Warren, Joel Franklin (1858-1934)

  • By Phil Hannum
  • Posted 3/10/1999
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 964
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Joel "Joe" Warren  was Spokane's Chief of Police during the 1880s. He left this position to form his own detective agency. Later, from 1917 to 1920, he served as Seattle's Chief of Police, playing an anti-labor role during the Seattle General Strike of 1919. He also worked to enforce the Prohibition law.

Joel Warren was born in Sullivan County, Missouri, in 1858. As the Civil War ended, the family joined the migration West, first settling in Walla Walla and later near Spokane. Young Joel matured into a strapping six-foot-four-inch, 220-pound man. He worked the ranch with his father and later in Spokane found his life work.

The Early Years -- Spokane and Coeur d’Alene

In 1884, Spokane County Sheriff Pat Dillon (1858-1908) posted a $50 reward for the arrest of one Bill Jackson, a notorious character wanted for murder. That sounded like a lot of money to Joe Warren, then 26, and he sought out Dillon, who immediately deputized him.

Warren learned that Jackson was camped with Indians on the present day (1999) site of Gonzaga University. Pretending to be fishing, he waited until Jackson returned to the campsite and then arrested him. When he turned him over to Sheriff Dillon, people were so impressed that he was immediately appointed to the Spokane police force. Three years later he was elected Spokane Chief of Police. Eventually he left this position to start his own private detective agency.

The Coeur d’Alene Mine War of 1892

In 1892, the owners of silver and lead mines in Idaho hired Warren’s detective agency to escort a trainload of strikebreakers they had recruited in Michigan. Warren and his 50 armed guards accompanied the non-union "scabs" from Helena, Montana, to the Union mine at Burke. (The miners belonged to local unions that would combine in 1893 to form the Western Federation of Miners.) Sheriff Cunningham immediately arrested Warren and charged him and 54 others with bringing an armed force into the state to suppress local disorder, a felony.

Mine owners posted his bail, and eventually he was acquitted. The strikebreaking tactics of the owners led to large scale disturbances and gunbattles between union men and guards. A number of men were killed. Eventually federal troops were called in and the strike ended.

Organized labor would not forget Warren’s anti-labor role in Idaho.

Alaska and San Francisco

Warren left Spokane for Alaska and the gold rush, and settled in Nome. He served there as captain of police and later became a deputy United States marshal.

In 1915, he worked as a security officer for the Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco and in 1917 came to Seattle as a security officer for Pacific Coast Steel. It was here that he was offered the job of chief for a scandal-plagued Seattle Police Department.

Cleaning up Seattle

In 1914, voters had passed Initiative Measure 3 (the Prohibition measure) and on January 1, 1916, Washington became a "dry" state. In Seattle, liquor and vice laws were widely ignored and the city’s tenderloin district was still a place for seamen, loggers, and soldiers to go for a good time. Following a serious outbreak of venereal disease at Camp Lewis, Major General H. A. Greene put city officials on notice that something must be done. After repeated warnings, on November 22, 1917, Greene put Seattle off-limits to his 36,000 troops. The navy yard at Bremerton soon followed Greene’s lead.

Seattle’s civic pride was wounded, and besides, Tacoma was getting all the business. There were immediate calls for the removal of Mayor Hiram Gill (1869-1919) and Police Chief Charles Beckingham (1874-1942). On December 11, 1917, the pressure became too great and Beckingham resigned. Joel Warren replaced him. Warren’s immediate marching orders were to "clean up the town." He gave his first order to young Lieutenant Roy Olmstead (1885-1966) to conduct a raid on the LeRoy Hotel where it was reported that gambling was in progress.

Warren’s next act was to arrest several members of the department’s "dry squad." An investigation revealed that some officers, including the sergeant who headed the squad, had been seizing illegal liquor, then stealing it from the police evidence room and reselling it to cooperative bootleggers. Other dry squad members were accused of pocketing money taken from gambling raids.

