Seymour Stedman (Library of Congress)

Following a January 1918 postponement to rule on the double jeopardy motion entered by the members of the Federation for Democratic Control, the trial of the Kansas conspirators began on April 11, 1918 in a federal courtroom in Topeka, Judge John C. Pollock presiding. Fred Felten, having agreed to testify on behalf of the prosecution, escaped indictment. U.S. District Attorney Fred Robertson, handled the prosecution and Seymour Steadman, a socialist attorney from Chicago, headed the defense.

Robertson attempted to portray the meeting at the Unitarian Church as being in direct violation of the conscription law and “of an anarchistic nature.” Steadman denied there was a conspiracy to obstruct the draft, resurrecting the defense adopted shortly after the indictment that the sole concern of the defendants was to discuss economic questions arising from the mobilization of drafted and enlisted men.

Steadman admitted the accused roles in the meeting but argued they remained loyal Americans. George Kleihege claimed he centered his address on the need to elevate children of the working class to equality with those more fortunately born. Ike Gilberg testified his wording of the handbills was nothing more than a “clever dodge” meant to attract a crowd rather than to incite opposition to the draft. Dr. Eva Harding denied she had any intention of organizing meetings to oppose the conscription law, stating she believed the meeting had been called to discuss the hardships faced by families left to cope with the loss of the major, often the only breadwinner, once the men had been transported to army camps. “While some people may charge me with conspiring against the government,” Harding had stated shortly after the indictment, “I will do all I can to look after families of the soldier left behind.”

A parade of witnesses testified they had heard none of the defendants advise any to refuse to register for the draft. Felten’s testimony that Moore encouraged the audience to mount a legal action to test the constitutionality of the draft law was countered by Ernest Newman who asserted Harding openly opposed any such action. A newspaper man present at the meeting testified that although Gilberg took up a collection toward the end of the meeting, he could not say with certainty that the monies were intended to further anti-draft propaganda as he “left very quickly.” Another witness, responding to the question of how many draft age men were present, answered he could not form an estimate only that most were women. Harvey Kleinschmidt, while acknowledging members of the Federation for Democratic Control distributed anti-conscription literature at the meeting, under cross-examination admitted that while he was familiar with it, “it was foreign stuff to the people of Topeka.”

Thomas Rosenblum has worked with Historic Hudson Valley, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Oklahoma Historical Society. For the past twenty-five years he has been with the National Park Service as a Curator and Historian and is currently on the staff of Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site.