Smith, Elmer (1888-1932)

  • By Catherine Hinchliff
  • Posted 5/15/2009
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 9011

Elmer Stuart Smith was a central figure in the Centralia
Massacre that occurred on November 11, 1919. Smith had advised a group of Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) members that they had a right to defend their hall against a planned raid. The following week, the American Legion and the IWW clashed after an Armistice Day Parade. The Centralia Massacre left four people dead from gun shots and a fifth from a subsequent lynching. When a judge sentenced seven Wobblies, most of whom had been hiding in an icebox behind the IWW hall, to 25 to 40 years in prison, Smith swore he would fight for their release for the rest of his life. For the next decade, Smith went on national, state, and local speaking tours, ran for public office, printed leaflets and newspapers, represented the Wobblies in 20 criminal syndicalism cases, and became the most prominent spokesperson for the imprisoned unionists. Though he did not live to see their release, Smith was undoubtedly responsible for the eventual commutation of their sentences and was one of the most important IWW activists in the union's history.

Early Life

Elmer Stuart Smith was born on January 22, 1888, on his parents' farm in Larimore, North Dakota. His father, Tom Smith was a railroad mechanic, wheat farmer, and Irish immigrant. Smith's mother, Isabelle, was considerably more well-to-do and better educated than her husband. Since her parents disapproved of the match, Isabelle cut ties with her family when she married Tom and moved from Toronto, Canada, to North Dakota in 1887.

As the eldest of seven children, Smith was extremely close to his mother, from whom he inherited his striking red hair. Isabelle was responsible for Smith's early academic and spiritual education by reading the classics aloud to him and by taking him to the local Presbyterian Church. Isabelle instilled in Smith a sense of familial loyalty, concern for others, and self-reliance. She also insisted he read the Bible independently, and at one point in his childhood Smith believed he would become a minister. When he was old enough, Smith took care of his younger siblings and confidently considered himself responsible for them by age 12. Smith's faith in himself and in God was shaken in 1900, when his 11-year-old brother Walter died in a tragic hunting accident.

By the time Smith had reached high school, he knew he had little interest in wheat farming. Though he preferred playing football to class, Smith was a good student and, with support from his high school teacher and mother, decided to attend Macalester College in St. Paul, Minnesota. Smith was the first member of his family to attend college. When Smith left for college in 1906, his parents had given him only enough money for his first semester in school. Upon reaching St. Paul, Smith worked as a gas lighter, lighting street lamps in downtown St. Paul. Smith also worked on his parents' farm each summer.

At Macalester, Smith was known for his stubbornness, liberal views, and fearlessness at arguing unpopular positions. Despite his confidence as a member of the school's debate club, Smith was very shy and neither dated nor made very close friends during college.

In 1910, Smith decided to attend the St. Paul College of Law, a school with classes taught by professional lawyers. Smith was known as both a gentleman and a very liberal and outspoken orator. In June 1913, he passed his final exams and was admitted into the Minnesota Bar.

Migration to Washington

Within weeks of his graduation, Smith moved to Washington state in order to be near his family, which had moved to Cumberland in eastern King County in 1910. Both Smith's father, Tom, and a brother, Glen, worked for the Rose Marshall Mining Company. Two of Smith's younger brothers, Harry and Jim, had acquired 160-acre timber claims in Mendota, about 60 miles south of Cumberland. Smith took over Harry's homestead shortly after moving, because Harry missed his fiancee and did not want to live so far from her. In the winter of 1913, the entire family moved to Mendota after Tom lost his job with the mining company. Jim, Glen, and Tom began working at the Mendota mining company, but soon quit to run their own mining company after finding coal on the two Smith homesteads. Along with his brothers and father, Smith joined the United Mine Workers union. Despite running their own operation, the family never made much money, as they insisted on paying their workers fair wages and did not work very efficiently.

Beginning in the fall of 1913, Smith started teaching in the small town of Kopiah, a short hike from the homestead. In January 1914, Smith passed the Washington Bar exam, but he continued to work on his homestead for two more years. Finally in the fall of 1916, he opened his law office on Tower Avenue in Centralia, at the time one of the fastest growing cities in Washington.

