One hundred years ago this week in downtown Seattle, a riot broke out that would dramatically alter the way the city saw itself politically. Commonly known as the Potlatch Riot, this event would also demonstrate the potential destructive consequences of irresponsible journalism.
The story of the Potlatch Riot began on the date in focus here during the Potlatch Days festival, a precursor to the modern-day Seafair named after a traditional Pacific Northwest indigenous tribal ceremony dedicated to preserving ancestral stories through songs, dances, and ritual gifting. On that fateful night, during the opening day of the Potlatch, a street-corner fistfight and an allegedly provocative public speech combined to produce a major outbreak of violence in downtown Seattle — as well as an ugly glimpse of the early Red Scare that would engulf Seattle and the United States a few short years later.
The Potlatch Riot occurred during a decade that was arguably the most crucial in Seattle’s early political history: the one that began in the year 1909. This decade began with the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition and ended with the Seattle General Strike of 1919. In between, certain lesser-known events also helped to define Seattle as a city where radical leftism has constantly been at odds with right-wing reactionary politics. The Potlatch Riot was one of these events.
The political context of the Potlatch Riot is vastly important for understanding why the riot occurred. Despite its modern reputation as one of America’s most fiercely liberal cities, Seattle has in fact always been ideologically complex. This was especially so in the year 1913, when the city had several daily newspapers, each one serving a different point of view on the ideological spectrum, from the pro-labor Seattle Union Record to the pro-business Seattle Daily Times. The various accounts of the Potlatch Riot that appeared in those newspapers differed significantly from one another, creating a daunting “Rashomon effect” for anyone attempting to construct a definitive historical account. Nevertheless, the disparities among the reports from the different papers now vividly illustrate the wide range of political opinion within the Seattle of 1913.
The fistfight in question began just before midnight when three U.S. Army soldiers and two U.S. Navy sailors in town for the Potlatch Days festival heckled Mrs. Annie Miller, a suffragist who was speaking to a small crowd in Pioneer Square near the offices of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, a.k.a. “the Wobblies”), near the intersection of South Washington Street and Occidental Avenue South. When one soldier threatened to strike Mrs. Miller, a well-dressed and very muscular man in the crowd objected — “You would strike a woman!” — and a fist-fueled melee quickly erupted.
Meanwhile, at the prestigious Rainier Club a few blocks away, U.S. Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels gave a patriotic speech for local movers and shakers as part of the Potlatch festivities. These two events, seemingly unrelated, would together set the stage for the Potlatch Riot.
The following day, The Seattle Daily Times disingenuously linked the fistfight and the speech in a front-page article titled “I.W.W., Denounced by Head of Navy, Attack Soldiers and Sailors.” The article, uncredited in the paper but in fact written by Times reporter M. M. Mattison, alleged that Daniels had denounced Seattle Mayor George Cotterill (1865-1958) in his speech for the latter’s tolerance of local leftists. (The IWW and anarchist groups had already begun to flourish in Seattle by 1913.) Times publisher Alden J. Blethen had previously been publicly critical of Cotterill for the latter’s alleged failure to crack down on Seattle’s “radical elements.”
(Cotterill, although hardly “radical,” was definitely one of Seattle’s more progressive mayors. Among other causes, he fought for public ownership of Seattle’s utilities — another reason why the profoundly capitalist Blethen intensely abhorred him.)
The article also crucially alleged that Mrs. Miller was an IWW member and that several Wobblies among her audience had attacked the soldiers and sailors without provocation. The Times also reported that Miller had “insulted [the servicemen’s] uniforms.”
Given historical hindsight, the article was also clearly based on fabrication. Eyewitness testimonies gathered by Seattle police and later published in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer showed that no Wobblies or anarchists had been present during the fistfight in Pioneer Square, and that the soldiers and sailors had in fact instigated the melee. Secretary Josephus, meanwhile, denied having said any unkind words about Cotterill or the IWW that evening.
The inflammatory tone of the article — clearly critical of the IWW — led many local soldiers, sailors, and pro-military citizens to seek retaliation for the previous night’s apocryphal attack in Pioneer Square. Thus, on the evening of July 18, a large crowd of soldiers and sailors, numbering at least a thousand, drunkenly descended upon downtown Seattle and vandalized the IWW and Socialist Party offices located there — all in plain sight of the many festival-goers who were there to watch the Potlatch Days parade, scheduled that night.
The rioters began their assault while the police were busy managing the Potlatch parade crowd. The headquarters of the Socialists at Fifth Avenue and Virginia Street and those of the IWW at South Washington Street and Occidental Avenue South were both vandalized. The rioters also began to trash a Pioneer Square mission in the mistaken belief that it was an IWW office. The mob entered the mission on Occidental Avenue South and began to vandalize it until someone realized it was not IWW-affiliated and called off the attack.
While no one was gravely harmed that night, the political aftermath for local leftists would be damaging indeed, as anti-IWW and pro-war sentiment would only increase within Seattle’s mainstream media and politics over the next several years — especially during World War I.
The morning of July 19 found Seattle under martial law. Meanwhile, a different kind of conflict escalated between Blethen and Cotterill. During the following week, the front pages of the Times would be filled with inflammatory headlines denouncing both Cotterill and the IWW. It was merely the latest episode of a long-running animosity between these two titans of Seattle city politics.
