Kenesaw Mountain Landis


Kenesaw Mountain Landis : biography

November 20, 1866 – November 25, 1944

Landis’s disdain for draft dodgers and other opponents of the war was evident in July 1917, when he presided over the trials of some 120 men, mostly foreign-born Socialists, who had resisted the draft and rioted in Rockford, Illinois. According to Pietrusza, Landis "was frequently brutal in his remarks" to the defendants, interrogating them on their beliefs. Landis tried the case in Rockford, and found all guilty, sentencing all but three to a year and a day in jail, the maximum sentence, the remaining three were given lesser sentences. The prisoners were ordered to register for the draft after serving their sentences—except 37, whom he ordered deported.

On September 5, 1917, federal officers raided the national headquarters, in Chicago, of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, sometimes "Wobblies"), as well as 48 of the union’s halls across the nation. The union had opposed the war and urged members and others to refuse conscription into the armed forces. On September 28, 166 IWW leaders, including union head Big Bill Haywood were indicted in the Northern District of Illinois; their cases were assigned to Landis. Some 40 of the indicted men could not be found; a few others had charges dismissed against them. Ultimately, Landis presided over a trial against 113 defendants, the largest federal criminal trial to that point.

The trial began on April 1, 1918. Landis quickly dismissed charges against a dozen defendants, including one A.C. Christ, who showed up in newly-obtained Army uniform. Jury selection occupied a month. Journalist John Reed attended the trial, and wrote of his impressions of Landis:

Small on the huge bench sits a wasted man with untidy white hair, an emaciated face in which two burning eyes are set like jewels, parchment-like skin split by a crack for a mouth; the face of Andrew Jackson three years dead … Upon this man has devolved the historic role of trying the Social Revolution. He is doing it like a gentleman. In many ways a most unusual trial. When the judge enters the court-room after recess, no one rises—he himself has abolished the pompous formality. He sits without robes, in an ordinary business suit, and often leaves the bench to come down and perch on the step of the jury box. By his personal orders, spittoons are placed by the prisoners’ seats … and as for the prisoners themselves, they are permitted to take off their coats, move around, read newspapers. It takes some human understanding for a Judge to fly in the face of judicial ritual as much as that.

Haywood biographer Melvyn Dubofsky wrote that Landis "exercised judicial objectivity and restraint for five long months". Baseball historian Harold Seymour stated that "[o]n the whole, Landis conducted the trial with restraint, despite his reputation as a foe of all radical groups." Landis dismissed charges against an elderly defendant who was in obvious pain as he testified, and allowed the release of a number of prisoners on bail or on their own recognizances.

On August 17, 1918, following the closing argument for the prosecution (the defendants waived argument), Landis instructed the jury. The lead defense counsel objected to the wording of the jury charge several times, but Haywood believed it to have been fair. After 65 minutes, the jury returned with guilty verdicts for all of the remaining accused, much to their shock; they had believed that Landis’s charge pointed towards their acquittal. When the defendants returned to court on August 29, Landis listened with patience to the defendants’ final pleas. For the sentencing, according to Richard Cahan in his history of Chicago’s district court, "mild-mannered Landis returned a changed man". Although two defendants received only ten days in jail, all others received at least a year and a day, and Haywood and fourteen others received twenty years. A number of defendants, including Haywood, obtained bail during the appeal; even before Haywood’s appeals were exhausted, he jumped bail and took ship for the Soviet Union. The labor leader hung a portrait of Landis in his Moscow apartment, and when Haywood died in 1928, he was interred near John Reed (who had died of illness in Moscow after the Bolshevik Revolution) in the Kremlin Wall—they remain the only two Americans so honored. President Calvin Coolidge commuted the sentences of the remaining incarcerated defendants in 1923, much to the disgust of Landis, who issued an angry statement. After leaving his judgeship, Landis referred to the defendants in the Haywood case as "scum", "filth", and "slimy rats".