The Strange (Seditious?) Saga of Sydney R. Flowers During the Red Scare, Los Angeles, 1919-1920

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

While putting together material for yesterday’s post on the first Armistice Day (which evolved into Veterans Day) in Los Angeles in 1919, references popped up to a remarkable criminal trial held at the time involving a newly passed criminal syndicalism law in California and the purported seditious sentiments stated by the fabulously named Sydney Herman Raymond Flowers in his short-lived publication, The Dugout, issued by the Allied World War Veterans association founded by him and others in Los Angeles shortly after the conclusion of the First World War.

The labyrinthine legal struggle that followed in the final months of the year and for most of 1920 have all but been forgotten, but took place during a period of rapidly rising patriotism and an equally ascendant period of government reaction to left-wing political groups and individuals known generally as the Red Scare. The basic issue behind the prosecution of Flowers by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office was that he was alleged to have violated the new criminal syndicalism law by publishing statements in The Dugout that were interpreted as advocating, in the words of the 30 April 1919 statute, “any doctrine or precept advocating, teaching or aiding or abetting the commission of crime, sabotage . . . or unlawful acts of force and violence or unlawful methods of terrorism as a means of accomplishing a change in industrial ownership or control, or effecting any political change.”

Sydney R Flowers 1891 census Foleshill Warwick England
The 1891 British census listing at Foleshill, Warwickshire, England, for “S.H.R. Flowers,” age 2, with his parents Henry, a watchmaker, Emma, and grandmother Phene Flowers, a silk weaver.

Such actions could be prosecuted through the spoken or written word, with the latter including printing, publication, circulation and display of any document that was accused of violation of the statute. A conviction of a charge under the act was a felony, punishable by a sentence of from one to fourteen years in state prison. Among the major targets of the law was the International Workers of the World, a far-left union whose members were commonly called “Wobblies,” as well as those who identified as or were accused of being communists, socialists and anarchists. It is not known if Flowers was the first person in Los Angeles to be tried under the law, but his case received significant media attention in this area and throughout the country at the time.

Our modern standards of thought concerning free speech and civil liberties are very much changed from the hyper-realized environment of the Red Scare a century ago. It is not hard to look at the Flowers case and others, including that of Charlotte Anita Whitney, a prominent San Francisco suffrage leader and socialist and communist who was arrested in November 1919 and convicted under the act, though she was pardoned in 1927 after years of appeals, and see that the law and prosecutions under it were carried out with particularly aggressive policing by the state of first amendment rights. At the same time, Flowers was a very complicated and shadowy figure whose actions before and after his legal travails add to the strangeness of the episode.

For one thing, Flowers claimed, in various legal documents, to be both a native of England and of Colorado, depending, it seems, on what he wanted to do legally. For example, when he applied for a passport to travel from the United States to Europe, he would assert he was from Sterling, Colorado, a town in the northeast corner of the state. Yet, British documents like census and birth records show that he was born in 1888 in Foleshill, a town in middle England east of Birmingham. Elsewhere, one American census listing shows that he claimed to have migrated to the United States with his family in 1899, when he was eleven. Yet, the earliest actual record of him in America is 1910, when he was a stowaway on a ship that stopped at the landing at Redondo Beach. How he got to the Los Angeles area then hasn’t been ascertained, though it appears he joined the British Navy and then deserted when a stop was made here.

Sydney Flowers stowaway ship Redondo July 1910
This Alien Crew List, dated 22 June 1910, for the S.S. Cape Finisterre, sailing from Japan through Redondo Beach and to Port Townsend, Washington, includes four deserters, including #27, Sydney Flowers, a British stowaway who boarded the vessel at Redondo’s wharf.

He then drifted east to Sterling, where, in 1911, he worked for a tailor and decided this would be his American birthplace (perhaps it was a sort of rebirth?), and then to Fremont, Nebraska, a town northwest of Omaha, where he worked with a newspaper and published an occasional poem. One striking example, which appeared in the town’s Tri-Weekly Tribune in December 1912 is titled “Not Understood” and, reading it, one wonders if it isn’t at least partly confessional, with one part stating:

Not understood. We gather false impressions

And hug them closer as the years go by,

Till virtues often seem to us transgressions

And so men rise and fall and live to die

Not understood.

Not understood. The secret springs of action

Which lie beneath the surface and the show,

Are disregarded. With self-satisfaction

We judge our neighbors and they often go

Not understood.

