Dakota Datebook: Red Kate

Today marks the anniversary of the death of Kate Richards, who died in 1948 at the age of 71. Also known as Red Kate, her brush with North Dakota made history.

She was born in 1876 to Kansas farmers who were forced off their farm after an economic depression and then a drought in 1887. The family moved to a poor section of Kansas City, where they barely managed to survive.

In 1894, while Kate was working as a machinist, she met Mother Jones, who introduced her to socialism. The devastation her family had experienced in losing their farm made her ripe for the picking, and Kate became active in the movement. A year later, she met Eugene V. Debs, another noted socialist, and within five years Kate and her father co-founded the Socialist Labor Party.

Kate also founded the Socialist Party of America and married Frank O’Hare, a St. Louis socialist. The couple lectured on socialism around the country and organized as they went. Despite the birth of four children, Kate kept touring, often for whole summers at a time. Her popularity was second only to Eugene Debs, and she twice ran for political office, even though women couldn’t even vote yet.

At the onset of World War I, Woodrow Wilson called for 500 thousand volunteers, but he received only a couple thousand. Under the infamous “Red Scare,” Congress created bills giving the government increased power while also suppressing the rights of American citizens. The 1917 Espionage Act prohibited, among other things, interfering with efforts to recruit army volunteers.

In 1918, they also passed the Sedition Act, which made it a federal crime to criticize the government or Constitution. Even writing personal letters to a friend or relative was illegal if one’s opinion was critical of the government. Attorney General Palmer and his assistant J. Edgar Hoover used both acts to their advantage as they mounted campaigns against liberals and so-called radicals.

Meanwhile, Kate Richards O’Hare was firmly against World War I and was touring the country to say so. On July 17, 1917, she was in Bowman, North Dakota, giving her speech for the 76th time, when she was arrested under the Espionage Act for hindering army recruitment. She was put on trial in Bismarck, found guilty, and sentenced to five years in prison.

In May 1920 she was set free when her sentence was commuted. In response to her experience, she went to Washington to loudly protest the treatment of those opposed to the war and to call on the government to honor people’s constitutional rights.

The following year, both the Espionage Act and the Sedition Acts were repealed as unconstitutional, and Red Kate turned her attention elsewhere. She became active in prison reform … bringing to mind her experience, one day in 1917, in Bowman, North Dakota.

“Dakota Datebook” is a radio series from Prairie Public in partnership with the State Historical Society of North Dakota and with funding from the North Dakota Humanities Council. See all the Dakota Datebooks at prairiepublic.org.