Gamblers, fortune-tellers, prostitutes, and bootleggers got the word that the heat was on. Hundreds left town. One who didn’t was a certain Mrs. Franklin who was arrested by a plainclothes officer for fortune-telling. She was taken to the city jail where she was found to be infected with syphilis. Mrs. Franklin was held for 13 months without appearing before a judge or even being charged. One day a matron left her alone in a street level room and she simply walked out (Seattle City Archives).

The cleanup did have its lighter moments. The dry squad intercepted a large box addressed to one Lahman. Labeled "household goods," it actually contained liquor. They seized the liquor and replaced it with a detective, nailing him inside the box which was then delivered. Lahman signed for the box and opened it, at which time the officer arrested him. Judge Gordon threw out the case, holding that the law did not forbid Lahman to sign for an officer of the dry squad. This kept the courthouse crowd in stitches most of the morning.

Impressed with the efforts made by Seattle authorities, Camp Lewis lifted the off-limits order on January 9, 1918.

The Seattle General Strike

The Seattle General Strike had its origin in the support of union workers around the city for striking shipyard workers. The strike began at 10 a.m. on February 6, 1919,  and lasted for four days. Sixty thousand workers went off their jobs and brought to Seattle an almost complete cessation of business.

Warren prepared for the strike by hiring hundreds of University of Washington fraternity men and deputizing them as special officers. Also, a contingent of troops from Camp Lewis was on hand. Throughout the strike there was no public disorder and police reported fewer calls than usual.

Labor remembered Warren’s reputation as a strikebreaker in Idaho 26 years earlier and criticized his tactics in the Seattle General Strike. On February 9, 1919, he ordered a raid on Socialist Party headquarters, arresting three men for circulating the party’s newspaper. Next he raided the IWW (Industrial Workers of the World) hall and arrested 39 men because he was "tired of reading their revolutionary circulars." Earlier he had ordered the breakup of a parade of 500 "Reds" and arrested 13 without charge. During the General Strike he closed a print shop for printing radical literature. Later he placed officers on the premises to censor anything that might be printed. All of this was done under a city ordinance that gave the police chief discretion if, in his judgment, actions were taken for "unlawful purposes" (Berner).

In March 1920, Warren fired Lieutenant Roy Olmstead. Federal prohibition agents had caught Olmstead unloading liquor brought in from Canada for his bootlegging operation. Almost three years before, Olmstead had received Warren’s first order as chief of police to "clean up the town" (Clark).

Warren Discharged

During his tenure of just 29 months, Joel Warren worked with three mayors, Hiram Gill, Ole Hanson (1874-1940), and C. B. Fitzgerald (1881-1971). However, he and newly elected mayor Hugh M. Caldwell (1882-1955) clashed over policy matters including the future of the dry squad and the creation of a traffic division. On May 19, 1920, Warren was replaced by Captain William H. Searing (1877-1954) who himself was to serve less than two years.

Seattle had 21 police chiefs during the 40 years between 1906 and 1946. In 1946, the city charter was amended to increase the mayoral term from two to four years, which tended to extend the tenure of police chiefs. This helped early efforts to professionalize the police service by insuring a term long enough to put policies in place, something most of these men, including Warren, could never do.

After leaving the department Warren waged an unsuccessful campaign for sheriff. On the afternoon of March 12, 1934, Joel Warren died at his Seattle home of complications from diabetes. His stature was such that his passing made frontpage news in that evening’s Seattle Times.


Richard C. Berner, Seattle 1900-1920, Vol. 1 (Seattle: Charles Press, 1991); Norman H. Clark, “Roy Olmstead: A Rumrunning King on Puget Sound,” Pacific Northwest Quarterly, May 1963; Dorothy O. Johansen, Empire of the Columbia (New York: Harper & Row, 1957); Robert Smith, The Coeur d’Alene Mining War of 1892 (Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1961); Seattle City Archives, City Council Hearings on Police Complaints, April 21, 1919; "Gambling Raid First Order in Local Cleanup," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 14, 1917, p. 9; The Seattle Times, January 4, 1918, 1, 4.

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