July 17, 1913: The Potlatch Riots

I.W.W. hall trashed by soldiers and sailors during the Potlatch Riots.
Photo credit: Museum of History and Industry

If you think it’s only been recently that The Seattle Times has been jiving its readership in order to promote a sordid political agenda (such as, say, the deep-bore tunnel), think again.

The Times has actually been doing so for at least a century now. One noteworthy instance of such sordid media behavior began on the date in focus here during the Potlatch Days festival, a precursor to the modern-day Seafair. On that evening, during the opening day of the Potlatch, a street-corner fistfight and an allegedly provocative public speech — as misreported by the Times — combined to produce a major outbreak of violence in downtown Seattle, as well as an ugly glimpse of the early Red Scare that would engulf Seattle and the nation a few short years later.

The fistfight began when three U.S. Army soldiers in town for the festival heckled Mrs. Annie Miller, a suffragist speaking to a small crowd in Pioneer Square near the offices of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW, a.k.a. “the Wobblies”). When one soldier threatened to strike Mrs. Miller, a well-dressed and very muscular man in the crowd objected — “You would strike a woman!” — and a fist-fueled mêlée soon erupted. Meanwhile, at the prestigious Rainier Club a few blocks away, Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels gave a patriotic speech for local movers and shakers. These two events, seemingly unrelated, would soon become historically infamous.

The following day, the Times disingenuously linked the fistfight and the speech in a front page piece titled, “I.W.W. Denounced by Head of Navy, Attack Soldiers and Sailors.” The piece, uncredited in the paper but in fact written by Times reporter M. M. Mattison, alleged that Daniels had denounced Seattle Mayor George Cotterill in his speech for the latter’s tolerance of local leftists (the IWW and anarchist groups had already begun to flourish here by 1913). Times publisher Alden J. Blethen had previously been publicly critical of Cotterill for the latter’s failure to crack down on Seattle’s “radical elements.” (Cotterill, though hardly “radical,” was definitely one of Seattle’s more progressive mayors.) The article also crucially alleged that Mrs. Annie Miller was an IWW member and that several Wobblies among her audience had attacked the three soldiers without provocation. The article was also, given historical hindsight, clearly based on fabrication: eyewitness testimonies gathered by Seattle police and later published in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer showed that no Wobblies or anarchists had been present during the fistfight in Pioneer Square, and that the soldiers had in fact instigated the mêlée. Secretary Josephus, meanwhile, denied having said any unkind words about Cotterill or the IWW that evening.

The inflammatory tone of the article — clearly critical of the IWW — led many local soldiers and pro-military citizens to seek retaliation for the reported “attack” in Pioneer Square. Thus, on the evening of July 18, a large crowd of soldiers and sailors, numbering at least a thousand, drunkenly descended upon downtown Seattle and ransacked several IWW and Socialist Party offices located there — all in plain sight of festival-goers who were there to watch the Potlatch Days parade, scheduled that night.

While no one was injured that night, the political aftermath for local pacifists and unionists would be damaging indeed, as anti-IWW and pro-war sentiment would only increase in Seattle’s mainstream media and politics over the next several years — especially during the First World War. Meanwhile, a different kind of conflict escalated between Blethen and Cotterill. During the following week, the front pages of the Times would be filled with inflammatory headlines denouncing both Cotterill and the IWW. Cotterill had attempted to stop the Times from printing during Potlatch Days in order to prevent any riots provoked by the sort of inflammatory rhetoric that Seattleites had come to expect on its front page. In response, the Times flamboyantly attacked Cotterill — one exemplary headline read “Mayor Cotterill Attempts the Role of Czar.”

While the conflict between the Times and Cotterill would eventually cool down, the Times would continue to misrepresent the politics of Seattle for many years afterwards — indeed, up to the present day.

