Around noon on March 31, 1912, a crier waved a red banner down Fifth Street. “The public is invited to Seventh and B Streets at 2:30,” the banner announced, “to attend the funeral of Michael Hoey, who died in the cause of Free Speech.”
A large man chased the crier down, hooked him around the neck, and slammed him to the pavement. Then the man loaded his mouth with saliva and spit on the “emblem of anarchy.”
At 2:30, the doors opened at Johnson, Connell, & Saum’s Mortuary. Harry Daggett emerged first. He wore a frayed, three-piece suit and hoisted a red flag. Behind him came 20 IWW “Wobblies.” As six men carried Hoey’s casket two blocks from the mortuary to the vacant lot at Seventh and B, angry onlookers assembled on the sidewalks.
“That’s how contemptible they are,” said a sailor from the USS Maryland, “using the sanctity of death to protect them.”
“Too cowardly otherwise,” added another.
When the cortege reached the vacant lot, free-speech supporters awaited them. Daggett stepped to the side.
“Get the fellow with the red flag,” someone shouted. “That’s too much!”
Detective Harvey Shepherd raised a hand: “Don’t interrupt the service,” he said. “I’ll get him.”
At the station, Daggett told police he didn’t know what the flag meant. He’d become the “color bearer” because Mike Hoey was his friend “and a good man.” Asked if he was a Wobbly, Daggett said no, but he believed in most of their principles and would let better minds than his plan solutions. When Daggett left the station, wrote the Union, he had to run a gauntlet of “hisses, hoots, and jeers from the crowd outside.”
Gray-haired Michael Hoey was an IWW veteran of free-speech fights in Spokane and Fresno. Arrested during the first week of protests in San Diego, Hoey spent 40 days in city jail. Although they denied it, Hoey swore that three officers — rookie patrolman Irwin, in particular — clubbed and kicked him repeatedly in the groin. Cramped with over 100 prisoners in a cell built for 60, Hoey had to sleep on a cement floor and eat inedible food. “When I asked Dr. Claude Magee [the police surgeon] for a laxative, he gave me an emetic, which caused such violent vomiting that I became seriously ill.”
On March 21, Magee sent Hoey, a man in his mid-60s, in an ambulance to Agnew Hospital with a note: the patient is in “practically normal condition,” but suffers from an old rupture. Seven days later, Hoey died.
A coroner’s jury diagnosed bronchial pneumonia and found “no evidence of violence.”
Dr. Deville of Agnew Hospital disagreed. Hoey died from unsanitary conditions at the jail, Deville told the San Diego Sun, and “police brutality.”
On March 31, Hoey’s gaunt body lay stretched across a cloth-covered catafalque at the vacant lot. Laura Payne Emerson, IWW member and wife of a local jeweler, gave a eulogy. Hoey, she said, was “an offering on the altar of free speech.” She quoted him: “I have nothing to give but myself, and life is not worth living when all liberty is gone.” In the last two months, she concluded, the test of an illegal ordinance had swelled into “threats of vengeance, from quarters unexpected.”
During Hoey’s days behind bars, violence by police and San Diegans escalated from denial of wrongdoing to overt, “patriotic” action.
“Although San Diego had less to fear from the Wobblies than either Spokane or Fresno,” writes Melvyn Dubofsky, “it nevertheless acted more savagely to repress free speech…. No brutality proved beyond the imagination of San Diego’s ‘good citizens.’”
On March 18, the Union reported that police stopped “a gang of dynamiters whose sinister plots included the wrecking of San Diego buildings and industrial plants.” Police chief Keno Wilson said that A.E. Hawley, owner of a gun store in Santa Ana, couldn’t account for a half-ton of dynamite stored in a barn. At first, police assumed Hawley was pro-IWW, since he’d sent a dollar “to buy the boys in the San Diego jail tobacco.” But he denied any affiliation with the Wobblies and with Jack Whyte, the alleged ringleader.
Whyte became notorious for telling the First Baptist Church men’s club that he recognized no flag, no law, no constitution, and did not believe in God or any country.
Two days later, Councilman Dodson announced that the dynamite hadn’t disappeared, after all. An inventory erred when weighing the load.
Judge Sloane sentenced Whyte anyway: six months and a $300 fine for conspiracy. At his trial, Whyte exploded: “The indictment is a lie…. You cowards throw the blame upon the people, but I know who is to blame and I name them: it is [Joseph] Spreckels and his partners in business, and the court is the lackey of that class, defending the property of that class against the advancing horde of starving American workers.”
Although the dynamite scare was unfounded, the original announcement prompted formation of the Citizens Committee of 1000. They volunteered to help police protect the city and take “undesirable characters to the county line and assist them northward, by more or less impelling force.”