While in this remote area of the Great Plains, Flowers married Mabel Dodge, a native of nearby Morse Bluff, and left the United States at the end of 1913 for England and then South Africa, where their only child, Sydney C. Flowers, was born in the following year. Documents show that Flowers identified himself as an advertising agent, though the stay at Johannesburg was brief. By the end of the year, the family left South Africa, journeyed back to Britain, and then headed across the Atlantic to the United States and traversed the country to Los Angeles, arriving five years after Sydney was a stowaway there.

Sydney R Flowers Emergency Passport Application 17Dec14
The Emergency Passport Application of Flowers, 17 December 1914, showing he was a commercial artist, attesting his birthplace and current domicile at Sterling, Colorado, listing former residence at Johannesberg, South Africa, and requesting the passport at the American embassy at London to return to the United States!

In September 1915, Flowers was arrested by two Los Angeles Police Department officers and an officer for the Merchants’ Fire Dispatch, which looks to have been a private company hired by business people to protect their buildings from fire, as he emerged from a clothing store that had closed for the evening and was found to have three suits in a case. The Los Angeles Express of the 20th reported that the would-be film actor confessed to entering the building from a skylight and taking the clothes because he needed them for his work at the studios. He added that his challenges in finding film work forced Mabel to get a job in a cafeteria to support him and their child and the paper noted that “Flowers is a man of education and has had a number of poems published.” Clearly, he was “not understood!”

While it was later stated that he volunteered for military service, it turned out that Flowers had another reason. In its 1 June 1916 edition, the Los Angeles Times reported that “having to choose between violation of his probation in Los Angeles or being ranked as a deserted from the British navy, Sydney R. Flowers decided that the former would be least opprobrious.” So, he wrote Superior Court Judge Gavin W. Craig, who presided over his robbery trial, from Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, to which he fled, to state that he’d joined an American legion attached to that country’s expeditionary force fighting in the First World War in Europe.

The would-be actor was arrested for robbing a Los Angeles clothing store, Los Angeles Express, 20 September 1915.

In his missive to Judge Craig, Flowers asserted that “had he failed to comply with the call sent by his country he might at any time in later life be court-martialed and possibly shot.” He informed the jurist that his wife was given $40 from abroad (likely from Flowers’ family back in Foleshill) and that he’d agreed with the Canadian government to forfeit 75% of his pay, which was to be sent to her for the maintenance of her and their young son. He added that “as soon as I get back to London, and am able to settle down, I shall send for Mrs. Flowers.”

The prior week, Flowers completed an “Attestation Paper” with the “Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Force” in which he acknowledged his British origins, gave Los Angeles as his last address (he listed a reference in Broadacres, in present-day Lynwood, and then replaced it with his father-in-law in Nebraska), listed his occupation as “advertising agent,” but also stated he’d never served in any military force.

While in battle in France, Flowers was wounded and also incapacitated by being gassed by German forces. He sent frequent dispatches from London, where he was sent to recuperate, and published them in newspapers in his old haunts in Nebraska and where his wife and son were living. One, from late November 1917, discussed in detail the three types of gases used by Germany and how its forces disguised poison gas with tear gas, though he asserted that chewing tobacco mitigated the worst effects of the gassing. In March 1918, after being sent to Halifax, Nova Scotia, for quarantine, he was released and headed across Canada to Victoria, where he was reunited with his family. The trio then immediately headed south and returned to Los Angeles, where they settled in a residence just west of Bunker Hill.

Sydney Robert Flowers Attestation Paper Canadian Exp Force
This Attestation Paper for the Canadian Over-Seas Expeditionary Force, dated 25 May 1916, lists Flowers as a Coventry, England native, resident of Los Angeles, advertising agent, and attested he’d never been in the military. A week later, the Los Angeles Times reported that he wrote a Superior Court Judge that Flowers violated probation and went to Canada to enlist to avoid court-martial for deserting from the British Navy (as indicated in the above 1910 Alien Crew List).

Remarkably, Flowers managed to find his way back into the film industry and worked as a “technical director” for Allen J. Holubar, a producer with Universal Studios, noting this in his draft registration in mid-September. It was also recorded on the card that he was “gassed and wounded in France with Canadians.” In a 1919 motion picture industry directory, Flowers’ entry stated that he was also an assistant director and the film “The Heart of Humanity,” released early that year, was included in the listing. Sure enough, the Internet Movie Database entry does show Sergeant Sidney Flowers as assistant technical director for the wartime film written and directed by Holubar and starring Holubar’s wife, Dorothy Phillips. Serving as a technical advisor and portraying a German Army villain was Erich von Stroheim, who later became a renowned actor and director in Hollywood.

