King County Deputy Sheriff Steve Watson is shot to death during a longshoremen’s strike on July 9, 1934.

  • By Rita Cipalla
  • Posted 12/12/2022
  • Essay 22632
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On July 9, 1934, 48-year-old Steve S. Watson, a special deputy sheriff for King County, is shot during a street brawl in downtown Seattle, the second fatality in a bitter waterfront fight. Although early news stories report that Watson is unarmed, later accounts indicate he was pulled out of his automobile by a mob and shot with his own revolver. Upon hearing the news of her husband’s death, Wilson’s widow, fearing reprisal, flees her West Seattle home to stay with neighbors. Wilson’s death occurs two months after Seattle and other major West Coast port cities are paralyzed by a longshoremen’s strike that runs from May 9 to July 31, 1934. The West Coast strikers, organized by the International Longshoremen’s Association, demand better wages, fairer hiring practices, and hiring halls run by union representatives. Although some blame communists for Watson’s death, an inquest fails to identify the assailant or assailants.

Heroic Actions

The 81-day West Coast waterfront strike of 1934 was "one of the most important and bitter labor strikes of the twentieth century" ("West Coast Waterfront ..."). It followed decades of discontent, occasional violence, and failed strikes, including a three-month-long strike by longshoremen in 1916. At the height of the Great Depression in 1933, longshore workers from Bellingham to San Diego began to organize under the International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA). "[The] longshoremen on May 9, 1934, struck the entire coast and almost simultaneously the seagoing groups organized and struck with them. It was the first coast wide, industrywide strike in history" (The ILWU Story, 13-14).

About 12,500 members of the West Coast ILA supported the strike. Other seafaring industries joined in, making a total of nearly 35,000 workers. As the strike continued, tempers flared, and violence broke out in many coastal cities. Hundreds were injured and eight were killed. Both parties dug in. On June 20, 1934, Seattle Mayor Charles Smith (1892-1982) decided to force open the waterfront, but strikers blockaded the entrances. Less than a week later, on June 26, violence erupted at Smith Cove and striker Shelvy Daffron was killed. Two weeks later, a lone patrolman, F. I. Green, walking his beat on 3rd Avenue at about 8 p.m. on July 9, noticed a group of men heading into an alley. Green had just come from breaking up a scuffle between a waterfront guard and a striker at the Owl Drug Store at 3rd Avenue and Pike Street.

Hurrying to catch up, he saw that a group of men had backed four deputies up against a wall. In a newspaper interview, Green told what happened next: "Several of the deputies had their guns in hand to protect themselves against the attack. I stopped in front of them and ordered them to put up their guns. Then I faced the mob, which seemed to be converging from all points, and ordered them not to advance a step further" ("Cool Officer Stands Firm ...").  

Around the same time, a car carrying 48-year-old Steve Watson and two other deputy sheriffs drove up to assist. One of the deputies in the car was Special Deputy Sheriff E. W. Hughes, who later testified that he "saw a big car pulled up, full of men. Some of them got out and were talking to the deputies afoot. Others rushed at our car and turned it over. Watson was with me in the car, together with one other deputy. I saw them pull Watson out of the car and begin beating him up. I then heard a shot. But there was so much excitement, I didn’t know who was shot, or how it happened. The strikers took my gun away from me" ("Two Special Deputy Sheriffs Relate Their Own Stories of Riots"). Another special deputy sheriff, Tom Lee, testified he saw an officer push a striker who was set to hit him, followed by a car tipping over. He then heard a shot fired. Although Watson died during the encounter, Green’s quick thinking and actions reportedly saved further bloodshed.


Later that evening at her home in West Seattle, Watson’s wife learned her husband had been shot. The news sent the new widow into a panic. "Pale, with horror and grief growing in her wide eyes, Mrs. Watson hurried through the primly neat rooms of the little house where she has lived with her husband, locking all the doors and windows. Then she fled, with terror all around her in the dusk. And she took refuge in the house of a neighbor, who mounted guard at a kitchen window with a pistol and a police dog" ("Grim Terror Stalks Widow, Victim of Strike Rioting"). Several of Watson’s neighbors, who also worked as special deputies during the strike, were fearful. One of the neighbors told a reporter that men had been spotted prowling around in nearby bushes while other men, packed four or five to a car, drove up and down the street in a move to intimidate.

On July 13, 1934, during a five-hour inquest held to determine who was responsible for killing Watson, several witnesses testified. The coroner corroborated that Watson had died from a bullet wound. Seaman George Bumps, identified at the crime scene by Special Deputy Sheriff F. H. Van Dusen and taken into custody on Pier 41, testified that he had seen three union officials in the 3rd Avenue mob. Some newspaper accounts blamed Watson’s death on "Reds" or "organized Communists who have come to Seattle to take advantage of the longshore strike" ("'Reds' Blamed ..."). The inquest never identified the person or persons responsible for killing Watson, and the jury recommended that the case be kept open in case more evidence turned up.

In a related incident, Frank Teetzel, a witness to Watson’s murder, was assaulted later that month. "Teetzel was in the Seattle General Hospital with a gashed scalp received when he was mysteriously attacked while walking on 4th Avenue between James and Marion Sts" ("Port Will Be Opened Wider ...").

The West Coast maritime strike ended on July 31, 1934, aided by an arbitration board set up by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. A settlement reached in October 1934 called for "jointly run employer-union hiring halls in each port staffed by ILA dispatchers. This guaranteed an end to hiring abuses and an ILA victory that inspired an upsurge of unionism in a multitude of West Coast industries" (Solidarity Stories, 24). 


The ILU Story (San Francisco: Information Department, ILWU, 1955); Solidarity Stories: An Oral History of the ILWU (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009); "Deputy Slain in Strike Riot Here; Killing Follows Downtown Battle," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 10, 1934, p. 1; "Grim Terror Stalks Widow, Victim of Strike Rioting," Ibid; July 10, 1934; p. 2; "Cool Officer Stands Firm; Greater Bloodshed Averted," Ibid., July 10, 1934, p. 2; "Two Special Deputy Sheriffs Relate Own Stories of Riot," Ibid., July 10, 1934; p. 2; "'Reds' Blamed for Deputy’s Death; Scavotto Backs Smith in Guarding Seattle’s Piers," Ibid., July 11, 1934, p. 1; "Jury Finds Deputy Died in Longshore Riot by His Own Revolver," Ibid., July 13, 1934, p. 3; "Port Will be Opened Wider, Lundin Says," Ibid., July 16, 1934, p. 2; "Timeline: Puget Sound Waterfront History 1894-2002," Waterfront Workers History Project, University of Washington Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies, website accessed November 11, 2022 (; HistoryLink Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "West Coast Waterfront Strike of 1934" (by Ross Rieder and Walt Crowley); "Longshoremen Return to Work, Ending Major West Coast Waterfront Strike, on July 31, 1934" (by Staff), (accessed November 16, 2022). Note: This essay replaces an earlier item on the same subject.

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