Centralia Case: A Chronological Digest
"Centralia Case: A Chronological Digest"
Aftermath of a Coordinated Series of Anarchist Bombings
By: The Washington Branch of the General Defense Committee of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) labor union.
Source: "The Centralia Case: A Chronological Digest," a pamphlet produced by the labor union Industrial Workers of the World.
About the Author: The General Defense Committee is an arm of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), or Wobblies, a radical labor union. Its purpose is to "provide support to any member of the working class who finds themselves in legal trouble due to their involvement in the class war."
A series of events in Centralia, Washington, in 1919 was indicative of the tumult in American history in the months and years after World War I (1914–1918). During this period, a wave of labor strikes, many of them violent, rocked the country. Anarchists, socialists, and communists openly threatened to disrupt capitalism and the United States government. In April 1919, the mayor of Seattle received in the mail a package that contained a bomb; though the bomb did not detonate, a similar package sent the next day to U.S. Senator Thomas R. Hardwick did explode, seriously injuring Hardwick's maid.
Panic grew on June 3, 1919, when a bomb exploded at the home of U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer (1872–1936) in Washington, D.C., and similar bombs exploded in seven other cities across the country. An alert New York City postal worker, who heard about the bombings, discovered sixteen more bombs that were addressed to prominent people but had remained undelivered because of insufficient postage. Some Americans assumed that communist and other alien terrorists, with their alleged "Bolshevist," communist doctrines, were plotting a revolution in the United States. Many Americans, their sense of nationalism and insecurity heightened by the war, looked upon immigrants as a threat to American security.
Intermingling with this fear was a mistrust of organized labor. One focus of this fear was the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW ), or "Wobblies," a labor union formed in 1905 by prominent socialist advocate Eugene V. Debs (1855–1926). Throughout World War I, vigilante groups repeatedly attacked the IWW and its members were arrested on espionage and sedition charges, brought in large part because of the union's opposition to the war. In this climate, the little town of Centralia, eighty-five miles south of Seattle, became the center of an incident that typified the negative perceptions held by some Americans on immigration, unionism, socialism, and anarchism.
In 1914, the IWW set up an office in Centralia, where they reportedly received a chilly reception. In 1918, locals raided and destroyed the union's hall during a parade in support of the Red Cross. After the IWW (which had openly supported the Bolshevist revolution in Russia) opened a new hall in 1919, just months after the June bombings in Washington and other cities, rumors began to circulate that their new hall would be attacked. IWW members armed themselves for the raid, which took place during an Armistice Day parade on November 11.
As the parade passed the IWW hall, a number of Centralia Legionnaires forced their way in and a gun battle erupted, leaving four Legionnaires dead and one seriously wounded. Several Wobblies were arrested, including one named Wesley Everest, who was mistakenly believed to be local IWW leader Britt Smith. That evening a mob broke into the jail, seized Everest, and dragged him outside of town, where they hanged, shot, and mutilated him.
Anxiety swept quickly through Centralia, the state, and the nation at large. Washington quickly passed a law making membership in the IWW illegal, and authorities throughout the nation were advised to hold suspected IWW members in jail. Fear grew that the "Centralia Massacre" was part of a widespread conspiracy to overthrow the government, and part of a larger plot connected to the earlier bombing.
The following document, published by the IWW's General Defense Committee in 1927, presents a time-line of the events in the Centralia case from the labor union's perspective.
CENTRALIA CASE: A CHRONOLOGICAL DIGEST
See primary source image.
In 1920, ten Wobblies and the union's lawyer were put on trial for the murder of the Legionnaires. The judge dropped the charges against one defendant during the trial. After six weeks of testimony and two days of deliberations, the jury acquitted two of the remaining defendants, found one "guilty, but insane," and found the remaining seven guilty of second-degree murder. The convicted Wobblies were given sentences ranging from twenty-five to forty years in prison.
Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, allegations of jury intimidation surfaced, and several jurors signed affidavits recanting their verdict. Some investigators concluded that the trial was unfair and that the Wobblies had acted in justifiable self defense. A succession of state governors refused petitions for new trials, but throughout the 1930s, various surviving members of the group were granted parole. The case came to an official end in 1939, when the last parole was granted.
Anti-immigrant and anti-communist sentiment reached a high point throughout the 1920s. The Russian Revolution of 1917, as well as anarchist, socialist, and communist unrest within the United States stirred public fear. The period, known as the first "Red Scare," was marked by the arrest of prominent anarchists, socialists, labor organizers, and communist advocates.
Meanwhile, the IWW ceased to be a powerful force in organized labor, although it still exists with headquarters in Chicago. In 1924 the U.S. Congress passed the National Origins Act to sharply restrict immigration. President Warren G. Harding and his successor, Calvin Coolidge, made good on Harding's pledge to return the nation to "normalcy," and the booming economy of the 1920s effectively quieted the voices of anarchism and organized labor until the Great Depression.
University of Washington Libraries. "Centralia Massacre Collection." <http://content.lib.washington.edu/iwwweb> (accessed May 16, 2005).