Flowers also used his status as a wounded and gassed war veteran to enter into organizations that worked to assist vets as they returned to civilian life. One was the Soldiers’ and Sailors’ Replacement Bureau, which was a multi-agency entity involving government, business and others to seek employment for those members of the military mustered out of the service. Shortly afterward, however, he disassociated himself from that organization, apparently because, in “open shop” Los Angeles, where unions were aggressively discouraged, such powerful entities as the Merchants’ and Manufacturers’ Association were exerting much influence, including, union organizers and leftists claimed, strike breaking using returning military personnel.

Sydney R Flowers WW1 registration 12Sep18
In his American draft registration card at the end of World War I, completed at Los Angeles on 12 September 1918, Flowers lists himself as a native of England, a technical director for the Universal Film Company, and has having been “gassed and wounded in France with Canadians” the prior year.

The Allied World War Veterans, however, predated the Bureau by a few months, as it came into being under the name of Fragments of France, in October 1918, about a month before the armistice was signed that ended the terrible world war. The Times edition of the 9th reported “the first known local organization of returned veterans of the war was launched last night when returned motion-picture players who are back from France with wounds formed an association.” The paper noted the gathering was held in the home of a lieutenant from the American Expeditionary Force and its president was a Canadian lieutenant. It added that “Sergeant Sydney R. Flowers, who is back from France with two wound stripes, and who is now a technical director at Universal City, was elected business manager.” It was said that quite a few film executives attended and that Mary Pickford, a mega-star of the era, sent financial support.

Flowers rose to be president of Allied World War Veterans as well as editor of The Dugout and he also engaged in public speaking, though both the content of the magazine and of the speeches showed an increasing radicalism as these berated the industrial economies of the allied democracies as hypocritical of what the effort against the Germans and others fighting with them was intended to do to promote democracy. One talk, in mid-September 1919 and held at the Union Labor Temple, which served as a combined office and meeting space for various unions that did exist in the city, was titled “The Awakening of the Returned Soldiers from ‘Over There’,” that last couple of words referring to a stirring patriotic song about the war. Another presentation, given at Socialist Hall on 25 October, was given the title of “The Great War and Its Effect Upon the Mind of the Returned Soldier.”

Los Angeles Times, 10 May 1919.

In May 1919, the U.S. District Attorney’s office in Los Angeles launched an investigation of Flowers and his magazine after complaints were made about a cartoon image on the cover of an issue that showed a soldier pushed off a cliff by bayonets marked with “broken promises.” While the assistant D.A. in that office determined that the content did not violate national espionage laws, he “suggested that certain features of the publication be eliminated” and opined that this was a local matter, because of inadequate federal statutes.

Five days later after Flowers spoke at Socialist Hall, federal authorities issued a search warrant to special agents of the Department of Justice for the offices of The Dugout in the Mason Opera House Building on Broadway between 1st and 2nd streets, seizing documents on the belief that Flowers was espousing pro-German and anti-American views. When the Times covered the news, it reported that “a feature of the raid was the warm intercession on Flowers’ behalf, made by Upton Sinclair, Socialist writer.” Sinclair, best known for his novel The Jungle (1905), which provocatively described conditions in Chicago meat-packing houses and among the working poor, was in the offices with Flowers at the time. It was added that Sinclair went to the Federal Building to lodge a complaint about the “frame up” against Flowers, saying that The Dugout “was not a seditious sheet and also spoke to federal and local officials about the incident.

The article reiterated that, while Flowers was questioned by the feds in the spring about the content of his publication and he promised to tone things down. Yet, the October issue was said to have much material about workers revolting against capitalist democracies, instigating soldiers with Flowers’ editorial “The Awakening of the Veteran,” and articles by Sinclair and Job Harriman, a Socialist who nearly won election as mayor earlier in the decade. It was alleged that the purpose of The Dugout “is to convert by falsehoods the returned war veteran from a patriot to an I.W.W. [International Worker of the World].”

The_Los_Angeles_Times_Fri__Oct_31__1919_ (2)
Times, 31 October 1919.

