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Catlette v. United States

On June 29, 1940, in Richwood, Deputy Sheriff Martin Catlette and Police Chief Bert Stewart detained seven Jehovah’s Witnesses, whose patriotism was doubted by members of the local American Legion. After legionnaires forced four of the Jehovah’s Witnesses to drink doses of castor oil, they marched all seven through a jeering mob to the post office, where the Witnesses refused to salute the flag. Within several weeks this incident attracted the attention of the newly created Civil Rights Section of the U.S. Department of Justice. On June 3, 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, in the case known as Catlette v. United States.

The legal action that followed the attack conferred it with historical significance. The incident provided the only federal conviction in the hundreds of brutal assaults on Jehovah’s Witnesses that swept America that year. It was the Civil Rights Section’s first successful prosecution of public officials who used their office to abridge citizens’ civil rights. Finally, the Court of Appeals ruled that the statute applied to public officials who acted in violation of the laws prescribing their powers and duties. That understanding broadened the interpretation of the civil rights statute and was later adopted by the U.S. Supreme Court. This case expanded legal protection for religious liberties in the United States.

Written by Chuck Smith


  1. Smith, Chuck. Jehovah's Witnesses and the Castor Oil Patriots: A West Virginia Contribution to Religious Liberty. West Virginia History, (1998).