–Jeff Stevens. Sources: “Three Soldiers Assailed By Mob, Saved By Police,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 18, 1913, p. 1; “Entire Navy May Soon Pay Seattle Visit,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 18, 1913, p. 2; “I.W.W. Denounced by Head of Navy, Attack Soldiers and Sailors,” The Seattle Daily Times, July 18, 1913, p. 1; “Soldiers and Sailors Mob and Sack Offices of Socialists and I.W.W.,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 19, 1913, p. 1; “Police No Match For Such A Mob,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 19, 1913, p. 2; “Socialist’s View of Riot’s Origin,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 19, 1913, p. 2; “Cotterill Attempts to Suppress Times,” The Seattle Daily Times, July 19, 1913, p. 1; “I.W.W. Talks as Mayor Suppresses Times,” The Seattle Daily Times, July 19, 1913, p. 2; “Anarchy in Seattle Stamped Out When Sailors Get Busy,” The Seattle Daily Times, July 19, 1913, p. 2; “Union Man Plants Stars and Stripes Over Hall of Reds,” The Seattle Daily Times, July 19, 1913, p. 3; “Officers and Men of Fleet Jubilant Over Trouncing of I.W.W.,” The Seattle Daily Times, July 19, 1913, p. 7; “Cotterill Harangues I.W.W. and Socialist Mob From City Auto,” The Seattle Daily Times, July 19, 1913, p. 7; “Tilikum Police Keep Hands Off Strictly Throughout Rioting,” The Seattle Daily Times, July 19, 1913, p. 7; “Mayor Cotterill Attempts the Role of Czar,” The Seattle Sunday Times, July 20, 1913, p. 1; “Effort to Throttle Times Causes Court to Score Cotterill,” The Seattle Sunday Times, July 20, 1913, p. 1; C. B. Blethen, “I Believe in Free Speech and a Free Press as the Bulwarks of Our Liberty,” The Seattle Sunday Times, July 20, 1913, p. 5; “Dearth of Petitions Alone Saves I.W.W. Mayor from Recall,” The Seattle Sunday Times, July 20, 1913, p. 5; “500 Men Patrol City Streets, But Citizens Will Not Start Riots,” The Seattle Sunday Times, July 20, 1913, p. 5; “Bannick, Humiliated by Executive Order, Threatens to Resign,” The Seattle Sunday Times, July 20, 1913, p. 5; “Secretary Daniels Denounces the Red Flag,” The Seattle Sunday Times, July 20, 1913, p. 6; “Cotterill Assumes the Part of Autocrat,” The Seattle Sunday Times, July 20, 1913, p. 6; “Night Throngs Cheer Soldiers and Sailors in Closing Carnival,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 20, 1913, p. 1; “Mayor Cotterill Will Abide By Court’s Orders,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 20, 1913, p. 11; “Open Forum To Hear Witnesses of Riotous Outbreak of Sailors,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 20, 1913, p. 11; “Sailor Tried To Strike A Woman,” Seattle Post-Intelligencer, July 20, 1913, p. 11; M. M. Mattison, “Taxpayers Demand Recall of Cotterill!,” The Seattle Daily Times, July 21, 1913, p. 1; “Cotterill’s Swollen Notions Detriment to Northwest: News Says,” The Seattle Daily Times, July 21, 1913, p. 1; “Cotterill Lacks Mental Balance, Oregonian Says,” The Seattle Daily Times, July 21, 1913, p. 1; “No Man Great Enough to Insult American Flag, Daniels Says,” The Seattle Daily Times, July 21, 1913, p. 1; William A. Simonds, “Discredited Direct Actionists Attack Secretary of Navy,” The Seattle Daily Times, July 21, 1913, p. 1; Horace McClure, “Cotterill’s Frail Craft: With Flag of Red, on Stormy Sea,” The Seattle Daily Times, July 21, 1913, p. 1; “The Rioters Punished,” Seattle Union Record, July 23, 1913, p. 4; “A Disgraceful Riot,” Seattle Union Record, July 26, 1913, p. 1; Murray Morgan, “Skid Road” (Viking Press, 1951; Ballantine Books, 1971; University of Washington Press, 1982); Roger Sale, “Seattle, Past to Present” (University of Washington Press, 1976).

About these ads

Leave a comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s