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Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium / University of Washington

The Seattle Minute Men: Amateur Spies, Gossip and Lies

By Susan Newsome
Patriotic Poster 1918, courtesy Libary of Congress

The combination of an increased fear of a possible German invasion and a strong patriotic duty among Americans led to the creation of volunteer organizations in which citizens could show their dedication to the United States by spying on their friends, neighbors and co-workers and reporting any un-American conduct. The most active and powerful of these organizations was the Minute Men of Seattle, which was responsible for gathering and reporting information regarding all violations of war and espionage acts and proclamations.

The Minute Men started with a group of 20 patriotic Seattle men concerned about the War in Europe, increasing socialist activities in Seattle and the effects they were having on the labor situation. At this time there was an all around fear among Americans of people of German or Russian descent. The first meeting took place on November 17, 1917 at 1806 E. 73rd Street, in the home of William J. Alvey and Clarence L. Andrews. Alvey, then a police sergeant, was subsequently nominated as precinct captain and Andrews became secretary and treasurer. According to the R.L. Polk Directory for the city of Seattle, it appears that in 1918, Andrews was a journalist. But in 1919 he worked as an accountant for the American Red Cross, along with Alvey’s wife, Eva. He also appears to have moved from a few doors down into their home, so Alvey and Andrews probably became close personal friends during this time. Among the twenty original members were two University of Washington professors. S.L. Boothroyd was associate professor of the Astronomy department and E. Victor Smith was assistant professor of the Zoology department. Other original members at the meeting were I.W. Burley, a shipworker, Floyd Chapman, a building contractor, F.W. Daly, a traveling salesman at H.K. Mulford Co., M.M. Deuter, a teacher, William L.E. Graefe, Superintendent of the Post Office at the Greenlake Station and Herbert O. Herman, a janitor. I was unable to establish the occupations of the remaining original members, Henry Bidlake, E.W. Chaudler, D.H. Echer, A.P. Farley, J.A. Jackson, L.B. Myers, John B. Shipman and J.G. Regan. Following this initial meeting, they often gathered at the Ravenna Public School but eventually opened an office at 615 Lyon Building, in downtown Seattle. All of these original members lived in the same neighborhood, which became the manner in which the group later would be divided up into regions.

Organizational Structure

In order to have a well-organized group, the Minute Men set up a strict organizational structure similar to that of the military. In his paper, The Minute Men and the Silencing of Dissent, Derek Kavan states that the Minute Men may have been started by a group of Spanish-American War veterans, which would explain the reason they used the military hierarchy as a model for establishing their organizational chain of command. According to their constitution and by-laws, the Minute Men had an executive committee of three members who were paid government officials. Their duties included the cumbersome task of preparing maps of their precinct to show all streets, names, addresses and phone numbers of the committee members. The remaining officers were volunteers and consisted of a captain, who directed the work of the members, executed the orders of the Executive committee and reported all findings to them, and two or more lieutenants who worked under the captain to aid him in directing the work of the members. These lieutenants had the job of appointing sergeants in each block or small neighborhood who would keep track of the residents in his block. The sergeant was also required to compile a list of all males 16 years of age or older to be given to the captain for the selective service registration. The members in each block constituted a squad and fell under the direction of the sergeant or a corporal appointed by the sergeant of that block. It was considered the duty of all members to "report all matters, however trivial, which appear to be infractions of federal laws or regulations and particularly matters relating to the suspected hoarding of staple food products, treason or sedition." All reports were to be made to the captain only, or a member of the executive committee. The secretary-treasurer had the responsibility to collect the monthly dues and disperse all funds. Each member was assigned a number to be used in place of their name on reports to maintain their secrecy.

