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Wobbly Justice

Ninety years ago this month, 1,200 mine workers and members of the Industrial Workers of the World—"Wobblies"—were rounded up in Bisbee, Ariz., and loaded on a train to Columbus, NM, in one of America's strangest but least-known union-busting efforts.

By Ken Emery


Columbus, NM, village officials received a telegram from Russell Meadows on July 12, 1917. Meadows owned drug stores in Columbus and Douglas, Ariz. His message was that a trainload of 1,200 "Wobblies"—mine workers and others belonging to the radical Industrial Workers of the World (IWW)—who had been forcibly deported from Bisbee, was due in Columbus that day and was to be unloaded there.

"Wobbly" deportees march from Lowell, Ariz., in July 1917.

When the train arrived in Columbus at 9:30 p.m., Mayor R.W. Elliott, Trustees White and Walker and Marshal Wright informed El Paso and Southwestern Railroad superintendent F.B. King that the Wobblies were "undesirables." If he insisted on unloading them, King and the trains' guards, estimated to number 250 at the time, would be arrested. After protesting that he was under orders, King, confronted with jail, changed his mind and ordered the train back to Hermanas, about 20 miles to the west. There, the 23 box and cattle cars were backed onto a siding and decoupled; the train's engine went on to El Paso.

New Mexico Governor W.E. Lindsey ordered Sheriff W.C. Simpson to go to Hermanas and take charge of the deportees. According to the Deming Headlight, the sheriff "loaded 50 deputies into automobiles, armed them with a machine gun, a relic of the Villa raid, high powered rifles and shooting pistols and went forth prepared to meet a ravening horde of anarchists, IWWs and other menaces." But what the posse found was a lot of men who were mostly interested in food and drink. The Bisbee deportees hadn't eaten all day and had run out of water.

After assessing the situation and conferring with District Attorney J.S. Vaught and Bisbee attorney William B. Cleary, the spokesman for the deportees, Sheriff Simpson sent most of his men back to their cars. They spent the day, July 13, chatting with their charges. At 6 p.m., Simpson sent all but five of his deputies home.

When the small Hermanas store opened that morning, it was quickly cleaned out of supplies. Two men caught a freight into Columbus and brought back food around 6 p.m. Late that evening, a freight car of food arrived from El Paso, courtesy of the US Army at Fort Bliss.

Early on July 14, Lt. Col. Hornbrook arrived from Douglas with a small detachment of cavalrymen. They escorted the train to Columbus, where the deportees were turned over to Col. H.G. Sickel, 12th Cavalry, commanding officer at Camp Furlong. They were interred in the refugee camp formerly used by the Chinese who had left Mexico with the Punitive Expedition led by General John "Blackjack" Pershing.

Feelings among the posse and within Columbus ran strongly in favor of the deportees and against the Bisbee Mining Corp., the railroad and Cochise County, Ariz., Sheriff Wheeler and his deputies. Although they'd feared the worst when they learned that a mob of Wobblies was coming, Luna County folks discovered that they had much in common with the deportees and that a great injustice had been perpetrated. Some felt that the Arizona deputies should have been fined $100 each for gun-toting in Luna County. It would have done the county's coffers a great service.

The Columbus Courier of July 13 proclaimed: "Striking miners are more welcome here than would be 1,200 Cochise County, Arizona, corporation deputies." The Bisbee Daily Review noted the Courier's view but considered it (wrongly) to be the only instance of anti-deportation views stated so openly. Also, in Columbus, some felt that the railroad had violated interstate commerce laws by not collecting fares!


So, who were these Wobblies who caused such fear, hatred and consternation that they could be deported, 90 years ago this month, as though they had no rights as American citizens?

The Industrial Workers of the World was founded in Chicago in June 1905. It was a melding of western miners, lumbermen and migrant farmworkers with industrial workers of the east. It also was an alliance of socialist and anarchist groups who opposed capitalism. The Western Federation of Miners was the most important of the original organizers. There were other unions and a strong socialist component. Individuals involved, among others, were Eugene V. Debs (future Socialist candidate for president of the United States), William D. "Big Bill" Haywood, "Mother" Jones (after whom the progressive magazine today is named) and Daniel DeLeon. Later, Mabel Dodge Luhan, the future Taos, NM, arts maven, joined.

