The next day, the “big noise” blared louder than ever. Between 2000–3000 people congregated outside barred windows. Someone brought a soapbox. Wobbly leaders Wood Hubbard, Laura Payne Emerson, and Juanita McKamey decried abuses by police in the city, and vigilantes on the roads leading to San Diego. After a speech, the crowd joined the inmates in song. When the demonstration concluded, Emerson urged everyone to “Come back tomorrow! Bring your friends!”
Sunday, March 10, 1912
Around noon, an estimated 5000 people “laughed, jeered, and applauded” (Union) as evangelist Lulu Wightman harangued police from a soapbox. The Seventh Day Adventist preacher called them “brass-buttoned anarchists” and — an insult at the time — “Cossacks.”
For over a month demonstrators and onlookers had assembled every Sunday at the jail. This time, police chief Keno Wilson sensed something different; he didn’t like the “feel” of the crowd. Protestors filled the street. Growing numbers of spectators, eager for “the fun,” lined the sidewalks.
Wilson phoned the fire department. “Bring 50 feet of hose,” he said. “Water cure.”
A tinkling fire-engine bell stopped at the corner of Second and F. Firemen scrambled to attach the hose, with an inch-and-a-half nozzle, to a hydrant. They turned it on, but the stream stopped far short of the protestors. When a foamy trickle barely reached their feet, they laughed and called the crew “cowards” and “scabs.”
Wilson got back on the phone. “Bring a high-pressure hose, 100 feet.”
The spray gushed but also fell short. Lulu Wightman’s 14-year-old daughter, Miss Ruth, edged toward the heavy stream. Firemen yanked the hose away. She walked into the splash the torrent made when it caromed off the pavement, drenching her shoes and white Sunday dress.
A man edged past her and took a defiant stance in the stream itself. Many cheered. Others laughed at the sight of someone standing in a sideways waterfall. As Ruth moved off, Juanita McCamey stood behind the man. Then another woman joined them. The silent trio inched toward the nozzle.
“Walk into it, you IWWs,” a woman shouted as she opened an umbrella, “with red blood in your veins.”
The group didn’t get far before the cold, relentless pounding forced them to stop. They turned around, braced their feet, and tried to hold their ground. White water spiked off their backs.
Said the Union: “The thousands along the sidewalk were hushed for a moment, and in that moment a swelling chorus was heard coming from the prison. It was the ‘Marseillaise.’”
“Join in,” Laura Payne Emerson waved to others from the soapbox. But two police revved their motorcycles and silenced her call. Chilled to the bone, and pummeled almost senseless, the trio had to break away from the stream.
Firemen scuttled forward. When they turned the hose on Emerson, over 100 protestors formed a human fortress around the speaker’s stand. They drew cheers when the assault had little effect.
More fire trucks pulled up — among them the steam engine from Station #1, which could increase water pressure, and carried three hoses with three-inch nozzles. For almost an hour, moving closer and closer, four streams pummeled the human shield around Emerson. To keep their balance, those in the front rows tilted forward.
Police ran to help the firemen. Some spectators hauled lines. A woman begged Chief Wilson to let her in on the action.
When the hoses were a few feet away, the force broke the defenders down. Drenched and bruised from the onslaught, they edged to the sidewalk as a unit, but soon scattered. Some crawled behind telephone poles. A sudden torrent lifted Emerson off the soapbox and tossed her into the crowd.
Then the hoses played target practice, at random. The sidewalks — where cheers and jeers waged their own war — were safe, for a while. But anyone on the street was begging, said Chief Wilson later, for “a sprinkling.”
When a well-dressed man told those around him to “Get out there, get into that water,” Wilson shouted, “Turn the hose on him, boys.” The man tried to duck and dodge, but slipped, hit his forehead on the pavement, and almost drowned.
At both ends of Second Street, protestors locked arms and formed lines from curb to curb. Crews shot streams at their feet, then their faces.
The lines would break, fall back, and reform farther away. Police and firemen chased after them, attaching the hose to the next hydrant. When protestors reached E Street, to the north, and H (Market) to the south, they eventually dispersed.
By 3:00 p.m., only a few stragglers remained along the curbs. J. Edward Morgan, of the IWW, stood on the steps of the Richmond Hotel and vowed to “tell the world of San Diego’s infamy! Let the world know what kind of a place San Diego is, and we will have no fair in 1915!”
The next day the Union assured readers that the “water cure” harmed no one. Newspapers around the country told a different story.
A woman who sold the Labor Leader was drenched for five minutes for affiliating with the Labor Council’s official forum.
“An old gray-haired woman was knocked down by the direct force of the stream from the hose,” said the Oakland World, “and a mother was deluged with a babe in her arms.”
The Industrial Worker said that a baby, knocked from a stroller, had been “swept in a raging torrent down the gutter, nearly drowned, and died a few days later.”
The Union proclaimed it “a day of signal victory for the law and order forces of San Diego.”
Robert Warren Diehl, who has written extensively on the subject, disagrees: “Although the belligerents left the field, city authorities must have realized that the fire-hose tactic was an ineffective way of dispersing a crowd. The method was never again employed during the course of the struggle.”
More violent methods became the norm.
- James Jones (From Here to Eternity): “There has never been anything like [the Wobblies], before or since.”
- Tom Scribner (in Solidarity Forever): “You have a capitalist method in this country, and there’s more at stake here than anywhere else. As a result, you have the most savage ruling class in the world.”
- Unnamed San Diego police officer: “We work 16 hours a day, get little sleep, and it is most difficult to keep one’s temper when bums spit in your face.”
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