2. A former vice-president was tried for treason in 1807
Aaron Burr was the Vice-President of the United States when he fought his famous duel with Alexander Hamilton, which damaged his political career beyond measure, though he avoided prosecution. Burr, while still serving as vice-president in 1804, contacted British Minister to the United States Anthony Merry, informing him that the residents of recently purchased Louisiana would welcome British protection, and that he could cause a large portion of what is now the central United States to become a British protectorate. Merry forwarded Burr’s suggestion to London. The following year Burr contacted Merry again, asking for British naval support and money. Merry provided Burr with $1,500 and told him that no instructions from London had been forthcoming.
The exact nature of Burr’s plans has been debated ever since. He amassed supplies and support from co-conspirators, began arming militiamen, and prepared to travel downriver on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. One of his fellow conspirators came to the conclusion that whatever Burr’s scheme was it would fail, and informed the US government that Burr was planning to create his own empire in the American west. President Jefferson ordered Burr arrested for treason, and the former vice-president was tried before a court with Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Marshal presiding. Burr was acquitted due to lack of evidence (the Constitution requires the testimony of at least two witnesses). Others of his conspiracy were arrested, but none convicted.
3. James Wilkinson was involved in treasonous activities but avoided prosecution
James Wilkinson was a career military officer with a penchant for scandal, double-dealing, and treasonous activity throughout his career, though he always managed to extricate himself from investigators and minimize the damage to his reputation. It was Wilkinson who, after being one of plotters most involved in the Aaron Burr conspiracy, changed his mind and informed President Jefferson of the scheme. During the American Revolution Wilkinson joined the cabal of officers who schemed to have George Washington removed from command of the Continental Army. During the 1790s Wilkinson, while holding a commission from the United States Army, accepted payments from the Spanish government in New Spain to protect the interests of Spain.
General Anthony Wayne developed enough evidence to attempt to court-martial Wilkinson, but died before he could present his case. From 1800 to 1812 Wilkinson held the position of being the senior officer in the United States Army, during which time he continued to receive payments from the Spanish, serving as a spy for the Spanish government. Wilkinson testified at the trial of Aaron Burr, producing a letter which had been written in cipher which described the Burr conspiracy, but which Wilkinson had altered while deciphering to minimize his own involvement. Wilkinson’s many acts of treason during his long career were brought to light after his death in Mexico City while serving as an envoy there in 1825. Theodore Roosevelt later said of him, “In all our history, there has been no more despicable character”.
4. The Fries Rebellion led to treason charges against John Fries
In 1798, the United States and Revolutionary France were involved in a series of naval battles and privateering actions in what became known as the Quasi-War. Quasi or not, wars cost money and the federal government under John Adams enacted tax levies to raise $2 million, on slaves and real property, apportioned to the states in accordance with the Constitution. Pennsylvania was required to contribute $237,000 and with few slaves to levy taxes on, the legislature taxed houses and commercial buildings, the amount determined by the number of windows, or in some instances the size of the windows. The specter of tax collectors counting and measuring windows and the tax itself aroused considerable resentment.
An auctioneer named John Fries organized resistance to the measurers and collectors, which spread rapidly across Pennsylvania. When the US Marshal was unable to quell the increasingly violent resistance President John Adams sent in federal troops. Fries and most of the organizers were arrested. Fries was tried for treason and convicted, sentenced to be hanged. President Adams, who had earlier championed the Sedition Act, used a narrow definition of the term treason and pardoned the auctioneer. Adams noted than many of the tax resisters were of German descent or recent arrival and spoke little English, and were thus ignorant of the law when he issued a general amnesty in 1800.
5. John Brown was convicted of treason, but not against the United States
Following his capture during the raid he led against the arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, then in Virginia, abolitionist John Brown and his followers faced charges levied against them by the Commonwealth of Virginia. Despite the arsenal being federal property and the capture effected by US Marines (led by Army Colonel Robert E. Lee) Brown and his followers were sent to Charles Town for trial on state charges, which included multiple counts of murder, inciting slaves to rebel against their owners, and treason against Virginia. The jury in Charles Town took less than an hour to convict Brown after a weeklong trial. He was sentenced to be hanged on December 2, 1859.
