American Hysteria: 5 Witch Hunts That Rocked the U.S. in the 20th Century

American Hysteria: 5 Witch Hunts That Rocked the U.S. in the 20th Century

By Donna Patricia Ward
American Hysteria: 5 Witch Hunts That Rocked the U.S. in the 20th Century

Arrest, capture, imprisonment. Hysteria of fear drives witch hunts. The sensation surrounding the short-lived Salem Witch Trials from 1692 to 1693 have taken on a life of their own. The dramatic drawings of young women on trial for committing the ultimate sin in Puritan New England remain fascinating. During the 20th century, Americans were not hunting witches. Instead, they were attempting to root out those that they believed were harmful to the American way of life. Hysteria became the law of the land; neighbors turned on each other; congress held special hearings; and anyone supporting a less than mainstream idea was an enemy of the state.

Americans were encouraged by law enforcement, government officials, and religious leaders to report anyone they suspected of subversive behavior. People who were suspected of providing the Russians with government secrets, individuals suspected of spying, and people with specific ancestry or sexual orientation became targets. This era of hysteria is called the Red Scare and it was divided into two parts. The first Red Scare happened in the aftermath of the First World War while the second fittingly happened during and after the Second World War. Below are five modern-era witch hunts conducted in America.

US Army Recruitment Poster, circa 1917. Public Domain

Anti-German Sentiment of the First World War

The onset of the 20th century saw the beginning of the end of what historians have labeled the fall of the Concert of Europe. In the aftermath of the international conflicts of the Napoleonic Wars, Europe became a relatively quiet place. By the end of the nineteenth century two new countries emerged in Europe, Italy and Germany. As the First World War drew closer, German and Italian immigrants flooded into the United States. Many Italians settled in northern cities and overwhelmingly worked in the garment trades. German immigrants were different.

Germans were the largest immigrant group to settle in the United States prior to the 20th century. Unlike other ethnic immigrants, the Germans immigrated to America as a family unit. In the decades before the American Revolution, German people had settled farming communities in Pennsylvania, the Mid-Atlantic, and the Carolinas. Longtime objectors to slavery, Germans used family and paid labor to raise crops and livestock. When the frontier opened up, Germans settled into the Midwest. As industrialization increased during the nineteenth century, Germans migrated to northern cities. In the decades leading up to the First World War, Germans, along with other ethnic groups in Europe, fled the impending crisis for the American urban landscape.

The German influence could be seen throughout America. Streets were named after prominent German citizens. Beer gardens were popular eating and drinking establishments on Sunday afternoons for German immigrants and their families. In 1888, Wilhelm II became the Kaiser and King of Prussia. For German-Americans, the actions and bombastic language of the Kaiser would adversely impact them.

When the Kaiser went to in 1914 against Russia and Britain, Germans in America became targets of xenophobia. As seemed to be the course of action during the early part of the twentieth century, nativists attacked immigrant groups that that believed to be directly responsible for war in Europe. City councils throughout America began passing blue laws, prohibiting the sale of beer on Sundays. This was a direct attack on the German beer garden. Many believed that the Germans gathered to discuss their support of the Kaiser and to plan an attack on America.

Gangs of men tore down street signs with German names. Public officials with German names were forced to resign. Businesses that were owned by people with German sounding names or sold German-made goods were attacked by angry mobs. Most German-Americans had little recourse. Some fled to Canada where they enlisted to fight against the Kaiser as Canadian soldiers. When the United States finally entered the war in 1917, German-Americans enlisted to demonstrate their loyalty to America and that they shared hatred for Wilhelm II.

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