Frank Little (unionist)

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Frank H. Little
Born 1879
Died August 1, 1917(1917-08-01)[1]
Butte, Montana
Nationality United States
Occupation Labor leader

Frank H. Little (1879 – August 1, 1917) was an American labor leader who was lynched in Butte, Montana, for his union and anti-war activities. He joined the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in 1906, organizing miners, lumberjacks, and oil field workers. He was a member of the union's Executive Board when he was murdered.

Industrial Workers of the World[edit]

Little was born in 1879. Not much is known about his family background, but he told friends that he had "Indian blood" and his mother was part Cherokee.[2][3]

He was said to live in Fresno where he worked as a union organizer with the Western Federation of Miners before becoming active with the Industrial Workers of the World in 1906.[1]

He took part in the free speech campaigns among workers in Fresno, California in 1910. Little and several hundred workers were arrested for violating a city ordinance; he was reported to have refused to work on the city rock pile. Many more IWW workers came to the city and struck in support. He also led free speech efforts in Spokane, Washington and Missoula, Montana. Little was involved in organizing lumberjacks, metal miners and oil field workers into industrial unions. On one occasion in Spokane, he was sentenced to 30 days in prison for reading the Declaration of Independence.[4] In 1910, Little successfully organized unskilled fruit workers in the San Joaquin Valley of California.

In August 1913, Little and fellow IWW organizer James P. Cannon arrived in Duluth, Minnesota, to support the strike of ore-dock workers against the Great Northern Railway over dangerous working conditions. In the course of the strike he was kidnapped, held at gunpoint outside of the city, and dramatically rescued by IWW supporters.[5]

By 1916, Little was a member of the IWW's General Executive Board.[1] That year he also worked with mine workers in a strike at the Mesabi Range in Minnesota.[6]

Anti-war activism[edit]

Little was a strong opponent of capitalism and World War I. While General Secretary-Treasurer William Haywood and members of the General Executive Board shared Little's opinions about the war, they disagreed about whether to work to create anti-war agitation. When the United States (US) joined the war in April 1917, Ralph Chaplin, the editor of the IWW's newspaper Solidarity, claimed that opposing the draft would destroy the IWW by visiting government repression upon the union the likes of which had not before been seen. Other Board members argued that organized labor would not have the power to stop the war until more workers were organized, and the union should continue to focus on organizing workers at the point of production, even if their actions might incidentally impede the war effort.

Little refused to back down on this issue and argued that: "...the IWW is opposed to all wars, and we must use all our power to prevent the workers from joining the army."[1] In the summer of 1917 in Butte, Montana, he said that soldiers serving in Europe were "Uncle Sam's scabs in uniform."[1] He had gone to The Mining City to support union organizing after 168 men died in early June 1917 in a fire at the Granite Mountain & Spectacular Mines owned by Anaconda Copper.[6] The mine workers formed a new union, Metal Mine Workers’ Union (MMWU), and were joined in a strike by other trades. A federal mediator persuaded the other workers to return to work for the war effort.[6]

In July 1917, more than 1200 striking mine workers in Arizona were rounded up and deported to Mexico. Little had broken his ankle and was not part of that action, but visited organizers.

Following the fire, organization of Metal Mine Workers and strike in Butte, as noted above, in early July 1917, Little arrived in the city to help organize a copper miners' union and lead the miners' strike against the Anaconda Copper Company. The striking workers had been subject to attack by a "home guard" organized by the company, and newspapers worked to undermine public support for the workers. Little created a picket line at the mines, persuaded women to join the lines, and ultimately encouraged the other trades to join the strike. During this period, he also spoke out against US involvement in the war.[6]


In the early hours of August 1, six masked men broke into Nora Bryan's boardinghouse where Little was staying. The men initially kicked in the wrong door in the boardinghouse, and when confronted by Bryan claimed to be (law) officers. Little was beaten in his room and abducted whilst still in his underwear. He was bundled into a car which sped away. Little was later tied to the car's rear bumper and dragged over the granite blocks of the street. Photographs of his body clearly show that his knee-caps had been scraped off.[7][8] Little was taken to Milwaukee Bridge at the edge of town where was then hanged from the railroad trestle. The coroner found that Little died of asphyxiation. It was also found that his skull had been fractured by a blow to the back of the head caused by a rifle butt.[1][9]

A note with the words "First and last warning" was pinned to his thigh, referring to earlier Vigilantes giving people three warnings to stop objectionable actions.[6] The note also included the numbers 3-7-77 (a sign of Vigilantes active in the 19th century in Virginia City, Montana, some people thought referred to grave measurements), and the initials of other union leaders, suggesting they were next to be killed. The attorney for the Metal Mine Workers said after Little's murder that the union had received warnings about Joe Shannon, Tom Campbell, and another man.[1]

