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Armistice Day in Centralia—100 Years Later

November 7, 2019

This Monday, November 11, marks the 100th anniversary of an infamous event in Pacific Northwest history known variously as the Centralia Tragedy, the Centralia Massacre, the Armistice Day Riot, or the Armistice Day Tragedy. Whatever name it goes by, a day that began with fanfare and parades in celebration of the first anniverary of Armistice Day ended in violence and six deaths, as members of the American Legion squared off against members of the International Workers of the World labor union (IWW, or Wobblies). In today's blog post, historian Aaron Goings provides background, context, and an excerpt from The Red Coast: Radicalism and Anti-radicalism in Southwest Washington, which he coauthored with Brian Barnes and Roger Snider.

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In the annals of North American history, few years stand out as much as 1919. That year witnessed workers across the continent striking, with employers and the state combining to halt labor’s progress. The aftermath of the First World War saw left-wing movements burst forth across the globe with general strikes, socialist political victories, and attempts to spread revolution beyond Russia.

With wartime unemployment low, American workers unionized and struck in record numbers. In Seattle, thousands of workers laid down their tools in one of the country’s best-known general strikes. But Pacific Northwest strikes and labor radicalism were not confined to the Emerald City. To twenty-first century readers, it might be surprising that many of labor’s most notable conflicts took place in southwest Washington, especially in its lumber towns and logging camps. Partly to commemorate that history of working-class activism and class struggle, I joined my coworkers Brian Barnes and Roger Snider to write a popular labor history of this region. It is our hope that The Red Coast: Radicalism and Anti-radicalism in Southwest Washington (published in June 2019 by Oregon State University Press) reminds readers of the rich history of radicalism and progressive activism in southwest Washington, so frequently identified with conservatism.

Few incidents speak more directly to the intensity of class conflict than the Armistice Day Tragedy in Centralia, Washington, a horrible event in Pacific Northwest history. On November 11, 1919, a mob of American Legionaires raided the Centralia Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) hall and later lynched Wesley Everest, an IWW logger. The Red Coast provides a working-class perspective on many of the labor struggles of the early twentieth century Pacific Northwest, including the Armistice Day Tragedy. What follows is a chapter from the book entitled “Class War: Centralia 1919,” lightly revised for this venue.

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Around Centralia are wooded hills; men have been beaten beneath these trees and lynched from them. The beautiful Chehalis River flows near by; Wesley Everest was left dangling from one of its bridges. But Centralia is provokingly pretty for all that. It is small wonder that lumber trust henchmen wish to keep it all for themselves.

— Ralph Chaplin, The Centralia Conspiracy

The Centralia American Legion and the leading businessmen of that city had more than a parade in mind when they gathered on November 11, 1919, to celebrate Armistice Day. Apparently believing that the spectacle of political violence would enhance the patriotic experience, they concocted a plan to raid the Centralia IWW Hall. IWW halls were of great practical and symbolic importance to workers. As Wobbly activist and historian Ralph Chaplin explains, the halls were loved by workers, but despised by employers. These “churches of the movement,” as public historian Robert Weyeneth called them, represented the closest thing to a home for many wandering IWW members. Chaplin noted:

It is here the men can gather around a crackling wood fire, smoke their pipes and warm their souls with the glow of comradeship. Here they can, between jobs or after work, discuss the vicissitudes of their daily lives, read their books and magazines and sing their songs of solidarity, or merely listen to the “tinned” humor or harmony of the much prized Victrola. Also they here attend to the affairs of their union—line up members, hold business and educational meetings and a weekly “open forum.”

So, as the parading legionnaires passed the hall for the second time, they paused, then charged the hall, only to be surprised by the spirited defense they encountered. A volley of gunfire dropped three of the attackers, but the mob continued to press home its attack, capturing the hall. One additional legionnaire was killed in pursuit of Wesley Everest, who escaped out the back but was later captured and dragged by the neck to the jail. Later that night, he joined the ranks of IWW martyrs when he was lynched at the hands of Centralia businessmen and patriots, none of whom were ever prosecuted for his gruesome murder.

