The End of the Era: Nineteen Nineteen

“To be a red in the summer of 1919 was worse than being a Hun in the summer of 1917,” reckoned Dos Passos, in Nineteen Nineteen, his novel of the war years.

The nation was war weary as the year began, still reeling from the deadly influenza– the “Spanish Flu.” It yearned, and deserved, politicians argued,“normalcy,” a return to the familiar, a rural America, a country of farms, small towns and the leafy prosperity of the new suburbs – it wanted left behind the battlefields and bloody revolutions of the old world.

Yet the Armistice celebrations – enormous and near universal in the US – had hardly stilled when that “normal”was erased and new disputes emerged, these exposing deep fissures forewarning celebrants of an extraordinary year to come.On the 11th of November, 1918, clothing workers in New York began a general strike, demanding a forty-four-hour work week and wage increases. They were joined on picket lines by returning soldiers and sailors. Scarcely a month then passed when far across the continent shipyard workers in Seattle voted to strike, rejecting the wage offers of wartime government regulators. And strike they did in January, clearing the way for the Seattle General Strike, the first and only one of its kind, challenging as it did not just managerial authority but civil as well. For a full week in February, committees of ordinary workers saw to it that the sick were cared for, the garbage collected, that babies got their milk and that there was order on the streets.

Seattle was just the beginning. The nation’s working people believed that they had sacrificed in the war years, and not just on the battlefield. Hard work had been expected from them, long hours, harsh working conditions, limitations on pay increases and restrictions on the right to strike. Still, they were a class apart. “Industrial democracy” –forms of participation in decision making — was one way of expressing labor’s demands. Samuel Gompers, the president of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) called for this, yet to his consternation it failed to arouse the rank and file; “the minds of men are not working in the normal manner,” he confided in an ally, citing “the highly nervous strain induced by the World War,” the struggles, the sacrifices, and the enthusiasm. Gompers had supported the War and sanctioned the restrictions and repressions that came with it.

But the workers’ mood had shifted steadily to the left in the strike wave of the decade just ending, resulting in the growth of class consciousness and little interest in cooperation with employers. They were moved by the new radicalism of the times, not just here but internationally. New solidarities had been constructed, ethnic isolation diminished, appetites enlarged. Authority was challenged, even where the issues at stake “pure and simple.” Conflicts spilled out of the workplace and into working class neighborhoods. At the same time the AFL itself was confronted as increasing numbers of workers came to reject its traditions and practice – conservatism, collaboration with the employers and the state and the strict insistence on the sanctity of contracts, and the authority of the trade union leaders.

All this came to a head in 1919, a year like none other. There were some 3,630 strikes recorded, involving 4,600,000 workers. In the wake of the Seattle strike, there followed some four harbor wide longshoremen’s strikes in New York, the last tying up shipping for six weeks. Then the strike for the eight-hour day in the textile mills of the Piedmont. The Boston police struck, demanding the right to affiliate with the AFL. The year ended with national strikes of coal miners and steel workers, the later one of the largest US strikes ever: 375,000. The Open Shop Review, an organ of the employers’ associations,insisted it was an attempt by foreigners, “Bolsheviks and anarchists” to destroy the government. In Pittsburgh, representatives of the Interchurch World Movement, investigating the steel strike indeed found “the Slavic workers were radical and inpatient with the conservative pleas of their leaders,” though they were neither Wobblies nor anarchists. But seventy percent were immigrants. A dozen strikers were killed, an unknown number injured, hundreds imprisoned. The strike dragged on into the new year. The national coal strike coal was settled in November, but conflict continued in southern coalfields, culminating in insurrection in the armed march of 10,000 miners into Logan County, West Virginia – the “Battle of Blair Mountain.”

This was not what the employers wanted, not what they had fought for, even as for the most, part they were still winning. There were cracks in American society in 1919, to be expected, perhaps, but this was a chasm, and a living affront in the board rooms and residential districts of the Babbitts of the land.The nation was fractured by class in an industrial world that had been massively expanded by the demands of the war. The industrialists believed they had won the war. Out West, “The timberowners, the sawmill and shinglekings were patriots, “ wrote Dos Passos, “ they’d won the war (in the course of which the price of lumber had gone from $16 a thousand feet to $116; there were cases where the government paid as high at $1200 a thousand for spruce); they set out to clean the reds out of the logging camps.” They would win this one as well.