Early Law Career and Interest in the IWW

As a young and shy lawyer in Centralia, Smith had trouble attracting clients. Though he tried to remain optimistic, he was nervous about getting enough work and volunteered to serve as a court-appointed lawyer. The clients Smith did attract were largely working-class laborers, especially loggers, who could not afford Centralia's more prominent lawyers. Smith made a point of frequenting pool halls and restaurants that catered to laborers in order to find more clients. Because of Smith's dedication to his cases and respect for his clients, he gained a reputation among Centralia's working class.

Smith's interactions with Centralia's working class as well as his former membership in the United Mine Workers union made him sympathetic to the cause of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). The IWW was founded on June 27, 1905, at the "Industrial Union Convention" in Chicago. William D. ("Big Bill") Haywood, the socialist secretary-treasurer of the Western Federation of Miners, and a large group of union leaders, founded the IWW to seek improved working conditions for laborers everywhere. A radical industrial labor union, the preamble to the IWW constitution promised to unify the working class against the "employing class," take control of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and end the reign of capitalism. These views made the IWW and its members, known as "Wobblies," unpopular outside radical circles.

In Washington, many loggers joined the IWW. Given the transient nature of their work, loggers were treated as outcasts by polite society and worked in extremely dangerous conditions. They received low pay and no benefits. The union served as a tool to improve their quality of life. Because of the large timber industry in Lewis County, Centralia citizens had occasional altercations with the IWW. In 1914, a Wobbly was kicked out of town by the sheriff after trying to organize a group of electrical workers. In 1915, when a group of "undesirables" came to town begging for food, the police chief swore in 100 citizens as deputies and marched the Wobblies to the neighboring town of Chehalis. Both incidents occurred prior to Smith's arrival in Centralia, but he undoubtedly had heard about them. Upon hearing of the 1916 Everett Massacre, Smith reportedly sympathized with the IWW members aboard the vessel Verona, who had been charged with murder following a gun battle between the IWW and Everett police.

Smith's defense of the working class and the championing of their rights placed him in a unique position in Centralia. As an educated man, Smith was not part of the working-class community he represented. Because of his support for common laborers, however, Centralia's businessmen and professionals did not entirely accept him.

Marriage and World War I

Smith met his future wife, Laura Magill, in the spring of 1917, in the First Presbyterian Church choir. She was the new schoolteacher at the Lincoln School, and the daughter of a stern Tacoma judge. Smith quickly fell in love, and his mother Isabelle encouraged her shy son in his pursuit of Laura. Only 23, Laura refused Smith's proposals many times, believing she was too young to marry. Finally, Laura agreed to marry Smith in order to "get rid of the pestering" she later joked (Copeland, 27). To ensure the marriage and better his financial situation, Smith took on a second job as a substitute teacher at Centralia High School.

In 1917, America entered World War I, much to the dismay of Smith and his mother. He argued that only the working class suffered in the war, while the upper classes benefited. At the time, Smith's views were very radical for a lawyer and teacher. As the war continued, Smith became more vocal in his high school classes, blaming capitalism for the conflict. In response, the Centralia High School principal demanded that all teachers sign an oath of allegiance to the United States. Smith refused and quit at the end of the school year.

On February 16, 1918, Smith and Laura Magill finally married in their minister's study. She did not tell her parents and was overwhelmed by the decision she had made. Despite her misgivings, she loved Smith, and the two moved into his parents' house until the end of the school year. In the fall of 1918, Smith and his wife moved to a small rented house on Walnut Street in Centralia, as Laura was pregnant. In November, she gave birth to their daughter Virginia.

The Centralia Massacre

Over the course of World War I, the IWW became increasingly unpopular, both nationally and in Centralia. In March 1918, Centralia police arrested a man merely for distributing IWW literature. In April, the Red Cross and the Elks Club raided Centralia's IWW hall. In February 1919, the Wobblies returned to rent a space on Tower Avenue for their union hall, and in June a blind man who distributed IWW propaganda was attacked, kidnapped, and his newspapers burned. Smith took the man as a client but was cautioned by fellow lawyers for his dedication to IWW cases. Beginning in October of 1919, Centralia businessmen began meeting at the Elks Club to discuss the "IWW problem" and to see what they could do about driving the Wobblies out of town. In the first week of November, Britt Smith, the secretary of the union in Centralia, came to Elmer Smith's office to discuss their options for defending the hall. Elmer Smith advised him that he had a right to defend his union's property. If Centralians were to attack the hall, the Wobblies could use violence in self-defense. Smith's advice to Britt Smith may have contributed to the next week's violence.