The Armistice Day 1919 Centralia event is perhaps the single most written about event involving the IWW in the entire state of Washington. Analysis of the event has been extremely polarized, as interests representing the employing class and the working class have contested its meaning. And because of competing accounts, affidavits, and testimony, even some of the most basic facts of the case will probably never be established conclusively. What is perfectly clear is that the Centralia story must be understood in the context of the class struggle that had been raging on the Red Coast for over a decade and which had surfaced in Centralia since at least 1914. As all of the working-class accounts of the Centralia event note, violence and lawlessness were defining characteristics of the employers’ approach to this conflict.

The IWW served as the most logical target of employers’ violence and repression because, since its inception in 1905, it represented the most advanced, class conscious, and revolutionary element of the working class in this country. The patriotic fervor of the First World War and fear that the Russian Revolution would heighten class consciousness among American workers only intensified persecution of the Wobblies. Sensing an opportunity, employers engaged both the state and the public in their efforts to crush the hated IWW. Nationally, the federal government enforced the wartime Espionage and Sedition Acts against the IWW and other radicals to imprison and deport many. In September of 1917, the federal government raided IWW halls across the country and indicted more than 160 leaders of the organization. At the state and local level, class warfare raged as employers mobilized both the state and the mob to lash out at class-conscious workers. Washington State was one of the great theaters of this conflict, as the teens witnessed the Grays Harbor and Pacific County Lumber Strike of 1912, multiple free speech fights, the 1916 Everett Massacre, and the 1919 Seattle General Strike.

In Centralia, this war against workers effectively merged employers’ traditional weapons—a cooperative police, a captive legal system, and vigilante citizens’ committees—with the anti-radicalism and patriotism of the American Legion, a veterans’ organization at the fore of anti-radical activities. The American Legion described Centralia like this: “The city is the center of a rich timber district and the logging camps of the northwest are infested with bearers of the red card, who boast that in many districts membership in the I.W.W. is a requisite to employment.” The leadership of the Centralia Legion read like a roster of Centralia businessmen and the Legion became essentially a front organization, even the vanguard, for Northwest lumber bosses. In the words of Wobbly Ralph Chaplin, “The American Legion began to function as a cat’s paw for the men behind the scenes.” Indeed, there was nothing secret about the role of the Legion in the class war. The National Commander of the American Legion declared in 1923: “If ever needed, the American Legion stands ready to protect our country’s institutions and ideals as the Fascisti dealt with the destructionists who menaced Italy. . . . Do not forget that the Fascisti are to Italy what the American Legion is to the United States.”

Representatives of capital did not shy away from class conflict. An IWW organizer was run out of Centralia by the sheriff in 1914, and in early 1915 more Wobblies were “escorted” out of town by police and vigilantes. According to historian John McClelland, the local paper, the Centralia Chronicle, applauded anti-Wobbly repression and stated that it was everyone’s responsibility to keep rebel workers out of Centralia. Tom Lassiter, a partially blind newsstand operator whose stock included labor and radical papers, was victimized by the business interest on several occasions. At various times, his radical papers were destroyed, he was threatened, arrested, kidnapped, and dumped in a ditch. Yet no one was ever prosecuted for any of these acts of class violence. In Centralia, it was clear, the law was a weapon in the hands of the propertied class.

Perhaps inevitably, class conflict in Centralia came to center on the struggle to establish and defend an IWW union hall. As Chaplin notes, the “union halls were a standing challenge to their [the employers’] hitherto undisputed right to the complete domination of the forests. . . . They were not going to tolerate the encroachments of the One Big Union of the lumber workers.” In 1917, an IWW attempt to establish a hall was met with great hostility in the employer-dominated town, and the landlord evicted the Wobblies on learning of their identity. In the spring of 1918, Centralia employers targeted the town’s new IWW hall. During a Red Cross parade, prominent businessmen, including members of the Centralia Elks, and political officials attacked and destroyed it. They beat IWW members and burned hall property and records in a street bonfire. F. B. Hubbard, the most prominent of the Centralia timber barons and president of the Washington Employers’ Association, stole the desk from the Wobbly Hall and donated it to the local Chamber of Commerce. Despite the intimidation of the business leaders, the local IWW secretary, Britt Smith, opened a new hall on north Tower Avenue on September 1, 1919. It was clear for all to see that the IWW was not easily intimidated, but neither were their enemies.