In their "Aims and Purposes" statement, they stated that, "The life of the organization will be for and during the continuance of the present war and until a Treaty of Peace has been executed between the United States and the people of Germany". The purpose of the organization was to relieve the government of the preliminary work necessary in collecting and making investigations of cases in which federal or state laws were violated and to get the evidence ready for prosecution. This statement would later be rethought even after peace was made with Germany. The American Protective League and the Seattle Minute Men still found somewhat legitimate reasons to continue their work with the blessing of Attorney General Gregory. The seemingly unlimited power of the Minute Men is summed up in a memo from the State Inspector, Sumner J. Lombard to the members of the organization. In it he states that all special agents and employees of the Department of Justice are directed to cooperate with the Minute Men. Under orders issued by the Provost Marshall General, all draft executives must also cooperate with the Minute Men and keep them advised of the various selective service laws issued. If anyone should question the authority of a Minute Men member, that member should simply state that they are acting at the request of the Attorney General and the Provost Marshall General of the United States.

Membership Grows

There were various methods used to increase membership to the Minute Men. The importance of gaining reliable financial support was not overlooked. The existing members were expected to canvas their neighborhoods and sign up new members as well as to pay a monthly dues of at least $.50 each or more if it was possible. But, the Minute Men also gained support from local businesses, which contributed a substantial amount of financial support. For example, E.A. Stuart of the Carnation Milk Products Company received a short letter dated February 14, 1919 thanking him for his contribution of an unspecified amount of money. In his paper, Kavan states that according to membership records for Precinct 1, the actual number of members never exceeded 31. But, Joan M. Jensen writes in her book, The Price of Vigilance, membership numbers were documented as being as high as 12,000 at times. These numbers seem high and could be a combination of APL and Minute Men membership as well as other affiliated organizations. In a three-page solicitation for financial support, they claimed to be handling cases ranging form "murder to slackers". They also stated that at that time they had reports on 1100 dangerous IWW members and 8000 other dangerous people in the Seattle area. These seemingly exaggerated reports must have come as a great comfort to those patriotic contributors so afraid of losing their capitalistic way of life that they would donate money to such unethical causes. The reports not only reassured past contributors that their money was being spent wisely, but served as an enticement for new donations to stop the socialistic wave from taking over America.

The Spy Network Grows

As the need for better cooperation and communication between these new organizations grew, the decision to create a national volunteer investigative organization was made. The justice department felt they needed a coast to coast network in order to be more effective, so in May 1918, the Seattle Minute Men became a division of the American Protective League. This merger was the end result of the pull out in 1917 of federal troops that were sent to Washington to deal with labor controversies. Per memos dated May 8, 1918 and May 9, 1918 between Captain W.A. Wiley, of the 13th Naval Station, Bremerton, Aid for Information and Sumner J. Lombard of the Minute Men, a partnership was formed with the merging of the two organizations, as well as Naval Intelligence via the Aid for Information organization.

The APL was also a volunteer organization that started following an agreement between Chicago businessman A.M. Briggs and Clinton G. Clabaugh of the Chicago branch of the Bureau of Investigation, the forerunner of the FBI. The German and Russian threat was very real at the time and the increasing threat from the Industrial Workers of the World made the situation seem even more serious. But, regardless of the need, the government refused to increase the budget for the bureau, so they were left helpless to enforce federal laws. Then along came Mr. Briggs, the answer to the governments financial problems. Being physically unable to join the military, Briggs offered to organize a volunteer group who would be at the disposal of the Bureau of Investigation. The APL was born and continued to operate under the jurisdiction of the Department of Justice through the early 1900’s. Along with other general services offered, Briggs arranged to supply fifty to seventy-five automobiles for Bureau agents to use, at no cost to the government.

In Seattle, the Minute Men Division of the American Protective League played an important role by investigating reports of possible German or Russian spies and by furnishing the federal government with reports on the actions of the I.W.W. before, during and after the Seattle General Strike of 1919. Their reports were considered invaluable to the government, as was noted in memos from various high ranking officials to the Minute Men. One such report from Henry M. White, Commissioner of Immigration, dated November 7, 1918, White expresses his appreciation for their valuable assistance. White wrote, "You have been of invaluable assistance to us in the past. You have given us more cases than all other sources combined." Earlier that year in February, White had written a letter to W.A. Blackwood, Secretary of the Minute Men regarding some I.W.W.’s who had been arrested. In this letter White had thanked the Minute Men for keeping their reports out of the press, giving the Immigration Service the opportunity to, "Cover our tracks".

