EVERETT — David Dilgard grew up listening to his grandfather croon Wobbly songs.
The folksy lyrics of battles and brotherhood were plenty catchy, even if he didn’t understand their meaning. He was too young to know that they were the words and ideas of the Industrial Workers of the World, a radical labor group advocating an end to capitalism.
Dilgard was an inquisitive child in the 1950s when he heard about a book kept under wraps at the Everett Public Library. The 1917 work by Wobbly muckraker Walker C. Smith told a story that Dilgard’s hometown had long tried to hide, if not forget altogether.
While elementary school classmates might still have been reading Hardy Boys mysteries, the precocious lad asked a reference librarian if he could see “The Everett Massacre: A History of the Class Struggle in the Lumber Industry.” She denied his request. A book so taboo, it seemed, didn’t belong in the hands of a child.
Walker’s scathing account blamed Everett mill owners, police and citizen deputies for a deadly Nov. 5, 1916 showdown on the waterfront. Two deputies and five Wobblies were killed in the gun battle. That was the official death toll anyway. A half-dozen others aboard the steamer Verona disappeared in Port Gardner that afternoon, never returning to pick up the union cards they’d left at the IWW Hall in Seattle that morning.
Dilgard, now 71, went on to become an historian, and he works out of the library where he’d been rebuffed as a child. He has spent a lifetime researching that fateful day and the events that led up to it.
“It’s funny how living with a topic or a story, or a part of a story, for as long as we have been doing that here, it winds up you have almost a sculptural sense of what it is, even though you can’t see everything,” he said. “Certain parts are impenetrable.”
Soon after Royce Ferguson moved to Everett as a high school sophomore in the 1960s, his neighborhood chums mentioned there had been a massacre in town years back, but they were short on details.
“It almost had a scandalous tinge,” he said.
Ferguson became an attorney and set up practice in Everett’s downtown. His interest grew in the labor unrest and fight for free speech that dominated the spring, summer and fall of 1916. He’d picture men in overalls delivering fiery soapbox speeches at the corner of Hewitt and Wetmore avenues. He’d imagine the drama in a Seattle courtroom where Wobbly Thomas H. Tracy was put on trial for the murder of Snohomish County deputy sheriff Jefferson Beard.
In 1988, Ferguson published “Bloody Sunday,” a play based on the Everett Massacre. A Renton theater group performed it in Everett. Today, Ferguson is reminded of the event every time he looks toward his legal secretary. Behind her desk is an historical painting he bought of the Verona’s ill-fated venture to Everett.
One hundred years later, there aren’t many visible reminders around town.
It took an academic at Everett Community College to amplify the events of 1916 from muffled whispers to public discourse. Norman Clark was a history instructor who became the school’s president. In 20 years of teaching at the college, almost none of his students had known anything about the deadly confrontation on the dock.
In 1970, his book “Mill Town” hit library shelves and found prominent spots in bookstores, opening conversations across the community. Those waterfront lumber and shingle mills he wrote about were the lifeblood of Everett’s economy in 1916. They have long since disappeared.
It would take another 46 years before a permanent marker acknowledging the Everett Massacre was placed alongside a public street. The Bayside and Port Gardner neighborhood associations had it installed in late September. The bronze plaque is anchored in a hunk of granite on a grassy stretch at the west end of Hewitt Avenue, not far from where the gun battle occurred. The story is told in 87 words next to an image of the Verona.
“It’s funny that it took this long,” said Bill Belshaw, 74, who lives in the Bayside neighborhood. “The 100-year thing provides the incentive. Maybe people are willing to forget their old opinions and feelings about it.”
Everett historian Jack O’Donnell wrote the text.
“It was such an untouchable subject for so many years,” O’Donnell said. “I always hesitate to make one side or the other guilty. It’s a shade of gray. I just tried to say what happened.”
O’Donnell, 71, can’t remember anyone talking about the killings while he was growing up in Everett. His state history teacher at Everett High School never raised the subject, although he did talk about the homes where lumber barons of that era had lived.
Belshaw in his childhood also was unaware of his city’s secret. That’s all the more curious because his ancestors had an Everett waterfront business.
