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Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium / University of Washington

The IWW, the Newspapers, and the 1913 Seattle Potlatch Riot

By James Larrabee
Photo details the damage done to the Seattle headquarters of the Industrial Workers of the World, an old Presbyterian church, on Olive Way between 7th Ave. and 8th Ave. A result of an incident between IWW union members and a group of sailors in July of 1913. Photo Credit: Asahel Curtis. Courtesy of UW Digital Collections.

By the late afternoon of July 19, 1913 the Seattle headquarters of the Industrial Workers of the World lay in ruin.  Along with two Socialist Party offices and a Socialist newsstand, it had been looted and its contents dumped into the street and burned by a mob of locals and visiting sailors.  The night before the rioting began, throngs of tourists were in town for the Golden Potlatch festival, when a street fight between some visiting military personnel and some civilians became a full-scale brawl. The sailors, also  in town for the Golden Potlatch Festival, had become involved in a shouting match with a group listening to a street speaker in Seattle’s Pioneer Square neighborhood.  In an exhaustive account of the riot for their biography of Seattle Daily Times editor Alden J. Blethen, Sharon Boswell and Lorraine McConaghy seem to agree with the position of many contemporaries of the riot that it was caused by an incendiary newspaper article written in the Times in which the brawl was blamed on members of the I.W.W.[1] 

            Whatever the cause, the day after the brawl, a large mob (accounts very from several hundred to several thousand)[1] began its rampage through the city, destroying anything related to the I.W.W. or the socialist cause.  The morning of July 19th found the city under martial law, the federal government calling for a full-scale investigation of the involvement of military personnel, and the socialist community demanding federal money to rebuild and replace the property and equipment that had been destroyed.  The sailors in Seattle for the Potlatch festivites were returned to their ships and the city braced itself for the  possibility of more violence.

The Seattle Golden Potlatch had grown out of the Seattle Yukon Exposition of 1909 into a regular yearly event. The Potlatch Festival celebrated Seattle’s maritime heritage and was used by local businessmen and boosters as a means of getting Seattle some national attention.  The United States Navy would send a portion of its Pacific Fleet into Elliot Bay and patriotic parades and speeches, along with auto and boat races drew spectators from all over the Pacific Northwest.  The festival also doubled as a shore leave for the hundreds of Navy personnel serving on the craft that visited the bay.  The rowdiness of the sailors was legendary, and taverns and saloons in Seattle did a rousing business with so many young men in town who had been at sea for months at a time. In 1914, the year after the riot, the Potlatch Festival was held with much less fanfare as memories of the destruction fueled rumors about more attacks.  The event was discontinued after the 1914 celebration and did not return until 1934. The Potlatch Festival was held sporadically during the depression years and World War Two, but was renamed the Seafair Festival in 1950 and has taken place every year since.[3]

The Potlatch Riot became infamous among the members of the Industrial Workers of the World, not only because of the destruction of their Seattle headquarters and all the property it contained, but also as an example of the bias against them by the police and the military. Because much of the coverage in the local papers explicitly blamed the I.W.W. for causing the riot, evidence to the contrary not withstanding, it also became a focus of those members of the community who claimed that the I.W.W. was a destabilizing element in Seattle.

While the aftermath of the riot and the actions that it inspired are relatively straightforward, the brawl that immediately preceded it remains shrouded in mystery. However, the importance of that event cannot be overstated, since it was the catalyst for the mayhem that engulfed Seattle the next day.  The accounts of the fight that appeared in local newspapers differed widely from one another.  These differing accounts remained unresolved as the news of the riot replaced the reporting on the fight, which was soon forgotten.  Although a careful examination of these accounts does not resolve the cause of the riot, it does give a glimpse into the diverse political opinions held by the Seattle press and the community in general.  By focusing on this one small and particular event, it becomes easier to see the deep divisions in the community over the place of patriotism, socialism, and the rights of workers to gather and speak.    