In July 1919, George Russell, secretary of the Washington Employers’ Association, called a meeting of the Centralia Chamber of Commerce to find a way to destroy the IWW. F. B. Hubbard was picked to head a group designed to accomplish that objective. Although this was not the first meeting of Centralia business interests to combat the Wobbly threat, it marked a new level of organization on the part of capital that would not tolerate the affront the new IWW Hall afforded to its dominance.

Plans to rid themselves of the enemy intensified with the formation of the Centralia Citizens Protective Association, the purpose of which, according to one local paper, was “to combat IWW activities in this vicinity.” Local businessmen were members of the Chamber of Commerce, the Centralia Elks, and the American Legion; many belonged to more than one of these organizations. Although the plans called for greater secrecy as to the specific methods to rid themselves of the Wobblies, too many people were aware of the plans to keep it secret. Word began to leak out, and soon it became public knowledge that the IWW would be driven out of town. Once the Armistice Day Parade was planned, the Wobblies knew that this was the pretense to attack their hall, destroy their property, and assault them.

Initially, IWW members acted with uncommon prudence in attempting to prevent a violent attack on their hall. The owners of the Roderick Hotel, which housed the union hall and from whom the IWW rented, went to the local police with information about the planned attack. IWW members requested police protection. A trusted attorney, Elmer Smith, sought help from Governor Louis F. Hart in Olympia. The Wobblies even made a desperate appeal to the entire community. They distributed a lengthy handbill “to the law-abiding citizens of Centralia and to the working class in general,” which said, in part, “The profiteering class of Centralia have of late been waving the flag of our country in an endeavor to incite the lawless element of our city to raid our hall and club us out of town.” But Wobbly pleas to avoid violence fell on deaf ears, and the police chief declined protection.

Finally, as a last resort, the Wobblies sought legal advice from attorney Elmer Smith to determine whether they had the legal right to defend their hall with arms. Smith affirmed that they did. This was a major move on the part of the IWW. Although it had always shown remarkable restraint, the IWW was a defiant and proud group of class-conscious workers, and by November 1919 in Centralia Washington the Wobblies had had enough of the beatings, enough of the tar and featherings, enough of the destruction of their meager property, enough of the humiliation, and enough of the criminally brutal business-patriotic element. They would defend their hall, and plans for its self-defense were laid. Radical historian Harvey O’Conner opined: “Prudent men, valuing their own skins, would have closed the hall in the face of the obvious threat. 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.”

As the Armistice Day Parade got under way on the drizzly and ill-fated afternoon of November 11, 1919, the Wobblies made ready to defend their hall. They positioned armed men inside the hall and also in three locations outside the hall: in the Avalon and Arnold Hotels on the opposite (east) side of the street, and on Seminary Hill which overlooked the street from some considerable distance away. The parade route took the marchers north on Tower Avenue past the main business district to Third Street, the next side street past the IWW Hall, in a section of town occupied by businesses catering to the working class. At Third Street the marchers reversed direction to return now southbound on Tower Avenue with the Centralia American Legion contingent making up the rear of the parade. In front of the IWW Hall, the marchers paused and then rushed the hall.

