Everett Massacre (1916)

  • By Margaret Riddle
  • Posted 12/18/2011
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9981

The Everett Massacre of  Sunday, November 5, 1916, has been called the bloodiest labor confrontation in Northwest history. On that day a group of Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), also known as Wobblies, traveled from Seattle to Everett aboard the steamers Verona and Calista, intending to speak at the corner of Hewitt and Wetmore avenues in support of a strike by local shingle-weavers. A group of citizen-deputies under the authority of Snohomish County Sheriff Donald McRae (1868-?) refused to let them land. A shot was fired, followed by several minutes of gunfire that killed at least five Wobblies and two deputies. The ships returned to Seattle, where 74 IWW members were arrested and taken back to the Snohomish County jail. Teamster Thomas H. Tracy was first to be tried, for the murder of Jefferson Beard. In the dramatic trial that followed, held in Seattle, Tracy was acquitted and the other Wobblies were released.

Mill Town/Labor Town

Once proud to call itself the "City of Smokestacks," Everett was built as an industrial city, heavily funded by East Coast investments. The city's first industries were a paper mill, a nail factory, a whaleback bargeworks, a smelter, an iron works, and numerous lumber and shingle mills. By 1910 the Everett waterfront had shipbuilders, a cannery, a flour mill, and two iron works, but its economic strength increasingly came from the lumber and shingle trade. Mill owners were tough businessmen like David Clough (1846-1924), Roland Hartley (1864-1952), Fred Baker, and timber boss Joe Irving (1868-1953). Along with banker William Butler (1866-1944) and a group of Everett businessmen called the Commercial Club, these men held enormous power in town.

From its early years, Everett also was a union town. Trades (or crafts) unions formed almost as soon as the city began, and while most of these languished in the Silver Panic of 1893 and the depression years that followed, by 1900 the country was once again prosperous and union strength grew. The 1904 Polk's city directory for Everett lists the following trades unions in Everett: Barbers; Bartenders, Blacksmiths and Horseshoers; Brewery Workers; Bricklayers; Carpenters and Joiners; Cigarmakers; Cooks, Waiters, and Waitresses; the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW); Building Laborers; Longshoremen; Machinists; Meatcutters; Musicians; Painters; Plasterers; Plumbers; Pressmen; Sheet Metal Workers; Shingle Weavers; Shirtwaist and Laundry Workers; Stage Employees; Steam Engineers; Switchmen; Tailors; Teamsters; Tinners and Wood Workers; Typographers; and Woodsmen and Sawmill Workers.

With the arrival of a large immigrant population during the first decade of the twentieth century (some of whom advocated conservative socialism), union membership grew. Everett became one of the strongest union towns in the Pacific Northwest. In January of 1909, the Labor Journal began publication from the local union hall on Lombard Avenue, and the city even supported a Socialist Party weekly newspaper, The Commonwealth, from 1911 to 1914.

The Shingle Weavers

Everett became a major exporter of red-cedar shingles, and shingle weavers in 1910 considered themselves well paid at $4.50 a day, compared to $2.25 a day for workers in the logging camps. But shingle mills were highly dangerous places. Workers usually put in 10-hour shifts, and early twentieth-century technology brought machines that were designed for efficient production, not safety. Unshielded saws ran fast and the mill interiors were dark and damp. Accidents were common, and it was said that a shingle worker could be identified by his missing digits. Some lost their lives in accidents, but more fell victim to cedar dust. As cedar was cut, sawdust rose in clouds and filled workers' lungs, causing a condition commonly referred to as "cedar asthma." For many, this led to a slow and agonizing death.

The title "shingle weaver" most strictly described workers who stacked and bundled shingles and whose agility and dexterity resembled that of a skilled weaver, but it also came to be applied to all shingle-mill workers, including sawyers, filers, and packers. The Shingle Weavers Union was strong in good times and weak when the economy slumped. Everett's lumber-mill and shingle-mill owners increasingly resolved to control their workers.

The IWW versus the Trades Unions

A radical union called the Industrial Workers of the World formed in 1905 in Chicago with the aim of recruiting workers into "One Big Union." Appealing to workers worldwide, they challenged the policies of the American Federation of Labor (AFL).  AFL members were skilled workers proud of their individual craft unions, the result being that there might be a dozen craft unions in one plant, while the unskilled workers belonged to no union at all. The IWW believed that greater strength came from uniting across the trades, across class, across gender, and across the world.  

