Backtracking: The Early Years: ‘Radical’ raids of 1920 touched lightly on Oneonta

Mark SimonsonA recent view of West Broadway in Oneonta. A neighborhood resident who had moved here from Russia was arrested in January 1920, charged with sedition and for terrorizing some foreign-born residents in the Sixth Ward. 

Our United States government wasted very little time in the new year of 1920 in their effort to supposedly make the nation a safer place.

Readers of The Oneonta Star on Saturday, Jan. 3, awoke to read how on Friday night, “The greatest round-up of radicals in the nation’s history was conducted tonight by the government, acting through department of justice agents, in 33 cities stretching from coast to coast.”

While Oneonta wasn’t one of the cities targeted that night in what the FBI called “The Palmer Raids,” it did have a small incident of its own later in January.

On June 2, 1919, as described on the FBI website, “a militant anarchist” blew up the front of newly appointed Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s home in Washington, D.C. The bombing was just one of a series of coordinated attacks on judges, politicians, law enforcement officials and others in eight U.S. cities.

It was already a time of high anxiety in America, driven by a deadly flu pandemic, the Bolshevik revolution in Russia and an ensuing hyped “Red Scare.”

The nation demanded a response to the bombings, and they got it. More than 1,500 “radicals” were rounded up on Jan. 2 with nearly 4,500 by Jan. 4. The Star told of how two arrests had been made in Cortland. A review of Binghamton newspapers found no roundup there, despite a large Russian population that had come to the U.S. to work in the Endicott-Johnson shoe factories in the Triple Cities. The Binghamton Press of Jan. 16 had a headline that read, “Lusk Has His Eyes on Binghamton Radicals.” That was state Sen. Clayton R. Lusk, who called Cortland his hometown.

Despite the questioning of the constitutionality of these raids, many “radicals” were deported to Russia in the fall of 1920 by a ship dubbed the “Red Ark.” In Albany, five members of the state Assembly who were members of the Socialist party were suspended from holding their seats in the Legislature, denounced as being “un-American.” Two of those five members later retained their seats.

While Oneontans followed these major raids by reading The Star, a bit of action on the local front was reported in the Wednesday, Jan. 28, edition with a headline on the local news page, “A Bolshevik Apprehended.”

“‘To hell with the police. To hell with the country. No good,’ are the seditious statements made by Mike Prulinski, when taken into custody by the police yesterday. He was arrested on a charge of sedition on West Broadway yesterday morning and was turned over to U.S. Deputy Marshal VanValkenburg of Binghamton to be tried in federal court.

“Prulinski came to this country from Russia about 11 years ago and had worked till, within the last 18 months, when it seems, he tried to put the Soviet idea into force. He lived on West Broadway, and he had most of the foreign inhabitants on that street completely buffaloed. He would not work and lived by terrorizing the foreign born in that section, by threats and other methods, and had been successful for some time till American law and order put him behind the bars, where he and his ilk belong.”

The Star continued, “He was locked in the city bastille,” then found in the back of the Municipal Building, 242 Main St., “and will probably be taken away in the morning. It is quite possible he will be loaded with a consignment of whiskers and sedition preachers and sent over to join his friends, Lenine (sic) and Trotsky, as have many others who did not like this country.”

The Star also reported that Prulinksi assisted in helping an inmate in the lockup escape on Jan. 29, but when given the chance to escape himself, declined the opportunity. While Prulinski was taken to federal court, information wasn’t immediately available as to whether he later became a passenger on the “Red Ark.”

On Monday: Arson fears gripped Fleischmanns in 1975.

Oneonta City Historian Mark Simonson’s column appears twice weekly. On Saturdays, his column focuses on the area during the Depression and before. His Monday columns address local history after the Depression. If you have feedback or ideas about the column, write to him at The Daily Star, or email him at simmark@stny.rr.com. His website is www.oneontahistorian.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/opinion/columns/.

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