Monday, January 18, 2021

Patriotic frenzy, abduction and yellow paint in Albia

One of the least attractive aspects of the World War I era in Iowa involved waves of anti-German, anti-foreign sentiment that rolled across the state, targeting neighbors, strangers and former friends who used languages other than English and/or were perceived as "foreign" or insufficiently patriotic or "American."

Perhaps the most notable example of this came on May 23, 1918, when Gov. William L. Harding issued a proclamation banning the use of any language other than English in the state, a ban that extended to churches. Later in the year, up in Kossuth County, residents of Germania voted during October of 1918 to change the name of their town to Lakota. And there were many examples of violence directed at individuals across the state.

A widely reported incident of the latter occurred during March of 1918 when residents of Albia, Lucas County's neighbor to the east, targeted a young school teacher of German descent with pacifist inclinations named Leon Battig (left). He was abducted, stripped on the steps of the Monroe County Courthouse, doused in yellow paint and told to leave town if he valued his life. 

Born during 1893 in Milwaukee to parents who were natives of Germany, Mr. Battig was a 1917 graduate of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, elected to Phi Beta Kappa and majoring in German with a minor in mathematics. The teaching job in Albia was his first after graduation. He had duly registered for the draft, but entered a claim for exemption based upon religious convictions.

Although there appears to have been a whispering campaign against the young educator in the Albia school system and perhaps the community at large, the final straw came when he declined to participate in a school-sponsored drive to sell War Savings Stamps and, as a result, resigned his position. What happened next was reported as follows in The Albia Union of March 15, 1918, with the Union editor serving as a cheerleader:


Albia has dealt kindly but severely with its first pro-German inhabitant. Leon Battig of Milwaukee, Wis., was employed as instructor in the Albia high school in January and started out well, but as time went on he began to show his pro-German spirit. In teaching history, whenever Germany was mentioned he would give that country the best of it. This was so noticeable that it became common talk among the students and they put him down as a disloyal citizen.

From time to time little things developed to show that he was decidedly pro-German and on several occasions, Supt. Kies talked with him and advised him to support the government in the present crisis. He was a good teacher and Mr. Kies wanted him to get in harmony with the other teachers as the school would have much war work to do in the future. Monday, a campaign for the sale of W.S.S. was being arranged and Supt. Kies recommended that the teachers devote a part of Tuesday forenoon to this purpose. Mt. Battig refused to enter into the work, giving his religious belief as an excuse. However, as the church of which he is a member was supporting the government his excuse was not considered good. In his last talk with Mr. Battig, Supt. Kies very frankly told him that if he could not support the government his resignation was in order. He anticipated as much. the matter was laid before Fred D. Everett, president of the school board, and Battig's resignation was accepted.

Battig is of military age and he claimed exemption on account of his religion. His papers were sent to Auditor Peterson and the Wisconsin exemption board denied his claim and placed him in class 1.

The young man would have saved himself a lot of trouble had he left Albia before six o'clock Tuesday evening. We don't believe in mob-law, but these are extraordinary times and some times extraordinary measures correct a growing evil.

Tuesday night a committee of citizens went to J.W. Huston's home where Battig rooms to get him and transform him into a loyal citizen. He wasn't there, but on returning to the business portion of town, they found him in one of the stores attending a business meeting of the (Christian) Endeavor Society. One of the committee went in after him while others stood at the door to receive him. Battig saw what was in store for him and began to yell.

Someone yelled, "come on with that rope," and then his knees started up a-knocking like a tin lizzie. He was marched to the north steps of the courthouse and ordered to strip to his waist, which he did by the assistance of a dozen or more loyal citizens. A big bucket of yellow paint was held above his head and the pouring, assisted with a swab to reach the corners, proceeded slowly enough to allow the yellow liquid to thoroughly soak into his hair and was made permanent by the shampoo method and the flesh was thoroughly colored on the body. Then the waist band of his pantaloons were held out like a hoop and the paint poured on his person not exposed.

While this was going on he begged for mercy, but none was extended to him. After the painting process he was marched around the square, holding a flag above his head and at each corner of the square he was compelled to salute or kiss Old Glory, and when the crowd reached the northeast corner of the square he was given freedom and warned not to let the rising sun catch him in this county or he probably would not live to tell about it.

He walked quietly as far as the King theatre and then he used the conveyance the Lord gave him because he certainly showed the boys that he was some sprinter. Leon Battig's parents are German but he was born in the United States and was educated at the University of Wisconsin and is a La Follette sympathizer.

The last sight of him was but a glance as he was making the dust fly toward his rooming house.


Mr. Battig returned to Milwaukee and within a few weeks, an FBI case had been opened against him as a potential draft-dodger --- a one-page summary of the case is available online. But by the time investigators reached the family home, Leon already had enlisted. He served seven months as a private in the 6th Company, 161st Depot Brigade, then was honorably discharged with thousands of others after the war had ended.

After the war, Mr. Battig returned to teaching and during 1929 earned his M.A. degree in mathematics from the University of Wisconsin. After that, he taught at Oberlin College in Ohio and the Kansas State Agricultural College before joining the staff of the University of Wisconsin Extension Division.

During 1936, he joined the faculty at the newly opened Sheboygan campus of the University of Wisconsin and remained a highly esteemed faculty member there, sometimes known as Mr. Math, until retirement during 1963. The library of the Sheboygan center is named "Battig" in his honor.

Mr. Battig died two years later, on Feb. 15, 1965, after a long illness. He is buried in the Belleville, Wisconsin, Cemetery where a standard veteran's tombstone marks his grave.


Bill Kerns said...

How did you learn of this story?

It is both disturbing and powerful.

Tom Atha said...

Sad part of American history that, unfortunately, continues to this day.