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Curtis Eriksmoen, Published January 26 2013

Eriksmoen: Accusations during WWI tore small communities apart

During World War I, North Dakota was a hotbed of accusations, and several people were charged with violating the recently passed Espionage Act. The victims of these accusations were most often citizens of German heritage. Frequently, they were community leaders.

These charges, and later hearings and trials, tore small communities apart. This was the situation in New Salem when John Fontana, pastor of the Peace Evangelical Church, was arrested by federal agents on Nov. 6, 1917, and later tried and convicted in federal court.

At a preliminary hearing on Nov. 27, Fontana was charged under the Espionage Act for “obstructing enlistment in the military” because of statements he had made from the pulpit.

Fontana denied the accusation, pointing out that 33 young men from his congregation were currently serving in the U.S. military. His federal trial was set for July 30, 1918, in Bismarck, with Federal Judge Charles Amidon presiding.

With a trial looming, Fontana had no financial means to hire an attorney. The national Evangelical Synod secured one of the best lawyers in the state to handle his defense, John Knauf, of Jamestown. In 1906, Knauf had been appointed to fill a vacancy on the North Dakota Supreme Court.

While awaiting trial, Fontana returned to the pulpit, and on Dec. 19, 1917, gave a sermon in which he allegedly criticized President Woodrow Wilson for getting the country into the war with Germany.

Fontana detested war, having left Germany in 1888 at the age of 16. Because Fontana was pastor of the Peace Evangelical Church, it is likely his congregation also wanted peace.

The U.S. district attorney who would prosecute the case against Fontana was Melvin Hildreth, who had a long and distinguished career in the military. He joined the Fargo National Guard in 1890.

Hildreth had already prosecuted cases related to the Espionage Act, including Kate Richards O’Hare, who was sentenced to five years in prison for a speech she gave, and John Wishek, who was indicted for distributing a pamphlet about German achievements in America, though charges against him were dropped after a jury failed to reach a verdict.

A week after the Wishek trial, Fontana’s trial began in Bismarck. Hildreth addressed the court with, “This human character that you have before you is a German character. He has prayed in the German language, and preached and sung in the German language. His soul is a German’s soul, while his body is here in America.”

He then called his first and most important witness to testify, John Henry Kling, the cashier at the First National Bank of New Salem.

Kling was an outsider in this heavily German community – his father had immigrated from Sweden and his mother from Norway.

Kling testified that after visiting Fontana’s home, the preacher refused to purchase any war bonds and stated that Germany was justified in sinking the Lusitania because the ship was carrying munitions. Kling also claimed Fontana had a picture of Kaiser Wilhelm hanging on his living room wall. Fontana denied Kling’s allegations.

The prosecution was not able to locate any other witnesses who had seen a picture of the Kaiser in the Fontana household.

Hildreth pushed hard to try to prove that Fontana’s salary allowed him to buy bonds. Judge Amidon warned Hildreth “to be less violent in his speech.” During the lively three-day trial, Knauf made 124 objections for the defense.

It took the jury only five hours of deliberation to return a “guilty” verdict. When court reconvened for sentencing Aug. 5, Judge Amidon asked Fontana for a statement. The pastor said, “I am not guilty. I never had an intention to say or do anything against the United States. I believe that what I have said has at least been misunderstood.”

Amidon then ordered Fontana be sentenced for three years at a federal penitentiary.

Knauf appealed the case to the Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals, and members of Peace Evangelical Church posted bond for Fontana’s release. The pastor returned to his parish, and one of his first actions was to preside at the funeral of a soldier who had died in France.

Some members of his congregation were concerned about Fontana’s official status, and a meeting was held to vote on his removal. The congregation voted 57 to 22 to keep him as pastor.

The reaction against Kling and the First National Bank of New Salem was most severe. Within six months of the end of the trial, the bank was forced to sell to a New Salem group that re-chartered it as the Farmers Equity Union Bank, and Kling lost his position as head cashier.

Even Judge Amidon did not escape the backlash. On Dec. 8, 1919, the 8th Circuit Court reversed judgment and directed the lower court to discharge the defendant. They ruled that the indictment was not precise enough to allow the defense to adequately prepare and there was insufficient evidence to prove Fontana committed a crime.

He remained at Peace Evangelical Church until 1925. He then moved to Minnesota, where he served at congregations in Lakeland, Faribault and Freedom before moving to Chelsea, Mich., in the early 1940s. He died in 1953.

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“Did You Know That” is written by Curt Eriksmoen and edited by Jan Eriksmoen of Fargo. Send your suggestions for columns, comments or corrections to the Eriksmoens at: cjeriksmoen@cableone.net.