August 2019 marks the one-hundred-year anniversary of celebrated German Boston Symphony Orchestra conductor Dr. Karl Muck’s deportation from the United States. Muck’s last moments in America were dramatic. One can picture him that summer sequestered in his wooden barracks at the internment camp in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, far away from the New England city that had feted him upon his arrival in 1906, frantically writing letters to federal officials and influential friends begging for compassionate assistance to remain in the United States.
Muck was primarily alone in the final months at the camp except for a few inmates and guards, as most internees had been released after the Armistice of 1918. He remained behind, however, awaiting word of his liberation, hoping to return to Boston to resume his post as conductor of the BSO. But there was too much unrest in the United States in 1919 to permit his unconditional release. The new year had begun with significant labor turmoil and strikes erupted throughout the country.
Between April and June of 1919, a series of dramatic events occurred in the U.S. that would have damning consequences for Muck’s future. In late April, bombs were mailed to thirty-six prominent politicians, judges, newspaper editors, and businessmen throughout the country. Notable targets included John D. Rockefeller and J. P. Morgan. Then, on June 2, 1919, a group of anarchists detonated large mail bombs simultaneously in eight different cities, including Boston, New York, Washington, D. C., Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, and Patterson, New Jersey, intended for government officials who had endorsed anti-radical legislation that promoted deportation, like the Immigration Act of 1918. Anarchists targeted Georgia Senator Thomas W. Hardwick, for example, whose African-American housekeeper lost both of her hands in the attack, and Hardwick’s wife Maude, who sustained injuries to her face, neck, lips, and teeth. Bureau of Investigation Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s home was the target of one bomb that upon detonation killed Carlo Valdinoci, an associate of perpetrator and Italian anarchist Luigi Galleani. Thus, the federal government “became centered upon activities of alien agitators, with the object of securing their deportation.”
Economic and social tensions increased following the war as well, as soldiers returned home seeking employment. Violent race riots ensued, instigated by white Americans against African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina; Chicago, Illinois; Elaine, Arkansas; and Washington, D. C., in a period that activist and author James Weldon Johnson called “the Red Summer.” Because of the nation’s heightened fear of violence and terrorism, Muck’s appeal to remain in the United States and continue as conductor of the BSO was denied. The Justice Department concluded that “it would be dangerous for him to be permitted to remain at large.” Animosity toward Germany, and toward foreigners and black Americans, continued to increase after the war, making Muck’s request seemingly hopeless.
On November 7, 1919, the Palmer Raids targeted Russian immigrants, many of whom were Jews, and suspected members of the Union of Russian Workers. A. Mitchell Palmer, who had “won national prominence” by “scourging the Hun” during the war, shifted his focus from the eradication of Germans to a “country wide drive against Bolshevism” by arresting, on December 21, 1919, 1,100 individuals and deporting 249 of them to Russia on the Buford, nicknamed the “Soviet Ark.” On January 2, 1920, authorities arrested without warrants an additional ten thousand innocent immigrants in a single day. Dragnet raids intruded into homes, schools, meeting halls, and other locations where foreigners were known to gather. Several hundred were arrested in Boston alone, and, using similar tactics that netted Karl Muck, individuals were intimidated, interrogated, and denied legal counsel while their property was seized. Rather than arresting specific individuals for particular crimes, Palmer suspiciously targeted entire ethnic populations in his effort to “secure” and “purify” the country. Convinced certain ethnic communities could not assimilate, and prejudicially anticipating future criminal behavior from them, zealous government officials used their postwar authority to single out individuals with alleged communist, anarchist, socialist, or Bolshevik associations.
Muck had no way of knowing of the events that were transpiring in America beyond the barbed wire fencing and machine gun turrets of his prison camp. He had no idea that his request to remain in the country was a lost cause. Then, on August 21, 1919, more than nine months after the Armistice ended World War I, Karl and Anita Muck were transported by train to New York where they boarded the SS Frederik VIII, a Swedish-American passenger liner bound for Copenhagen. Muck wanted to stay in the U.S. so badly that federal agents remained onboard ship to guard him and ensure that he did not jump overboard and swim ashore. The country was maintaining a longstanding pattern of battening down its hatches and securing its borders from real and perceived foreign threats. Guarding Muck onboard ship was apparently just another method of keeping out America’s “undesirable” immigrants. With Muck’s deportation, he lost his Boston home, his possessions, his career and income, and his friendships in the United States. He was heard saying, “I am not a German, despite the fact they said I was. I consider myself an American, but see what America has done to me. I am … a man without a flag or a country.”
This guest post was written by Melissa D. Burrage, a former writing consultant at Harvard University Extension School. Melissa holds a Master’s Degree in History from Harvard University and a PhD in American Studies from University of East Anglia.