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The Martyrs of Alcatraz

Duane Stoltzfus


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  • Micheal J. McEvoy

    I joined the Mennonite Church in October 2001. I left the Marine Corps, after 15 years, as a Conscientious Objector. Even today being a CO, and having to work in the "world" is difficult. I get quite a bit of harassment from many "christians" because I will no longer fight and kill for an earthly empire. I am ridiculed when I try to explain Christian non-violence to most who proclaim themselves as Christians.

  • marlene

    I remember some 'sugar coated' stories about C.O.s in classes at LMHS. I'd like to see these pieces of American History be taught more broadly.

  • Jay D Weaver

    How sad. It is particularly ironic after what Supreme Court of the United States did in deciding the Hobby Lobby case.

  • Jason Myers

    This short account of these four men captivated my attention very much as I am looking at the beliefs of the Hutterite/Anabaptist/Mennonite faith. It is very important for me to read of people standing up for what they believe in. The evangelical movement has disillusioned me and has left me speechless at some of the nonsense it partakes in and also promotes...namely the dispensational movement and support for Israel for their own agenda. This written account is done very well and has encouraged me to keep learning more about the Anabaptist beliefs.

When in 1926 President Calvin Coolidge dedicated the Liberty Memorial Tower in Kansas City, Missouri, 150,000 people turned up, setting what was then a record for the largest peacetime crowd ever to gather in the United States. They came to pay homage to the millions of American men inducted into the armed services during a war that began one hundred years ago this August. The inscription on the tower reads: “In honor of those who served in the world war in defense of liberty and our country.”1

grave stone

Grave marker in Rockport colony, South Dakota. Courtesy Bruderhof Historical Archive.

Not included among those honored were four inductees from South Dakota: the three brothers David, Joseph, and Michael Hofer, and Joseph’s brother-in-law Jacob Wipf. For refusing to put on a military uniform, the four men, all farmers, ended up hanging in chains at Alcatraz, a treatment that President Woodrow Wilson would later describe in general terms as “barbarous or medieval.” Two of them, Joseph and Michael Hofer, died in late 1918 shortly after their transfer to a prison at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas – eight years before the dedication of the Kansas City monument to American liberty.

At the time, their deaths were met with silence. The hometown weekly paper, The Freeman Courier, printed a one-sentence death notice on page eight as part of a series of dispatches from the Wolf Creek region: “The two sons of Jacob Hofer of Rockport died in a Wash. camp [sic] and were buried at home.”2

 The subject quickly changed. The next item in the column read: “The Neu Hutterthal church decided to buy a paper cutter for Bartel of China”; and below that, “Sam K. Hofer is building a kitchen and auto shed.”

Visitors to the cemetery of Rockport Colony, the Hutterite community of which the men were members, will find the grave markers for Joseph and Michael of the same dimensions and materials as those on other graves, but with one word appended: Martyr.

Jacob Wipf and David, Joseph, and Michael Hofer were called to war on an overcast day on May 25, 1918. At thirty, Jacob was the oldest member of the group, leaving a wife and three children at home. Next oldest was David, twenty-eight, also married with five children, followed by Michael, twenty-four, whose wife Maria had just given birth to a daughter, Mary. The youngest, Joseph, was twenty-three, with a one-year-old and two-year-old at home as well as a baby on the way. When asked by the draft board whether they were the sole providers for the families, each of the men had answered no, since they knew that their church would step in to help if they were gone. With this response, the chance of a near-certain exemption passed them by: fathers of dependent children were almost never drafted.

The four men from the Rockport Colony traveled from their communal home by dirt roads to nearby Alexandria, where scores of their neighbors gathered for a patriotic rally to cheer on all of the young men who were heading off to war. A judge from Sioux Falls delivered the keynote speech that Saturday afternoon, saying that each young man about to board the train for Camp Lewis in Washington was participating in “the fight for freedom and for humanity” and in doing so “proving a loyalty to their country of which every citizen should be proud.”3

A storm rolled in, and the crowd dashed for cover. When they reconvened, a band led the dignitaries, the soldiers, and their families on a spirited procession to the train station. By all accounts, the young men on the ground in Alexandria were eager to climb aboard the military train, joining hundreds of men who were already on board and who were leaning out of the windows and waving to the crowd. It was a festive occasion, the start of an adventure for South Dakotans, many of whom were about to see the West for the first time.

