On June 29, 1940, in the Nicholas County town of Richwood, Deputy Sheriff Martin Catlette and Police Chief Bert Stewart detained seven Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose patriotism had been questioned by the local American Legion.
The Legionnaires forced four of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to drink doses of castor oil. They then marched all seven through a jeering mob to the post office, where the Witnesses refused to salute the flag due to conflicts with their religion.
The incident quickly attracted the attention of the newly created Civil Rights Section of the U.S. Department of Justice. In 1942, the U.S. District Court in Charleston convicted Catlette and Stewart of violating the Witnesses’ civil rights. Catlette’s conviction was upheld by the Fourth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals.
It was the only federal conviction out of hundreds of brutal assaults on Jehovah’s Witnesses that swept the nation in 1940. It was also the Civil Rights Section’s first successful prosecution of public officials for using their office to abridge citizens’ civil rights. Ultimately, Catlette vs. the United States expanded legal protection for religious liberties in the country.