 Seattle in the summer of 1913 was well served for a metropolis of its size by several major newspapers that represented every point on the political compass.  For the purpose of this examination we will review the coverage of the events that preceded the riot by five of these newspapers, The Seattle Daily Times, The Seattle Post-Intelligencer, The Seattle Sun, The Seattle Union Record and The Commonwealth. The Seattle Star, another mainstream daily in circulation at the time of the riots will be left out, as it did not publish any articles regarding the incidents that preceded the riot. [4]  While The Commonwealth was published in Everett rather than Seattle, its designation as the official organ of the Washington State Socialist Party makes its coverage important in light of the destruction that the riots caused to that parties offices in Seattle. The huge disparities between the reports from the different papers are a relatively accurate example of the wide range of political opinions and loyalties in the Seattle of 1913.  Class divisions, what they meant, and how they should be dealt with was much more a part of every day reporting in 1913 than it is today, and each paper exemplified some of the major differences of opinion.

 The treatment that each paper gave the event in question was undeniably colored by their editorial opinion and the segment of the community that they catered to.  The labor and socialist press tended to focus on the violent nature of the military personnel involved.  This is not altogether surprising considering that they represented different interest groups than the mainstream dailies and therefore put decidedly different spins on the event.  However, it should be made clear that the mainstream dailies examined here also had their own agendas regardless of the fact that they did not openly support any specific interest group.  Of the three major dailies, only The Seattle Daily Times and the Post-Intelligencer ran the story of the fight before the actual riot began and reported on it as news in its own right. The Sun carried the event as part of its coverage of the riot.  The Commonwealth and The Union Record were both published on a weekly basis during the summer of 1913 and therefore had several days lapse between the events and publication. 

The Seattle Daily Times in its coverage of the event was undoubtedly the most creative of the papers involved.  Of the two stories printed concerning the fight on Occidental Avenue, The Times account was the longest and most blatantly falsified.  The Seattle Daily Times was the personal editorial organ of Col. Alden Blethen, famous for both his brash style and his total contempt for unionism and socialism in any form.  Rather than run the fight story on its own, The Times wove it through a story on a speech given by the Secretary of the Navy the previous evening at the prestigious Rainier Club.  The Times twisted the Secretary’s words into a denunciation of the freedom of organization and even into a personal attack on the mayor. [5] This patriotic chest thumping was intertwined with the story of the three soldiers, who “ were strolling down Washington street…sober and conducting themselves in a gentlemanly manner… when they were spotted by an I.W.W. speaker” at this point although “their uniforms were decried” and they were “stung to the quick by the insults which followed, the soldiers appeared to pay no attention”.  At that point the Times informs us that the crowd of I.W.W. rowdies, whipped into a frenzy by the exhortations of the speaker, began to scream “Get them” and “To hell with the flag!” and jumped on the soldiers.  One of the soldiers was attacked by “two heavy lumberjacks” and anther “gashed in several places by an I.W.W. with a small knife.” Eventually all three soldiers went down and “the mob jumped on them with their heavy shoes”. [6]  The article goes on to interview some anonymous veterans about the situation “They [the I.W.W. members] will meet something they never did before, our men will be armed with everything from bolos to head axes, and we will be ready for them.”  In closing the article, we are informed “several soldiers declared that they had never before heard of authorities in an American City permitting public insults to be directed toward defenders of the nation and its flag”.  The last statement is perhaps the most ironic in the article, since the events that were to follow the riot would lead to the Times loudly trumpeting that freedom of speech was not being protected enough in Seattle.

