Anti-German sentiment ran high not only in the U.S. but also in Canada during the First World War. In some Canadian cities, full-fledged riots broke out. For example, an anti-German mob destroyed the Riverside Hotel in Calgary on February 10, 1916. Nine days later, the hotel owner’s saloon was also destroyed because he was German speaking. There were also stories of Calgary firemen hanging and beating effigies of German soldiers.
German-speaking peoples from Eastern Europe and Russia had long suffered persecution, going as far back as Martin Luther – indeed, for centuries, many Protestant groups suffered as much intolerance in Eastern Europe as Jews. Some Germans moved to North America in search of a more peaceful existence, but bigotry has no physical boundaries.
At the onset of World War One, Canada targeted Germans almost overnight by passing the Enemy Alien Act, which was observed from 1914 to 1924. Many Germans were charged with treason and sedition, although no charges were ever proven. As in the old country, German Canadians were ostracized and many suffered economical ruin. Their schools were closed, their newspapers suppressed, and their clubs dissolved.
The Enemy Alien Act also stripped German Canadians of their right to vote, speak German in public, or teach their children in German – a situation that also permeated North Dakota politics.
In the same way Japanese Americans were held in prison camps during WWII, more than 2,000 German immigrants were imprisoned in Canada during World War I. Because of this, many German Canadians wanted to escape to the United States. Some of them turned to a man named Jake (or Jack) Lemm for help. Lemm lived in Estevan, Saskatchewan, some 30 miles straight north of Noonan, ND. A bit farther east was also the boarding crossing at Portal.
On November 11, 1915, the Noonan Miner reported, “For some time [Lemm] has been under surveillance of Canadian police, but it was only today that positive evidence was obtained, which conclusively prove his connection with the recent escape of prisoners. Austrians and Germans desiring to leave Canada have made arrangements with Lemm, who picked them up in an automobile in an isolated spot in the country and for a price guaranteed to deliver them in the United States. It is understood that several foreigners have been brought by him to Noonan and other western North Dakota towns. Lemm was taken to Regina today, where he will answer to a charge which virtually amounts to the same as treason.”
Lemm had great reason to worry. Edith Cavell, a British nurse working with the Belgium Red Cross in Brussels, had used an underground railway system to help some 200 allied soldiers escape from behind German enemy lines. The Germans caught the nurse, subjected her to a court-martial, and then executed her by firing squad just one month before Lemm was arrested.
On this date in 1915, the Noonan Miner reported, “The hearing of [Lemm’s] trial was followed with close interest not only by the people of the town who had known the prisoner, but also by a large gathering of foreign birth who were eager to know just what lengths the law would go in punishing such offences in Canada. The fate of Edith Cavell...was still fresh in [their] minds.”
Lemm’s case was the first of its kind in Canada. Perhaps because Canadians considered Edith Cavell a hero, the Honorable Judge Wylie was inclined to hand down a milder sentence than instant death. To Lemm’s visible relief, Judge Wylie found Lemm guilty but sentenced him to just two months in jail – as a warning to “others who might be tempted to engage in a similar venture.”
Noonan Miner. 11 Nov 1915; 16 Dec 1915.
Calgary Daily Herald. 13 Feb 1916.
Chartier, Dora. The Naming of Mount Edith Cavell. Mysteries of Canada.
Trails of Tears, Part Two: Wanderings with the Exulanten. The Familie Schaitberger. <http://www.exulanten.com/trails.html>
Photography archives. Glenbow Museum: where the world meets the west. Calgary Alberta. <http://ww2.glenbow.org/search/archivesPhotosSearch.aspx>
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm