Crowd smashes store windows and lights in Seattle blackout riot on December 8, 1941.

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 12/02/2013
  • Essay 10649

On December 8, 1941, with Seattle darkened by a blackout following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor, a crowd of more than a thousand smashes windows and lights of downtown stores that have failed to turn off all their lights. The wife of a sailor urges the crowd to attack the stores. It takes two hours for Seattle police to bring order. Twenty-six plate glass windows are broken. Seven arrests are made. Following the riot, the Seattle City Council will pass an ordinance with restrictions on assembly during blackouts. Future blackouts will go more smoothly in the city and across Washington.

Seattle's First Blackout

In the fall of 1940 Seattle City Councilman John E. Carroll (1878-1955) attended an American Municipal Association conference where instituting city blackouts was discussed. He returned to Seattle convinced that the city must prepare for war and emergencies by having blackouts, which he considered necessary to protect city residents and reduce the city's visibility as an enemy target. Seattle mayor Arthur B. Langlie (1900-1966) agreed and appointed Carroll the chairman of the city's Home Defense Committee.

The committee mandate was to prepare for a national emergency. Carroll established subcommittees, including a blackout organization headed by Frank H. Cadman (1907-1979). The subcommittee decided that the first blackout test would be held on March 7, 1941. That night sirens blew at 10:30 p.m. and within 10 minutes all lights were to be extinguished. Drivers were instructed to pull over, park, and turn off their vehicle lights.

Blackout Riot in Downtown Seattle

On December 8, 1941, a day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the City of Seattle imposed a blackout. Reports of Japanese Navy aircraft carriers off the coast had the entire West Coast anxious. In response, the blackout was designed to make Seattle go dark so as not to be visible to attacking aircraft. The blackout went into effect at 11:00 p.m. on the night of the 8th. Just minutes after 11:00, a crowd formed at 4th Avenue and Pike Street, where the lighted letters of the Foreman and Clark men's clothing store at 401 Pike were clearly visible. The crowd jeered and started throwing objects to break the lights. It took nearly one hour for rioters to break most of the lights of the twelve letters making up the sign. During the attack a store employee arrived and with a ladder climbed up to the second floor sign and extinguished the remaining lights. The crowd then moved on to other visible lights.

Windows were broken at the Fahey-Brockman clothes store at 1531 4th Avenue to get at illuminated display lights, which were then knocked out. Rioters became more excited as they searched for additional lights. A leader emerged when Ethel Chelsvig (1922-?), the wife of Seaman Raymond Chelsvig (1909-1967), a boiler technician on the destroyer USS Kane, urged the crowd on. She loudly proclaimed that she was married to a Navy man and that he was out there fighting. Chelsvig asked the crowd if they were "going to stand by while these lights threaten the very life of our city?" and shouted "Break them! Turn them out" ("Glass-smashing Mob ..."). One young man climbed the Weisfield and Goldberg Jewelers electric street clock and destroyed the neon tubes around it. The police tried to arrest the offender, but the crowd shielded him and he was able to escape.

The crowd of more than a thousand moved on to the Friedlander and Sons Jewelry store at 501 Pike to extinguish green and red electric candles in its display window.  Seattle police established a protective line in front of the jewelry store, but the crowd threw objects over the police line, breaking the windows. The next store to come under attack was the Drew-English Shoe Store, 1415 5th Avenue, where windows were broken. The police, unable to bring the crowd under control, put in calls for reinforcements. One-hundred-fifty air raid wardens and a fire department force arrived. The rioters stopped briefly to sing "God Bless America" and then resumed smashing windows. Doors to the Palomar Theater (Pantages) at 1300 3rd Avenue were broken to reach lit interior lights that were visible from the outside.

Finally, with reinforcements at hand the police challenged the rioters at 3rd Avenue and University Street. Motorcycle officers drove through the crowd to disperse it. One, patrolman G. E. Murray (1913-2000), drove into the crowd to rescue a bleeding rioter. He was knocked down but managed to get up and escape on his motorcycle. The police started making arrests and finally quelled the riot. They arrested Ethel Chelsvig and five men. One of the men, George Woodley (1918-1963), a Seattle longshoreman, had a serious leg wound from kicking in a window. He told police that he was not afraid of having bombs dropped on him but just wanted to put the light out. Two hours after it started the police ended the riot and announced over loud speakers that anyone on the street after 1:00 a.m. would be arrested. The crowd then dispersed. Fourteen businesses had a total of 26 broken windows. The reports of Japanese aircraft and ships had turned out to be false.

When questioned at the police station, Chelsvig said she considered herself a patriot. She stated "This is war. ... One light in the city might betray us" ("Glass-smashing Mob ..."). In court she was fined $25 for disorderly conduct. Woodley soon joined the army and after the war returned to his work as a longshoreman. The December 8 blackout demonstrated shortcomings that were corrected in businesses' blackout procedures. The issue of crowds and crowd control was soon addressed by the Seattle City Council. One problem that would not be completely solved was driving without lights. During the December 8 blackout, there were accidents. One driver missed a turn and ended up in the Duwamish River, fortunately without injury.