Belshaw moved to Everett in the 1970s, but his grandfather Thomas Belshaw and his great uncle Walter Belshaw operated a machine shop on the City Dock where they did marine engine repair.
Belshaw believes the business, where his great uncle likely lived at the time, looked out at the scene of the 1916 killings.
His own father never mentioned anyone in the family talking about the Everett Massacre. As for his grandfather and great uncle, “they must have been highly aware of it, if not involved,” Belshaw said. “Why wasn’t that part of the family history? My mom said people didn’t talk about it. It was a scary thing.”
A cat with sharp claws
The story behind the bloodshed of Nov. 5, 1916 is as fascinating as it is tragic, a collision course of iron will and epic miscalculation.
It is hard to say exactly when it began, but May 1916 is a logical starting point.
That is when the International Shingle Weavers union went on strike in Everett, one of the nation’s most unionized cities at the time. It demanded a closed shop, an eight-hour day, better work conditions and restoration of the wage rate its workers had been paid two years earlier. Mill owners led by David Clough and his son-in-law, Roland Hartley, dug in. Times had been tough and they owed money on their mills. Some mills hired replacement workers and guards to shield the strike breakers.
Without invitation, the Wobblies inserted themselves in the shingle weavers’ cause and opened an office of their own on Hewitt Avenue. In many ways, the shingle weavers and Wobblies were at cross purposes. The mill workers were part of a craft union, one of many in Everett at the time, and were focused on concessions for their members. The Wobblies wanted all workers, skilled and unskilled, under one union.
If the mill workers union initially was reluctant to embrace the Wobblies’ support, mill owners regarded the antagonistic intruders with suspicion and contempt. They considered them anarchists, red-flag zealots and a threat to the American way of life. They feared the IWW’s soapbox oratory, their calculated acts of civil disobedience, and their reputation for sabotage.
The mill owners schemed with fellow members of Everett’s Commercial Club and appealed to City Hall for help. They enlisted Snohomish County Sheriff Donald McRae, a 48-year-old mill worker-turned-lawman, to meet the Wobbly insurgence with force.
McRae, first elected sheriff on the Progressive Party ticket in 1912, had been credited with reforming the jail, separating women and children from male inmates, and improving the menu for all.
The sheriff was sympathetic to union causes, having helped lead local shingle weavers a few years earlier. He also was dead set against Wobblies asserting themselves in his county under his watch. He was willing to talk tough and act rough.
In their 1953 book “Counsel For the Damned,” Lowell Hawley and Ralph Bushnell Potts described the situation from McRae’s perspective: “Fate and politics had singled him out as the man to safeguard Snohomish County from the infiltration of human termites who would destroy the lumbering industry and undermine everything that decent folks held sacred.”
As they had in other cities, the Wobblies frequented picket lines and street corners, taunting the industrial elite and wooing the working class.
They stoked the fears of the city’s leaders with the unsettling image of a spooky black cat. With its back arched and hackles raised, the cat appeared large, menacing and feral.
The image was stealthily left as a calling card in many places, including the sheriff’s Marysville farm.
The labor press in early September played on the paranoia the cat evoked.
McRae and members of the Commercial Club became careful readers of the Industrial Worker. In its pages, they were teased with cryptic references to the cat — Wobbly slang for sabotage.
On Sept. 2, 1916, an article threatened “to turn the cat loose” in the city if IWW members jailed for violating free speech laws weren’t released.
On Oct. 21, two weeks before the shootings, under the headline “Reign of Terror at Everett,” the cat was reported to have sharpened its claws.
The story said “A rich and nourishing mess of cream has been provided for the kitten.”
A cat of “malodorous tendencies” turned out to be a stink bomb set off in an Everett diner to divert police attention from Wobblies speaking on the street one night.
Each feline reference was pondered, often generating a healthy dose of fear.
At the massacre murder trial in spring 1917, McRae told the jury: “Well I had heard so much about the kitty, what the cat was doing and what the cat was going to do to me I naturally thought they were going to burn the town or something.”
