The beginning of the book trials

The Oklahoma Book Trials began in 1940, when police raided an independent bookstore and arrested its owners

Mike Selby

Part 2 of 2

The Oklahoma Book Trials began in the fall of 1940, when police raided an independent bookstore and arrested its owners, all in the name of national security.  The store’s owners (Bob and Ina Wood) and two of their friends (Eli Jaffe and Alan Shaw) were charged with ‘criminal syndicalism’—an antiquated state law making it illegal “to do acts of physical violence to effect industrial and political change.”  Simply put, the four defendants were accused of trying to overthrow the United States government—an accusation made solely on the books they sold, owned, and read.

The state attorney’s case rested on the crates of books and pamphlets seized from the raids, which were stacked to the roof in the Oklahoma City Jail. The literature was communist in nature, and each of the accused belonged to the Oklahoma Young Communist League. Even though there was no Red Scare sweeping the United States at the time, the state was confident they had an open and shut case.  It didn’t hurt that many of the legal and civil rights of the defendants and their lawyer were trampled on at will.

Not only were each of the accused’s bail set unreasonably high, but they were also denied legal counsel, as the jail guards refused to let their attorney (George Croom) confer with them. The guards also rewarded other prisoners with alcohol if they harassed each defendant, which lead to Eli Jaffe being beat unconscious.  Croom—a superb civil liberties attorney from Tulsa—had no better luck outside the jail. Nothing he did could persuade the judge to let him examine the evidence against his clients.

The trial began the first week of October, ironically occurring between National Newspaper Week and National Book Week.  “The state’s evidence will show that Joseph Stalin has taken great interest in this country,” began the state attorney, who then entered into evidence

‘The Communist Manifesto,’ ‘State & Revolution,’ and Stalin’s ‘Foundations of Leninism.’ These books, he explained, “taught the use of violence…lauded communism, the rule of the proletariat, the abolition of capitalism…and the creation of a separate Negro government.”

Although the state had to concede the none of the accused had committed violent acts, he would “merely read excerpts from these books and that in itself is violation of the law.”  The state then had the books they had seized from the accused (40 boxes) brought out, promising to read damning excerpts from each.

Every one of Croom’s objections were overruled, and he was left to simply beg for at the very least an inventory of the seized books.  Request denied.  The state attorney then spent the next 14 hours reading excepts from 50 different books, all passages clearly dealing with “bloody revolution.”  However, this very act by the prosecution finally gave Croom a little of what he desperately needed: a list of book titles he could work with.

“Books, books, books,” Croom shook his head, addressing the jury the following week.  “When did it become a crime for an  American citizen to own a book?”  The state attorney “sets himself up as censor to tell 250,000 people of Oklahoma County what they can read and what they cannot read.”   Under subpoena, the City Librarian concurred that not only did they have the majority of these titles at the library, but so did every other public and academic library in the state.

A college student also testified for the defence, supplying a list of books he found at the University of Oklahoma’s Library, which included “eight by Karl Marx, six by Lenin, two by Engels, two by Stalin, and 250 on socialism and communism.”

Final arguments for the defence were heard on June 10th, where Croom reminded the jury that “never in the United States has there been any prosecution for the possession of books.”

He also pointed to the Thomas Jefferson quote which hung above the courthouse door:

“Equal and exact justice to all men, of whatever state or persuasion, religious, or political.”

The jury barely deliberated before rendering their verdict.  Bob and Ina Wood, Elia Jaffe and Alan Shaw were found guilty on all charges.  Each was sentenced to 10 years in a penitentiary and fined 5,000 dollars.

And that was that—except for a small editorial in a Tulsa newspaper, which asked “Just what kind of insanity is this?”  We will look at that answer next week.

Mike Selby is Reference Librarian at the Cranbrook Public Library