Skip to main content

Introduction to the 1973 Edition

By Eugene Nelson, IWW (August 1971)

The killing of Wesley Everest in Centralia, Washington on November 11, 1919 is perhaps the most grisly murder in the annals of the American labor movement. The conviction on second degree murder charges of seven of his fellow IWW members for defending their union hall from attack is one of the most outrageous legal frame-ups ever perpetrated. Along with the trials of Joe Hill, Billings and Mooney, and Sacco and Vanzetti, it was one of the big cases of its era, comparable to the Panther trials and the Chicago conspiracy trial of today. Of all these, it is the trial in which the class struggle was most directly evident.

All of this is of recurring significance today when the IWW is once more organizing in the area where it took place; when the first IWW member since the 1920's, Ricardo Gonsalves of San Diego, is currently being tried on a charge of criminal syndicalism; and when the deceptive techniques of widespread Federal grand jury inquisitions are once more making a mockery of the judicial system. Also it is significant as perhaps the best illustration of the typical stance of the IWW member regarding violence: that is, to reject violence as a revolutionary weapon, but to defend oneself when attacked. Finally, it is significant because the same fundamental causes of discord exist in Centralia--and all over America-- today as they did in 1919; a small number of people own a grossly disproportionate share of the land and wealth of society, and maintain this unjust situation by means of politicians, courts, soldiers, police and other gunmen.

A number of parallels can be drawn between the Centralia incident and present day events. As with the farm worker struggle and other contemporary issues, church people were sharply divided. One of the Wobbly defendants, Ray Becker, was a former ministry student and the son and brother of ministers, and churches played an important role in the prisoners' eventual release. But, just as in Delano, most local skypilots were fiercely opposed to the union, and one retired minister in the parade of men that attacked the IWW hall carried a noose, or "Wobbly necktie." Becker learned to do leather and bead work--like many present day "hippies"--while in prison, and after his release in 1939 opened up a leather goods store in Vancouver, Washington. Many Wobblies of the time were the closest thing to, and the then patrolled the streets. Murphy said that, in addition to Wesley Everest, at least four or five other Wobblies were removed from the jail that night and never seen again--and assumed to have been lynched. Murphy was later one of 30 Wobblies who were jailed for a month in Montesano merely because they tried to attend the trial of the Centralia defendants.

Lawrence Skoog of the Oregon Historical Society, who is currently writing a new book on the Centralia affair, said an investigator of the incident told him of the corpse of a Wobbly that was burned by local officials that same night in a sawmill incinerator. The same investigator said several witnesses told her that Legionnaire McEltresh, one of the hall attackers, was killed by mistake at the door of the hall by a blow on the head with a club administered by another hysterical Legionnaire, and that Legionnaire Casagranda also was probably killed mistakenly by fellow Legionnaires.

The first edition of Chaplin's book, reproduced here, was written in the heat of the events described, and while its author was released on bond pending appeal of his 20-year sentence in the big Chicago IWW espionage trial of 1918. Accordingly, he was highly sensitized to legal ramrodding and frame-ups, and it shows in the power, perception and lucidity of his writing. Chaplin lays the ground work for the events described with a penetrating class analysis of the history of the lumber industry in the northwest. While the present edition, published originally in 1920, does not contain the detailed description of the trial added in the 1924 edition, it does have the immense advantage of containing the opening anclosing arguments of defense attorney George Vanderveer, which the 1924 edition does not. These two statements by the famous "attorney for the damned," who single-handed faced six lumber trust attorneys, rival in places the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address for beauty and nobility of language, and are far superior for their devastating analysis of the economic system. Vanderveer tells the jury unabashedly that "The IWWs say there must be a fundamental change and that fundamental change must be in the reorganization of industry, for public service, so that the purpose shall be that we will work to live and not merely live to work. Work for service rather than work for profit ... This is a big case, counsel says, the biggest case that has ever been tried in this country, but the biggest thing about these big things is from beginning to end it has been a struggle on the one side for ideas and on the other side to suppress those ideas! ..."

An interesting sidelight is that the names of Bill Haywood and James Rowan are included in the present edition but deleted from that of 1924. Haywood had disillusioned many Wobblies by jumping bail and escaping to the Soviet Union in 1921, while Chaplin and others shortly afterward returned to prison, to remain until 1923. James Rowan, leader of the Northwest lumber workers, who himself wrote a brilliant history of their struggle in his 1919 booklet, The I.W.W. in the Lumber Industry, was the principal architect of a split of the 1924 IWW convention which resulted in a drastic drop in membership.

What of the fate of the 11 men accused--and seven convicted--of murder as a result of the 1919 attack by Legionnaires? One defendant, Loren Roberts, was driven insane by the mob terror. After the sentencing of seven others to 25-40 years in Walla Walla penitentiary, their case became what Chaplin called the biggest of all the IWW cases, and a national cause celebre. But in spite of the fact that seven of the jurors later signed affidavits declaring their belief in the prisoners' innocence, and prominent individuals and organizations all over America came to their defense, appeals for their release proved futile. One of those originally accused, Elmer Smith, the Centralia lawyer who advised the Wobblies they had the right to defend their hall, was disbarred from legal practice in Washington State and harassed unmercifully. Devoting the remainder of his life to the release of the Centralia prisoners, he died in 1932 at the age of 46, on the very day he was allowed once more to practice law in his home state. James McInerney died in prison in 1930. Loren Roberts was released the same year after a sanity hearing.

In the meantime the anti-radical hysteria had died down and continued appeals and rallies for the remaining five had made some progress. one of the biggest factors in the Wobblies' eventual release was the sympathetic interest of a Legionnaire, Captain Edward Coll, who investigated the case thoroughly and judged his fellow Legionnaires guilty for the affair. Partly as a result of Coll's efforts, a Joint committee of Catholics, Jews and Protestants in 19 30 issued a lengthy report mainly favorable to the IWW prisoners.

