San Diego police drench a free-speechers meeting, March 10, 1912
  • San Diego police drench a free-speechers meeting, March 10, 1912
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“Such a town, as much a resort as a port city, should have collapsed instantaneously before the IWW onslaught,” writes historian Kevin Starr, “yet San Diego escalated the conflict.”

By the end of February 1912, police had arrested so many protestors in the free-speech fight, the city and county jails were overloaded. Sheriff Jennings ordered Dr. D.B. Northrup to inspect both lockups. “You have 154 men confined where you have accommodations for only 76,” Northrup reported. “Conditions are unsanitary. There is much sickness and liability of a severe epidemic at any time.”

Each prisoner demanded a separate trial. “Never before,” wrote the Sun, “were so many…on trial at one time in San Diego.” The small, poorly ventilated courtroom required extra benches and became as crammed as the jail. When the bailiff called a name at the initial hearings, the prisoner answered, “There!”

But few could hear the reply, or the proceedings. The jail was next door to the courtroom, and Wobblies, singing at the top of their lungs, drowned everything out. The “big noise” irritated police so much, one threatened a “cold bath”: turn a fire hose on the vocalists.

Solidarity wasn’t 100 percent. After two weeks of shoulder-to-shoulder confinement, a toilet in near-constant use, and rancid food twice a day, Oscar Erickson and Chris Tone wanted out. In exchange for freedom, they promised to quit the IWW and find work as mechanics.

The Wobblies’ strategy of packing jails and courts worked so well, police demanded an open-air stockade at Grape Street to handle the overflow.

And more — possibly thousands more — were on the way. Vincent St. John, highest ranking officer of the IWW, sent San Diego mayor James E. Wadham a letter from Chicago: “The fight will be continued until free speech is established in San Diego, if it takes 20,000 members and 20 years.”

The major appealed to governor Hiram Johnson for state troops. But Johnson, whose progressive views cost him the San Diego vote, said that since the city had created the problem, it could “damn well get itself out.”

A possible sign of things to come: on February 26, the Free Speech League held a parade of protest. People from all walks of life marched five abreast through downtown. The parade was two miles long.

Shortly after, urged on by the city council and businessmen, district attorney H.S. Utley proposed a compromise: if the IWW stopped soap-boxing, the prisoners could go free. Ernest Kirk, legal counsel for protestors, favored the idea. On February 28, he recommended it to the IWW. But they voted him down.

One of the original free-speech leaders, Kirk wanted a legal battle: test the ordinances in court. When Wobblies insisted on a policy of “no surrender,” said the Sun, Kirk “threw in the sponge.” His resignation marked a turning point in the struggle. The IWW took control. The Free Speech League remained supportive, but withdrew into the background.

At Spokane and Fresno, protests ground the system to a halt. But San Diego’s location, pinched into the southwestern corner of the country, made it distinct: mountains to the east, ocean to the west, a foreign country south. Few roads and railroads led to the city. So authorities decided to confront the “godless rabble” at the county line, and (Union) “cut them off at the pass.”

Sheriff Jennings sent constables on horseback to San Onofre. A detail of police guarded the train station at Sorrento Valley. They arrested anyone who looked “suspicious,” which often meant calloused hands or deep tans from working outdoors.

Early in February, former park commissioner Clark Braly feared police and sheriff’s deputies might not be enough. He proposed a “horsewhip vigilance committee” to help “defend San Diego.” Francis Bierman, a reporter for the Union, seconded the motion in print.

By the end of the month, over 400 men and some women, wearing constable badges and white armbands, patrolled the city and camped at the county line — but left the horsewhips at home. Word spread that vigilantes would force captives to run a gauntlet of swinging clubs, axe handles, and crowbars, and that few reached the end without missing teeth or a broken bone.

In an editorial on March 4, the Evening Tribune demanded more: “Why are the taxpayers of San Diego compelled to endure this imposition? Simply because the law…prevents the citizens of San Diego from…hanging or shooting them. That would end the trouble in half an hour. They would be much better dead, for they are…the waste material of creation and should be drained off into the sewer of oblivion.”

The Union also advocated “beatings, deportations, and other tactics of terror” from police and citizens. “This is what these agitators may expect from now on — that the outside world may know that they have been to San Diego.”

On March 8, Joe Mikolasek was first to stand trial, making him the test case. Further complicating matters: Mikolasek never mounted a soapbox. The police had arrested him for shaking his fists and condemning the brutality from the sidewalk. Whenever Judge Puterbaugh asked him a question, Mikolasek tilted forward, cupping an ear. “I’m sorry, Judge,” he said. “I’ve been sleeping on a cement floor for weeks and can’t hear very well.”

The jury deliberated for 80 minutes. During the lull, those in jail “serenaded” the courtroom with the “La Marseillaise,” “Union Maid,” and other songs of protest. In between numbers, they chanted, “Working for wages is outrageous!”

When the jury found Mikolasek guilty, singing stopped (Sun). “The boisterousness gave way to a silence unknown since the street-speaking arrests began.”

Then a man named Girk, beet-red with fury, tried to start a demonstration. Chief of detectives Myers — whose brutal tactics prompted Mikolasek’s original protest — grabbed Girk by the collar, tugged him out of the room, down the stairs, and into the street, all the while daring onlookers to “Go ahead, try something.”

Expecting a full-scale assault, police sentries ringed the jail all night, standing six feet apart.

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.


  1. James Jones (From Here to Eternity): “There has never been anything like [the Wobblies], before or since.”
  2. 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.”
  3. 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.”


  • Bird, Stewart, Solidarity Forever: An Oral History of the I.W.W., Chicago, 1985.

  • Conlin, Joseph Robert, Bread and Roses Too: Studies of the Wobblies, Westport, 1969.

  • Diehl, Robert Warren, “To Speak or Not to Speak: San Diego, 1912,” master’s thesis, University of San Diego, 1976.

  • Dubofsky, Melvyn, We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World, Chicago, 1969.

  • Foner, Philip S., History of the Labor Movement in the United States, vol. 4, New York,1965.

  • Renshaw, Patrick, The Wobblies, New York, 1967.

  • Winters, Donald E., The Soul of the Wobblies, Westport, 1985.

  • Starr, Kevin, Endangered Dreams, New York, 1996.

  • Articles in the San Diego Union, the Sun, the Tribune, the Herald, and others.

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Prosperina June 20, 2012 @ 6:36 p.m.

wow.... what an epic story -- and one for these times -- sometimes I think this is where we are headed again as a country -- witness the mess in Wisconsin -- and they couldn't get the recall through for that awful excuse of a governor -- but this story is just what guys like him would love -- that kind of power over poor and middle class people - or any one who doesn't support his kind of agenda -- this story is terrifying to me -- it made me weep in parts -- oh!


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