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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 1,441

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This is the grave of Wesley Everest.

Born in Newberg, Oregon in 1890, we know little of Everest’s early life. Like many working class kids in the Northwest, he ended up in the timber industry. And like a lot of those kids, he thought life under capitalism was horrible and he demanded a better day. He joined the Industrial Workers of the World. While the IWW was involved in the Northwest’s timber industry quite early in its life–a strike in Portland in 1907 that the American Federation of Labor collaborated with employers to crush–it was not really until after 1912 that the new radical union really grew in the region. It was after that point that IWW leaders began focusing less of obscure ideologies and more on the classic organizing tool of actually listening to workers and meeting them where they were at. In the Northwest, this was over the horrific conditions in the lumber camps. As it turned out, rancid butter could be a useful organizing tool to turn workers against capitalism generally. In truth, most of the workers were a lot more interested in the bread and butter gains than ideology or revolution, but nonetheless, it was still a useful move.

We know little about Everest until World War I, but when I was researching Empire of Timber, where the vast majority of the material for this grave visit comes from, I found a letter to a IWW newspaper he wrote back in 1914, when he was arrested and jailed in a vigilante roundup of labor activists while working in a Coos County, Oregon logging camp. So we know he was an active Wobbly by then. In 1917, he was drafted into the Army. But like quite a few Wobbly loggers, he did not go to Europe. Rather, he went into the Spruce Production Division.

The Army had Colonel Brice Disque create the Spruce Production Division (SPD), an army unit fighting in the Northwest forests instead of the French trenches. The reason was that the military needed wood for airplanes and the light weight softwoods of the Northwest, especially Sitka spruce, was ideal. But Wobbly activism over the horrible working conditions made getting that wood consistently impossible under private leadership. Made up primarily of experienced loggers, the SPD helped the military acquire the necessary wood, placed Army men among the radicals in camps, and limited drafted Wobblies from spreading their doctrine into the Army mainstream since many radicalized loggers made up the core of the SPD. But the soldiers could not work directly for the government. There were not enough SPD troops to log all the needed spruce and to do so would have made the military look like a strikebreaking outfit, making the labor problem worse. Troops would be interspersed with civilian loggers but the military would not allow them to live in the conditions that lumber workers endured daily. Getting out the cut required government intervention in the industry’s sanitary regime.

In fact, the SPD did clean up a lot of the terribleness of the camps, much to timber owners’ anger. I have a fun story of a furious employer who couldn’t believe the Army made him clean up his water supply, just because there was a little human waste contaminating it. The outrage! In any case, Everest was not going to comply. He simply refused. He spent most of the time in the military in prison for refusing to salute the flag.

After the war, Everest was in Centralia, Washington. With the Red Scare in full effect by 1919, the town’s leaders decided to eliminate the radicals from their town. This happened through the American Legion. It’s important to remember that where today the Legion might be a bunch of old men drinking cheap beer while wearing their veteran hats, in its early decades, it was a proto-fascist force of veterans who wanted extremist right politics in America. For decades, it was who you turned to if you wanted some thugs to crush a strike. That was quite true in the California fields in the 30s for instance, where we known Legionnaires intimidated and probably murdered strikers. The reason the Veterans of Foreign Wars rose as an alternative organization is that the Legion even opposed the Bonus Army because those desperate veterans didn’t fit its right wing law and order politics, which disgusted a lot of the veterans. After World War II, Legion leaders thought Joe McCarthy just a bit too liberal.

So the local Legionnaires decided to raise hell on the IWW hall in the town, which was just a little building. They had already done this the previous year. They planned for the Armistice Day Parade in 1919 to stop in front of the Wobbly building and tear it apart. But the IWW had heard about it. Their lawyer suggested that they had a right to defend their home and since many of the Wobblies were staying in the building, they decided they would do so. That included Everest.