The Wobblies began organizing miners and lumber and shingle workers in the Pacific Northwest and were especially successful in recruiting members from the logging camps. Wobbly success with the loggers led IWW organizers to recruit laborers in the cities. As with the individual trades unions, IWW strength rose and fell with the economy.

In 1909, Ernest Marsh (1877-1963) was the executive secretary of the Everett Shingle Weavers Union, president of the Everett Trades Council, and editor of the Labor Journal newspaper. Uncomfortable with the Socialists and the Wobblies, who shared a distain for the trades unions, Marsh used the pages of his newspaper to argue the trades-union (AFL) position.

Defending Free Speech

Meanwhile, events in Spokane were to affect Everett. On New Year's Day 1909, a Spokane ordinance prohibiting street meetings became effective, largely targeting IWW street speakers who had come to the city the previous year to oppose exploitive employment practices. Among the targets of the Wobblies were 31 employment agencies that had set up shop in the city to sell work to transient and casual workers at the rate of a dollar a job.  

Throughout the summer of 1909, Wobbly organizers continued their public speaking, but complied with the restrictions of the ordinance. However, Salvation Army evangelists were allowed more leniency for their public proselytizing, and the Wobblies challenged the city for violation of their free speech rights. They called on their membership nationwide to come to Spokane to test the ordinance, and soon Spokane's jails were full of IWW protestors, with more on the way.

Among those jailed in Spokane was Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (1890-1964), a young Wobbly who had come west to organize. In January of 1909 she spoke in Everett, recruiting members for the IWW. The Wobblies' passive-resistance tactics in Spokane were so effective that on March 9, 1910, the Spokane City Council voted unanimously to repeal the ordinance.

Everett citizens watched the Spokane situation from afar, and industrialists and mill owners no doubt watched with trepidation. Everett workers gave money to support the Spokane cause and Wobbly speakers appeared in Everett alongside the Salvation Army at various locations on Hewitt Avenue.

The IWW needed a cause in Everett, and it found one in 1912 when a group of temporary, non-union workers took jobs with the Great Northern Railway to clear a mudslide from its tracks. When they were paid, these workers could not get their checks cashed in town. Wobbly support for the workers spurred the City of Everett to pass Ordinance No. 1501 on February 18, 1913. This imposed restrictions on speaking locations along Hewitt Avenue, and although IWW speakers continued to speak, they did set up their soapboxes in compliance with the ordinance.

The Events of 1916

Although the lumber economy soared in 1912, the years 1914 and 1915 brought deep economic depression to the region, and the shingle-weavers' pay scale decreased. Workers struggled to survive; many took non-union jobs, and some even looked to jail for their room and board.

In January 1916 shake prices began to rise, and when "clears" (the best-quality cedar shakes) hit $1.71 a square, Ernest Marsh set out to rebuild the state's branch of the Brotherhood of International Shingle Weavers of America. This time it would unite all shingle-mill employees and become more of an industrial union than an individual craft trade union. Setting a target date of May 1, the shingle-weavers union demanded a return to the 1914 wage scale. Companies throughout the state complied, but Everett mills did not, and the mill owners refused to even meet with union representatives. On May 1, 1916, Everett's shingle weavers went on strike, and Marsh himself headed the strike committee.

The Wobblies had suffered in the hard times too, and when the economy rebounded they sought to rebuild their membership by supporting the Everett shingle-weavers' strike. They brought in one of their most persuasive IWW speakers, James Rowan (1879-1963), who spoke in Everett on July 31, 1916. Rowan drew a large crowd of spectators, including Jake Michel (1866-1955), secretary of the Everett Building Trades, who came to argue politics.

The Snohomish County sheriff at this time was Donald McRae, a former shingle weaver who had been elected on the Progressive Party ticket with strong union support. He lived in Marysville, a small town whose economy depended largely on logging. McRae had experience dealing with the IWW and considered them to be outside agitators, and Everett's mill bosses increasingly relied on him to help rid the county of the troublesome Wobblies. At the July 31 rally, Sheriff McCrae pulled Rowan down from the speaker's platform, took him to the county jail, and then released him with a warning. Rowan returned to his soapbox and this time was carted off to the city jail and released again, after which he returned to Seattle.

