Thursday Nov 30

EXCERPT - Looking at the Wobblies Under the Iron Heel

“I simply never can get over seeing these men in the penitentiary,” wrote Abby Scott Baker after spending two days in May 1923 visiting political prisoners at the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas. A prominent suffragist who had herself been sentenced to jail six years earlier for picketing the White House, Baker declared that the visit to Leavenworth had “put scars on my soul.” She did not know which sickened her “with helpless pity most,” she wrote of the men she visited, “the ones who are holding out for principles, with anguish in their eyes like that of drowning men, or the ones who have broken, who simply cannot stay in that nightmare of living death.”

One of the men Baker visited was Ralph Chaplin. Writing years later, Chaplin recalled Leavenworth as “a feverish world of explosive repression and frustrations,” marked by assaults, sexual exploitation, and constant snitching. “Life in prison went on, day by day, relentlessly. We had to harden ourselves to avoid cracking up emotionally,” he said. Amid all the dangers and insults, the indignities and boredom, Chaplin found relief from his suffering in letters from his family, from Upton Sinclair, and from his friend George Sterling, a bohemian poet whose photograph, hanging in his cell with that of his wife and child, gave Chaplin “much strength.” But when Baker met him, she thought Chaplin had “reached the limits of what he can bear.”

Chaplin was among 171 IWWs convicted in the three big federal conspiracy trials in Chicago, Sacramento, and Kansas City. A few other Wobblies, some also affiliated with the Socialist Party or with tenant-farmer organizations, were convicted on similar charges, either individually or in smaller groups. Among these was one Elmer Kumpula. Convicted in Portland on December 30, 1919, mainly on the basis of having publicly said things like “the United States was not a free country” and the nation was “no good for the workingman,” Kumpula was sentenced to a year in the county jail. Unlike hundreds of other defendants who were convicted of violating the Espionage Act and other wartime or state security statutes during this period and who escaped with fines, probation, deportation, or, sometimes, short jail terms, almost all of these IWW defendants were imprisoned, most at Leavenworth. Prison was likewise the most common fate of the 300 Wobblies convicted of felony criminal syndicalism, of whom about 250 were sent to state prisons.

In the eyes of their fellow workers these men were martyrs, not unlike Christ himself. One of these martyrs was C. E. “Stumpy” Payne, who served ten months and twenty-five days in the Washington State Penitentiary at Walla Walla. Payne was a one-time editor of the IWW’s New Solidarity newspaper and a member of the union’s general defense committee, which was formed in 1917 to meet that period’s surge of repression. He was arrested two days before Christmas 1919 and a day after the sheriff entered his small ranch while he was away, without a warrant, and discovered a trove of IWW materials. In a two-part article published by the Seattle Star, Payne declared it “very doubtful” that the “citizens of Washington had the faintest suspicion of the villainy being constantly practiced in their name.” The prison was ruled by fear, he wrote, administered via a range of penalties from denial of exercise privileges to confinement in the “dark hole” or “Burke’s dungeon” or in another place known as “Siberia” or the “slaughter house,” in tribute to “the number of men who have been killed in it.”

When Baker paid her visit to Leavenworth, Big Bill Haywood had traded prison for exile. His physical and mental health compromised and his faith in how revolution might be accomplished transferred to the communist movement, Haywood apparently worried that a return to prison would amount to a death sentence. In April 1921 he, along with eight others convicted in the Chicago conspiracy trial, jumped bail and never returned to serve their sentences. But in the six months he spent there before getting out on bail, Haywood had time to formulate an opinion about Leavenworth. In his estimation, “like all prisons, it was a vicious place.”

So was San Quentin, where roughly one third of all Wobblies who went to prison were incarcerated. If their hunger for the works of Jack London had led them, as it did Haywood, to read his 1915 novel The Star Rover, they knew from this story what horrors awaited them there, especially in the prison’s “dungeon.” The novel’s main character, Darrell Standing, “rotted for five years” in that underground vault, where he heard men “rave and howl in the darkness” and where he learned to flee his own thoughts, for in those thoughts “lay madness.” Indeed, to be locked up in San Quentin’s dungeon meant weeks in darkness, on bread and water, with no bed or chair, only rags or straw on a wet floor. There inmates really did discover, like Standing, that unless they could find and hold to something transcendent in their suffering, they would be destroyed. Dozens of Wobblies confined at San Quentin, perhaps even a majority, served time in one of the dungeon’s 150 cells. Some who did, like Abe Shocker, were destroyed. One of ten Wobblies convicted of criminal syndicalism in a trial in Los Angeles in December 1921, after they declined an offer to escape prosecution by leaving town and renouncing the IWW, Shocker was cast into San Quentin’s dungeon in the summer of 1923 because he refused to work in the prison’s jute mill. After forty- two days he suffered a breakdown, was hospitalized for a few days, and ordered back to work. He refused again and was again thrown in the dungeon. Shocker suffered another breakdown and this cycle was repeated with another stay in the prison hospital and another consignment to the dungeon. Finally, Shocker’s “mind gave way,” as his fellow Wobblies put it, and on August 9, 1923, he hanged himself.

