The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) is preparing to request that a bronze memorial plaque to commemorate “the union victims of the Centralia Tragedy of 1919” be placed next to the American Legion statue in Washington Park.
The request will be made at the Oct. 11 Centralia City Council meeting, which begins at 7 p.m.
The IWW is making the request as the American Legion statue, known as “The Sentinel,” is approaching the 100-year anniversary of its dedication on Nov. 11, 1924.
“For almost 100 years, ‘The Sentinel’ has told one side of the story of the tragedy. It states that four Legionnaires were ‘slain while on peaceful parade.’ The IWW plaque will say that the union victims were ‘defending their union hall,’” IWW Member Mike Garrison, who is donating the plaque, said in a statement.
Names of the IWW victims will be listed on the plaque, including: Eugene Barnett, Ray Becker, Bert Bland, O.C. Bland, John Lamb, James McInerney, Loren Roberts and Britt Smith, who were all imprisoned; Elmer Smith, who was disbarred; and Wesley Everest, who was lynched.
The American Legion’s Account
Despite having occurred nearly 103 years ago, the cause of the tragedy is still contested with both the American Legion and IWW largely blaming each other. In 1920, Ben Hur Lampman published a book focused on the American Legion’s account of the massacre titled Centralia Tragedy and Trial.
“You will read with horror and amazement this tale of peaceful paraders shot down by organized and vicious exponents of lawlessness. You will read with pride how Legion men curbed their natural impulses of revenge and waited on law to take its course against the criminals,” reads a forward in the book by the American Legion’s National Commander at the time, F.W. Galbraith Jr.
In Lampman’s account, the parade was marching peacefully and had halted at the intersection of Second Street and South Tower Avenue in order to allow certain parties in the parade who had not been keeping up with the pace to catch up.
It was during this pause that the Legion claims the first shot was fired from the IWW hall located in the Roderick Hotel.
“Taken by surprise and not understanding the meaning of the shots (for most of the ex-service men did not even know of the existence of an IWW hall in Centralia), the parade broke formation,” an excerpt from Centralia Tragedy and Trial reads.
A skirmish followed and Legionnaires claimed that IWW members were also shooting at them from the Arnold Hotel and Avalon House on South Tower Avenue.
IWW members were rounded up and apprehended to await trial for what were initially first degree murder charges.
According to Centralia Tragedy and Trial, “the lynching of Everest was an unlawful error,” committed by “unknown avengers.”
It was an error for two reasons according to the Legion, the first being it afforded the IWW a martyr and the second being the Legion claimed they had evidence that Everest was an IWW ringleader that, “was damningly complete and conclusive.”
For the remaining IWW members put on trial, the evidence against them wasn’t enough to back up the first-degree murder charges, and in the end the jury ended up finding them guilty of second-degree murder. The American Legion claimed that some of the jurors were biased.
“Later it was to be known that two jurors were violently radical, and that a third favored their attitude, these three holding out for acquittal. Nine Americans, therefore, against their own belief in the extreme guilt of the accused, permitted the prejudiced opinion of openly avowed radicals to force them into a shameful and illogical decision,” an excerpt from Centralia Tragedy and Trial reads.
On the 100th anniversary of the tragedy in 2019, the National Executive Committee of The American Legion put out a statement of remembrance.
“Whereas, On Nov. 11, 1919, during a parade in Centralia, Washington, that was celebrating the first anniversary of Armistice Day, members of the local IWW chapter did shoot and kill four Legionnaires, including the commander of American Legion Grant Hodge Post No. 17, and did wound three other Legionnaires; it is entirely fitting that the memory of those Legionnaires having lost their lives in that violent and bloody incident be marked prominently and forever in the permanent history of The American Legion.”
The names of the four Legionnaires killed are Warren G. Grimm, Arthur McElfresh, Ben Cassagranda and Dale Hubbard.
An Alternate Account
According to a later investigation of the Centralia Tragedy, The 1930 Centralia Case Joint Report, the tragedy was a culmination of conflicting interests between logging companies at the time and the employees and unions fighting for better working conditions and pay.
The report was compiled by the Department of Research and Education of the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America, the Social Action Department of the National Catholic Welfare Conference and the Social Justice Commission of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
For years, loggers in the area faced low wages and long hours; labor disputes had been ongoing for years. Then, in 1917, the IWW organized a strike that resulted in many gains for the loggers, including the eight-hour work day according to the report.
