The so-called “Centralia Massacre of 1919”* is a landmark event characteristic of the rising tides of agitation and class conflict marking the years following World War I. During the first Armistice Day parade in Centralia, Washington, a group of vigilantes from the American Legion raided the local Industrial Workers of the World union hall that had become a magnet for suspicion and repression by local business interests and its elites. The resulting gunfight left six dead and led to the infamous lynching of Wobbly Wesley Everest.
To this day, the American Legion blames Wobbly Eugene Barnett — father of the book’s author Esther Barnett Goffinet— for opening fire. The book Ripples of a Lie corrects the historical record and tells the story of that fateful day and the effects it had on the life of Eugene Barnett, who got caught up in the course of events and put on trial and subsequently railroaded by the local prosecutor for his alleged participation in the shooting.
Esther Barnett Goffinet spoke to Industrial Worker about her father’s and his fellow workers’ tragic lives. This interview has been edited for style and clarity.
Industrial Worker: When writing this book, what kind of story were you trying to tell?
Esther Barnett Goffinet: My father, Eugene Barnett, was an unarmed union man standing in the window of the Roderick Hotel during the raid on the union hall in Centralia, Washington, on November 11, 1919. Barnett was an eyewitness who could not be allowed to talk. He was accused of being the actual shooter of the soldier who led the raid, framed, and buried alive in prison along with seven other innocent union men.
Ripples of a Lie is a biography and labor history book on Eugene Barnett, but it’s actually much more than that because it includes his family and the other prisoners in order to tell his story. It is written as a narrative, in story form that makes history come alive, until the epilogue which is written in the first person, me.
IW: What inspired you to write the story of your father?
Barnett Goffinet: I am a registered nurse not a writer. But I am also a daughter and I knew I had to write this book for my children and grandchildren. There are many books and articles in the library and elsewhere about the well-known Centralia Massacre.* Only the book The Centralia Conspiracy by Ralph Chaplin is true and written by someone who was actually there as it happened and who knew many of the people involved. Ripples of a Lie is the only book written by a family member, or from the prisoner’s perspective, and by someone who actually knew several of the characters involved, the only book that tells the full story, and finally, it’s a book that tells the whole truth.
Born in the mountains of North Carolina to poor sharecroppers, Gene was the oldest of eight children. His father was also working out as a carpenter making five cents per day. Encouraged by the promise of “good pay and good schools” for his children, Gene’s father moved his family to West Virginia to become a coal miner. The “good pay” was $0.50 a day for 14 hours of work, 200 feet underground in deplorable conditions. In many families, the children starved to death while their fathers worked those long hard hours. They would expect to lose at least one in four children.
In most families, like mine, the oldest children were sent to work to help support the family. Some working children were as young as five years old. They were Rock Pickers, hired to pick rocks off the tracks so the rail cars wouldn’t wreck. Many children died in accidents and those who didn’t were treated very cruelly, beaten by the guards if they ever stopped to play, or didn’t meet their work quotas. This left a lasting impression on my father. Eugene Barnett was not quite eight years old when he was sent to work in the mines. As one of the “older children” he was a “Trapper Boy’, opening and closing the big tarp to keep air in the mine.
Gene met Mother Jones, the union supporter and activist who protected union members from anti-union thugs, and hearing her speak a few times, he became interested in the unions. He proudly joined the United Mine Workers at age 14 and worked toward better and safer working conditions for the rest of his life. My book includes wages, prices, working and living conditions throughout all those years.
IW: What lessons can contemporary organizers and ordinary working people draw from your father’s story?
Barnett Goffinet: I hope that contemporary organizers and ordinary people who read Ripples of a Lie will gain a better understanding of unions and why we need them, how and why they were formed and what our parents and grandparents lived through in order to give us the advantages we have at work today. It was my father’s greatest wish to clear his name and the more people who know the truth about the Centralia incident, the better. We, the families of the prisoners, don’t say “massacre;” that is part of the lie. There was no “massacre” unless they mean the massacring of those eleven union men who were dragged out from the jail that night, beaten, and burned alive in the mill’s incinerator. This is not a forgotten issue and the cover-up to protect the town’s elite still goes on to this day.
IW: What did you learn when researching and writing this book?
Barnett Goffinet: I have always known the Centralia story and was fortunate to know some of the prisoners and their families. My father saved his legal papers, letters, and pictures from much of his life and other children of the prisoners sent me information their fathers had saved. They were excited that I was writing a book and we all wanted the whole world to know our fathers were innocent. Now there are two books at the library telling the truth.
It has been a real advantage and fun for me to be a nurse when writing about all the historical medicine and treatments described in my book. I have learned a lot by doing this, not only about publishing, which almost drove me over the edge but about history in general. For example, I never realized the reason city blocks were ever invented was because there was no indoor plumbing. The houses were built around a small square area with the community outhouse in the middle for all the block families to use. I had heard the expression “work until you hit pay dirt” but didn’t know that it came from coal miners who were not paid anything for their labor, only for the coal.
*Editor’s Note: Many in the IWW opt instead for the phrase “Centralia tragedy” to denote that members had a right to defend their union hall in 1919.