Communists opened fire on a Veteran's Day parade in Washington, 1919. 4 dead, 4 wounded.
The Centralia Massacre and cover-up
1919 has often been described as a year of national hysteria. Government officials and ignorant Americans began to falsely claim that the country was on the verge of a communist revolution. They took out their unjustified fears of communism on immigrants, peaceful political dissidents, minority groups, and labor organizers.
A closer examination of 1919 reveals that these fears were not so unfounded. The period was marked by huge labor unrest, some of it sponsored by the communist-controlled union the International Workers of the World (IWW). More than 4 million workers, about 20% of the nation’s total workforce, would go on strike at some point during the year. Although the 1918 Seattle General Strike was put down without bloodshed, massive incidents of public violence followed the 1919 Boston Police Strike. That crisis was only ended with military intervention, thousands of uniformed soldiers pouring into Boston. Other large strikes paralyzed major cities.
Bloody racial conflicts broke out across the country. There were more than 36 large scale race riots. The death toll was supposedly in the hundreds. Although scholars have placed the blame for this racial turmoil almost exclusively on “white terrorism,” there is good reason to be skeptical of scholars.
There was an extended terrorist bombing campaign, primarily led by Italian Anarchists. Dozens of bombs were detonated in major cities and quiet suburban neighborhoods. These attacks would culminate in the 1920 Wall Street bombing, which killed 40 people outright and seriously injured more than 100 more. The perpetrators were never formally identified.
A huge crime wave accompanied this political and racial violence. The automobile enabled fast getaways and a wave of armed robberies. Further exacerbating problems was a huge tide of immigrants, more than 15 million between 1900 and 1915. These immigrants were often in desperate conditions. Many turned to crime. Building criminal cases against members of close-knit immigrant communities proved extremely difficult for law enforcement. Suspects could easily disappear and did all the time.
This was a scary period. These problems seemed new, they were all happening at once, and normal people had no idea what was going to happen next.
The Pacific Northwest was flashpoint of labor tension. It had a large transient population of laborers from the mining and logging industries. Many of these men were from overseas. Lacking moderating influences like local connections or families, these large groups of young men were prone to radicalization. Furthermore, the recent suppression of IWW organizing in Montana, Arizona, and Idaho led to a large number of radical laborers relocating to Seattle and surrounding areas in the hopes that they’d be able to operate more freely in a large cosmopolitan city.
The outbreak of WWI caused a huge boom in industrial and logging activity in the Pacific Northwest. The IWW was opposed to all war and IWW members were often very active in the anti-war and anti-draft movements. What followed was a wave of sabotage and work disruptions suspected to have been caused by IWW members. The founder of one logging company stated1 at a congressional hearing on the topic:
As soon as war started, the I. W. W. became very active in the woods. I do not know whether there was any connection between that organization and German agents. We met their opposition, which was manifested by driving spikes in logs, blowing up logging engines, starting fires in the woods, and anything else that would delay production.
Our company had one very bad fire that the I. W. W. set. We had an engine blown up and a man killed, though I cannot be sure that the I. W. W. did this. We found an average of one spike a week in the logs at the mill, whereas usually we found one in six months or one a year. One ship that sailed from Bellingham with lumber was reported on fire at sea from the result of a fire bomb set aboard before she sailed.
Not more than 20 percent of the men employed were engaged in such activities; the other 80 percent were loyal and earnest. When the loyal legion was formed, nearly all the loggers and millmen in the Northwest, including Oregon, Washington, and part of Idaho, joined. From that time on we had no trouble.
The “loyal legion” he was referring to was the Loyal Legion of Loggers and Lumbermen, a patriotic union organized by the US military to allow anti-IWW workers to organize. In 1917 an IWW-led strike seriously disrupted timber production, threatening the war effort. After the war, the Loyal Legion’s role as the primary social organ to oppose the IWW was taken over by the (then brand-new) American Legion. Although nominally an apolitical veteran’s organization, in practice the American Legion acted as a counterbalance to the increasingly disruptive public influence of radicalism in all forms. IWW members and Legionnaires regularly clashed across the region.
