Summarized from the book Judging Jehovah’s Witnesses by Shawn Francis Peters:
It was a common sight under the nazi regime for the “custodians of the law to look on half approvingly while youthful gangsters destroyed the fundamentals of liberty under the specious text of patriotism,” wrote an editorial in The Washington Post. However, it continued: “That such tolerance of brutality should be permitted in the near neighborhood of Washington is something to think about.”
What was the Post talking about? On the night of June 14, 1940, 50 rioters in Rockville, Maryland, invaded a Kingdom Hall directly across the street from the Montgomery County Police Headquarters. The criminals destroyed chairs, typewriters and records and vandalized the building while two Montgomery County police officers looked on.
As the month wore on, attacks continued across the country. An attack in Richwood, West Virginia, was extraordinarily brutal. Witnesses Stanley Jones and C. A. Cecil moved to Richwood on June 28 to preach. They were stopped on Main Street by state trooper Bernard McLaughlin, who took them into custody at the state police barracks. Members of the American Legion post soon arrived, including a Nicholas County sheriff’s deputy, Martin Catlette. Though the Witnesses managed to talk their way out of the detention with little more than insults, the trouble wasn’t over.
Joined by other witnesses they returned to Richwood, only to discover that the room they’d rented the previous day had been ransacked. They left to report the incident to the mayor, hoping to explain their work and debunk the rumor that they were disseminating “communistic literature.” Before they found him, however, deputy Catlette found them.
Catlette detained them in the mayor’s office. While the chief of police, Bert Stewart, guarded the door, Catlette telephoned several fellow Legionnaires and summoned them to the office, ordering them to round up the other Witnesses in town. After hanging up the phone he told the Witnesses, “You don’t know what you’ve gotten yourselves into. You’ll know you’ve been to Richwood.”
The group of Witnesses, all gathered at the mayor’s office, tried to maintain that the Supreme Court had specifically upheld their right to worship by distributing literature in public. When one of the Witnesses tried to quote a verse from the Bible, Catlette slapped him and ordered him to shut up.
The deputy then removed his badge, saying, “What is done from here on will not be done in the name of the law.” He forced the Witnesses to surrender their possessions. A whiskey bottle was passed around among the Legionnaires. Someone brought two guns; another brought a rope.
Catlette tied the right hand of each of the Witnesses to the rope. The vigilantes began forcing the victims to ingest large doses of castor oil. When one of the Witnesses resisted, they forced him to empty an eight ounce bottle. When Cecil questioned Catlette’s right to detain them, he was forced to drink two bottles. (He and several of the victims were later hospitalized, urinating blood.)
The nauseous Witnesses were marched outside, where a large crowd had gathered. Catlette recited the preamble to the American Legion’s constitution and led the gathering in a flag-salute ceremony. Ironically, part of the document read by Catlette urges Legion members,
“to make Right the master of Might, to promote peace and goodwill.”
The Witnesses refused to salute the flag. The crowd grew to more than five hundred. Another Legionnaire, Lee Reese, addressed the crowd. “We’re carrying on this demonstration to show the people of Richwood that if anyone is in sympathy with the work [the Witnesses] are doing, there’s room for them on the end of this rope, and they will go out of town with them.” A woman protested that they deserved a fair trial. Reese responded by threatening to add her to the rope.
The mob marched to the city limits, where the vigilantes had taken the victims’ cars. The vehicles had been vandalized with swastikas and epithets such as “Hitler’s spies” and doused in castor oil.
The Witnesses lodged a complaint with the Justice Department.
The United States Justice Department had established a Civil Rights Section in February, 1939. However, the Attorney General at the time, Frank Murphy, pointed out soon after that “the authority of the Federal Government in this field is somewhat limited by the fact that many of the Constitutional guarantees are guarantees against abuses by the government itself, not infringements by individuals.” Furthermore, the Civil Rights Section’s meager resources proved to be as debilitating as its narrow mandate. The department consisted of fewer than 10 attorneys and a handful of clerks.
Hundreds of complaints were brought to the CRS by Jehovah’s Witnesses during the 1940s, but in nearly every case the unit concluded that it either lacked jurisdiction, or that the victims’ unpopularity would make it impossible to get an indictment or a conviction.
The Richwood case was no different. The U.S. attorney for Huntington, West Virginia, Lemuel Via, had no desire to institute criminal proceedings against Martin Catlette and the other assailants, believing it was an unwinnable case.
After nearly two years of wrangling among the FBI, Via, and high authorities in the Department of Justice, the Civil Rights Section’s insistence on prosecution finally carried the day, and U.S. Attorney Via was persuaded to bring the Richwood case before a federal grand jury. Via insisted, however, that he be back-stopped by an attorney from Washington. Perhaps he was leery of appearing to side with the Witnesses.
The grand jury largely ignored most of the evidence and refused to return an indictment. Convening just a few months after Pearl Harbor, the jurors were unsympathetic and openly suspicious of the victims.
But he CRS wasn't ready to quit. They convinced Via to perform an end run around the grand jury. Initially, charges had been brought under both Section 51 and 52 of Title 18. Both outlaw conspiring to “injure, oppress, threaten, or intimidate any citizen in the free exercise or enjoyment” of rights guaranteed by the Constitution. However, Section 52 refers to doing so “under color of law.” The Civil Rights Sections' lawyers determined that if the federal government abandoned all the section 51 charges – which meant dropping the charges against the Richwood citizens who were not employed by the sheriff’s department – they wouldn’t need an indictment. They could go straight to trial with charges against deputy Martin Catlette and Chief of Police Bert Stewart.
The ploy worked. Tried before Judge Ben Moore in a federal court in Charleston, West Virginia, Catlette and Stewart were convicted under Section 52. Fines were imposed on both men - $1,000 for Catlette, $250 for Stewart.
Catlette tried to claim his action of removing his badge meant he had not acted “under color of law” but the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, and Catlette was sentenced to 12 months at the federal prison camp in Mill Point, West Virginia.
For a man so bitterly opposed to the Witnesses doctrines, the punishment must have seemed especially harsh. The majority of the inmate population at Mill Point prison camp was composed of Jehovah’s Witnesses, imprisoned for their conscientious objection to military service.