Covert Operations

The tactics the Minute Men used for gathering information on their subjects varied according to need. In The Price of Vigilance, Jensen writes that, "No limitations were imposed by either the Bureau of Investigation or the Justice Department on methods of obtaining evidence, even though some of the evidence obtained was inadmissible in court." The goal was to get as much evidence as possible, with any means necessary. This included checking payrolls of industrial companies, getting daily reports from employment agencies and stationing spies along the waterfront, and in the shipyards. They controlled investigation into some general army matters and all applications for passports, the Red Cross, the Y.M.C.A. and the Knights of Columbus.

Infiltration of various radical groups was also a means to gain information.  Perhaps one of the greatest success stories of the Minute Men was the infiltration by Harry J. Wilson of not only the IWW but the Metal Trades Council, the Central Labor Council, the General Strike Committee as well as the Soldier’s, Sailor’s and Workingmen’s Council, where he was elected to the position of recording secretary! Not only was he paid for expenses by the Soldier’s, Sailor’s and Workingmen’s Council, according to an article by H. Austin Simons in the August 1920 Liberator, Wilson was also being paid $5.00 per day by the government, which is contrary to their claim that the Minute Men was strictly a volunteer organization. In his testimony in the People v. Lloyd case, Wilson states that in February 1919 he went to work for the Minute Men investigating the strike in Seattle. He got paid by Mr. Blackwood of the Minute Men, by Mr. Bert Swayne for work on the strike committee and also from the Soldier’s, Sailor’s and Workingmen’s Council. During his investigation, Wilson filed numerous reports, often signed "HJW" or "9". Some of his reports are lengthy but all give some useful insight into what went on at the various meetings behind closed doors. Many of his reports focused on the Soldier’s, Sailor’s and Workingmen’s Council, which helped discharged soldiers get back on their feet following separation from the military. However, this organization was clearly focused on socialistic principles and firm about taking over the control and management of all industries and forming a system of co-ops which would offer employment to everyone willing to work and also shorten the work day to six hours, while maintaining the same pay that an eight hour day offered. On January 11, 1919 Wilson reported to Mr. Blackwood Esq. on the grievances of the soldiers in order to explain why these former patriots would jump to the other side so easily. In regards to the money given to discharged soldiers to get home on Wilson wrote, "All complained bitterly about the traveling allowance being insufficient for the purpose." Then on January 24, 1919, Wilson reported that an agreement was reached between the SSWC and the IWW to form a sort of partnership, but that the latter had not agreed to abandon its policy of violence as desired. Later in his report dated February 10, 1919, Wilson requested a gun. He wrote, "as the rumors are persistent that there are parties or a party who is in attendance at meetings who is spying and that it won’t be well for them or him if they are caught." It had clearly become very dangerous work to be spying on known radicals.

There were other ways in which the Minute Men kept track of their suspects. They also worked with the Aid for Information, a branch of the Department of the Navy, which cooperated with the United States Post Office in investigating possible espionage via the U.S. mail. Hans Jacob Hoff, assistant professor of German at the University of Washington also worked at the U.S. Censor Office as a translator of mail coming through Seattle. He was an effective translator and intercepted many questionable messages hidden in people’s mail, but also watched his co-workers for unpatriotic behavior and made several reports on Walter E. Ruloff, sometimes spelled Roloff. Ruloff was of German ancestry and was educated in Germany. In fact, he once taught German at Fort Lewis. He also taught German at the University of Washington, per Professor Hoff, but is not listed in the staff directory for 1919. Ruloff was considered to, "have a tendency to uphold the German literature and kulture." Apparently he didn’t understand why there was a ban on German literature. He felt it was beautiful and didn’t contain any dangerous propaganda. He also didn’t understand why teaching the German language was banned in schools especially since England was rapidly increasing the teaching of German. Although many of his friends and Dr. Henry Suzzallo, president of the university, vouched for his loyalty, he was still under suspicion. Perhaps because he wouldn’t express an opinion about the war, and loved the German culture so much, the authorities considered this to mean he must be pro-German. Another co-worker at the university and a member of the Minute Men, Professor S.L. Boothroyd stated that he believed Ruloff to be disloyal to the United States because of his intense pro-German feelings prior to the war. He goes on to further damage Ruloff’s character by saying that he believes, "Ruloff joined the Faculty Officers Reserve Corps only to divert suspicions and cloak his feelings and to be of some real help to the German Imperial Government." Of course Boothroyd made this condemning statement without knowing that Ruloff worked for the censor bureau as a translator. After monitoring his work, Professor Hoff came to the conclusion that Ruloff was letting too many questionable materials pass by without scrutinizing them enough. In fact he was accused of having unauthorized visitors at the Office of Postal Censorship, being his wife and children and an unidentified man. Hoff also accused him of taking letters out of the office without permission and when asked about this he claimed to have permission to take letters home to further examine them. But, since they were written in Spanish, there is some doubt that he would have been assigned to translate them since he didn’t know any Spanish.

