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Indians, Germans, and the great trial in San Francisco

"This was not a straightforward case."

By Suruchi Mohan
Special to the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission

(Note: the new Vande Mataram in the USA section of the U.S. World War One Centennial Commission web site looks at the experiences of Asian Indians in World War I America. Writer Suruchi Mohan will be exploring the intricacies of the great San Francisco trial of Indian Nationalists and Germans accused of violating the United States neutrality laws by conspiring on American soil with Germany to overthrow the British Raj. In this article, she describes how she came across the story, and the challenges of writing it.)

The Story:

In the fall of 2015, I went to a docent-led tour of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco. After meandering through the lower floors of the James R. Browning courthouse, we reached Courtroom One on the third floor. Our docent pointed out the rare marbles imported from Italy, the mosaics, the Corinthian columns. We stood in the bar noting the majesty of the architecture when he called attention to a bullet hole in the judge’s bench. Although covered over by a mosaic, the entry point of the bullet was clear. A shooting had taken place there over some dispute among Indians, he said.

Suruchi Mohan 300Suruchi MohanAssuming that he was referring to Native Americans, I came home and googled. It took no time to find out that the Indians from Courtroom One were from my native country, India. This new information gave a whole new color to the story. Little did I know that a century ago there were enough of us on the West Coast to hate one another so.

When the building opened to the public in 1905, it housed the U.S. Post Office and district courts. In 1996, after earthquake retrofitting, it opened as the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.


A call to Rollins Emerson, Court of Appeals archivist and our docent, revealed the presence of many binders in an attic in the Ninth Circuit courthouse.

I set up an appointment with him. He met me on the other side of the security check. Together we took a steep flight of stairs to a tiny room overlooking the courtyard. There they were, an intimidating collection of boxes and binders from criminal case number 6133. They had been moved here from their home in the basement of the federal building that now houses the U.S. districts courts.

Emerson carried most of the documents down to the first floor to a beautiful, well-lighted library, which had been built just before information went online. Consequently, it doesn’t look like the law library you’d envision, with volumes of leather-bound books in red and black with gold lettering.

I set myself up under a skylight, a large trolley of binders by my side. Over the next week, I browsed through pages of stuff, originals and copies, hoping to find something that pointed me in a certain direction. The best find was a two-page summary from an undated Historical Reporter that gave an overview. Slowly, the realization dawned that this was not a straightforward case.

Challenges of research:

StoryNewspaper headlines from 1917The complexity of the case had resulted in the production of reams of paper of different sizes, some in binders, some in file folders, in no particular order. Others before me had sifted through these pages and tried to give some semblance of order, for example, by arranging materials by the year. But the volume and diversity of information defied organization.

I pulled out what I thought might be of interest to me. Surprisingly for me, the Ninth Circuit library does not have a photocopy machine for public use and removal of documents from the courthouse is prohibited. Thanks to the smart phone, I took pictures and sent them as emails to myself. The librarian, allowed to copy eight pages a day, sent me some, as well.

At this time, in the late spring of 2016, I wasn’t thinking a series of stories for the World War I commemorative. I had in mind one story that I would pitch to a history magazine.

As I delved deeper, some themes began to emerge. But the information was so scattered and incomplete that making sense proved quite a challenge. For instance, there seemed to be many ships with sinister designs sailing across the oceans. The newspaper accounts helped make sense of some, but even these were not complete in the stash of papers I had before me.

Gradually I narrowed the areas of research. I found two places where I needed to go: the San Francisco Public Library for copies of the San Francisco Chronicle and the Examiner from 1914 to 1918 . The Chronicle was accessible online and consequently, from home, making matters so much simpler; the Examiner is available on microfilm. The National Archives in San Bruno was the other destination in this search for materials. That is where I went next.

Here the information is catalogued, but not searchable electronically. I found interesting, but by no means complete, documents. In a footnote to a paper published in the Pacific Historical Review of August 1948, author Giles T. Brown says that many important exhibits from the trial were destroyed by a court order of May 9, 1929. I did not find this court order.

Putting it together:

The writing was as much a test of will as the research. The cases were so complicated and the materials so dispersed that getting my arms around them was hard. Finally, after many readings of the material I had culled, I broke down the story into components to put it together.

In places the newspaper accounts were at variance with the documents I found. I went with the originals, such as the correspondence between the Attorney General’s office in Washington, D.C. and the U.S. Attorney in San Francisco. I don’t know if the newspaper reporters had access to the originals or the cases were too hard to grasp. I figured I could not go too far wrong if I read the thought process behind the government’s case.

So here it all is now – an attempt.



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