On November 11, 1919, the American Legion hosted an Armistice Day parade in downtown Centralia. At the end of the parade, a group of Wobblies opened fire on the legionnaires in what became known as the Centralia Massacre. Four legionnaires were shot dead, including Warren Grimm, a colleague and friend of Smith's. That evening, Wesley Everest, a Wobbly, was lynched by an angry mob.

The Wobblies claimed that the shots were fired in self-defense. According to the union members, the American legionnaires were plotting to raid the IWW hall. Whether the legionnaires had broken into the hall prior to the first shots being fired, however, was in debate. The Wobblies did believe, though, that they were being attacked. By the end of the evening, dozens of men, including Smith, who had not seen the gunfight, were rounded up and arrested without just cause. The police suspected them of being Wobblies or of having IWW sympathies. At around 7 p.m., the lights in the city went out, and a mob removed Everest from jail and lynched him.

The Trial in Montesano

The trial of 11 men allegedly responsible for the Centralia Massacre -- and specifically the slaying of Warren Grimm, a Centralia lawyer and legionnaire -- began on January 26, 1920, at the Grays Harbor County Courthouse in Montesano. The defendants included IWW members Eugene Barnett, O. C. Bland, Bert Bland, John Lamb, Bret Faulkner, Mike Sheehan, James McInerney, Loren Roberts, Ray Becker, and Britt Smith. Elmer Smith was charged with accessory to murder.

Though most of the men had not even fired a gun, defense attorney George F. Vanderveer (1875-1942) opted to have the entire group tried together, rather than in separate trials. Vanderveer, a Seattle attorney who frequently represented the IWW, hoped to bring more attention to the IWW cause, believing that the union was as much on trial as the men allegedly responsible for murder. During the trial, the Wobblies faced a biased judge and a hostile audience. In addition, Republican Governor Louis F. Hart (1862-1929) had placed 100 soldiers from the 35th Infantry on the courthouse lawn, arguably in order to intimidate the defendants' witnesses.

On the evening of March 13, 1920, the jury presented a verdict of "third-degree murder" -- a finding Judge John M. Wilson said did not exist in Washington law. He asked the jury to come back with a new verdict. Two hours later, the jury returned with a ruling of second-degree murder for Barnett, Lamb, the Blands, Britt Smith, Becker, and McInerney. Sheehan was acquitted and Roberts was acquitted by reason of insanity. Elmer Smith was acquitted of the charge of accessory to murder.

Wilson sentenced the seven Wobblies to 25 to 40 years in the Walla Walla State Penitentiary, the maximum sentence at the time for second-degree murder.

Farmer-Labor Party and IWW Activism

Believing the sentences to be unjustly harsh and the men innocent, fellow defendant and lawyer Elmer Smith worked tirelessly for the release of the Wobblies until his death in 1932. In addition to his numerous publications and speaking tours on behalf of the imprisoned Wobblies, Smith took on many criminal syndicalism cases for the IWW. Though Smith never joined the IWW, he fought for its rights for the rest of his career.

Only a few weeks after being released from jail, Smith handled his first criminal syndicalism case in Centralia. Criminal syndicalism laws had been passed in 23 states by 1920. The Washington statute outlawed the advocacy of crime or violence as a means to accomplish industrial or political ends, which effectively meant that membership in the IWW had become illegal. In the Centralia case and in many cases afterward, Smith tried to prove that the IWW did not hold violent beliefs and that to belong to the IWW was not necessarily to endorse its more controversial philosophies. Despite his best efforts, four of the five defendants were found guilty in June 1920.

That summer, Smith joined the newly formed Farmer-Labor Party, a national, progressive party that sought to combine the interests of farmers and blue-collar workers in opposition to business interests. After Smith finished a Western Washington speaking tour sponsored by the IWW Northwest District Defense Committee, during which he had attracted the attention of J. Edgar Hoover of the U.S. Bureau of Investigation (later the FBI), the Farmer-Labor Party nominated Smith to run for prosecuting attorney of Lewis County.

