Railway Clerks' Union.

Years later, after a lengthy hospital evaluation, Dr. Benjamin Karpman summarized Salmon’s experience there: “He had been offered better pay and a better position if he would stop his agitation for unionism, with the alternative that, if he did not stop his agitation he would lose his job,” Karpman reported. The “patient states that, although satisfied himself, conditions for fellow employees were so intolerable and so unjust that he could not resist the impulse to help establish some method of redress, so he told his superior that he would continue to organize the men and that whenever his superior was ready to discharge him that he was ready to go.”

In 1916, Salmon supported for reelection Democratic President Woodrow Wilson, whose slogan was, “He kept us out of war.” Once elected, Wilson asked for a declaration of war and started a draft “to keep the world safe for democracy.”

Salmon also was a devout Catholic, and in 1917 refused to cooperate with the draft as a conscientious objector who believed Christ taught nonviolence. Salmon was arrested, tried by a military court martial, and convicted of treason. Initially sentenced to death, he had his punishment changed to 25 years of hard labor for “desertion.”

“He was known as an absolutist by some,” wrote Jack Gilroy in National Catholic Reporter, “a slacker by most.”

In the midst of years of hardship behind bars, Salmon refused to compromise his principles, according to Karpman.

“On September 5, 1918, while he was awaiting transfer to Fort Leavenworth, he was called to headquarters and offered a position as clerk to the Adjutant in the 19th Train Headquarters, a first-class sergeant [rank] and remission of his 25-year sentence,” Karpman reported. “He refused to accept this offer and was subsequently sent to Fort Leavenworth to begin serving his sentence.”

Serving time in seven federal prisons, Salmon – the only Coloradan to refuse induction in World War I – was often placed in solitary confinement, and suffered worse. Authorities denied him access to a priest, and the Catholic Knights of Columbus expelled him. After more than two years in prison, Salmon said he’d been tortured for 26 months and went on a hunger strike.

“His physical condition deteriorated as he went on a hunger strike to protest his conditions,” Gilroy wrote. “For 135 days, prison staff shoved a pipe down his throat, pouring in liquids to keep him alive.”

Throughout his ordeal, Salmon wrote appeals to various levers of power. In a letter to Wilson, Salmon explained that he wasn’t an alien sympathizer, but a man whose “conscience, my infallible guide, impels me to tell you that prison, death or both, are infinitely preferable to joining any branch of the Army, and contributing, either directly or indirectly, to the death of my fellow workingmen.”

In a piece published in a Denver weekly, Salmon wrote, “If killing has to be insisted upon, those responsible for wars – kings, presidents, Kaisers, etc. – should be made to fight each other and not drag millions of innocent youths into a game where they would be compelled to slaughter each other.”

Eventually, the military and government pronounced Salmon mentally ill, and transferred him to St. Elizabeth’s Hospital for the Insane in Washington, D.C. However, in October 1920, medical professionals including Karpman ruled that Salmon was not mentally ill.

Finally, the American Civil Liberties Union and Father John Ryan of Catholic University of America in Washington helped secure Salmon’s release, on Thanksgiving 1926.

Salmon moved to Illinois, lived in Chicago and died in Melrose Park on Feb. 15, 1932, at the age of 43, weakened by years of deprivation and punishment, leaving four kids and his wife, Elizabeth.

Today, in Denver – where the Denver Post in 1920 sharply criticized him, referring to him as “a man with a yellow streak down his spine as broad as a country highway” – the Archdiocese is promoting his beatification.

[PICTURED: Salmon at St. Elizabeth's Hospital for the Insane in August 1920, when he'd been on a hunger strike for 34 days. Photo from the National Archives and Records Administration.]

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