Encouraged that no violence had occurred, the Seattle Wobbly office sent a one-armed, 37-year old organizer, Levi Remick, to set up an IWW office in Everett on the west end of Hewitt Avenue. Remick was a skillful organizer and speaker, and his office distributed copies of the Industrial Worker, a Wobbly daily newspaper that published in-depth coverage of the shingle-weavers' strike.

Tensions escalated. On August 19, 1916, mill owner Neil Jamison (Jamison Mill) brought in strike breakers who clubbed the strikers at his mill. The shingle-weavers' union issued grievances and held McRae responsible for not stopping the violence

The Wobblies sent their best speaker to Everett -- James P. Thompson (1873-1949), the organizer who had led the successful free-speech fight in Spokane. On the evening of August 22, 1916, he measured off the required 50 feet from Hewitt Avenue, set up his speaker's platform, mounted it, and for the next 20 minutes spoke to the crowd in support of the Everett shingle weavers. When Sheriff McCrae pulled Thompson down from the soapbox and dragged him away, James Rowan took his place. He was also arrested, and was followed by other Wobbly orators. Then Letelsia Fye of Everett mounted the platform and began reading the Declaration of Independence. She too was hauled away, followed by Jake Michel, who was arrested and released.

Surprisingly, the Wobblies' Everett office continued to operate undisturbed. But on August 29, mill-owner Jamison marched his strike breakers to the Everett Theater in a show of defiance. Another mill owner, David Clough, tried to link the Wobblies and the trades unions, but the shingle weavers' Ernest Marsh insisted that his Trades Council had neither encouraged nor discouraged IWW support.

Everett's industrial elite depended more and more on Sheriff McRae to drive the Wobblies out of town, and McRae was eager to comply. As the repression worsened, trades unionists and many Everett citizens who disagreed philosophically with the Wobblies began supporting the Wobblies right of free speech and protesting the violent tactics of the sheriff.

Ordinance No. 1501 had regulated street speaking, but had been written by socialists and was designed primarily to keep crowds away from the busy Hewitt Avenue thoroughfare. In September of 1916 Everett passed a new and sterner ordinance, No. 1746, which was clearly intended as a punctuation mark to show that the authorities meant business. 

Incident at Beverly Park

On the evening of October 30, 1916, a small boatload of Wobblies arrived at the Everett City Dock with the intention of speaking on the corner of Hewitt and Wetmore avenues. They were met by more than 200 armed deputies authorized by Sheriff McRae and were told they could only speak at a location away from the center of town. The IWW members refused, and some were beaten at the dock.

Deputies then loaded the Wobblies into waiting trucks and cars and drove them to a remote wooded area near the Beverly Park interurban station southeast of town. In darkness and a cold rain, McRae's men formed two lines from the roadway to the interurban tracks and forced the Wobblies to run a gauntlet that ended at a cattle guard. One by one the men were beaten with clubs, guns, and rubber hoses loaded with shot. A family living nearby was startled by the shouts, curses, cries, and moans they heard and came to witness the brutal scene. The injured were left to get back to Seattle any way they could.

The next morning Everett residents were enraged at the stories told of the previous evening’s brutality. An investigating committee was formed that including Rev. Oscar McGill of Seattle and labor leaders Jake Michel and Ernest Marsh. Even though it had rained hard all night, the committee found the area still heavily stained with blood. In a report  to the State Federation of Labor, Marsh wrote, “There can be no excuse for, nor extenuation of, such an inhuman method of punishment” (Smith, 69-70). The events at Beverly Park hung like a dark cloud over the city, firming the resolve of both the authorities and IWW members.

A Very Bloody Sunday

On Sunday, November 5, 1916, about 300 Wobblies boarded the steamers Verona and Calista in Seattle and headed north toward Port Gardner Bay. They planned a public demonstration in Everett that afternoon on the corner of Hewitt and Wetmore.

Rumors had reached Everett that the Wobblies planned to burn the town. Two hundred citizen deputies under Sheriff McRae's authority gathered at the Everett City Dock at west end of Hewitt Avenue to stop their debarkation. The Verona came in first and pulled along the south side of the dock. Raising a hand, McRae asked "Who is your leader?" When he was told "We are all leaders!" he replied "You can't land here!" A single shot was fired, followed by several minutes of chaotic gunfire. Whether the first shot came from boat or dock was never determined.

