On April 20, 1912, police chief Keno Wilson sent a letter to commissioner Harris Weinstock, who was investigating San Diego’s infamous Free Speech Fight. “In no instance,” wrote Wilson, “has any police officer of this city assaulted, abused, or maltreated in any way, any person whom he has taken in charge, either as an IWW or otherwise.”
A few days later, Weinstock interviewed Julius Tum, a tailor from Germany. The “poor, inoffensive, harmless young man” — Weinstock’s words — had come to San Diego and joined the local union. After a long search, on March 26 he landed a job with J.W. Brem, a prominent tailor, and, says Brem, did “satisfactory work.”
His second day on the job, Tum wore a red tie. Within the hour, police arrested him. When Chief Wilson asked why red, Tum replied, “Why do you wear a blue one?” Convinced Tum hadn’t heard of the IWW or socialism, Wilson let him go. On his way home, out of curiosity Tum stopped at IWW headquarters at 13th and K, and bought some ten-cent pamphlets.
The next time he wore the red tie, on April 4, three policemen burst into the shop. “You’re wanted at city jail,” blurted one, as the others cuffed and dragged Tum out the door. This time, Wilson said, “Give him the same as the rest.”
Officers shoved Tum into the back seat of a patrol car. On the ride north, two rifles were pointed at his chest. Other cars — police and civilian — carried other prisoners. The caravan drove to the city limits at Sorrento Valley, where vigilantes awaited them at the police substation.
A large American flag hung from a long beam. “Kiss it,” one ordered Tum.
“I had no objection,” Tum told Weinstock, “and said I would.” But as he stepped forward, a club bashed the back of his head so hard, he thought his skull had split. “Then others crowded around and showered blows with clubs and stones on my body. They aimed at my head and face and rarely missed. This beating lasted for about 20 minutes.”
Feeling the fog of at least one concussion, Tum dragged himself off. Behind him, he heard grunts and cries and the crack of breaking bone.
Vigilantes herded their prey into cars. They drove to the county line at San Onofre, where an even larger mob — of police, constables, and civilians — searched them and took Tum’s money.
From photos shown him later, Tum identified several vigilantes. Francis J. Bierman, a writer for the San Diego Union, was “in command,” Tum said, which explained why they called him “Captain.” Officer Charles de Lacour and detectives Joe Myers and Harry Sheppard stood close by, as did J.M. Porter, Walter P. Moore, and Ed Walsh — “the last three,” Tum told the Los Angeles Express, “are real-estate men.”
R.J. “Ed” Walsh had instigated the free-speech fight in January, when he drove his car into a crowd at Soapbox Row.
They threw Tum, “dripping with blood,” into a cattle coral. For at least 90 minutes, prisoners marched two-by-two in a large circle, holding their hands in the air. Then they had to sleep on piles of manure.
The next morning, an officer told Bierman that Tum “isn’t an IWW.”
“Well, I don’t like his face,” Bierman retorted. “Give him the same dose as the rest.”
The officer led Tum and the others to the railroad tracks, where a mob, standing in two long rows, awaited them “armed with blackjacks, black snakes, and clubs.”
Someone ordered Tum to kneel down and kiss the flag. When he did, a boot kicked him into the gauntlet.
“I made a run for it, but was knocked down and so badly beaten that, when I finally escaped, I lay in the grass for two days before I had the strength to move.”
Tum had left money, clothes, and a job in San Diego. A few weeks later, a friend told him that, since Tum wasn’t IWW, he could go back. But when his boss saw the welts and bruises, he was afraid to rehire him. Tum found work in another shop.
Though not part of the free-speech fight, Tum was living evidence of brutality. Assistant District Attorney McKee tracked him down. He ordered Tum to promise he’d never sue the city for what he’d suffered. Tum refused.
The next day, police again arrested Tum. Detective Sheppard handcuffed him to other prisoners, “like a felon.” Sheppard ordered the group to trudge 19 miles to Sorrento Valley in a driving rain.
“You are free men,” the officer said, as he unlocked their cuffs at the substation. “You can defend yourself against the citizens.”
Tum saw the familiar and terrible sight: twisted faces, irate eyes, rolled-up sleeves; clubs, axe handles, and wagon spokes, many smeared with blood. Though he’d hobble-walked in mud for over four hours, Tum made a dead run for his life.