During the month between his sentencing and the scheduled date of execution concerns over other supporters of Brown attempting to rescue him led to steadily increasing security precautions. A detachment of cadets from the Virginia Military Institute were detailed to provide security at the hanging, led by Thomas J. Jackson, an instructor at VMI not yet known by his nickname, Stonewall. On the day before the execution railroad traffic through Charles Town was suspended, not to resume until the day following the hanging. The US Senate later investigated the entire affair, but the report of the allegedly bipartisan committee was largely inconclusive.
6. America’s smallest state had two governors at one time, with one of them charged with treason
In 1842 Thomas Dorr, the leader of a political faction known as the People’s Party which supported universal suffrage for white males, was elected governor under a new state constitution. The People’s Party claimed the election was legal and that Governor Dorr was the legitimate governor of the state. The problem was that Rhode Island already had a governor, Samuel Ward King, who refused to recognize the legitimacy of the new constitution or of Governor Dorr. In electing Dorr, the people who participated in the election also elected a new legislature. Both governors issued statements defending their positions, and Governor King appealed to the federal government for assistance resolving the dispute.
Dorr went to Washington in person, but was unable to gain the support of President John Tyler and returned to Rhode Island. In his absence, martial law was imposed by King and a reward was offered for Dorr’s capture. After further maneuvering by both men, and with the number of Dorr’s supporters dwindling, he was arrested, charged with treason (against Rhode Island) and convicted and sentenced to solitary confinement at hard labor. The sentence was commuted after he served for one year and was released. In 1854 the legislature annulled his conviction for treason but the courts found the act to be unconstitutional. In the twenty-first century Thomas Dorr is included in the official list of governors as recognized by the State of Rhode Island, concurrent with Samuel Ward King.
7. Aaron Dwight Stevens was convicted for treason against Virginia as well as other charges
Aaron Dwight Stevens was a participant in John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859, and was one of two men who left the seized railroad shed under a flag of truce to negotiate a possible peaceful settlement. Instead, he was shot multiple times in the head and chest, and the militiamen who then captured him expected him to die quickly. He did not. Stevens continued to cling to life, slowly recovering from his wounds, at least partially, and he remained lucid. Stevens was sent to Charles Town when it was evident that he was not going to succumb to the wounds, for trial on the same charges as Brown, murder, inciting slaves to rebellion, and treason against Virginia.
Stevens later was tried for the charges of conspiring with slaves to revolt and treason, and during his trial, he continued to show he was lucid, despite the painful and dangerous natures of his wounds. According to Brown’s lawyer, who frequently spoke with him, Stevens had four musket balls in his body during his incarceration and trial. He did not exhibit any remorse and instead claimed that he had no sensation of guilt and that there had been “no evil intention in my heart”. Stevens continued to suffer while in custody until March 1860, when he was tried in Charles Town (now in West Virginia) and hanged on March 16, 1860.
8. In 1862 a dispute over a flag led to an execution for treason
During the American Civil War, a naval squadron commanded by Commodore David Farragut approached the city of New Orleans, and Farragut ordered the Confederate flags being flown above the mint, city hall, and the customs house be removed. When the Mayor refused, a detail of Marines were sent to remove the offending Confederate flags and replace them with United States flags. The locals were warned that anyone attempting to harm the American flags would be fired upon by the ships. William Mumford and a group of half a dozen others ignored the warning, removed the flag from the mint, and were fired upon, with Mumford receiving mild injuries from flying debris. When General Benjamin Butler, commanding Union ground forces in the area, was informed of the incident he issued orders for the arrest of those involved.
