This article was originally published by Mennonite World Review

Tar, feathers and Liberty Bonds

On a mild Monday evening, April 22, 1918, a pro-war mob of McPherson County citizens invaded the peace of the Canton Mennonite community, north of Hesston, Kan.

Charles Diener at Spring Valley Mennonite Church, Canton, Kan., about 1975. More than 50 years earlier, Diener was tarred and feathered for refusing to buy Liberty Bonds. — Spring Valley Mennonite Church
Charles Diener at Spring Valley Mennonite Church, Canton, Kan., about 1975. More than 50 years earlier, Diener was tarred and feathered for refusing to buy Liberty Bonds. — Spring Valley Mennonite Church

The 40-some masked men had visited the Walter and Minnie Cooprider home near Inman earlier that evening. Now their targets were ministers Charles and Daniel Diener, who, like the Coopriders, refused to buy Liberty Bonds in support of the Great War (1914-18).

Most Mennonites considered Liberty Bond drives, along with Thrift Stamps, the Red Cross and the YMCA as auxiliaries of the military, and thus could not conscientiously support them. It was in the wake of the third Liberty Bond drive, which began April 6, that the anger toward Mennonite “slackers” was unleashed.

The mob’s first stop was the home of Charles Diener, a newly ordained minister. They accused Diener of removing the U.S. flag that someone — likely one of them — had tacked on the side of the Spring Valley church. When Diener admitted that indeed, he had removed the flag, the mob subjected him to the humiliating ritual of tarring and feathering.

They returned to the church property where they smeared tar on the front door and the steps. Their final mission that night took them one-half mile west of the church to the home of Charles’ father, Bishop D.A. (Daniel) Diener, who had lived in that community since 1884. The gang of patriots yanked the genial bishop bodily out of his doorway and demanded he buy Liberty Bonds, contribute to the Red Cross and otherwise support the war against Germany. When he would not be intimidated, he was stripped, tarred and feathered. The patriots threatened to return and give a repeat performance if he could not be a proper American.

On June 3, the mob returned to Daniel Diener’s home. With “abusive and ungodly language” — according to an account by D.H. Bender — they threatened to “pound” the genial bishop “to pieces” if he would not sign a check for the Red Cross to help in the war effort. Partly to relieve the anxiety of his wife, he signed the check of $50.

The next morning, however, Diener stopped payment on the check. Accompanied by Hesston College president D.H. Bender, Diener met with a banker and leaders of the county Liberty Bond drive and the Red Cross to negotiate a settlement. Liberty Bond leaders accepted a check of $75, which they promised to send to the American Friends (Quaker) Service Committee. Diener assumed this would satisfy the mob.

One week later another mob of 25 masked men paid yet another visit to the Diener home, this time with more violence. When he refused to write a check for the war effort, they ransacked the house from top to bottom. They pocketed Diener’s watch and what money they could find. They splashed Dien­er’s house with yellow paint and then did the same to his car.

Still not content, the invaders — former friends and neighbors he recognized — stripped him and beat him with a strap. They dragged the bleeding bishop to the barn where they abused him further. Having unleashed their patriotic anger, they concluded the ordeal by tarring and feathering him. They first applied roofing tar to his bruised body and then rolled him in a sheet filled with feathers. The acid content of the tar augmented his injuries and pain, leaving him badly bruised and swollen.

Both the Dieners and Cooprider eventually purchased war bonds — a reminder of conflicting loyalties in a time of war.

We are approaching the centennial of the beginning of World War I, sparked by the July 8, 1914, assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro Hungarian Empire. After three years of neutrality, President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress on April 2, 1917, to declare war against Germany — necessary to “make the world safe for democracy.” As became clear in time, war could not create safety or peace.

John E. Sharp teaches history at Hesston College.

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