Commentary: Let’s Remove Secrecy of the Centralia Massacre as Centennial Approaches

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Olympia author and historian Sandra Crowell spoke earlier this month to the St. Helens Club about one of the region’s darkest secrets — the 1919 Armistice Day Parade in Centralia that ended in bloodshed and a lynching.

In less than two years we’ll mark the centennial of the event that rocked the nation, blotted the city with notoriety, and personified the increasing strife between laborers and their bosses. It’s been called the Centralia Massacre, the Centralia Tragedy, and the Armistice Day Riot.

Teva Youngblood of Rochester, owner of Centralia’s Loose Ends Fiber Arts, is administrator of the Centralia Armistice Day Massacre Centennial Committee on Facebook. Its mission is “to hold an unbiased, balanced observance of the Centennial anniversary of this tragedy” and its vision is “to create a static memorial for heritage tourism and local school education.”

Youngblood, a member of the “Our George Washington” bicentennial committee, said she hopes the Facebook page plants a seed of interest and gains momentum early enough to plan and put things into motion. The first meeting is likely to occur in the spring of 2018.

“Our small little town is rich with history, and I am so excited to be a part of it!” Youngblood said.

For many years, few spoke about the events that occurred Nov. 11, 1919, during and after the first and fatal Armistice Day Parade in Centralia. Even today, people remain divided over who fired the first shot that triggered the violence.

But some facts remain undisputed:

• Three American Legionnaires, veterans of World War I, were shot on Tower Avenue as the parade passed the Industrial Workers of the World (Wobbly) hall. They were Warren Grimm, post commander, Arthur McElfresh and Ben Casagranda.

• Dale Hubbard, another Legionnaire, was shot dead by Wesley Everest, a Wobbly and veteran of World War I, after Hubbard had chased and cornered him near the Skookumchuck River.

• That night the lights in Centralia went off and a vigilante mob pulled Everest from the city jail and hung him from the old Mellen Street Bridge, which later became known as Hangman’s Bridge.

• John M. Haney, a deputized civilian, died four days after the parade when he and a posse pursued Wobblies into a wooded area. He was shot twice by fellow officers when mistaken for a Wobbly and died from his wounds.

  Three other Legionnaires were wounded (Bernard Eubanks, Eugene Pfitzer, and Alva Coleman) as was John Earl Watt, an I.W.W. member in the parade.

  A trial moved to Montesano resulted in prison terms for seven Wobblies convicted of second-degree murder. They were Eugene Barnett, Bert Bland, O.C. Bland, Ray Becker, John McInerney, John Lamb, and Britt Smith. Most were released in 1933, the last in 1939.  McInerney died in prison.

• Acquitted were Mike Sheehan and attorney Elmer Smith, a pacifist. Loren Roberts was found guilty by reason of insanity, and charges were dismissed against Bert Faulkner.

Other details may never be ascertained. Who orchestrated the violence? The Legionnaires? The Wobblies? The lumber barons? John Doe (who later disappeared)? Who fired that first shot?

Fears of Communism spreading to the United States after the successful Bolshevik Revolution in Russia fueled suspicion by citizens toward the Industrial Workers of the World, described in its posters as “one big union of all the workers” who sought higher wages, fewer hours and better working conditions. Citizens opposed opening of an I.W.W. union hall in Centralia in 1917, seeing their activities as treasonous and a threat to the American way of life. During a Red Cross parade April 30, 1918, the union hall in the old Roderick Hotel was looted, the building was damaged, and Wobblies were hauled outside of town with warnings to stay out.

Who did it? Local citizens? Local business owners? Hired thugs working for the lumber companies? A combination? Nobody knows for certain.

Now, a century later, maybe we can unearth information to answer disputed questions. In 1986, for The Daily Chronicle’s special edition on the city of Centralia’s 100th birthday, I interviewed a storekeeper who as a child watched the parade. I’ve also written in the past about interviews at the Lewis County Historical Museum conducted during the 1970s and 1980s with people who remembered the parade — WWI veterans Lloyd Dysart and Virgil R. Lee, and Wesley Everest’s brother, Charles.

While doing research for this column, I discovered an interview with a veteran, whose recording is restricted for audio use only, who admitted joining others in town that night in activities deemed appropriate after their Legionnaire friends had been killed.

I look forward to delving into the trial and evidence from the 1920 murder trial donated to the museum last spring. I’d love to hear from anyone who has stories about what happened in 1919 so we can remove the secrecy over this chapter in Centralia’s history and reveal the truth.

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Julie McDonald, a personal historian from Toledo, may be reached at memoirs@chaptersoflife.com.

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