How Did Kate Richards O'Hare's Conviction and Incarceration for Sedition
during World War I Change Her Activism?


Kate Richards O'Hare, about 1913
Courtesy of Rare Book, Manuscript, and
Special Collections Library, Duke University,
Durham, North Carolina

Documents selected and interpreted by
Lubna A. Alam
Under the direction of Elisabeth I. Perry
Saint Louis University
September 2004

Project revised and edited by Erin Shaughnessy


       On April 15, 1919, socialist lecturer and organizer Kate Richards O'Hare (1876-1948) entered the Missouri State Penitentiary at Jefferson City as a federal prisoner to begin serving a five-year sentence for violating the Espionage Act. Although O'Hare served less than fourteen months before President Wilson commuted her sentence, releasing her on May 29, 1920, her prison experiences served as a turning point in her life. While O'Hare's worldview remained socialist, after her release from prison she largely ceased socialist organizing, and began instead to commit considerable energy to reforming the country's penal system. The documents in this project examine the impact O'Hare's prison experiences had on her activism, and explore how she attempted to influence prison reform through her writings, public lecture tours and her actions as Assistant Director of Penology in California during 1939.

       On March 26, 1876, Carrie Katherine Richards, the third of five children, was born to Kansas homesteaders Andrew and Lucy Richards. During her formative years, "Kate" Richards absorbed her parents' devout Campellite faith, and developed her "stalwart faith in democratic institutions, human progress and education."[1] Kate suffered in her childhood from periods of deprivation. In an autobiographical sketch for The Socialist Woman, she described the winter of 1887 following her family's bankruptcy and relocation to the slums of Kansas City as the "long, wretched winter."[2] Because of her exposure to the deprivations of poverty, the horror of crime and terrible industrial conditions, as Kate Richards came of age she became involved with a variety of philanthropic organizations, including the Woman's Christian Temperance Union, the Christian Endeavor Society and the Florence Crittendon Mission.[3] Though Kate Richards had hoped to become a minister or missionary, women were not allowed to join the clergy, so after graduating high school in 1892, she moved to Pawnee City, Nebraska to earn a teaching certificate. She briefly taught elementary school in Burchard, Nebraska and began her journalistic career by contributing articles to a local Populist newspaper.

       By the winter of 1895, Richards, disenchanted with teaching, had moved back to Kansas City, where her father worked as a machinist at Peerless Machine Works. Her experiences at Peerless, where she initially worked as a clerical assistant for her father, taught her to persevere in a male-dominated field, a skill that would serve her repeatedly. Later, as an apprentice, Richards was harassed by her male colleagues and relegated to the worst jobs by men who hoped that she would quit. Ultimately, she became one of the first women members of the International Association of Machinists.[4] Her growing interest in industrial unionism caused her rejection of organized Christianity when she discovered that affluent congregation members were violating workers' rights, renting property to brothels, and employing children. Although she would never again belong to an organized church, she retained an abiding belief in the teachings of Christ.

       Kate Richards's life changed forever in the fall of 1895 when she heard "Mother" Jones speak at the Cigarmakers International Union ball in Kansas City (see Document 1). Mary Harris Jones, at that time sixty-five years old, had dedicated her life to labor activism after she had become a penniless widow and experienced first-hand economic and social inequality. After meeting Jones, O'Hare immersed herself in socialist teachings under the guidance of Julius A. Wayland, editor of the Appeal to Reason. She wrote about her transformation:

For a time I lived in a dazed dream while my mental structure was being ruthlessly torn asunder and rebuilt on a new foundation. That the process was a painful one I need not tell one who has undergone it . . . .   At last I awoke in a new world, with new viewpoints, and a new outlook. Recreated, I lived again with new aims, new hopes, new aspirations and the dazzling view of the new and wonderful work to do. All the universe pulsated with new life that swept away the last vestige of the mists of creed and dogma and old ideas and beliefs.[5]

       After joining the newly formed Socialist Party of America in 1901, Richards moved to Girard, Kansas to attend the International School of Social Economy run by Walter Thomas Mills, where she studied trade unionism, economic history, elocution and a variety of other subjects designed to strengthen her skills as a union organizer and orator.[6] While in Girard, she met and fell in love with Frank P. O'Hare, and they married on January 1, 1902, spending their honeymoon traveling and promoting socialism in Missouri and Kansas.[7]

