Frank Little (unionist)

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Frank H. Little
Died(1917-08-01)August 1, 1917[1]
NationalityUnited States
OccupationLabor leader

Frank H. (Franklin Henry) Little (1878 – August 1, 1917) was an American labor leader who was murdered in Butte, Montana. Although no one was apprehended or prosecuted for Little's murder, many people have speculated about it. He joined the Industrial Workers of the World in 1905, organizing miners, lumberjacks, and oil field workers. He was a member of the union's Executive Board when he was murdered.

Early life[edit]

Frank Little was born in 1878 in Illinois to Dr. Walter R. and Almira Hays Little. His parents homesteaded in the 1889 Oklahoma Land Rush, later suffering drought and penurious conditions after the Panic of 1893. After Frank's father's death in 1899, he followed his miner brother Walter Frederick Little to California where he too became a miner. In 1903, Frank left his brother and sister-in-law Emma Harper Little in California for Bisbee, Arizona. There he worked as a miner before becoming an organizer for the Western Federation of Miners in Clifton, Arizona.[2] In 1905 Frank Little joined the Industrial Workers of the World. Frank Little was said to have partial Native American ancestry,[3] but this has been disputed by his descendants. [4]

Industrial Workers of the World[edit]

Frank Little was involved in organizing lumberjacks, metal miners, migrant farm workers, and oil field workers into industrial unions, often as part of free speech campaigns. He pioneered the passive resistance tactics used by the Freedom Riders during the Civil Rights Movement. Frank Little first took part in the 1909 Missoula, Montana free speech fight along with Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, helping organize lumber workers who suffered at the hands of logging company managers complicit with "sharks," or employment agencies who tricked workingmen out of their hard-earned money.[2] Next Frank Little took part in the Spokane, Washington free speech fight, where he was sentenced to thirty days in prison for reading the Declaration of Independence.[5] He suffered in Spokane's frigid Franklin School after refusing to work on the city rock pile.[2][6]

Along with his organizer brother Walter Frederick Little and sister-in-law Emma Harper Little, Frank took part in free speech fights among workers in Fresno, California in 1910 and 1911. Little and several hundred workers were arrested for violating a city ordinance, congregating on city streets to publicly speak. Many more workers belonging to the Industrial Workers of the World union came to the city and struck in support. Eventually, Little successfully organized unskilled fruit workers in the San Joaquin Valley of California, a predecessor to Cesar Chavez's work. He also led free speech efforts in Kansas City, Missouri; Webb City, Missouri; and Peoria, Illinois.[2]

In August 1913, Little and fellow Industrial Workers of the World union 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 union supporters.[7]

In 1914, Little was elected a member of the Industrial Workers of the World's General Executive Board.[1] Two years later he returned to the Great Lakes Region, where he organized Superior, Wisconsin, dock workers in a strike for better safety conditions and wages. There he was kidnapped, severely beaten, and mock hanged.[8]

Anti-war activism[edit]

Little was a strong opponent of capitalism after witnessing many late 19th and early 20th-century American businessmen use unscrupulous methods to get rich. As a result, he also opposed World War I, which many believed to be a "rich man's war and a poor man's fight."[8] 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 create anti-war agitation. When the United States joined the war in April 1917, Ralph Chaplin, the editor of the Industrial Workers of the World's newspaper, Solidarity, claimed that opposing the draft would destroy the union through government repression. 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] He planned to go to Butte, Montana, to support union organizing after the Speculator Mine Disaster on June 8, 1917, where 168 men died. A fire began in the Granite Mountain shaft of the Spectacular Mine owned by North Butte Mining Company. Sealed bulkheads prevented men from escaping toxic fumes in the various levels of the mine.[8] Afterwards, mine workers formed a new union, Metal Mine Workers' Union, and were joined in a strike by other trades.

Prior to Little's arrival in Butte, on July 12, 1917, about 1200 striking mine workers in Arizona were rounded up and deported to New Mexico. Xenophobia, especially against German Americans, pervaded the nation. Mine operators used the volatile atmosphere as an excuse to deport striking miners, "undesirables" or immigrants that were perceived to be a threat. Little had broken his ankle and was not part of the Bisbee Deportation but visited organizers in Miami, Arizona, before leaving for Butte, Montana. He also suffered from a double hernia after being jumped and kicked in El Paso, Texas.[2] By some accounts, he carried 135 pounds on his 5'11" frame and was in terrible pain.