Mumford was arrested on May 1, 1862, and charged with “high crimes and misdemeanors” against the United States. A military tribunal convicted him, and Butler ordered that he “having been convicted before a military commission of treason and an overt act of…” was to be executed by hanging. Mumford, a veteran of the Seminole War in Florida and the Mexican War, was hanged on June 7, 1862, for the treasonous act of removing the United States Flag from the mint building before the city was occupied by federal troops. Jefferson Davis proclaimed General Butler a criminal for his actions. In an ironic twist, the site selected for Mumford’s hanging was in a courtyard of the mint, a location which Butler personally selected for the event, in the shadow of the scene of Mumford’s treason.
9. Robert E. Lee and other Confederate officers were protected from treason charges after the Civil War
It was not until the winter of 1864-65 that it became evident that the Confederacy was collapsing and the brutal war with its horrendous casualty lists was coming to an end. In the Union, there was a growing pressure to seize the Confederate leaders for imprisonment as traitors who had committed treason against the United States. Many of the military leaders of the South had violated their oaths of allegiance to the United States at the start of the conflict. The most vocal in the North called for the severe punishment of the South and its people for starting the war, and for carrying it out for so long a time. When Union General Grant first pushed Lee’s army to Appomattox Court House and then accepted his surrender, he extended a general clemency to all who had served, including Lee himself.
When Joseph Johnston surrendered to William Sherman it was under even more generous terms than those which had been offered Lee, though the War Department refused to honor them and started an uproar in Washington political circles. Nonetheless, the amnesty offered to military members of the Confederacy held. Thus the perpetrators of one of the most harmful treasonous acts in American history were never charged with the crime, and were instead treated with generosity in the field by the troops and officers which had defeated them. The clemency extended to the troops of the Confederacy did not extend to political leaders and other influential southerners who had supported the war, and motives of vengeance led to demands for their punishment, either by imprisonment or death.
10. Jefferson Davis was indicted for treason after the Civil War
As the American Civil War came to an end, Jefferson Davis was captured on May 10, 1865, in Irwinville, Georgia, and transferred to Fortress Monroe in Virginia, where he was originally kept in shackles in the casemate. While he was in custody, in response to public pressure and from many former abolitionists who needed a new issue upon which to focus their anger, he was indicted for the crime of treason against the United States. At first, Davis was kept in isolation, in conditions which were damaging to his health, only visited by military officials and doctors. Gradually the conditions of his confinement improved while Congress and other Washington figures dickered and bickered over bringing the former President of the Confederates States of America to trial under the indictment.
Davis himself wanted a trial, supported by the belief that during a trial evidence could be presented which supported the legality of secession. The same argument was used by opponents of a trial for treason in the House of Representatives, which nonetheless voted 105 -19 in support of trying him for treason, and went so far as to impanel a petit jury in May of 1867. The 24 men (12 black) panel was selected by John Curtiss Underwood, a Circuit Court Judge, but still, no trial went forward. Davis was released from custody under $100,000 bail after being confined for two years but remained under indictment until President Andrew Johnson issued a general pardon and amnesty on Christmas Day, 1868. In February of the following year the indictment for treason was dismissed.
11. Two American mine workers were charged with treason in 1922
In 1921, long-standing grievances between miners and their employers, which drew in hired security companies, state police, federal marshals, and eventually the US Army in West Virginia culminated in an event which became known as the Battle of Blair Mountain. US Army Air Corps airplanes were used in the conflict for reconnaissance. Between fifty and one hundred miners were killed in gun battles with what eventually grew to 30,000 opponents, who had between 10 and thirty killed, and three members of the United States Army lost their lives in the battle. Afterward, 985 miners or supporters were charged in West Virginia with murder, conspiracy, and treason against the state. Two were charged in federal court with treason against the United States.
One of the two in federal court, Walter Allen, was convicted of treason and sentenced to ten years in prison, as well as being fined. He was allowed to remain free on bail while appealing his conviction. While waiting for the case to be heard by the Supreme Court Allen disappeared. William Blizzard, a leader of the United Mine Workers of America, was tried for treason for his part in the affair and acquitted. Of the 985 tried in West Virginia courts, most were acquitted of murder, due to the confusing nature of the battle and the subsequent conflicting testimony, but charges of treason against West Virginia were easier to prove, and some convicted remained in state prisons for years.
