In Feb. 1896, three men constructed a small boat and floated from Tacoma out onto Puget Sound. George Allen, Oliver Verity and Frank Odell were looking for a place to form an intentional community. All three men and their families had been part of Glennis, a short-lived socialist community in the Cascade foothills. Its failure did not discourage the families. After all, during the late 19th century, attempts to create utopian communities were commonplace among a small minority of dreamers on Puget Sound, across the United States and throughout Europe.
The three men on Puget Sound rowed, and perhaps sailed, until they came to the piece of land that they had heard would be a fine location for their new community. These 70-plus acres on the eastern slope of the Key Peninsula connected to Carr Inlet through a little body of water called either Joe’s Bay or Von Geldern Cove. McNeil and Fox islands floated off to the southeast, and the nearest town was Lakebay.
The three families pooled their resources, bought the land and called their new community “Home.” Home lasted until 1919, adopted anarchism as its guiding philosophy, spawned five newspapers, grew to 250 inhabitants, eventually owned over 200 acres and gave rise to a major free-speech fight that went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
This year, “Trying Home: the Rise and Fall of an Anarchist Utopia on Puget Sound,” the first book-length history of Home, was published by Justin Wadland, a librarian at the University of Washington —Tacoma.
“When I was a graduate student,” said Wadland, “I was in this project to catalogue ethnic and special-audience newspapers from around the Pacific Northwest.” One of the newspapers he catalogued was The Agitator, the last of the newspapers published at Home. He was puzzled by it. “I didn’t know a lot about what it was talking about.” He ended up writing a paper about The Agitator and the challenges it presented to the cataloguer. That experience was the seed that eventually grew into his book.
Anarchism: Spirit of mutual cooperation
Back in 19th century Washington, the three families’ experience at Glennis informed the way they set up Home. The founders did not want to repeat the mistakes of the socialist community, where everything was centralized and rules governing the inhabitants’ behavior were passed after many hours of unpleasant meetings.
Instead, Home’s founders decided on a bare minimum of formal rules and hoped for a spirit of mutual cooperation. They formed a land trust. All of Home’s property was owned in common through the Mutual Home Association. New people who wished to join the community paid the association $1 and then paid for the right to use two acres of the land as they wished. Each individual or family did, however, own whatever improvements — such as houses or stores — they built on their two-acre plot. Also they owned the fruits of that land, whatever they produced through their own sweat by harvesting trees, planting crops or raising animals. Beyond that, there would be no rules governing behavior within the community.
Eventually, the founders recognized that these principles were compatible with that most misunderstood political philosophy: Anarchism. Being the idealists that they were, when Home’s founders began reaching out to others to join their community, they announced it was an anarchist colony. That began many problems.
More than a hundred years ago, as now, anarchism was viewed by mainstream society as a political doctrine that advocates violence and chaos. The very idea of an anarchist organization was, and is, wrongly seen as an oxymoron.
Anarchism is the political philosophy that believes human beings would be better off without government or other forms of centralized authority. In the place of large nation states, anarchists want humanity to organize itself into small decentralized communities that cooperate with one another.
Famous American anarchists include figures as different as Emma Goldman, a lifelong organizer and agitator, and Noam Chomsky, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor who revolutionized linguistics.
Like many social movements, anarchism has birthed a vast number of differing philosophies — anarcho-communism to anarcha-feminism — and tactics — assassinations of political leaders to nonviolent communalists.
The members of the Home community were adherents to nonviolence, but they were living in an era where violent anarchists were very active and carried out high profile assassinations, including Leon Czolgosz’s murder of President William McKinley in 1901 (there is considerable debate about whether Czolgosz was really an anarchist or someone facing mental illness, but that’s another story).
McKinley’s assassination heightened the surrounding communities’ suspicion of the thriving anarchist colony on Puget Sound. By that time, the colony had grown to 82 residents and was publishing two national periodicals: Discontent: the Mother of Progress and Clothed with the Sun.
Free love and free speech
Ten days after McKinley’s shooting, U.S. Postal Inspector Confucius Wayland served warrants for the arrest of three Home members “for the crime of writing, publishing and mailing certain lewd, obscene and lascivious material,” Wadland writes in his new book.
