Albert F. Canwell was a Republican Washington state legislator from Spokane who served one term in the House from 1946 to 1948. He was famous for being chairman of the Canwell Committee, officially titled the Legislative Joint Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities in Washington State, which sought out communists and other subversives during the "Red Scare" era. Canwell, who had worked various jobs including farmworker, freelance journalist, and police photographer, campaigned for the House seat on an anti-communist platform. He helped write the resolution establishing his committee. Canwell chaired both of the committee's hearings in 1948, which targeted alleged Communist influence in the state's labor movement and at the University of Washington. Three UW professors were fired because of the committee's work. Canwell ran for office many times afterward but never won another race. He was one of the defendants in the sensational John Goldmark libel suit in 1963. He ran his own "intelligence service" in Spokane for decades and continued to gather information on people and groups he deemed subversive. He died, unrepentant and unapologetic, in Spokane in 2002.
Childhood in Spokane
He was born Albert Franklyn Canwell in Spokane on January 11, 1907. His father, Adelbert Lee Canwell, was an ex-soldier and a member of Spokane's Merchant Police. His mother, Christina, was a nurse. The Canwell family lived on Spokane's north side for a time, and then moved to a small farm in the hills just north of Spokane.
His first appearance in the news came on June 2, 1911, when a playmate found his father's revolver and accidentally shot young Albert, 4, in the arm. His mother rushed him to an emergency clinic where he waited "without a whimper" to have his wound dressed ("Wee Lad"). "Officers who have seen grown men make a tremendous commotion over less painful wounds, looked on in surprise at the fortitude of the blue-eyed, flaxen-haired little chap perched in the physician’s big black chair,” said the Spokesman-Review. "[He] sat quietly and bravely throughout the ordeal" ("Wee Lad").
A Restless Youth
He attended a Seventh Day Adventist school in Spokane. He had aspirations to be a journalist or writer -- he particularly admired Jack London. He never finished high school or attended college. "It was, of course, my mother's hope ... that I would continue my formal education, which, of course, I should have done, but I was a restless sort," said Canwell in an extensive oral history for the Washington State Oral History Program (Canwell, p. 58).
Instead, as a teenager he went on the road to work the fields and orchards of Washington, Oregon, California, and Arizona. He followed the harvests every year until about 1928, returning to work various jobs in Spokane in between. "I did become homesick for the familiar things and your people and people who know and care about you," said Canwell. "But soon I'd take off again" (Canwell, p. 68).
His jobs took him to places such as San Francisco, where he met many other itinerant workers and was exposed to the turbulent labor politics of the era. He remembered one incident when he was riding the rails from Kennewick to Spokane and was confronted by a couple of Wobblies (members of the radical Industrial Workers of the World or I.W.W.) who told Canwell he either "had to have a Wobblie card or get off the train" (Canwell, p. 71).
"I decided that wasn't the way it was going to be and I displayed this firearm," said Canwell. "Anyway, these two guys just took off, jumped off the train into the sagebrush head-over-heels. That's all I saw of them. That was one of my experiences with labor-organizing" (Canwell, p. 71).
He worked for a time in a Spokane bookstore, which, as an aspiring writer, he especially enjoyed. Then he spent some time traveling Idaho and Montana as a book salesman, peddling Seventh Day Adventists books from farmhouse to farmhouse.
"I'll Get You..."
Around 1932, he and some friends decided to start a small "shopper" (a newspaper devoted mostly to classified ads) in Yakima. This was not the kind of newspaper job he would have preferred -- he would have liked a job as a reporter at a Seattle daily -- but he considered it an entryway into journalism.
Around this time, he began his lifelong quest to monitor radical, communist activity, which he said was very intense in Seattle at the time. Canwell's shopper was printed at a job shop in Ballard -- and so was the Communist Party's local paper. Canwell would observe them quietly as they would put together their paper.
He came to believe that communism was a vital peril to America. He met another young journalist, Ashley Holden, who was doing undercover investigations of the Communist Party in Seattle and Canwell soon realized he had a knack for that work as well. He once attended a big meeting in Seattle led by Harry Bridges (1901-1990), the controversial and charismatic president of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.