The Union applauded giving protesters the “most effective assistance” out of town. What the Union didn’t say: the “Vigilance Committee” made public what had been done in private from the start.
The March 22 Incident
The city and county jails held over 250 inmates. On March 22, Chief Wilson announced that, from now on, police would make “selective arrests” — just leaders of the movement — and deport those in jail to the city limits.
On March 23, rumors spread that the night before, several trucks had driven prisoners to the train station at Sorrento Valley. Unmasked civilians, calling themselves the new Vigilance Committee, ordered handcuffed captives to form a single line. What followed was a “going-away party.” Vigilantes beat the men with clubs and axe handles, then told them to walk to Orange County.
Chief Wilson denied knowledge of the incident. The Union said he “was inclined to laugh” at the allegation. Chief of Detectives Myers, labeled a “Cossack” by protesters, said that, for all he knew, the prisoners “merely started on their way.”
Word spread: the March 22 incident became a rallying cry. Stanley M. Gue, secretary of IWW Local 13, wrote in the Industrial Worker: “The day for appeals has gone. The time has come when we can tell you the true story of our predicament with all its ghastly trimmings.”
Since the local press reported only denials, Gue urged workers to “tell the story day and night. Smear the misery of those boys in jail, the misery of our class over everything.” He concluded with a call to arms: “Come to San Diego a hundred thousand strong. Roads into San Diego are guarded by armed deputies.”
Toward the end of March, the city instituted a new, “move on” ordinance: police could break up any gathering anywhere, busting heads if necessary.
On March 29, in front of his bookstore at Seventh and D, Grant Webster watched 18 policemen club Thomas Kilwallen for refusing to move on. Every time he tried to escape, they pounded him again. Webster heard one officer say, “We’ll kill one of you damned anarchists yet.” The sight reminded Webster “of the time I saw 16 small boys worrying a defenseless dog.”
San Diegans against the IWW began wearing small American flags on their lapels. A flag crimped in the center identified a vigilante. People downtown got used to hearing the “riot call.” A fire-whistle at Kettner and Broadway made five blasts, paused, then made five more: a signal that the Committee of 1000 must assemble.
On April 2, a fight broke out at Fourth and E. Several men “roughly handled” Patrolman Langford. He was unarmed and not in uniform. Sailors from the USS Maryland, and the police — “who were not slow in using their clubs” — stopped the free-for-all.
The next day Chief Wilson decried the attack on Langford: thus far, he told the Sun, police have been “too lenient.” The IWW will “get all that is coming to them from now on.”
On April 4, the Industrial Worker questioned the IWW’s “soft,” nonviolent tactics in San Diego for the first time. When Wilson began shipping prisoners to the county line, the direct-action approach — stuff the jails and stop the system — became ineffective. Instead of passive resistance, the Worker demanded an eye for an eye: “Take warning [Police Superintendent] Sehon, Wilson, [District Attorney] Utley — take heed members of the ‘vigilance committee.’ Your names will be broadcast. Reparation will be exacted! He laughs best who laughs last.”
That same day, the “riot call” blasted. Between 90 and 100 IWW’s had hopped a train at Santa Ana headed for San Diego. District Attorney Utley and Chief Wilson called a “consultation” at Utley’s office. Among those attending: Sehon, Chamber of Commerce Secretary Choate, Chief of Detectives Myers, banker Julius Wangenheim, and Francis Bierman, a Union reporter — later alleged by Emma Goldman to be a ringleader of the vigilantes, and by others as Joseph Spreckels’s point man.
The committee decided to deputize as many people as they could and stop the train at the county line. Secretary Choate rounded up San Diegans “willing to let business go and serve as deputies.”
Utley downplayed the conference. “There is nothing for publication at this time,” he told reporters. But what may have come out of it was an all-out declaration of war against the Wobblies’ invasion.
That afternoon 30 prisoners vanished from jail. Some said police turned them over to a citizens’ committee for “re-education” at Sorrento Valley.
An estimated 45 newly deputized constables rode on horseback to San Onofre. Over 100 other San Diegans headed north in cars or on the 3:00 train. They packed blankets and provisions for several days and vowed “inspirational lessons in patriotism.”
The night before, a posse had stopped the Santa Fe at the county line. They ordered 72 “vagrants” down from the freight cars and beat them. In the morning, bragging about the “fun” they were having, vigilantes herded their captives across the county line. Three couldn’t walk. The official word: two tripped when hopping down from the train; the third broke his leg when he slipped on tracks and fell off a bridge.
