Original publication in Nostalgia Magazine, November 2009.
This November, precisely 100 years ago, Spokane was in the dark, bloody throws of the infamous Free Speech Fights. The Spokane fight was actually the second of many fights that would occur around the country. The first one occurred shortly before in Missoula.
I.W.W. gatherings like this one occurred across the country. One of the first was in Spokane.
Although buried in the archives of our past, four publications including the Spokesman-Review, The Daily Chronicle, The Spokane Free Press, and the Industrial Worker covered the news as astonishing events unfolded.
With components of economic class disparities, constitutional violations, mass civil disobedience, brutality, and prejudice, news of the turmoil flooded over the entire nation– putting Spokane on the cerebral maps of many people. As part of a nostalgic review, one will appreciate a feel for the labor mindset, not only here in the Northwest, but throughout the country.
In the mid to late 1800s, Spokane’s economic growth had been spurred on by big enterprises. As a hub, the Inland Empire was in the midst of the lumber, railroad, mining, and orchard industries. Each generated huge sums of money and the region was growing by leaps and bounds. Laborers by the thousands were needed to make it all happen. During this time, not only here in Spokane, but across the country, a paradigm shift was occurring; a consciousness; a meta-awareness of the economic classes, and a backlash. With the industrial revolution at the end of its pendulum stroke, many laborers had become cognizant of the disparities that separated the working and upper employing classes. With generations of noted hard labor and little to show for it, many workers were disenchanted with the status quo. The working class was merely existing and generally becoming poorer while the employing, capitalistic, upper class was prospering. Each class recognized the differences, but only one of them felt hindered and in need of change.
In 1905, Chicago held its first Industrial Workers of the World meeting. Otherwise known as I.W.W. members, Wobblies, or Wobbs, this union group understood the need for the working class to organize, unite, and to communicate with each other. Derivation of the term, “Wobbly,” comes from a Chinese restaurateur who referred to these members as, “Eye-Wobbelu-Wobbelu.” The name morphed and stuck and the organization grew exponentially with I.W.W. union halls popping up across the country.
Understanding the differences between the labor and upper classes, and perhaps long suffering and generational impact, some leaders amongst this group discussed alternative economic systems. Opposing capitalism based on the personal and economic tolls it had taken on workers and families here and abroad, many extolled the possibilities of other systems which included socialism or communism or anarchism, each frightening and counter propositions in America. Wobblies yearned for a change that balanced the classes and offered mechanisms that promoted fairness. They felt, to some degree, that as skilled laborers and toilers, they should actually be in more of a position of control. Many I.W.W. leaders wrote of the need for safe, sanitary work conditions, the eight hour work day, and fair, livable wages. In fact, it can be largely argued that because of the efforts of the I.W.W., these benefits were incorporated into labor laws formed decades ago. Wobblies also understood the impact that industrial accidents had on workers, and that most accidents occurred towards the end of extra long workdays. One motto included, “An injury to one is an injury to all.” Writers such Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and James Rowen spoke out and wrote volumes about these important problems. When accidents and disease occurred to workers, little or no health care existed to help. Instead, many workers were blinded, maimed, or killed on the job-and employers seemingly did not care as profits were the primary concern.
Huge prejudices wore heavily against the Wobblies, resulting in many told and untold abuses. With the anti-capitalism sentiments of some coupled with the imposed American fears of socialism or other counter thinking, the organization was seemingly painted with a broad, biased brush. This was especially so because many Wobblies were uneducated, poor, migratory, immigrants, and people of color. Many paid no taxes and had little or no assets. Other than the blanket rolls and clothes on their backs, and union cards, many Wobblies owned nothing-and they were exploited by the thousands. As a whole, Wobblies were hard working, salt-of-the-earth people whose basic needs of food, shelter, and existence were no different than others. While many were simply muscles and laborers, many others were skilled craftsmen. On the same token, Wobblies were the lifeblood of industry and, without them, commerce and industrial output were hindered. Any discussions or behaviors that could potentially sway attitudes in or out of the workplace were highly punishable by trumped-up charges or vigilante forces. Industry foremen had spies and undercover Pinkertons looking out for I.W.W. members. When found, they were often fired, beaten, or killed. Many were tarred, feathered, and run out of town. Some were shot or hanged. I.W.W. halls were raided with records confiscated and contents destroyed. Leaders were arrested.