In this physical condition, on July 18, 1917, Little arrived in Butte to help organize the copper miners' union and lead the miners' strike against Anaconda Mining Company for better safety conditions and higher wages, abolition of the contract system, and removal of the "rustling card.".[8] 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. When he called soldiers serving in Europe "Uncle Sam's scabs in uniform," he raised the ire of the press and Anaconda Mining Company officials who did not want the copper input affected.[1]


In the early hours of August 1, 1917, six masked men broke into Nora Byrne's Steel Block boardinghouse where Frank Little was staying. The men initially kicked in the wrong door in the boardinghouse, and when confronted by Byrne claimed to be (law) officers. Little was beaten in his room and abducted while 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 show that his knee-caps had possibly been scraped off.[9][10] Little was taken to Milwaukee Bridge at the edge of town where he was then hanged from a 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 or gun butt.[1][11] A note with the words "First and last warning" was pinned to his thigh, referring to earlier vigilantes giving people three warnings to leave town. 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 lynching, a number of people have speculated about his murder. The author Dashiell Hammett was working as a strikebreaker in Butte for Pinkerton's, and (allegedly) turned down an offer of $5,000 to assassinate Little.[9] Hammett later made use of his experiences in Butte to write Red Harvest. Rory Carroll writes, "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.'"[10] 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."[10]

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".[11]

Over the next nine years two more men were named as possibly being involved in Little's lynching. At the time of the 1918 Industrial Workers of the World conspiracy trial in Chicago, the union's 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.[12]

An estimated 10,000 workers lined the route of Frank Little's funeral procession, which was followed by 3,500 more persons. The funeral is still the largest ever in Butte history.[8] He was buried in Butte's Mountain View Cemetery. His grave marker reads "Slain by capitalist interests for organizing and inspiring his fellow men."[13]


  • Travis Wilkerson's 2002 film entitled An Injury to One tells the story of Frank Little and his lynching in Butte, Montana.[14]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f "I.W.W. Strike Chief Lynched At Butte." The New York Times. August 2, 1917.
  2. ^ a b c d e Botkin, Jane Little (2017). Frank Little and the IWW: The Blood That Stained an American Family. University of Oklahoma Press. ISBN 978-0806155005.
  3. ^ "Industrial Workers of the World Photograph Collection: Race & Gender". University of Washington Libraries. Retrieved 2020-08-02.
  4. ^ "A Little Bit About a Great American". Labor History from Texas. Retrieved 2020-08-02.
  5. ^ Richard Steven Street, Beasts of the Field: A Narrative History of California Farmworkers, 1769-1913, p. 860
  6. ^ Kershner, Jim (November 1, 2009). "A fight for free speech". The Spokesman-Review. Retrieved October 30, 2017.
  7. ^ Richard Hudelson, Carl Ross, By The Ore Docks: A Working People's History Of Duluth, pp. 60-62
  8. ^ a b c d e Jane Little Botkin. "Frank Little and the IWW: The Blood That Stained an American Family."
  9. ^ a b Stead, Arnold (2014). "Introduction" (e-book) |chapter-format= requires |chapter-url= (help). Always on Strike: Frank Little and the Western Wobblies (Kindle ed.). Chicago: Haymarket Books. p. loc. 64. ISBN 978-1608462209.
  10. ^ a b c 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.
  11. ^ 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.
  12. ^ 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.
  13. ^ 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.
  14. ^ 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]

  • Jane Little Botkin. Frank Little and the IWW: The Blood That Stained an American Family. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2017.
  • Mike Byrnes and Les Rickey, The Truth About the Lynching of Frank Little in Butte, Montana, 1917. Butte, MT: Old Butte Publishing, 2003.
  • John A. Jackson, Go By Go. Tucson, AZ: Dennis Mcmillan Publications, 1998.
  • 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.

External links[edit]