Recalling John Meints, the German immigrant tarred and feathered for ‘disloyalty’

1918 Luverne, Minnesota, wasn't a good place to be German with thoughts of your own.

1918 Luverne, Minnesota, wasn't a good place to be German with thoughts of your own. National Archives

It was summer, 1918. John Meints was in his Luverne, Minnesota, home when a group of men broke in, bundled him into a car, and drove him to Iowa, about 15 miles away. There, they kicked him out and told him never to come back to Minnesota.

Accounts waffle on Meints’ crimes. Some say he was contributing to, or merely interested in, a Non-Partisan League newspaper, which endorsed an anti-corporation party originally founded by a socialist. Others say he wasn’t supporting war bond drives. Or it may simply have been that he was a German immigrant, and anti-German sentiment was reaching a fever pitch in the final years of World War I.

There were more than 8 million first- and second-generation German Americans living in the United States in 1910, and many others whose families had been here for generations. There were German-speaking churches and schools. About 25 percent of the nation’s high school students studied the language.

The war swept all that goodwill away. By the end, German was so taboo that only 1 percent of high schools continued lessons. Libraries emptied their shelves of German books. German newspapers were shuttered.

It was no longer the language of one’s neighbors. It was the language of the enemy.

Meints didn’t come back to Luverne until he had filed a report with the state Department of Justice. After a quick investigation, officials told him it was safe to return. But they advised him to stay with one of his sons, who lived about 12 miles out of town.

He was home for a month when August 19 rolled around. Meints was in his son’s home when he heard someone forcing in the door. A group of masked men swarmed in and grabbed him, shoving him into a car. This time, they drove him to the South Dakota border.

Meints might have been expecting them to simply strand him again, but they had other plans. They “assaulted him, whipped him, threatened to shoot him, besmeared his body with tar and feathers, and told him to cross the line into South Dakota,” according to court records.

If he ever came back to Minnesota, they said, he’d be hanged.

Meints went back to the authorities and filed suit against 32 of the men involved. He wanted $100,000 in damages. After a lengthy trial in Mankato, a U.S. District Court jury deliberated for an hour and a half before siding with the attackers.

“Judge Wilbur F. Booth, in charging the jury, said the evidence was overwhelming in support of the contention that Meintz [sic] was disloyal and that there was a strong feeling against him in the community,” a Minneapolis Tribune article said.

When the 32 residents returned to Luverne, they were met with a welcoming party and a band. “The action of the Luverne citizens in staging a celebration was taken as an indication of strong approval of the acquittal verdict,” the Tribune wrote.

Meints did eventually get justice, for lack of a better word. He appealed in 1922 and settled out of court for $6,000.

Looking back on the case now feels a little like looking at the world through a glass bottle. The perspective is impossibly warped, the details paltry and skewed. But that doesn’t mean Americans are immune to it now. That fear, anger, and distrust reared its head again in the treatment of Muslim Americans after 9/11.

Then-President Woodrow Wilson’s comments warning citizens about so-called “hyphenated Americans” “ready to plunge [a dagger] into the vitals of this Republic when he gets ready” sound a lot like comments from President Donald Trump: “We have a problem in this country; it’s called Muslims.”

The United States’ relationship with immigrants has never stopped being complicated, twisted by conflicts overseas and domestic fear. If Meints teaches us anything, it’s that we may never know what crimes we’ve committed until we have the courage to look back.