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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Mind Control, Wisconsin-Style

On the evening of March 31, 1918, Prof. E.A. Schimler of Northland College was kidnapped by a mob of masked men. They took him to a lonely spot outside Ashland, stripped him naked, beat him, covered him in tar and feathers, and left him in the woods. Schimler limped back to his boarding house, where friends helped him clean himself up.

What had he done to provoke this treatment? He had been born in Germany and taught the German language in Wisconsin.

Orchestrated Prejudice during World War One

Schimler had immigrated from Germany at age 14. He attended Dartmouth College and taught school before spending six years in his native land. After returning to the U.S., he joined the language arts faculty at Northland College in September 1917. His abduction was simply a hate crime like many that occured around the nation during World War One.

Despite our long German-American heritage, any Wisconsin resident who had ties to Germany could be suspected of disloyalty. Anti-German sentiment ran high in Wisconsin during the war due in large part to a carefully crafted government propaganda campaign.

At the beginning of 1917, Wisconsin citizens had largely opposed America's entry into the war, but 18 months later they overwhelmingly supported it. This change was engineered through a marketing campaign that used persuasion and propaganda to inspire private intimidation and public harassment. At the urging of federal officials, the Wisconsin State Council of Defense and the Wisconsin Loyalty Legion joined forces to suppress anti-war opinion. Even Wisconsin's libraries, which are usually bastions of intellectual freedom, kow-towed to pressure from government and public opinion. These events are chronicled in this 1942 article from the Wisconsin Magazine of History.

Media and Politics

In the decades that followed, new technologies such as radios, cheap magazines, and television proliferated. This gave greater power than ever before to people who create and market public discourse. Since then, governments and the media have possessed unparalleled abilities to shape society by manipulating their audience's beliefs, desires and values. The American Academy of Pediatrics reported that today's children see 40,000 advertising messages per year on television (never mind other media).

Aldous Huxley pointed out in his 1932 book, Brave New World, that the greatest threat to freedom comes not from governments who forcefully suppress dissent but from those who successfully manipulate ideas. History shows that with proper encouragement, citizens will honor their oppressors, give up their freedoms, and join together to persecute dissenters. The result is a kind of public somnambulism that tolerates discrimination, injustice, or worse.

Public and Private Persecutions

Wisconsin came very close to this in 1918-1919, when the vast majority of residents leaped onto the loyalty bandwagon. Opponents of the war paid a heavy price in their public and private lives, and innocent by-standers such as Prof. Schimler were persecuted.

For example, after Sen. Robert M. La Follette gave this speech against the war, he was targeted for censure by the Senate, depicted as a traitor in the national press, and ostracized by his friends in Washington. Back home, the Krueger family of Withee, in Clark Co., were attacked by their neighbors because of their pacifism. When officials entered their bullet-riddled farmhouse after the violence, they found an American flag mounted above the hearth.

In Prof. Schimler's case, local authorities were unable or unwilling to discover the perpetrators. They displayed more wit than courage when they sarcastically reported "that the mob were very liberal in the use of tar and also had on hand a lot of feathers." A $100 award was posted for information leading to the capture of the kidnappers, but no record of their arrest has been found in the local newspapers.

:: Posted in Curiosities on March 26, 2012
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