The ‘bums’ get the rush
Continuing from Monday’s article on Minot’s riots of 1913, by Aug. 11 that year, the city had over 100 prisoners on its hands, with the possibility of hundreds more to come if rumors proved true that Industrial Workers of the World agitators were en route from Minnesota by train.
With the city’s jail packed to bursting point, officials erected an outdoor stockade behind the courthouse to store prisoners from out-of-town.
Conditions were deplorable. Prisoners were given food and water, but only if they worked five hours at a time breaking rocks in the yard. With a bitter irony, the gravel they produced would be used in the paving project they had been protesting. Before long, a number of IWW prisoners were on a virtual hunger strike. Kept outdoors, the men were also exposed to the elements, with the Ward County Reporter at one point reporting “one of the heaviest downpours of the year last night.”
Local socialist leader, lawyer and former Minot mayor Arthur LeSueur sent a telegram from jail to Gov. Louis Hannah in Bismarck, decrying the conditions in which the city’s prisoners were being kept. The message and the response were run in the Reporter, with the governor responding: “No unnecessary hardships should be inflicted but unusual conditions resulting from large number of arrests should be remedied by the cooperation of all citizens toward the restoration of order, the ending of public agitation and the discouragement of further disorder.”
Order was restored with heavy hands. On Sunday, Aug. 10, another 59 men were discovered camped out in the “jungles” by the train tracks west of town by police, who escorted them the six miles to Burlington before setting them loose with a warning. To prevent more from coming, unwelcoming committees of policemen, deputies and opponents to the demonstrations were organized to waylay trainloads of labor sympathizers on their way in to town, sent by IWW locals in Minnesota to join the scuffle. Invariably, the men were described by the Reporter as being bundled off into a railcar or two, to be shipped along through to Montana for rail work.
“Quite a delegation of citizens, including some of the city’s most prominent men, accompanied the officers on their errand and made it plain to the incoming bums that the people of Minot will brook no more defiance of the authorities,” it wrote. Seventy-five were sent along in such a manner one day, 86 another, with the largest load reported being a group of 100.
To undercut socialist claims of unfair pay and a shortage of available jobs, the Minot Commercial Club organized an employment bureau. The office operated much like a temp agency might today, connecting primarily men looking for work with farmers and businessmen who were looking for laborers. Boasting work at the rate of three dollars a day, updates published in the Reporter indicated that people were given mainly farmwork positions by the tens or dozens, including “reformed IWWs,” of whom the paper hazarded “have decided that it pays even better to get out and earn a living than to stand in the street and complain of how the ‘system’ is holding them down.”
Cut off from support and to some degree a valid complaint, an end to the demonstrators’ nightly political soapboxing and public gatherings on city street corners came in the form of a city ordinance. The city passed a law requiring that “street speakers must procure a license from the president of the commission to speak on the street. And the president of the commission also has power to revoke the license, if the speaker abuses his privelege,” a notice in the Reporter explained. Violators would be promptly arrested.
The irony to that is the next year they used the same law to arrest suffragettes like Antoinette Funk, Mark Timbrook said. Author of Minot histories “The Last Hurrah” and “Minot State University,” Timbrook is an instructional designer and tech specialist at MSU.
In an interview, he explained that the ordinance was one that remained on the books for some time, at least until the Espionage Act was passed nationally in 1917. The act applied similar restrictions to speech and written material deemed subversive but carried the weight of the federal government behind it.
The issue had suddenly shifted from fair labor practices to free speech, with sympathizers attempting to distribute placards reading “we believe in free speech” to local businesses and homes to place at the front windows. The tactic was mostly unsuccessful, with local public opinion souring over nightly disruptions and news that the IWW agitators had been invited by Minot socialists.
“Every good citizen believes in the right of free speech,” the Reporter echoed at the time. “But when agitators abuse that right and use their right of free speech to block the streets of a city, and, worse than that, to incite to riot, and to flaunt patriotism, and sneer at the government, at religion, at everything good and admirable, then it is time to take pains to inform these people that we have no use for them here and that the sooner they get out of Minot the better off they will be.”
Those pains were swiftly taken.
