In WWI, the word “slacker” was not just a term applied to people. It was also used to describe anything that wasn’t doing its part for the war. The National Phonograph-Record Recruiting Corps (PRRC) asked citizens “Have you a ‘slacker’ record in your home?” and held drives for any unused phonographs to send to the troops. The National War Garden Commission encouraged all citizens to “put the slacker land to use” in regards to idle land that could be used for victory gardens, which resulted in the production of 40% of the nation’s food consumption.
Although the slacker propaganda that encouraged support for the troops through music and food was a serious plea, the government was more stern in regards to slackers of the draft. In 1917, a volunteer group called the American Protective League (APL) was formed to help the BOI (Bureau of Investigation—precursor to the FBI) identify possible German sympathizers (i.e. German immigrants), anyone suspected of being anti-war, and, of course, draft dodgers.
Arthur Zimmerman was one of these targeted men. He was “registered and voted in the general election giving his age as 21; that just prior to June 5th, 1917, Zimmerman left Richmond Cal., whereabouts unknown to informant.” His father said he was 20 and had not registered for that reason. Zimmerman was not seen for years by many of those questioned, and no one knew his whereabouts, including his sister and the postmaster.
Another draft dodger being searched for by the government, Emil Pagenkopf, never even registered. He was of age, but he felt that the draft was a way to make America “a second Germany.”
Besides seeking after individuals, the league was often responsible for “slacker raids.” President Woodrow Wilson didn’t like the methods of the APL, and sometimes they did get out of hand, such as in the raid featured in this article from 13 September 1918 in the New York Times. The article states that the members of the APL stepped over their line of authority and began arresting men because “the number of slackers was large,” and there were not enough “police officials.”
Citizens who were not part of the APL or employed by the government sometimes took punishment of slackers into their own hands. Andy Tomko, one of the unlucky targets of the war-supporting citizens, was doused in a barrel of red paint for not donating to the Red Cross war fund. They dunked Tomko in the paint head first, and “then they turned him around and put him in feet first.”
Whether you were a soldier or a citizen, a “slacker” was not something you wanted to be identified by. Everyone had an opportunity to support their troops and was urged to do so.
Find more stories of alleged slackers by searching the FBI case files .