The Anthony Bimba Controversy

Photo of Anthony Bimba from The Daily Worker, Feb. 27, 1926, pg. 1. Photographer unknown.; Digitized from microfilm and digital editing by Tim Davenport

It was the end of the “War to End all Wars” and the beginning of the Red Scare. The world was only worse off for the war, and many countries were without leadership. The idealistic communists used this time to make a foothold. America, though inviting millions of immigrants through its gates, was closing itself to foreign affairs. America was not preventing political asylum, however. In most cases that was good. The Irish, Italians, Polish, and Lithuanians came in droves, dreaming of the great future they could have in America. However, the price was hard labor.

Most of the immigrants did not mind the hardships, the difficult and dangerous work, and the low wages. But when the Lithuanians arrived here, they were not particularly pleased with what they saw. J.P Balys of the American Lithuanian Press wrote, “It can be said that most Lithuanians are conservative and aghast at the boundless freedoms, leniency of courts with criminals, the liberal welfare policy of handouts for indolent, and obstruction of education by judicial decrees and striking teachers. The cultural and professional journals often publish studies and essays of high quality.”

These feelings were the contributing factors that led to the formation of the formidable, wide spread, Lithuanian-only press. Among the immigrants was Anthony Bimba, who was one of a number of aspiring journalists from communist Lithuania who was attracted by the freedom of press, a quite idealistic young, aspiring one at that. But, unlike many of his peers, instead of leaving Communism, Bimba would decide to preach its virtues in America.

Photo of Anthony Bimba from The Daily Worker, Feb. 27, 1926, pg. 1. Photographer unknown.; Digitized from microfilm and digital editing by Tim Davenport
Photo of Anthony Bimba from The Daily Worker, Feb. 27, 1926, pg. 1. Photographer unknown.; Digitized from microfilm and digital editing by Tim Davenport

Anthony Bimba was born in Uzusieniai, Lithuania on January 22, 1894. Most certainly he had heard of the Lithuanian press in America, how quickly it was growing, and how influential it was on the large Lithuanian populaces in many major cities, namely Chicago, Brooklyn, and Brockton. (Wolkovich) But, when he first came, he realized that journalism was not a field he could instantly go into in America. He learned one had to get a degree to be respected.

Thus, Bimba attended Valparaiso University in Indiana, most likely for the fact it was nearby Chicago, a Lithuanian immigrant hot-spot at the time. At this Lutheran school, he became a self-appointed spokesman for Lithuanian laborers. With this post, he quickly became quite well-known by the Lithuanian populace, being invited to make numerous speeches. At this same time, meanwhile, Bimba widely became known as a socialist, and atheist.

It was in Chicago that Bimba’s rise to notoriety as a public speaker began. While speaking to a group of Lithuanian steelworkers, Anthony was arrested on charges of instigating anti-war sentiment and failing to carry a draft card. Once his status as a troublemaker, and foremost as an atheist, was received, he was “invited” to leave by the University of Valparaiso. Bimba obliged.

From there, Bimba was off to Brooklyn, a Communist center as much in the twenties as ever. The Communist movements there today are much less noticeable, but are still active in their pursuit of persuading more supporters to their cause. Many people simply reject the word communism; that word alone is enough to keep people away. It did quite the opposite for Bimba, and it’s not hard to conclude that he was invited there thanks to his exploits in and around Chicago.

Bimba first became the editor of a newsletter published by a Lithuanian chapter of the Amalgamated Clothing Workers. In the same year, the U.S. Communist Party was officially established, and Lithuanian socialist groups across the country were quick to join it. Bimba voted in favor of this affiliation and became an officer of the Communist Party’s central committee.

In Brooklyn, Bimba received mentoring from the writers at Laisve, Lithuanian for Freedom. It was there in 1924 that Bimba began his rapid transformation from idealistic socialist to obsessed communist. Bimba found friends in the communist population in Brooklyn, soon realizing they could help him become an important figure. They supported his ideals, especially his call for a complete fall of capitalism. Having been so heavily influenced in the past several years by communists, Bimba forgot his old Socialist attitudes, converting to strictly communism.

Having become well-known for his public speaking skills, Bimba became a traveling lecturer out of Brooklyn. His first major target was Brockton, Massachusetts, the “Shoe City of the World.” He believed that Brockton, having the largest registered Socialist population in the nation for a city of its size, would make a perfect audience for his speech. Even though at this time, many voters did not register as such, it was not unknown that the Socialist movement was strong as ever since Brockton’s Socialist mayor, Charles Coulter. (Hat tip to Gerald Beals, Curator of the Brockton Historical Society)

In Brockton, Bimba’s reputation preceded him as a fiery speaker and a hard worker for the labor rights of workers. But, something else preceded him: the notion that his cause was true, but that his methods were not. He didn’t realize there were a couple of brave men in the crowd waiting to charge him with blasphemy and sedition.