It is unclear why IWW members were called "Wobblies." The name was in use at least by 1913 during the hops-pickers strike in Wheatland, Calif. By 1914, it was in the lyrics of the "Little Red Songbook, " a Wobbly publication. It may have derived from Australia, where they were called "wallabies." There are other possibilities but none are certain. In any case, IWW members were commonly called Wobblies, a term they didn't mind a bit.

Several schisms in the IWW occurred over the next few years until by February 1914, socialists were no longer part of the union. The basic philosophy was that labor should be in control of industry and employ management, rather than the other way around. The IWW eschewed politics as a tool, instead choosing action such as slowdowns and strikes. The Wobblies espoused violence and sabotage as useful tools but that was mostly rhetoric. Few instances of either were ever proven, although they acquired that reputation and seemed to revel in it. When violence occurred, it usually was against Wobblies rather than caused by them.

The US entered World War I in April 1917. The IWW was unabashedly pacifist and earned the enmity of many Americans because of this "unpatriotic" attitude. At the IWW's 1916 convention, members had already decided to work toward getting the working classes to ignore the nation's draft proclamations. They argued that World War I was a needless war brought on by the ruling classes. The following summarizes their attitude:


I love my flag, I do, I do,

Which floats upon the breeze

I also love my arms and legs,

And neck, and nose, and knees.

One little shell might spoil them all

Or give them such a twist,

They would be of no use to me;

I guess I won't enlist.


I love my country, yes, I do,

I hope her folks do well.

Without our arms, and legs, and things,

I think we'd look like hell.

Young men with faces half shot off,

Are unfit to be kissed,

I've read in books it spoils their looks,

I guess I won't enlist.


Additionally, the typical Wobbly in the western US was more or less itinerant. They roamed from job to job, town to town, without putting down roots. Historian James W. Byrkit said the IWW appealed to "roofless, voteless, womenless, alienated men." They made up a large segment of the hoboes of the early 20th century. "Hallelujah, I'm a Bum" was in their songbook. Probably "The Big Rock Candy Mountain" was, too.

Many were Mexicans and thus automatically suspect, especially near the border, because of the Mexican Revolution. Many more were Slavs or from southern Europe and considered to be Bolsheviks or Anarchists. And, of course, after the US entered World War I, Germans and Austrians were undoubtedly seen as spies or saboteurs. One can see why so many Americans looked at Wobblies askance. The view was that they certainly couldn't be trusted, were troublemakers or worse and simply weren't welcome!

This fear and loathing of Wobblies caused them to be made scapegoats in some instances. In 1917, a total of 4,233 strikes were called nationwide, of which 407 were in mining. The Wobblies were involved in a small minority of these but were often blamed for any violence, threat of violence or other misconduct that might occur. In 1913, during the Wheatland hops strike, there was one Wobbly among the 2,300 strikers, yet the IWW was blamed for the four deaths in the ensuing riot. Although the Wobbles were never very numerous (14,000 members in 1913), the general public considered most union members to be Wobblies. Even when the IWW wasn't involved in a dispute, the disputing workers usually were labeled "Wobblies" and those that supported them were "Wobblies," too. In May 1918, Arizona Governor George P. Hunt, speaking to a special session of Arizona's legislature, reported that of the deportees who had been sent to Columbus the previous July, 426 were IWW members, 381 belonged to other unions and 361 were non
-union. Among the latter group were many non-miners including businessmen and professionals.


The IWW had a presence in Bisbee as early as 1914 but didn't attempt to acquire a significant role among the copper miners there until 1916. By 1917, the IWW was active in Globe, Miami, Morenci, Prescott, Jerome and Superior, Ariz., as well as Bisbee.

On June 26, 1917, the IWW announced goals it hoped to achieve in Arizona's mining industry. Most dealt with safety issues but there was a demand for $6 per shift for underground miners and $5.55 for top men. Perhaps the most important goal was recognition of the union(s). The union felt that the time was propitious for their demands because since World War I began, copper prices had tripled and the companies were reaping huge profits. But, when presented with the demands, the Copper Queen (Phelps Dodge) Mine superintendent simply tore up the list. On June 27, the miners struck.

Almost immediately, propaganda against the strikers appeared in the media. The New York Times headlined "Big Copper Strike Blamed on Germans." Copper company officials accused IWW officials of working with German agents to stir up German and Austrian miners to undermine the war effort. A Citizens' Protective League was formed, which labeled the strike uncalled for and treasonous and urged all patriotic citizens to unite in stopping the strike. The local newspaper ran a series of articles claiming German support for the Wobblies and that large amounts of money were coming in to support them. None of this was true.

