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Duluth’s Red Scare: The Wobblies

The staff of the Industrialisti outside their Duluth offices at 24 Lake Avenue North ca. 1920. (Image: Public Domain)

Praise Him for Wars We Love to Fight

From the beginning of the United States involvement in the Great War, Duluth business leaders had targeted the I.W.W. as their local enemy number one. Antagonism had been going on for years, beginning with Free Speech protests by the Duluth Socialists in the summer of 1911 and reaching a head during the ore-dockworkers’ strike in 1913.

There had been a deadly accident on the Allouez dock in Superior, which killed two men and seriously injured two others. The cause was poor signaling procedure, a known problem that had been ignored by the Great Northern Railway Company. Five hundred workers went out on strike, demanding changes to safety procedures and more of a voice in choosing competent foremen. The I.W.W. got involved, with their organizers playing a significant role in the strike, including Frank Little and local Leo Laukki, who was a teacher at the Finnish Work People’s College in Smithville. The Wobblies persuaded the workers to add a demand for better pay as well. The company bargained for half-measures, but strikers voted not to accept their offer. Strikebreakers were brought in along with armed guards, and five days after the strike began, work resumed on the docks.

In response, 600 workers at the Duluth, Missabe and Northern docks struck in solidarity with the workers of Superior. William A. McGonagle, who was president of the D.M.&N. (a subsidiary of U.S. Steel), blamed the strike on “outside agitators” and the I.W.W., and the two main newspapers supported him in this idea. Both railway companies withdrew all concessions and dug in, requiring all men to return to work or lose their jobs for good. Private guards hired by the Oliver Mining Company—also a U.S. Steel subsidiary—physically attacked Leo Laukki when he tried to speak to strikers near the docks, on public property. This move was not welcomed by Duluth Police, who noted that the guards had no business interfering in a public gathering and that the police could handle the “situation.”

Frank Little was kidnapped and held by armed guards at a farm in Carlton County. He was soon rescued by I.W.W. supporters, and subsequently a jubilant crowd filled the Duluth Armory to capacity in celebration. The next day, McGonagle fired all the strikers at the D.M.&N docks. Great Northern gave the strikers one chance to return, promising a raise of ten cents a day, but resolved that no Finns would be accepted back. The strike was over, but the I.W.W. had won a great deal of public support amongst the workers.

The Iron Range miners’ strike in the summer of 1916 and the participation of the Wobblies only tightened the resolve of Duluth’s power structure against them. The strike was over wages and the unfair contract system, in which mining captains could demand bribes from workers in exchange for decent work assignments. St. Louis County Sheriff John Meining hired a thousand private armed guards to oppose the strikers during their parades and rallies, attacking them violently on a daily basis. Two men were killed, one on each side.

Then the United States entered the war in Europe, and suspicion of immigrants reached a fever pitch throughout the country even though the vast majority of them supported the war effort. Those who were anti-war tended to be German and Scandinavian, and Duluth had large numbers of both. Finns in particular, who had immigrated to escape conscription into the Russian Army, often failed to register for the draft. Sixty young Scandinavian locals, most from West Duluth, gave up their chance at citizenship by avoiding conscription.

Labor was already split over tactics between the more conciliatory camps (like the American Federation of Labor) and the more radical Socialists, and the war split them further, with the I.W.W. taking a clear anti-war stance.

Be Patriotic… Or Else!

The Minnesota legislature created a body called the Minnesota Commission of Public Safety (MCPS). Its primary task was to ensure the loyalty of Minnesotans, to which end they sold war bonds, published propaganda, and sponsored public speeches. The local arm was led by the St. Louis County Public Safety Commissioner, William Prince. The commission required the registration of all Duluth’s aliens and their property and also forbade them from possessing firearms or explosives (even if they were farmers or hunters). The Commercial Club financed a “special military force” for the commission, which consisted of a network of detectives who spied on labor leaders. A vagrancy ordinance was passed that made it a crime to oppose or even plan to oppose the war.

Before the vagrancy ordinance was passed, unknown persons attempted a raid on the I.W.W. headquarters. According to Henry E. McGuckin in Memoirs of a Wobbly, a Preparedness Day parade passed in front of the hall. McGuckin recalled the event:

I was standing at the door of the hall when five or six young fellows went inside. I was at once troubled with a feeling that something was in the wind. I went into the hall and, going to the back, I called a few fellow workers over and said, “Back me up!” I shouted, “Out! All out! We’re going to close up the hall.” The young fellows looked sort of bewildered and one of them said, “I just want to stay awhile and read some of these booklets” I said, “Out! Right now!”