Passengers aboard the Verona rushed to the opposite side of the ship, nearly capsizing the vessel. Bullets pierced the pilot house, and the Verona's captain struggled to back the boat away from the dock, then headed back to Seattle. The Calista did not try to land.  

Deputies Jefferson Beard (1871-1916) and Charles Curtis (d. 1916) lay dying on the dock, and 20 others, including Sheriff McRae, were wounded. Wobblies Hugo Gerlot (1893-1916); Abraham Rebenovitz, often misspelled "Rabinowitz" (1886-1916); Gustav Johnson (1894-1916); and John Looney (1891-1916) lay dead on the Verona's deck. Another, Felix Baran (1894-1916), lay dying. While the "official" count of  IWW casualties was five dead and 27 wounded, as many as 12 Wobblies probably lost their lives that day, their bodies later recovered surreptitiously from Port Gardner Bay.

And Wobblies were not the only passengers aboard the Verona that day. Oscar Carlson, who was not a member of the IWW,  was shot 11 times and sued the steamboat company for his injuries. He did not win.

When the Verona and Calista returned to Seattle, 74 Wobblies on board were arrested and brought back to the Snohomish County jail in Everett. Teamster Thomas H. Tracy was the first brought to trial, charged with the murder of Deputy Jefferson Beard. The town called for National Guard troops from Seattle, and terror hung over Everett for several days as armed deputies policed the streets

The Wobblies prepared for a large funeral at Seattle's Mount Pleasant Cemetery on Queen Anne Hill, and in a ceremony officiated by English poet Charles Ashleigh, a large group of IWW members, their families, and friends buried Looney, Baran, and Gerlot. The bodies of Rebenovitz and Johnson were returned to their families in other states. Snohomish County Deputy Jefferson Beard was buried in Evergreen Cemetery, Everett.

The Tracy Trial

The dramatic and much-publicized trial of Thomas Tracy was held in Seattle, and what is popularly known of the proceedings comes from Walker C. Smith, a Socialist writer and editor and a leading member of the IWW. His book, The Everett Massacre, was intended to reveal the injustices committed against the working classes of that city.

After relating the events that led up to the November 5th confrontation, Smith followed the court proceedings and recounts the testimony of numerous witnesses, bringing the trial, with its many memorable characters, to life. He wrote passionately in support of the IWW cause, but portrayed Sheriff McRae as a hopeless drunk.  

Thomas H. Tracy was acquitted. His Wobbly trial lawyer, George F. Vanderveer (1875-1942), considered this to be one of the notable victories of his career, and it was certainly a high-water mark for IWW activity in the Pacific Northwest. A series of photographs submitted at trial (re-enactments taken in the winter of 1916-1917) are now in the Everett Public Library's collection and are the only surviving views that show the Everett City Dock as it was at the time of the Massacre.

While the other 73 Wobblies waited to be tried, the Everett Prisoners' Defense Committee raised money for their release. Although a good deal of the money came from the IWW, local unions and other supporters also made many generous contributions. These prisoners were released.

The  Decline of the Wobblies

The Everett Massacre stood as a big win for the IWW, and the Wobblies issued a series of postcards to remember its martyrs: photos of bodies of the Wobbly dead, their death masks, the funeral ceremony in Seattle, and political cartoons by artists Morris Pass (1894-1990) and Leon S. Chumley (1885-1938). These powerful images helped draw new IWW members.

The death blow came to the Wobblies during World War I. James Thompson's prediction of the U.S. empire's demise did not sit well with the country's growing mood of nationalism. When the Wobblies took a stand against America's entry into the war in 1917, nearly 100 of its members were jailed and convicted under the Espionage Act for conspiring against the draft and encouraging desertion. Both James Thompson and James Rowan served time in the federal prison at Leavenworth, Kansas.

Other world events also began to divide the Wobblies. Some advocated pushing for revolution and others, saddened by the tragedy that was playing out in Russia, longed for something better. As IWW leader Ralph Chaplin (1887-1961) pointed out in his 1948 book, Wobbly, when he saw the first list of those executed in the Russian purges, it contained the names of at least 100 of his IWW friends.

