By Elizabeth K. Miles
Wisconsin attorney Dean Strang’s new book, “Worse than the Devil: Anarchists, Clarence Darrow, and Justice in a Time of Terror,” sheds light on the compelling and largely overlooked 1917 criminal trial of eleven Italian immigrants in Milwaukee and the subsequent appeal led by famed defense attorney Clarence Darrow.
The book literally starts out with a bang. On November 24, 1917, a worker discovered a bomb planted outside the Third Ward church of Reverend August Giuliani. A local boy took the bomb to a nearby Milwaukee police station, where it exploded, killing nine officers and one civilian. It was the largest loss of police life at one time until September 11, 2001. Evidence was sparse, and police never made an arrest in the bombing. Police, the press, and the public, however, quickly turned their attention and blame for the bombing to eleven Italian immigrants from Bay View sitting in a Milwaukee jail on unrelated charges.
Bay View in 1917 was largely populated by recent Italian immigrants from central and northern Italy. Unlike earlier Italian immigrants to Milwaukee, the residents of Bay View were unassimilated, less uniformly religious, and less patriotic about America and its entry into World War I. Rev. Giuliani had visited Bay View several times in the summer of 1917, conducting evangelical and patriotic rallies. His message was not well received. The Reverend’s third visit ended in a shootout between residents and Milwaukee police. After conducting a “rigid” investigation and “grilling” numerous witnesses (without warrants), the police reported that each arrestee had admitted to being an anarchist. The district attorney filed a criminal complaint against the eleven shortly after.
Although no evidence linked the bombing to the Bay View disturbance months before, the trial of the eleven became a proxy for the unsolved bombing. The trial started just three days after the last officer’s funeral, not far from the destroyed police station. The eleven were tried as a group on the theory of conspiracy to commit assault with intent to murder at the Bay View shootout. The accusation that the defendants were anarchists was front and center at trial. The jury took just 17 minutes to find all eleven guilty.
Enter Clarence Darrow. His appellate representation of the eleven is significant not just because it was one of the rare appeal cases Darrow took, but because the facts that Mr. Strang uncovers suggest corruption of the appeal process by Darrow, the district attorney, and the trial judge.
Meticulously researched and compelling, “Worse than the Devil” reveals a fascinating time in America and has lessons to teach about terror, patriotism, and the criminal justice system that resonate strongly today.
This article was published in the March 2014 edition of the Eastern District of Wisconsin Bar Association’s (EDWBA) Newsletter.