Seven Wobblies involved in the Centralia Massacre are convicted of second-degree murder on March 13, 1920.

  • By Catherine Hinchliff
  • Posted 2/19/2009
  • Essay 8908

On the evening of March 13, 1920, a Montesano jury finds seven defendants involved in the "Centralia Massacre" guilty of the murder of Warren O. Grimm. The men are all members of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a controversial labor union. Two other defendants, Centralia lawyer Elmer Smith (1888-1932) and IWW member Mike Sheehan, are acquitted, and Loren Roberts, another IWW member, is found innocent by reason of insanity. A fourth defendant, Bret Faulkner had been released earlier in the trial, after all charges against him were dropped. Although the jurors ask Judge John M. Wilson for leniency in sentencing the seven guilty defendants, Wilson instead sentences the men to 25 to 40 years in prison. Many saw the trial as a gross miscarriage of justice, but the men's sentences would not be commuted until 1933.

The Centralia Massacre

Warren Grimm, a young Centralia lawyer and American Legionnaire, died during a gun battle known as the Centralia Massacre on November 11, 1919. During a Centralia Armistice Day parade hosted by the American Legion, a group of IWW members (commonly known as Wobblies) opened fire on the legionnaires in an effort to defend their union hall from attack. The Centralia Massacre resulted in five deaths: four Legionnaires shot during the parade, including Grimm, and Wesley Everest, a Wobbly whom an angry mob lynched that evening.

The Wobblies argued that they fired on the parade in self-defense. According to the union members, the American Legionnaires were plotting to raid the IWW hall at the end of their parade. Indeed, Centralia business leaders had been planning the raid for several weeks after holding a meeting about the "IWW problem" at the Elks Club. However, it was unclear whether the legionnaires had broken open the doors of the hall prior to the first shots being fired. By the end of the evening, dozens of men associated with the IWW were rounded up and arrested without cause, and an angry mob removed Everest from jail and lynched him.

Trial in Montesano

The trial of the men allegedly responsible for the Centralia Massacre began on January 26, 1920, at the Grays Harbor County Courthouse in Montesano. Eleven men were charged with Grimm’s murder. The defendants included IWW members Eugene Barnett, O. C. Bland, Bert Bland, John Lamb, Bret Faulkner, Mike Sheehan, James McInerney, Loren Roberts, Ray Becker, and Britt Smith. Elmer Smith, a young Centralia lawyer who had advised the IWW members on their right to self-defense, was charged with accessory to murder.

Though most of the men charged with murder had not even fired a gun, defense attorney George F. Vanderveer (1875-1942) opted to have the entire group tried together, rather than in separate trials. In doing so, Vanderveer, a Seattle attorney who frequently represented the IWW, hoped to bring more attention to the IWW union cause, believing that the IWW was as much on trial as the men allegedly responsible for murder.

Over the course of seven weeks, 271 witnesses were called. Vanderveer largely failed to establish that the accused Wobblies had acted in self-defense and was forced to instead show that none of the men on trial were responsible for Grimm’s death. At the same time, the Wobblies faced a biased judge and a hostile audience. At first, it seemed that the trial might go in the defendant’s favor, for Judge George D. Abel had permitted a change of venue from Lewis County to Grays Harbor County in order to ensure a fair trial.

Unfortunately for the Wobblies, attorney Herman Allen hired the judge’s brother, W. H. Abel to the prosecution’s team. Since the case now presented a conflict of interest, Republican Governor Louis F. Hart (1862-1929) removed Judge Abel from the case and appointed conservative Judge John M. Wilson, after passing over several judges. It seemed that Hart was trying to ensure a guilty verdict, as Judge Wilson had delivered the eulogies at the legionnaires’ funerals. In addition, Hart had placed 100 soldiers from the 35th Infantry on the courthouse lawn under the guise of protecting the building from the IWW. However, it is more likely that he placed the troops on the lawn in order to intimidate the defendants’ witnesses.

The Verdict

On March 13, 1920, the jury deliberated for most of the day before announcing shortly before dinner that they had reached agreement. That evening, the jury presented a verdict of “third-degree murder.” On the grounds that “third-degree murder” did not exist in state law, Judge Wilson asked the jury to come back with a new verdict. Two hours later, the jury returned with a ruling of second-degree murder for Barnett, Lamb, the Blands, Britt Smith, Becker, and McInerney. Lawyer Smith was acquitted of the charge of accessory to murder, Sheehan was acquitted, and Roberts was acquitted by reason of insanity.

The jurors somewhat oddly found the seven guilty of conspiracy to commit unpremeditated murder, as they had conspired to protect the hall and Grimm had died as a result. Though the seven men had not necessarily committed murder, they were still culpable for their role in the supposed conspiracy. Given their unusual conclusions, the jury asked Wilson for leniency.

However, Wilson sentenced the seven Wobblies to 25 to 40 years in prison, the maximum sentence at the time for second-degree murder. Believing the sentences to be unjustly harsh and the men innocent, fellow defendant and lawyer Elmer Smith worked tirelessly for the release of the Wobblies until his death in 1932. The Wobblies would not be released from prison until 1933, when Democratic Governor Clarence D. Martin (1886-1955) commuted their sentences -- one of his campaign promises. All of the Wobblies were released except for McInerney, who had died in prison, and Becker, who refused to leave the prison until he received a full pardon.

Sources: Tom Copeland, The Centralia Tragedy of 1919: Elmer Smith and the Wobblies (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1993); Catherine Hinchliff, Elmer Smith and the Wobblies: A Centralia Lawyer’s Fight for an Unpopular Minority, unpublished documentary in possession of Lewis County Historical Museum and in private collection of Catherine Hinchliff, 2006; Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Four men die in the Centralia Massacre on November 11, 1919" (by Alyssa Burrows), (accessed January 19, 2009); Carter Brooke Jones, “Seven I.W.W. Convicted of Murder in Second Degree: Jury Lenient in Verdict Against Grimm’s Slayers,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 14, 1920, p. 1, 22; Ben Hur Lampman, Centralia: Tragedy and Trial (Centralia: Grant Hodge Post, 1920); John McClelland Jr., Wobbly War: The Centralia Story (Tacoma, The Washington State Historical Society, 1987); Speeches by Elmer Smith and Capt. Edward Coll (Centralia: Centralia Publicity Committee, 1929); To the Citizens of Centralia We Must Appeal (Centralia: IWW, 1919); Ben King, A. C. Baker, Herman Allen, J. H Janke, Frank Christensen, Clifford Cunningham and J. H. Gifford interview with Loren Roberts, November 17, 1919, Centralia; State v. Smith, 115 Wash. 405, 197 P. 770 (1921); George D. Abel to Governor Louis F. Hart, December 12, 1919, in possession of Lewis County Historical Museum, Chehalis.
Note: This essay was extensively revised on May 7, 2009.

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