The local authorities, claiming fear of violence, asked Arizona's governor to intervene. Gov. Thomas Edward Campbell, a former director of the Jerome-Verde Copper Co., had unseated Gov. George W.P. Hunt the previous November in an election so narrow his victory would later be overturned by Arizona's supreme court; Campbell would serve only until Christmas 1917, though he was re-elected in 1918 and 1920. At Gov. Campbell's request, the US Army sent Lt. Col. James J. Hornbrook to Bisbee. Between June 30 and July 5, Hornbrook reported to the governor and adjutant general each several times that there was no violence, all was calm and the military wasn't needed. Despite his reports, a military contingent was maintained near Bisbee, just in case.

In Jerome, Ariz., on July 10, two days before the Bisbee event, 104 Wobblies were rounded up. Sixty-seven of them were deported in two cattle cars. Yavapai County wouldn't let them off at Jerome Junction, where a posse met the train, so it continued on. The Mohave County sheriff refused them, too, so the train proceeded to Needles, Calif., where a San Bernardino posse stopped them and sent them back into Arizona. Eventually they were released in Kingman.

According to reports, this whole affair was conducted in a jocular vein; both sides considered it something of a lark. But not the Globe IWW. A strike was in progress there and they protested by telegram to President Woodrow Wilson and Governor Campbell. Wilson didn't respond and Campbell thought it moot since the men had already been released. There was no official action and no public outcry. It was a successful trial run as the folks in Bisbee must have noted.

On the evening of July 11, a meeting was held in Bisbee. It was agreed that the next morning, a roundup of Wobblies, strikers, vagrants and other undesirables would commence. Sheriff Wheeler was the nominal leader but mine officials played large roles. One company official told the assemblage that arrangements had been made with the military for them to accept the undesirables in Columbus, NM. They would be sent there—some 170 miles—in railroad boxcars.


Accordingly, at 4 a.m., July 12, the roundup began. Sheriff Wheeler had over 500 deputies and an unknown number of other supporters. Nearly 2,000 people were rousted out of their homes and marched to the Warren ballpark, several miles away. There they were interrogated. If they promised to go back to work or had someone to vouch for them, they usually were released. The rest, 1,186 strong, were loaded onto boxcars and cattle cars at 11 a.m. and sent on their way to Columbus, escorted by 186 armed guards on the roofs. During the roundup one miner and one deputy were killed in an exchange of gunfire. Most deportees went peaceably but some were roughed up and suffered minor injuries.

Sheriff Wheeler's vigilantes attempted to keep the affair secret. Prior to the deportation, neither the military nor state officials were notified of the plan. As the deportation was proceeding, the telegraph and telephone companies were ordered to shut down. The telegraph office mostly complied; the telephone company didn't, but the vigilantes made it difficult for anyone to phone out. Also, guards were placed on the roads to Bisbee and remained there for up to three months.

A barrel of water of various size was placed in each car. No food was provided although there was food for the guards in the caboose. Some of the cattle cars had manure ankle deep. Each car contained over 50 men. Although the train stopped three times before Columbus and the deportees were allowed to stretch twice, it was a long hot ride. The cars with smaller barrels ran out of water long before reaching Columbus.

Apparently some men jumped ship along the route. When Lt. Col. Hornbrook took a census upon his arrival in Hermanas, he counted 1,152. When he turned them over to Col. Sickel in Columbus, there were 1,150.

At Camp Furlong, the army divided the deportees into 75-man companies and assigned chores. They were housed in tents. Other temporary buildings were constructed. Col. Sickel asked: Were the men to be considered prisoners? They were not, however they weren't allowed to come and go freely until July 22. Most chose to stay. The army allowed 23 cents per man per day or two-thirds regular army fare. It was largely hardtack.

The army provided stamps and tobacco to those without money and shoes and clothes to those forced from Bisbee without them. All were vaccinated for typhoid. They elected a postmaster and field days were held for recreation.

Attorney William B. Cleary was the acknowledged leader. In Bisbee, he often had successfully argued in court against the mine companies. That made him an undesirable. He managed to hold the deportees together in Columbus while they protested their treatment in Bisbee. Although some left for various personal reasons, by July 30, 1,053 remained and on August 17 there were still 925.