But what goes around, comes around, and Hoff eventually got his just dues for treating his co-worker so harshly. Later in October 1918, a report on Professor Hoff was made by W. L. Wiley, the head of Aid for Information, to Lt. F.W. Becker of the American Consulate Office in Seattle regarding malicious statements being made by other University of Washington staff questioning Hoff’s loyalty and fidelity. Apparently Hoff was so upset that he threatened to resign his position at the university. In fact, as of 1919, he is no longer listed in the University of Washington Directory of Officers and Students, so it is very possible that he actually did resign. Wiley contributed the vicious reports to revenge by Ruloff, who seemed to have more friends at the university than Hoff had. This situation between Hoff and Ruloff had gotten so out of hand that the postal inspectors wrote back to the Minute Men and the Aid for Information requesting them not to send in any more requests for Ruloff to be investigated, because they had received quite enough and he WAS being investigated.

By 1919, the war was surely over, but the Minute Men continued on with their objective to terminate the enemy, whoever that may be. They had the support of President Wilson and were ready to stamp out any critics of Wilson’s policies. Adding fuel to the fire was the release by the Committee on Public Information in February 1910 of a series of shocking top secret documents detailing the "German-Bolsheviki Conspiracy". These included 68 different documents that were intercepted by United States agents operating abroad. Some of the documents are between German officers, Trotsky and the Council of People’s Commissars or Lenin himself. Included in the documents are details of various German or Russian agents being sent to America with false passports, plans to send via railway disassemble Russian submarines to the Pacific Coast following the war to interfere with trade between Japan and the United States as well as plans to attack the allied soldiers still located eastern Siberia and to betray the Commander of the Russian army should he attempt to defend Russia against Germany. These memos include a short explanation of what your reading as well as what the significance of it all is. It is important to remember that these documents were all written following the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in November 1918.

Minute Men Reports and the Effects They Had

The methods used by the Minute Men and the information they supplied was often questionable. There are numerous reports that lack evidence other than simple gossip or that show a definite dislike by the agent for the subject he is investigating. Herein lies the greatest problem with volunteer spy organizations such as the Minute Men or the American Protective League: They are not held accountable for their actions or the results thereof. To begin with, many of the reports submitted were lacking any basis for an investigation. Stating that a certain man or woman is pro-German is not enough to warrant an investigation. More specifics are needed such as, What did the man or woman say? Who did they say it to? Were there reliable witnesses? Often times these questions were never answered. Another common problem found was with bypassing the chain of command and submitting reports directly to the Attorney General, instead of to the block Captain as instructed. A letter from Clarence L. Reames, Special Asst. to the Attorney General written to Blackwood, of the Minute Men dated April 19, 1918 complains of these very problems. He directs Blackwood to remind his operatives of what is required of them and insists that the chain of command be followed.