And industrial democracy? On the contrary, the employers were intent on rolling back wartime concessions to the workers, above all, wherever they had been won the eight-hour day and the union shop. Countless employers’ associations were reborn or rebounded, and myriad employment plans were produced, all of which came under the umbrella of the “American Plan.” The American Plan revived the “open shop” strategies of the 1910s, based on the idea that strikes were illegal and that trade unions were “un-American” – during the war U.S. Steel opposed unions as pro-German and required loyalty oaths. In 1919 this was revised; now it was the reds. And in this they partnered with government, so that with the war dissent became treason and “reds” became prime targets. The “Red Scare” and the Palmer Raids would follow.

Dos Pasos was quite right to point out the lumber men and their war with the IWW – the Industrial Workers of the World or Wobblies.The Wobblies, always a minority within the labor movement, were in many ways the heart and soul of that movement. They believed that when the day came “control of industry would pass from the capitalists to the masses and the capitalists will vanish from the face of the earth.” The workers would then possess the machinery of production and distribution, enabling them to create “a new society without poverty, police, jails, armies, churches . . . blessed with freedom and abundance.” But they were trade unionists as well. And “pacesetters” in the words of a prominent Seattle labor leader. They championed industrial unions, direct action, the strike; they savaged “business unionism” and the racism of the AFL unions. They organized Mexican copper miners in Arizona and black Louisiana timber workers; their leadership included Ben Fletcher, the black Philadelphia longshoreman, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, the Irish firebrand, and Frank Little, the western organizer, self-identified as Indian.

The Wobblies gave as good as they got. Their victory in the Spokane Free Speech fight helped make the Pacific Northwest a stronghold with Seattle as basecamp. They fought on dozens of fronts, leading many of the biggest strikes of the period. They may have numbered 200,000. One of their greatest victories came in the 1917 strike in timber – some 50,000 loggers and mill workers struck for and won the eight-hour day. But they always paid a price. Frank Little was lynched in Butte, Montana.The socialist Helen Keller,writing for the Liberator, reported, “In Washington State… ‘IWW’ members have been arrested without warrants, thrown into ‘bull-pens’ without access to attorney, denied bail and trial by jury, and some of them shot.” This might have been Butte, or Bisbee, or Wheatland. In 1917, Spokane was placed in martial law and the lumbermen insisted on more of the same, above all from the federal government.The lumbermen demanded that the IWW be outlawed.“Syndicalism” (a form of workplace radicalism, it was what the employers called militant trade unionism), became criminal. Wobblies were beaten in the streets, their halls smashed, their publications banned.The Bureau of Immigration joined in to arrest and deport “IWW aliens” who were deemed “undesirable” or “pro-German in their activity.” The roundup quickly filled the Bureau’s own detention centers, forcing it to scatter prisoners throughout the county jails of western Washington.

The lumbermen had been humiliated in the great timber strike that year. In 1919 they got their revenge and in this set the nation’s agenda. They appealed to the federal government. On the morning of September 5, US Attorney General Thomas Watt Gregory ordered federal action against the IWW. John Reed, the radical journalist just back from Moscow, described, without exaggeration, what was at stake. “One Big Union—that is their crime. That is why the IWW is on trial. In the end, just such an ideal shall sap and crumble down capitalist society. If there were a way to kill these men, capitalist society would clearly do it; as it killed Frank Little, for example— and before him, Joe Hill…So, the outcry of the jackal press, ‘German agents! Treason!’—that the IWW may be lynched on a grand scale.”

Coast to coast, federal agents raided IWW offices and homes, seizing tons of material. The national offices of the IWW in Chicago were raided, its records seized. Not mincing words, Gregory explained, “Our purpose being, as I understand it, is very largely to put the IWW out of business.” The Justice Department organized a Chicago grand jury which proceeded to indict 166 Wobblies, accusing them of “interfering with congressional acts and presidential proclamations, conducting strikes which constituted criminal conspiracy, influencing members to refuse to register or to desert the armed forces, causing insubordination with the armed forces and lastly conspiring to defraud employers.”