"So I went down there to see what was going on and blithely walked into the meeting," said Canwell. "I think I was wearing some seersucker suit or something. I didn't look like all these longshoremen. They let me get all the way into the place and then a couple of them picked me up and danced me to the front door and threw me out. That gave me a great interest in Harry Bridges. At the time, I believe I thought, 'Well. I'll get you, you so-and-so, someday'" (Canwell, p. 90).
By 1935 and 1936, Canwell was making trips to Chicago and Detroit, partly in his new job shuttling cars cross country for a broker, and partly for his investigations into labor and radical politics. He received press credentials as a "roving reporter" from Hearst's International News service and sold some stories about sit-down strikes in the automotive industry. He called himself a newspaperman and believed he had found a niche. "My talent, I felt, was in the direction of covering of radical news," said Canwell (Canwell, p. 93).
Canwell was not anti-union -- he believed that labor organization was a good thing and that "we'd be in a heck of a mess without it, because mankind is essentially greedy and he'll exploit his fellow man." But he believed that the Communist Party was aiming at a takeover of America that went far beyond simple labor-management issues.
He acquired a Speed Graphic camera and he interviewed and photographed prominent labor leaders, including John L. Lewis (1880-1969) of the CIO. Yet he had trouble finding a ready market for his writing and returned to Spokane in 1938.
He became convinced it was fertile ground for his calling. The Pacific Northwest, he said, "was the basic launching operation of the world Communist movement" (Canwell, p. 105).
He believed that Communists were especially interested in the Northwest because it was full of vital strategic targets for a Communist takeover, such as The Boeing Co. and the Grand Coulee Dam. Canwell was certainly not alone in thinking that Washington was a hotbed of Communist activity. Postmaster General James Farley (1888-1976) famously quipped in 1936 that the nation consisted of 47 states and “the soviet of Washington” ("Communism in Washington State").
Because of his photography skills, he got a job in 1942 with the Spokane County Sheriff's Office's Identification Bureau. He took mug shots of suspects and sometimes photographed crime scenes.
He kept his county job for most of the World War II years. He was never called up for service. By this time, he had become a married man. He married Marsinah Marshall on July 3, 1941. They would eventually have six children.
During his time with the sheriff's office, he continued doing his investigations into what he considered radical groups. He began keeping "files of a very extensive nature" on radical publications and radical activists. He claimed to have worked with the FBI on its anti-communist activities. He also claimed to have worked with the anti-subversive Red Squad. He said he developed his own informants in the radical world (Canwell, p. 102).
He believed that communists had made serious inroads into the railroad shops in Spokane and Hillyard. Canwell even came to believe that Spokane was also "unfortunate enough" to have Communists of "world importance" in its midst (Canwell, p. 122).
Running for State Legislature
By the mid-1940s he became disillusioned with his work at the sheriff's office. His old friend Ashley Holden, now the political editor of The Spokesman-Review, and a staunch anti-communist, talked him into trying politics. Holden told him that running for the state legislature would be one way to "do something" about the Communist threat (Canwell, p. 136). Canwell dismissed the idea at first, since he was "a Republican living in a strong Democratic district," the Fifth legislative district (Canwell, p. 136).
But then Holden wrote a column about Canwell's anti-communist zeal and the Republican leadership asked him if he would run. He decided to give it a try. "I remember I made only two statements about what I would do," said Canwell. "I wouldn't vote for any new taxes and I'd do something about the Communists."
He resigned from the sheriff's office and ran a race in fall of 1946 against another newcomer, Democrat Frank Martin, the son of the former Washington governor Clarence D. Martin (1884-1955).
"I thought he'd be a walkaway," said Canwell. "I think everybody else thought so, but he wasn't. That year they 'threw all the bums out.' I came in on the wave."
Canwell defeated Martin by 3,530 votes to 3,064 on November 5, 1946. The Republican landslide also changed the House from majority Democrat to majority Republican for the first time in 12 years.