       For the next fifteen years, Kate Richards O'Hare traveled the country lecturing almost ceaselessly, becoming second only to Eugene Debs in popularity on the socialist lecture circuit. While raising four small children, the O'Hares promoted the vision of the collective commonwealth throughout the Southwest, largely through encampments, one- to two-week summer festivals filled with a mix of dancing, singing, and speeches by Debs, O'Hare, Mother Jones and other Socialist "evangelists."[8] After 1908, Frank O'Hare organized transcontinental tours for Kate. In 1909, Frank suffered a nervous breakdown, prompting the family to move to Kansas City, Kansas. There Kate O'Hare became the first woman to run for Congress in 1910, and she and Frank began editing the National Rip-Saw.[9] During her tenure at the National Rip-Saw, O'Hare frequently wrote editorials, articles, and a popular column, while maintaining a hectic promotional speaking schedule that grew each year. These promotional speaking engagements with Debs were so successful that in the six-year span from 1911 to 1917, the National Rip-Saw became the second largest Socialist newspaper in America.[10]

        O'Hare's traveling defined her Socialist activism. From 1904 to 1919, and for much of the 1920s, she traveled the country delivering countless speeches. The constant touring and her prolific writings made her a national sensation by the time she was thirty. O'Hare had a natural charm and charisma and related well to rural audiences. She sought to make Socialism accessible to all Americans by simplifying Marxist thought, and applying it to everyday situations and problems. Her physical presence only added to her impact: she maximized her long, slender frame and red hair by dressing dramatically, appearing in flaming red dresses (thus earning the nickname "Red Kate"), or, later, in ugly prison wear.[11]

        When World War I began in 1914, O'Hare was in the midst of a national speaking tour. She stuck to her schedule and her lecture topics, adding a discussion of the war in Europe. O'Hare began devoting greater attention to the war, depicting graphic scenes of life in war-torn Europe, and the unique suffering of its women (see documents 2A and 2B). O'Hare believed that an American embargo on warring nations -- refusing to sell ammunitions or provide any humanitarian aid to warring nations -- would end hostilities rapidly.

        Although there were outspoken advocates for peace before America entered the war, with the declaration of war patriotic fervor swept the nation. On June 15, 1917, amendments to the Espionage Act made interfering with the draft and attempting to cause insubordination within the military punishable crimes.[12] However, Attorney General Gregory thought the 1917 Act needed to be strengthened, and on May 16, 1918 an amendment to the Espionage Act, often referred to as the Sedition Act, was added. The Sedition Act outlawed speaking, writing, or publishing anything that was intended to cause scorn or contempt of the government, the Constitution, the flag, the military, any language that promoted resistance to the United States, or any language opposing the cause of the United States.[13] The maximum penalty under these offenses was a $10,000 fine and/or twenty years imprisonment.

       After the passage of the Espionage and Sedition Acts, harassment of dissenters increased, including the censorship of many Socialist publications. Aware that agents of the Justice Department were present at her lectures, O'Hare sent complimentary tickets to local law enforcement officials. Despite this harassment, O'Hare continued lecturing, crafting a new speech entitled "Socialism and the War" which she delivered over seventy times.[14] This speech, for which O'Hare became the first prominent member of the Socialist Party arrested under the Espionage Act, examined what she viewed as the cause of war, capitalist greed, and proposed that war would result in Socialist governments. O'Hare also argued that in wartime, governments intentionally undercut sexual morality, encouraging women, without regard to martial status, to "give" themselves to men, "in order that men might 'breed before they die'" (see documents 4, 6A, 6B and 7).

