Fistfight kicks off Seattle Potlatch riots on July 17, 1913.

  • By Patrick McRoberts
  • Posted 7/13/2000
  • Essay 2540

On July 17, 1913, two seemingly unrelated events during Seattle's Potlatch Days festival -- a fistfight and a speech -- kick off a chain of events that will lead to violent confrontations in downtown Seattle. The events are linked by The Seattle Times, under publisher Alden Blethen (1845-1915), in an attack on Mayor George Cotterill (1865-1958), the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), and anarchists. The effect is to precipitate riots and provide an unsettling preview of the post-World War I nationwide Red Scare.

The Fistfight

The fistfight erupted when three artillerymen in town for the Potlatch, the precursor to today's Seafair, confronted an IWW street speaker. The Times reported that the street speaker, a woman holding forth on Washington Street near Occidental Avenue, had "insulted their uniforms." Two sailors joined in the resulting tussle with the crowd. The incident fed fears, inflamed by Blethen and the Times, of "radical elements." The soldiers and sailors suffered minor wounds before a riot call was turned in and police arrived to disperse the crowd.

The Speech

Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels gave the speech at the Rainier Club a few blocks away. The Times headline the next day tied the patriotic speech to the fistfight under the headline, "I.W.W. Denounced by Head of Navy, Attack Soldiers and Sailors." Blethen had been highly critical of Cotterill, a naturalized citizen born in England, because the mayor allowed "anarchist" street speakers to hold forth in downtown Seattle. The Times article represented Daniels as having denounced "un-American mayors:"


"Three times Mr. Daniels was compelled to stop and wait until his audience had grown tired of applauding his fierce arraignment of a man who would hold the chief office ... of an American city and permit insults to his country and its honor and permit the display of red flags in the streets."

The melee on Washington Street, combined with the Times' coverage of it, led to further violence on the following day, when soldiers and sailors ransacked IWW and Socialist headquarters. Conflict escalated between The Times and Mayor Cotterill over his efforts to prevent violence and to rein in the newspaper.

All of these events took place against a backdrop of rising Socialist electoral strength in Washington prior to World War I. In fact, Cotterill had only defeated the Socialist candidate, Hulet Wells, by 3,500 votes in 1912. Although Blethen had not opposed Cotterill in that election, he became increasingly critical of his open policy on street speakers.


"I.W.W. Denounced by Head of Navy, Attack Soldiers and Sailors," The Seattle Times, July 18, 1913; "Three Soldiers Assailed by Mob, Saved by Police," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 18, 1913; Nick Bauroth, "Belltown History: A May Tribute to Anarchy in Seattle," Belltown's Regrade Dispatch, May 5, 2000, p. 5; Sharon A. Boswell and Lorraine McConaghy, Raise Hell and Sell Newspapers: Alden Blethen and The Seattle Times (Pullman: Washington State University Press, 1996).

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