A close observer would have noted that the four Hutterites from Rockport Colony and their friend from a neighboring colony, Andrew Wurtz, looked different from the other young men. They were dressed in black and wore beards, visible symbols of their commitment to being separate from the world and focused on living out the peaceable kingdom of God in community. The Hutterites had been directed by their ministers and family members to report to the camp, as required, but to do nothing that would advance the war effort. In no manner were they to serve as soldiers. To do so would be to disobey Christ’s commands to love the enemy and reject violence.

photo of alcatraz dungeon

Entrance to Camp Lewis, Washington, where the Hofer brothers and Jacob Wipf refused to don the military uniform. Kirtland Cutter, January 1918; Courtesy Fort Lewis Museum.

Such convictions were sure to earn more hostility than admiration amid the wave of wartime patriotism now sweeping South Dakota and the rest of the nation. Weeks before, the Liberty Loan Committee of nearby Hanson County had illegally confiscated a hundred steers and a thousand sheep from a Hutterite settlement whose members refused to buy war bonds. And on May 25, 1918, the very day that the men left home for Camp Lewis in Washington State, the South Dakota Council of Defense banned the use of German, “the enemy language,” in the state.4

 The Hutterites, who both worshipped and taught school in German, were a clear target of the legislation. Knowing this, the Hofer brothers and Jacob Wipf had reason to be wary as they climbed onto the train to Camp Lewis, joining the 1,200 other young South Dakotans on board. In their own minds, their arrival at the camp would be the moment when they would testify to their faith and their refusal to serve as soldiers. To the American government, however, they had ceased to be civilians from the moment they received their conscription papers.

As the fifteen-car train started heading west, the four men were moved from one Pullman coach to the next. The recruits in each car heckled the Hutterites, who were well known in this part of the country as pacifists and German speakers. The conductor finally found a small compartment where the men could be by themselves.

Joseph Hofer’s first letter home, to his wife, Maria, conveys his sense of relief that they found a quiet place on Saturday evening:

First, a heartfelt greeting and kiss of love. Now, my dear spouse, because it is impossible to speak together in person, I must turn to the pencil and report a bit about how things are going with us. Thank God that we have nothing more to do with the worldly rabble.

Yesterday evening they chased us from our car into another. But we could not stay there so they gave us a small room. So the four of us were there alone. We wanted to also have Andrew Wurtz with us and wanted in our loneliness to be instructed in the fear of God, to be comforted and edified in good things, undisturbed by all the others. For this we cannot thank God enough. Now, dear spouse, we rest contented and commit ourselves into God’s hands. He will work out everything for the best.

drawing of arrest

Later that day, as the train arrived at Judith Basin, Montana, came a knock at the door. A band of fellow recruits wished to speak with the Hutterites, who knew two of the men, William Danforth and James Albert Montgomery, from their hometown. The Hutterites at first declined to open the door; when they finally agreed to do so, Danforth, Montgomery, and the others stormed into the room. One by one, they forcibly removed the Hutterites, shaving their beards and cutting their hair. The men who stormed the room spoke of administering a “free barbering” intended only to welcome the Hutterites into the ranks of regular soldiers; the Hutterites, on the other hand, felt as if they had been grievously assaulted.(5)

Immediately afterward Michael Hofer wrote to his wife, Maria:

When we arrived in Judith Basin in Montana they came to us and ordered that we should come out. . . . But we said to them: no, we are not going out unless the captain himself commands it. Then he himself came to us – that is, Danforth, and Montgomery – and ordered Jacob Wipf, saying we should come out and walk over to them. So Jacob Wipf went out. They were already waiting for him and took him into the next car in front of ours and cut his hair entirely off including his beard. . . . Then they came again . . . and again.

Our Savior has gone before us as an example that we should follow after him in his footsteps, for we have come into such a great suffering. God the almighty alone knows what still awaits us.

The train continued on without further incident, reaching Washington a couple of days later. Recruits from across the West were pouring into Camp Lewis, at seventy thousand acres an impressive army training camp. During the summer of 1917, a work crew of ten thousand men had built in effect a city: 1,757 buildings, fifty miles of roads, and thirty-seven miles of water pipe. On Tuesday, May 28, the Hofer brothers and Jacob Wipf entered this khaki city where tens of thousands of young men were being trained, many of them as infantrymen bound for Europe.

drawing of handcuffs

The Hutterites from South Dakota ended up in Guardhouse No. 54 almost immediately. When they arrived, they were told to line up alphabetically in preparation for filling out the enlistment and assignment cards, containing names, hometowns, and other basic information. But the men stepped away from the line, sensing that to do otherwise would be to line up as soldiers in the U.S. Army. They refused to fill out the enlistment and assignment cards, which were titled “Statement of Soldier.” Officers tried to persuade the men to follow orders, but to no avail. President Woodrow Wilson and Newton Baker, the secretary of war, expected each man to do his part, even conscientious objectors who might be assigned to kitchen duty or maintenance. The camp commanders seem to have been understandably exasperated by this blanket refusal to participate in camp life.

