November 30, 1917: Louise Olivereau

Louise Olivereau, 1884-1963
Louise Olivereau, 1884-1963

Among the crucial decades in Seattle’s political history, the one that began in 1909 was arguably the most pivotal so far. That decade began with the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition and ended with the Seattle General Strike. In between, certain lesser-known events also helped define Seattle as a city where radical leftism has constantly been at odds with right-wing reactionary politics.

This was especially so during World War I, when pro-war conformism was at fever pitch nationwide, and anti-sedition laws aimed at silencing antiwar activists were passed by Congress. In Seattle, where the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) and anarchists had established a strong political presence, reactionary sentiment led to the Potlatch Riot of July 1913, one year before the war broke out. Four years later, on the date in focus here, the schism between Seattle’s respective progressive and reactionary populations reared its ugly head publicly when antiwar activist Louise Olivereau (1884-1963) was convicted of sedition.

Olivereau, a schoolteacher, poet, and self-described anarchist born and raised in Douglas, Wyoming, first became involved in Seattle’s political left in 1915, when she moved to Seattle and began working as a stenographer for the IWW’s Seattle offices. The events that led to her arrest and conviction began in August 1917, when she printed and mailed out literature addressed to young men in the Pacific Northwest encouraging them to become conscientious objectors to avoid military service in the war, which the United States had joined in April of that year. Her activity violated the Espionage Act, passed by Congress that June, which made it a crime to cause insubordination in the U.S. Armed Forces, to obstruct the recruitment of soldiers, and to use the U.S. Postal Service to do so.

At the trial, Olivereau conducted her own defense in an hour-long speech to the court. No other IWW members attended, and her only moral support came from Anna Louise Strong (1885-1970), the noted radical leader and Seattle School Board member, who sat in the front row during the trial. The IWW apparently chose to distance itself from Olivereau due to her anarchist identity, which was considered dangerous even among the radical left during the politically-charged 1910s. In her defense, Olivereau recounted her version of the events that had led to her arrest, provided the jury with an explanation of her political views, and argued her case for the ultimate injustice of the war in Europe.

On December 3, 1917, Olivereau was sentenced to ten years in prison. She served 28 months in the state penitentiary in CaƱon City, Colorado, before being paroled. After her release from prison on March 25, 1920, she worked at various clerical and sales jobs in Oregon and California. She settled in San Francisco in 1929 and worked there as a stenographer until her death on March 11, 1963.

Sources: “Woman Anarchist Quickly Convicted for Attack on Military Draft Statute,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 1, 1917, p. 1; “Louise Olivereau Convicted Under Espionage Act,” The Seattle Daily Times, December 1, 1917, p. 12; The Louise Olivereau Case (pamphlet; New York: Minnie Parkhurst, 1918); Sally Flood, The search for a cause: Louise Olivereau, M.A. thesis (University of Washington, 1979); Sarah Ellen Sharbach, Louise Olivereau and the Seattle radical community 1917-1923, M.A. thesis (University of Washington, 1986); Sarah E. Sharbach, “A Woman Acting Alone: Louise Olivereau and the First World War,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly, Vol. 78 (January-April 1987); Harvey O’Connor, Revolution in Seattle: A Memoir (Monthly Review Press, 1964; Haymarket Books, 2009); Richard C. Berner, Seattle 1900-1920: From Boomtown, Urban Turbulence, to Restoration (Charles Press, 1991, 2009); Paul Avrich, Anarchist Voices: An Oral History of Anarchism in America (Princeton University Press, 1995; AK Press, 2005).

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