Roger Baldwin, a founder of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), later explained that the IWW “wrote a chapter in the history of American liberties like that of the struggle of the Quakers for freedom to meet and worship, of the militant suffragettes to carry their propaganda to the seats of government, and of the Abolitionists to be heard.” He insisted that in no case did the IWW resort to violence, but the “violence used against them was colossal.” He estimated that ten Wobblies were killed and two thousand jailed in the free speech fights alone.”

By spring 1918, this war was over. More than 100 IWW leaders had been convicted and sent to the federal penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. Then, the old railway man, Eugene Debs, the symbol of American socialism, was incarcerated in the Atlanta penitentiary, guilty of opposing war.Thousands were jailed, others deported. The IWW was in practice extinct.The strikers of 1919 would fight on but without their best-known leaders, with no center and the odds overwhelmingly against them. Industrial unions, the hallmark of the IWW– unions for the unskilled, the immigrants, for blacks and Mexicans – were stillborn.

But this was not enough. Dos Passos:

“On Memorial Day, 1918, the boys of the American Legion in Centralia led by a group from the Chamber of Commerce wrecked the I.W.W. hall, beat up everybody they found in it, jailed some and piled the rest in a truck and dumped them over the county line, burned the papers and pamphlets and auctioned off the fittings for the Red Cross…”

Centralia was a mill town of 7,000 that sat on the mainline rails from Portland to Seattle. As with so many other towns in southwest Washington, Centralia was a backwater, but one with its own reactionary, small-town elite and an active branch of the American Legion. Also, however, a small group of individual IWW members who held on; they refused to work the twelve-hour day and encouraged others to do the same. Many were youngsters, some veterans, men of “uncommon courage,”thought Harvey O’Connor, their contemporary, then a writer in Seattle.

The Centralia Wobblies were determined to reopen their hall and had found space amongst the flophouses and shacks in an out-of-the-way section of the town.They soon learned of a not-so-secret cabal led by the lumbermen and the American Legion to use the Armistice Day parade in November as cover to raid the hall punish the organization’s members there. It was typical of their utter decentralization and local autonomy that apparently it did not occur to any of them to get in touch with the western headquarters in Seattle on a matter which was to prove of transcendental importance to the entire IWW movement. Their only question was, did they have a right to defend their hall and they were advised that they did. More to the point, they believed it would be cowardly to run. So they armed themselves and made plans to defend the hall. Several would be stationed inside, others, some armed, would assemble across the street on Seminary Hill. “Prudent men,” remembered O’Connor, “would not have done this, “but prudence was not a Wobbly trait. Rather their shining glory stood out in audacity, courage, and stubbornness in defense of their rights, and for that they are remembered in history.”

On a dreary, drizzly November afternoon the patriots march set off from the town center, led by the American Legion, all in fine regalia. The Legionnaires passed the IWW hall, held back, then reversed, returning to the hall where they joined the town’s postmaster and a minister, each dangling a noose in his hands. Shouts came from the mob, “Come on boys! Let’s get them!” The marchers paused, then dashed toward the hall, rushed the door, pushing their way in. Now, they were met with gunfire, first from inside the hall, then from the hill across the road. Four Legionnaires were killed and several more wounded.

In a fury, the Legionnaires swarmed the hall, overcame the IWWs, and dragged them out, all except Wesley Everest, an ex-serviceman, a sharpshooter. Everest escaped, killing two of the invaders on his way, but was chased by the mob, some firing. They caught him as he attempted to ford the nearby Skookumchuck River. They knocked his teeth out, then dragged him through the streets to jail with a belt around his neck.That night the town lights went out. A group of men forced their way into the jail and dragged Everest out. They threw him into the back of a car and castrated him there. “For Christ’s sake men,” Everest appealed, “shoot me, don’t let me suffer this way.” At the bridge, he was dragged out and hanged, but still was not dead. He was then hanged again until dead. The killers amused themselves by shooting at the swaying body. In the morning, they retrieved the body and displayed it in front of the prisoners to terrorize them. “A grisly kind of perverted humor,” another contemporary, Walker Smith, wrote, “marked the coroner’s report of Everest’s death. Everest had broken out of jail, the coroner said, and taken a rope with him to the bridge. There he tied the knot around his neck, jumped off, but failing to kill himself, climbed back up and jumped off a second time; still alive he climbed back up, shot himself in the neck and jumped off the bridge again; woke up at seven in the morning, cut the rope, fell in the river and was drowned.”32

