Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Bad Days in American History: November 11, 1919

This is reprinted from a piece I wrote 2 years ago. It's certainly worthy of revisiting and of the "Bad Days" moniker.

It's also what I think of when I think of Veterans' Day.

On November 11, 1919, the people of Centralia, Washington, a small lumber town in the southwestern part of the state, celebrated the first anniversary of Armistice Day with a parade. However, town leaders and the local American Legion post decided to turn the parade into an attack upon the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) union hall, which they considered the center of subversion and sedition in their community. When the Legion reached the hall, they broke in and began tearing the place apart. What they did not expect was that the radical loggers had prepared an ambush. The I.W.W. had stationed at least two shooters on a hill approximately ¼ mile away. In addition, some of the workers in the hall had weapons. In the hail of bullets, four American Legion members died. Warren Grimm, a University of Washington graduate and lawyer, had not only fought in World War I, but had also served in the military’s anti-Bolshevik force in Siberia before returning to his home town of Centralia. Arthur McElfresh had spent eighteen months in the army in France. The third dead Legionnaire was Ben Casagranda, a Greek-American who went to war for his new nation. The fourth was another University of Washington graduate and member of the Centralia elite, Dale Hubbard.

Infuriated, the Legionnaires chased a man they thought was Britt Smith, the local I.W.W. secretary, but who in fact was Wesley Everest, an itinerant logger and I.W.W. member. They beat him severely and threw him into a prison cell with other Wobblies they rounded up. That evening, still incensed, local men took Everest from his jail cell, possibly castrated him, and hanged him from a bridge on the Chehalis River. Trials quickly ensued for a dozen other I.W.W. members. A jury found eight guilty of second-degree murder, and they received sentences ranging from twenty-five to forty years at the Washington State Prison in Walla Walla. The I.W.W. claimed that the Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen (4-L), the American Legion, and local authorities had railroaded the eight men into prison; and their cause served as a rallying cry for an increasingly marginalized I.W.W. over the next twenty years.

Violence in this little lumber town took place as forces of order battled against radicalized loggers over control of the industry. Throughout the first two decades of the 20th century, timber companies treated their workers like animals. They forced them to live in horrific conditions in the timber camps. Daily these workers dealt with adulterated food, fleas and other vermin in their overcrowded housing, straw for bedding, the smell of disgusting wet socks drying near the bunkhouse's one heater, latrines located directly next to the dining hall so that they could smell feces everything they sat down to eat, etc. They were paid next to nothing for their work and frequently ripped off by a collusion of timber operators and employment agencies who would force men to pay for jobs and then the job not be there when they arrived. These men also lived in all-male spaces, completely isolated from women in their remote camps. Thus, when men could get to town, the first thing they headed for was to purchase the services of a prostitute. They could not live normally, either in the camps or when they returned to society. In desperation, and with the American Federation of Labor showing almost no interest in organizing these workers, they turned to the I.W.W.

By the summer of 1917, the woods were at war in what I call the Battle for the Body. The IWW organized directly around these environmental conditions and workers joined because the union was the only organization that could give them dignity and their bodies safety. Timber production plummeted that summer, but it could have continued interminably. However, when the U.S. entered World War I, the nation needed Sitka spruce to build airplanes. That tree only grows in the Pacific Northwest (and the west coast of Canada). Thus, the strikes became a threat to national security.

President Woodrow Wilson and General John J. Pershing realized they need to end these strikes. So they sent Colonel Brice Disque to the woods to figure it out. He ended up starting two organizations. The first was the Spruce Production Division, which was a squadron of soldier-loggers. Instead of going to Europe, these troops would cut down trees, which frankly sounds like a good deal to me, though there was a lot of squawking about these guys not being able to share in the manly glory that the war provided. Disque also began the Loyal Legion of Loggers of Lumbermen. Disque also supported a project to organize logging camps based on patriotism, hard work, and loyalty to the American government. This became known as the 4-L, or Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen. The pilot camp started on November 30, 1917 in Wheeler, Oregon, with 100% participation. Impressed by this, both Disque and the timbermen gave increasing support to the idea. On February 27, 1918, the Northwest’s lumber operators agreed to place their problems in Disque’s hands, which he responded to by officially announcing the 4-L, which became the nation’s first government-sponsored company union. Disque’s plan to settle labor disputes by improving workers’ environmental conditions proved effective. The 4-L set new standards of hours, wages, working conditions, and environmental conditions in the camps, regardless of whether they had SPD troops. SPD officers played a major role in pushing the 4-L, as they often worked hard to ensure high rates of enrollment among the loggers where they worked. In return for meeting the demands of agitated workers, the 4-L demanded that workers not strike during the war and instead consider the 4-L a mediating organization between themselves and their employers.

