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This Crusading Socialist Taught America’s Workers to Fight—in 1929

Fred Beal went down to North Carolina with a mission to defend the common man. He left with a murder conviction and a direct ticket to the USSR. Then his story got really weird.


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illustration of stalin being smashed by a worker with a hammer

Illustrations by Scott Balmer

The night of June 7, 1929 seemed destined for trouble in Gastonia, a textile hub some 20 miles west of Charlotte, North Carolina. For two months workers had been striking at the Loray Mill over low wages, long hours, perilous working conditions, and decrepit mill-owned housing. Although the mill management had refused to make any concessions, and most townspeople sensed that the strike was on its last legs, the die-hards were unwilling to give up the fight.

The strike’s leader, Fred Erwin Beal, arranged for the night shift to walk out one more time, hoping that the new action would breathe life into the movement. A 33-year-old organizer with the Communist Party-affiliated National Textile Workers Union (NTWU), he had arrived in North Carolina to establish Southern affiliates and lead laborers to challenge mill owners’ abuses. Although usually modest and reserved in private, he came to life in front of a crowd, and now he stood up in front of the remaining picketers at the union hall, urging them to march on the factory to encourage the night shift strikers.

When they returned, bruised and ragged, they told stories of police beating them away.

Minutes later, a car rumbled to a stop outside. Five policemen, including Chief Orville Aderholt, approached the headquarters. Four union guards met them and asked if they had a warrant. Beal would later say that one of the officers tried to seize a guard’s gun, while another, evidently drunk, tried to enter the building. Aderholt, in a black suit and 10-gallon hat, grabbed the drunken man and began to lead him away. Then shots rang out.

By the time everything had quieted down, one union guard and four police, including the chief, were wounded. Aderholt died the next day. No one was ever able to definitely prove who shot first, or who fired the gun that killed him, but soon Beal had been arrested and held without bail on murder charges along with 15 others.

Aderholt’s death marked the turning point in Fred Beal’s Communist odyssey. Because of the events of June 7, 1929, he would be convicted, flee to the Soviet Union, and eventually return as an outspoken opponent of Communism. After that night, Beal always seemed to consider himself a defendant, fighting against the mill interests, the courts, and, increasingly, the Communist organizations in which he eventually lost faith.

At first glance, Gastonia seemed an unlikely site for labor militancy. Gaston County was mostly rural and conservative, and even in the growing mill towns that dotted the landscape, owners cultivated a paternalistic relationship with employees. Strikes were rare and brief, usually unconnected to larger labor movements.

Fred Beal, in contrast, fit the profile of a leftist strike leader. Journalists described him as “boyish” and “heavy-faced,” with “absolutely no pose, no front whatsoever.” Even his hair, which was perpetually combed to flop over his right brow, was red. Originally from Lawrence, Massachusetts, he began working in mills when he was 14, and turned to activism two years later, in 1912, when the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) came to town to organize a strike. He grew more involved in activism and radicalism through the years, and in 1928 he led a strike in New Bedford, joining the Communist Party and the newly formed NTWU in the process.

By then, trouble was brewing in southern mill country, especially in Gaston County. In response to economic pressures, manufacturers attempted to cut costs by improving efficiency, firing workers, slashing spending in mill villages, and implementing what their employees called the “stretch-out,” where workloads increased drastically, while salaries barely rose or even decreased.

In March 1929, Beal arrived in Gastonia and began organizing an NTWU local. On April 1, he called for a strike vote, which was approved unanimously. Soon picketers took to the streets, clashing with officers. Advertisements started to appear in the local paper paid for by the “Citizens of Gaston County,” with headlines like “Red Russianism Lifts its Gory Hands Right Here in Gastonia.”

The growing involvement of Communist cadres only heightened the strike’s association with the Soviet Union. Party affiliates like the NTWU, the International Labor Defense (ILD), and the Young Communist League sent representatives to the Loray strike. Beal, for his part, thought it best to avoid rhetoric about class warfare, focusing instead on working conditions in the factory. In his memoir, “Proletarian Journey,” he writes that he told one Party activist not to discuss Communist ideology with the press during the strike, since “the struggle in Gastonia was to win the strike for its immediate benefits and not for forming Soviets.”

Although he considered such tactical debates a hindrance, he was more worried about the violence perpetrated by the mill owners’ allies. In the early hours of April 18, a mob destroyed the strike headquarters, and picketers began to tell each other stories of harassment and intimidation. The union was able to secure another plot of land to reconstruct the building and erect a tent colony for evicted strikers, yet the threat of an attack still loomed.