They were no doubt waiting for a signal of some sort. We rushed them out, and I told the secretary to lock up. He said they might break the doors and windows. I asked him what the hell he cared. At least no one would get killed. The parade went past, and the young fellows left. Without any band music or crowd, they lost their courage.

The windows were broken by bricks, but no one was hurt. It was May 5, 1917. In late June, the vagrancy ordinance went into effect, and the police immediately arrested sixteen Wobblies, including national I.W.W. leader Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, Leo Laukki, and Marie Baxter, an organizer of the Duluth Housemaids’ union. One man was charged additionally for “being in possession of certain literature derogatory to the government,” and four more—all Finns—were charged with evading the draft. The I.W.W. headquarters was also raided. The Duluth News-Tribune noted that the new ordinance permitted “Duluth authorities to arrest IWW agitators and other troublemakers as vagrants. Charge is placed against members of the IWW organization whether he has money or not, or even if he is employed.”

On July 31, 1917, Frank Little (who traveled as an organizer to strike hotspots nationwide) was dragged from his rooming house in Butte, Montana, by six men, tied to the rear of a car, and dragged face down out of town. He was found the next morning hanging from a railroad trestle—beaten, castrated, his kneecaps dragged off before he was killed. A note of warning was pinned to his underwear. The murderers were never caught.

Three weeks later, the renegade guardsmen committed their destructive raid in Duluth. But it was not the last. In the first week of September, there were nationwide raids on I.W.W. halls by federal officials bearing search warrants, including those in Duluth and Superior. They took files, books, and records to be inventoried in order to confiscate any that advocated sabotage. Included in the raid was the office of the Industrialisti, a Finnish language newspaper published by Leo Laukki, where “several wagon loads” of documents were confiscated, along with textbooks, account books, printing presses, and other machinery. No resistance was made, though the managing editor declared that the newspaper would be published as usual. None of the literature was later found to contain anything of a revolutionary nature or showing disloyalty.

Two days later, federal and local officials raided several homes and boarding houses in Finn Town, arresting sixty-nine “slackers” who could not immediately show their draft registration cards. Some were found in possession of I.W.W. literature, including song books and dues books. All the names of the arrested but two were clearly Finnish. Twenty-eight were released the next day because they were too old to fall under the draft. In jail, arrestees were forbidden from discussing the draft with visitors and required to speak English.

By October 21, Leo Laukki had been indicted with several other national I.W.W. leaders for conspiracy to “prevent, hinder and delay the execution of the laws of the United States pertaining to the carrying on of the war with the imperial German government; to threaten, injure and oppress and intimidate citizens supplying the United States with munitions; [and] obstruct recruiting and enlisting and otherwise hindering the government.”

Three weeks later, Duluth police arrested five people at an invitation-only anti-war meeting with five hundred attendees at Woodmen Hall. The speaker, pacifist and professor Scott Nearing, was arrested for “making utterances intended to hinder the progress of the war.” In fact, the raid began just at the climax of his speech, when he said, “We want peace, and we want it now!” When jailed, his jailers prohibited him from receiving a copy of “The New Freedom,” saying they didn’t realize it was a collection of writings by President Woodrow Wilson. The four others were arrested under the vagrancy ordinance.

Raids netting thousands of suspected slackers continued on a regular basis, though only a few of those arrested turned out to be actual draft-dodgers. One raid in Proctor led its organizer, H.G. Gilderman, to declare that,

Proctor was taken entirely by surprise. I do not believe that a dozen people in town knew that the drive was to be staged. The Home guard literally turned the village upside-down, giving it a good shaking, with the result that 91 will take every precaution and carry the card, while six—well I can’t say now what will happen to them.

In August 1918, the I.W.W. trials began in Chicago. Leo Laukki was sentenced to 20 years in prison along with other Wobbly leaders. Three weeks later, Olli Kinkkonen was kidnapped from his boarding house by Duluth vigilantes calling themselves the Knights of Liberty. His tarred and feathered body was found hanging in Lester Park on September 30; inexplicably, his death was declared to be a suicide.

The Great War ended on November 11, 1918.

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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.