“I had profited from my former experiences,” he said, “and I lit out for the mountains. They yelled at me to come back and shot at me. I was wet through and through and numb with cold.”
He eventually reached Los Angeles and vowed to tell his story to the highest authorities, which included Commissioner Weinstock and later governor Hiram Johnson.
In his report, Weinstock wrote that Tum’s “sacred rights…were trampled under foot by men who, in the name of law and order, proved themselves to be the bitterest enemies of law and order.” Weinstock compared the treatment to “despotic and tyrannic” Tsarist Russia.
Weinstock had conducted open hearings in the grand-jury room of the courthouse April 18–20. His report, and comments about Tum, came out a month later. By then the free-speech fight had added new chapters.
Days after Weinstock left San Diego, District Attorney Utley drew up a 14-page “memorial” to governor Hiram Johnson. Worried Johnson would send troops — or that Weinstock would expose ongoing vigilante violence — the document justified San Diego’s right to defend itself without state intervention: “We believe that it is our duty…to maintain and uphold good order within the boundaries of this city at any cost…and we have the right to resist the invaders to the utmost.”
The memorial concludes: “We have no doubt of our ability to…maintain law and order in the city without aid from the state or any outside source whatever.”
The city council passed the document unanimously. Superintendent of police John Sehon and Chief Detective Myers (“chosen because of his knowledge of the local situation”) took the “memorial” to Sacramento on April 27.
In the days that followed, newspapers around the country addressed the “San Diego situation.” The Boston Advertiser praised “the plucky little city” for teaching anarchists and terrorists “some lessons.” Others honored the “patriotic citizens” and defenders of freedom, though the New York Times objected to the “compulsory osculation” — the kissing of the flag.
“We are fighting for our homes,” the Union quoted a vigilante. “Putting down rebellion and stamping out anarchy is rough, unpleasant work…the people of San Diego are doing it manfully and vigorously and, to their credit, have not asked for state aid.”
Sehon and Myers met with Governor Johnson. Sehon reported that the “governor was pleasant about the entire affair,” and would not send troops.
After that announcement, the city quieted down, but rumors escalated. Over 100 Wobblies had boarded a southbound train in Los Angeles. One thousand workers were mobilizing in San Francisco. Led by either the anarchist Emma Goldman or labor icon “Big Bill” Haywood, the San Diego Sun warned that they would “assail the government, the church, [and] the flag, because these things stand for the conservative forces of society.”
A persistent rumor in early May: at least 150 Wobblies had snuck into town. Locals housed and fed the “slipshod specimens of humanity” in shacks and at IWW headquarters, a rundown, two-story house at 13th and K. Police patrolled regularly but made no arrests, even though robberies — of cash and watches — had increased in the vicinity. They wouldn’t enter the building until an outbreak occurred.
“The gang,” wrote the Union, “is somewhat demoralized without any definite object in view.” Chief Wilson said they no longer had leaders, since Kasper Bauer, Harry McKee, Dave Brooks, and Jack Whyte were either in jail or had left the area. And if they were awaiting the arrival of Goldman or Haywood, Wilson said, police would “handle Goldman and her satellites. There is only one thing I have to fear — that we will have to restrain our own citizens, aroused to such a pitch by the indignities heaped upon them by such a horde that they will commit open acts of violence.”
On May 6, officers met a Santa Fe train at the Old Town station and arrested 33 men wanting to take part in the free-speech fight. Wilson promised that police would drive them to the city limits “in broad daylight, and it will be done according to the law.” The reference to “daylight” suggested a possible change in policy. What happened next erased it.
The Assault at 13th and K: Police Version
On May 7, around 8:30 p.m., off-duty officers H.C. Stevens and R.H. Heddon were walking home from work. Earlier that evening, they’d broken up a free-speech rally at Soapbox Row. They decided to pass by “IWW Headquarters” at 13th and K to see if all was quiet.
Two men stood shadowed in the doorway. From the sidewalk, Heddon thought he recognized them from the rally. When he asked, “What are you doing here?” one sprang at him with an axe, hacking Heddon over the right eye.
If he hadn’t jerked away at the last second, Heddon told a reporter, his head would have been “cleaved in twain.”
Sprawled on the ground, his vision clouded with blood, Heddon drew his service revolver and fired three times, hitting the assailant in the stomach and the legs. The wounded man crawled away.