Adding fuel to Blethen’s fire, Cotterill had attempted to stop the Times from publishing during the remainder of Potlatch Days in order to prevent any further riots that might have been provoked by the sort of inflammatory rhetoric that Seattleites had then long come to expect on its front pages. In response, the Times repeatedly and flamboyantly attacked Cotterill — one exemplary headline read, “Mayor Cotterill Attempts the Role of Czar.”
While the conflict between the Times and Cotterill would eventually cool down, the Times would continue to misrepresent the politics of Seattle for many decades afterwards. The Potlatch Days festival, stained by the memory of the 1913 riot, would be discontinued after 1914. It would then be revived in 1934, canceled again in 1941, and eventually replaced by the annual Seafair festival, which was launched in 1950 and continues to the present day.
Sources: “Entire Navy May Soon Pay Seattle Visit,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 18, 1913, p. 1; “Three Soldiers Assailed by Mob, Saved by Police,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 18, 1913, p. 1; “I.W.W., Denounced by Head of Navy, Attack Soldiers and Sailors,” The Seattle Daily Times, July 18, 1913, p. 1; “Soldiers and Sailors Mob and Sack Offices of Socialists and I.W.W.,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 19, 1913, p. 1; “Police No Match for Such a Mob,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 19, 1913, p. 2; “Socialist’s View of Riot’s Origin,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 19, 1913, p. 2; “Cotterill Attempts to Suppress Times,” The Seattle Daily Times, July 19, 1913, p. 1; “I.W.W. Talks as Mayor Suppresses Times,” The Seattle Daily Times, July 19, 1913, p. 2; “Anarchy in Seattle Stamped Out When Sailors Get Busy,” The Seattle Daily Times, July 19, 1913, p. 2; “Union Man Plants Stars and Stripes Over Hall of Reds,” The Seattle Daily Times, July 19, 1913, p. 3; “Officers and Men of Fleet Jubilant Over Trouncing of I.W.W.,” The Seattle Daily Times, July 19, 1913, p. 7; “Cotterill Harangues I.W.W. and Socialist Mob From City Auto,” The Seattle Daily Times, July 19, 1913, p. 7; “Tilikum Police Keep Hands Off Strictly Throughout Rioting,” The Seattle Daily Times, July 19, 1913, p. 7; “Mayor Cotterill Attempts the Role of Czar,” The Seattle Sunday Times, July 20, 1913, p. 1; “Effort to Throttle Times Causes Court to Score Cotterill,” The Seattle Sunday Times, July 20, 1913, p. 1; C. B. Blethen, “I Believe in Free Speech and a Free Press as the Bulwarks of Our Liberty,” The Seattle Sunday Times, July 20, 1913, p. 5; “Dearth of Petitions Alone Saves I.W.W. Mayor from Recall,” The Seattle Sunday Times, July 20, 1913, p. 5; “500 Men Patrol City Streets, But Citizens Will Not Start Riots,” The Seattle Sunday Times, July 20, 1913, p. 5; “Bannick, Humiliated by Executive Order, Threatens to Resign,” The Seattle Sunday Times, July 20, 1913, p. 5; “Secretary Daniels Denounces the Red Flag,” The Seattle Sunday Times, July 20, 1913, p. 6; “Cotterill Assumes the Part of Autocrat,” The Seattle Sunday Times, July 20, 1913, p. 6; “Night Throngs Cheer Soldiers and Sailors in Closing Carnival,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 20, 1913, p. 1; Edwin J. Brown, “Seattle’s Riot,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 20, 1913, p. 7; “Mayor Cotterill Will Abide by Court’s Orders,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 20, 1913, p. 11; “Open Forum to Hear Witnesses of Riotous Outbreak of Sailors,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 20, 1913, p. 11; “Sailor Tried to Strike a Woman,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 20, 1913, p. 11; M. M. Mattison, “Taxpayers Demand Recall of Cotterill!,” The Seattle Daily Times, July 21, 1913, p. 1; “Cotterill’s Swollen Notions Detriment to Northwest: News Says,” The Seattle Daily Times, July 21, 1913, p. 1; “Cotterill Lacks Mental Balance, Oregonian Says,” The Seattle Daily Times, July 21, 1913, p. 1; “No Man Great Enough to Insult American Flag, Daniels Says,” The Seattle Daily Times, July 21, 1913, p. 1; William A. Simonds, “Discredited Direct Actionists Attack Secretary of Navy,” The Seattle Daily Times, July 21, 1913, p. 1; Horace McClure, “Cotterill’s Frail Craft: With Flag of Red, on Stormy Sea,” The Seattle Daily Times, July 21, 1913, p. 1; “The Rioters Punished,” Seattle Union Record, July 23, 1913, p. 4; “A Disgraceful Riot,” Seattle Union Record, July 26, 1913, p. 1; Murray Morgan, “Skid Road: An Informal Portrait of Seattle” (Viking Press, 1951; Ballantine Books, 1971; University of Washington Press, 1982); Roger Sale, “Seattle, Past to Present” (University of Washington Press, 1976); Richard C. Berner, “Seattle 1900-1920: From Boomtown, Urban Turbulence, to Restoration” (Charles Press, 1991, 2009); Sharon A. Boswell and Lorraine McConaghy, “Raise Hell and Sell Newspapers: Alden J. Blethen and The Seattle Times” (Washington State University Press, 1996); Nick Bauroth, “Belltown History: A May Tribute to Anarchy in Seattle,” Belltown’s Regrade Dispatch, May 5, 2000, p. 5.