On June 29, 1941, Charles Jones, C.A. Cecil and eight other young Jehovah’s Witnesses from Mt. Lookout, WV drove to nearby Richwood, WV “to distribute literature of the said religious sect.” Three of the Witnesses stopped off at the Town Hall to inform the mayor of the nature of their work and to request police protection. Instead of the mayor, they were met by an angry reception committee from the Richwood American Legion Post, among whom were Martin L. Catlette, a deputy sheriff, and Bert Stewart, the chief of police. A mob of 1,500 people gathered outside the Town Hall, in the meantime, and soon other members of the American Legion post, headed by one Louis Baber, had rounded up seven Witnesses and brought them to the mayor’s office.
Catlette then took charge. He produced several quart bottles of castor oil, and in the best Mussolini tradition, forced the Witnesses to drink eight ounces each. One Witness, who protested, was made to drink a double dose. While the Witnesses squirmed in agony, they were then tied to a long rope and marched by the hoodlum mob to the Richwood post office. In a touchingly patriotic ceremony, Catlette thereupon recited the preamble to the American Legion Constitution, and everybody present was forced to salute the flag. An hour or so later as the resultant circuit court decision goes on to say, “the Jehovah’s Witnesses were marched through the streets of the town of Richwood and out of its corporate limits, yet attached to the rope. The mob piled their stuff in their cars, poured castor oil over it, deflated their tires and painted ‘Nazi’ and ‘Commie’ on the cars.”
The case attracted the attention of U.S. Attorney General Frank Murphy, who had recently established the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Section.
Catlette was hauled before a federal court and sentenced to twelve months in jail plus a thousand dollar fine, while Stewart, the chief of police, was fined $250.
This was the only federal conviction in the hundreds of brutal assaults on Jehovah’s Witnesses that swept America that year. It was the Civil Rights Section’s first interpretation that law enforcement officers were required to protect the civil rights of citizens. The Richwood case also marked the first time that Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Section proceeded with an indictment by information after a grand jury failed to indict. This case expanded legal protection for religious liberties in the United States.
Sources: ‘Jehovah’s Traveling Salesmen” by Bill Davidson, Collier’s
Nov 2, 1946