By his own account, freshman Canwell was not a key legislative player at first. "My participation in floor action was almost nil," said Canwell (Canwell, p. 146).
The Canwell Committee
As the legislative session proceeded, one issue of particular interest to Canwell began to bubble up: The supposed Communist indoctrination in state colleges and universities. "The University of Washington had become not only a local, but a national scandal," said Canwell (Canwell, p. 150).
Canwell and some of his fellow legislators felt that something should be done about this and other Communist threats, so in March 1947 Canwell introduced House Concurrent Resolution No. 10, which authorized setting up what became the Legislative Joint Fact-Finding Committee on Un-American Activities in Washington State, or, more commonly, the Canwell Committee.
Its purpose: "To investigate the activities of groups and organizations whose membership includes persons who are Communists, or any other organization known or suspected to be dominated or controlled by a foreign power" (Wick). It was patterned after a similar committee then making headlines in the U.S. House of Representatives and a state committee in California.
It passed both houses without much fanfare. It authorized the Speaker of the House to appoint a chairman. Al Canwell was duly appointed. The committee had seven members, seven investigators, and four clerical workers. They set up headquarters in the unused Seattle Field Artillery Armory, now the Center House on the Seattle Center campus.
For the first six months, the committee gathered information from investigators, and "listening to wire and tape recordings" (Canwell, p. 157). The committee released no statements.
The Hearings Begin
That all changed early on January 27, 1948, when the Canwell Committee finally convened and held public hearings at the Seattle armory. The first target: The Washington Pension Union, which advocated for old-age pensions and other social programs.
In the first five days of hearings, the committee named more than 50 people as members or active followers of the Communist Party, including the pension union president, William J. Pennock.
"Fifty Are Daubed With Red Brush," read a headline in the Spokesman-Review over a story by Ashley Holden, who provided reams of friendly coverage to his longtime ally (Holden, "Fifty").
The committee brought in "expert" witnesses, often recanted Communists, who would testify about who they saw, or heard that someone saw, at long-ago Communist Party meetings, often dating back to the 1930s. In one sensational revelation, a witness claimed that meetings of the Communist Party had been held right inside the State Capitol building in Olympia, attended by at least eight legislators who were Communist (Holden, "King Demo").
Canwell later asserted that, in the previous session, there had been 24 identified Communists in the Washington State Legislature itself (Canwell, p. 153).
The hearings also targeted Harry Bridges, the union president who once had Canwell thrown out of a meeting. The committee called his ex-wife to testify against Bridges. Canwell would later call him "the most dangerous Communist in the Western Hemisphere" (Canwell, p. 407).
Raucous and Contentious
The backlash began almost immediately. Pennock filed a $688,000 libel suit against the committee. Other targets of the hearings also filed libel suits against individual witnesses, none of which came to fruition. The state treasurer refused to cash payroll warrants from the committee, in an attempt to force the courts to rule on the constitutionality of the committee.
Holden characterized these efforts as "frenzied howls of anguish" from the victims (Holden, "Canwell Group"). Meanwhile, he wrote, the committee had been "literally deluged with letters and telegrams from loyal Americans" thanking the committee for their work (Holden, "Canwell Group"). Holden claimed the hearings were already bearing fruit: The Washington Pension Union was purging the Communists from their midst.
Yet the most controversial and raucous hearings were yet to come. After a spring hiatus, it soon became clear which institution would be the committee's summer target: The University of Washington. One committee member leaked the news (exaggerated, as it turned out) that "no less than 150 professors" were Communists or sympathizers ("Bienz").
In June, Canwell handed UW president Raymond B. Allen (1902-1986) a list of 40 faculty members to be subpoenaed for the hearings. Allen concluded he had no choice but to cooperate with the hearings. Some faculty members had already been visited and interrogated by committee investigators; others were still waiting for a knock on their doors.
