The Jan. 7, 1935, front page of The Hillsboro Journal trumpeted the climax to a depression-era story that thrust Montgomery County into the national spotlight:
"'Treason' Case Not To Come To Trial; 14 Defendants To Be Released Under Parole."
Treason? The only crime defined by the United States Constitution? Here?
Eighty-five years ago this summer, in June 1934, 14 men were charged by a Montgomery County grand jury with conspiracy to overthrow the government and arrested after labor-related meetings in Hillsboro and Nokomis. They were charged based on Illinois' 1919 syndicalism law which made it a felony to advocate for violent changes in government. The indictment charging all 14 with conspiracy to overthrow the government did not charge any specific acts of violence by the defendants, but instead alleged that they "advocated" violence "by word of mouth and by writing," and accused them of connections to the Communist Party.
Two of the 14 charged were from Chicago: Jay Wittenber and John Adams. The rest were local men, most of them out-of-work miners: Gordon Hutchins of Hillsboro; Frank Pancsik, John Pancsik, Frank Prickett, John Jurkanin and Frank Mucci of Taylor Springs; Victor Renner of Panama; and John Holland, Carl Gerulla, Robin Staples, George Reid and John Lapshansky of Nokomis. A 15th, John Smerkin, was indicted but never located or arrested. Had they been convicted, punishment could have resulted in five years in prison and fines up to $2,000 each.
The case was prosecuted by State's Attorney George Hall, and a team of Chicago labor attorneys, along with a St. Louis American Civil Liberties Union attorney, represented the defendants.
Wittenber's defense team even used a campaign that invited supporters to mail pre-printed postcards to the state's attorney demanding the defendants' release. "Civil Rights in Hillsboro are being Suppressed!" the postcard's headline shouted, above a penciled drawing of what appears to be a law enforcement officer swinging a club at a victim on one knee. "The Hillsboro case is fast becoming a byword throughout the state, even throughout the nation, as an example of brutal denial of elementary rights to unemployed workers," the postcard said, before giving the signer the opportunity to "demand the squashing of the indictments and the immediate, unconditional release of the prisoners."
A change in venue in the case had transferred it from the jurisdiction of Judge T.M. Jett (whose photo is still prominent in the old courtroom–now the county board room–in the Historic Courthouse) to Judge Paul McWilliams "of the Litchfield city court," according to the Dec. 3, 1934, edition of The Hillsboro Journal. Another change in venue was denied by Judge McWilliams, and according to the Dec. 3 newspaper report, "Defendants made it clear this morning that they were entirely pleased to have the trial take place in Hillsboro, where they are known and where they have friends, and expressed deep regret that any information had been given out to the effect that they had asked for a change of venue because of alleged prejudice of the people of this community against them. They feel that sentiment is not against them and made no such claim at any time, several of them said today."
More courtroom drama ensued on Friday, Dec. 7, 1934, around a defense motion to quash the indictments. After a packed courtroom erupted into applause while a defense attorney was making oral arguments, Judge McWilliams ordered court officers to clear the courtroom.
That action didn't sit well with the defendants, who rose to their feet to shout a protest. According to The Hillsboro Journal, the judge asked them to take a seat or "be put in jail." When order was not restored, the judge asked deputies to remove three of the defendants–Adams, Prickett and Jurkanin–from the courtroom. According to the newspaper, Adams shouted "Take your hands off me," to the deputy, then, addressing the judge, "Your honor, I protest against this manhandling. I'll go to jail, but I don't want to be manhandled." All three were admitted back into court a few minutes later after their attorneys "indicated that they would endeavor to prevent further infractions of the court rules," according to The Journal.
The trial was set to begin on Jan. 7, 1935, but all morning and most of the afternoon was spent in "parlaying between attorneys for both sides," the newspaper said, before a plea deal was reached.
"All 14 defendants stipulated to being found guilty, not to the treason charge, but to a lesser one of conspiracy to do an illegal act, and were freed under parole," according to the Jan. 7, 1935, edition of The Journal. "All 14 men, however, will be under parole for nine months. The result, said John Adams of Chicago, 'is a decided victory for the defendants, since it is an admission on the part of the state that the treason law will not hold water.'"
During one of the court recesses while attorneys negotiated the deal, the newspaper noted that Mucci conducted a meeting with a courtroom full of sympathizers resulting in a vote to send a telegram to President Franklin Roosevelt demanding "social and unemployed insurance" and protesting "use of courts to frame militant workers."
One of those watching the court proceedings was the state senator from Collinsville, who told the newspaper he would "introduce a bill in the present session of the legislature designed to repeal the so-called 'treason act' which was passed in 1919. A broad charge of conspiracy to overthrow the government, as it appears in the Illinois treason code, is unfair and a 'hangover' from wartime hysteria."