The Seattle Post Intelligencer had a longer history in Seattle than did the other major dailies, but it had changed ownership several times in the first few years of the twentieth century and so lacked the editorial continuity that marked the Seattle Daily Times. The paper had four different owners between 1893 and 1921 when it was purchased by William Randolph Hearst as the latest edition to his growing media empire.  The Post Intelligencer also gave the fight story front-page coverage, but only one column in the bottom right hand corner was given over to the event.  While the events that the P.I. reports are basically identical to the story as told in the Times, the details that the story lacks are made conspicuous by their absence.  The Post Intelligencer  notes that “ They [the soldiers] were walking down Washington Street …they heard a woman speaker abusing the army and the navy.”  Although the attack in this account started much the same way, “ Suddenly a man in the crowd saw them [the soldier] and shouted, “there are three of the --- now.” [7] The article then reports that an unidentified assailant struck one of the soldiers, beginning the fight.  No mention is made in this account of the I.W.W., lumberjacks, or other types that would be associated with the working classes.  Any mentions of political affiliations of the men fighting with the soldiers are also absent from The Post Intelligencer account.  The Post Intelligencer agrees with The Times in that one of the soldiers involved in the fight was stabbed, but again, the political affiliations of the individual doing the stabbing is not mentioned.  While The Post Intelligencer report lacks much of the artistic license utilized in the jingoistic prose of the Times version, it does make clear that the sole responsibility for the mêlée lie with the crowd and the woman speaking. This portion of the story remains intact in all of the accounts from the three mainstream dailies.  It is interesting to note however, that although the political orientation of the woman and the crowd listening to her speak are not mentioned outright as they are in the Times, the radical nature of the crowd can be easily inferred from the strong anti-military statements they are reported by The Post Intelligencer  to have been making.  Although not as openly hostile or loose with the facts as the reporting in The Times seemed to be, the The Post Intelligencer nonetheless exonerates the military personnel immediately.

The Seattle Sun, a local daily that never missed an opportunity to lampoon The Times’ Col. Blethen, was not as openly partisan as The Times, but like the other mainstream dailies, did not question that the real cause of the riots was the speakers that the Industrial Workers of the World sent out on a regular basis.  The Sun, like The Seattle Daily Times, assumes that the street speaker was a member of the I.W.W. 

 The Seattle Sun did not publish a detailed account of the incident between the soldiers and the crowd on Washington Street, but their presentation of a timeline of events is interesting.  In an article entitled “Chronological Summary Of Events In Riot Situation” on the front page of the July 19th edition, they present a summary of the main points of the last 48 hours. This chronology is the only mention of the initial incident in the Sun.  Rather than giving separate dates for the street brawl on the 17th and the riot on the 18th, The Sun gives the impression that one event followed immediately on the heels of the next:

1.Two Sailors and two soldiers were badly beaten up after they objected to remarks by an I.W.W. speaker on Washington Street.

2.Rioting Begins at Occidental Avenue and Washington Street.

3. All furnishings at I.W.W. headquarters at 211 Occidental Avenue are destroyed. [8]

It seems likely that the riot referred to in the second point of the chronology is the riot that occurred almost a full day after the incident with the soldiers.  This lack of context in the chronology presented by The Sun leaves out the twenty-four hour period in which the public had been made aware of the incident between the military personnel and the crowd of locals. 

The number of sailors or soldiers involved in the incident is perhaps the most fluid detail between the accounts in the different papers, both mainstream and labor or socialist.  As the above chronology states, two sailors and two soldiers, were involved in the initial event. [9]  As stated above, The Times mentions the three soldiers who had been wandering down Washington Street[10] while The Post Intelligencer agrees that three soldiers had been the first on the scene, but were immediately aided by two sailors. [11] However, in The Union Record account, it was only one intoxicated sailor who was present initially, who then left the scene and returned with eight or nine companions. [12]

The three major dailies then, for the most part, all agree on the origin of the altercation between the soldiers and the crowd at the intersection of Washington and Occidental Streets. The much different account of the events of that evening described by both The Union Record and The Commonwealth are not shocking considering the ideological differences between their editors and those of the mainstream dalies As stated above, the reports of these papers give a varied account from that of the mainstream dailies, not surprising given their open support for labor and socialism respectively.  The more detailed accounts given in these publications could also have been the result of the luxury of having had several days to look back over the events, one that the daily papers could not have enjoyed.  However, the fact that the mainstream dailies never altered their original accounts of the fight, never revisited the event, and certainly never went so far as to print a retraction after more information was uncovered, shows that the extra time in which the labor and socialist papers could gather information on the incident played little or no part in their differing accounts.

The Seattle Union Record was essentially the organ of the Seattle Central Labor Council, which was affiliated with the Washington State Federation of Labor.[13] Although the paper was edited by Harry Ault, a socialist who had edited more radical newspapers in both Washington and Idaho, in general the paper was not as radical as The Commonwealth and would not have automatically supported the I.W. W. 

