Of all the accounts of resistance during the First World War, there are few more harrowing than the story of the four Hutterites who were imprisoned in Fort Leavenworth in 1918. The Hutterites are descendants of a large group of Austrian peasants who broke away from the Catholic church in the sixteenth century, living in self-sufficient communities and vowing allegiance to God over man. As pacifists, they refused to fight in any war, to hold public office, or to take oaths. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries they were martyred by the thousands, but by the nineteenth century had emigrated to Russia, where they lived peacefully until the late 1800s. At that time, their special exemption from military duty was repealed, and they were given six years to tie up affairs and leave the country.
Howard Moore (who met the four men while imprisoned in Fort Leavenworth) writes:
What could be more natural than that their leaders should look to America, the land of the free, a land that had been founded on the principle of individual liberty of conscience, a land settled by men who had fled from the four corners of the earth to escape religious persecution and, having settled, still welcomed all who wished to come to this continent to practice, free from persecution, their religious faith?
By 1874, most of the Hutterites had moved to South Dakota and begun new communities, or “colonies.” For forty-five years they lived in relative peace. But that peace was shattered by Wilson’s Conscription Act, and by the summer of 1918, four Hutterites living in South Dakota had been drafted into the Army against their will. Joseph, Michael, and David Hofer were blood-brothers. Together with a brother-in-law, Jacob Wipf, they were ordered to report to Camp Lewis, Washington, on May 25. Because they objected to military service on grounds of conscience, however, they refused to cooperate with even the basic induction procedures, and were thus considered to be military prisoners subject to military discipline. Persecution began immediately. Already on the train ride to the camp, another group of young men on their way to induction had grabbed the four Hutterites and tried to cut off their hair and their beards.
Upon arrival, they refused to promise obedience to military commands, to stand in formation, or to put on the uniforms given to them. For this, they were thrown into a “guardhouse,” where they were kept for two months before being court-martialed and sentenced to thirty-seven years in military prison. Following their court-martial they were transferred, with hands and feet shackled, to Alcatraz in San Francisco Bay. There they were forcibly stripped and commanded to dress in military uniforms. When they refused, they were taken to a dungeon where water trickled down the slimy walls and out over the bare rock floor. The darkness, cold, and stench were overpowering. Their uniforms were thrown down next to them, and they were told: “If you don’t give in, you’ll stay here till you die, like the four we dragged out of here yesterday!”
Shivering in their underwear, the prisoners were forced to sleep on the cold, damp floor without blankets. During the first four-and-a-half days, they were given nothing to eat and received only a half glass of water every twenty-four hours. Then, for the next two days, their hands were chained to iron rods above their heads so that their feet barely touched the floor. They were beaten with sticks, and Michael passed out. All the same, they were separated from one another so as to prevent communication; David later heard Jacob crying out: “Oh, have mercy, almighty God!”
When the men were brought up from the dungeon into a yard containing other prisoners, they had severe eczema and scurvy and had been badly bitten by insects; their arms were so swollen that they were unable to put on their coats. Altogether, they had not eaten for six days. They were finally fed but then were returned to their cells and locked in for twenty-four hours a day, apart from a single hour on Sundays when they were allowed to stand in the courtyard under heavy guard. They endured this treatment for four months until they were chained once again for the four-day journey east to Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. They arrived in Kansas at eleven o’clock at night and were driven through the streets like pigs, prodded by shouting guards with open bayonets; they fumbled to retain the Bible, bag, and pair of shoes each had been given to hold in his manacled hands.
After being forced to run uphill to the prison gates, they were made to undress in the raw winter air and kept waiting, soaked in sweat, for their prison garb to be brought out. For two hours they shivered naked in the wind; by the time their clothes arrived, around 1:30 a.m., they were chilled to the bone. At 5:00 a.m. they were brought outside again and forced to stand in the cold wind. Joseph and Michael collapsed in pain and were taken to the infirmary. Jacob and David stood fast but refused to join a work detail and so were put in solitary confinement. Their hands were stretched through iron bars and chained together, and they were forced to stand in this position for nine hours each day, with only bread and water for nourishment. After two weeks, they began to receive occasional meals.
Jacob Wipf managed to send a telegram to their wives, and they traveled immediately to Leavenworth. They started out from their homes at night, leaving their small children behind them. But a railroad agent mistakenly gave them tickets to the wrong station, causing a delay of an entire day, so that when the women finally arrived at Leavenworth around 11:00 p.m., they found their husbands close to death and barely able to speak. By the following morning, Joseph Hofer was dead.
His wife Maria was told his body had already been placed in the coffin and could no longer be viewed, but she was persistent and pushed past the guards to the commanding officer, pleading for permission to see her husband once more. Her request was granted, but she was not prepared for what she found: through her tears, she suddenly realized that the lifeless body of her beloved husband had been dressed in military uniform. Joseph had been faithful to the last, and now he was mocked in death.
Michael Hofer died only days later; at the insistence of his father he was allowed to lie in his own clothes. Immediately following Michael’s death, David Hofer was brought back to his cell and chained to the bars, unable to wipe away the tears that streamed down his face for the whole day. The next morning, with the help of a willing guard, David relayed a message to the commanding officer, requesting that he might be placed in a cell closer to Jacob Wipf. The guard returned an hour later and told David to pack up his things for immediate release.
David was at first incredulous, but left a brief message for Jacob and prepared to go. It is not clear what prompted this unexpected and sudden release, but it is probable that rumors of his brothers’ deaths were beginning to leak out, and the prison was worried that they would become martyrs in the public eye. Soon after, on December 6, 1918, the Secretary of War issued an order prohibiting handcuffing, chaining, and the otherwise brutal punishment of military prisoners – a token political gesture to counteract the case’s growing negative publicity. In reality, Jacob’s battle continued.
When two Hutterites visited him at Leavenworth five days later, they found him in solitary confinement, his hands still chained to the iron bars for nine hours a day. He was still receiving a diet of bread and water and sleeping on a concrete floor, although he had been given several blankets. In a message sent home to his family, he wrote:
Sometimes I envy the three who have already been delivered from their pain. Then I think: why is the hand of the Lord so heavy upon me? I have always tried to be faithful and hardworking and hardly ever made any trouble for the brotherhood. Why must only I continue to suffer? But then there is joy, too, so that I could weep for joy when I think that the Lord considers me worthy to suffer a little for his sake. And I have to confess that, compared with our previous experiences, the life here is like in a palace.
Considering that the Armistice was signed on November 11, 1918, it is hard to believe that the chaining of military prisoners was only stopped on December 12. The prisoners were given planks on which to sleep, and conditions gradually improved as the War Department continued to receive petitions on the men’s behalf. Jacob Wipf remained behind bars for four more months and was finally released on April 13, 1919, after being hospitalized for a brief illness.
But the deaths of the two Hofer brothers could not be so easily forgotten, and by the end of the year, the great majority of Hutterite colonies had emigrated to Canada to escape further persecution – including vandalism by their neighbors because of their refusal to buy war bonds. So ended one of the most shameful episodes in American military history.