The dungeon was commonly used, along with solitary confinement in more conventional cells, to punish Wobblies for engaging in organized protests. The most frequent protests concerned work in the jute mill, where, these defendants said, the dust sickened a man and shortened his life; where, with the machinery unguarded, “not a week passes” without men being “maimed or crippled for life” or developing “blood-poisoning or lockjaw.” There were approximately ten major protests by Wobblies over work in the jute mill. The largest occurred in June 1924, when nearly all the Wobblies at San Quentin, about ninety, struck in support of two fellow workers who could no longer bear the work. They marched in formation to the office of the warden, who dismissed their complaint; so they marched back to the mill and stood with arms folded. For this, they were put on bread and water and given twelve days in solitary.

There were protests like these elsewhere. In the spring of 1919, Wobbly inmates in Idaho struck over living conditions at a prison farm where they had been sent. This followed a more serious episode at Leavenworth in December 1918, when some twenty “mutinied” in pro- test of being put to work loading coal during what was usually a rest period. In punishment, some of the men were chained seven hours a day for days on end to the doors of the isolation cells, their arms pulled up over their heads. In another episode at Leavenworth, in April 1919, a number of Wobbly inmates were charged with instigating a riot in the cafeteria. For this, they were thrown into the “dark hole,” where, in a ruthless test of their racial tolerance, they were beaten senseless by black trustees armed with clubs.

Prisoners were often beaten, and sometimes these beatings were also the impetus to protest. In October 1923, for instance, fifty-eight Wobblies at San Quentin were briefly put in solitary after striking to protest the beating of one of their men by a guard and that man’s confinement in the dungeon. The next month, seventy-one Wobblies struck over another beating and were placed in the dungeon and in solitary. That fall, officers with the California branch of the general defense commit- tee filed charges with the prison board, asserting that the warden at California’s Folsom State Prison, where most other Wobbly defendants in the state were confined, was responsible for the “unmerciful” beating of a Wobbly named Louis Allen. Already in solitary, Allen had inquired about another inmate who had been sent to “the hole,” and so the guards wrapped him in a blanket, dragged him to a secluded place, and pummeled him.

Overcrowding was common in prisons in the early twentieth cen- tury, and Wobbly inmates suffered from this too. When not working or in isolation, they were often jammed together with two or three other prisoners in the small cells. On occasion, the overcrowding reached outrageous levels. In 1922, Warden James Johnston at San Quentin reported that “every possible expedient” was being employed to accommodate the institution’s swollen population. Walter Wismer experienced these expedients, sleeping with forty other men on the floor under other inmates’ beds. On April 22 of that year, he therefore went “to the office” and announced that he would do no more work in the jute mill until this situation was redressed. Wismer and his fellow inmates got their beds, but first they paid a price: The authorities threw him and thirteen other Wobblies who had joined his protest into the dungeon.

Wobblies at Leavenworth were able to consort with other leftists, forming a kind of “revolutionary university” behind bars, wherein ideas were debated and exchanged. Their large numbers likewise made it easy for Wobblies to convene at San Quentin and Walla Walla. No doubt they found comfort and support and sometimes enlightenment in each other’s company and in conversation with other leftists. But a prison is not a university, let alone a welcoming place for radical ideas, and Wobblies complained everywhere of being singled out for additional mistreatment: of having their mail censored, being denied visiting privileges, and being surveilled by special details of guards. As their prison records reveal, it was easy for men such as these, in turn, to accumulate a great number of infractions for violating the institutions’ oppressive controls. The record of Richard Brazier, a member of the union’s general executive board and a Chicago defendant who was confined at Leavenworth, is fairly typical. It lists, among other violations, “insolence” and “raising hell in general,” saying “hello” to other inmates, being late for bugle call, and refusing to break rocks, as many inmates were required to do, day after day. Joe Neil was another “confirmed disturber” and was pun- ished with “solitary” and “bread and water” for infractions that ranged from fighting, to “smoking cigarettes,” to “having cigarette papers in his possession,” to backtalk and “insolence.”

Neil seems to have had a knack for escaping. At some point while serving his time in Wisconsin for throwing rocks at a brakeman, he escaped. Eight years later, during the war, Neil was arrested in Arizona for distributing IWW literature and escaped again, only to be recaptured in Los Angeles eight weeks after, and then paroled in April 1920. Neil did not escape once he was arrested for criminal syndicalism. But others did. In July 1920, Wobblies Fred Morgan, William Nelson, and Joe Martin were among a group of defendants who escaped the Idaho State Penitentiary, later to be tracked down with bloodhounds. Two months later, Leo Brookshire briefly escaped from Walla Walla while serving a criminal syndicalism sentence. With two other inmates, Leo Ellis sawed through the bars at the Stockton, California, jail in May 1920, after being sentenced to one to four years for criminal syndical- ism. Ellis was captured in Texas six years later, returned to California, and ordered to serve two years. Freed in September 1928, he was the last IWW criminal syndicalism defendant to leave prison.

