Metro-East Living

The news was just as scary 100 years ago and somehow we all got through it

Wally Spiers
Wally Spiers

When the world gets confusing and things seem to be getting too crazy to handle, I always head back to old newspapers to check on what things were like in the past.

I mean, things were screwed up 100 years ago and the news was just as scary but somehow we all got through it and that gives me hope for the future.

After all, the beginning of 1918 wasn’t a ball of joy by any means. Americans were getting into the fight over in France where so many men had been killed in the mud and trenches of World War I.

People on the home front were learning to deal with shortages of food and coal as the country geared up its war effort. There also was a lot of confusion about who was an enemy and who wasn’t. Citizenship was a big issue.

A country with a large population of emigrants from Germany suddenly was fighting that very country. People who had been living in the United States for years and were much at home here, suddenly found themselves declared enemy aliens and accused of suspect loyalty.

The Belleville News-Democrat reported on some of the consequences, like what happened to John Kowaliek, a mine owner in Madison County.

Kowaliek was unable to buy explosives to use in his mine because "… he is an unnaturalized German,” the paper reported “He must sell or close his mine between Alton and Bethalto. The federal government forbids the selling of explosives to enemy aliens."

He was further hamstrung because he could not become naturalized until the close of the war so he was in limbo, saddled with a mine he couldn’t operate and with little leverage to sell it.

There were no such things as innocent remarks about the war back then and officials were touchy about what was said as this story shows.

"A federal investigation to determine the loyalty of a score or more residents of Smithton … was started by United States District Attorney Charles A. Karch of East St. Louis," the paper reported.

Karch said he had received several complaints about wealthy and prominent residents who were attempting to line up men to oppose the government in its war movements.

"Most of the residents of Smithton are of German descent and quite a few are classified as alien enemies," the paper noted.

The district attorney expressed confidence that the investigation would lead to the arrest of a number of retired farmers and men high in the prominent businesses and civic affairs of the town. But he also was sure that no one had yet formed any plans that would cause trouble.

A few weeks later, Karch was able to report that the town had redeemed itself as its loyal citizens had excelled in the sales of Thrift Stamps and War Savings Stamps to raise money to support the war.

The News-Democrat crowed.

"No arrests resulted but the handful of German propogandists have been very little in evidence since that case," the paper reported. "Needless to say, the disloyal utterances and actions were confined to perhaps less than 6 percent of the village’s population and the rest of the village bitterly resented the actions of the agitators."

Germans weren't the only emigrants getting in trouble.

"Jack Spanolia and Victor Malacorac, both members of the Italian colony but adherents of opposite sides, were in Belleville and boarded the L & N train to Rentschler Station," the paper reported. "In the spirit of levity Spanolia teased Malacorac about the recent defeat of the Italians by the Austrians and Germans. This struck a sore spot in the breast of Malacorac whose wife and children had been captured during the invasion. He answered heatedly and the argument continued merrily until the train stopped.

"Jumping to the ground, Malacorac lost all restraint and swung a healthy right to the head of his countryman's face, flooring him. Potential aid for Spanolia in the form of Gust Motejael, an Austrian, came drifting towards the two. Gust likes to witness a fight but he wants to be sure which side to cheer for.

"He asked. He was told. Malacorac went to the ground as quickly as his fellow countryman, as Motejael, shouting his native war cry, lashed out with both fists. His triumph, however, was short lived when George Malacorac, a cousin of the second man down, saw his relative's plight. George didn't stop to ask questions but joined the argument full sail. When he was through with Austria, Gust was ready to consult a physician."

The newspaper had many questions but mostly was puzzled about why Spanolia sided with the enemy of his native land. But apparently no one asked, which is strange itself since that is what a reporter normally does.