Centralia was overwhelmed with angry, “patriotic” mobs, demanding vengeance. Those imprisoned were tortured. The authorities scoured the surrounding hills looking for anyone who might have escaped. They managed by mistake to shoot and kill only one of their own, a man from another posse. Across the state more than a thousand were arrested; the plan was to use the criminal syndicalism statutes to try them all at once. The hysteria spread, there were calls to “exterminate the IWW” and “forget due process.”Senator Miles Poindexter and representative Albert Johnson, both of Washington state, were received with wild applause when they asked Congress, how much longer would the government wait before crushing “‘this miserable human vermin which seeks to destroy civilization?” Johnson demanded all-out war on “these damnable traitors and curs.” The shots which killed the heroes of Centralia had, he said “been aimed at the heart of the nation.”

The governor of Nebraska declared it a crime to be a member of the IWW. On November 15in a violent police raid on the IWW headquarters in New York – authorized by the Lusk Committee (a legislative committee formed in 1919 to investigate seditious activity) – Wobblies were bludgeoned and hurled into the street, their premises wrecked. In Seattle, the labor council’s widely read Union Record bravely defended the Centralia prisoners. In retaliation, on November 13, the Justice Department raided the paper, seizing the plant and arresting its editorial staff, all on sedition charges. Barrels of documents were carted off to the Federal Building.The hearing judge ordered the paper and its equipment returned, though back in print the post office refused to deliver it. Still, Seattle was not Centralia.

The trial of the Wobblies was held in the Grays Harbor County town of Montesano, where the courthouse was surrounded by infantrymen from nearby Camp Lewis. Fifty Legionnaires assembled each morning to occupy the courtroom’s benches. George Vanderveer, the Seattle lawyer who won the Everett case but lost in Chicago, made the defense in vain. Three of his witnesses were arrested for perjury immediately upon stepping down from the stand. On April 5, 1920, the jury found seven of the nine defendants guilty of second- degree murder, though none were found to have fired the shots that killed the invaders. Eleven Wobblies had been charged with murder. Two were acquitted, one was found not guilty by reason of insanity, two were found guilty of third-degree murder, and the other five were convicted of second-degree murder. The jury recommended leniency. The judge[ refused to accept this verdict since Washington state law did not recognize a charge of third-degree murder. After a few more hours of deliberation the jury changed its verdict for those two prisoners.Those convicted were sentenced to prison terms of 25–40 years, a sentence which shocked both the jury and the prisoners. The seven convicted IWW members appealed their lengthy sentences to the state Supreme Court which unanimously affirmed Wilson’s judgement in April 1921. Six of the jurors would later testify under oath that they had been terrorized into finding the verdict of guilty.

“The Centralia incident,” wrote the historian Melvyn Dubofsky, “was of little intrinsic importance to the IWW. It affected no strike, involved no important leaders, destroyed no affiliate. And brought about no real change in IWW attitudes or policies.” What it did do was reveal the lengths to which public authorities and private citizens would go to destroy the organization. In the days just after Centralia, prominent Washington State lumberman T. Jerome wrote to an associate: “Ordinarily I do not believe in mob law but the action taken by the citizens of Centralia in hanging the leader of the ‘Reds’ [Everest] was the only right and proper thing. . . . I sincerely trust that . . . the people of the state will take such action as will result in the wiping out of the entire Red gang.”

The Centralia Wobblies had their supporters, and they joined the long list of
“class war prisoners” still held in the twenties. The “lynchers,” so called, were identified but never charged. It was not until the new decade and the new normalcy of the thirties that the prisoners were released, though with little fanfare. In 1930 one of the prisoners died in jail and another was released. In 1931 three prisoners were paroled. 1933, the newly elected Democratic governor, commuted or pardoned the sentences of three of the prisoners. The last prisoner, Ray Becker, continued to maintain his innocence, and refused to be paroled. In 1939 his sentence was commuted to time served.


Cal Winslow is the author of Radical Seattle: the General Strike of 1919. He can be reached at