Charles Hanson, a veteran of three free-speech fights, was the third. He told the Industrial Worker that vigilantes forced him to kiss the flag (“You son of a bitch, come on, kiss it, God damn you!”) and run a gauntlet through over 100 men — two lines, 50 each — armed with whips, clubs, and broken whiskey bottles. He didn’t get far when a wagon spoke shattered his kneecap. As he bled in the dust, Hanson watched a “cowardly and inhuman cracking of heads.”
At 1:00 a.m. on April 5, a freight train from Los Angeles reached the county line. On board were over 100 men, half under 21. The train slowed to an unscheduled halt. Four hundred “citizens” — men, and some women — lined both sides of the tracks. Some carried lanterns. Many sported constables’ badges and all wrapped a white handkerchief around the left elbow: the sign of a vigilante.
Albert Tucker was one of the “free travelers” on the train. “The moon was shining dimly through the clouds,” he recalled, “and I could see pick handles, wagon spokes, and every kind of club imaginable swinging from the wrists of all of them.”
He also saw rifles, aimed at the Wobblies, and “black snakes” — 18-inch fire hoses filled with sand at one end, tacks at the other. A black snake left no marks.
“We were ordered to unload,” Tucker recalled, “and we refused. Then they closed around the flat car we were on and began clubbing and knocking and pulling men off by their heels.”
A half-hour later, hundreds of “drunk and hollering and cursing” vigilantes marched “bruised and bleeding” captives single-file to a nearby cattle corral. Inside, the men had to keep moving in a circle with their hands over their heads. Those who fell were beaten. Anyone acting like a leader got “an extra beating.” Vigilantes dragged unconscious Wobblies out of the corral and into the darkness. Rifle fire chased those who tried to flee. “Afterwards,” says Tucker, “there was a lot of our men unaccounted for and never have been heard from since.”
“They kilt two Wobs,” recalled “Codger” Bill Lewis, “and ya don’t know how many more bodies they mighta’ dumped in the desert for the coyotes.”
Wobblies considered themselves rough customers able to sing in the face of hardship. None sang that night.
At dawn, constables opened the corral gate and released four or five prisoners at a time. They marched up the tracks and stopped before a mob of vigilantes. Each prisoner had to kneel, kiss the American flag, and sing the “Star Spangled Banner.” If someone refused, or even looked like he might not cooperate, black snakes beat him senseless.
Then, Tucker says, each had to “run a gauntlet of 106 men, every one of which was striking at us as hard as they could.”
As he watched the man before him run, fall, and crawl through two rows of flying handles, Tucker noticed that the clubbers were headhunters: whenever a man raised his head, vigilantes took dead aim.
When Tucker ran the gauntlet, he kept his head low. He emerged black-and-blue. As he hobbled to the county line he bled from “a dozen” wounds and vowed: “If I ever take part in another [free-speech fight], it will be with machine guns and aerial bombs. There must be a better way of fighting — and better results.”
That night, the war continued in town. Unmasked members of the citizen’s committee kidnapped Abraham Sauer, editor of the pro–Free Speech San Diego Herald. They drove him to East County, put a noose around his neck, and told him never to return — or identify them.
Sauer did return. He wrote in the Herald: “The personnel of the vigilantes represent not only merchants and bankers, but church members and bartenders.” He also named the chamber of commerce, the real-estate board, the press, public utilities, “as well as members of the grand jury.”
Sauer never took legal action or named names.
That morning, while the edition was still being printed, 30 vigilantes burst into the printer’s shop and smashed the galleys. From that point on, Sauer smuggled the weekly Herald from Los Angeles and distributed it on the sly.
Union editorials praised the vigilantes: “If this action be lawlessness, make the most of it” (April 7); “These anarchists have gone far enough…hereafter they will not only be carried to the county line and dumped there, we intend to leave our mark on them…so that the outside world may know that they have been to San Diego” (April 12).
Stumpy, the correspondent for Solidarity, wrote in reply: “The jails are full, but they seem to think there is plenty of room in the cemetery.”
- Don Stewart: The Free Speech protest “was an open defiance of civil authority, even now San Diego is being recalled in similar cases of defiance.”
- Joseph Robert Conlin: “To judge the Wobblies by their hopeless newspaper image is to lose sight of [their] many supporters among ‘respectable’ elements of the population.”
- Castanien, Pliny, To Protect and Serve: A History of San Diego and Its Chiefs: 1889–1989, San Diego, 1993.
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., The Industrial Workers of the World, 1905–1917, New York, 1965.
Miller, Jim, Flash, Oakland, 2010.
Stewart, Don, Frontier Port, Los Angeles, 1965.
Winters, Donald E., The Soul of the Wobblies, Westport, 1985.
Articles in the San Diego Union, the Tribune, the Sun, and the Herald.
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