The Centralia Tragedy occurred on November 11, 1919, when American Legion members—under the guise of a parade celebrating the first anniversary of the end of World War I—attacked an Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) hall in Centralia, Washington. The IWWs, forewarned of the plan, requested help from the sheriff and sought legal advice. Often faced with extralegal violence by opponents—including lynchings, beatings, and tar and featherings—they realized they had to arm themselves to defend the hall. The American Legion claimed that they were fired upon before they attacked the hall; the IWW claimed that the Legion attacked before they fired. The result was a fight that led to the deaths of six men and the wounding of several others. After firing from inside the hall, IWW member and WWI veteran Wesley Everest ran out the back door and was pursued by a mob. He killed a man before he was arrested. The reaction from the town and the legal system was swift and violent. Vigilantes broke into the Centralia jail, drove Everest to a bridge over the Chehalis River, mutilated, hung, shot him, and left his body hanging from the bridge.
Following the violence, IWW members were arrested and a leftist printing company seized. Seven IWW members were imprisoned for murder after a widely publicized trial while none of the Legionnaires were arrested or prosecuted. Ironically, it is possible that none of the convicted Centralia Wobblies fired a gun that day. A committee was formed to get the prisoners a fair trial, but five were released in 1933, one in 1939, and another died in prison.
In the aftermath, a nationwide crackdown of IWW members, war dissenters, and progressive leaders nationwide under the direction of US Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer followed. Remembered as the “The Palmer Raids,” this suppression of radical leftists became part of the First Red Scare.
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This edition of the IWW’s songbook contains a portrait of lynched Wobbly Wesley Everest. It is likely that sales of this songbook were used to aid in the defense of the IWW Centralia Prisoners who were arrested and imprisoned after the event.
This pamphlet argues that the IWWs imprisoned in the wake of the events at Centralia did not receive a fair trial. The trial was held in Montesano, the men were all tried together, and the judge barred the defense lawyer from discussing any violence committed against the IWW before the November 11th incident. During the course of the 1920 trial, 34 Legionnaires were deputized for the event and other Legionnaires paid and provided with shelter to attend the trial. The prosecutor successfully requested a US Army Infantry regiment. All of these factors contributed to an atmosphere of jury intimidation. This resulted in protests that the trial was unfair and the defendants were eventually pardoned.
Wesley Everest (December 29, 1890-November 11, 1919) was a World War I veteran. After serving, he worked in Centralia, Washington as a lumberjack and was a member of the IWW. On Armistice Day 1919, he was lynched by a mob of vigilantes and hung on a bridge outside of Centralia in the wake of a shoot out. This postcard was used to publicize Everest’s death and to raise funds for the IWW members arrested in the aftermath.
This photograph features the IWW Centralia defendants, on trial for the murder of American Legion member Warren Grimm in Aberdeen, Washington, 1921.
“Was it Murder? The Truth About Centralia,” was a pamphlet written by IWW member Walker C. Smith in 1922 to raise awareness and funds for fair trials for IWW members imprisoned for their role in the Centralia Tragedy.
The events of Armistice Day 1919 was preceded by an attack on the IWW hall in Centralia during a parade. The building was vandalized and Wobblies were dumped outside of Centralia and told not to return. The IWW reopened its union hall and vowed they would not be evicted again.
The IWWs approached Elmer Smith, a Centralia lawyer sympathetic to the Wobblies, for advice. Smith contacted the governor, and the IWW contacted Centralia law enforcement asking for protection and were denied. The Wobblies then printed this widely distributed flyer calling on the people of Centralia to take action with little effect. In this context, Smith advised the Wobblies it would be legal to physically defend themselves if attacked first. The IWW members interpreted this legal advice as justification to arm themselves for a confrontation.