The offending article, “A Healthy Comparison,” published in Discontent, was a defense of free love and a critique of monogamy, co-authored by two men, James Larkin and James Adams (the third man indicted was the newspaper’s publisher).
Adams seemed like an unlikely propagandist of free love. He sported a long, white beard, was in his 70s and had been “happily married to his wife for almost fifty years,” Wadland writes. Yet, Adams outlined his philosophy of free love in a letter to the Tacoma Evening News, quoted by Wadland, “As free lovers we believe that individualism means that we have the inalienable right to love whom we may, to love as long or short a period as we can, to change that lover every day if we please; and with that neither God, devil, angel, man or woman has any right to interfere.”
The three defendants paid the steep bail of $1,000 each and were released on bond until their trial began on March 11, 1902. Postal Inspector Wayland was the prosecution’s first witness, and his testimony took all morning. Then the court recessed for lunch. When the court reconvened, U.S. District Court Judge Cornelius Hanford said he had “carefully read the article in question over lunch and did not find it obscene or unmailable,” Wadland writes. Case dismissed.
Postal Inspector Wayland was not easily discouraged, however. He persuaded a grand jury to hand down three additional indictments against members of Home. The next trial, in July 1902, featured another unlikely campaigner for free love: 75-year-old Lois Waisbrooker. Wadland describes Waisbrooker as tall and “with angular features that one contemporary compared to Abraham Lincoln’s.” Waisbrooker favored long, dark dresses, walked with a cane and had previously been arrested in Kansas for her advocacy of women’s rights and free love. She published her illegal article, “The Awful Fate of Fallen Women,” in her own magazine, Clothed with the Sun. At the trial, with a different judge presiding, Waisbrooker was convicted and fined $100 and “became the only person in Home convicted of a crime as a result of the hostility that arose after the McKinley assassination,” Wadland writes.
Home’s trials were not over, however.
In 1903, the Washington State Legislature “passed one of the most virulent laws against anarchism in the nation,” Wadland writes. It took until the long, hot summer of 1911 before it would be used against Home.
In the meantime, the community thrived. Visitors noted its absences: There were no churches, no saloons and no sales of alcohol or tobacco at the local stores. Yet there were no rules forbidding any of those things.
The residents loved to gather at Liberty Hall, a meeting house owned by the community. There they would have dances with music and merrymaking until the wee hours. Most of all, the community liked to bring speakers into the hall, where they would gather for nights of intense discussion. The speakers might be famous political activists such as Emma Goldman or the Wobblies’ Big Bill Haywood. They might be residents of Home, like James Morton, who loved to read aloud the verse of the English poets Percy Shelley and William Wordsworth. Or the speakers might hold forth on more esoteric subjects like vegetarianism, Eastern mysticism, German philosophy, yoga or astrology. One night, a “Professor Thompson stood before them in women’s attire and extolled the sanitary virtues of female garb for all sexes,” Wadland writes.
Most families survived through a combination of labor. Some stayed at Home farming, raising livestock and children. The latter attended the community’s school. Others would leave the community for months at a time to work for wages in the outside world, sending money back to the husbands, wives and children at Home.
The nudes and the prudes
Jay Fox worked yearround at Home, publishing, editing and writing the community’s final newspaper, a biweekly called The Agitator He had moved to Home in 1910. “Forty years old, with a head of prematurely gray hair, Fox had a narrow chin, high cheekbones and a brow that often furrowed and concealed his eyes in shadow,” Wadland writes.
When he was only 16, in 1886, Fox had become involved in the anarchist movement during the Chicago protests surrounding the arrest and execution of the four Haymarket martyrs. Twenty-four-years later, The Agitator was a national publication focused on news and opinion about the labor and anarchist movements.
It was, however, Fox’s article about Home, “The Nude and the Prudes,” that led to his arrest in 1911. Fox became incensed when some residents of Home were reported by other Home residents to the authorities for the crime of “indecent exposure.” It was a hot summer, and some residents of Home liked to skinny dip — which was illegal. Three women and two men came to trial for the offense. “The vulgar mind sees its own reflection in everything it views,” Fox wrote in protest. The prosecutor won four convictions for skinny-dipping, but all charges were dropped upon appeal.
