March 5, 1917: The Wobblies on Trial

IWW member Thomas H. Tracy, photographed in Seattle, November 5, 1916 Everett Public Library
IWW member Thomas H. Tracy, photographed in Seattle, November 5, 1916
Everett Public Library

The local labor cataclysm known as the Everett Massacre may have been sudden and swift, but its legal and political aftermath certainly wasn’t so. The drama that began on November 5, 1916, stretched out over six long months and reached its crescendo with a nationally-noted legal trial that began in King County Superior Court in Seattle on the date in focus here.

The Everett Massacre occurred when some three hundred members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, a.k.a. “The Wobblies”) boarded a pair of chartered ships in Seattle and headed north towards Everett, where they had planned a public demonstration that afternoon in support of striking shingle-mill workers. When they arrived, they were met by a large group of some two hundred hostile local police and citizen deputies. A spontaneous gunfire melee soon erupted, leaving at least seven dead and fifty wounded from among both Wobblies and deputies. The instigator of the melee — whether Wobbly or deputy — was never officially identified.

The resulting trial concerned the culpability of 74 Wobblies who had been arrested upon their return to Seattle from the scene of the massacre, incarcerated in the Snohomish County Jail in Everett, and charged with the murders of Jefferson Beard and Charles Curtis, two citizen deputies who had been killed in the melee. The first of the Wobblies to be tried was Thomas H. Tracy, a prominent IWW leader at the time.

Anna Louise Strong (1885-1970), already known locally as a newspaper reporter with progressive sympathies, covered the trial for the New York Evening Post. Her experience hearing the story of the massacre during the trial’s course would be a crucial catalyst in her transformation from a respectable member of Seattle society into a lifelong radical rabble-rouser. Strong would write later, in her 1935 autobiography I Change Worlds:

“The news [concerning the events that instigated the massacre] was that at every stage the Everett police and private lumber guards took the initiative in beating and shooting workers for speaking in their streets. The lumber guards on the dock had begun the shooting and continued firing as the Verona [one of the two IWW-chartered ships] pulled away; yet none of them were arrested. The men on trial for murder were not individually shown to have even possessed a gun; it was enough that someone on their ship, a comrade or an agent provocateur, had fired.”

Strong’s name and political identity came up in an intriguing way during the jury selection proceedings. Prosecuting Attorney Lloyd Black asked one prospective juror whether they knew Strong personally, much to Strong’s surprise. After that day’s adjournment, Strong asked Black why the question was asked. Black replied, “I heard Mr. Cooley ask it, so I did,” referring to the associate counsel for the case.

When Cooley was asked about the question, he replied, “Oh, I read in a newspaper that Miss Strong has written an article saying there was no use having a trial.”

The IWW benefited greatly from a national defense fund campaign they launched soon after the arrests of the 74 accused Wobblies. Using the funds raised, they retained Los Angeles attorney Fred H. Moore and former King County deputy prosecutor George F. Vanderveer, both of whom proved highly effective in the defense. In one intriguing twist at one point in the trial, forensic evidence indicated that Curtis was most likely killed by one of his fellow deputies, and so that charge was thus quietly dropped. Another contributing factor explaining the length and complexity of the trial was the IWW’s collective perception of it as a microcosm of the class struggle they were then passionately committed to winning.

Thomas H. Tracy was finally acquitted on May 5, 1917. Shortly thereafter, all charges were dropped against the remaining 73 defendants. There was no appeal — nor were charges ever filed against any of the citizen deputies who may have murdered the five Wobblies who also died in the massacre.

Sources: “Selection of Jurors to Try I.W.W. Started,” The Seattle Daily Times, March 5, 1917, p. 1; “First Jurors Selected in I.W.W. Case,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 6, 1917, p. 1; “Picking of Jury for I.W.W. Trial Moves Rapidly,” The Seattle Daily Times, March 6, 1917, p. 1; “Eight Women and Four Men in I.W.W. Jury,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 7, 1917, p. 1; “Jury to Try I.W.W. Case Not Yet Complete,” The Seattle Daily Times, March 7, 1917, p. 3; “Six Women and Six Men to Try I.W.W. Member,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 8, 1917, p. 1; “Opening of I.W.W. Murder Trial Is Delayed,” The Seattle Daily Times, March 8, 1917, p. 3; “Jury in Tracy Case Advised Against Bias,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 9, 1917, p. 1; “State Plunges into Detail of Everett Battle,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 10, 1917, p. 1; “I.W.W. Members Started Battle, Say Witnesses,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 11, 1917, p. 1; Walker C. Smith, The Everett Massacre: A History of the Class Struggle in the Lumber Industry (IWW Publishing Bureau, 1918; Da Capo Press, 1971); Anna Louise Strong, I Change Worlds: The Remaking of an American (H. Holt and Company, 1935; Seal Press, 1979); Murray Morgan, Skid Road: An Informal Portrait of Seattle (Viking Press, 1951; Ballantine Books, 1971; University of Washington Press, 1982); Norman Clark, Mill Town: A Social History of Everett (University of Washington Press, 1970); Richard C. Berner, Seattle 1900-1920: From Boomtown, Urban Turbulence, to Restoration (Charles Press, 1991).

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