During his campaign, Smith faced many political attacks both in local newspapers and in small Lewis County towns. Smith was regularly prevented from speaking, so he often resorted to speaking on the street. At one point, a local sawmill owner continuously blew the whistle of a steam engine to drown him out. Newspapers and leaflets blamed Smith for the death of the legionnaires in the previous year, but Smith's threats to sue for libel stopped some of the publishers. Smith and the Farmer-Labor Party attained considerable popularity running up to the 1920 election. Though Smith lost to the incumbent prosecuting attorney, Herman Allen, by 6,100 votes to 3,400, he did beat out Democrat Albert Buxton.

Speaking and Writing on Behalf of the Wobblies

From 1921 to 1924, Smith calculated that he had delivered more than 250 speeches on behalf of the IWW and the Wobblies imprisoned at the Walla Walla State Penitentiary. In the summer of 1921, the IWW sent Smith on a national speaking tour of 18 cities in seven weeks. The Bureau of Investigation continued its surveillance of Smith as he spoke on controversial subjects such as the unequal distribution of wealth, the right to free speech, and the injustice of criminal syndicalism laws. Most importantly, Smith asked that his audience support the imprisoned Wobblies of the Centralia Massacre and urged them to help however they could. Although the subjects of most of his talks were serious in nature, Smith delivered his speeches with a sense of humor, which made him very popular and persuasive with large crowds. However, Smith's talks did not always go according to plan, and he was threatened or arrested on many occasions. The arrests served to generate publicity for Smith's cause.

In 1921, Smith founded the Centralia Publicity Committee (CPC), which sought to highlight the plight of the convicted Wobblies of the Centralia Massacre. He began meeting with jurors from the 1920 trial and collected affidavits from several jurors who said they believed the men were actually innocent, but had worried that a less sympathetic jury would sentence them to death.

By 1922, Smith's prominence as a local and national spokesman for the IWW had begun to threaten his livelihood. He made little money from his speaking tours and could get few paying clients for his law practice. That year, he lost the lease to his house and his office, forcing the Smiths to move to a house in another part of town, where Elmer reopened his practice. Despite their seriousness, Smith paid little heed to his financial problems, putting a tremendous strain on his wife, Laura. In 1922, Smith also ran again for prosecuting attorney on the Farmer-Labor ticket, but this time came in third.

In the fall of 1922, Smith won his greatest legal victory in a criminal syndicalism case in Hoquiam, where two Wobblies had been arrested in a free-speech fight. Smith argued that since the prosecution used IWW tracts from dead or unavailable authors, the defendants were unable to question their accusers, in violation of the constitution. Surprisingly, the judge accepted Smith's motion, and the prosecution could not produce enough evidence to assert that the IWW members were guilty of "criminal syndicalism." The case was dismissed. Smith had single-handedly put the first nail in the coffin of the criminal syndicalism law that would finally be repealed in 1937.

Arrests in Centralia and Disbarment

The IWW decided to start another publicity campaign in Centralia in 1923, selling 250 copies of the Industrial Worker newspaper in town. Centralia police responded by arresting two Wobblies and Smith, who had volunteered to speak on their behalf. Another 23 union members were arrested in the week following Smith's arrest. Smith spoke again, and this time was arrested as he quoted from the Declaration of Independence. The chief of police angrily interrogated Smith and demanded to know who had written the inflammatory words he had recited. When Smith replied Thomas Jefferson, the chief reportedly responded with "Get Thomas Jefferson, he's the guy you want!" (Copeland 133).

Smith's ideas were considered dangerous, and in June of 1923 he received a thick envelope announcing that disbarment proceedings against him had begun. After a lengthy legal fight, the Board of Law Examiners recommended Smith's disbarment on January 24, 1924. The board argued that Smith advocated theft as part of an allegory about a lumberjack and mule, that he advocated "unlawful" strikes, and that he illegally called Judge Wilson, who had presided at the Centralia Massacre trial, a "tool of the labor trust." Understandably, Smith was discouraged. He and his attorney, George Vanderveer of the Centralia Massacre trial, appealed to the Washington Supreme Court, but on February 24, 1925, the court upheld the board's recommendation. Smith had essentially been disbarred for supporting the cause of the IWW and was forced to abandon his struggling law practice.