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Protesters’ tents outside the Loray Mill building during the 1929 strike. (Photo courtesy New York, Pub. for National Textile Workers Union by Workers Library Publishers.)

By May, everyone except Beal and his core union members believed that the strike was dead. After the first few days of marching, workers had petered back into the Loray Mill, and the strikers numbered only a tenth of their former strength. Yet Beal believed that the scabs remained sympathetic, and he planned a walkout on June 7.

The shot that hit Orville Aderholt extinguished that hope.

Fifteen defendants crowded into the corner of the balmy Gastonia courthouse on July 29, 1929. The close air, the dark wooden seats, the galleries packed with mill workers — some of whom still wore their overalls — and the broad, bare desk of Judge M.V. Barnhill crowded in on Beal as the attorneys presented arguments about moving the trial to nearby Charlotte. Defense lawyers explained that it would be impossible to find an impartial jury in Gaston County, where tensions still ran high. Barnhill agreed and decided to move the proceedings to Charlotte, adjourning the trial until August 26.

It had been almost two years since Sacco and Vanzetti, Italian immigrants and anarchists convicted of murder in Massachusetts, were executed amid worldwide protests. Just as leftist groups rallied around the anarchists, similar liberal groups came together for the Gastonia defense, including the ACLU and attorneys who had participated in the celebrated Scopes “monkey trial.” On the Communist side, the ILD launched its own campaign, and papers like the Daily Worker publicized the case. But while outside groups cooperated in advocating for acquittal, the defense was riven by internal divisions.

In Charlotte, most of the defendants’ attorneys preferred to argue that their clients had been framed, that they only fired back in self-defense after the police shot at them, and that Aderholt’s death was an unfortunate accident. But another faction, headed by the ILD, called for a strategy of “mass defense,” pairing courtroom arguments with protests and propaganda.

William F. Dunne, editor of the Daily Worker, belonged to the latter camp. In a pamphlet he published in September — “Gastonia: Citadel of the Class Struggle in the New South” — he depicted the night of June 7 as an “armed struggle” between workers and a conspiracy of mill interests. The other defense lawyers must have recoiled in horror while reading the pamphlet, which declared the defendants to be victims “whom the ruling class is trying to railroad to the electric chair in a futile but murderous attempt to stem the tide of working class revolt.” Such inflammatory language may have pleased Communist hardliners, but it did nothing for the people on trial.

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The 16 workers who were arrested. (Photo courtesy New York, Pub. for National Textile Workers Union by Workers Library Publishers.)

Beal was reluctant to embrace the ILD’s strategy. “It was just like during the strike,” he told the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) 10 years later. “I was always at loggerheads with the idea, why we should have to put in things about Soviet Russia when it was strictly a strike issue, for better conditions in the mill.”

But the defense did not anticipate the prosecutors’ most audacious tactics. Barely had the trial begun when, during the presentation of medical evidence, the attorneys wheeled in an effigy of Aderholt wearing the same clothes he had worn during the shooting. Apparently, their stunt was inspired by a popular film, “The Trial of Mary Dugan,” which had been playing in local theaters and featured an identical stratagem that won the protagonist’s case. At the appearance of the bloodstained garments in Charlotte, the courtroom exploded, and Judge Barnhill ordered the effigy taken away.

However, Aderholt continued to haunt the courtroom. On the first weekend after the trial began, one of the jurors, a newspaper vendor named J. G. Campbell, appeared to lose his mind. Officials confined him to a cell, where he cried out and banged a tin cup on the ground. Barnhill visited the hapless juror and concluded that the only option was to declare a mistrial. Years later, as former jurors and attorneys revisited the case, it became apparent that Campbell probably already suffered from chronic mental health problems, which were likely exacerbated during the trial, during which the other jurors incessantly pranked and bullied him. In the heat of the moment, though, the defense blamed the effigy.

After the mistrial, some jurors informed reporters that they had been leaning toward an acquittal. But the prosecution did not intend to make the same mistakes twice, and when Beal was back in court for the new trial, they had regrouped, charging the strike leader alongside six others. Prosecutors, barred from asking Beal about his party affiliation, instead interrogated him about his political beliefs. In response, he portrayed himself as a moderate. He disavowed such revolutionary values as the overthrow of government by force, and he avoided responsibility for articles published under his name in Communist publications like the Daily Worker and the Labor Defender. In short, he did everything that his attorneys asked of him, and as he returned to the other defendants, he noticed, they “seemed pleased.”