The “Village” on the north side of Brockton was a Lithuanian stronghold. The majority of them were families of shoe workers, who worked in the famous, though very dangerous and underpaying, shoe factories. St. Rocco’s Church, today St. Casmir’s, was the place to go on Sundays. Not far from the church, was the Lithuanian Hall, not to be confused with the Parish Hall, located on the corner of North Main and Vine, at 660 Main Street. It was there, to about one hundred and fifty listeners in the second floor’s Park Theater, that Bimba would make his infamous speech. It was there that he would incite probably the most controversial, yet nearly completely forgotten trial of the twentieth century.

Bimba’s speech covered his usual topics, namely urging the overthrow of capitalism and the American government, and ridiculing people who believe in God or in any sort of religion at all. Bimba, for the most part, outraged his audience not with his communist ideals, but his denouncing of God, and his mocking of all those who believed in God. Even his Socialist audience felt he was too left-wing; though most did not think of charging him with sedition, many certainly did not agree with Bimba. The only reason many of them even listened, could have been because he was a fellow Lithuanian, or simply that they heard he was an active labor leader.

One publication of Lithuanian Catholic workers, Darbininkas, in February 1926, denounced him as “filthy-mouthed,” the “biggest unwashed mouth of the Bolsheviks” and a “brainless screamer.” But, the name-calling was not the half of it. For the first time, Bimba would have listeners who would take note of their displeasure with him. Two brave fellows, Joseph Treinavich and Anthony Eudaco, would charge him with blasphemy and sedition, respectively.

The blasphemy law had existed since 1641 as a Massachusetts Bay Law, also known as a “Bay State Blue Law”. The Sedition law, on the other hand, was fairly new, being issued in 1919. (Wolkovich) No one has since been charged with breaking either of these laws again for various reasons. As our country has become more and more liberal in the century since then, these laws today seem quite odd; most of all, these laws trample over our protections for freedom of speech.

What made Bimba’s arrest headlines, however, was not just the nature of the laws. It was a story of Communists trying to spread their word throughout America. Indeed, the Twenties were at the height of the “Red Scare,” the fear that Communism would spread like wildfire across the entire globe. Unfortunately for the Socialist cause, Bimba’s Communist ways severely hurt them. After all, the Socialists had no intention of overthrowing the government as Bimba was preaching, but rather reworking it toward their goals.

Before he could give another speech, Bimba was swiftly arrested at the Lithuanian Hall in Worcester. He was given over to Brockton Police. When searched he was in possession of thirteen dollars and seventy-nine cents. Bimba wore a World War One Army coat; he remained basically silent under questioning, and refused bail. Soon, however, Bimba was released on a one and a half thousand dollar surety from a sympathizer, certainly a lot of money in the day.

As is true in almost any high-profile arrest, it was not long before the press was all over the story. Unwanted national attention focused on the “Shoe City.” However, most of it was not on the sedition charge, but on the one of blasphemy. It was on this charge that sides were taken; sedition entered few people’s minds. Atheists would bark at the “ancient charge” saying one can not be forced to believe in a higher power; Bimba would find many of his supporters in these groups. Meanwhile, many of the Catholic Lithuanian immigrants would begin voicing their extreme opposition towards his religious stance. On one occasion, over four hundred Bimba protesters rallied at St. Casmir’s and collected donations to fight him and his cause.

The media blitz concerning the issue was incredible. During the Bimba trial, Brockton’s mayor Harold D. Bent, a known detractor of Bimba, twice received threats against his life. Bimba had as many followers as he enemies, it turned out. However, he was supported by two very prestigious organizations, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the International Labor Defense Council.

The trial was to be held in Brockton’s Superior Court on Belmont St., the building which still stands today, although the Superior Court itself is held elsewhere. However, due to heavy snowfall, the trial was delayed. The traveling woes for the Defense attorneys from Boston and the witnesses from the “Village” in the inclement weather forced the postponement. In the mean time, the sides were taken. Tension was felt throughout the city, and the delay did not at all help the matter.

When the trial finally began, state and local police were in force to keep order. Frequent mobs, many of them members of the press, waited outside for the latest news. For six days, the trial went on with each side pressing their position. Finally, on March 1, 1926, a verdict was reached. Bimba was found guilty of sedition, yet not guilty of blasphemy.

