Bausch Rumsey Janet Smith Kahn Wehinger
The Montana Sedition Project
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Connie Miller came from California to receive the pardon from Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer for her great-granduncle, Martin Wehinger.
Photo by Brian McDermott

How the pardons came about

Letter to the Governor
Legal Petition

The idea of seeking pardons for those convicted of sedition in WWI Montana was born in Missoula's Fact & Fiction bookstore. Shortly after Darkest Before Dawn was published in October 2005, author Clem Work gave a reading at Fact & Fiction. Someone in the audience asked him what he hoped the book would accomplish. After saying he hoped people could learn something from Montana's not-too-distant past about the fragility of free speech, he added that in his box of dreams, he held the wish that someday those who had been so unjustly convicted would be exonerated.

University of Montana Law Professor Jeff Renz,in the audience, had an idea. He read the book and suggested to the seven law students in his spring semester criminal defense clinic that they take on the project of seeking posthumous pardons from the governor for the people convicted of sedition in Montana. The students signed on, reluctantly at first because their new"clients" were long dead, but with growing enthusiasm as they realized the importance of what they were trying to accomplish.Joined by three more law students, they tackled some novel legal issues: Could posthumous pardons be granted at all? None had ever been granted in Montana, and now they were seeking dozens. Could the governor grant such pardons or did the state Board of Pardons and Parole need to weigh in, probably a much more bureaucratic process? Who had standing to bring such a petition? Did relatives of the deceased need to bring the petition?

Three journalism students signed on to the project, charged with finding more information about each of the sedition convicts and trying to find living relatives. At the time "Darkest Before Dawn" went to the publisher, Work knew of only three sets of living descendants, but as word of the project spread, aided by national coverage in the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and National Public Radio, more relatives came forward. Other relatives were found by students and by a network of amateur and professional genealogists extending across the country and into Europe, who gave generously of their time and talent. In all, family members of 20 of the persons convicted were located before a self-imposed deadline of April 1, 2006. One exceptional volunteer, Jeanne Swick of Molt, Mont., was responsible for the most remarkable, needle-in-a-haystack find. Trying to find descendants of Ben Kahn had seemed impossible because of his common name. Jeanne tried Jewish contacts and genealogy groups, to no avail. Finally, using clues from a commutation file for Kahn that had been discovered in the sub-basement of a warehouse in Helena, Jeanne cold-called every Kahn in the Akron, Ohio, phonebook. One of many messages she left on answering machines was picked up a day later by Ben Kahn's grandson, who had been taking care of his parents' apartment while they wintered in Florida. Like a number of other relatives, Ben Kahn's son, Lee, had never known his father had been in prison.

The Pardon Ceremony

With the legal issues resolved, the legal pardon petition and the fact sheets on all the persons convicted were presented on April 13, 2006, to Gov. Brian Schweitzer in Helena. On May 3, 2006, in a ceremony in the capitol rotunda in Helena, Gov. Schweitzer signed the Proclamation of Pardon and copies for each of the families who were able to attend.Four dozen or so relatives first met in the reception room with Gov. Schweitzer (and Jag, his border collie). Last to enter was 89-year-old Marie Van Middlesworth from Medford, Ore., youngest daughter of Fay Rumsey, flown there by her grandson, a vice-president with Columbia Sportswear in Portland. Marie had bright carrot hair and a spunky attitude.

 At 3:30 p.m., the guests walked down the hall to the recently renovated rotunda, where the chairs were set facing the bust of Gov. Joseph Dixon, who followed Gov. Stewart and commuted a half-dozen sedition sentences. To the side was the bust of B.K. Wheeler, who as U.S. Attorney had so staunchly refused to engage in the witch-hunt.

 Montana Historical Society volunteers had made a huge flower arrangement in the blue and yellow colors of the state flag, as well as boutonnieres for all the guests and participants. Huge blowups of the First Amendment and of four front-and-side photos of prisoners were set on easels. Montana and U.S. flags flanked the podium. Probably 100 people were in attendance, plus the press, and many others looking down from the next level of the rotunda. The press formed a virtual wall of clicking cameras at the side at the foot of the grand staircase, while several video cameras also recorded the action.

Bishop Frank Brookhart of the Episcopal Diocese of Montana gave an eloquent and comforting invocation with just the right grace notes. The governor spoke for about five minutes, from the heart, as he told of his own Russian-German grandparents and the rude shock they received from the Stewart administration during the war when preachers were forbidden to speak German. He said: “Across the country, this was a time when we lost our minds. It is time to say to an entire generation of Montanans "We are sorry.' Send the word to the rest of the country. We may be first, but we shouldn't be last."

 A few people noticed he was close to tears.

 Eight of the students each read 9-10 names of the convicted, in alphabetical order. Third-year law student Katie Olson talked about what all this meant to her and her fellow students and about learning from history. "History is a great teacher, but the lessons are meaningless unless we learn from them," she said. Law School dean Ed Eck added a few remarks.

"[The sedition law's] victims were not traitors," said Professor Work. "They were ordinary people with ordinary sentiments, who spoke their minds or voiced their conscience, who said critical or derogatory things about the government, but no more. They went to prison...for their words and passed into history, all but forgotten, their convictions a black mark that most sought to hide--a black mark that rippled through families for generations. But now 88 years later we are gathered here in a moment of redemption and redress to honor these ancestors. Gov. Schweitzer has seen fit to grant executive clemency, to liberate them and their descendants, and all of us, from the shame of their unjust convictions..."

 Drew Briner, the grandson of Herman Bausch, had chosen a few short passages from Herman's unpublished memoirs. One of the passages went:

 "I regret the loss of my beautiful child (his toddler son died while he was in prison), and the loss of years, but I do not regret that I refused to voluntarily aid in the starvation of children and the rape of nations. I have lost much, but I still have my self-respect. My hopes are modified but not diminished...perhaps I have been the gainer. I have not lost faith in the good, the holy and the true...No, I do not regret what I have done or rather what I refused to do. I have lost much, but I am more than ever in possession of my soul, my self-respect, and the love and affection of my beautiful wife .... I end with a prayer for the earl establishment of world peace, for a greater humanity, a greater love among men."

 After finishing these words, Drew addressed his deceased grandfather and said, "Your poetic words, and your patriotism to mankind will not be forgotten. The governor and the state of Montana are pardoning you today. May you rest in peace. Amen."

 He got a standing ovation.

 Gov. Schweitzer repeated a few words of Bausch's (" I have not lost faith...") before reading the proclamation of pardon. As he bent to sign  the general proclamation, the photographers rushed in. As each family representative forward, Schweitzer signed that individual proclamation and said a few words to each person, often, "I'm sorry  this took so long," as he handed him or her the paper.

 The ladies got big hugs.

 A reception that followed at the Montana Historical Society across the street.

Professor Renz was out of the country, but was there in spirit. The event made the front page of The New York Times and many other newspapers across the country and around the world.

Many, many thanks to the students who did the legal and family history research. Without them, the pardons would never have happened.

University of Montana School of Law: Katie Olson, Jason Lazark, Peter Lacny, Laura Beth Hurd, Daniela Pavuk, Myshell Uhl, Kimberly Coburn, Stuart Segrest, and Maggie Weamer.

University of Montana School of Journalism: Caitlin Copple, Nicole Todd, and Bree Rafferty.


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A project of the University of Montana School of Journalism

Project Director: Professor Clemens P. Work