So while Camp Lewis prepared for war, the Hutterites remained in the guardhouse, awaiting trial.

From the guardhouse, David Hofer wrote to his wife, Anna:

If you think about where we are, far from home and farm, from wife and children, then I can’t describe the misery in which we find ourselves. We have already been seriously challenged by various things, but with God’s help and remaining faithful to him and our vow not to abandon our promise, let it cost body and life. . . . For our dear Savior says, in Matthew 5, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for the kingdom of God is theirs.” I must close now with my simple writing and one has to be careful what we write, and we can’t write very often, not as often as we would hope. We are being court-martialed, for five to twenty-five years in jail. . . . So our people should hurry down and perhaps they can do something about it.

The camp authorities charged the Hutterites with disobeying orders, thus violating two of the Articles of War. In the court-martial trial, officers recounted their efforts to persuade the men to line up and fill out the requisite forms. Jacob Wipf was the first defendant to take the stand. An untraveled farmer whose mother tongue was German and who had only a grade-school education, he now had to face a panel of officers. The prosecutor wanted to know exactly why the men would not serve in the armed forces in any capacity.

Q: Are you willing to take part in any noncombatant branch of the service of the army?

A: No; we can’t.

Q: What are your reasons?

A: Well, it is all for war. The only thing we can do is work on a farm for the poor and needy ones of the United States.

Q: What do you mean by poor and needy ones?

A: Well, those that can’t help themselves.

Q: Would you include soldiers who are crippled for life?

A: Yes. They are poor and needy ones. . . .

Q: If you were in the service, such as the Medical Corps, where you would attend the wounded soldiers, would your conscience and the teachings of the church permit that?

A: We can’t do that, because a soldier, he will go and fight, and that is helping the war, and we can’t do that.

Q: And if there were wounded soldiers about, you couldn’t help them? You couldn’t help them because you would be afraid they might recover and go back to the war; is that it?

A: Well, it would be helping the war.

Q: Would you be willing to be placed on a farm by the government and grow wheat for soldiers?

A: No.

The prosecutor then wanted to know if the commitment to nonviolence extended to the home.

Q: Does your religion believe in fighting of any kind?

A: No.

Q: You would not fight with your fists?

A: Well, we ain’t no angels. Little boys will scrap sometimes, and we are punished; but our religion don’t allow it.

Q: To put the case like this: If a man was attacking or assaulting your sister, would you fight?

A: No.

Q: Would you kill him?

A: No.

Q: What would you do?

A: Well, in a way, if I could get her away, I might hold him. If I was man enough, I would do that. If I couldn’t, I would have to let go. We can’t kill. That is strictly against our religion.

The Hofer brothers, in turn, testified as well, and then the four waited for the decision. David Hofer wrote to tell Anna about the trial:

That was a difficult test. Dear spouse, that is something our dear brothers, fathers, and patriarchs never had to do, what we young brothers in faith had to do. We had to defend our beliefs in front of the twelve jurors. But God stood at our side, and gave us voice and wisdom and a calm heart. I had no more fear than I would have if I were at home. . . . Dear spouse, if only our heavenly Father could lead us out of this misery, no matter where, even if into dire poverty.

The verdict arrived five days after the trial, less than three weeks after the men had arrived at Camp Lewis. All four men were found guilty of all charges; the sentence was dishonorable discharge, loss of all pay, and prison. Michael Hofer shared the news with Maria:

On Saturday they came and announced to us our punishment, namely, twenty years of hard labor in the prison at Alcatraz, California. God the heavenly Father knows what still awaits us. But we must put our trust in him and accept with patience whatever he allows to happen to us. We are completely yielded to the Lord. Whatever burdens he gives, he also provides a way out so that we can endure it. . . . We only make our cross and suffering more difficult if we are sad. For God will also be with us there (that is, in Alcatraz). He has promised to his own, that when they pass through the fire, he will stand beside them so that the flames do not burn them.

