Calling for long prison sentences in the United States for anti-vax soldiers is a strange blow of anger

Anti-vaccine mandate protesters at Convoy to Canberra January 31 rally were told that members of the US armed forces had been sentenced to 25 years in prison for refusing the smallpox vaccine during World War I.

A rally speaker made the claim, referring to a book “written by a doctor”. But the claim is misleading; the book mentions only one case of a serviceman imprisoned for 25 years for refusing the vaccine, and a historian says the sentence was likely reduced or waived.

The speaker, who identifies himself at the beginning of his speech shared on facebooksays in the video: “There’s a book that I’ve been using as my avatar since I’ve been on Facebook.

“It was written by a doctor in the United States to the President of the United States of America, begging him to remove the prison sentence for members of the armed forces who do not take the smallpox vaccine. Twenty-five years these men went to jail; 25 years rather than get vaccinated against smallpox” (video mark 2h 21 min 20 sec).

The speakers Facebook profile the photo shows the 1920 book Vaccination Horrorswritten and published by Chas (Charles) M. Higgins. Higgins was no doctor – he was an ink maker and an opponent of compulsory vaccination. The book is popular among anti-vaxxers and widely shared on Facebook – see here, here, here and here.

But the book does not document the widespread imprisonment of US military personnel for not taking the smallpox vaccine, as claimed at the rally.

On page 13, Higgins writes: “In response to a special request for information on this point, I was informed by the office of the Judge Advocate General, in a letter dated January 14, 1919, that it was only one instance of -martial for refusing to be vaccinated in the years 1917 and 1918, and this was held to be a violation of the 96th article of war, and that the culprit in this case was condemned to be dishonorably discharged from service, to lose all wages and allowances due or to come, and to be compelled to do hard labor in such place as the convening authority may determine for twenty-five years.

AAP Fact Check could find no other source for claims of 25 years in prison for vaccine refusal in the US military.

A report in Elko Independent newspaper in May 1918 records a 15-year sentence for a member of the army who refused to be vaccinated. A report in the Wheeler Intelligencer of October 1918 documents the case of a soldier sentenced to 10 years of hard labor for refusing vaccination because it would “defile his body”.

Hard as the sentences sound, Michael Bennettemeritus professor of history at the University of Tasmania’s school of humanities, said AAP Fact Check the stakes for the armed forces in the context of smallpox were high.

“In addition to the health risks, allowing someone to refuse vaccination could encourage more general insubordination,” Professor Bennett said in an email.

“The problem is that we have no details of the individual offender who was, in essence, court-martialed for disobeying orders.

“The sentences handed down by military tribunals during the First World War have always been severe. Desertion could be a capital crime.

Professor Bennett said that after the war the public worried about the severity of the sentences and that any long prison sentences for refusing a vaccine would probably have been “reduced or cancelled”.

This Newsweek Explainer shows that the US military has a long history of vaccination mandates, dating back to 1777 when George Washington wanted all troops inoculated against smallpox during the Revolutionary War.

American military historian Bobby Wintermute Recount AAP Fact Check the preferred treatment for vaccine-noncompliant military personnel has been reduction in rank and pay, non-judicial sanctions, or dishonorable discharge.

“I can tell you with complete confidence that the American servicemen are not sentenced to prison for refusing vaccination,” Professor Wintermute said in an email. “Historically, I have not heard of cases where soldiers or sailors were imprisoned for lengthy periods for refusing vaccination; certainly not in the 20th century.

The verdict

There is only one recorded case of a 25-year prison sentence for a serviceman refusing a vaccine – in a book by a well-known vaccine opponent. There has been no widespread imprisonment of servicemen for refusing the vaccine, as confirmed AAP Fact Check by historians. There are isolated accounts of imprisonment for disobeying orders during World War I, in which severe penalties were meted out for insubordination.

Generally false – The claim is mostly inaccurate but includes minor elements of truth.

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