12. Going over to the enemy side is an ultimate act of treason
Going over to the side of the enemy was the act which made Benedict Arnold’s name synonymous with betrayal and treason. It brought Arnold loathing from officers American and British, as it also violated the code of honor of the time. Another, far less known American officer sold out to the enemy during World War II. Martin James Monti was a US Army Air Force pilot who in 1944 stole a P-38 which had been modified as a photo-reconnaissance plane and flew it to Milan, where he surrendered the airplane and himself to the German authorities. After convincing the Germans of his intention to defect he was assigned to work within a propaganda unit of the Waffen SS.
Monti joined the SS as an untersturmfuhrer (roughly equivalent to a second lieutenant) and wrote both materials for radio propaganda broadcasts and leaflets. At the end of the war, he was captured in his SS uniform. He was tried for stealing the plane and desertion, sentenced to fifteen years confinement, and then released in 1948 with an honorable discharge. He was then arrested by the FBI, who had identified him as an SS propagandist who had used the name Martin Wiethaupt. He was eventually charged with 21 counts of treason against the United States, to which he pleaded guilty, though he did testify to each charge that he had acted voluntarily. Sentenced to 25 years in prison he was released in 1960 on parole.
13. Axis Sally committed treason against the United States throughout World War II
In 1941, Mildred Gillars was working as a radio broadcaster in Germany when the US State Department began advising Americans to leave the country. Gillars was an American citizen who remained in Germany because of her German fiancé. He was killed on the Eastern Front that same year. After the attack on Pearl Harbor Gillars later said that she went into a state of shock, and fear of the Germans led her to sign an oath of allegiance to the Nazi Party and the Fuhrer. For the rest of the war, she produced propaganda broadcasts, meant to damage the morale of the Allied troops, particularly the Americans, who were far from home, away from wives and sweethearts who Gillars routinely presented as being unfaithful.
The troops called her Axis Sally and when Berlin fell she was arrested by Americans sent to the city for the purpose. In 1948 she was indicted with ten counts of treason against the United States, though only eight counts were tried in 1949. Most of her broadcasts had been recorded by the Federal Communications Commission, and were used at trial. Her defense was that she was merely broadcasting her own opinions, which though unpopular was not treasonous. She was convicted on one count and sentenced to ten to thirty years in prison. Her appeal was unsuccessful and she was imprisoned until paroled in 1961. She then entered a convent in Columbus, Ohio, having converted to Roman Catholicism during her years in prison.
14. The Kawakita treason case led to a Supreme Court decision that dual citizenship does not offer protection from treason charges.
Tomoya Kawakita was born in California to Japanese parents, thus automatically being a United States citizen by virtue of his place of birth, and Japanese because of his parents’ citizenship. He completed his schooling through high school in California before going to Japan with his father in 1939. He was still in Japan when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and during the war, Kawakita worked as an interpreter at a metal processing facility which used prisoners of war as forced labor. When the war ended Kawakita returned to the United States, claiming that his actions during the war were likewise forced upon him by the Japanese government. In Los Angeles Kawakita was recognized by a former POW and arrested, charged with multiple counts of treason based on the abuse of American prisoners.
He was convicted on 8 of the 13 counts against him, and his appeals were based on his argument that he did not know he was still an American citizen when he participated in the abuse of prisoners of war. Under a death sentence, the appellate court rejected his appeal and the case moved to the Supreme Court. In June 1952 the Supreme Court upheld the conviction and the death sentence, finding that as an American citizen who did not formally renounce his citizenship he owed fealty and loyalty to the United States, no matter where he was in the world. The following year President Eisenhower commuted the sentence to life in prison, and in 1963 President Kennedy – a veteran of the Pacific War – ordered his release from prison and his banishment from the United States. Kawakita returned to Japan.