In that instant, at least two other men — some accounts say four — sprang from behind a corner of the house and opened fire on the officers. Stevens was shot twice from behind, in the neck and upper right arm. The officers returned fire. After a brief gunfight, “about a dozen shots,” the shooters fled into darkness.
Assault at 13th and K: IWW Version
Even though he’d never mounted a soapbox, Joseph Mikolasek was one of the first Wobblies arrested in the free-speech fight. He became the court’s test case for violating the ordinance. On March 9, Judge Puterbaugh gave him 30 days. Back on the street, Mikolasek became even more outspoken — for the cause and against the brutalities he’d witnessed in jail.
Earlier in the day, police officers billy-clubbed Mikolasek repeatedly at Soapbox Row. At 8:30 p.m., as he stood in the doorway at 13th and K, two blue-coated policemen approached. He recognized their faces in the semi-darkness, until one turned a flashlight on his eyes and ordered him outside.
The other shot him in the leg.
Mikolasek grabbed an axe just inside the doorway and swung at the flashlight in self-defense. The downed officer fired in all directions. He hit Mikolasek in the stomach, and, spinning around, hit the second officer at least twice. Mikolasek crawled down to Tenth Street and begged Mrs. Frank Fuqua for help. She called the police.
Mikolasek died 19 days later. On his deathbed, he swore that Stevens and Heddon had beaten him “savagely” at the IWW rally and followed him home for “more of the same.”
The six Wobblies arrested at the house said that Mikolasek had acted in self-defense. There were no assassins, and Heddon shot Stevens by mistake. They also mentioned a third policeman, who rode up on a motorcycle and fired the first shot.
A later search revealed that the “headquarters” was only one downstairs room, where six or eight men stayed. Most of the other residents were Latino families unaffiliated with the IWW. In the room, police found stacks of Wobbly literature, including documents that showed “an organized attempt to launch a civil war in this city.” According to one report, they also found three revolvers, two rifles, ammunition, and a Maxim silencer that made no more noise than an air rifle.
Word of the incident shot through the city. The “riot call” blew at the firehouse: five steam-whistle blasts, a pause, then five more. Within minutes, between 200 and 400 “citizens” crowded around the police station. They collected nightsticks and formed patrols. Some carried rifles, and there was talk, two newspapers reported, “of lynching.”
By the next morning, police and citizen patrols had arrested over 80 suspects and locked them in the Mason Street School and the newly built stockade at Grape Street. Many of the “lawless nomads” had never heard of Soapbox Row.
The next day, police transferred all of them to Sorrento Valley. “Once there,” said Detective Myers, “they can look out for themselves.”
“This will mark the end of it,” Myers declared. “The people of San Diego are sick and tired of these disturbances. The climax came when an attempt was made last night to murder two members of the police force. We are going to clean the town of this element, and do it quick.” ■
- Richard Pourade: “The violence IWW leaders sought to avoid, in a campaign of civil disobedience, had at last occurred.”
- Robert Warren Diehl: “The vigilantes were no longer interested in only Wobblies or outsiders; any and all persons suspected of being in sympathy with the free-speech movement had to be wary.”
- David Helvarg: “Unable to hold a funeral in San Diego, which was now under a virtual state of martial law, the IWW shipped [Mikolasek’s] body to Los Angeles, [where] a funeral procession drew over 10,000 people.”
- Diehl, Robert Warren, “To Speak or Not to Speak: San Diego, 1912,” master’s thesis, University of San Diego, 1976.
Dobofsky, Melvyn, We Shall Be All: A History of the Industrial Workers of the World, Chicago, 1969.
Helvarg, David, “How San Diego Took Care of Its Wobblies,” San Diego Reader, August, 1977.
Miller, Grace, “The I.W.W. Free Speech Fight: San Diego, 1912,” Southern California Quarterly 54, no. 3, 1972.
Pourade, Richard, Gold in the Sun, San Diego, 1965.
Taylor, Kate Hanrahan, “A Crisis of Confidence: The San Diego Free Speech Fight of 1912,” MA thesis, UCLA, 1966.
Villalobos, Charlotte, “Civil Liberties in the San Diego Free Speech Fight,” MA thesis, San Diego State University, 1966.
Weinstock, Harris, “A Report of Hiram Weinstock, commissioner to investigate the recent disturbances in the City of San Diego and the County of San Diego, California, to his excellency Hiram W. Johnson, Governor of California, 1912.”
Articles in various journals, magazines, and newspapers.