In a series of raucous and contentious hearings beginning on July 19, 1948, the committee attempted to establish that the UW campus was crawling with Communist faculty, who would send graduates back to their homes and farms "spouting lines that were completely unacceptable to the people who were paying the bill" (Canwell, p. 150).
A UW English professor later described the scene like this: "Six or seven men sit behind a high table, the man in the center armed with a gavel. Below them, facing a witness sits the chief inquisitor. Behind him sit two or three rows of members of the faculty. Beyond them, sit 91 spectators, all that can crowd into the small chamber" (Wick).
In total, 11 UW professors were eventually called to the hearings. Some admitted past Community Party membership, but refused to name anyone else. Two, Melvin Rader and Joseph Cohen, denied ever being members. Three, Herbert Phillips, Joseph Butterworth, and Ralph Gundlach, refused to answer questions at all.
Emotions boiled over. Five hundred pickets holding "Canwell Must Go" signs gathered outside the Armory one day. "I suggest the state patrol make some arrests if this continues," said Canwell, and they did make at least one arrest (Holden, "Activities").
Objections and Protests
Two days later, hearing target Florence Bean James (1892-1988), of the Seattle Repertory Playhouse, stood up and tried to make a statement. Canwell gaveled her to order. "She struck a theatrical pose and demanded to know if they proposed to carry her out" (Holden, "Un-American). Canwell ordered her hustled out of the room by the State Patrol.
On the same day, attorney John Caughlan (1909-1990) objected to the way the committee was questioning one of his clients. "You will ask no more questions," said Canwell. "We will not go on with this ridiculous procedure here" (Wick). The State Patrol escorted Caughlan out of the room.
Often, the questions from the committee followed the famous formulation: "Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?" (Holden, "Attorneys"). If witnesses refused to answer, or attempted to make a statement beyond yes or no, they were gaveled for contempt. Five more people were hustled out of the room by the State Patrol in the July 22 hearing. "He (Canwell) controlled the hearing with an iron hand," said C. T. Hatten, an attorney at the hearing (Camden).
The hearings ended after five raucous days and a blizzard of contempt citations. Nobody realized it at the time, but the Canwell Committee had already gaveled its last witness. The committee withered and died after a protracted battle in Olympia over access to the committee's records, its expenses, and its constitutionality.
Yet the repercussions echoed for decades. The University of Washington convened a faculty committee to rule on the fates of those professors who had been named in the hearing. The committee recommended dismissing only one professor, Ralph Gundlach, on the grounds he had lied to Allen.
Yet Allen, facing pressure from both the Legislature, the Board of Regents, and prevailing public opinion during this Red Scare era, overruled the committee and fired three of the professors, Gundlach, Joseph Butterworth and Herbert Phillips. Three others were put on two years of probation and forced to sign a statement that they were not members of the Communist Party.
Another professor, Melvin Rader, filed a perjury charge against a committee witness, who claimed Rader spent a summer at a school for Communists in New York. Rader insisted he spent that summer in a lodge near Everett.
Seattle Times reporter Ed Guthman went searching for corroboration of Rader's story. He discovered that the committee itself had already found the Everett lodge's hotel register and was keeping the register in its files. Guthman eventually got access to the register and discovered that it did, indeed, exonerate Rader. Canwell's only explanation for why the committee had not revealed exonerating evidence was that the hotel register was unreliable and "included nothing of evidentiary value" (Canwell, p. 250). Guthman won a Pulitzer Prize for the story in 1950.
Rader kept his job, and eventually wrote a book about the ordeal, titled "False Witness."
None of the three fired professors ever taught again. "There were some good lives of some good people that were really destroyed," said Caughlan later (Camden).
The Hiss Case
The hearings also had one more result, with national political repercussions. Canwell, at the request of some fellow Communist hunters in Washington, D.C. had managed to sneak some testimony into the hearings about a former State Department employee named Alger Hiss (1904-1996), suspected of being a Soviet spy.
This was before Hiss became a household name. Allegations against Hiss were subsequently aired in the U.S. House Committee on Un-American Activities, where it spawned a major national scandal and proved a political boon to Richard M. Nixon (1913-1994).