Trials were immediately arranged for those arrested over the weekend, with Judge Lynch presiding over an arraignment that first Monday. The city’s attorney general would prosecute, with LeSueur heading the defense. It was described as an electric sort of air, with a packed courtroom and immense crowds thronged outside the courthouse.
The Reporter’s coverage of the trial was a fairly damning retelling of the events already mentioned. By Aug. 21 it reported that the trial had finally wrapped up.
“The conclusion of LeSueur’s argument to the jury was quite dramatic,” it read, contrasting the attorney general’s summary as being given “without any attempt to work on the feelings of the jury.” Deliberation took less than half an hour, with all accused found guilty of “obstructing the highway.”
“The men received sentences of from two to 10 days in jail at hard labor, and from $5 to $25 fine,” sentenced individually, “the stiffness of the sentence depending on whether or not the man showed a desire to straighten up and go to work.” As ringleaders, LeSueur and street commissioner Dewey Dorman were charged $25 apiece, “and costs.” Following completion of their sentences, those who did not find immediate work through the employment bureau were run out of town.
By Aug. 28, the Reporter reported one lone prisoner left in the city jail. “The streets last night were as quiet as though there had never been any trouble, and it is believed they will remain so,” it went. Except for reports in September about “an organized gang” sabotaging threshers with railroad spikes and six IWWs that clashed with three policemen, the trouble was over.
The after-effects continued to ripple through the community, as some Minot residents who sided with the socialists during the riots would find themselves unwelcome afterward. Published by Pearsons Magazine in its August 1915 issue, Willis J. Rutledge wrote an account of the riots and their aftermath called “A Traitor to his Caste.” The “traitor” in question was a local banker named Grant Youmans, who committed the sins of placing a “we believe in free speech” card in the window of his bank and offering to post bail and provide food for a number of those arrested during the street demonstrations.
Described as a Spanish-American War veteran and member in good standing of the Commercial Club, after placing the card into the window of his Savings Deposit Bank, he was summarily blackballed by that club. Rutledge went on to allege that club members, as part of a broader purge of socialists from Minot, used their influence with the state bank examiners to unduly close Youman’s bank that October by requiring him to maintain considerably more of the bank’s deposits on hand in cash than the 20 percent then required by the state. Unable to comply, he was compelled to sell his bank and leave town.
The lone socialist left in city government, Dewey Dorman, was quickly denounced for his part in the demonstrations. An article in the Reporter alleged he “stated voluntarily that he does not believe in the Constitution of the United States,” or of the state’s, or in his oath of office. The article also claimed he had alluded to the use of dynamite as an acceptable response to police action.
“Dynamite!” it proclaimed. “The recognized weapon of the anarchist, the world over.” The article recommended his immediate dismissal from the commission, which after a petition drive was accomplished in a special recall election held that October.
Locally-printed socialist newspaper The Iconoclast’s editor, J.M. Near, was accused both of inviting the IWW organizers and slandering the editors of the Minot Daily Optic, which later would combine with the Ward County Reporter to become The Minot Daily News. Timbrook said he was soon fired and, threatening suicide with a pair of revolvers, quietly put on a train out of town. The political paper continued until 1916, folding in large part due to the loss of support for the socialist cause in the Minot area.
By 1916, socialist candidates did not even make the ballots in Ward County. “They all left the area,” Timbrook explained. “By then most everything moved to Bismarck and Fargo.”
Many of these men became involved in the newly-developed Non-Partisan League, a more broadly based leftist party opposed to American involvement in the First World War. An offshoot of the isolationist Republican Party, the NPL would become influential in North Dakota’s state government by the end of the decade. Alhough its success as a party was short-lived, the state bank and state grain mill it instituted still survive today and are both lasting tributes to the party’s socialist, centrally-planned roots. Illustrating the shifting political winds, in 1956 it would reorganize, merging with the state’s Democratic Party.
The Reporter published excerpts of a statement made by Virginia agitator William Day, who had participated in Minot’s disturbances. “This country handles things in a raw manner, but there is a way to get even and when we line up here next year the farmers will have to pay living wages or leave their fields unworked, their grain unharvested and unthreshed. We will organize every township in the state,” he threatened, which to the best of Timbrook’s knowledge was a threat idly given.
The days of Minot’s socialists were as good as over, and the Commercial Club won in its fight over the city’s future.