Interestingly, at the time, both sides saw this result as a win. The prosecutors were happy he was found guilty of the sedition charge for being Communist. However, the defense was relieved they were able to dispel the blasphemy charge, which carried a heavier price. Bimba himself quickly departed back to his home in Brooklyn. Despite his assertion that his public speaking days were over and that he would write instead, he would eventually appear to speak again; however, it would not be for quite some time, in light of the recent events.

The Judge in the Bimba trial, Mr. King, revealed his findings to justify his position:

The epithets and characterizations which ran through this case are the same as have run through others I have handled. One side will contend that all of the other side are communists, socialists, and atheists, and the other side will contend that there is unfair discrimination and too strict religious belief… It is not certain that he said more. It seems apparent to most of us that there was no sense in his bringing this statement into a protest against the Lithuanian Government, but apparently it resulted from the fact as alleged in testimony that the Lithuanian Government is clerical. I want to say a bit about the situation among our Lithuanian friends in Brockton. They resort too much to court for religious and factional disputes… I think that it is a rather over-zealousness rather than intent to use the court eternally as a weapon that brings these cases here.”

Bimba’s final sentence was a one hundred dollar fine, essentially just a slap on the wrist. Over a year later, there would be an appeal on the sedition charge, but after an investigation, a ‘nolle prosequi’ finding was made, and the case was finally dropped. Soon after, the trial and all that surrounded it were seemingly lost in obscurity. For all of the controversy it stirred up, especially when it came to tenets of free speech, the end result was rather inconsequential. Even as immense a story as it became through the proceedings of the trial, one worthy of national attention, the issue was simply laid to rest.

After the fact, Bimba was widely quoted as claiming the charges were a “frame-up” in a capitalistic conspiracy. Both were terms he would later use to describe the Molly Maguire trials in his book, so named The Molly Maguires, published in 1932. Some people wonder how Bimba heard of the Molly Maguires. There is a great possibility he heard the story from one of the most famous Socialist labor leaders of all time, Eugene V. Debs, who in fact, visited Brockton on many occasions. It is not clear whether Bimba heard the story from Debs in Brockton, or if Bimba had met him at some other point. Either way, the Molly Maguires quite fascinated him, and he proceeded to write a book about it.

Reading his Molly Maguires book is likely the best way to understand the division between the popularity of Bimba’s imaginative views and the infamy of his “Bolshevik” status. Was he more of a historian, a left-wing radical who was obsessed only with seeing America fall apart, or somehow a fusion of both?

To this day, there remains controversy over Bimba’s true motives in writing the Molly Maguires book. Some go as far as listing his book as a primary source about the Molly Maguires trials, while others denounce it as Communist drivel. In any case, while it certainly draws from the Molly Maguires history, it’s certainly far from the whole story.

One Yahoo Groups post that is sadly no longer available perhaps put forth the most reasonable argument about the motivations behind Bimba’s authorship of The Molly Maguires. In this post, the author postulated that indeed the book was written as a piece of Communist propaganda, writing and publishing the book in order to advance his cause. In many ways, the Brockton trial gave him the notoriety to both get his book published and read by a fairly large audience.

Regardless of Bimba’s intentions on publishing his book, the Molly Maguires are part of a true story. The Molly Maguires were a secret society in Ireland who took an active role in protesting English landlords who were stealing lands which rightfully belonged to the Irish. Their cause was named after an Irish widow, Molly Maguire, who headed a group of violent “anti-landlord agitators.”

This group eventually moved over into to America, under the name of the Ancient Order of Hibernians or AOH, where Irish-American immigrants faced similar hardships as they had in England, facing discrimination many places they went. This led to many Irish immigrants being forced to find work in the dangerous coal mines. The AOH fought for the coal miner’s rights, but eventually, the Molly Maguires penchant for violent retaliation took over and led to protesters being arrested.

Eventually, the mining industry enlisted the help of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, who were infamous at the time as providing services similar to a private military. One of the Pinkerton agents infiltrated the Molly Maguires, eventually getting enough evidence to arrest several dozen men on suspicion of allegedly committing murders of mining officials, policemen, and supervisors. In the end, 20 men were hanged, despite there being circumstantial evidence at best even linking them to the crimes. In 1979, one hundred years later, the state of Pennsylvania publicly admitted these hanging were unjustified, and gave a full pardon to their leader, James Kehoe. (Loy)

As for Bimba’s book, it’s widely believed he followed the lead of labor leader Eugene Debs, seeking to capitalize on existing sympathies for the Molly Maguires. Even at the time, it was widely believed those hanged were innocent, and victims of a capitalist conspiracy to end a labor strike. Debs had come to paint the Mollies as martyrs, although he never claimed they were innocent of crime entirely, even if they weren’t, in his words, “murderers at heart.” Bimba went much further on this theme in his work, however, claiming they weren’t murderers in the slightest. In fact, he went as far to paint them as completely innocent laborers framed by evil capitalist monsters.