A photographer from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer captured city scenes before and during the blackouts. One of the most memorable photographs was of a couple in a restaurant, photographed just before the lights went out and with a flash in the darkness. The second photograph caught the pair, Harold D. Mouser (1924-2000) and Lenore Frank (1926-1969), kissing. Harold served in the army for three years. Upon his return, the couple married in September 1946 and eventually had five children.

Regulating Blackouts

Authorities believed that alcohol played a significant role in the riot, that many in the crowd had been drinking. The day after the riot the state Liquor Control Board decreed that all beer parlors must close during blackouts. They would not be allowed to cover or blacken windows to continue sales during blackouts. Within days the Seattle City Council enacted a blackout ordinance to prevent future riots. The ordinance spelled out strict regulations for the observance of blackouts. It also gave the police department enormous power to enforce the ordinance. Seventy-five volunteer officers were sworn in to be ready for any emergency, including enforcing blackout rules.

The ordinance made it illegal for people to congregate in groups of five or more on any sidewalk, street, alley, or place. Additional provisions limited driving speeds without lights to 15 miles per hour. The sale of intoxicating liquors during blackout periods was banned. To enhance police powers, the Chief of Police could make additional rules and regulations to protect public peace, health, and safety. Most enforcement of blackout regulations was accomplished by volunteer Civil Defense air raid wardens. Wearing white steel helmets and arm bands identifying them as wardens, they checked houses and stores in their neighborhoods for compliance.

While no further riots followed, the early blackouts caused several problems. There were numerous automobile accidents and pedestrians hit by vehicles. The Seattle-crewed Matson Line ship Muana Ala ran aground on the Clatsop Spit at the mouth of the Columbia River. The crew was unaware that the navigational light on the lightship Columbia had been turned off.

Blackouts During World War II

Blackouts were conducted on a regular basis during the war. In the initial blackouts, people hung blankets and painted windows black to comply. These strategies proved inconvenient and in warm weather very uncomfortable. Selden Furniture and Carpet Company of Tacoma and other firms started producing and selling blackout blinds for commercial and home use. In 1942 the Selden plant went on a 16-hour, six-days-a-week production schedule to meet demand. It had more than 30,000 orders at one time. Defense housing projects required thousands of blinds. For Sydney Selden (1902-1995), the company owner and a 1923 graduate of Tacoma's Lincoln High School, the blackout blinds saved the company. During the war selling blackout blinds replaced lost carpet and linoleum sales (their sale to civilians had been halted). The family-operated furniture company remained in business in 2013.

The department store Frederick & Nelson advertised "blackout rooms" -- rooms with blackout curtains, a shovel, a bucket of sand, a radio, and emergency food and water. With this room, families did not have to black out the entire house and the room could be an interior one. This would be safer in case of a bomb blast and the supplies would be available to fight fires and survive a short time following an enemy bombing.

Boeing and other war industries developed elaborate blackout responses and procedures. The Boeing Company painted plant windows black and held its own blackout drills. In December 1942 workers at Seattle's Webster-Brinkley plant, which produced naval mechanical equipment, had their first blackout drill. Following weeks of practice, at the sound of an alarm 500 workers shut off steam pipes to prevent burning injuries in an explosion. They then climbed under machinery that had been predetermined as safe shelter space.

In October 1943, as the perceived threat of Japanese attack diminished, blackout restrictions were greatly relaxed, but the test blackouts continued. Seattle mayor William F. Devin (1898-1982) said that a Sunday-night blackout test in January 1944 reminded residents that the war was still going and citizens were still in danger. He noted some violations of war security measures, including that more drivers were speeding. Nevertheless, that test was deemed a success, with only 100 minor violations in the 15-minute test period. About 15,000 civil defense workers were on duty to monitor compliance. They found few people that failed to immediately turn off their lights. For the remainder of the war, blackout tests would be held only on Sunday nights between the hours of 9:30 p.m. and midnight. As it turned out, no United States cities were attacked, so all of the blackout tests were just that, tests.


Richard Lingeman, Don't You Know There's a War On?: The American Home Front, 1941-1945 (New York: Thunder Mouth's Press/Nation Books, 2003); "3,000 Volunteer Air Raid Wardens 'At Their Posts in Seattle'," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, December 8, 1941, p. 1; "Crowd Irate Where Lights Still Show," Ibid., December 9, 1941, p. 1; "Car Plunges off Road in Blackout," Ibid.; "Defense Industries Blacked Out Here," Ibid., p. 2; "Glass-smashing Mob Blacking Out Lights," The Seattle Times, December 9, 1941, p. 1; "Council Votes Blackout Rules," Ibid., December 12, 1941, p. 2; "Air Raid Sirens Ordered By City," Ibid.; "Blackout Mob Leader Fined," Ibid., p. 22; "Blackout Cuts Transit Income," Ibid., December 14, 1941, p. 24; "Wreck Laid to Darkened Light," Ibid., p. 31; "'Timed' Advertising Signs Go Out at Dusk From Now On," Ibid., December 21, 1941, p. 14; "For Home Protection," Ibid., March 29, 1942, p. 20; "Webster-Brinkley Workers Prove Readiness for Air Raid," Ibid., December 31, 1942, p. 20; "Test Blackout Good Reminder," Ibid., January 27, 1944, p. 2.

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