Aside from rioting and sabotage, conflicts between IWW members and locals became increasingly bloody. In 1916 the small town of Everett, Washington had a major problem with IWW organizing. The IWW organizers, there to support a 5-month strike at a local shingle factory, would hold meetings in city streets, shutting out all traffic and effectively taking over any area they rallied in. It was deliberately confrontational. Local police didn’t have the manpower to respond. After the city banned this behavior, the IWW refused to back down. Eventually, the locals forcibly ejected IWW members. Several were tarred and feathered, the rest were beaten with axe handles and run out of town.
IWW members in Seattle were incensed by this removal. They chartered two boats, loaded them up with 300 IWW members, many of whom were armed, and sent them back to Everett. When the first boat arrived, it was met by 200 locals led by the town sheriff. When the Sherriff told them they could not land at the town, one of the IWW members replied “The hell we can’t!” and a single shot rang out. A huge gun battle ensued, lasting for 10 minutes. IWW members crowded on the deck were forced into the water, where several drowned. The boat almost capsized and the pilot house was riddled with bullets. Both sides, tightly packed together, suffered casualties.
The boats retreated to Seattle and all of the survivors were promptly arrested. However, both sides claimed the other had shot first. With so much contradictory testimony and no hard evidence either way, a jury refused to convict the IWW members and all the charges were later dropped. Regardless, communist disruptions in Everett ended shortly afterwards.
Early in 1919, the communists attempted a General Strike of 65,000 workers in Seattle, the first of its size and scope in American history. Many claimed that it was the planned start of a communist revolution. Thanks to the quick-thinking of the town’s mayor, Ole Hanson, the strike was ended without any bloodshed. However, tensions remained.
Centralia, Washington was another town plagued by IWW organizing. Fights regularly broke out between IWW members and members of the American Legion. Exacerbating the situation was that some American Legion members from the area had been part of the limited American intervention during the Russian Civil War. Having witnessed Bolshevism firsthand, they saw the IWW’s presence as a barely-disguised attempt to implement a similar regime in America.
One of these American Legion members was Warren Grimm. Grimm was a high school football star who became a prominent attorney in Centralia. During World War I, he was deployed as an officer with the American Expeditionary Force to Siberia. Upon returning from Russia, he publicly spoke about the threat of Bolshevism to the United States.
In 1918, members of the local Elk Lodge, a patriotic fraternity backed by local businesses, broke away from a Red Cross parade through Centralia and suddenly stormed into the local IWW meeting hall. The IWW members were beaten and run out of town. The meeting hall was trashed, the literature destroyed, and all their furniture was tossed into the street and sold, nominally to benefit the Red Cross. No arrests were made and the Elk members weren’t otherwise punished.
Gradually, however, the IWW returned to town. They secured a new meeting hall. The tensions slowly flared up again. A partially-blind communist newspaper vendor was forced into a car, driven out of town, and told to stay out for good. The communists lost most encounters they had with the locals. When the communists heard another parade was planned on Armistice Day (today known as Veteran’s Day), they assumed it would be followed by another raid on their headquarters. These fears were bolstered when the local police said they could not provide special protection to the meeting hall: their men would be scattered all over town directing the parade and couldn’t be moved just on account of a rumor.
The communists consulted a local lawyer Elmer Smith, who was friendly to the far left. Smith said that it would be legal for them to defend themselves if their meeting hall was attacked. The communists took his words and hatched a plan that likely went far beyond his intent.
The communists stockpiled weapons and placed gunmen on the second floors of nearby buildings. They also had a three man sniper team placed on a nearby hill overlooking the intersection. Essentially, they created a massive killzone in front of their headquarters. If the rumored vigilante raid came during the parade, they would massacre the perpetrators.