Although no one was apprehended or prosecuted for Little's murder there have been a number of speculations. The author Dashiell Hammett, was working as a strike-breaker in Butte for Pinkerton's, and (allegedly) turned down an offer of $5,000 to assassinate Little.[7] Hammett later made use of his experiences in Butte to write Red Harvest. 'In her memoirs Lillian Hellman, Hammett’s companion, said he told her he was offered to murder Little. “Through the years he was to repeat that bribe offer so many times that I came to believe … that it was a kind of key to his life. He had given a man the right to think he would commit murder.” William Nolan, one of Hammett’s biographers, thinks that “the fact that someone even asked him, thinking that he would be that kind of person, and that he was that deep into the thing made him feel guilty. He never got over and it always haunted him.”'[8] Union leaders who had seen Little's body at the time insisted that one of the murderers was Billy Oates, a notorious hired thug employed by Anaconda. The rationale for Oates' involvement was a small hole at the back of Little's head that had been "inflicted by the steel hook used by Oates on the stub of his amputated right arm".[9] Over the next nine years two further men were named as possibly being involved in Little's lynching. At the time of the 1918 IWW conspiracy trial in Chicago, IWW lawyers questioned why Ed Morrissey, who had been Butte's chief of detectives at the time of the murder, had taken a twenty-day leave of absence on the day following the killing. It was alleged at the trial that Morrissey had scratches on his face. The autopsy of Little's body had found that he had tried to fight off his assailants and that he had someone's skin under his fingernails. In 1926, William Francis Dunne identified Peter Prlja as one of the 'death squad'. Prlja was at the time a motorcycle officer in the Butte police department and like Oates had worked as a security-guard for Anaconda.[10]

An estimated 10,000 workers lined the route of his funeral procession, which was followed by 3500 more persons.[6] He was buried in Butte's Mountain View Cemetery. His grave marker reads "Slain by capitalist interests for organizing and inspiring his fellow men."[11]


  • Travis Wilkerson's 2002 film entitled An Injury to One tells the story of Frank Little and his lynching in Butte, Montana.[12]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g "I.W.W. Strike Chief Lynched At Butte." The New York Times. August 2, 1917.
  2. ^ Dennis Lim, "A Second Look: 'An Injury to One'", Los Angeles Times, 30 October 2011, accessed 31 December 2014
  3. ^ "Find a grave"(However. his alleged Native American lineage is not confirmed.)
  4. ^ Richard Steven Street, Beasts of the Field: A Narrative History of California Farmworkers, 1769-1913, p. 860
  5. ^ Richard Hudelson, Carl Ross, By The Ore Docks: A Working People's History Of Duluth, pp. 60-62
  6. ^ a b c d e f "Frank Little: A Murder in Butte", United Food and Commercial Workers, accessed 31 December 2014
  7. ^ a b Stead, Arnold. "Introduction". Always on Strike: Frank Little and the Western Wobblies (e-book) (Kindle ed.). Chicago: Haymarket Books. p. loc. 64. ISBN 978-1608462209. 
  8. ^ a b Carroll, Rory (21 September 2016). "The mysterious lynching of Frank Little: activist who fought inequality and lost". The Guardian. Guardian News and Media Limited. Retrieved 24 September 2016. 
  9. ^ a b Chester, Eric Thomas (2014). "3: Confrontation in Butte". The Wobblies In Their Heyday: The Rise and Destruction of the Industrial Workers of the World during World War I era. California: Praeger. p. 101. ISBN 978-1-4408-3301-4. 
  10. ^ Chester, Eric Thomas (2014). "3: Confrontation in Butte". The Wobblies In Their Heyday: The Rise and Destruction of the Industrial Workers of the World during World War I era. California: Praeger. p. 103. ISBN 978-1-4408-3301-4. 
  11. ^ Fritz, Harry; Murphy, Mary; Swartout, Robert (2002). Montana Legacy: Essays on History, People, and Place. Montana Historical Society. p. 325. ISBN 978-0-917298-90-5. Retrieved 2 November 2015. 
  12. ^ Lim, Dennis (2011-10-30). "A Second Look: 'An Injury to One'". Los Angeles Times. ISSN 0458-3035. Retrieved 2016-11-01. 

Further reading[edit]

  • Phillips Russell, "To Frank Little (Lynched at Butte, Montana, August 1, 1917). International Socialist Review, vol. 18, no. 3 (September 1917), pg. 133.
  • "The Man that Was Hung," International Socialist Review, vol. 18, no. 3 (September 1917), pp. 134–138.
  • Jackson, Jon A. (1998). Go By Go. Tucson: Dennis Mcmillan Publications. ISBN 978-0939767311.

External links[edit]