On January 5, 1940, Laura Law is found murdered in her living room in Aberdeen. In the coming days, as police begin to identify suspects, it becomes clear that the case will be complicated by Law's and her husband Richard’s involvement with labor unions and the tension within the Aberdeen community over labor union and Communist party activity. Further, Laura had been born in Finland and the Soviet Union’s invasion of Finland in 1939 had divided many in Aberdeen’s Finnish community between those who supported the Soviet Union’s action as defensive (and thereby supported the Communist government) and those who criticized it (and thus, the Communists). The case will not be solved, but not for lack of suspects. At different times Richard (Dick) Law, members of the Communist Party, participants in the Better Business Builders (an anti-union group), and local businessmen will be suspected of the crime. The murder and its aftermath stand as symbols of the height tensions had reached in Aberdeen at the end of the Great Depression as businesses and workers struggled through the lean years.
Aberdeen and Its Workers
Although a rough-and-tumble town with its fair share of violent crimes, Aberdeen in the 1930s was not a town where a young mother would expect to be murdered in her own home, regardless of her union work or her husband’s possible affiliation with the Communist Party. Unions had a long history in the town, dating back to the turn of the century.The unions sought to improve working conditions, which were dismal, in the camps and sawmills. Work days stretched out for 10 or more hours and the bunk houses in the logging camps were barely livable. Employers required workers to use employment agencies that charged them fees, which they shared with the foremen who had the power to fire the workers, thereby forcing them to return to the employment agencies that charged the fees. Many companies ran company stores and issued scrip to their employees rather than pay them in cash. If a logger or sawmill worker survived the work week, they often had little to show for it besides being alive.
Early unions such as the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) had attempted to force employers to improve conditions and pay through strikes and slowdowns, but their efforts were often met with violence. In 1916 lives were lost in a gunfight that erupted in Everett and in 1919 more bloodshed resulted from a conflict between IWW members and Legionnaires in Centralia. In the post-World War I era, many Americans, both private citizens and public officials, afraid that the Soviet revolution of 1917 would spread to the United States, escalated their harassment of the IWW.
Despite the harassment and violence, the IWW succeeded in improving some working conditions and unions continued to try different strategies for organizing workers and forcing employers to meet their demands during the prosperous 1920s, when billions of board feet were cut in the forests around Grays Harbor and sold all over the world.
Aberdeen's Unions During the Great Depression
The coming of the Great Depression put more pressure on workers as employers cut jobs, hours, and pay. Unions faced a difficult situation in that there were always more willing workers to take the place of those who refused to work under the dismal conditions. The National Labor Relations Act of 1935 required that employers recognize unions and negotiate with them. This boosted the effectiveness and appeal of the unions, swelling their rolls.
Conflicting ideologies between unions complicated the process. Several unions vied for members and they held different ideas for how the industry should be organized and what their goals should be. Those affiliated with the American Federation of Labor (AFL) tended to be more conservative and not associated with the Communist Party. The AFL sought to organize workers according to their craft, or occupation. The unions affiliated with the Congress of International Organizations (CIO) tended to be more radical and organized workers according to industry, thereby joining the interests of all the workers. In the timber industry this meant that everyone from the loggers to the sawmill workers joined together in one union. Members of the Communist Party, though not high in number, played a significant role in building the CIO.
Within the unions there were differences of opinion too. Formed in 1937 in response to the perceived faults of the 1935 strike led by the Timber and Sawmill Workers’ Union, the International Woodworkers of America (IWA) was affiliated with the CIO. However, it had a “white bloc” that rejected Communist ideology and resisted that party’s involvement in the union.Historians Jerry Lembcke and William M. Tattam have identified some of the myriad factors that contributed to people’s views on unions, including ethnic background, recent immigration, religious affiliation, or occupation. Recent German immigrants tended to be less strident whereas Scandinavian and English immigrants often led the more radical elements in the unions. Aberdeen had a well-established Finnish community and many of its members were extensively involved in unions.
Laura Law, Child of LaborLaura Law, born Lea Laura Luoma in Finland in 1914, immigrated to the United States in 1920 with her aunt Klara (Clara) Anderson, nearly a year after her mother Sally and sister Ruth returned to the United States in June 1919. Her father Nestor was already in Aberdeen, having worked in the sawmills for several years. Sally had returned to Finland while pregnant with Laura. Laura's Finnish background and her father's occupation meant she grew up well-versed in labor issues.
In 1935 Laura married Richard "Dick" Law (1908-1953), an IWA executive board member described by Lembcke and Tattam as “Grays Harbor’s best-known and most militant IWA leftist” (Lembcke and Tattam, 69). Laura was less militant than was Dick, but she participated in union activities. She organized and served as the first president of the Aberdeen Women’s Auxiliary. The Laws were well-known union members and many assumed Richard was a member of the Communist Party. This placed him at the center of the fundamental disagreement in the union movement.
Law also drew the ire of the local business owners who categorically opposed anything associated with the Communist Party. Aberdeen business owners had formed the Better Business Builders to oppose and eradicate any communist element in the unions. The Better Business Builders often targeted Richard Law in their efforts.
Aberdeen's Violence and Laura Law's Murder
In December 1939, these tensions within the community led to violence. In November the Soviet Union had invaded Finland. Anti-Communist “white” Finns condemned the action and held a benefit to raise money for Finnish relief. Pro-Communist “red” Finns supported the Soviets and argued that they were merely protecting themselves from possible invasions. On December 2, the Finnish Workers Federation hall was ransacked by vigilantes who opposed their Communist association and radical policies. The mob may have included “white” Finns, or business owners, or more conservative union members, or a combination of all of them. Aberdeen police did not stop the mob. Radical activists in Aberdeen saw the incident as a portent of more unchecked vigilante activity to come.
On the night of January 5th, 1940, someone entered the Law home and murdered
Laura in the living room. She was bludgeoned and also stabbed in the left breast with an ice-pick-like object.
As soon as it became apparent that Dick Law would be a suspect, unions leaders from the IWA local in Aberdeen and from around the state came together to form the Grays Harbor Civil Rights Committee, including Howard Costigan (1904-1985) of the Washington Commonwealth Federation; Terry Pettus (1904-1984), editor of Washington New-Dealer; Ken Pettus, editor of Timber Worker; Eugene Dennett (1909-1989) of the Washington State Industrial Council, CIO; Irvin Goodman (1896-1958), a Portland lawyer; and John Caughlan (1909-1999), Deputy King County Prosecutor, who took leave from his job. The group wanted to link Law’s murder to the ransacking of the Finnish Workers Federation hall to show a pattern of violence in Aberdeen that denied union activists of their civil rights.
In a contentious inquest Law repeatedly insisted that any of a number of his enemies could have done the murder in retaliation for his union activities. Unfortunately, the web of conflict in Aberdeen produced a multitude of suspects. Law himself identified 10 people who had the motive and the means to have killed Laura.Aberdeen police brought in Luke May (1892-1965), a noted detective from Seattle, to review the evidence but he and others who have since studied the case could not find evidence pointing to any one killer. The case remains unsolved.