Their optimism quickly died when the next witness took the stand. Edith Saunders Miller, the wife of Beal’s codefendant, Clarence Miller, testified that she had taught the children in the strikers’ tent colony to strive for a Soviet-style government of workers and farmers. Then she denied believing in God and avowed almost all of the Communist principles that Beal had carefully avoided. As Beal wrote bitterly in his memoir, “Comrade Edith Miller was addressing the Court, but she was anticipating the commendation of Stalin’s lackeys in New York and Moscow.” Dunne, the Daily Worker editor, was in the courtroom that day and congratulated her.

It took less than an hour for the jury to decide that all seven defendants were guilty. Judge Barnhill then delivered the prison sentences, and Beal suddenly was facing 17 to 20 years.

He could still appeal to the state Supreme Court. But there was another promising alternative: skipping bail and fleeing the country. After the trial, Dunne approached them, proposing that they escape to the Soviet Union. Edith and Clarence Miller enthusiastically supported the plan. And although most other leaders in the American Communist Party — not to mention the North Carolina authorities — expected Gastonia defendants to stay in the country, the Millers, Beal, and three other codefendants secretly raised funds and secured fake passports. Soon, Beal was boarding a ship in New York City under the assumed name of Jacob Katz. Disguised in horn-rimmed glasses, he crossed the gangplank and watched America fade away.

Bitterness still nagged at him. After he was convicted, he sensed that he and his codefendants had been betrayed for the sake of an abstract, revolutionary goal. That feeling never went away; if anything, it would intensify over the following years. However, even if he believed that the American Communists had undermined his defense, Beal hoped that the Soviet Union would fulfill the dream of a state where the kinds of injustices he had witnessed in the textile mills would be a thing of the past. “I had in mind to see Soviet Russia,” he explained to the HUAC later, “and see for myself what was going on there because I had always told the workers in North Carolina and in New Bedford and everywhere that Soviet Russia was a paradise.”

When Beal disembarked in Leningrad, the first thing he saw was a crowd of peasants begging travelers for money. His Soviet hosts explained that the poor were merely capitalists who would not work for the new system, but he was struck by the contrast between the lives of the Russians with the treatment of foreigners like himself. In his memoir, he remembers frequenting a special dining room for international guests situated in the middle of a sprawling workers’ restaurant. In the “visitors’ room,” he was served hearty meals of meat and borscht by a starved, haggard waiter. Outside, the other patrons waited in line for thin soup.

Then he learned that he was not allowed to leave. The Comintern, which oversaw international Communist movements, declared that Beal and the other Gastonia defendants were to remain in the U.S.S.R. indefinitely. He traveled to Moscow with another Gastonia codefendant, K.Y. “Red” Hendricks, to try to reverse the decision, but their request was summarily denied. Instead, Beal was sent in the opposite direction, on a speaking tour of Uzbekistan.

In the surviving photographs of Beal in the Soviet hinterlands, he seems out of place, crouching in a circle among Uzbek peasants to discuss the injustices of American capitalism, or sitting like a mill boss in the back seat of an unwieldy black convertible motoring down a dirt road in a rural village. Once, he visited children on the way to pick cotton in one of the region’s collective farms. He woke up early and joined the group, marching to a brass band and arriving at the field that night. The next day, the children began picking, growing so tired that they started sitting under the cotton plants, while organizers admonished them to help fulfill the Five-Year Plan.

Around the same time, news arrived in America that several Gastonia defendants were in Russia, and the North Carolina Supreme Court denied their appeal. But Beal was looking for a way out. In August 1930, he wrote to Roger Baldwin, then the head of the ACLU, requesting assistance. “I think no one ever fought harder to get in jail than I just now,” he drily observed.

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Beal meeting with farmers in Uzbekistan. (Photo courtesy New York, Hillman-Curl, 1937, via Google-digitized.)

Word reached the United States, and on September 20, the New York Times wrote about his efforts to return, reporting inaccurately that the Comintern had already approved his departure and that he and some of his codefendants would turn themselves over to the North Carolina authorities imminently. At the same time, Baldwin and the ACLU secured funds to cover Beal’s travel home. Comintern officials summoned the Gastonia defendants and, apparently persuaded by the unexpected turn of events, suddenly announced that they were free to go.

Beal secretly arrived back in America in March 1931. His attitude toward the Soviet Union, he admitted later, remained mixed after his trip. The grim realities of Leningrad, Moscow and Uzbekistan had disappointed him, yet he continued hoping for the promises of a workers’ utopia. He had not forgotten that fellow Communists had undermined his trial, but now they urged him to return. Additionally, Beal later admitted, “Now that I was no longer in Russia, the twenty-year prison sentence in North Carolina did not seem so tempting.”