After all, the Blackman Mill near Everett’s American Legion Park had burned, McRae received death threats in the mail and someone had poisoned his prized hunting dogs.
The city of Everett, Hawley and Potts wrote, had developed a major case of “Wobbly jitters.” Placards popped up in stores declaring: “We are not members of the Commercial Club.”
Clough and the Commercial Club were determined to make sure Everett didn’t see a repeat of what happened in Spokane. In 1909, Wobblies descended on the Eastern Washington city from far and wide. They took to the streets to promote higher wages, better working conditions and their agenda for one large union. Spokane city leaders passed an ordinance against street speaking, which led to mass arrests. All of which played into the IWW strategy of flooding the jails, sapping the city’s coffers and bringing attention to their cause.
By the time Everett’s business and government leaders reached out to McRae, the Wobblies were entrenched on their soap boxes and the picket lines, fanning the flames of discontent. Clough asked McRae if he had the courage to carry out his work. “If you give me the men, I will show you the courage,” the sheriff said.
A campaign to deputize like-minded thinkers began in earnest. “Sheriff McRae calls for 500 volunteers to preserve peace of city” read one headline in The Everett Herald.
An operative named George Reese was hired through the Pinkerton Detective Agency to infiltrate the IWW Union Hall in Seattle and sent almost daily reports to the sheriff’s office.
For their part, Everett city fathers that September passed Ordinance 1746 restricting free speech on major streets with the intention of nudging Wobblies a block off of Hewitt, where they’d be out of sight and perhaps out of mind.
Commercial Club members were sworn in as sheriff’s deputies. They began to make it a habit to meet incoming ships to weed out potential rabble-rousers. A Wobbly button meant a quick trip to city limits.
An escalating series of confrontations, including a riot in front of the Everett Theatre, galvanized the resolve on both sides.
McRae at times tried to appeal to the IWW members. One jailed Wobbly recalled the sheriff saying: “You can’t talk on the streets while these strikes are going on. After the trouble is over, you can holler your heads off for all I care.”
Often, his frustrations ended with heavy hands and clenched fists.
On Sept. 9, McRae was aboard the tugboat Edison when it intercepted a wooden steamer carrying 19 Wobblies on their way to Everett. At least two bullets pierced the Wanderer’s cabin. Passengers were forced off the boat at gunpoint and jailed.
Jack Mitten, an Everett longshoreman and the Wanderer’s captain, received two blows to the head from the butt of the sheriff’s revolver.
“It’s a fine way of using a citizen,” the gray-haired man of 58 told McRae.
“You are a hell of a citizen bringing in a bunch like that to cause a riot in this town,” the sheriff shot back.
Weeks before, Mitten himself had joined the Wobblies.
A night of sanctioned beatings 100 years ago today in Everett’s Beverly Park neighborhood set the stage for the Nov. 5 bloodshed. McRae had been tipped off that a boat of IWW passengers was en route to a free-speech demonstration.
The Wobblies were surrounded by more than 100 men and taken in cars to a wooded spot not far from where today’s Interurban Trail intersects Beverly Boulevard. McRae drove one of the Wobblies in his Roadster. He gave warning: If they didn’t lay off coming to Everett and trying to break laws (he) would “start a rock pile and start them making little ones out of big ones.”
In the rain, 40 of the 41 Wobblies were forced at gunpoint to run a gantlet of men wielding night sticks and batons. A few vigilantes were said to have attached Devil’s club, the spiky and poisonous native plant that can cause wounds that burn and itch for days. The cries of pain reached a neighbor a quarter mile away who left his home to investigate.
The next day, city commissioner W.H. Clay and local ministers paid a visit to Beverly Park where, despite the rain, they observed blood stains on the road and Interurban rail tracks. McRae and his deputies denied knowing what happened. The sheriff said he had left the Wobblies for a night of dancing at the Elks Club.
Everett’s streets soon were flooded with Wobbly handbills:
“CITIZENS OF EVERETT
A meeting will be held at the corner of Hewitt and Wetmore Aves. on Sunday, Nov. 5th, 2 p.m. Come and help maintain your and our constitutional right
The next time they’d meet, both sides were armed. The Wobblies never reached Wetmore that Sunday.
