On November 11, 1919, the citizens of Centralia, Washington, gathered to watch former servicemen, local Boy Scouts, and other community groups march in the Armstice Day parade. When the marchers swung past the meeting hall of the Industrial Workers of the World, a group of veterans broke ranks, charged the hall, and were met by gunshots. Before the day was over, four of the marchers were dead and one of the Wobblies had been lynched by the mob.
Through a wealth of newly available primary source material including previously sealed court documents, FBI records released under the Freedom of Information Act, and interviews with surviving witnesses, Tom Copeland has pieced together the events of that day and has traced the fate of the men who were accused and convicted of murdering the marchers. Copeland focuses on Elmer Smith, the local attorney who advised the Wobblies that they had the right to defend their hall against an anticipated attack.
Although he never belonged to the IWW, Smith sympathized with their interests, championing the rights of working people, and speaking on their behalf. He was originally arrested with the Wobbles and then took up their cause in the courts, beginning a life-long struggle to free the men who were charged with murdering the Centralia marchers. Copeland recounts Smith’s disbarment and eventual reinstatement, his run for political office, his speeches throughout the Northwest, and his unyielding support for the workers’ cause.
This book is a balanced treatment of the Centalia tragedy and its legal repercussions written by a practicing lawyer. It is also a compelling human drama, centering on the marginal life of an industrial frontier labor lawyer, a study of radical politics of the 1920s, and a depiction of conditions of life in the lumber camps and towns. It is thus biography as well as legal, political, and social history.
"The Centralia Tragedy of 1919 is a stunning book. Copeland makes the whole sorry Centralia affair come alive, as he tells the life story of its most fascinating character, the IWW attorney Elmer Smith. It is replete with personal details that make the story vivid and memorable. It is a tragic account of mutual fears and misunderstandings on the Pacific Northwestern industrial frontier during and after World War I."