Despite that success, it was still widely believed that the IWW was involved in many criminal activities, including sabotage. Many IWW members were accused and charged with committing acts of violence against both people and property.
Despite investigations showing these charges held no merit, they were still widely accepted by most as true, according to the report, which is just one of many accounts of the tragedy and the era during which it occurred according to the report.
The report explained that hostility toward the IWW continued to grow for two reasons, the economic and industrial consequences of their strikes as well as national loyalty and patriotism. Aside from fighting for better wages and working conditions, the IWW was quite outspoken in opposition of the country’s involvement in World War I.
“These two factors reinforced each other and frequently became inextricably blended,” reads an excerpt from the report.
The IWW had already been attacked before the tragedy because of this, including one violent outburst in the spring of 1918 when a group of businessmen broke off from a Red Cross parade and destroyed a hall the IWW was using, according to the report.
In June 1919, a “blind newsdealer” who sold IWW literature was kidnapped and had his stock destroyed on two separate occasions. No charges were ever filed against anyone despite the matter being brought to law enforcement’s attention, according to the report.
Then, following the IWW opening their hall in Centralia in Sept. of 1919, the Citizens’ Protective League met on Oct. 20. The meeting was a mixture of both local business owners and American Legion members and the main topic of discussion was how to get the IWW out of town.
A local Legionnaire who attended the meeting stated that while he did not support raiding the IWW hall itself, “in his opinion no jury would convict men who might conduct such a raid,” according to the report.
It should be noted that these events that occurred before the tragedy were disallowed as evidence in the trial that came after.
Everything came to a head on Nov. 11, 1919, during the Armistice Day parade organized by the American Legion and other local groups. The parade was on its way back into Centralia when it stopped in front of the IWW hall.
While Legionnaires claim the parade stopped to allow it to regroup, IWW members claimed that they began amassing in front of their hall in the Roderick Hotel and began to rush the hall.
“The halting of the Centralia contingent in front of the building was probably by design, since some of the Legionnaires immediately interpreted it as a signal for hostilities and offered to rush the hall. Such a move was probably made before any firing occurred,” reads an excerpt from the report.
Whatever happened started a skirmish resulting in three Centralia Legionnaires being mortally wounded and others injured, and shots were fired from both the Avalon House and Arnold Hotel by IWW members.
The IWW members had heard the rumors of another possible raid and had been advised by local attorney Elmer Smith about their right to defend themselves and decided to prepare in case of another raid.
“Great excitement followed. The hall was entered by paraders and its contents destroyed; the porch was torn from the building and, together with the furniture, burned in the street,” reads an excerpt from the report.
One of the defenders of the IWW hall, Everest, escaped from the building but was pursued by armed men, one of whom he shot and mortally wounded. He was eventually caught and “knocked insensible,” then led down the street with a belt around his neck and thrown into jail.
Everest himself, while he had been drafted into the Army for WWI, never served overseas. Due to his experience as a logger was stationed in Washington and assigned to the spruce production division in Vancouver which was responsible for providing timber for airplanes, railroad cars and other wartime equipment, according to a Pacific Northwest Quarterly article.
Later that night, the lights in the city went out for about 15 minutes and, under the cover of darkness, a group of men took Everest from the jail “apparently without opposition” and drove him to a bridge where they hanged and shot him, according to the 1930 Centralia Case Joint Report.
No undertaker would handle Everest’s body and it was placed back in the jail in a cell near other prisoners, according to the report. Eventually, four IWW members were allowed to take his body from the cell to the local cemetery, “accompanied by a squad of 17 armed national guardsmen,” according to Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporting referenced in the report.
Everest was buried in the pauper section of the graveyard. No family members, prayers, funeral service or even gravestone were allowed. Public funeral services for all four Legionnaires killed in the fighting were held and President Warren G. Harding gave the fallen Legionnaires a spoken tribute.
None of the men who participated in the lynching were ever arrested or charged but eight IWW members were charged and convicted of second-degree murder.
Garrison and the IWW are not asking for The Sentinel statue to be taken down, but simply for a plaque to be placed to tell their side of the story.