In 1908, thirty-one employment agencies lined Stevens Street in Spokane. Known as job “sharks,” most of these businesses were in cahoots with the foremen of various industrial operations. Charging a dollar a job to each worker, these agencies were directing workers to jobs that either did not exist, or to ones that did not pay their workers. Outside signs on these businesses lured workers to “inquire within.” Wobblies complained that some businesses like the Somers Lumber Company had 3000 workers coming and going just to maintain a crew of fifty. The abuses were so blatant, that an I.W.W. leader named James Walsh came to Spokane in 1908 to address the problem. Walsh spoke to and befriended many of the near-destitute workers and the local I.W.W. chapter flourished. By March of 1909, nearly fifteen-hundred workers had enrolled.
At first, Wobblies began speaking publicly in front of the businesses that were causing such trouble. Collectively, however, the employment agencies pressured the Spokane City Council to pass a squelch ordinance that prevented street speaking. Instead, any public speaking was limited only in the city parks which were far away from the sharks. To devalue these nonconformists, Wobblies were portrayed as “hobos,” “un-American,” “bindlestiffs” and “no good troublemakers.” At first, the Wobblies obeyed the ordinance but the agencies continued their deceptive ways unobstructed. The I.W.W. carefully documented the continued abuses and lobbied the authorities to justifiably take action. Opposed to violence, Wobblies promoted change with the “tongue and pen.” But nothing was changing. When the Salvation Army, however, successfully motioned the City Council that they should be given the right to religiously speak on the streets, Wobblies constitutionally objected and took to their soapboxes in civil disobedience. Wobblies in great numbers were organized and speaking out. More of them came in on the freight trains.
Acting Police Chief, John T. Sullivan, announced that he and his team of marauders would arrest any violators… and they did by the hundreds.
Acting Police Chief, John T. Sullivan
Sullivan stated, “I am no respecter of persons in this case, I wish the newspapers would call these people by the right name. They are anarchists, pure and simple and their song of the Red Flag is one of the most inflammatory things I have ever heard.” On the other hand, a bulletin posted by the I.W.W. read, “The I.W.W. and police have nothing in common. There can be no peace so long as the police use clubs and hose, and the I.W.W. uses the pen and tongue.” The Spokane Press headlines on November 1, 1909 stated, “7000 IWW MEN HERE FOR BATTLE.”
Aside from Chief Sullivan and the police force, other figures such as Judge Mann and the War Department had little regard for the free speech and human rights of the Wobblies. As public speakers were arrested on violations of street speaking or disorderly conduct, another Wobbly would simply take his place on the crate… only to be arrested too. Men were not the only ones arrested either. Edith Frenette, Agnes Thecla Fair, and others were arrested as well for street speaking or singing the Red Flag. Attorney Fred H. Moore, a Spokane resident since 1901, was retained by the I.W.W. as their chief legal representative. Moore took on the courts, filing complaints and writs of habeas corpus, and supporting the Wobblies.
Once arrested, Wobblies were abused and tortured by the police guards. Dozens of reports leaked out about the treatment received by those arrested. The Spokesman-Review’s Fred Niederhouser reported that groups of 28 men were smashed tightly inside an eight foot by seven foot jail cell, and that, “It took four cops to close the cell door. This was called the ‘Sweat Box’. The steam was turned on until the men nearly suffocated and were overcome with exhaustion. Then they were placed in ice cold cells and third-degreed in this weakened state. When the jail became overcrowded, an abandoned unheated schoolhouse, Franklin School, was used as a jail.” Space at Fort George Wright was also made to imprison Wobblies.
James Stark, a prisoner in the original Franklin School on Front Street (now Trent Street), kept a diary of his experiences. He told of how men were badly beaten, covered in blood, teeth knocked out, and bones broken. One man had a badly broken jaw.
November 12, 1909 Spokesman Review photograph: Armed with rifles, policemen Dugger and Willis guard I.W.W. prisoners at the old Franklin School.
The Industrial Worker indicated that three men had died just after their release from the Franklin school jail. A funeral for one young man who was diabetic was organized by the I.W.W. Many of those jailed went on hunger strikes, not only on principle but also because of the horrid food that was offered. Stark wrote that for Thanksgiving, the only turkey eaten was the one drawn on the school’s chalkboard by an artistic prisoner. Chief Sullivan boasted that prisoners would get only bread and water on Thanksgiving Day. As many as 600 Wobblies were arrested. In some cases, men were jailed and released before breakfast the next day so they wouldn’t be fed at all. Some who were released, refused to budge in support of their peers despite the scurvy and intestinal problems that were rampant in the places.
