EVERETT, WA – On November 5th, 1916, twelve IWW members were shot dead in cold blood by a vigilante posse of drunken business owners and their flunkeys commanded by Snohomish County Sheriff Donald McRae. Twenty-seven other union members were wounded by gunfire. This was the most murderous crime committed again Wobblies in our Union’s history.
A couple hours before, in Seattle, the IWW chartered two passenger steamers, Verona and Calista. Nearly 300 IWW members, including men and women, and a few friends boarded and steamed 20 miles north on Puget Sound to support the right to free speech, the AFL shingle mill workers strike, and to rally against authoritarian rule in Everett. The mill workers had been on strike since May. Wobblies had been agitating in Everett for months. IWW organizer James Rowan was sent by Seattle IWW Local 432 to Everett in July and was promptly arrested. Sheriff McRae, a brutal dictator who was the unofficial ruler of the county, had warned Wobblies that they were not welcome in town, and union street speakers would be arrested. The IWW responded by announcing they would be gathering in downtown Everett in broad daylight on November 5th in defiance. A week earlier, forty-one IWW members had been arrested for urging other workers to support the shingle union. McRae and his vigilante goons hauled them to the edge of town and viciously beat them with clubs and axe handles. Limping and carrying their seriously injured fellow workers down the tracks to Seattle, they related their story to an outraged IWW local. McRae posted guards, mostly specially deputized businessmen from the Commercial Club, at all roads leading into town to keep Wobblies out. But the capitalists and their thugs could not control the seaways. Wobs determined to go to Everett aboard the two steamers in defiance of the town’s capitalists and the sheriff, and in support of free speech and the strikers.
It is unclear who notified McRae that the Wobs were coming by boat. Court records indicate it was an informer planted among the IWW in Seattle by the Pinkerton Detective Agency. The word rapidly circulated around town. Thousands of Everett citizens, already anticipating the IWW’s announced rally later that day, gathered on the bluffs overlooking the docks to see what would happen.
The Verona approached City Dock first. The Wobs were singing that great old labor anthem of the British Transport Workers, “Hold the Fort.” (You don’t know this song? You should learn it. It’s on page 24 of Songs of the IWW, aka ‘the Little Red Songbook’.)
We meet today in Freedom’s cause
And raise our voices high.
We’ll join our hands in union strong
To battle or to die.
Hold the fort
For we are coming,
Unionists be strong.
Side by side we battle onward,
Victory will come.
McRae and 200 of his goons were waiting, well-fortified with booze and guns. As Verona’s bow line was made fast to the dock, McRae shouted “Who is your leader?”
Approaching the gangplank to go ashore, a Wobbly replied “We’re all leaders!” The sheriff replied, “Well, you can’t land here.” Someone shouted back “The hell we can’t!” A shot was fired in response to that; according to one prosecution witness at the trial that followed, it was McRae himself. While it isn’t known for certain who opened fire, court testimony implicated the sheriff’s men. Wobblies had no reason to jeopardize their intention of marching up the street to the site of their planned public speeches by beginning a gun battle, and violence against members of our union in the Pacific Northwest was common in those days.
A fusillade of bullets struck the Verona and a number of Fellow Workers fell to the deck. Hugo Gerlot had climbed the boat’s flagpole; he was targeted first and tumbled to the deck, then others were hit. The thugs on the dock fired wildly into the mass of workers aboard Verona. The Wobblies ran to the starboard side of the boat to escape the gunfire; most reports said there was a small amount of return fire from the boat’s deck, and this is almost certainly true. Several union men fell into the bay and were shot dead by McRae’s men.
FWs Hugo Gerlot (23); Abraham Rabinowitz (30); Gustav Johnson (24); and John Looney (27) lay dead on the Verona’s deck. Felix Baran (24), lay dying. Seven others were shot in the water–William Colman, Fred Berger, Charles Taylor, Tom Ellis, Peter Viberts, Edward Raymond, and an un-named member. Their bodies were never recovered.
Not all the casualties were aboard Verona—Jefferson Beard, a sheriff’s deputy, and Charles Curtiss, a National Guard lieutenant, were among the gunmen on the dock. Both were shot in the back and killed, almost surely by their own side. McRae took two bullets in the leg and was put out of commission. Several dozen others suffered gunshot wounds. It was demonstrated in court that these casualties were almost certainly due to ‘friendly fire’ from undisciplined and unskilled Commercial Club businessmen firing blindly through the wooden walls of a warehouse where they lay in wait for the Verona.
Verona’s officers put the ferry’s engine full astern and snapped the bow line, backing away from the dock. The men aboard Verona warned off Calista and both boats returned to Seattle. Upon arrival, 74 Wobblies were arrested and taken back to the jail in Everett and held while various charges, including murder, were prepared against them.
The IWW put on a large public funeral for Looney, Baran, and Gerlot at Seattle’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery on Queen Anne Hill. English poet Charles Ashleigh officiated. The bodies of Rabinowitz and Johnson were returned to their families.
Fellow Worker Thomas H. Tracy, a wagon driver, was the first brought to trial, charged with the murder of Deputy Beard. Following a dramatic and widely publicized trial, he was acquitted. The state’s prosecution relied on hearsay and perjured evidence. An account of the massacre and trial proceedings is included in The Everett Massacre, A History of the Class Struggle in the Lumber Industry (1917) by an IWW member, Walker C. Smith.
Defense funds were raised by the IWW’s Everett Prisoners’ Defense Committee. Following Tracy’s acquittal, the remaining 73 imprisoned Wobblies awaiting trials were released without charges.
Modern IWW Commemorations
IWW members from around the region often gather on November 5th at a chain link fence under the railroad overpass at the foot of Hewitt Avenue in Everett. This is as close as we can get to the site of the attack on the Wobblies aboard Verona these days. Wreaths with ribbons bearing the murdered Fellow Workers’ names are hung on the fence.
The largest IWW event was held on November 5th, 2016. It was called “Completing the Journey.” A crowd of Wobblies and friends gathered from all around to dedicate our own monument planted in the lawn at the site (it was promptly removed by person’s unknown, and replaced with an official plaque on a granite boulder). After reading the names and hanging up the wreaths, 100 Wobblies and many friends walked up Hewitt to “speakers’ corner” exactly as our Fellow Workers aboard the steamships would have done in 1916. Not bothering with a parade permit, the march moved six blocks up the street to the corner with Wetmore, where speeches were given in the driving rain. Wobs then caravanned to Seattle for a candle vigil at the common grave of Fellow Workers Baran, Gerlot, and Looney.
A week later, the Pacific Northwest Labor History Association chartered the Virgina V, a restored passenger steamer on Puget Sound, for a commemorative cruise in the wake of Verona and Calista to Everett. Tickets were very expensive, but an anonymous donor purchased a stack of them so a contingent of Wobblies could crowd aboard–to a mixed reaction from some who put on the event. Apparently historic Wobblies are cool, but real live ones in the twenty-first century are a bit disconcerting. The official event was great, but the Wobblies dominated much of the proceedings, including hoisting the IWW flag at the bow with assistance from the captain, where we sang “Hold the Fort” and “The Red Flag” for all to hear.
More recent commemorations have been low-key, featuring wreaths, a song and a poem or two, and often a social gathering after. The next is planned for November 5th, 2022 at the dead-end at the west end of Hewitt Avenue in Everett. See you there, at noon.
For information, write to the Everett Branch of the IWW: [email protected].