Fatal meeting on the dock
The bloodiest labor confrontation in Pacific Northwest history lasted about 10 minutes.
Two ships from the Puget Sound Mosquito Fleet sailed out from Seattle that Sunday and their Wobbly passengers heartily sang of solidarity. On board were men with nicknames such as Happy, Paddy and Red.
In Everett, deputized men in overcoats armed themselves with guns and rifles and tied white handkerchiefs around their necks to make it easier to identify allies. In a waterfront warehouse where most remained hidden, McRae, according to a trial transcript, gave them instructions. “I told them they shouldn’t display no arms, and not make no noise nor pass no remark, that I would do the talking myself.”
The Verona was the first to land, carrying roughly 260 passengers, mostly members of the IWW. Only one line was tied to the dock before McRae, flanked by Deputy Beard and Charles Curtiss, a National Guard lieutenant, walked up to the boat and shouted through a megaphone:
“Who is your leader?”
“We’re all leaders,” someone shouted back.
“You can’t land here.”
“The hell we can’t” was one reply among defiant catcalls.
Who fired the first shot is still unknown. There were many conflicting accounts.
McRae was hit three times, dinged in his heel and leg. Curtiss, 35, died instantly from a wound to the heart; Beard, 45, was shot in the lungs and died the following morning. Curtiss had three daughters; Beard was a father of four.
The Wobblies scrambled for cover, nearly capsizing the steamship in their rush to the far side. A hail of bullets pounded the ship and screamed into the drink where men who’d fallen overboard struggled to get back aboard. Wobblies Felix Baran, Hugo Gerlot, Gustav Johnson, John Looney and Abraham Rabinowitz died on the Verona’s decks. Their lives would be remembered in black-and-white IWW postcards. They became martyrs for the IWW that day.
More than 50 people on ship and shore were injured during the gunfight. One survivor had the misfortune of boarding the Verona accidentally. He was shot seven times.
The list of missing Wobblies included the names Fred Berger, William Colman, Tom Ellis, Edward Raymond, Peter Viberts and Charles Taylor. Local leaders insisted a search was made to find the bodies in the bay. Officially, none were recovered.
Had the Verona been moored with more than a single line the death toll likely would have been higher. It limped back toward Seattle and passengers aboard the Calista, a second ship carrying Wobblies, were warned to turn around.
Children scoured the waterfront picking up bullets and shell casings as souvenirs. Shotguns and rifles that had been stored behind the counter and in the women’s bathroom at the Commercial Club soon disappeared.
In the courts, the finger of blame was pointed squarely at the IWW. They were arrested at the Coleman Dock in Seattle and taken to hospitals or in handcuffed pairs to jail. Seventy-four Wobblies were charged in Beard’s death.
It didn’t take long for the case to be removed from Snohomish County based on what the defense described in court papers as “widespread prejudice, malice, hatred and ill will” that made it impossible for IWW defendants to get a fair trial in Everett.
The first, and it turned out only, defendant to go to trial was Thomas Tracy, 36, a Teamster from Nebraska and manager of the IWW hall in Everett. He was charged with first-degree murder.
His trial lasted two months and delved deep into IWW ideology. As prosecutors attacked the group’s philosophy, George Vanderveer, one of two high-profile defense attorneys, quizzed witnesses about where they saw Tracy on the Verona. Several, including McRae, identified Tracy as an instigator and said they had seen the defendant shooting from a window on the main deck.
“In what direction was he shooting?” McRae was asked.
“He was shooting in the direction of me,” the sheriff replied.
Later, the jury was taken on a field trip from the Seattle courtroom to the Everett dock off the west end of Hewitt Avenue. The defense had the Verona tie up in the same position it had been the day of the shooting. The lawyers demonstrated that what witnesses said about watching Tracy fire from the Verona was physically impossible.
Defense lawyers argued that the Wobblies were acting in self defense. They suggested Beard died from friendly fire.
In his closing arguments, Vanderveer said the case went well beyond his client.
