When labor organizer Frank Little came to Butte, Montana in the summer of 1917 he had to have known that he was stepping, even on his one good leg, into the middle of a political powder keg. But going from frying pan to fire was fairly typical for Little. He’d been in Bisbee, Arizona earlier in 1917, another hot bed of labor and political upheaval, and along with a thousand others had been deported out of town and out of the state.
Trouble had a way of following Frank Little.
Ninety-six years ago on August 1, 1917 Frank Little was kidnapped at 3:00 am by a half dozen armed men. Having suffered a broken leg while in Arizona, Little hobbled out of the boarding house where he was living and into the street. His kidnappers tied him to the rear bumper of a big touring car and savagely pulled him through the dark streets of Butte. On the outskirts of town a rope was fastened to a railroad trestle and Little’s kidnappers and torturers became his murderers. When his body was cut down the next morning the IWW “radical,” who had come to Montana to recruit union members, agitate for better working conditions and oppose the United States’ involvement in The Great War in Europe, had a note affixed to his clothing. The note warned other “radicals” of a similar fate.
No one was ever charged with Little’s murder. It was a gruesome crime, a milestone in American and international labor history and remains to this day a near century old “cold case.” Newspaper editorials at the time essentially said Little had it coming. He was unpatriotic, the power structure contended, because he had openly challenged the war and should have been arrested for preaching sedition and attacking President Woodrow Wilson. In other words he was acting out his First Amendment rights.
Was Little murdered by agents of the mine owners of Butte? That’s my guess, but others have pointed to rival labor leaders or even citizen-vigilantes who were worried about what a prolonged period of labor unrest would mean for business and the profits flowing from a fully mobilized war economy. Maybe the killers were local law enforcement agents acting on orders from anti-union political leaders. I spent a day some months back digging in vain in the recently opened archives of the once-powerful Anaconda Mining Company, in its day one of the largest mining companies in the world, for any clue that “the Company” ordered Frank Little’s murder. Whomever did Little in covered their tracks pretty well.
Butte in 1917 must have been a hell of a place. One historian has called the one-time copper mining capitol of the world the only mining camp in the country that became an industrial center. Butte was home to vast, almost unimaginable wealth, but also desperate and unrelenting poverty.
One-time Butte Pinkerton detective turned detective writer Dashiell Hammett set his classic novel Red Harvest in a town that sounds a lot like Butte. “The city wasn’t pretty,” Hammett wrote, “an ugly city of forty thousand people, set in a ugly notch between two ugly mountains that had been dirtied up by mining. Spread over this was a grimy sky that looked as if it had come out of the smelter’s stacks.” I imagine that to be a pretty good description of Butte in 1917.
The mines operated, at least when miners weren’t striking, 24/7 and the taverns and whore houses did, as well. The “company” men – the shorthand for the swells who ran the Anaconda Mining Company – generally lived on the west side of Montana Avenue in grand houses. The Silver Bow Club – J.P. Morgan was a member – was as fancy as any New York “gentlemen’s club.” Caruso and dozens of other great acts played the theaters of Butte.
The miners came from Cornwall and County Cork, Finland and Serbia. The “no smoking” signs in the mines were printed in a dozen languages. If you needed to campaign for the state legislature or the city council you could best reach the voters in one of the dozens of bars in Butte where buying a round for the house constituted a wise campaign expenditure.
In June of 1917, just before Frank Little showed up to pour IWW gasoline on the already raging labor-management fires of Butte, 163 miners had died under awful circumstances at a mine in north Butte – The Speculator. A cable being lowered into the deep mine came in contact with a miner’s lamp and quickly flamed into a torch that ignited timbers in the mine. Most of the miners died quickly from the smoke although some struggled for days to breath and live while waiting for the rescue that never came. The disaster still ranks as the worst in American hard rock mining history.
The Speculator fire and all the death outraged the miners of Butte and set off strikes and protests that were seen by Frank Little and others as an opportunity. Little paid for seizing that opportunity with his life. His funeral procession through the streets of Butte was recalled years later by those who saw it as one of the great labor protests in American history.
Montana native Michael Punke’s marvelous 2006 book Fire and Brimstone tells the Speculator and related stories is vivid and tragic detail. Punke notes that “in 1930, a Justice Department official who studied the fire and its aftermath declared that ‘the story of Butte in 1917 was altogether normal for its time. Indeed, in that very normality lies the stories significance. What took place in Butte took place elsewhere as well. When we know the Butte story we know the others.'”
It is easy for us to forget as union membership in the United States continues to decline – down from nearly 18 million workers 30 years ago to just over 14 million today – that workers have long fought brutal battles in an effort to improve their lot. As labor historian Philip Dray has written, “the freedoms and protections we take for granted – reasonable hours, on-the-job safety, benefits, and the bedrock notion that employees have the right to bargain for the value of their labor…were not handed down by anyone or distributed ready-made, but were organized around, demanded, and won by workers themselves.”
The next time you hear a politician attack a labor union – Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, for example – or move to restrict worker rights pause and consider our history. A good part of the battle for the life of the modern American worker was fought in places like Butte, Montana and not so long ago.