15. Robert Best served the Nazi regime as a propagandist and broadcaster
Born in South Carolina and educated at Wofford College and Columbia’s School of Journalism, Robert Best was a veteran of World War I, during which he served in the Coastal Artillery. Between the wars he went to Europe and made Vienna his base of operations, writing for United Press International as well as The New York Times, Newsweek, Time, and several other publications. As the Nazi threat in Europe grew, especially following the Anschluss, Best became a supporter of Nazi policies and anti-Semitic views. By the early 1940s, his work output to American publications had dwindled to nothing, and UPI dismissed him. He was briefly interned by the Germans when the United States entered the war, but he convinced them that he would be more useful to their cause by remaining in Europe rather than being returned to the land of his birth.
Throughout the war, Best’s broadcasts were among the most virulent anti-American propaganda aired by the Germans. He was arrested by the British at the end of the war, transferred to the Americans, and returned to the United States for trial. He was convicted on twelve counts of treason and sentenced to life imprisonment. His conviction was upheld on appeal and he entered the federal prison system, dying in custody in 1952. Besides his own broadcasts, which were invariably anti-Semitic in nature and scope, Richard Best was known to make frequent and valuable suggestions within the German propaganda machine which were intended to increase its effectiveness in controlling the values and beliefs of the German people. William L. Shirer wrote a novel entitled The Traitor in which the main character was based in part on Best.
16. One American traitor used the pseudonym Paul Revere in his broadcasts
On July 26, 1943, eight American broadcasters were indicted for treason, all of whom were charged with committing treason against the United States by supporting Nazi Germany. Among them was Douglas Chandler, a former US Naval officer who moved to Europe during the Depression. Chandler wrote approvingly of the Nazis in National Geographic and other publications, and when the war began he remained in Germany, broadcasting propaganda using the name Paul Revere and using Yankee Doodle as his theme song. His work was based on his personal thesis that the United States Government was controlled by Jewish business interests, and he was invariably pro-Nazi and anti-American in his broadcasts. In 1945 he was arrested in Bavaria and returned to the United States for trial in late 1946.
Chandler tried to use an insanity defense at trial, claiming that he had been suffering from severe paranoia, which influenced his thinking and his actions. It was a vain effort. Chandler was convicted on all ten counts of treason, and though the prosecutors argued strongly for the death penalty, stating that he had given his heart and soul to Hitler, “because he wanted Germany to win the war”, he was sentenced to life in prison in 1947. Sixteen years later President Kennedy commuted his sentence with the provision that he leave the United States and never be allowed to return. In August, 1963 Chandler was deported to West Germany.
17. Following the Second World War one broadcaster was charged with 69 counts of treason
During World War II, the FCC operated a site at Silver Hill, Maryland, which monitored and recorded broadcasts emanating from Germany and the rest of Europe, developing an invaluable record of the German propaganda effort. One of the broadcasters routinely monitored was Herbert J. Burgman, who used the stage name Joe Scanlon when broadcasting his program Voice of All Free America. Burgman broadcast directly to American homes, telling them of the widespread epidemics of syphilis and gonorrhea among the American troops in Europe. He also attempted to persuade the American people that the Jewish influence around Franklin Roosevelt (and Winston Churchill) was the true cause of the war, supported by the bolshevism of the Soviet Union.
He was indicted on not fewer than 69 charges of treason against the United States after the war and in a trial which began only after two separate evaluations of his mental state were completed he was convicted of thirteen acts of treason (the number of the indictments was reduced to twenty charges prior to the beginning of the trial). His attorneys argued that he was insane at the time of the broadcasts, driven to that state by fear of the Gestapo. During his trial, his health deteriorated rapidly, and he suffered at least one heart attack. In December 1949, he was sentenced to 6 – 20 years in prison, and he died less than four years later in custody in Springfield, Missouri, on the first anniversary of the death of his fellow traitor, Richard Best.