The Hofer brothers and Jacob Wipf were among 504 conscientious objectors who were court-martialed during the war, resulting in 503 convictions and a single acquittal. Of the men who were court-martialed, about 142 were believed to be Mennonite, Amish, or Hutterite. Meanwhile, Andrew Wurtz, who had been separated from the Hofer brothers and Jacob Wipf after their arrival at Camp Lewis, faced his own trial. He described extreme physical measures applied to persuade him to work: being forcibly dunked in cold water, being pulled across floor boards to drive splinters into his skin, and more. Eventually he agreed to work in the camp garden, but only alone, not in the company of men in uniform.

photo of alcatraz dungeon

Alcatraz Island, “the Rock,” 1902–1905. Contrary to its later reputation, Alcatraz in 1918 was known as a progressive institution – at least for prisoners who complied with regulations. Jack W. Fleming, Golden Gate NRA, Park Archives.

After two months at Camp Lewis, on July 25, the Hofer brothers and Jacob Wipf left for Alcatraz. They were chained together in pairs and traveled in the escort of four armed lieutenants, arriving two days later at the notorious island in San Francisco Bay. Known as “the Rock,” and formally designated as the “United States Disciplinary Barracks, Pacific Branch,” Alcatraz was one of three detention centers for military prisoners. It was known for its liberal management. Under its commandant, Colonel Garrard, inmates – referred to as “disciples” – enjoyed access to vocational training programs, classical concerts, and a library boasting 4600 books (as well as, incongruously, a complete set of the Ladies Home Journal for 1917). As the four Hutterites would soon find out, however, this liberalism did not extend to conscientious objectors, who were scorned as “slackers.”

On arrival, the four men climbed a series of switchbacks to reach the cell house on top of the island. Once inside they were unwilling to put on uniforms or to work.

photo of alcatraz dungeon

“The hole,” where the four conscientious objectors were kept in solitary confinement for two-week stretches on a bread-and-water diet, shackled to the bars of their cells. (Some years later the bars were removed.)

Guards took them along a corridor of stacked cells to a staircase that led to the basement of the prison, the dungeon, a place of solitary confinement known as “the hole.” Each man entered a cell under a sloping brick arch, six feet high at the uppermost point; the cell itself measured six and a half feet wide by eight feet deep. The cells were cold and wet, but the men declined to put on the uniforms that lay on the floor beside them. In the early days, the men received half a glass of water each day but no food.

Days after their arrival the men found themselves chained to the bars in their respective doors, one hand crossed over the other. The chains were drawn up so that only their toes touched the floor, a technique long familiar in the history of torture known as “high cuffing.” David Hofer said that he tried to move the toilet pail closer so that he could stand on it to relieve the pain in his arms. Living in darkness by day and by night, the men received periodic visits from guards. At least once the guards reportedly came with knotted lashes and hit the men on the arms and back. When the guards led the men to an outside yard after the first five days in solitary confinement, the four men tried without success to put on their jackets; their arms were too swollen.

From Alcatraz, Joseph Hofer shared only a sense of general hardship in writing to his wife, Maria. Like his brothers, Joseph omitted details of their solitary imprisonment; or it may be that prison officials excised any unpleasant or incriminating details from the outgoing letters.

I am still in good health, both physically and spiritually. . . . My precious and dear wife, I am still in prison and I do not know if we will ever see each other again. Let us hope that we will; but if not in this world, then in that yonder place where no one will separate us from each other.

But in order to get there we must put off all desires of the flesh, and take the cross upon ourselves, along with the hatred and taunting of the world, and look up to Jesus our Savior and to his apostles, and to our forefathers, as Paul says in Hebrews 12. For we have a cloud of witnesses before us. And you will find there that all those who found pleasure with God had to suffer affliction.

Now, my best wishes to you and to all those who read this letter. Amen. Here everything is militaristic, as it was in the camp.

The Hofer brothers (or, as they were known here, Nos. 15238, 15239, and 15240) and Jacob Wipf (No. 15237) provided scarcely a glimpse at this time of their traumatic life at Alcatraz. There is no mention in the letters of sleeping on wet concrete in their underwear, of standing for hours in chains, or of being beaten by guards. Instead, Michael Hofer wrote home:

My dear spouse, if we no longer see each other in this world, then it is my hope in God that it will happen in the next world where no one will be able to separate us – where we will remain forever in joy.

On Armistice Day, November 11, 1918, residents gathered in San Francisco to celebrate the end of the war with rounds of “Auld Lang Syne.” They sang with flu masks on, a visible reminder of the influenza epidemic that had swept across the country. But this was a time to revel in the news. Three days after the armistice, the Hutterites left for Fort Leavenworth, once more in chains and escorted by armed officers. During the train ride, Michael Hofer wrote his final letter:

Grace and peace be with you. I want to write to you that we are now on the way to Fort Leavenworth. We don’t know, however, what will become of us there. Only God the Almighty knows if we will see each other again in this world, for we go from one affliction to the other. We plead earnestly to God, for he has promised us that not a single hair falls from our heads without his will. And if we do not see each other again in this world, then we will see one another in the next world.

