, Derry, New Hampshire

July 18, 2013

Column: When Derry saw 'red'

Rick Holmes
Derry News

---- — During my dad’s lifetime (1912-1999), he saw both the birth of modern communism (1917) and the collapse of Soviet communalism (1991).In between, he witnessed the red scare of the 1920s and the McCarthy era of the 1950s.

I grew up in an era when America saw itself as the world’s last great hope in containing the spread by the Soviet Union. In 1969, President Lyndon Johnson even sent me to Southeast Asia to help fight communism.

Today, it is hard to believe that Derry was once a battleground in the fight against the “red” menace. After all, Derry is considered to be one of the most conservative towns in New Hampshire. A century ago, however, Derry had a statewide reputation as being under the influence of Bolsheviks.

In the late 19th century, candidates from the Socialist Party were on the ballot in every election in Derry, but never received many votes. A typical year was 1892 when in the race for governor, the Republicans received 346 votes; the Democrats, 229 votes; the Prohibition Party, 20 votes; and the Socialist Workers Party, 6 votes.

The Socialists gave a lecture in the Derry Opera House in 1897 that equated socialism with Christianity. Afterward, an anonymous letter to the Derry News said (tongue in cheek) that when socialism took over the U.S.A., there would “be no tramps, no soup houses or poor houses, and no millionaires, no cheating and no swindling. Every man could sit under his own vine and fig tree and feel free from every kind of beggary and oppression.”

Doesn’t that sound like the standard political stump speech during the last presidential campaign? All you need to do is substitute “Democrats” or “Republicans” for the word “socialism.”

During the early years of the 20th century, Derry’s population doubled as the rapidly expanding shoe factories needed more and more workers. Soon, families from Canada, Russia, Poland and Italy were emigrating to Derry.

The 1940 book, “New England Looks Back,” related that in those days Derry was known to be a “red town.” Foreign labor organizers got the workers to join the labor unions resulting, in a series of strikes which made it a difficult time to be factory owner in Derry.

After World War I, the United States became an economic super power. The poor of Europe saw America as the Promised Land. Each day, thousands of immigrants swarmed through New York’s Ellis Island. All over America, there was a fear that these immigrants were bringing “foreign” ideas into the U.S.A. Such radicalism was viewed by many as being an assault on both capitalism and democracy.

Soon this so-called red scare spread all over America as people began to look for bomb-toting communist terrorists around every corner and under every bed. Starting in early 1920, President Harding allowed U.S. Attorney General Palmer and his young assistant J. Edgar Hoover to begin rounding up foreigners so they could be deported.

Palmer said he needed to act immediately. There was no concern for the individual’s civil rights. Washington, D.C., had to protect the nation from “the red menace of anarchists, radicals and Bolsheviks.”

In Derry, the Red Scare raids began late on the night of Friday, Jan. 2, 1920. Speeding down Broadway swiftly swarmed a dozen dark colored automobiles. Inside was Manchester’s police Chief Michael Healey, the county sheriff, assorted federal marshals and a number of state police officers.

The cars parked in front of the police station at the Adams Building, where they were met by Derry’s police Chief George Dustin, There with Dustin was our entire police force, as well as a cadre of special officers who had apparently been deputized just for the occasion. Within a few minutes, this small army of men got into their cars and started the round-up of “reds.”

For weeks, the federal, state and local authorities had been planning these night time arrests. Through careful police work, they knew exactly where each of the suspects lived. Most rented apartments in the tenements of Elm or South Avenues and worked in the local shoe factories.

That night, 22 men of Russian or Polish nationality were arrested for being unAmerican. In addition, the authorities confiscated a “quantity of red literature” and a couple of hand guns.

None of the men put up any resistance when arrested. One of the 22 was immediately released when he produced his nationalization papers.

Today, the identities of the Derry 21 are unknown because the federal authorities refused to allow the press to print their names. All of the arrested were transported to Manchester for the initial interrogation.

The next day, Mike Halas, the supposed “ringleader” of the Derry communist cell, was picked up and sent to the Manchester by trolley. In the Queen City, it was determined that only 11 of the Derry men were likely guilty of being revolutionaries. These suspected “reds” were sent to Deer Island in Boston Harbor to be “grilled” by the federal authorities.

There is nothing more known about the 1920 roundup of the Derry “reds.” It’ may still be a state secret. It is known that across the nation, the Palmer raids arrested 10,000 alleged subversives. Most of these, however, were quickly released and very few were found guilty of any crime.

It also appears that neither of Derry’s two newspapers saw anything wrong with the roundup. The Derry News said it joined with “all law-loving and law-abiding citizens” in approving of the arrest of these undesirables.

The editor further charged, “If the United States is good enough for them to live in and earn good wages, it ought to be admired and its laws and institutions upheld and safeguarded.”


Rick Holmes is the official town historian of Derry. His office hours at the Municipal Center are Mondays from 8 a.m. to noon and Wednesdays from 4 to 7 p.m. Several of his books on local history are available at Mack’s Apples and Derry’s libraries.