Like Abe Shocker, Frank Hastings was never to leave prison alive. Convicted of criminal syndicalism in Olympia in January 1920, he died three years later at Walla Walla of “chronic intestinal nephritis,” age fifty. Still other union men made it out of prison only to die soon after- ward. Three, we know, died within two and a half years of their release from federal custody of tuberculosis either contracted in prison or aggravated by their time in custody: Tomas Martinez, a Mexican national convicted of violating the Espionage Act in Tucson in June 1918, both an IWW and a follower of Ricardo Flores Magón; William Weyh, convicted in the Chicago conspiracy case; and James Mulrooney, one of the silent defenders in the Sacramento case. R. V. Lewis survived his time behind bars, but when he was released from San Quentin in 1922, it was with- out one of his legs, which had been amputated because authorities “waited until too late” to treat an abscess he had developed.

Some left prison with devastating injuries to their minds. Among these was criminal syndicalism defendant John “Jack” Beavert, who lost his mind three years into his sentence at San Quentin. Beavert was transferred to the state asylum at Talmadge in March 1928, released two months later, and then recommitted a month after that. Olin Anderson, who suffered some kind of collapse in the Cook County jail, where he also developed tuberculosis, and then went to Leavenworth, died within two years of his release at the State Hospital for the Insane in his native Montana. And then there was Fred Esmond, the silent defender who had so courageously told Judge Frank Rudkin he would accept neither mercy nor pity. Before being prosecuted in Sacramento, Esmond was among the union’s most militant voices. Two years into a ten-year sentence at Leavenworth, Esmond began to speak incoherently and incessantly and could not stop rubbing his face, which was soon covered in sores. After medical examinations prompted by Caroline Lowe, Esmond was declared by the warden “a fit subject for the asylum.” And, in the summer of 1921, he was removed to the grim confines of St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., where he remained for two more years. Esmond’s wife, Leone, suffered her own breakdown. According to the newspapers, she responded to his crisis by sending threatening letters to several prominent people in California, including a former U.S. attorney, and for a time faced criminal syndicalism charges herself. Other families caught up in these cases endured in less dramatic but still heartrending ways. Chicago defendant E. F. Doree, a compliant inmate, was twice given leave from Leavenworth to visit his ill son back in Philadelphia. But this kind of accommodation was not typical. Doree’s fellow defendant, Luigi, or Louis, Parenti, went fifteen months at Leavenworth before the warden allowed him to contact his wife and three children. Joseph Gresbach was one of three married men convicted in the Kansas conspiracy case. At sentencing, his lawyers reminded the court that Gresbach’s wife “was not strong, and has no funds.” After going on about how punishment “falls more heavily on the innocent than the guilty,” Judge John Pollock sent all the married defendants to prison and gave Gresbach three and a half years.

Indeed, the weight of punishment fell very heavily on the families of these men, often in very telling ways. A. S. Embree’s family suffered during his time in the Idaho State Penitentiary, as we have seen. Three years into a five-year term in that prison, Wobbly Harris Herd asked the parole board to consider what his incarceration was doing to his wife and child. They were in Kansas living “in very moderate circumstances” with relatives who could not afford to provide “even the plainest necessities of life.” The wife was performing farm work, which was bound to “bring her health down,” he said, “and was unable to provide suitable clothing for herself [sic] and the child.”

On April 9, 1920, Nicholaas Steelink wrote to his wife, Fannia, from the Alameda County jail in Oakland. “I cried a little last week, the day I was sentenced,” he confessed. Days later, his words weighted with intimations of grief and apprehension, Steelink tried to remind himself that his situation was not so bad as he gazed upon a black murder defendant at the jail who worriedly awaited his fate. Steelink tried to reassure Fannia and probably himself about what he would face at San Quentin. “Not that I’m afraid to go, for they all tell me it’s not so terrible up there after all.” But two years of prison were terrible for Steelink, as they would have been for any decent person. His letters to Fannia confirm this, detailing worries about her health, about whether she could find work and keep up with living expenses, about his own health, as he seemed worn down and was chronically ill, about his prospects for bail, and, later, about when he might finally be released. Most of all, it seems, Steelink missed his wife.


AHMED A. WHITE the Nicholas Rosenbaum Professor of Law at the University of Colorado in Boulder, Colorado.  Under the Iron Heel is available from the University of California Press at www.ucpress.edu