Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Long-Forgotten Unforgettable Father Feinler

In June of 1921, the New York Times took Warren Harding to task for his pardon of former military Chaplain Franz J. Feinler. Feinler, who lived in South Dakota but was born in Germany, entered into service with the Army in 1909 as a Roman Catholic chaplain. He achieved the rank of Captain in the 13th Infantry and served overseas in 1917.

But General Pershing sent Feinler home and the Captain/chaplain was charged with having uttered “treasonable language” and having “endeavored to dissuade men in the army from taking part in the war against Germany.” Among eighteen specifications considered by a military court, Feinler was said to have justified the sinking of the Lusitania and the execution of a female British spy (Miss Edith Cavell) by the Germans. He was also accused of having uttered "disrespectful and contemptuous language" against Woodrow Wilson - ah, those were the days, eh? In 1918, Feinler was court martialed in Honolulu and sentenced to fifteen years at hard labor, a sentence that was then approved by the President.

But Father Feinler’s sentence was later reduced to four years by the War Department. In May of 1920, he was released on parole from the penitentiary at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Secretary of War John W. Weeks then recommended his pardon. So, Feinler went from a fifteen-year sentence approved by President Wilson to a prison sentence of less than three years and a full and complete pardon from Warren Harding.

A Times Editorial described Feinler’s pardon as generally “beyond comprehension.” It suggested “professional politicians” might have understood Harding’s actions, but “nobody else” would. For that reason, the Times boldly predicted President Harding and Secretary Weeks would soon “discover” that a “good many people” disagreed with them. And the number of protestations would be “vastly larger than that of the people who [thought] what they did was wise.” The Times argued the “liberation of a criminal” like Feinler would do little to win or retain votes. But such pardons are “sure” to “cost the loss of a lot of them.”

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