Ben Boloff

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Ben Boloff
Ben Boloff.png
Born 1893
Died October 12, 1932(1932-10-12)
Portland, Oregon
Cause of death untreated tuberculosis
Resting place River View Cemetery
Residence Portland, Oregon (until death)
Nationality Soviet Russian
Citizenship Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic
Occupation laborer
Height 1.6 m (5 ft 3 in)
Political party Communist
Criminal charge criminal syndicalism
Criminal penalty ten years imprisonment
Criminal status charges suspended after 15 months

Ben Boloff (1893–1932) was a Soviet Russian communist who lived in Portland, Oregon. Described as an illiterate alien laborer who practiced Judaism, he was arrested in 1930 under Oregon's criminal syndicalism statute which barred a person from being in the Communist political party. Boloff was the first person to be tried under the state's criminal syndicalism law since its implementation after World War I. He was arrested with 12 other Communist party members who were all later acquitted or had the charges against them dropped.

While in an Oregon penitentiary he contracted tuberculosis and was denied medical assistance. He was released from prison after fifteen months on a suspended sentence issued by the original circuit judge that sentenced him. He died on October 12, 1932 and his supporters called it a murder by the State of Oregon. His funeral attracted several socialist and communist supporters as they carried Boloff's coffin through the street. Despite being a citizen of Transcaucasian Socialist Federative Soviet Republic, Boloff was never deported after being convicted and was eventually buried in his adopted hometown of Portland.


Boloff lived in Portland, Oregon and was employed as a sewer digger. He was arrested on November 1, 1930 in Portland initially on the charge of vagrancy, but police found a communist membership card on his person leading them to charge him under Oregon's criminal syndicalism statute. Boloff's arrest was one of several arrests of communists in 1930 by the Portland Police Bureau, but his case was unique in that it was one of the few cases to be tried in court. He entered a not guilty plea in court.[2] His trial was delayed from January to February 1931.[3] Twelve total people were in the custody of the authorities in Portland on the charge of criminal syndicalism when Boloff's case was selected to be the first one tried in court.[4] The jury selection focused on the prospective member's opinions on the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.[5]

During Boloff's trial, a police informant testified as a witness for the prosecution stating that the Communist party's goal was to recruit high school students, including those at Washington High School and train them against patriotism and capitalism. He went on to say that Communist agreed with public education, but disapproved of the administration. He never directly named Boloff in his testimony.[6] Issued into evidence was a Communist party membership card with Vladimir Lenin's face on it.[7]

Boloff took the witness stand in his own defense. He stated that he was unable to read the English language and that he had never known charges of criminal syndicalism existed before he was charged with it. Boloff stated that he only joined the Communist party because they represented working people, like himself. The state asked him just one question during cross examination, whether or not he was a member of the Communist party since 1924, which Boloff admitted he was.[8] The jury convicted him of the charges and he was sentenced to ten years in a Oregon correctional facility.[9] After his conviction, a petition was formed demanding Boloff's immediate release signed by several organizations. The petition was investigated by the Portland Police Bureau's "Red Squad", a group of officers who investigated Communist activity.[10] Two of the twelve other Communists arrested with Boloff were acquitted of their criminal syndicalism as a groundswell of support for Boloff and the others charged began to form. The ten other prisoners were released and the charges against them were dropped.[11]

Death of Ben Boloff
Ben Boloff never should have been in jail. The Oregonian said so at the time, and now that he has died of tuberculosis, those who favored his arrest and opposed his liberation should be able to see that they succeed only in placing the state in an embarrassing situation since Boloff had been at liberty for several months and he was ministered to at the end at public expense. But if the unforgiving had had their way, the communists would have succeeded in maneuvering themselves into a position where they could make a great public demonstration of his death and funeral.

—editorial, The Oregonian, October 12, 1932[12]

After his first appeal to the Oregon Supreme Court was defeated, The Oregonian wrote an op-ed in support of Boloff's release and more broadly an acceptance for Communist party members. The editors wrote that ideas should not be imprisoned and that using Boloff as an example to all Communists would eventually look foolish.[13] In a later op-ed entitled "Set Boloff free", The Oregonian editors urged the Governor Julius Meier to pardon the inmate. The article details the criminal syndicalism law in Oregon, arguing it was passed around the time of World War I as an "emergency measure", but to apply it to an improvised laborer was an abuse of power.[14]

The Oregon Supreme Court denied a second hearing of the case, reaffirming their previous ruling that upheld the lower court's ruling.[15] Three separate petitions were sent to the Oregon Supreme Court requesting that they rehear the case. Finally, the original judge who once accused Boloff of inciting violence simply by being a member of a group that has unassociated members accused of violent acts, suspended Boloff's sentence and he was released on his own recognizance.[11] By this time, he was violently ill with tuberculosis that had gone untreated during his time in prison.[15] He succumbed to the disease on October 12, 1932, in Portland.[11]

Several members of the Communist party used Boloff's funeral as a rally for their cause and against what they viewed was as injustice from the county and state governments. Boloff's casket was raised through the streets of Portland. Given an opportunity to break-up the protesters, the mayor of Portland declined and let the events play out without police intervention. Boloff was interred at River View Cemetery in Portland with a hammer and sickle insignia on his headstone.[11]


  1. ^ Lowenstein, Steven (1987). The Jews of Oregon, 1850–1950. Jewish Historical Society of Oregon. pp. 181–182. ISBN 0961978600. 
  2. ^ "Untitiled". The Oregonian. Portland, Oregon. 10 December 1930. p. 7. 
  3. ^ "'Reds' trial delayed". The Oregonain. Portland, Oregon. 20 January 1931. p. 18. 
  4. ^ "Syndicalsim trial set". The Oregonain. Portland, Oregon. 10 February 1931. p. 2. 
  5. ^ "Alleged red in court; Day spent in futile effort to get jury". The Oregonian. Portland, Oregon. 17 February 1931. p. 2. 
  6. ^ "'Reds' in schools; Propaganda fed students, court told". The Oregonian. Portland, Oregon. 19 February 1931. p. 1. 
  7. ^ "'Reds' in schools here; Students get propaganda, witness says". The Oregonian. Portland, Oregon. 19 February 1931. p. 12. 
  8. ^ "Boloff testifies he is a communist; Defendant says he joined the party in 1924". The Oregonian. Portland, Oregon. 22 February 1931. p. 14. 
  9. ^ "Boloff asks for new trial". The Oregonian. Portland, Oregon. 36 February 1931. p. 9.  Check date values in: |date= (help);
  10. ^ "International Labor Defense: resolutions for the release of Ben Boloff". Portland Auditor's Office. City of Portland. Retrieved 22 July 2013. 
  11. ^ a b c d "Ben Boloff surcombs". The Oregonian. Portland, Oregon. 14 October 1932. p. 14. 
  12. ^ "Death of Ben Boloff". The Oregonian. Portland, Oregon. 15 October 1932. p. 4. 
  13. ^ "Putting ideas in jail". The Oregonian. Portland, Oregon. 31 October 1931. p. 6. 
  14. ^ "Set Boloff free". The Oregonian. Portland, Oregon. 18 November 1931. p. 8. 
  15. ^ a b MacColl, E. Kimbark (1979). The growth of a city: power and politics in Portland, Oregon, 1915 1950. Portland, Oregon: Georgian Press. p. 394. ISBN 0960340815.