By forcing the hands of both the workers and the industry, Disque successfully brought peace to the labor industry through eventually became a government sanctioned, industry-wide company union. Most workers reneged on their 4-L membership. They didn't really believe in I.W.W. ideas of syndicalism anyway. They just wanted safe environments and bodily dignity. The 4-L provided that. But some loggers held out for the radical beliefs they held so dear. Those radicals were loathed in the Northwest. A year before, in 1918, Centralia residents had destroyed the local I.W.W. hall. They figured they could do so again. Little did they know that the union would set up shooters on the hills surrounding the town and arm some of the men inside.

In the years after the Centralia Massacre, both the I.W.W. and the American Legion fought over the meanings of the event, as well as over the fates of the prisoners. Both sides used ideas of masculinity based upon work in nature to build their arguments. Rather than bore with the details of these gender constructions, let me focus on the alleged castration of Wesley Everest. From the best I can tell, the I.W.W. made this up. None of the early accounts of the event mention it, and that includes Wobbly accounts. But soon the legend sprung up that the mob had castrated Everest, something promulgated by John Dos Passos in his novel, 1919. Although some scholars have tried to debunk the castration, it has generally come to the present as a fact, including in recent histories of the World War I era. Wobbly propagandists had little problem in promoting the castration story. The earliest publications about Centralia make no mention of castration. It first appears when I.W.W. writer Walker C. Smith wrote Was It Murder? The Truth about Centralia in 1922 as a spur to promote a retrial of the Centralia prisoners, he did discuss it, writing, “An automobile headlight was trained upon the dead man, plainly revealing that some sadist more demoniacal than his fellow degenerates had ripped Everest’s sexual organs almost loose from the body with some sharp instrument.”

What really matters here though is not whether the mob in fact castrated Everest, which I believe did not happen, but how the Wobblies used the idea of castration, the ultimate demanning of the body, to further their agenda about manhood, the body, and the environment. For the I.W.W., within Everest’s testicles laid the core of working-class manhood. He showed his bravery throughout that hellish day in Centralia. His courage originated with his hard work in the woods in the midst of other men. For that daring, savage capitalists, fearful of this kind of true proletarian man, had to eliminate that manhood before ending his life. But of course, one could not eradicate the manhood of someone like Wesley Everest so long as his comrades continued his memory and the fight to destroy capitalism.

By the middle of the 1920s, the white heat blazing off the Centralia Massacre cooled. The story became untouchable in Centralia, and in fact no documents exist from anyone remotely connected with the American Legion or timber industry in that town. The I.W.W. focused much of its waning energy on freeing the Centralia prisoners, as well as its other incarcerated members throughout the nation. Many of the jurors who put away the Centralia radicals felt remorse about their role, and in the fall of 1925, five of them met with Washington Governor Roland Hartley to make a personal appeal for the prisoners’ release.

The real impetus for their release came from former army captain Edward Patrick Coll. In 1928, Coll, an active American Legion member and a close relation to Irish revolutionary leader Eamon De Valera, moved to Aberdeen to sell insurance. He could not believe the stories he heard about the organization’s role in the Centralia affair. Coll wanted the Legion to put on a program defending themselves, but they refused, citing explosive evidence against them if they were to do so. Concerned that the Centralia case would undermine the power of the Legion in southwestern Washington, Coll began a personal crusade to get the prisoners released, which the Legion opposed every step of the way. He started asking around Centralia and claimed that the relatives of dead Legionnaire Warren Grimm had admitted that Grimm helped lead the raid, the denial of which formed the basis for the prosecution’s murder case against the Wobblies. Governor Clarence Martin paroled most of the prisoners in 1933 but Rayfield Becker refused his parole, holding out until he received a full pardon. In 1939, Martin commuted his sentence to time served and Becker left prison, though without the full pardon for which he held out.
Mentioning the Centralia Massacre quickly became totally unacceptable in the community. Literally none of the participants on the Legion side ever told their story. They all took it to the grave with them. At some point, I think sometime in the 80s, Centralia residents commissioned a bunch of murals for their town representing their history. There are lots of scenes of white people settling the land, but nothing on Centralia. The labor hall in town put up its own mural, though it is kind of hard to see from the road because it is on the second floor. You have to know where to look. Even today, it is an almost totally unmentionable subject.