AFTERTHOUGHTS • Riots In Litchfield 80 Years Ago

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Riots, destruction of property, religious intolerance, and recalcitrance toward the flag–all issues from the pages of any daily newspaper in any city in the country these days.

This column, though, is about those same issues from the front page of The Hillsboro Journal 80 years ago last week.  It’s a story about mob action in Litchfield, where some visitors to our normally friendly county were jailed for their own protection while their cars were damaged–two vehicles were dumped into Walton Park Lake.

The headline from the Monday, June 17, 1940 edition of The Hillsboro Journal: “Riot Follows Distribution of Literature.”

The newspaper story begins, “Rioting on the streets of Litchfield resulted yesterday when a large party of Jehovah’s Witnesses, most of them from St. Louis, arrived and began distributing literature from door to door.”  The lead paragraph continues that the Witnesses were taken into custody by police and Sheriff Leo Gilliland as protective measure, and “13 automobiles which belonged to members of the visiting delegation were wrecked by irate Litchfieldians, and two of the cars were dumped into Walton Park Lake at the south edge of Litchfield.”

First a little background on what could have made our ancestors so uncivil.  In 1935, Watch Tower Society president J. F. Rutherford said at a convention in defense of Jehovah’s Witness children not saying the Pledge of Allegiance at school that to salute an earthly emblem ascribed salvation to it and was showed unfaithfulness to God.  That advice eventually wound up in court and went all the way to the top.  In an 8-1 decision on June 3, 1940–just two weeks before the Litchfield riot and at a time when fears of the Fascism, Nazism, and Communism that was ripping Europe apart had Americans looking over their shoulders–the United States Supreme Court upheld the mandatory flag salute–a decision they overturned just three years later.

Back to Litchfield. “The trouble began Sunday morning (June 16) when cars containing the Jehovah’s Witnesses began arriving in Litchfield and occupants started distribution of literature from house to house,” the 1940 Journal continued.  “The literature, similar to that which has previously been distributed in Litchfield and Hillsboro and other communities, was alleged to be unpatriotic.  A brush between citizens of Litchfield and distributors of similar literature occurred about three weeks ago when some of the men were threatened and a few blows were struck during an altercation over distribution of the tracts.  The men were warned not to return to Litchfield with literature of that kind and an appeal had later been made to city authorities asking protection to distributors who intended to return to Litchfield some days ago.  The city authorities notified the representatives of the sect that protection could not be promised because of the small police force.  Nothing further was heard from them until Sunday when cars loaded with men, women and children belonging to the Jehovah’s Witness sect and with tracts of various kinds began arriving in Litchfield.

“As soon as word spread that members of the sect had returned, irate citizens began gathering and they were warned to leave immediately.  Failing to do so, some of the men were manhandled and their automobiles were confiscated by the continually increasing crowd.  The cars were badly wrecked and the visitors to the city were taken into custody by police officers and Sheriff Gilliland and his deputies for their protection.  They were taken to city jail where they were kept while a large crowd gathered outside in the street.  As more cars containing the Jehovah’s Witnesses arrived, they were stopped, the occupants were frightened away and literature was dumped on the street, being burned in several instances and torn up or otherwise destroyed.”

The newspaper reported that the crowd around city jail grew to almost a thousand, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses were moved to the county jail in Hillsboro by state police.  Later that evening, two large buses were chartered to take the 65 Witnesses from county jail back to St. Louis.

The local report goes on to say that no one was seriously injured, “although three of the men were manhandled and one of them had most of his shirt torn off in a melee.  The women and girls were not molested after their literature had been obtained.”

The story concludes, “The Litchfield rioting of yesterday is the most serious result of the feeling which has sprung up all over the country.”

On the front page of the following issue of the newspaper, “At a special meeting of the Litchfield City Council held Tuesday afternoon, an ordinance was passed prohibiting the distribution of any literature which in any way advocates refusing to salute the American flag.  The ordinance would make it illegal for Jehovah’s Witnesses to distribute literature in that city.”

It goes on that according to the Litchfield city attorney, the ordinance is in accordance with the Supreme Court decision upholding mandatory flag salute.

Incidentally, the follow-up story headlined “Litchfield Passes Ordinance On Flag” from the Thursday, June 20, 1940, edition of The Hillsboro Journal is adjacent on the front page to the headline, “Last Veteran of Civil War In County Dies.”  That will certainly be the topic of  subsequent research.

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