Joseph, likewise, wrote his final letter home, to Maria:

And when you look at our scrawling you can well imagine how low our spirits are, for we are where the waves are roaring and in that time when the seas throw up the dead – if you can only see this in the right way.

This is all for this time, my dear wife. For this is not a good letter at all, since the train shakes and bounces so much. Now to close.
My best greetings to you and our dear children, father and mother and all the brothers and sisters in the faith.

tracing of baby hand

Michael Hofer’s wife sent him this hand sketch of their daughter. “Baby Mary” was one and a half years old when her father died.

The men arrived at Fort Leavenworth on November 19 around midnight. Though the accounts of what happened next differ, David Hofer described a march through the streets to the barracks and then a long wait outdoors before prison clothing arrived. Michael and Joseph Hofer complained of sharp pains in the chest soon after their arrival; they were transferred to the hospital. David Hofer and Jacob Wipf, meanwhile, were held, once again, in solitary confinement when they said they could do no work at Fort Leavenworth.

When Michael’s and Joseph’s condition deteriorated, David sent a telegram urging family members to come quickly. They arrived on November 28, finding Joseph barely able to communicate and Michael in not much better condition. The following morning, when Joseph’s wife, Maria, went to see him, she discovered that he was dead. At first prison officials did not want to let her through to see his body. She persisted and found, to her dismay, in approaching the coffin, that in death he had been dressed in a military uniform. A few days later, on December 2, Michael Hofer died. David was released to accompany the bodies of his brothers back to South Dakota.

drawing of coffin

The Office of the Surgeon of the Disciplinary Barracks listed pneumonia as the cause of death for both men, a common designation for the “Spanish” influenza then sweeping through the prison, as it had across San Francisco when the men were held at Alcatraz. In contrast, the Hutterite church was convinced that the men died because of mistreatment in the months leading up to their deaths. The Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren states that the men “died in prison as a result of cruel mistreatment by the United States military.”6

No representative of the United States government ever apologized to the Hofer brothers’ families, who would later emigrate to Canada. Fellow church members were quick to absolve President Wilson and Secretary of War Newton Baker of direct responsibility, blaming over­zealous generals at the recruitment camps. Other observers were less forgiving. Frank Harris, the cosmopolitan editor of the Saturday Review, would write in his memoir:

Is there any doubt as to who is the better man, the brothers Hofer who went through martyrdom to death for their noble belief, or Secretary Baker, who was responsible for their murder? After the facts had been brought before the Secretary [of War] again and again, month after month, day after day, at long last, on December 6, 1918, nearly a month after the war was ended, Secretary Baker found time to issue an order prohibiting cruel corporal punishment, and the handcuffing of prisoners to the bars of their dungeons, etc. Secretary Baker already knew such torture was being practiced, knew too that it was illegal.7

For his part, Baker would likely have retorted that Harris was willfully ignorant of what it takes to speedily mobilize an army in a war where every day counts. He himself expressed few regrets: “I knew the horror of [war] . . . and I have no sympathy whatever, intellectually or sentimentally, with conscientious or any other kind of objection of people who stayed on this side and preferred place of safety and profit to places of peril and obligation.”8

When Jacob Wipf was finally released from his “place of safety and profit” in April of 1919, he saw his comrades’ graves for himself. Granted clemency by the Office of the Judge Advocate General of the Army, he came home eleven months after his arrest, just in time for spring planting.

Watercolor illustrations by Don Peters.

drawing of prisoner
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  1. Quotes and other information on the National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial are drawn from the museum’s website at
  2. “Wolf Creek,” The Freeman Courier, December 5, 1918.
  3. The Alexandria Herald, May 31, 1918.
  4. The Alexandria Herald, May 31, 1918.
  5. The Alexandria Herald, June 21, 1918.
  6. The Chronicle of the Hutterian Brethren, vol. 1. (Rifton, NY: Plough Publishing, 1987), 807.
  7. Frank Harris, My Life and Loves (New York: Grove Press, 1963), 946.
  8. Reply from Newton D. Baker to socialist convention, Baker Papers, 1918–1919 (no date specified).
Contributed By photo of Suane Stolzfus Duane Stoltzfus

Duane C. S. Stoltzfus, professor of communication at Goshen College, is the author of Pacifists in Chains: The Persecution of Hutterites during the Great War.

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