A. Mitchell Palmer: Controversial national figure

By Joan B. Groff

Turning left after entering the front door of the Stroud Mansion brings you into the Erdman Room, where hangs a 4’x6’ oil painting of Alexander Mitchell Palmer. It had been in the Smithsonian Institution before being donated to MCHA by his daughter, Mary Palmer Lichtenberg, and grandson, Mitchell Palmer Lichtenberg, in 1982.

Many chapters in history books for nearly a hundred years have covered the tales of this Stroudsburg native and Stroud descendent. (A millier named Obadiah Palmer moved to Stroudsburg in 1813 and married a daughter of Daniel Stroud!).

A. Mitchell Palmer's family moved from the area for a short time. as he was born in Moose Head, Luzerne County, in 1872, but he graduated with highest honors from both Stroudsburg High School and Swarthmore College before being mentored in the law by Judge John Storm and becoming a junior partner there in Stroudsburg.

The old 26th District elected him a Pennsylvania Congressional Representative for the years 1909-1915, during which period he forwarded the nomination of Woodrow Wilson for president.

Being Quaker, Palmer declined Wilson’s request that he be Secretary of War. Instead, he became Custodian of Alien Enemy Property during World War I. German companies, in particular, were closed with their discoveries and inventions transferred to American businesses.

As a strong patriot, Palmer acted to remove all radicals and Communists, sometimes over-reaching his authority. As attorney general in 1919, he smashed the United Mine Workers strike for more pay, due them since August, 1917, using a federal court injunction; later, an arbitration commission corrected the situation by awarding them substantially higher pay. The Industrial Workers of the World organization, militant western miners, radical labor, Socialists and all other left-wingers were targets by 1920.

If you saw the recent movie
J. Edgar, you noticed the explosions almost immediately, as mailed bombs had been sent to Palmer’s home and those of other top government officials in and around Washington, D.C. A national panic was built up through newspapers’ coverage, although, at that time, membership in the Communist Party in the U.S. was declining, with about 30,000 people.

Without notice to the Department of Labor, feeling he was duty-bound, Palmer instigated infamous raids on any suspected “Reds,” resulting in the jailing of 6,000 people and the deportation of 556.

After the historic Sacco and Vanzetti trial and execution, he declared he had averted an uprising, writing “Like a prairie fire, the blaze of revolution was sweeping over every American institution of law and order a year ago.” Although this was improbable, the backfire of intolerance spread, involving Catholics, Jews and African Americans in addition to those already labeled radicals.

Named with President Wilson and his son-in-law, Treasury Secretary McAdoo, Palmer weathered 38 ballot attempts at gaining the Democratic Party’s nomination for president. Urban bosses took over and accepted none of them, pitting James M. Cox against Warren Harding.

Following the election, A. Mitchell Palmer returned home to practice law in Stroudsburg until his death in 1936.