A Lasting Fascination

With the plethora of violence in our modern-day world, it is intriguing to consider why the Everett Massacre still draws the interest of students, historians, writers, filmmakers, and dramatists. Part of it may be the event's cast of larger-than-life characters, and some may draw a parallel to current times, with the increasingly unequal distribution of wealth. Then there is the allure of so many mysteries that remain from that day. Who fired first? Were deputies Curtis and Beard killed by friendly fire? (The bullet that killed Beard entered his back and his widow kept his jacket as proof.) How many Wobblies actually died? Were the deputies drunk when they met the ships, as was said in stories passed down through families?

And what about Sheriff Donald McCrae? How did a man who was elected to office with strong union support end up becoming the iron hand of the Everett industrial elite? Because of his role in the repression of the IWW and his handling of events that led to the Everett Massacre, he was reviled by practically everyone. He went into seclusion and eventually disappeared, and the date of his death is unknown even to his family.

Over the years, the Everett Massacre has inspired fictional works, plays, documentaries, songs, and many scholarly articles. Of them all, historian Norman H. Clark's Milltown: A Social History of Everett, Washington, published by the University of Washington Press in 1970, stands out as the finest social history of Everett, from its origins to that violent and very bloody Sunday on the city's shore.


Norman Clark, Mill Town: A Social History of Everett, Washington (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1970); Walker C. Smith, The Everett Massacre (Chicago: I.W.W. Publishing Bureau, 1918?); Deborah Shaffer and Stewart Bird, The Wobblies, a film (New York: Schaffer and Bird, 1978, distributed by New Video Group, 2006); Ralph Chapin, Wobbly (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948); Margaret Riddle, "Everett Massacre," introduction to online collection of materials, Everett Public Library's Northwest Room collection, 2001 Everett Public Library website accessed December 2011 (www.epls.org); HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Five IWW members and Two Deputies Die in a Gunbattle Dubbed the Everett Massacre on November 5, 1916" (by Walt Crowley), "Citizen Deputies Beat 41 IWW Members at Everett's Beverly Park on October 30, 1916" (by Margaret Riddle), "Industrial Workers of the World" (by Ross Reider), "IWW Formally Begins Spokane Free-speech Fight on November 2, 1909” (by Ross Reider and the HistoryLink staff), “IWW Organizer James H. Walsh Arrives in Spokane and Rejuvenates the Wobbly Local in the Fall of 1908” (by Priscilla Long), "Spokane Ordinance Prohibiting Street Meetings Becomes Effective on January 1, 1909," "Seattle Union Record" (by Ross Reider) http://www.historylink.org (accessed October 2011); "Transcript of Testimony of W. J. Rucker Before the Industrial Relations Commission in Seattle, August 13, 1914," Report on Commission on Industrial Relations Vol. 5, pp. 4304-4311; "Transcript of Testimony of James Pearl Thompson Before the Industrial Relations Commission in Seattle, August 12, 1914," Report of Commission on Industrial Relations, Volume 5, pp. 4233-4242; Phil Emerson, "The International Shingle Weavers' Union," Seattle General Strike Project, University of Washington website accessed October 5, 2011 (http://depts.washington.edu/labhist/strike/weaversdoc.htm); Frederick Bird, The Labor History Project, University of Washington website accessed November 16, 2011 (http://depts.washington.edu/labhist/laborpress/NWWorker.htm); Margaret Riddle conversations with David Dilgard, Historian, Everett Public Library, October and November 2011.

Licensing: This essay is licensed under a Creative Commons license that encourages reproduction with attribution. Credit should be given to both HistoryLink.org and to the author, and sources must be included with any reproduction. Click the icon for more info. Please note that this Creative Commons license applies to text only, and not to images. For more information regarding individual photos or images, please contact the source noted in the image credit.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License
Major Support for HistoryLink.org Provided By: The State of Washington | Patsy Bullitt Collins | Paul G. Allen Family Foundation | Museum Of History & Industry | 4Culture (King County Lodging Tax Revenue) | City of Seattle | City of Bellevue | City of Tacoma | King County | The Peach Foundation | Microsoft Corporation, Other Public and Private Sponsors and Visitors Like You