Together, these influences quickly convinced him to reverse course. Six months after arriving in the United States, he was back in the U.S.S.R.

Upon his return, he was assigned to the Kharkov Tractor Plant, in Soviet Ukraine, where he was given charge of propaganda and relations among the sizable corps of foreign workers. He also edited the English-language paper at the plant, the Tempo, and even authored a pamphlet, aptly titled “Foreign Workers in a Soviet Tractor Plant.”

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Beal on a tractor in Ukraine. (Photo courtesy New York, Hillman-Curl, 1937, via Google-digitized.)

Much of the pamphlet consists of optimistic propaganda, with statements like “the Kharkov tractors are as good, if not better, than the tractors imported some years ago from America.” An entire section is devoted to a tally of donations to a government loan program. Yet hints of discontent break through. One passage notes that “complaints began to pour in that many of our tractors broke down too soon,” and Beal describes worker campaigns against scrap metal and to promote rising production quotas, evidence of underlying difficulties at the factory.

In reality, life at Kharkov was harsh, and Beal writes in his memoir that his job consisted of “a continuous effort to keep the foreigners from rebelling against their living conditions.” Foreign workers were cold and hungry, toiling for long hours to meet production quotas and living in factory housing. Thousands of miles away from Gastonia, Beal realized that he was still a labor organizer, facing Soviet versions of the same issues that had prompted the North Carolinians to strike, only now he was urging workers not to demand better conditions.

The natives had it even worse. If they failed to keep up with production quotas or complained, they could be thrown out to join the masses of starving, unemployed peasants. In “Proletarian Journey,” Beal describes trekking through the Ukrainian countryside around the factory, passing desiccated, famine-stricken collective farms and villages filled with emaciated corpses. Back in the factory, he says, peasants would be rounded up periodically and shipped away to die, so that visitors wouldn’t notice the starvation. After two years of this, he knew he would have to get out for good.

While in Kharkov, Beal received word that Red Hendricks, his Gastonia codefendant, had independently made his way back to the United States, where he had been arrested and extradited to North Carolina to serve out his sentence. This time, no legal aid came from the American Communists, since Hendricks had fled the Soviet Union without permission. According to Beal, Hendricks began writing him to ask for assistance, and when it became clear that no one else was going to help, Beal decided to return to America himself.

He requested an exit visa from his local Communist Party committee to travel to Poland, supposedly in order to renew his passport. However, once he crossed the border, he made his way to Germany, hoping to get into the United States. Quite by chance, one of his defense lawyers from the Gastonia trial was in Berlin with his daughter, working for the defense in the Reichstag fire trial. Beal convinced the two to provide enough funds to secure passage across the Atlantic. Finally, in January 1934, he docked in New York City. For the next four years, he kept moving, steering clear of the police and North Carolina authorities, while becoming an increasingly vocal critic of Communism.

Beal never ended up helping his incarcerated comrade; it is unclear whether he ever thought he could, or if he even intended to do so. Maybe he was simply retrospectively casting his return in a more heroic light. In fact, much of “Proletarian Journey” is clearly embellished. Beal repeats dialogues from decades ago, frequently editorializes, and mixes anecdotes from his experiences with diatribes about his enemies within the Communist movement. In his 1949 book, The Red Fraud, these inconsistencies are even more pronounced.

Nevertheless, when he returned to the United States, he made a full break with the Communist Party. As he explained to the HUAC in 1939, “I knew that when I came back over to this country and told the workers over here of the horrors, of what was going on over in Soviet Russia, that I would lose a lot of my old-time friends — so-called friends — that were with me in the Communist Party at that time when I was in this country.” By that time, he was serving his sentence for the Aderholt murder, having turned himself into the North Carolina authorities in February 1938. He was paroled in 1942 and had his citizenship rights restored in 1948.

The Loray Mill building remained throughout all of Beal’s trials and afterward. The structure still stands in a corner of Gastonia, but now, rather than discontented millworkers, it houses loft apartments and an athletic club. There’s a pool outside, where there used to be pickets. There’s a history center, and there’s plenty of exposed brick, punctuated by windows with views of the nearby mountains. Although 80 percent urban, Gaston County remains conservative — almost all of the Republican candidates for federal office in recent history have received more than 60 percent of the vote, including Donald Trump. It’s not the kind of place where you’d expect to see a Communist. But then again, it wasn’t in 1929, either.

Matthew Disler is a writer originally from Richmond, Virginia. His articles have appeared in Gothamist, Harvard Magazine, and RealClearPolitics, and his humor writing has been featured in publications like McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.

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This post originally appeared on Narratively and was published July 16, 2018. This article is republished here with permission.

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