When the Legion started in, the radicals were ready. As the marchers charged in, they fired into the crowd. On Seminary Hill, ¼ a mile away, Wobbly shooters poured lead down from afar. Warren Grimm was gunned down immediately from inside the hall. As Everest ran away after possibly having blown Grimm away, he shot Ben Casagranda, a shoeshine parlor owner, in the stomach, killing him. Arthur McElfresh had spent eighteen months in the army in France and managed a drugstore. He took a bullet in the brain. Everest ran toward the Skooumchuck River. Unable to cross due to high water, he waited for his pursuers. Among them was Dale Hubbard, a University of Washington graduate and former member of the Tenth Army Engineers. Everest shot Hubbard dead before the attackers overwhelmed him. The Legionnaires beat Everest severely and threw him into a prison cell with other arrested Wobblies. That evening they took him from his jail cell and hanged him from a bridge. A jury found eight Wobblies guilty of second-degree murder and they received sentences ranging from twenty-five to forty years at the Washington State Prison in Walla Walla. Their cause served as a rallying cry for an increasingly marginalized IWW over the next twenty years.

Everest was 28 years old at the time of his lynching.

But this is not the whole story. The IWW’s gender politics were complicated and really depended on the workforce they organized in. But with the loggers, a distinctly masculine culture and also one where the union had a lot more success with the loggers in almost all-male spaces than it did with mill workers who were often married with families, it went pretty all in with misogyny, often blaming women for getting in their men’s inherent radicalism. As such, its propagandists really tried to create masculine heroes for loggers.

What this meant was turning Everest’s death into a symbol of radical manhood standing up to the employers who would crush it. In short, the IWW created a story that the lynchers had castrated Everest before lynching him. This did not happen. There is nothing in the record that suggests it did. But in the publications to promote the fate of those going on trial for the murders of the Legion members, the writers attacked the savagery of the veterans by claiming they had castrated Everest. For years, this became just received wisdom. Part of this is that John Dos Passos closed 1919 with a vignette on the Centralia Massacre that included this claim. But it has been fully debunked.

You can see how these radical pamphlets tried to make Everest a masculine hero. Wobbly publications described Everest as a “muscular and sun-burned young man with a rough, honest face and a pair of clear hazel eyes in which a smile was always twinkling.” According to one document, his closest friends claimed, “he was never afraid of anything in all his life.” When he had no choice but face the mob after failing to cross a river to escape, he turned and in a loud voice, proclaimed his willingness to surrender to any legal authority, which the savage mob ignored. When the crowd captured Everest they beat him and put a rope around his neck in a prelude to what they would do to him that night. Wobbly reports said that Everest simply responded: “You haven’t got the guts to lynch a man in the daytime.”But martyrdom made Wesley Everest more than a man. Wobbly songs compared Wesley Everest to the ultimate masculine figure: Jesus Christ. The song “Wesley Everest” began “Torn and defiant as a wind-lashed reed, Wounded he faced you as he stood at bay; you dared not lynch him in the light of day” and ended “A rebel unto Caesar—then as now—Alone, thorn-crowned, a spear wound in His side.” By fighting and dying for changes in working and living conditions for loggers, Wesley Everest became the personified idea of anti-capitalist proletarian manhood.

This was something of an end of an era for this kind of talk. The Centralia Class War Prisoners would get a lot of attention from radicals over the next decade plus until they were finally released in the 30s, but by this time, the CIO’s rise really did not accept that kind of single man masculinity and instead wrapped its version of manhood up in the family. Moreover, American life was simply different. Even in the Northwest, the rise of inexpensive automobiles meant that most loggers commuted to the camps now instead of living in them. This kind of masculine violence just didn’t make much sense any more.

Wesley Everest is buried in Greenwood Memorial Park, Centralia, Washington. I am sure he would be amused to see that he had a standard military grave given that he wasn’t exactly a standard soldier of World War I.

If you would like this series to visit other members of the IWW, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. Carlo Tresca is in Queens and Vincent St. John is in Oakland. Previous posts in this series are archived here and here.

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