New Interest in the Centralia Massacre Case

Despite losing his license, Smith and his Centralia Publicity Committee remained dedicated to the imprisoned Wobblies' plight. Most of Smith's work involved presenting information at the prisoners' parole board hearings. Smith was always unsuccessful, even after several jurors pleaded with the governor to commute the sentences. By the mid-1920s, the stresses had started to affect Smith's health. In 1927, Smith underwent surgery for stomach ulcers, and was hospitalized in February 1928 after vomiting blood. Smith had further surgery that year and received an outpouring of support from IWW members and friends.

In the late summer of 1928, Smith found a seemingly unlikely ally -- Edward Patrick Coll, a captain in World War I and the new American Legion service officer of the Hoquiam post. When Coll had arrived in Hoquiam that spring, he found that the American Legion had lost popularity due to its involvement in the Centralia Massacre. In an effort to clear the Legion's name, Coll discovered that, in fact, the Legionnaires were somewhat culpable in the Centralia Massacre. Smith and Coll began speaking together for the release of the Wobblies. With Coll's help, Smith's campaign to release the Wobblies had a second wind. Nonetheless, Governor Roland Hill Hartley (1864-1952) made it clear that he would never release the men.

A report by the Federal Council of Churches in October 1930 stated that although the IWW and the American Legion shared the blame for the Centralia Massacre, only one group had been punished. Smith soon appeared before the Washington Supreme Court to try to regain his license. Less than three days later, Smith was reinstated. He received congratulations from the front page of the Industrial Worker, from the ACLU, and from social activist and novelist Upton Sinclair. However the reinstatement was bittersweet for Smith's family, as his health had again begun to fail.

In March 1932, Smith fell ill at his desk and asked to be taken home. His health quickly deteriorated but he refused a third stomach surgery. Instead, he placed himself under the care of a naturopathic doctor in Puyallup. Smith weakened, but the doctor refused to give him a blood transfusion, as he did not believe it would help. After a week at his bedside, Smith's wife Laura went home to her parents' house to sleep. Smith died at 3 a.m. on March 20, 1932, from a hemorrhaging ulcer. He was 44 years old.

The Release of the Wobblies

Smith never lived to see the release of the Centralia Massacre prisoners. However in 1933, the newly elected Democratic governor, Clarence D. Martin (1884-1955), commuted their sentences -- one of his campaign promises. All the Wobblies were released except for McInerney, who had died in prison, and Becker, who refused to leave the prison until he received a full pardon.

Smith had committed his entire professional life to upholding the civil liberties of an unpopular labor union and was a hero among the Wobblies he sought to protect from a fearful populace, a biased legal system, and an unjust criminal syndicalism law. That commitment cost his family its livelihood, and Smith his legal license and, eventually, his life.


Sources: Tom Copeland, The Centralia Tragedy of 1919: Elmer Smith and the Wobblies (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1993); Catherine Hinchliff, Elmer Smith and the Wobblies: A Centralia Lawyer’s Fight for an Unpopular Minority, unpublished documentary in possession of Lewis County Historical Museum and in private collection of Catherine Hinchliff, 2006; HistoryLink.org Online Encyclopedia of Washington State History, "Four men die in the Centralia Massacre on November 11, 1919" (by Alyssa Burrows), http://www.historylink.org/ (accessed January 19, 2009); Carter Brooke Jones, “Seven I.W.W. Convicted of Murder in Second Degree: Jury Lenient in Verdict Against Grimm’s Slayers,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, March 14, 1920, p. 1, 22; Ben Hur Lampman, Centralia: Tragedy and Trial (Centralia: Grant Hodge Post, 1920); John McClelland Jr., Wobbly War: The Centralia Story (Tacoma, The Washington State Historical Society, 1987); Speeches by Elmer Smith and Capt. Edward Coll (Centralia: Centralia Publicity Committee, 1929); To the Citizens of Centralia We Must Appeal (Centralia: IWW, 1919); Ben King, A.C. Baker, Herman Allen, J. H. Janke, Frank Christensen, Clifford Cunningham and J. H. Gifford interview with Loren Roberts, November 17, 1919, Centralia; State v. Smith, 115 Wash. 405, 197 P. 770 (1921); George D. Abel to Governor Louis F. Hart, December 12, 1919, in possession of Lewis County Historical Museum, Chehalis.
Note: This essay was emended on January 25, 2012, to correct the birthdate of Clarence D. Martin.

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