Shots rang out from the hall and then from Seminary Hill and the Avalon Hotel. Three Legionnaires—Warren Grimm, Arthur McElfresh, and Ben Cassagranda—received fatal wounds on the streets near the hall, and Dale Hubbard, the nephew of the lumbar baron F. B. Hubbard, was shot by a fleeing Wesley Everest at the edge of the Skookumchuck river. Hubbard died later that night. Several other marchers were injured, and the IWW Hall was smashed and its contents dragged to the street and burned. Wesley Everest was severely beaten and dragged back into town and thrown in a heap on the jail floor. One of the marchers who pursued Everest to the river and presumably helped drag him to the jail was Legionnaire Ed Cunningham, who was picked by the American Legion to become the Special Prosecutor in the trial against the Centralia Wobblies. According to the Legion account, “Cunningham was able to use his first-hand knowledge of the tragedy to telling effect.”

In many of their clashes with the working class, employers hired detective agencies or relied on local or state police to combat workers, but in Centralia the American Legion served as the armed guard of the employing class. As news of the event spread, the American Legion assumed control of the town, controlled the flow of information, formed vigilante groups to hunt down suspected Wobblies, and raided establishments and homes. In touting the Legion takeover, the American Legion Weekly stated, “Though the office of the Sheriff and the Chief of Police assisted as much as possible, their forces were small and their aid nominal,” and “Posses which scoured the country about Centralia in search of fugitives were made up almost exclusively of American Legion men.”

That evening, two meetings were held at the Elks Club in which the murder of Wesley Everest was conceivably planned. At about five o’clock a group of men was told to go the armory for weapons and return to the Elks at six o’clock. At the six o’clock meeting, all assembled men who were not members of the Elks or the American Legion were asked to leave. In effect, this left the established business class and the Legion, those that could most be trusted to carry out a class lynching and protect those involved in it. This meeting lasted until about seven o’clock. At seven-thirty, someone visited the city’s power station and shut off all the lights in Centralia. Meanwhile, a lynching party entered the jail where Wesley Everest was held. The lynching party—meeting no opposition from the jailer—seized Everest and dragged him to a waiting automobile.

The automobile that held Everest fell in with a procession of automobiles containing Centralia’s most prominent citizens, and proceeded to the Chehalis River Bridge. Radical author Harvey O’Conner graphically described the scene:

At the bridge Everest was dragged out and rope knotted around his neck, and his body flung over. Everest clutched at a plank; Legionnaires stamped on his fingers, and he fell. Dissatisfied with the knot, the lynchers pulled the body back up and used a longer rope, and hurled the body over again. Still dissatisfied, they hauled Everest body up a third time—by then he must have been dead—and tied a more professional knot on a longer rope and flung the body over. Then with carlights playing on the scene, they amused themselves awhile by shooting at the swaying body. Satiated at last, the mob left and darkness returned. Next morning somebody cut the rope and the body fell into the Chehalis River.

The next day, Everest’s mutilated body was retrieved from the river, dumped on the jail floor, and left for two days in plain view of his imprisoned fellow workers. As Centralia’s authorities were no doubt complicit in the lynching, no attempt was ever made to bring the Everest’s murderers to justice.

As the Legion-led posses combed the surrounding area for more Wobblies, state authorities interrogated the jailed Wobblies by day as the enraged mobs terrorized them by night. In the woods surrounding Centralia, one posse member was shot and killed when he was mistaken by another for a Wobbly. This shooting, first reported as a murder committed by a Wobbly, was later ruled an accident. As this reign of terror continued in southwest Washington, the commercial press continued to churn out propagandistic accounts of how the Wobblies ambushed and murdered America’s finest young men in the streets of Centralia. Characteristic of this treatment was the front-page article in the Chehalis Bee-Nugget: “IWW Shoot into Armistice Day Parade in Centralia Tuesday. Warren Grimm, Arthur McElfresh, Dale Hubbard, and Ben Cassagranda Killed by the Assassins.” Authorities, businessmen, and Legionnaires combined to attack workers in other parts of the state and in neighboring Oregon. In Seattle, the Department of Justice seized the Union Record, the official organ of the Seattle Central Labor Council, and arrested its staff, including Harry Ault and Anna Louise Strong, on charges of sedition.

