I Wish I Had Been There: John Schrag and the
Kansas Mob, 1918
by James C. Juhnke
On November 11, 1918, the citizens of the small town of Burrton,
Kansas, celebrated the end of World War I.1
The celebration climaxed in a mob persecution of John Schrag,
a Mennonite who had refused to buy war bonds. I wish I could
have witnessed the event through the eyes of three men: John
Schrag, Tom Roberts, and Charles Gordon.
John Schrag was a member of the Hopefield Mennonite Church.
I would like to know what he was thinking and feeling when five
carloads of Burrton men came eleven miles out to his farm to
give him one last chance to buy war bonds. Was he terrified,
defiant, or calm as he refused to salute the flag and carry it
at the head of a parade? Did he nearly change his mind when they
poured yellow paint over his head and rubbed it into his beard?
Did he expect to die when they got a rope and marched him over
to a tree to hang him?
Tom Roberts was the head of the Burrton Anti-Horse-Thief Association.
I would like to know if he was in the group that got Schrag into
town. At what point did Roberts decide that the mob was getting
out of hand? Did Roberts always wear a gun? Would he actually
have used his gun, as he threatened, to stop the mob from hanging
Schrag? Was it Roberts who got Schrag into the city jail and
called the Harvey County sheriff to come and take the victim
to Newton to be cleaned up and kept in safety?
Charles Gordon was a young farm worker about to be drafted
when the war ended. I would like to know how involved he was
when the mob frenzy took hold. Was he on the fringes or at the
center of things when the mob began beating and smearing Schrag?
How accurate was Gordon's later testimony that Schrag was totally
nonresistant-that he never raised a hand to defend himself and
that a kind of halo appeared over his head in his humiliation?
Was Gordon among the group that laid plans to come back that
night, overwhelm the guards, and hang Schrag after all? Was it
honesty or was it guilt that led Gordon later to describe Schrag
as a kind of Christ-figure?
I have written and spoken many times about the mobbing of
John Schrag. I wonder how my story would change if I could go
back and live through the event myself-through the eyes of these
and more participants.
1. James C. Juhnke, "John Schrag Espionage
Case," Mennonite Life, July 1967, 121-122.
James C. Juhnke is professor of history
at Bethel College, North Newton, Kansas. He is the author of
Vision, Doctrine, War, the third volume in The Mennonite
Experience in America series.
Mennonite Historical Bulletin, October 2000