Although Hiss was mentioned only incidentally in the Canwell hearings, Canwell later claimed, "I nailed one of their top spies, Alger Hiss" (Canwell, p. 235).
A Subversive Committee
In most ways, the legacy of the Canwell Committee has weathered poorly over the decades.
William L. Dwyer (1929-2002) who faced off against Canwell in a later libel case, and who became a federal judge, wrote this blistering critique of the Canwell Committee: "It imported professional witnesses, relied on hearsay and opinion testimony, allowed no cross-examination, refused to let counsel for the accused state objections, and had the police eject those who spoke out of turn" (Dwyer, p. 33).
Harvard Law School professor Vern Countryman analyzed the committee's work in a 1967 book and concluded, "The activities of the Canwell committee and its allies are clearly more subversive of established legal processes than any activities disclosed by the committee's investigation" (Countryman p. 396).
The University of Washington itself issued a public apology in 1994 to the fired professors, calling it "clearly and unequivocally wrong" (Wick). "This was a dark day in our history ..." said UW president William P. Gerberding (1929-2014) in 1994. "It was an outrage. It was a disgrace. It was, in the dictionary sense, not in the perverted sense, un-American."
Defeated But Unrepentant
Canwell remained proud of the Canwell Committee's work all of his life. He later referred to the professors as a "a bunch of weaklings" and a "suspect bunch of commies" (Canwell, p. 198-199). "There was no time we went overboard," he said in a 1998 interview. "I didn't accuse anybody who wasn't guilty as hell" (Camden).
Of course, Holden could always be counted on to puff Canwell's achievements. In 1955 he wrote that Canwell had "done a monumental and patriotic achievement in protecting America from the red menace" (Holden, "Canwell's Task"). He added, "Those revelations [in the hearings] were astounding ... They literally shook the state" (Holden, "Canwell's Task").
Voters, however, were unshaken. Three committee members were voted out of office in the fall of 1948 -- including Al Canwell himself.
Canwell, fresh off what he considered a triumph, had decided to run for a State Senate seat that fall. His campaign literature featured lurid hammer-and-sickle graphics and included lines such as, "Those who attack the Committee are either ignorant or subversive" (Countryman).
He was easily defeated by the Democratic candidate, Donald B. Miller, who barely campaigned at all and made no particular issue of the Canwell Committee.
Following that defeat, Canwell quickly announced that he was a candidate for the U.S. Senate in 1950, but failed to make it through the primary. Canwell ran for U.S. House in 1952 and 1954 and for governor in 1968 -- but lost every time. His entire record of public office consisted of that two-year term in the state House.
"Canwell's power diminished quickly -- he was like a meteor going through the sky with terrible pyrotechnics, and then gone," said Len Schroeter, a former American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) president (Camden).
Continuing to Hunt Communists
Yet his lifelong hunt for Communists never stopped. He opened a business called the American Intelligence Service in an office in downtown Spokane. He continued to keep extensive files on characters he considered dangerous. He published a newsletter called The Vigilante.
He became an admirer of Senator Joseph McCarthy (1908-1957), whose own red-hunting hearings did not begin until 1950, after the Canwell Committee was finished. Canwell later called McCarthy "a great American who was doing a great job in the proper American way … he gave his life doing that job" (Canwell, p. 406).
Canwell continued to call out Communists or sympathizers wherever he thought he saw them -- and he saw them even in Spokane. He went after prominent Spokane lawyer Benjamin H. Kizer in 1950 when Kizer was named state chairman of the Crusade for Freedom Committee, a group dedicated to countering communist propaganda. Canwell was outraged, claiming that Kizer had worked extensively for Communist "front" organizations -- including the ACLU, the National Lawyers Guild, and Russia War Relief.
"My record is clean," said Kizer. "I have carried civic chores for nearly every conservative group in Spokane, including the presidency of the Chamber of Commerce and the bar association." An unrepentant Canwell later publicly claimed that Kizer was a Communist of "world importance" (Canwell, p. 122), a claim he never remotely backed up.
