America was a nation of 106 million that year. Boston had a population of over 100,000. The first World War had ended one year and one month before, and the world was still recovering from a flue pandemic that
had killed 3% of the world's population. Over 600,000 Americans had died, and over 45,000 Bay Staters.
Unemployement was at 5%, and the illiteracy rate was just 6%. and falling And beginning at about six on the morning of Friday, January 2, and continuing throughout the day, officers of the Boston Police Department and the Federal government exploded through doors throughout the city with guns drawn, but without arrest or search warrants. They detained at least 400 people. In handcuffs and leg shackles the stunned prisoners were hustled aboard boats and transported to the aging Deer Island House of Corrections Prison in Boston Harbor. These raids, part of a nationwide sweep in 30 cities and 24 states, were meant to snuff out an incipient communist revolution, according to the Press Releases. Privately, they were also meant to get the Attorney General elected President of the United States.
The unlucky subjects were held in the unheated, overcrowded aging prison for several weeks, while the government tried to determine who they had actually swept up. One Boston woman, seized from her own bed because she was suspected of being an illegal alien and a communist, was found to be an American citizen and to have no ties at all to the Communist party. Most of those seized were legal Russian immigrants, members of labor unions or others labeled as dangerous by various questionable sources. In Detroit the police arrested every customer in a foreign-food restaurant and an entire orchestra, while in the city of Philadelphia, an entire choral society was imprisoned. In Hartford, Connecticut worried family members who inquired at the police station about missing relatives were also detained for a week.
The raids were the brainchild of U.S. Attorney General Alexander Mitchell Palmer, “The Fighting Quaker”, and politician to the core. He had almost been the victim of a 1919 anarchist bomber (the man had blown himself up on Palmer's front porch). AG Palmer had seen considerable public support for similar but smaller raids the previous November. But for the January raids, Palmer had turned their organization and execution over to the head of the Justice Department's Bureau of Investigation, the 20 year old J. Edgar Hoover.
Palmer and Hoover were effectively operating without supervision because President Woodrow Wilson had suffered a stroke the previous October, which had largely incapacitated him. In November, Palmer had conducted his first “Red Scare raids” to positive public support. But the January raids were more than twice as large, and had been so badly organized that even Hoover had to later admit they contained a few “clear cases of brutality”. Innitially the Justice Department claimed the raids produced several bombs, but in truth, the only weapons actually siezed were four pistols, from amongst the 4,000 suspects.
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