The internal conflict between the Nudes and the Prudes continued, however. It was a reflection of a deeper change at Home. A couple of years earlier, the Home community eliminated its communal land-holding scheme. “After this change, everyone owned their property outright. … Individuals could sell their land to another person and [Home] was a relatively cheap place to live. Some of the land was sold to people who didn’t share the community’s values,” Wadland said.
During his research, Wadland was unable to discover why the Home community made this dramatic shift. “That’s one of those unanswered questions,” he said.
Fox the publisher had an answer to the Prudes’ betrayal of their neighbors: boycott. One of the Prudes owned a store and the Nudes, and their supporters, who were the majority of the community, refused to shop there. The Nudes also refused to speak to the Prudes, making the boycott very personal. “The Prudes retaliated with violence: They physically assaulted Nudes in the street, cut down their orchards, tore down a fence and blew a shack off its foundation,” Wadland writes.
The government retaliated against Fox with a misdemeanor indictment for publishing “The Nude and the Prudes.” The prosecutor claimed that Fox’s article encouraged skinny-dipping and therefore violated the aforementioned 1903 law passed by the state legislature in response to the McKinley assassination. That statute made it illegal to publish anything that “shall tend to encourage or advocate disrespect of the law.”
Fox was unafraid and unabashed. “Every radical editor is subject to such prosecution, for the powers that be are sensitive to criticism, and will endeavor on every opportunity to throttle the voice of truth,” he wrote.
In January 1912, Fox was tried and spoke on his own behalf during closing arguments. “It is only by agitation that reforms have been brought about in the world,” he said. “Show me the country where there is the most tyranny and I will show you the country where there is no free speech.” The jury deliberated for two days, then pronounced Fox guilty.
Fox’s case turned into a cause célèbre and was appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In February 1915, the highest court, in an unanimous opinion written by Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, ruled against Fox, stating, “By indirection and unmistakably, the article encouraged and incites a persistence in what we must assume would be a breach of state laws against indecent exposure.”
The court’s ruling depended on “the bad tendency test for free speech cases,” Wadland writes. “The approach, based upon eighteenth-century English common law, asserted that governments could punish those responsible for publications that have a tendency to cause or incite illegal activities.”
It took a few more years before Holmes and the court began to recognize that the U.S. Constitution guaranteed free speech even to those who advocate against government and its laws. “But the future sets no precedent for the agitator who helps to create it,” Wadland writes. “For now, Fox had to serve his sentence.”
Fox was sentenced to two months. Among other activities during his prison time, Fox read aloud to the other inmates from the works of the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen and the Russian novelist and anarchist Leo Tolstoy.
The last battle
By July 1915, “the leading prudes” had left Home, and the community’s internal strife calmed. Home, however, faced a more serious problem. Home’s next generation, the children of the anarchists, did not wish to continue their parent’s community. “The children of the anarchists didn’t adopt their parents’ philosophy,” Wadland said. As adults, many of Home’s children spoke and wrote of their upbringing fondly but they were not committed to continuing the anarchist colony.
By 1918, there was nothing left of the community except a few diehards and some rundown property: A dilapidated Liberty Hall, wharf and schoolhouse. Some adult children of the original colonists and some newcomers sued to dissolve the Mutual Home Association, sell off its properties and let Home became just a regular little town. The diehards contested; a long, bitter court battle ensued; and eventually the dissolvers won. The lawsuit was the dying breath of the intentional community of Home.
At the end of his research and writing, Wadland did not grieve for Home’s demise. He said, “The measure of any utopian experiment is not a question of how long did it succeed as much as how bold was the idea and how happy were the people who participated in it. The third question is: What is [the experiment’s] ultimate legacy.”
Wadland said Home was really a bold idea, and there’s no doubt people really enjoyed their time there.
As for its lasting impact, Wadland said anarchism raises interesting questions about our human organizations from small-scale families to large governments. “Government can seem like an entity, a fact,” he said. “But the government is created by people showing up at their job, doing their jobs. Change occurs when we collectively decide to participate in a different way.”