Duluth’s Red Scare: The Wobblies

The Duluth office of the I.W.W. at 530 West First Street. (Image: Public Domain)

The evening scene was straight out of a civil libertarian’s nightmares. One hundred uniformed National Guardsmen marched in perfect formation through downtown Duluth to an office at 530 West First Street and abruptly came to a halt. One of them yelled, “Left wheel!” Then, according to a Duluth News-Tribune article describing what happened, the troops “broke ranks like jackrabbits and charged,” breaking windows with bricks and ripping apart the frames of the office door. One worker inside managed to escape the melee, but three others were beaten and kicked before being tossed aside.

Every piece of furniture inside was broken or overturned, wallpaper was ripped from the walls in sheets. Spittoons were kicked so that their disgusting contents spilled everywhere. Last, the soldiers grabbed every scrap of literature they could find, piled it all up on First Street, and turned it into a bonfire.

When the renegade soldiers finished, they returned to formation and marched to South First Avenue East—Finntown—and had what the newspaper called a “demonstration,” punctuated with some assaults, before scattering. Duluth police—though present according to many civilian witnesses—did nothing until afterward, when they took control of the damaged office.

It was Saturday, August 18, 1917. The office was the Duluth headquarters of the I.W.W.—the Industrial Workers of the World, also known as the Wobblies—and the action was reportedly precipitated by a fight on the previous night in which a guardsmen had been “stabbed.” The guardsman, Walter Schaeffer, had been cut across the nose by a suspected Wobbly. His wound required a bandage.

Duluth Police Chief Robert McKercher denied that the police had any advance warning or knowledge of the raid until it was over. He also announced that, henceforth, no I.W.W. meetings would be permitted in Duluth.

A Band of Working Folk

Three days after the unsanctioned raid on the I.W.W. headquarters, citizens packed the city council chambers to protest the raid, demanding that the city commissioners “affirm their stand for law and order and against mob rule,” and presenting three stacks of petitions collected by the Duluth Jewish Socialists and the Workmen’s Circle Branch 353; another petition was circulated at a citizens’ meeting at the Modern Woodmen Hall in Duluth’s West End. The petitions read:

“Whereas, There has happened in the city of Duluth a most violent outbreak against law and order, against citizens peaceably assembled in their meeting place in a lawful and orderly manner, and

Whereas, A company of soldiers in uniform broke in the doors and windows and did unlawfully enter with intent to destroy property, and did destroy books, furniture, pictures, records and all manner of property contained in the hall of a labor organization, and

Whereas, Members of the organization were beaten, kicked, struck and manhandled, and

Whereas, Citizens in no wise connected with the IWW were also manhandled and beaten, and

Whereas, This is only one of many deliberate attempts and raids on labor organizations going on throughout the country, and

Whereas,It is known that uniformed officers of the law were present and made no attempt to stop the soldiers from destroying property and beating citizens, and

Whereas, Such action leads to disrespect of law and order and tends to a condition of mob rule, Therefore,

Men and women members [of this organization] do hereby protest against such violent action and call upon your honorable body to bring to justice those who are guilty of this foul outrage and guarantee that the citizens of this city shall be protected in the future.”

The response from the commissioners seemed tepid, at best. Commissioner P. G. Phillips wanted to know what evidence there was that any police were “around at the time.” The crowd replied that they had 28 witnesses who had seen them. Chief McKercher again denied that the police could have prevented the raid. Mayor C. R. Magney asked for evidence to be provided from those who were there or “who had suffered” at the raid, but no one could present any. Eyewitness allegations were dismissed as hearsay. Magney said,

“We are agreed from the start that mob rule or the taking of the law in one’s own hands is always the worst plan of action. The city council offers scanty sympathy to such offenders. There is no doubt in my mind that the hand of the government is going to be stronger against the I.W.W. from now on, not against its propaganda for the betterment of labor, but against its disloyal and treasonable acts. They should, if disloyal, be treated by the legal forces of the government, and not by mobs or even individual action. The I.W.W. have gone out of their way to further the interests of alien enemies. They do not stand as a representative of labor unions. To the average American they have become treasonable. I offer this, not as an argument, but as an explanation of the events leading up to the deplorable incident. The city council agrees that mob rule should never be permitted where it can be stopped, and never sanctioned.”

The next day, an investigative board of Third Regiment officers convened to discuss the unsanctioned raid in a closed-door session. St. Louis County Public Safety Commission director William Prince—Duluth’s mayor from 1913 until March, 1917—wrote a letter to Minnesota Commissioner for Public Safety John Pardee declaring, “The wiping out of the IWW headquarters last Saturday evening, while theoretically a lawless act, is generally approved of, and is much more in line with public sentiment than the course pursued with reference to such headquarters by municipal officials. The existence of the place should not have been tolerated for some time past and wiping it out meets with general public approval.”

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Story by Heidi Bakk-Hansen. Originally published on Zenith City Online (2012–2017). Click here for more stories by Heidi Bakk-Hansen.