“It is not the state of Washington versus Thomas H. Tracy at all,” Vanderveer insisted. “Even the title of the case is a mistake. It is the case of the Commercial Club of Everett, the mill owners of Everett, against labor.”
A day after beginning its deliberations, the jury returned its verdict: Not guilty.
Eventually, all of the other Wobbly defendants were released with charges dropped.
James Thompson, one of the original founders of the IWW in Chicago in 1905, explained during the trial that the city’s effort to suppress the union’s voice backfired badly.
“The tactics of McRae…was doing more to build up the IWW than any organizer we had, discrediting the institutions he represents and attracting attention to our ideas,” he said.
Everett soon had an issue bigger than a violent labor strike to think about. On April 6, 1917, midway through the Tracy trial, the United States joined Britain, France and Russia to fight in World War I.
A startling find
The history of the Everett Massacre is ever-evolving; the search for answers never-ending.
Internet sleuthing led Lisa Labovitch to the eighth floor of the special collections library at the University of Michigan in August. For three days the Everett librarian and historian pored over a vast set of newly acquired Everett Massacre documents, many that had previously been unavailable to researchers.
She photographed hundreds of pages to bring back to Everett, but what she gathered represents a fraction of what is there.
The documents are from the estate of Albert Carpenter, a private investigator hired by Attorney Fred H. Moore, who led the Wobbly defense team. They include witness statements gathered by Carpenter as well as more than 400 letters sent to and from Moore’s law office. Some are handwritten on hotel stationery; some typed on onion-skin paper.
There, too, are the 10 bound volumes and thousands of pages of trial transcripts. They are on thin, brittle, mildewy, yet still readable paper.
Together, “it brings characters alive that were just names on paper until now,” Labovitch said.
The notes, for instance, take the reader aboard the Wanderer for passenger Oscar Lindstrom’s eyewitness account of a confrontation between McRae and a feisty Wobbly named Edith Frenette. From the start, she was a thorn in the sheriff’s side, a frequent presence whenever Wobblies tried to speak on the streets.
The two had become bitter enemies and Frenette was not one to back down.
“When McRae saw Mrs. Frenette in the pilot house (he) said to her, ‘Aha, here is the lady I’ve been looking for,’ ” Lindstrom recalled. “ ‘Been to Seattle and changed your clothes. Well, the next suit you get will be a one piece.’ ”
“I might go to Walla Walla,” Frenette said, referring to the state penitentiary “but you will be there ahead of me.”
At the bottom of Lindstrom’s statement, a member of the defense team scrawled: “Comment: I would consider Lindstrom an excellent witness. He’s very clear on detail and I do not think he can be targeted.”
Labovitch hopes someday similar papers kept by prosecutors will come to light and that all the documents can make their way online for others to access.
Dilgard, her colleague in the Northwest History Room of the Everett library, has chased down many leads over the past 40 years.
He recalls one memorable conversation he had in the 1970s with a retired Everett police officer named John Steik who had been on the downtown beat in 1916. Even more than a half-century later, Steik insisted that the interview not be recorded.
Steik told Dilgard he saw a half-dozen bodies of the missing Wobblies who had been fished out of the bay. He described how they had been wrapped in canvas and weighted down with chains to be secretly dropped off of Mukilteo where the water is deep.
Dilgard also became acquainted with Jack Miller, widely believed to be the last surviving Wobbly who was aboard the Verona that day. Miller, a labor activist to the end, died in 1986 at the age of 96.
Miller was 26 and a wiry 125 pounds on the day of the massacre. He’d worked in coal mines and as a printer, on farms and the railroad. He became a Wobbly in the winter of 1910 in Calgary, Alberta, when he went inside a workers’ meeting hall to get out of the cold.
In his booking photo after the massacre, Miller’s boyish face stared blankly into the camera. He wore denim bib overalls and his shirt was buttoned to the top. He became one of the 74 Wobblies charged with murder.
Miller also had been forced to run the gantlet at Beverly Park. He’d recall getting smacked with cudgels, sawed-off billiard cues, billy clubs, blackjacks and pistol butts. For 60 years, he steered clear of Everett, eventually showing up for a ceremony marking the massacre. He stayed away from men with badges and guns.