The article stated that “followers of Flowers” went in the offices after the authorities left and created a mess, asking a Los Angeles Examiner photographer to come and document what the feds purportedly did to the office. The accusations against Flowers, whose apartment in Venice was also searched, was that he sent copies of his magazine to various places in Germany and that he hoped to “cause dissatisfaction, revolt and revolution among the American soldiers stationed in various parts” of the defeated nation.

A letter republished the next day in the Times from Flowers to a German general in which the editor wrote of class consciousness, returning soldiers being made aware of the machinations of “International Capitalism” in fomenting war, and stated “we are going to wage the War at home (in the U.S.) until we finally succeed in overthrowing the damnable regime that has caused and waged war for Profit.” Flowers added that he joined the Canadian Army in 1915 and “spent over two years in HELL (France), was wounded, gassed and invalided home.” Learning, however, of “the agony of the working class,” Flowers began his work and concluded by telling the recipient “you are at liberty to reproduce” anything from the magazine “and if it will do some good to any of our boys in Silesia, our fight has not been in vain.” A small excerpt from the October issue mentioned the “One Big Union” that marked the platform of the I.W.W.

Times, 27 March 1920.

While the federal authorities quietly receded, the county district attorney’s office quickly indicted Flowers under the authority of the criminal syndicate act. This extraordinarily rapid timetable later led defenders of Flowers to claim a conspiracy among law enforcement, government and business leaders, such as those in the Merchants’ and Manufacturers’ Association, to shut down his free speech rights. The same judge, Gavin Craig, who oversaw his robbery case, set a high $15,000 bail for Flowers.

Flowers’ defense attorney, John Beardsley, who was also Sinclair’s lawyer, challenged the indictment as faulty and insufficient by statute, so the county grand jury issued a new bill of three felony counts against the editor in late November, though Judge Craig denied another defense motion to quash the new one. At that time, a Los Angeles Humane Animal Commission member, C.B. Kemble, was declared by the grand jury as unfit to maintain his position because of statements that made him “an enemy of the American form of government.” Meanwhile, a Montebello oil driller claimed that his wife was selling property to give to Flowers and the I.W.W. “to purchase a press with which to print Red literature.” Moreover, John R. Davis asserted his wife Mary “had practically wrecked the Davis bank account, amounting to something like $1200” while she tried to sell a Monterey Park house, where she lived, and lots to further the cause.

After delays, Flowers’ trial was held before Superior Court Judge Frederick W. Houser. A federal justice department investigator testified for the prosecution as did private investigator Charles E. Sebastian, a former Los Angeles mayor who resigned in 1916 over personal peccadilloes. A photographer and member of the Allied World War Veterans, Clarence King, told the court that, in conversations he had with Flowers at the magazine’s office, the editor “advocated a bloodless revolution” not believing that a regime change could be effected by vote because of capitalist control of the ballot.

Times, 28 May 1920.

A man who sold copies of The Dugout at a September 1919 lecture given by Flowers testified that the editor said he was a “red radical and would fight for that cause as long as he was out of jail.” The defense attorney read portions of the magazine in which Flowers said he was for “evolution, not revolution,” prompting the response that the witness did not know the contents of what he was selling. Sinclair testified for the defense and talked of his support for Flowers and the magazine and that he heard him say at a speech that his purpose was to educate returning soldiers on how to organize and fulfill the promise of democracy, but not through force of violence.

On 26 March, however, the jury of eight men and four women, after 5 1/2 hours of deliberation, returned with a hung verdict of seven voting guilty and five against conviction. The district attorney’s office promptly refiled charged and another indictment, again unsuccessfully challenged by the defense, was handed down. In late April, the prosecution offered new evidence linking Flowers to the I.W.W. in the form of a Los Angeles Police Department officer who said he followed the editor a dozen times to the Wobblies headquarters on Spring Street, between 2nd and 3rd, while the new judge, L.H. Valentine, allowed the admission of an issue of New Justice, a Marxist magazine, found in Flowers’ office, though the defense argued that, by that logic, Flowers could be held responsible for the contents of any magazine found in his possession. At the end of May, the jury deliberated for 53 hours and came back with five voting for conviction and seven for acquittal, the latter including five women, while Judge Valentine lauded them as “conspicuous among the juries . . . for your careful, cheerful and conscientious work.”

Los Angeles Express, 4 November 1920.