       On July 17, 1917, O'Hare lectured to a crowd of just over 100 people in Bowman, North Dakota, where a political feud was raging between the newly powerful local Non-Partisan Leaguers and an affluent local banker, recently ousted from power, and his supporters (see Document 6A). James E. James, a member of the ousted faction, sought to claim the postmaster position for himself by making accusations against the current postmistress, Nonpartisan League supporter Lillian Totten. When the accusations against Totten failed, Justice Department officials, who had been watching the O'Hares, seized the opportunity, arresting O'Hare on July 29th, and indicted her for "willfully obstructing the enlistment [and recruiting] service of the United States." They charged that she had said that any person who enlisted in the army of the Untied States for service in France would be used for fertilizer, and that the women of the United States were nothing more than brood sows to bear and raise future soliders (see documents 6A and 6B).[15]

        At her December trial in Bismarck, North Dakota, O'Hare denied making these statements, maintaining that she had said:

When the governments of Europe and the clergy of Europe demanded of the women that they give themselves in marriage, or out, in order that men might "breed before they die," that was not the crime of maddened passion, it was the cold blooded crime of brutal selfishness, and by that crime the women of Europe were reduced to the status of breeding animals on a stock farm.

       This was an important distinction. Not a direct criticism of the war effort, O'Hare's version was not illegal; under the Espionage Act, however, prosecutors only had to prove that O'Hare intended to interfere with conscription.[16]

       Historian Kathleen Kennedy convincingly argues that O'Hare's arrest and trial were ultimately not about interfering with the draft, but O'Hare's intimations that the war corrupted motherhood.[17] The ultrapatriotic national ideology, espoused by presiding Judge Martin J. Wade, maintained that war demanded soldiers, and that women's responsibility was to produce citizen-soldiers. O'Hare argued that this patriotic motherhood was a labor construct where women earned the protection of the nation's soldiers by reproducing. This construction of motherhood, she believed, ignored women's central role in character and moral development and devalued the labor of motherhood. Kennedy argues that in O'Hare's view, capitalism and militarism corrupted motherhood.[18]

        It seemed predetermined that O'Hare would be convicted and receive a six-month sentence (the average for violation of the Espionage Act); the reporters who waited with O'Hare while the jury deliberated joked that they had already filed the news stories.[19] O'Hare had taken the stand in her own defense during the trials, and when the court reconvened one week later for sentencing, O'Hare made a lengthy, stirring speech in which she vehemently defended her innocence and the absurdity of the charges against her (see Document 6B). Judge Wade responded to O'Hare in kind, lecturing for over an hour and a half on the importance of patriotism during wartime, the evils of Socialism, and the inappropriateness of women in public life, and sentenced O'Hare to an unprecedented five years in prison (see Document 4).[20]

       On October 28, 1918 O'Hare's conviction was upheld by the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, and on March 3, 1919 the Supreme Court refused to hear her case. O'Hare entered the Missouri State Penitentiary at Jefferson City on April 15, 1919.[21] Although reforms had begun transforming prisons, especially in the North, the Missouri State Penitentiary remained untouched by this reformatory spirit.[22] The largest and one of the oldest prisons in the nation, Jefferson City did not maintain a separate female facility, housing the 80 female inmates in a section of the male institution, nor did it segregate prisoners by hygienic standards or seriousness of criminal offense.  It imposed the silence system, and most unfortunately for O'Hare, it employed the convict labor system.[23] Inmate labor was sold or leased by the State of Missouri to a private manufacturer who profited from the prison's tax-supported facilities and low-wage labor source.

       O'Hare had originally planned a comprehensive study of prison conditions and of her fellow prisoners while incarcerated (see Document 18G). She hoped to later build this study into full-length case studies in criminology, and she won support for this project from the Department of Psychology and the Medical School at the University of Missouri at Columbia, but her assignment to the prison's industrial shop precluded such a study.[24] O'Hare was simply too exhausted to expend much energy on the case studies, though she did circulate questionnaires among inmates, accruing almost two hundred detailed case histories during her fourteen-month imprisonment. She unfortunately discovered at her release that her field notes had vanished.[25] In her first letter home, O'Hare expressed her belief that the only valid texts on prison were written by educated individuals who had survived prison. She advised Frank that after her release, he "must get in, and study the men as I [will] study the women. It is a hard way to study science and humanity, but it is the only way" (see Document 8A).

       While subject to prison administration censorship, and thus, not an entirely accurate reflection of O'Hare's experiences, her weekly letters to her family document her changing attitudes about women and her focus as an activist. Initially allowed to send only one five-page letter per week, by her release, O'Hare had been promoted within the prison system and was allowed to send three letters per week. O'Hare used these letters to express herself to her family and friends, as well as make indirect contact with her many well-wishers and fellow socialists. Frank O'Hare published some of these letters in batches through Frank P. O'Hare's Bulletin, a newsletter sent out to keep the O'Hare case in the public eye while Kate O'Hare remained behind bars, and in 1919 he published the first nineteen as the book Kate O'Hare's Prison Letters.