In an article entitled “Who Is To Blame” by Oscar McGill we are for the first time given details not just on the soldiers involved, but on the identity of the woman who had been speaking when the violence broke out, as well as a much different account of what type of individuals incited the violence. [14]  McGill’s article states that the I.W.W. had “not a single street meeting that night”, and his accounts of the actual confrontation are worlds apart from the coverage we have already examined.  The Seattle Union Record reports that in an official affidavit, Mrs. Annie Miller, the woman who had been addressing the crowd “indicated that she was not a member of the I.W.W. and was in fact speaking on woman’s suffrage”.  She goes on to report “she was insulted by a sailor under the influence of drink”.  The sailor left the area of the meeting but soon “returned with eight or nine companions who at once took possession of the speaker’s table….scattering the books on sale, cursing the I.W.W. and defying anyone to fight them”.  It was when Mrs. Miller tried to gather her belongings that “one of the sailorsstruck at her fiercely with his fist and another laid hold upon her clothing”.  During this confrontation, a “well dressed man, wearing a diamond ring called out, would you strike a woman.” According to The Union Record, this is the point at which a brawl broke out between members of the crowd and the military men.[15]

McGill’s article goes on to describe the events of the riot, closing with some observations under the banner, “The Humor of the Situation”.  It is under this banner that we see that, although his report vindicates the I.W.W. from instigating the events that led up to the riot, The Union Record was far enough removed from the I.W.W. to poke a bit of fun even after the ordeal that the organization had just been through.  “The whole episode is not without humor in that the I.W.W., who claim to believe in direct action and sabotage, should squeal when the shoe pinches the otherfoot.”

 The position of the Union Record that the sailors were responsible for the riot is called into question later in the same issue in an article by E.P. Marsh, the President of the Washington State Federation of Labor.  Mr. Marsh readily shows that he is no friend of the more radical elements of labor by laying the blame for the riots directly on the doorstep of the I.W.W. regardless of whether or not they were involved in the events that led up to it.  In an article entitled “What Caused The Riot”, Mr. Marsh ignores the report of events only two pages prior and states, “ The primal cause [of the riot] must be put down as the reckless, inexcusable street talking of the I.W.W. themselves”.  Even more surprising than this is his outright denunciation of the right of free speech where radicals are concerned. “ The right of free speech should not include the right to declaimagainst law, government the flag, etc.”  He closes his article with a statement that exonerates the sailors for the destruction caused by the riot, again laying the blame on the I.W.W.  “ Destruction of property is inexcusable when committed by capitalist hirelings or by fanatical laborers, but in this case the sailors are less culpable than the other parties concerned.” [16]

The Commonwealth, because of its position as the socialist party organ for Washington State, was perhaps the most personally involved in the riot that followed the street brawl since many of its subscribers and distributors had lost property during the destruction of the riot.   Although the I.W.W. headquarters was destroyed in the riot, the brunt of the destruction was visited upon the socialist party offices that were located throughout the city.   The Commonwealth, like The Seattle Union Record, was a weekly paper and therefore coverage of the events in question took place in the July 24th edition. In an article entitled “Cinders and Smoke” by Bruce Rogers, the facts of the brawl are given a treatment similar to that in The Union Record.  Rogers gives more detail about the lack of I.W.W. speakers on the street on the night in question and reports that the I.W.W. had decided that it was useless to attempt street propaganda at a time when the Potlatch Festival was going on. [17] This does not seem an unlikely scenario in light of the extreme prejudice against them by the members of the military that were in Seattle in large numbers for the festival.  The article also specifically mentions the “Well dressed man wearing a diamond ring”, that was referred to in the Union Record.