In 1931, ten years after their imprisonment, O. C. Bland and Eugene Barnett were paroled. Barnett later became a CIO organizer. In 1933 John Lamb, Bert Bland and Britt Smith were also paroled. Lamb died in Centralia in 1948 when his house was destroyed by fire under mysterious circumstances. Britt Smith, the IWW secretary when the hall was raided in 1919, remained an organizer and a radical until his death several years later.

Ray Becker, the one remaining Wobbly prisoner, told the parole board: "to hell with a parole. I want a full and complete pardon or nothing at all. I never was guilty of this crime." But rather than being granted a full pardon, his sentence was commuted to time served and he was expelled from prison in 1939. He died in 1950.

Herb Edwards, a 77-year-old Seattle Wobbly who is still active in the IWW, told me of an incident regarding Mike Sheehan, one of the three defendants found innocent in the 1920 trial. Sheehan had asked to be cremated on his death and that his ashes be dumped in the Chehalis River at the point where Wesley Everest was hanged. When Sheehan died in the early 1930's Edwards and two other Wobblies took his ashes to Centralia and asked a passing lumberjack the way to the bridge. The latter, trembling with fear, finally led the three Wobblies to the bridge and they disposed of the ashes. After they had emptied the box containing Sheehan's remains they learned that their guide had been so terrified because he had assumed the box contained a bomb meant to destroy Wesley Everest's gallows. (Edwards, who related this anecdote, was run out of Eureka, California in 1922 with Centralia attorney Elmer Smith by another mob of Legionnaires, and later spent 40 months in San Quentin prison after a criminal syndicalism conviction.)

This July I visited Centralia, a town of about 10,000 population which lies in rolling hill country in central western Washington. I went to the city park, where a statue of a World War I soldier commemorates the four Legionnaires slain in 1919. At the adjacent library the first two librarians I talked to had never heard of Wesley Everest, but an older librarian had, and gave me three booklets about the affair. Everest was buried in an unmarked grave, and rumor has it his body was later moved to nearby Fort Lewis.

Next I went to a tavern nearby where a friendly young working man told me proudly he was a union man, said the 1919 battle had "put this town on the map," and expressed sympathy for the Wobblies. He told me, however, that although the big mills in the area were organized, the Gyppo piecework system the Wobblies fought so valiantly was still in full swing and that during strikes scabbing was rampant. At another bar I found some old-timers who had been present on that bloody day in 1919. Some criticized the Wobblies and others defended them heatedly, although I met no one who said he was a member. One friendly 75-year-old, Don Willard, said that on the fateful day he had been standing on the street wearing a black necktie with red spots when his ex-boss, a grocer, grabbed him by the neck, ripped off his tie, and threatened to throw him in jail with the Wobblies if he ever wore anything with red on it again. "People were stark-raving mad that day," Willard recalled. Another old-timer said that during the march that preceded the attack someone had handed his Legionnaire brother a bayonet but didn't tell him what it was for. He told me his brother was just behind Legion commander Grimm in the parade and had heard him give the command to charge the IWW hall.

At Tacoma I met 84-year-old Wobbly Fred Beauchamp, who was secretary of the Wenatchee IWW hall in 1919. Beauchamp said that three days after the raid he went to Centralia and conducted an extensive investigation of the affair, concluding that only Wesley Everest had fired at the attackers from the hall (although other Wobblies later admitted firing after the attack). Also at Tacoma I met IWW member Mary Redding, a distant relative of Ralph Chaplin, who with her husband Bob is working on a biography of the IWW artist and writer. The Reddings had learned through confidential sources that one of the Centralia assailants was at that moment lying gravely ill in his nearby home, tormented by guilt over his role in the unprovoked attack half a century before.

Ralph Chaplin was reimprisoned in Leavonworth not long after he had written the pages that follow. The 1924 split in the IWW was aggravated partly because Chaplin and some other Wobblies accepted commutation of their sentences in June of 1923 by President Harding, while others, like Ray Becker of the Centralia case, insisted on being exonerated. Much acrimony was hurled at Chaplin and the others who were released earlier. Nevertheless, Chaplin returned to the IWW and spent several more years as Wobbly editor and publicist. In 1936, depressed by the dwindling fortunes of the IWW, he moved to San Francisco to edit the Maritime Federation newspaper, and later edited another labor paper in Tacoma, Washington. His book, "Wobbly," published in 1948, is a beautifully written account of his experiences in the IWW. He became increasingly conservative as he grew older, a tendency that must have been enhanced when radicals of a different bent cruelly drowned out his speeches by singing his own "Solidarity Forever" while he had still been a Wobbly. He died in Tacoma in 1961 at the age of 74. According to Harvey O'Connor in Revolution in Seattle, "The last memorial services held for Wesley Everest were conducted in 1939 at the bridge where he was hanged." Hundreds of radicals and union people attended. Meanwhile, no one knows for sure where the Wobbly martyr's grave lies--or isn't saying--and the only memorial to that day in 1919 is the statue to the four Legionnaires. But the world does change, and perhaps that Legionnaire who defended the IWW men, Captain Coll, will prove to be correct in his 1929 prediction that it would be superceded one day by a monument to the real hero of Centralia--Wesley Everest of the IWW.

It is my earnest hope that you who read these words will join the resurgent IWW and help to bring about the cooperative commonwealth for which Everest sacrificed his life and his fellow Wobblies were unjustly buried alive.

Next page: Part 1 - A Tongue of Flame