       O'Hare's biographer, Sally Miller, argues that only through her prison experiences was O'Hare was able to develop a sense of sisterhood that was no longer subsumed by the greater "Social Question." By the end of her prison term, O'Hare appealed to women on behalf of women prisoners through a gender-based strategy previously atypical for her.[26] Ultimately, O'Hare viewed her suffering through the lens of universal womanhood, arguing,

There are a hundred ways I suffer, but do not all women suffer also? Do not the harassed housewives struggling piteously to feed their families face to face with the ruinous cost of living -- do not the working women who must grapple with the problem of making scanty wages cover soaring prices -- do not the women whose loved ones are sleeping over there in the blood-soaked soil of war-scarred France? (See Document 8I)

O'Hare's shift to a gender-based strategy persisted in her work on prison reform. After her release, O'Hare employed this strategy in her work with the Children's Crusade for Amnesty (see documents 13, 14 and 15), evoking middle-class women's sympathies by using the families of 113 imprisoned political prisoners to bring pressure on federal officials to secure their release.

       While O'Hare's views on women and the woman question changed while during her prison stay, her attitudes toward African Americans did not. A staunch believer in black inequality, O'Hare felt that black people were incapable of competing with whites and ill-adapted for higher education. Her views remained largely unchanged throughout her prison term. Even through her racism, O'Hare did recognize that African-American women were triply victimized by society: by being black, working-class, and women, and her interactions with them were not hostile.[27] O'Hare shared with black prisoners, as she did with white inmates, gifts she received from her supporters, including food and trinkets. She often wrote letters for them, and she listened sympathetically to their problems.[28]

       Four months after entering prison, O'Hare acknowledged her new focus, writing in her letter of 17 August 1919 that, "I shall, of course, give the balance of my life to the fight on our judicial and penal system" (see Document 8G). The bulk of her letters related (in sanitized language) the horrific conditions O'Hare encountered, and her attempts to ameliorate them with some success (see documents 8A-8N). O'Hare was most profoundly affected by the integration of mentally and physically diseased women with the general population and the prison labor system, and she document both of these things graphically through her letters and later in her writings and speeches (see documents 10, 11, 12A, 12B, 14, 18A-F, and 19).

        After her release on May 30, 1920, O'Hare immediately began a speaking tour, revealing the horrific conditions she encountered at Jefferson City (see documents 10, 11, 12A and 12B), and continued her "training" at the Institute on Venereal Disease Control and Social Hygiene from November 22-December 10, 1920 (see Document 13). O'Hare shocked audiences with her descriptions of the convict-lease system and horrid prison conditions. She justified her shift in activism by maintaining that socialism was firmly established and understood in America, and that she could effect greater change in prison reform.

        O'Hare sharply attacked the prison contract labor system she had endured at Jefferson City, publishing a number of pamphlets and books exposing the problem and proposing a solution (see documents 14 and 18A-G). In 1924, at the request of the Joint Committee on Prison Labor of the Union-Made Garment Manufacturers' Association of America and the United Garment Workers of America, O'Hare conducted a nationwide survey of prison contract labor, submitting a report detailing its abuses (see Document 19). In twenty states, private industry -- mainly concentrated in work garment production -- contracted with the state for convict labor, using prison facilities as tax-supported factories. Since prison contractors negotiated directly with the state for prisoner labor, the wages they paid the state remained significantly lower than those paid to unionized (and even non-union) laborers outside the prison, increasing prison contractors' profits dramatically. Through the "task" system, states essentially relinquished all disciplinary power to contractors, whose sole goal was maximum production, thereby eliminating any possibility for prisoner rehabilitation. O'Hare argued that not only were prisoners and their families hurt by convict contract labor, but the state, industry, and all unionized and non-union labor also suffered. Rather than using prison labor for private profit, she maintained, states should utilize prisoners' time to produce those supplies needed by the government which it currently purchased, thereby saving taxpayer dollars and improving conditions for prisoners. For much of the 1920s, O'Hare traveled the country lecturing and writing on the evils of prison contract labor and working with organized labor to establish convict labor committees.[29] When the Hawkes-Cooper Bill passed in 1929, allowing the states the power to prevent the transportation of prison-made goods across state lines, O'Hare saw this goal largely accomplished.[30]