This article by Rogers is also the only one that comments on the coverage of the other newspapers that we have examined.  He states that the Sun and the Post-Intelligencer, because of their status as privately owned corporations, lack the ability to credibly report on any events.  His special ire is however, reserved for the Seattle Daily Times and its publisher, Alden Blethen in particular.  He describes Blethen as “…an aged lunatic tottering toward a mad house of bedlam and energetic fur, lashing himself with his wild imaginings and stinging himself to death with the noisome venom of his ownhate”.[18] 

In the same edition, the Commonwealth published extracts of statements by Seattle Mayor George Cotterill, some of which pertain to the incident in question.  In an article entitled “A Little More Light”, the mayor, alluding to the responsibility of the Seattle Daily Times for the ensuing riot, states “An ordinary drunken sailor street fight, occasioned by an attack upon a harmless woman speaker, was quickly and thoroughly handled by the police without serious injury to anyone”.[19]  What concerns us here is not so much who the mayor holds responsible for the riots, but his depiction of the instigating event.  The mayor’s statements were made before the publication of either the Union Record or the Commonwealth, giving the impression that his description of the events, as it varies so greatly from that in any of the major dailies, was based on knowledge that must have been available in the hours or days immediately following the riot.  This makes more glaring the omission from the dailies of any attempt to revisit the fight on the evening of the seventeenth.

The Potlatch Riots that occurred in July of 1913 were by no means the first instance of reporting discrepancies between the different papers that served Seattle during the turbulent decades that opened the twentieth century, and they certainly weren’t the last.  The Pacific Northwest remained a stronghold for socialist thought and labor ideology for many years, and in a town built on big industry like lumber and shipping that always made for confrontation between competing interests. The coverage of the fight is especially enlightening in that it concerns a specific event, and because of that, it gives us the unique opportunity to examine the power that newspapers had in an age when they were the primary form of public discourse.  The one obvious commonality between all the papers is that rather than just reporting on the event, they had an overwhelming desire to mold the opinions of their readers. Because their methods were often not as sophisticated as those employed by  journalists currently, the manipulation of the story seemed much more commonplace. Perhaps because ninety years ago the editorial opinions of many of the newspapers were so blatantly woven throughout the news they reported that one could not miss the slant when examining the paper with even the slightest bit of scrutiny. 

More importantly, the Potlatch Riot also made clear to the Industrial Workers of the World and the socialist community that even in a city as sympathetic to their cause as Seattle the need for vigilance was great. The police had failed to protect their property, and the instigators of the crimes were back on their ships headed out to sea.  The uneasy peace between the labor, socialist, and capitalist elements of the growing region remained in place, but the Potlatch Riots showed just how tenuous that peace was, and the divisions only grew deeper in the years to come.


[1] Sharon A. Boswell & Lorraine McConaghy, Raise Hell and Sell Newspapers, Alden J. Blethen and The Seattle Times (Pullman Washington: Washington State University Press, 1996) 218.

[2] Ibid, 219


[4] The Star did however publish an article on July 19th under the headline; “Mayor Lays Responsibility On Afternoon Newspaper” This article echoed the widespread belief among the labor and socialist communities that regardless of the events of July 17th, solely the biased reporting of the Seattle Times instigated the riot itself.  In the days that followed the riots, The Star, of all the mainstream dailies, was the most vocal in its condemnation of the actions of the Seattle Daily Times and the Seattle police.

[5]his brilliant castigation of un-American mayors excites unparalleled demonstration of enthusiasm”

[6] Seattle Daily Times: July 18th, 1913  Late Edition.

[7] Seattle Post-Intelligencer:  July 18th,1913  vol. 64  no. 64.

[8] Seattle Sun: July 19th, 1913 vol. 1 no. 144.

[9] Seattle Sun: July 19th, 1913 vol. 1 no. 144.

 [10] Seattle Daily Times: July 18th, 1913 Late Edition.

[11] Seattle Post-Intelligencer:  July 18th, 1913 vol. 64 no. 64.

[12] Seattle Union Record:  July 26th, 1913 vol. 29 no.1.


[14] Seattle Union Record:  July 26th, 1913 vol. 29 no.1.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Seattle Union Record:  July 26th, 1913 vol. 29 no.1.

[17] The Commonwealth:  July 24th, 1913 no. 134.

[18] The Commonwealth:  July 24th, 1913 no. 134.

[19] Ibid.

©2003 James Larrabee