A powerful country must choose sides in a conflict fought elsewhere but impacting their own bottom line. Another government stealthily convinces that country's citizens to choose war, fanning flames of patriotism through a propaganda campaign. The country enters the war, and under the guise of national defense, looks to prosecute any dissenters. Sound familiar?
It should, but maybe not if you're focused on modern times. It's American history circa early 1900s, with a compelling local component multiplied by two.
Retired attorney and former Coeur d'Alene City Councilman Stephen B. McCrea has produced a timely read titled Silencing Thomas Kerl: The Espionage Act of 1917 and the War Against Dissent. It's based on the life of Thomas Kerl, a turn-of-the-century attorney, legislator and businessman who developed Coeur d'Alene's Fort Grounds neighborhood.
Kerl and his legacy were casualties of President Woodrow Wilson's administration, whose Espionage Act of 1917 and Sedition Act of 1918 following America's entrance into World War I sidestepped certain inalienable rights, according to McCrea. Kerl criticized the government and put himself in its crosshairs. But there were other factors.
Kerl was caught up by the human tendency to demonize "the other," equating ethnicity with loyalty (during Kerl's time, Germans like him were suspect). Not only were his criticisms outside the mainstream, but he was also educated, making him suspect to patriotism-or-else types.
Nebraska native Kerl was arrested there and convicted of violating the Espionage Act. As the war had ended, Kerl escaped jail time. Word of his transgressions followed him to Idaho, however, which disbarred him from practicing law — a fact that intrigued McCrea enough to pursue writing about Kerl.
McCrea's narrative concludes with Kerl raising his family in Coeur d'Alene, and continuing his interest in agricultural science. His mental health had suffered, though, and eight days after the death of his youngest daughter, he hung himself in 1933. Silencing Thomas Kerl is a fairly quick read, even though it's dense with scene-setting details culled from newspaper accounts, personal journals and the like.
The trial, his death, his financial successes, his philanthropy, any of it might have warranted recognition in the town he called home. Yet even though he donated generously to numerous organizations, including the library, his story was never chronicled. Until now. ♦
Available at the Art Spirit Gallery, Well-Read Moose, Museum of North Idaho, Coeur d'alene Public Library and stephenbmccrea.com.