"I didn't need to worry about libel," Canwell once said, "I'd walked along the edge of it all my life as a newspaperman – that's where the stories are" (Camden).
The Goldmark Case and Its Aftermath
Yet in 1963, Canwell found himself hauled into court in a nationally publicized libel case in Okanogan, Washington. During a 1962 election campaign, he and his old friend Ashley Holden -- now editor of the Tonasket Tribune -- painted State Representative John Goldmark (1917-1979) and his wife Sally Goldmark (1907-1985) as Communists.
Canwell recorded an interview, later published in newsletter of the American Intelligence Service, in which he said that Sally Goldmark had been a member of the Communist Party as recently as 1948. There was a kernel of truth in this: Sally Goldmark had been a member of the Communist Party, but became disillusioned and left it in 1943, after she met and married Goldmark, who, she said, had expressed his antipathy for communism.
Canwell went on to warn his listeners that "hard-core, disciplined Communists" were "out to kill us" (Dwyer, p. 40). "This masterpiece of innuendo called Goldmark a communist agent without openly saying so," wrote Dwyer, Goldmark's attorney in the case (Dwyer, p. 40).
Then, in a speech at an Okanogan American Legion Hall in 1962, Canwell delivered a blistering attack on the ACLU, calling it "the major communist front operating in the state of Washington at this time" (Dwyer, p. 44). Goldmark was sitting in the audience at the time. He also happened to be a well-known member of the ACLU.
Goldmark filed a $225,000 libel suit against Canwell, Holden, and two other defendants. The trial, which began in Okanogan in November 1963, attracted reporters from all over the country. Canwell and the other defendants brought in witnesses to testify to the dangers of the worldwide Communist conspiracy, whereas the Goldmarks simply wanted to prove the allegations false.
A jury awarded victories to the Goldmarks on five of the nine main claims and awarded $40,000 in damages, one of the largest libel verdicts in the state's history.
The verdict did not hold up, however. The judge later overturned the verdicts because of a subsequent U.S. Supreme Court ruling on another case dealing with protected political speech.
Both sides claimed victory. The Goldmarks said the court exonerated them on the facts. Canwell said Goldmark sued for libel and lost, period.
Goldmark, who had been considered a rising legislative star, never served in public office again.
This incident also had a horrific postscript, involving the Goldmark's son, Charles. On December 24, 1985, Charles Goldmark, then a 41-year-old attorney in Seattle, opened his door to a stranger just before a Christmas Eve gathering. The stranger, David L. Rice, tied up Goldman, his wife and their two young children, chloroformed them, and beat them to death. Rice later said he said he did it because he had heard a passing reference, during a meeting of an ultra-right-wing organization, that the Goldmark family was communist.
Prosecutors and journalists immediately made the connection between the libel trial 23 years earlier and the murder. "David Rice ... was only 4 years old when John Goldmark's name was cleared," wrote newspaper columnist Chris Peck. "Yet the dank rumors hung, like dark fog, through the years. So it may come to be remembered that, in the final act of the Goldmark saga, the pen proved not only mightier than the sword, but in a twisted way, bloodier, too" (Peck).
Knight of the Red Scare
Canwell denied any connection whatsoever. "There was no possibility that anything I ever did or said in my political career could have distorted the mind of this poor benighted soul," said Canwell (Rosenwald).
Through the remainder of his life, Canwell continued to operate the American Intelligence Service and gather files on hundreds, if not thousands. His operation suffered a setback in 1984 when his offices, housed in adjoining buildings in downtown Spokane, were destroyed in an arson fire. "It would be easy to think somebody's out to get me, but I deal in evidence," Canwell said (Sparks).
When Canwell died in Spokane on April 2, 2002, at age 95, The Seattle Times headlined his obituary, "Knight of the Red Scare" (Eskenazi). He had never softened toward his enemies or toward the casualties of his investigations. In a 1998 interview, Canwell said, "I think they got what they deserved. Me" (Eskenazi).