The makeshift school jail was freezing cold. Refusing to chop and haul wood, Franklin school prisoners reportedly ripped the molding off the walls to burn for a warming fire.
By November 1909 Franklin School was abandoned and used as a jail to imprison Wobblies.
Socialist orator and writer, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, pregnant, was also arrested as she walked to the meeting hall. During her one night stay in the jail, she reported on the brothel that was kept in the women’s section of the jail.
Elizabeth Gurley Flynn around the time of the Spokane Fights.
Her jail cell contained two prostitutes who were systematically removed during the night to service certain paying customers.
Agnes Thecla Fair, who was arrested for street speaking, was taken into a darkened cell for questioning. When she refused to answer the police questions, one man made sexual threats while another unbuttoned her blouse. This sent her into “convulsions” and she was unable to eat or sleep after these events. Being released by the prison doctor and judge, she was taken by her comrades through the streets on a stretcher to her room.
Flynn wrote the news as editor of the Industrial Worker after the original editors were arrested. Chief Sullivan had the police go door to door and confiscate as many copies of the Industrial Worker as possible… but news of the abuses had already leaked out. As word of these constitutional and human violations washed across the country, hundreds of Wobblies hopped the freight trains to join the cause. In her autobiography, Flynn expressed that Wobblies came from across the country to support free speech rights and the plight of local workers. Many came from such places as Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Chicago, and towns in Montana.
By the end of November, 1909, things were looking grim for Spokane. Chief Sullivan indicated that the “I.W.W. agitation” was costing the city $100 per day, a significant sum of tax dollars in those days. Spokane citizens and high ranking members of the Women’s Club were speaking out in favor of the Wobblies. In fact, it was a member the Women’s club who bailed Flynn out of jail. Citizens took pity on the Wobblies and gave them fruit and Bull Durham tobacco as the police marched them through town. Furthermore, the courts were overwhelmed by huge numbers of complaints and attorney Fred Moore was not stopping his work. By November 29, 1909, remaining cases in Judge Mann’s court were transferred to Judge Hyde’s court. Judge Mann expressed a week earlier in open court that if he were an attorney he would not defend such cases. All of it was bad as locals and the rest of the country read of the atrocities.
With newspaper reports of jail conditions and Flynn’s description of Chief Sullivan’s jail house prostitution, a new low and turning point was established. The arrests slowed and stopped and those still imprisoned were released. Shortly after, Wobblies felt a bitter-sweet victory. Nineteen of the labor agencies had their licenses revoked; matrons, for the first time, were placed in the jail to supervise matters (even though the jail refused to pay to have them); the ordinance for street speaking was relaxed and modified; and some members of the police force were fired. Even Mayor Pratt, perhaps a little too late, admitted that he had helped men collect thousands of dollars from the sharks.
Other strange things happened following the Spokane Free Speech Fights. On August 15, 1910, an arsonist set the original Franklin school on fire. The building was gutted by the fire and the Milwaukee Railroad, who then owned the property, declared $25,000 in damages.
Nothing now remains of the school where the Spokane WSU campus now resides. Later, on the chilly evening of January 5, 1911, Chief Sullivan was murdered in his home at 1314 Sinto Avenue. As Sullivan sat behind his lace curtains and bay window, a gunman from the outside shot a fatal bullet through his back.
A modern look at the home where Chief Sullivan once lived.
The day before, the telephone lines to Sullivan and his neighbor’s house had been cut. In the Franklin fire and the Sullivan murder, no one was ever charged in the crimes. Flynn wrote that Sullivan’s murderer may have been one of the many who he brutalized.
Several authors, including Helen C. Camp, Ronald A. Myers, Dale Raugust, Robert L. Tyler, and others have offered illuminating descriptions of the events that surrounded the Spokane Free Speech Fights. Although not the last of the free speech battles, many more would ensue across the country in the years that followed. All of them were fueled by organized Wobblies wanting change, justice, and equalization of the classes.
The Red Flag
Written by Irishman Jim Connell in 1889
(To the tune of O Christmas Tree)
This song was associated with radical socialism. People caught singing this tune in Spokane during the Free Speech Fights were arrested.
The peoples’ flag is deepest red,
It shrouded oft our martyr’d dead
And ere their limbs grew stiff and cold,
Their hearts’ blood dyed its ev’ry fold.
Then raise the scarlet standard high,
Within its shade we’ll live and die,
Though cowards flinch and traitors sneer,
We’ll keep the red flag flying here.