This book would begin an overarching theme that would appear in all of Bimba’s writing going forward: capitalism is an evil and corrupt force with all working people as its innocent victims. Bimba’s take on the Molly Maguires is extremely slanted in this regard, ignoring much of the evidence that did exist and making preposterous claims. On a positive note, it’s become a piece that’s studied and evaluated alongside historical evidence. After all, the Mollies are not a fictional story; these were real people whose cause was just, even if their methods were not.

As would later be revealed, the key crimes committed by the Molly Maguires were focused on sabotaging mining company property, not murdering individuals. While many of these men were certainly guilty of crimes, most of them should not have lost their lives for them. Thanks to Bimba’s controversial book, a more accurate historical work, The Lament of the Molly Maguires, would be written by Arthur H. Lewis. This book instead followed the story of the Irish Pinkerton spy, James MacParlan. While the book is widely considered dry and boring, it inspired the 1970 Molly Maguires movie, starring Sean Connery as James Kehoe.

After the Molly Maguires book, Bimba continued to write. Most of his other writing comes in the form of newspaper articles, written in Lithuanian for the most part. At one point, he apparently wrote an autobiography, available in the Latvian American collection at the University of Minnesota. His public speaking career never started up again, especially after nearly being killed by a mob at one locale. However, Bimba hardly became a recluse. He wrote diligently, staunchly supporting the Communist party until his death in 1982.

Bimba’s life story is full of irony. For example, his audience was mainly church-goers, and before them, he denounced religion entirely; in fact, most of his audience was made up of Lithuanian Catholics. Much of the events of his own trial he ends up mirroring in his book, “The Molly Maguires,” leading to many historical inaccuracies. Even though his account of the Molly Maguires is still considered as somewhat of a historical piece, without a doubt it is overwhelmed with Bimba’s ideology.

If Anthony Bimba’s speech were made today in most of the United State, it would not have become a court case. Certainly, there would have been plenty made of it. It likely would have appeared online in some shape or form. Meanwhile, the courts are in much more involved in more trivial, trite matters. The speech would make the news, but hardly headlines, and most certainly would not emerge as a legal issue. In today’s world, it is possible Bimba would even have a cult following.

In any case, Bimba made labor history, even if much of it has become obscured with the passage of time and is heavily slanted towards Communism. One cannot deny that, however ironically, Bimba actually introduced the Molly Maguires to many who otherwise would never have learned about them, myself included. While his interpretation certainly is not historically accurate, and Bimba was no historian, his trial and his follow-up book will remain historical curiosities for posterity.

Appendix

Footnotes

  • The University of Minnesota is likely to own a copy of his autobiography.
  • A portrait of Bimba painted by his wife Ilse exists, however, it is stored in a most inconvenient place at a Frostburg State University in Maryland. There is also a portrait of his wife in the same collection.
  • For those curious, Bimba’s book, Molly Maguires, is still in print today, and can be purchased from numerous stores, including online at Amazon.

Bibliography

Many sources used in this paper are now defunct or no longer available online, including these:

AK Press Inc, Brockton MA Genealogy (also noted in the essay as M. Morgan), PLP, Latvian American Collection (University of Minnesota), The Molly Maguires Forum (Yahoo Groups)

Also, for reference: Rawick, George, Working Class Self-Activity, Radical America Vol.3 No.2 1969

These sources, however, are still live today:

Balys, J.P., The American Lithuanian Press, <www.lituanus.org/1976/76_1_02.htm>

Loy, Matt, The Legend of the Molly Maguires, https://pabook.libraries.psu.edu/literary-cultural-heritage-map-pa/feature-articles/legend-molly-maguires

Meiklejohn Civil Liberties Institute Archives, Human Rights Case Finder,

http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/meiklejohn/meik-hrcasefind/meik-hrcasefind-9.html

Wolkovich-Valkavicius, William L, “Immigrants Who Became Lithuanian by Becoming American,” LITUANUS: Lithuanian Quarterly Journal of Arts and Sciences, Volume 40, No.2 – http://www.lituanus.org/1994_2/94_2_05.htm, Summer 1994

Writing words, spreading love, Amelia Desertsong primarily writes creative nonfiction articles, as well as dabbling in baseball, Pokemon, Magic the Gathering, and whatever else tickles her fancy.
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