A good example of one such frivolous report is dated February 21, 1918 reported by C.F.B. The report is based on a complaint from Mrs. Chas. F. Boyd who was not pleased that Mrs. Emory Winship, whose husband was in charge of the Navy Recruiting Office at Bremerton, had a German born maid. Mrs. Winship had testified that her maid was, "as much American in feeling as anyone could be." Mrs. Boyd felt that someone should do something about this German woman, "on the grounds that this is a poor time to be taking chances on the loyalty of a German woman working in a place where it is possible for her to pick up valuable information for the enemy." The reply to this report stated that Mrs. Boyd was an overly suspicious woman and over-zealous to accuse. Here is an instant where the German born maid could have lost her job and her only means of support because of the thoughtless gossip of an old woman with too much time on her hands! Another similar report was turned in by E.W.B. on a US Army Recruiting Officer, E.F. Echardt. The report states that Echardts’ daughter was playing with an 11 year old girl named Ruth MaCauley and told Ruth that, "we should not blame the Kaiser for Belgium atrocities, but King George of England should be blamed and that the Belgiums deserved the treatment that they got because of their treatment of natives of the Kongo." Luckily for this man as well as his career in the army, he had a strong ally in W.L. Wiley of the Aid for Information, who vouched for his loyalty to the United States and called this report, "foolish and mischievous and unworthy of consideration." But, what about all of those people wrongfully reported on, who didn’t have any of the right connections?

Many people’s lives were forever changed because of the reports of the Seattle Minute Men. In the case of Carl F. Cook, luck was not on his side. Cook had applied and nearly secured the position of clerk to the Chief Justice. He came highly recommended and his qualifications were very good. But one letter from Sumner J. Lombard of the Minute Men and Cook no longer had a job. What exactly he did to deserve such treatment is unknown, but without the letter from the Minute Men, he would have had a good position with the Washington State Supreme Court.

In a letter dated February 26, 1918, Henry M. White, Commissioner of Immigration wrote to W.A. Blackwood of the Minute Men, that thanks to their reports, at least two-hundred I.W.W.’s were arrested and facing deportation proceedings. Immigration officials in Portland sent fifty-four aliens on a "Red Special" train bound for Ellis Island, to be deported as well. (Jensen, p.259). It appears the Minute Men no longer focused on German spies, but opened their sphere of influence to include labor relation problems as well.

Although the war was over, the American Protective League and the Seattle Minute Men continued on with their persecutions of anyone they found unsupportive of the American government or the businessmen who financially supported their causes. This included the labor unions, I.W.W.’s and any other socialist group or individuals they could find. There was a fear that the I.W.W.’s would take over the unions or rather sway the union members to be sympathetic to their cause. In his memo to the Director of Naval Intelligence, dated January 22, 1919, Wiley, of the Aid for Information, contemplated the possibility that the Shipyard strike might be a forerunner to an attempt to promote Socialism in America. Was this so, or was the strike just a great opportunity for workers with alternate ideals to come forward and try to make the changes they felt were necessary? The workers were clearly already dissatisfied with the Macy wage scale, but which came first? In another memo, Driss Benane, C.C.S., U.S.N.R.F., writes about a conversation he had with a former soldier turned I.W.W. supporter. He asked the man, "Do you not know that you are striking against the government, and that no good can come from it?" The man replied, "The strikers are the government!" From the many lengthy memos and letters on this subject, the Minute Men and the American Protective League leaders were clearly trying to piece it all together.


No one can be certain of his or her reaction to certain situations. It always varies depending upon the conditions of the time. I can easily say now that I would never spy on my neighbors, but who’s to say what one would do if they felt threatened by another person or perhaps another country. During World War I for example, there were many newly arrived foreigners in America and who could be certain if they were sincere about their vows of patriotism or not? Many Americans harbored deep fears of people with German or Russian ancestry, and these fears were fueled by the government propaganda spewed all over the media. Some of these fears were legitimate and others were not. Regardless of the basis of these fears, in the early 1900’s, Americans felt the need to do whatever it took to defend their way of life. It was in this crisis that the Minute Men came to life.

