Frank Little: “Slain by capitalist interests for organizing his fellow men”

“Slain by capitalist interests for organizing his fellow men”

This epithet appears on Frank Little’s headstone in the Mountain View Cemetery of Butte, MT.

Photograph Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University

A top field organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW, or the Wobblies), Frank Little stepped gingerly from the train in Butte on July 20, still bearing marks of a beating he took while agitating on behalf of striking copper miners in Bisbee, AZ. Life as the Wobblies top field organizer had few perks and more than a bit of personal risk.  Like a prophet from the Old Testament, Frank wandered the West from one labor hotspot to another, preaching the gospel of the One Big Union.  His mission was simple: affiliate the Metal Mine Workers’ Union with the IWW and force the company officials running the Anaconda Company from the sixth floor of the Hennessy Building “’down below with a muckstick.’”

When Little arrived in Butte, the mining city was in the midst of a general strike. Three months earlier, the U.S. had

MHS Ephemera File

entered World War I. A month earlier, on June 5, miners rioted, protesting the implementation of a compulsory draft. Then, on June 8, a fire in the Granite Mountain/Speculator mine claimed the lives of 165 miners. Workers were demanding safer working conditions and higher wages. The state had responded by sending in troops. Butte was under martial law.

Neither the Anaconda Company nor the leaders of Metal Mine Workers Union (MMWU) were happy to see Little. The Anaconda Company’s unhappiness was self-explanatory. But Butte’s labor leaders also rejected his radical rhetoric, objecting both to the IWW’s hardline stance against the war and its commitment to overthrowing of the capitalist system.

These inflammatory positions were particularly dangerous since the start of the war. Even IWW president William “Big Bill” Haywood was cautioning his field organizers to lighten up on the rhetoric lest they incur the federal government’s wrath and feel the full weight of its opposition.  But if Frank Little got the message, he chose to ignore it.

Instead, Little passionately preached the IWW message. During a speech at Finlander Hall, Little referred to U.S. soldiers as “uniformed thugs” and stressed his opposition to the draft and the war.  Why, he asked, would workers choose to fight for their capitalist masters, when instead they could end the war by turning on their masters and overthrowing the capitalist system?

The Anaconda Company—delighted to tar labor as treasonous—had its papers report Little’s speeches. It also joined local political leaders in asking U.S. Attorney B. K. Wheeler to arrest Little, claiming that his “treasonous utterances” violated the Espionage Act of 1917. Wheeler refused: according to the attorney, Little had not violated the Espionage Act but had only exercised his right to free speech.

Nevertheless, Little was soon silenced. In the early morning hours of August 1, six men entered the boarding house where Frank Little was staying and physically removed him from his room.  They tied him to the bumper of a waiting car and dragged him to the edge of town where they beat then lynched him from a railroad trestle with a warning pinned to his chest.

Photograph Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University

In the wake of the brutal murder, Governor Stewart received a flood of messages from across the nation from labor organizations and concerned citizens. The message left on Little’s body harkened back to the vigilante days of early Montana and the initials at the bottom corresponded with the last names of the leaders of the MMWU strike: Frank Little (with the “L” circled), Bill Dunne, Tom Campbell, Daniel Shovlin, Joe Shannon, Jim Williams, and John Tomich.  The use of 3-7-77 legitimized the action in the eyes of some, who believed that if authorities would have arrested Little under the charge of treason reasonable men would not have felt the need to act.  It would also help justify, less than a year, later the passage of the Montana Sedition Act and Criminal Syndicalism Act during a special session of the legislature.

Solidarity, August 11, 1917

he murder of Frank Little remains unsolved even though most agree the Anaconda Company played some role in his death.  While his message for the most part fell on deaf ears, his murder gave rise to an impassioned citizenry who four days later gave Frank Little an epic send off with the largest funeral in the history of Butte.  They laid Frank Little to rest in the pauper section of the Mountain View Cemetery.

Frank Little funeral. Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University.

Today, his headstone faces “the Hill” and standing at the foot of his grave one can see the memorial the North Butte Mining Company erected to the memory of those unidentified miners who died in the Granite Mountain/Speculator Mine fire.  I think Frank would appreciate that.

Photo courtesy of the author

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