Yet he came back again when Dilgard asked him if he would be willing to talk with a middle school girl working on a class assignment. The librarian believes the Wobbly did so out of obligation to those who died that November afternoon.
“People ever after believed those guys died for them, that they were ambushed standing up for what most people don’t have the courage to stand up for,” Dilgard said. “Kind of on the lines of Camelot, it was his job to tell the story.”
For all of his research into the Everett Massacre, perhaps Dilgard’s most gratifying moment was the day he watched the girl greet the elderly man — “the kid and the codger communicating in a way we can’t.”
Search for meaning
Arguments about free speech, big business, workers’ rights, and the gulf between those who have and those who don’t still create friction in Everett and beyond.
On Nov. 8, Washington voters will decide whether to increase the state’s minimum wage.
On any given Friday afternoon, demonstrators supporting American troops in the Middle East can be found waving flags at the corners of Hewitt and Colby avenues, a couple blocks west from where Wobblies so long ago stood on their soap boxes.
Questions linger: Who fired the first shot? Where is Donald McRae buried? Whatever became of Thomas Tracy, the lone Wobbly to go to trial?
And the search for meaning continues, too.
Miller the Wobbly once wrote: “Was our fight worthwhile? Well we organized the lumber workers in the woods, won improved living conditions there, and was able to make working conditions somewhat safer for the loggers. Perhaps more lives were saved that year of 1917 than were lost in the Everett Massacre.”
On Saturday, modern-day Wobblies plan to gather at 1:30 p.m. to lay wreaths at the newly installed Everett Massacre marker near the foot of Hewitt. Dave Tucker plans to be among the 30 or so paying their respects and parading up the street to the “speaker’s corner” at the northwest edge of Hewitt and Wetmore. The center of so much conflict 100 years ago is across from a Subway sandwich shop and the Lion’s Paw tattoo parlor.
“Many people are surprised to find out we’re still around,” said Tucker, a Bellingham roof and gutter cleaner who heads the organizing committee of the Whatcom-Skagit counties IWW. Worldwide, the IWW has about 5,000 dues-paying members. Tucker, 60, has been a Wobbly for half his life. Its members today are typically younger than 30 and drawn to the union’s ideals.
A century later, the group is still “100 percent opposed to capitalism,” he said.
While the Wobblies’ interpretation of the Everett Massacre became legend and a rallying cry for free speech, voices telling the other side of the story are harder to find.
Neil Anderson, a member of the Everett Historical Commission, can share a bit of both perspectives. He is the scion of the mill-owning Hartley family and the grandson of a mill worker. He believes it is fitting that his hometown at last has a marker commemorating the Everett Massacre.
“I’m kind of beyond the blame-game thing,” said Anderson, 62, His mother, Jeanne Hartley Anderson, was the granddaughter of Roland Hartley, who served as Everett’s mayor, then as a state lawmaker, and later Washington’s governor from 1925 to 1933. Roland’s son, Edward Hartley, was Neil Anderson’s grandfather.
Anderson remembers his grandfather becoming quite reflective at the pier where the massacre took place. Before his death in 1972, Edward Hartley told his grandson there were real concerns that the IWW would torch the Clough-Hartley Mill and others on the waterfront.
“Emotions were running high,” Anderson said. “It was a tragic day. Both sides had valid concerns.”
Dilgard sees others come into the Northwest Room with the massacre on their minds. He tells them the situation was complicated, rich with colorful and tragic figures worthy of Hamlet or Macbeth committing a series of mistakes that can be heeded so as not to be repeated.
The story is now told in fiction, nonfiction and a graphic novel, in documentaries, oral histories and library lectures, in children’s class reports and grad school dissertations, in a play and now a musical, on canvas and etched in stained glass.
“People want it to have some kind of meaning, not just a particular act of violence,” Dilgard said. “I want it to have a meaning.”
He has learned that the search for meaning takes time.
“It’s 100 years ago, but it is still like: What just happened?”