18. John Dasch was a naturalized American citizen who had been born in Germany
John Dasch was born in Germany, journeyed to America in 1923 (entering illegally), worked at odd jobs and as a waiter in several American communities, served in the US Army Air Corps, and became an American citizen in 1933. In 1941, as relations between the United States and Germany deteriorated towards war, Dasch returned to Germany. There he received espionage training in preparation for his return to his adopted country. Dasch was part of a team which was delivered to the United States by U-boats in 1942, determined to attack various targets of sabotage. The Americans quickly learned of the presence of saboteurs, and a massive manhunt to locate them was undertaken, led by the FBI. By then Dasch was planning to surrender to American authorities to act as a double agent.
Dasch and his partner Ernst Burger contacted American authorities – Dasch tried to reach J. Edgar Hoover personally – and revealed the circumstances and participants of the plot, leading to the arrest of the six others involved and their conviction as spies. All six were executed. For his co-operation with the authorities, Dasch was tried for espionage and treason and sentenced to life imprisonment. The trial was before a military tribunal established by President Roosevelt. In 1948 President Truman commuted the life sentences of Dasch and Burger, ordering them deported. In West Germany, both men were treated as what they were, traitors to their country. Neither man received the pardon which they claimed they had been promised by J. Edgar Hoover.
19. Joseph Smith was killed while in jail under a charge of treason
Joseph Smith, the founder of the Church of Latter-Day Saints, was serving as mayor of Nauvoo, Illinois when he ordered the destruction of the printing facilities of the Nauvoo Expositor, a newspaper which lasted for a single issue. When it was released on June 7, 1844, among its reporting was an article which exposed Smith and his followers as polygamists. The non-Mormon public was shocked and the city council passed an ordinance, with Smith’s urging, to force the paper to cease publication. Smith then ordered the city marshal to seize the printing press and type. According to the marshal the seizure was accomplished peacefully; the paper’s publisher claimed that a mob had destroyed the press and seriously damaged the building in which it had been housed.
Smith then, in resistance to court orders from outside Nauvoo, called out the city militia and declared martial law. The governor of Illinois offered a trial in Carthage, before a non-Mormon jury, for Smith and his brother Hyrum, under the charge of treason against the state of Illinois, for the act of inciting riots across the state. The brothers and the rest of the city council surrendered to Illinois officials and were jailed in Carthage. It was while in jail awaiting trial for treason that Joseph Smith and his brother, armed with pistols smuggled into them by associates, and several other men being held were killed when a mob stormed the jail. Several differing accounts of the violent end of Joseph Smith emerged in the aftermath, many of which ignore the charges of treason against him. Smith had earlier been charged with treason in Missouri in 1838, which precipitated his flight to Illinois.
20. Frederick Kaltenbach was indicted by the Americans for treason, but died in Soviet custody
Frederick Wilhelm Kaltenbach was an Iowa-born son of a naturalized German, raised in Waterloo (coincidentally the home of the five Sullivan brothers of World War II fame). In 1933 the graduate of Iowa State Teacher’s College and the University of Chicago won a scholarship at the University of Berlin, and became a devoted adherent of Nazism. When he returned to Iowa in 1935 he started a boy’s club modeled on the Hitler Youth, with similar uniforms. The support of Nazism led to him losing his teaching certificate in 1936 and he returned to Germany and in 1939 began broadcasting German propaganda to the United States via short-wave radio, long before the United States formally entered the war.
Kaltenbach harangued against Franklin Roosevelt and Lend-lease attempted to prevent FDR’s election to a third term, and referred to himself whimsically as Lord Hee-Haw. After the United States entered the war he attacked the morale of troops and citizens at home. As the war went on and it became evident how it would end, he shifted to covering his tracks as an ardent Nazi by attempting to align himself with anti-Nazi elements, though he continued to broadcast Nazi propaganda as late as the spring of 1945. He was indicted for treason in the United States in 1943 and was arrested at his home by the Soviets in Berlin in 1945. The Soviets sent him to their Special Camp Two in Buchenwald and when the American authorities requested he be surrendered for trial the Soviets refused. They later informed the State Department that he had died of natural causes, and in 1948 the indictment was dismissed.
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