Buck Like Thunder

The Wobblies, the Red Scare, and the Zenith City

A poster for the International Workers of the World. (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.

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

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.

An editorial cartoon indicating the central issues the I.W.W.' was concerned with. (Image: Public Domain)
An editorial cartoon indicating the central issues the I.W.W.’ was concerned with. (Image: Public Domain)

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:


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


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


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


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


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


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.”

This editorial cartoon appeared in the Duluth News Tribune on August 3, 1913. (Image: Zenith City Press)
This editorial cartoon appeared in the Duluth News Tribune on August 3, 1913. (Image: Zenith City Press)

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.”

The Wobblies, the Red Scare, and the Zenith City

3 Responses to Buck Like Thunder

  1. Thank you! These accounts are amazing! I can see where this info and Nathanson’s work can help us educate ourselves. The IWW global / local worker’s movement attempted to insert social justice and equity into a burgeoning American military industrial complex. As the article and comment point out, they met resistance from already established immigrants who controlled mining, steel and manufacturing already.

    My simplistic view interprets what I read to imply that WWI was for the industrialists, whose cause was supported by U.S. Gov.

    As teachers, we could learn a lot here- one big lesson comes from comparing 1910-1920 to 2000-2016, and comparing recent immigrant’s and laborer’s stories to the “established immigrants.”

  2. Thanks for your thoughtful comment, David! I ordered that Watchdog of Loyalty book a few days ago when I was looking up more info on the MCPS.

  3. Thanks for this great article that tells a story of WW I “over here” that rarely is told at the VFW or in a high school American History class.

    Yesterday (12/13/2015) in the editorial/commentary section of the Minneapolis Star Tribune the following article was written by Iric Nathanson entitled, “Dark Days for (modifier) Americans” on the Commission for Public Safety in MN during WW I…a WW I story rarely told in Minnesota high school American History classes (see: http://www.startribune.com/dark-days-for-modifier-americans-a-minnesota-historical-example/361626021/ ).

    I believe Mr. Nathanson is writing a book for the Minnesota Historical Society Press on “Minnesota in WW I,” to come out next year.

    Then this morning, your blog put meat on the bones of the Minneapolis Sunday paper article, that demonstrates a significant component of the anti-immigrant fear mongering was driven by MN businessmen and the MN Commission for Public Safety, who were using that public fear of immigrants “for cover” to break the backs of unions on the iron range and in Duluth and gain wage and working condition concessions…and had little to do with any national security issues. It was a dramatic fascist plot by business interests and government to use a national crisis to create a rein of terror of an authoritarian government during war-time years to further their business aims.

    An excellent book on the subject was produced by the Minnesota Historical Society and written by Carl H. Chrislock, entitled “Watchdog of Loyalty: The Minnesota Commission of Public Safety During World War I” (see: http://www.amazon.com/Watchdog-Loyalty-Minnesota-Commission-Public/dp/0873512634/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1450101848&sr=1-1&keywords=Watchdog+of+Loyalty%3A+The+Minnesota+Commission+of+Public+Safety+During+World+War+I ).

    The start of WW I was met in the Mid-West with mixed feelings, especially among immigrant farmers and union members who had recently escaped European countries that conscripted them into wars and petty conflicts. They had hoped for a better life here and were not interested in going to war.

    Arrayed against them were MN businessmen, made up of easterners of Scottish and English descent, who were earlier immigrants themselves, who did not look kindly on the new wave of immigrants, other than as a cheap labor force.

    The Great War was an easy excuse to play on people’s fears “of the other” and use loyalty issues as leverage to suppress immigrant wages and working conditions for the sake of war production of steel from MN iron ore.

    We faced little threat of a German immigrant “third column” in MN, but it was used as a means of defeating labor unions and suppressing demands for higher prices from immigrant farmers from many other European nations, whose crops fed America and its troops.

    Counter to the plans of the MN Commission of Public Safety, it threw both farmers and laborers together, in a rather odd political coalition… and this movement became the foundation, after WW I, of the Minnesota Democratic Farmer-Labor Party (DFL) that is still alive and kicking today.

    This is a fascinating part of our WW I history (like the 1918 flu pandemic) that is rarely talked about in American History circles when the Great War is discussed.

    I sense now, with all the anti-immigrant fervor and super-patriotism in the air, like in WW I, these WW I stories on the home front are coming out “to ring out danger and warning” of going too far in this anti-immigration fear-mongering among politicians. We know from history how that kind of movie turns out.

    Fearful people can do crazy things in times like these and can be exploited by those seeking political or financial gain, or, in the case of WW I, leverage the public fear of the ” foreigner” to maintain ways of making money for their business at the expense of other public priorities or concerns. It is the kind of fascism that is right out of Hitler’s playbook using fear of other nationalities or religions to propel his rise to power in Germany…and we all know how that movie turned out in WW II.

    Didn’t Solomon say in the Bible, “There is nothing new under the sun”…just history repeating itself with a new group of people ignorant of the past.

    We all in these days could learn something from WW I history “over here” as well as “over there.”

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