The Wobblies remained welcome in Columbus. Local merchants noted an increase in business and the Columbus Courier continued to editorialize on behalf of the deportees. On July 20, remarking on Arizona Gov. Campbell's protestation of having his hands tied, the Courier said:

"In all seriousness, let us ask, has the Arizona governor turned the state over to hired and professional gun men who are directed by corporations for their private ends? If the governor is not the GOVERNOR of the state will he kindly tell us who is? And why he has allowed himself to be thrown from the executive chair? And why he admits his impotency in matters wholly within his control?"


The army wasn't quite as happy about the presence of the deportees as Columbus. When the men complained about the lack of blankets on July 31, General Tasker Bliss, after complying with Secretary of War Newton D. Baker's order to placate the deportees, suggested that the men be released a few at a time to better manage them. On August 9, orders came essentially at Gen. Bliss' suggestion. Soon a steady flow began of men evacuating the camp. Some went to Mexico. Some returned to Bisbee, where they either returned to work or were charged with vagrancy and run out again. By August 29, fewer than 500 remained in Columbus. On September 8, the army cut rations in half and on Sept. 17, 1917, the tents came down, supplies ceased and the refugee camp closed.

Throughout the summer President Woodrow Wilson and the federal government had been exhorted by the deportees and their supporters to take some action on their behalf. President Wilson never responded and the government did little. After the camp closed on Sept. 17, the president appointed a commission to investigate the labor problems in the West, especially the Bisbee situation. Assistant Secretary of Labor Felix Frankfurter (later a US Supreme Court justice) was named advisor and secretary of the Commission.

The commission left Washington on September 30, proceeding to Phoenix, Globe and Clifton-Morenci before arriving in Bisbee. It was in Bisbee from November 1-5, and promptly on November 6, Frankfurter filed his report. He found first, no evidence of violence or disorder in Bisbee before the deportation. Second, few of the deportees were from countries at war with the US. And third, Sheriff Wheeler executed the roundup but the event was caused by officials of the Phelps Dodge and Calumet & Arizona Mining. Frankfurter went on to say that "the deportation was wholly illegal" and had "no authority whatever in law."

The Frankfurter commission made a number of recommendations. Among these was, "Congress should make deportations a violation of federal criminal law to the full extent of the constitutional authority of the Federal Government."


After receiving the commission's report, the US Justice Department started an investigation. In May 1918, a federal grand jury in Tucson indicted 21 Bisbee citizens for their actions in the deportation. The case was "United States v. Wheeler et al." Sheriff Wheeler and some of the others were in France with the American Expeditionary Force, however.

The defendants' attorneys argued that no federal law had been broken. The judge ruled on December 2 that the defense was right. In his opinion he said, "The situation is indeed a lamentable one and one to be greatly deplored; but it ought not to influence this court to enlarge the statute to include an offense not within its constitutional authority."

Eventually civil suits were brought on behalf of a number of the deportees against Cochise County, Sheriff Wheeler, the mining companies and various mining officials. Nothing came of them. The companies had agreed, "voluntarily," prior to the civil suits to pay sums of money to the deportees. When the civil suits failed, the companies reneged on their offer. A few deportees received small amounts.

What would be a hugely intolerable injustice today was largely acceptable in 1917 and before. It was a good old American tradition to ride undesirables out of town on a rail, or rails in this case. The El Paso Times commented several years later that the Bisbee Deportation differed from tradition only in its magnitude.

Finally, why send the Wobblies to Columbus? By the process of elimination, one suspects, and in retrospect, it was a good idea. Sending them to Mexico, as some suggested, would have created an international incident. It was known from the Jerome trial run that California didn't want them and wouldn't take them.

Columbus, on the other hand, must have seemed ideal. It was far from Bisbee, El Paso and Santa Fe and located along the EP&SW railroad controlled by Phelps Dodge. Furthermore, Camp Furlong had a strong military contingent and had housed refugees before. Company officials must have been certain that the army would accept and care for the deportees for humanitarian reasons if for no other. The potential risks weighed against ridding Bisbee of troublemakers and ending a costly strike must have been a no-brainer.

And, though probably neither planned nor expected, the Bisbee Deportation broke the back of organized labor in Arizona's mining towns for years to come. As labor historian James W. Byrkit would put it, Arizona now wore a copper collar.


Ken Emery, a retired field archeologist, moved to Columbus almost 11 years ago. When not pursuing his interest in local history, he works as a fire lookout in the Tonto National Forest at Signal Peak in the Pinal Mountains, near Globe, Arizona.


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