Sourdough Socialists

Alaskan newspapers from the early 20th century often argued about controversial topics such as the territorial delegate, the Alaskan railroad, fish traps, and eagles. Editors sparred and went back and forth with each other on these topics with some frequency, and while the disagreements between editors were often relatively civil, they sometimes took on a personal edge that’s lacking in current newspapers.

One of the best examples of these acrimonious relationships was between the Fairbanks Alaska Socialist, run by Andrew Knowles, and the Fairbanks Socialist Press, run by George Hinton Henry. From looking at the titles one might reasonably assume the editors of these newspapers ought to have had similar political beliefs and would have gotten along quite well. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Knowles and Henry were frequently at each other’s throats in the columns of their respective papers.

A photo of the streets of Fairbanks in the early 20th century.
Fairbanks, Alaska. Showing Northern Commercial Company’s buildings and Post Office. Falcon Joslin Papers. University of Alaska Fairbanks, Elmer E. Rasmuson Library.

One of the biggest subjects of contention between the two editors was the noted socialist, Lena Morrow Lewis, who had come up from the lower 48 to help grow the socialist movement in Alaska. Lewis gave a number of public talks, and her speeches were frequently well-reviewed – even by newspapers typically hostile to socialists. After a city-council election in 1914, however, Knowles began accusing Lewis of political trickery, and claimed that she wanted to create a political machine in Fairbanks. Henry’s Socialist Press (sometimes going by the title Free Press) maintained that Knowles was making up stories and had a vendetta against Lewis, a woman for “whom his weazel [sic] mind had conceived a dislike.” Knowles fired back in the Alaska Socialist and claimed that Henry had formed a partnership with Lewis. Knowles also characterized Henry as a “literary-degenerate-booze-inspired-irresponsible outcast,” and a “booze-guzzling would-be-editor.” Both parties felt the other was betraying socialism, and Knowles left the Fairbanks Socialist Party shortly after his accusations against Lewis and would run his paper as an independent socialist publication in the future.

A newspaper article describing how Lena Morrow Lewis was coming to the city of Fairbanks to support the candidacy of Kazis Krauczunas
Alaska Citizen, 7/22/1912

Henry’s paper, going by Free Press at the time, ceased publication in April of 1914, but reemerged in June, around the time that the Alaska Socialist was accusing Lena Morrow Lewis of trying to fix the socialist nomination for territorial delegate. Henry started referring to the Alaska Socialist as a “joke” and said that Knowles was a traitor to socialism, calling him the “Benedict Arnold of the Socialists of Fairbanks.” The Socialist Press began carrying notices from the Fairbanks Socialist Party officially repudiating and disapproving of Knowles’s paper.

Knowles responded by doubling down on his criticism of Lena Morrow Lewis, claiming she had drawn the disapproval resolutions up herself for the different socialist groups to sign, and that she was trying to become the political boss of Alaska. Knowles disavowed any connection with Lewis, and Henry, and any papers they were connected with, writing “The Alaska Socialist is an Independent Socialist Paper and cannot be subsidized to further the political schemes of Lena Morrow Lewis.” Henry, seemingly not one to ever shy from a mud-slinging contest, claimed the Alaska Socialist readership numbered in the dozens, and that its advertisements were accepted without charge, simply to fill out the paper.  

A newspaper article describing the series of incidents that befell George Hinton Henry when he set out for Cordova to leave Fairbanks behind. He was arrested on the trail by a U.S. Marshall and taken back to Fairbanks to stand trial for criminal libel and was convicted of it.
Iditarod Pioneer, 6/29/1918

Other Alaskan newspapers reported on the in-fighting between the Fairbanks socialists. By late 1914 both socialist papers had stopped mentioning the other and The Alaskan Socialist seems to have ceased publication sometime in 1915. Henry’s paper, then going by Socialist Press, would continue on until 1918, by which point it had become the Free Press again. The paper ceased publication when Henry was arrested on charges of libel, as Henry’s combative attitude and fiery writing ran afoul of World War I era free speech laws. During a particularly nationalistic time in America’s history, Henry had gotten himself into trouble when he accused the employees of the District Attorney’s office, as well as the chief of police, of being pro-German. Henry was sentenced to a year in prison and the last socialist newspaper in Fairbanks went silent.

Written by Christopher Russell


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