The passions that this class war engendered were still highly visible on January 26, 1920, when eleven Wobblies, including Elmer Smith, the attorney who advised the IWW members that they had the legal right to defend their hall, were brought to trial in the town of Montesano, the county seat of neighboring Grays Harbor County. The defense faced many obstacles in the trial, beginning with a huge resource disparity. The Wobblies were represented by George Vanderveer with occasional help from his law partner, Ralph Pierce, and attorney Elmer Smith, himself a defendant in the case. Meanwhile, Special Prosecutor Ed Cunningham led a staff of six attorneys, whom Vanderveer referred to as the attorneys for the lumber trust. The Luke May Secret Service, a private detective agency paid for by lumber company funds, aided them. Finally, the American Legion recruited some fifty uniformed veterans to sit in on the trial by day, presumably to influence the jury. They were paid four dollars a day from funds contributed by the lumber companies and the Elks.

The prosecution certainly lived up to its reputation as the counsel for the lumber trust. Special Prosecutor Cunningham was himself deeply involved in the Armistice Day violence. He was one of the members of the mob that pursued Everest to the Skookumchuck River and helped drag him to jail. He watched while the mob broke into the jail and kidnapped Everest, and was alleged to have witnessed his murder. Historian Tom Copeland observed that “as Cunningham built the case against the Wobblies, he was also shielding himself from any potential legal action for his role in the raid and lynching.” Cunningham’s team successfully fought off a change of venue request, claiming there was no prejudice against the IWW in either Centralia or Montesano. In a clear attempt to intimidate anyone willing to testify for the defense, the prosecution had two defense witnesses arrested for perjury when they finished their testimony. The prosecution called on the governor to have troops from Camp Lewis sent to Montesano to stand guard outside the courtroom, thereby frightening the jury into thinking that an IWW attack was imminent.

The trial was, in fact, a mere extension of the class war, a political trial in which the authorities put the IWW on trial while pretending to adhere to the rule of law. The judge, John M. Wilson, insisted that he could try the case impartially, despite the fact that he had delivered an anti-IWW speech in the nearby town of Bucoda and had addressed the memorial service at the Centralia Elks commemorating the Legionnaires who had been killed during the Armistice Day Parade. Wilson rejected the defense’s request for a change of venue from Montesano, disallowed much of the evidence that Vanderveer tried to introduce during the trial, and made numerous prejudicial rulings that favored the prosecution and infuriated the defense. Vanderveer captured the trial’s essence in his closing statement. The prosecutors, he told the jury, “have told you this was a murder trial, and not a labor trial. But vastly more than the lives of ten men are the stakes in the big gamble here; for the right of workers to organize for the bettering of their own condition is on trial; the right of free assemblage is on trial; democracy and Americanism are on trial.”

“In view of such a charged atmosphere,” Albert Gunns contended, “the final verdict of the jury was moderate.” The prosecution sought a first-degree murder verdict for all of the defendants, but the jury did not agree. Elmer Smith, the Wobbly attorney, was acquitted, along with one other defendant. Seven defendants were convicted of second-degree murder, and one young defendant was judged legally insane. The jury attached to their verdict a written request for leniency in sentencing, but Judge Wilson rendered stiff sentences ranging from 25 to 40 years in the state penitentiary in Walla Walla. Irish immigrant James McInerney, himself a veteran of the Everett Massacre and victim of torture while in the Centralia jail, died while imprisoned, “murdered,” the Industrial Worker proclaimed, “by the Capitalist class.” Most of the remaining prisoners remained incarcerated until 1933, when Governor Clarence Martin commuted their sentences.

Several jurors were clearly uneasy with their decision, believing that they were not allowed to hear all of the important evidence. “Remarkably, two years after the trial,” Robert Weyeneth concludes, “seven of the twelve jurors voluntarily repudiated their verdict.” No member of the employing class or its “cat paws” was ever charged or even investigated for Everest’s murder or the Armistice Day hall raid that ushered in the Centralia Tragedy.



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Excerpt from The Red Coast: Radicalism and Anti-Radicalism in Southwest Washington by Aaron Goings, Brian Barnes, and Roger Snider, copyright © 2019.

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