       Although O'Hare recognized the impossibility of developing an ideal reformatory system under capitalism, she stressed the necessity of attempting reform. Arguing that prisons served none of their intended functions (retributive punishment, segregation of the dangerous, and rehabilitation), O'Hare proposed abolishing contemporary prisons, and replacing them with hospital-like settings. She argued that physicians, educators and psychologists working toward healing the degenerate "sub-normals" and other delinquents would be able to successfully deal with the pathological section of society through scientific methods.[31] She outlined the chasm between her experiences at Jefferson City and the long-term reforms needed in her book, In Prison, by Kate Richards O'Hare, Sometime Federal prisoner number 21669 (see documents 18A-18G).

       O'Hare did not lose her gendered persepective on prisons once released. In Crime and Criminals, written one year after her release from prison, O'Hare examined the three types of crimes women committed: crimes against property, persons, and government (see Document 14). Maintaining that individual crimes against all three often were punished beyond the weight of the crime, O'Hare argued the grossest crimes perpetrated by industry -- unsafe working conditions resulting in injury or death; pricing necessary food products like milk too high for working people to afford them -- remained unpunished. In Crime and Criminals, O'Hare also outlined necessary long-term prison reforms, including the segregation of physically and mentally diseased inmates from the general population and the segregation of young offenders from hardened lifetime criminals. She also advocated establishing a progressive institution for female convicts that would be truly rehabilitative.

       In 1938, O'Hare, divorced from Frank O'Hare and remarried to Charles Cunningham, moved to California hoping to retire from public life. She had been active in Upton Sinclair's End Poverty in California (EPIC) campaign from 1934-35, and had also served in Wisconsin Congressman Thomas R. Amlie's Washington, D. C. office from 1937 through his defeat in September 1938.[32] When Culbert Olson was elected governor of California in 1938, he inherited an antiquated and abusive prison system that was one of the weakest in the nation. Newly-appointed Director of Penology, John Gee Clark, hired O'Hare as his assistant. Although untrained in penology, O'Hare had a long record of prison reform writings and agitation that made her a respected figure in the field.[33] They immediately began an investigation of current state prison administrators.

        Following several food riots and reports of torture at San Quentin, charges were filed against the Board of Prison Directors. O'Hare urged the governor, whom she had known during the EPIC campaign, to proceed as quickly as possible with the hearings, fearing more food riots and further prisoner abuse.[34] Olson appointed a new Prison Board and replaced San Quentin's warden. The article "Battle for San Quentin," published in the San Francisco Chronicle, 7 July 1940, outlined the new plan for prison reform. The author acknowledged O'Hare as "the brains behind the grandiose reform scheme" (see Document 20).

       Throughout her life, Kate Richards O'Hare worked on behalf of segments of society victimized in Progressive Era America: the poor, women, and working men and women. First through temperance and charity work, O'Hare sought to uplift the poor, believing that vice caused poverty. Her exposure to both industrial unionism and socialist teachings profoundly changed O'Hare, leading her to work ceaselessly for twenty years to educate the nation about socialism. Her fourteen-month incarceration transformed O'Hare, however, and she devoted much of the rest of her life to prison reform. O'Hare's imprisonment crystallized for her the necessity of eradicating prison contract labor, which she viewed as the worst of scab labor. Though she retained an almost clinical distance from her fellow inmates, O'Hare experienced sisterhood and later used gendered strategies to achieve her goals in the Children's Crusade for Amnesty. While O'Hare's belief structure remained staunchly socialist, after prison she worked increasingly with organized labor, among other groups, to effect prison reform. O'Hare felt the need for prison reform was so urgent that she joined mainstream reform efforts, serving for a year as Assistant Director of Penology in California, where during her tenure, sweeping changes began in that penal system. When Earl Warren became California governor in 1943, he recognized the value of O'Hare's service and invited her to attend sessions of the State Crime Commission, an opportunity she availed herself of regularly until her death on January 10, 1948 of a sudden heart attack.[35]



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