Paul Haffer's role in an odd Tacoma libel case -- he was convicted of libeling the long-dead George Washington (1732-1799) -- brought him national recognition at age 21. He gained further notoriety, and another criminal conviction, by failing to register for the draft, but later served at Fort Lewis during World War I. Haffer is now best known as the husband, for a few years, of pioneering modernist photographer Virna Haffer (1899-1974). His lifelong career as a socialist writer and activist in Tacoma is largely forgotten.
A Young Socialist
Haffer was born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and in 1900 moved with his family to the Tacoma area, where he attended Edison and Oakland schools and then Sumner High School. His father died when he was young, and he credited his political consciousness to his Huguenot ancestry on his mother's side.
He began writing for local socialist papers as a teenager, reporting among other things on a pregnant senior at a local high school. By 19 he was working as an auto mechanic and serving as the treasurer of Tacoma's Socialist Local 1. On February 17, 1916, the Tacoma Times listed his candidacy for city controller.
However, the next day was Washington's Birthday, and that changed everything.
On February 18, the Tacoma Tribune published a letter by Haffer, describing George Washington as an "owner and exploiter of negro slaves. ... a profane and blasphemous man and an inveterate drinker" and suggesting that citizens should "take the tales of nobility of these so called great men with the proverbial grain of salt" (The Northwest Worker).
The letter riled Colonel Albert E. Joab (1857-1930), who had served as Commissary General at Camp Murray (later Fort Lewis) in the 1890s. Joab was also an attorney and acted as assistant prosecutor against Haffer. He had unearthed a little-known 1909 statute that prohibited "exposing the memory of one deceased to hatred, contempt, ridicule or obloquy" (The Northwest Worker).
Haffer was tried before Judge Ernest M. Card (1877-1952) in Pierce County Superior Court and, on May 3, 1916, convicted of the misdemeanor libel offense. Haffer appealed to the Washington State Supreme Court, but it upheld the conviction on December 29, 1916.
Jail and Camp Lewis
Although he lost his appeal and had to serve his sentence, Haffer was pardoned by Governor Ernest Lister (1870-1919) in May 1917 after several months in jail. Haffer told the Tacoma Times that "spending time in jail is an experience every man should have, I think. I don't regret it in the least" ("Jail O.K. says Haffer ...").
He was only free for three weeks before being arrested in June 1917 for "slacking" (not registering for the draft). He was convicted and sentenced to another year. Haffer told the court that he was a "law abiding citizen and as long as this System of society exits I am willing to abide by the will of the majority" ("Paul Haffer Gets ..."). He said his failure to register was his protest against having no vote on the law establishing conscription.
At least one reader made a connection between the two cases. "K.B." wrote in a letter to the Tacoma Times:
"We are not always sane in our patriotism. I have been watching with sorrowful interest the case of Paul Haffer.
It was, if I remember, about two years ago that Paul, then 19 years old [sic], was arrested, tried and sentenced to prison for 'libeling' George Washington.
First of all, I contend it is impossible to 'libel' a man who has achieved immortal fame. Nothing that we little mortals can say against him can disturb his sleep.
Second, I say that we made our law and courts ridiculous when we used them to punish this half-baked boy.
Boys of 19 are at the receptive age. They believe what they are told. Paul was born in an environment of discontent. The men about him were asking questions, such as, 'Why are the few getting richer while the many are getting poorer?' It is a fair question, too.
He read in a book that Washington was no better in some personal attributes than he ought to be. He repeated what he had read and was thrown in prison. On being released, men told him: 'The hand of plutocracy was in it,' and Paul believed.
He said to himself: 'This proves what I have been told; there is no freedom.'
Sir, we have in Paul Haffer the finished product of our stupidity. Paul, in jail at Tacoma, now refuses to fill out his questionnaire.
He is a full-fledged revolutionary. He is what we have made him. I have no doubt that he honestly regards himself as a martyr to a sacred cause. We have put him in the frame of mind for mischief.
We must handle Paul now with an iron hand. We must take no nonsense from him or any of his kind. But I say it is a pity. He was good raw material two years ago. Every 19-year-old boy is good raw material.
We might have made a good citizen and patriot out of him if we had not been so stupid" ("Paul Haffer").
While in the Pierce County Jail, Haffer served as assistant editor of The Prison Voice, a one-copy newspaper by and for other prisoners. "It passes from cell to cell," explained the The Washington Newspaper (a University of Washington Journalism Department publication), noting that "there is a sporting editor, a society editor and a church editor. Also there are business and circulation managers. There is no censor" ("More or Less News").
Haffer was drafted out of jail on June 26, 1918, and served, evidently uneventfully, at Camp Lewis until the end of World War I. He was honorably discharged in 1919.
Marriage and Divorce
Soon after returning to civilian life Paul Haffer married pioneering Northwest photographer Virna May Hanson. Hanson was familiar with radical politics from her upbringing at the utopian Home Colony on the Key Peninsula in western Pierce County. Paul and Virna Haffer had a son, Jean Paul Haffer (1924-2011), later known as Gene Randall, in 1924. In 2011 Randall recalled that his father tended to sit in the living room reading while Virna supported the family with her photography business. That may be one reason the Haffers divorced in 1931.
By May 1932, Paul Haffer was a member of the Tacoma Unemployed Citizens League and became founding secretary of the United Producers of Washington, a Depression-era effort to organize commodity exchanges between communities "such as Yakima fruit for Puget Sound fence posts" (O'Connor, 222). In 1934, he ran for state representative on the Socialist ticket. He came in last in the primary field, with less 1 percent of the vote.
Haffer continued his physical resistance as well, participating in a 1935 lumber-workers strike that brought Tacoma under de facto martial law. "Haffer showed the pickets that a leather-face glove was useful in picking up the hot tear-gas and nausea shells and tossing them back to the militia" (O'Connor, 271). Fellow radicals credited him with burning an army truck on Pacific Avenue with that technique. The truck definitely burned, although other accounts said it was due to an ill-advised attempt by National Guard troops to use the truck's exhaust to spread tear gas.
Haffer married again, to Marguerite Johns (1899-1985), becoming stepfather to her four children. He worked as a shipfitter until his retirement, and died in Tacoma on June 15, 1949.His obituary in the Tacoma News Tribune passed over his long devotion to political action, saying only that he "gained brief notoriety when he was convicted in a Tacoma court of libeling George Washington on charges brought by the late Col. Albert Joab" (Roach). His tombstone in a Lakewood cemetery shows just his birth and death dates and his military service, an ironic epitaph for a lifelong fighter against war and society's hierarchies.