Undaunted, a third indictment was secured and a trial scheduled for early November. Notably, a Times article from late June discussed the idea that mixed juries of men and women led to more instances of hung juries, costing taxpayers more money for retrials. The Flowers case was cited as an instance of this, though the claim made that women tended to vote guilty for male defendants was not true for the second trial, as noted above. There were some questions about the experience some women brought to their roles, but the views of those quoted in the article were favorable to mixed juries. Meantime, Flowers, whose magazine folded during his legal travails, continued to speak to Los Angeles audiences into the summer. On 19 October, his wife and child crossed the border into Canada from Washington state and she stated the purpose was “to reside with Husband” in Montreal.

When, though, it came time for him to appear on 3 November for his third trial, he failed to show. It was reported that he was in Canada, with some claims that the U.S. government would not allow him back into the country. His bond was forfeited and the case struck off the calendar. A Seattle-area labor publication at the end of the year reported that he was in Montreal on a lecture tour two weeks prior to the court date and that Sinclair sent $100 for Flowers to return to Los Angeles. It was suggested the poor health from being gassed led his doctors to forbid him to testify at trial for fear he would collapse. Anyone knowing where he was located was asked to contact his Los Angeles attorney or the New York office of the American Civil Liberties Union.

In the left-wing Kansas newspaper, Appeal to Reason, two weeks after Flowers failed to appear in court, Sinclair wrote a long essay in which he referred in detail to the editor’s troubles in “the City of the Black Angels” and his help tendered to Flowers as he fought against powerful capitalist interests. Sinclair noted that Flowers couldn’t find a job and needed support, so he went to lecture in San Francisco, Seattle and Chicago before going to Montreal, where Sinclair sent the $100, after which he did not hear from Flowers again. Saying it was “so painful” to think about the matter, Sinclair hoped Flowers would return to Los Angeles and face his accusers or wondered if his enemies were keeping him from doing so. But, he concluded, “I am convinced now that the money I sent to Sydney Flowers was used by him to take a steamer for foreign parts.”

Upton Sinclair’s statement about Flowers’ skipping bail from Los Angeles to his home area of Coventry, England, in the [Girard, Kansas] Appeal to Reason, 15 January 1921.

In mid-January 1921, Sinclair wrote a short piece in the Appeal to Reason in which he answered a supporter’s letter from the end of December in which she wrote that she couldn’t believe that Flowers skipped bail. Sinclair, though, wrote, “I am sorry to have to report that information has come to me through friends that Sydney Flowers is now living in Coventry, England [his place of birth], and that he did skip his bail, and has written, making excuses for himself.” Sinclair also acknowledged many falsehoods stated by Flowers to him.

In May 1923, in the succeeding journal to The Appeal to Reason, Sinclair’s speech in Pasadena was published, in which he referred to Flowers and his struggle against capitalist forces in Los Angeles, such as the Merchants’ and Manufacturers’ Association, a story told in Sinclair’s book, The Brass Check. The Association, Sinclair claimed, hounded Flowers for his anti-capitalist views and it was Sinclair’s attorney who represented Flowers at his trials.

Sydney R Flowers 1930 census LA
Flowers as enumerated, line 68, in the 1930 federal census in Los Angeles, where he lived in a hotel on Hill Street, south of 3rd, and declared he was an “Independent Artist.”

This was the last reference found to Flowers in newspapers, but he lived more than a quarter century longer. While Sinclair reported in 1921 that was back in his home area of Coventry, Flowers returned to Los Angeles later in the decade and was living in a hotel on Hill Street south of 3rd and working as an “independent artist,” though his wife and son were living a short distance to the west near 3rd and Bixel and Mabel was employed as a typist in an office. Sydney and Mabel soon divorced, but both wound up in San Francisco by the mid-Thirties, where he continued work as an artist and cartoonist and she remarried.

In the 1940 census, he was enumerated as a commercial artist in the San Francisco office of the Works Progress Administration. When he registered for the draft during World War II, the 54-year old Flowers worked for a firm of naval architects and marine engineers. His point of contact was none other than his attorney John Beardsley, then a Los Angeles County Superior Court judge. He died in March 1950 in the Mendocino County seat of Ukiah, forgotten thirty years after his Red Scare trials in postwar Los Angeles. The peripatetic and shadowy figure, who was a British navy deserter, a tailor, an ad man, actor and technical director, wounded and gassed soldier, poet, journalist and publisher, artist and cartoonist, and political radical, is, however, a figure well worth remembering in our regional history.

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