The Minute Men felt a duty to their families and country to make sure that German was not to become the language of America and that a Red Revolution would not spread to our shores. They were willing to do anything, including risk their lives, as was the case of Harry J. Wilson, to insure the American dream continued. Do we honor the Minute Men for their dedication and bravery or do we shun them for the ignorance and fear they spread and the lives they irreparably damaged? These questions are hard to answer for certain. I feel the answer to both could be yes or no. Yes, we should thank the men who risked much for the sake of our freedom, but it was not necessary to risk so much for a cause that was obviously blown way out of proportion. Sure, German and Russian spies tried to infiltrate the United States, just as we did in Germany and Russia. And reports show that they attempted to place submarines into the Pacific Ocean. But, they were not successful. I have serious doubts that this was due to the Minute Men reports. Most of their reports consisted purely of gossip, with very little having to do with national security, so it is unlikely that any real threats to the United States were terminated due to the information gathered by the Minute Men. In an article in the Seattle Post Intelligencer, dated January 14, 1919, the Minute Men claimed that they were not opposed to any organizations and did not interfere with the rights of anyone. This statement is hard to reconcile when in the same article they had taken credit for breaking up a Bolshevik meeting at Fourth & Virginia and arrested thirteen people who attended. The constitutional rights of these people must have been in question at the time, yet the Minute Men claim they never denied anyone their rights.   Perhaps the information collected by the Minute Men actually contributed to the peoples fears of the socialists and may have led to exaggerated ideas about the strength of their organizations and their motives for the strike. On the other hand, the Minute Men gave people a sense of security that someone was looking out for them on the home front, a sense that the government could not afford to give. But, was it worth the cost to those who’s families were torn apart, those who lost jobs, got deported or imprisoned? This could be yet another, less talked about price of war. Either way, under the reign of the Minute Men, for a short time America was no longer the land of the free.

©1999 Susan Newsome



There are no complete works dedicated to the Minute Men of Seattle, but the following books provide some insight into their purpose and history.

Robert Friedheim, The Seattle General Strike (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1964)

Joan M. Jensen, The Price of Vigilance (Chicago: Rand McNally & Company, 1968)

Emerson Hough, The Web (New York: Arno Press & the New York Times, 1969)

Primary Sources:

This report will describe three sets of primary sources that I felt were useful in my research.

The Minute Men and Naval Intelligence spy records on suspected radicals and enemy aliens. These records are located at the National Archives and Record Center on Sand Point Way, Seattle. They cover the period 1917-1919 and are in Record Group 180, boxes 1-11. I found the most useful boxes and folders were:

Box 5, folder 300, which included reports between the A.P.L, the Minute Men and Aid for Information on suspected German or Russian radicals.

Box 9, folder 486, which included reports regarding Mr. Walter Ruloff who was a German speaking translator for the Postal Censorship Committee and was suspected of allowing important information pass through the censors unnoticed. The fact that makes this man so interesting is that he was being spied on by a University of Washington professor who also translated letters for the Postal Censorship Committee.

Box 10, folder 537, entitled Strike Situation-Seattle consists of more spy reports on suspected radicals and I.W.W meetings.

Box 10, folder 541 has the Minute Men’s report on the strike conditions in Seattle. The spy reports vary, but there is a collection of information on a very vocal Russian Socialist gentleman by the name of James Engstrom, who has shown up several times in my research. He is active with the Soldiers, Sailors and Workingmen’s Council, which is of great interest to the federal government.

Box 10, folder 543 is the Minute Men’s report on the German/Bolsheviki conspiracy to send spies to America following the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk in 1918. The significance of these reports and letters is that they validate the fear of German invasion in America and attempt to justify the work by such groups as the Minute Men and American Protective League.

The Robert Friedheim Collection, accession #94, box 1, folder 10, located at the Manuscripts and University Archives at the University of Washington Libraries, Seattle. This collection includes the testimony of Harry J. Wilson in the People v. Lloyd trial. Wilson was a Minute Man who successfully infiltrated the Soldier’s, Sailor’s and Workingmen’s Council as well as other groups associated with the Seattle General Strike.

The American Protective League. Minute Men Division, Precinct 1. Located at the Manuscripts and University Archives Division, University of Washington Libraries, Seattle. These records include the Constitution and by-laws of the Minute Men as well as numerous financial records with members names and contributions listed as well as addresses and professions. I came across the names of several University of Washington professors on membership lists in this collection. The first recorded minutes from meetings are in this collection as well as other historical information regarding the relationship between the Minute Men and the American Protective League as well as the attempts to close them down following WWI.