Local Wobblies were active in the union from at least 1914. Although open conflict was avoided, low-level harassment simmered on both sides. IWW efforts to open a hall for local members were met by opponents of the IWW who lived in Centralia. In 1917, the Wobblies tried to open a hall using an alias on the lease agreement. However, the landlord evicted the group when he discovered its identity.
The IWW succeeded in opening a union hall in the Spring of 1918. Unfortunately, their enmity with conservative soldiers who would eventually form the local chapter of the new American Legion in 1919 was getting worse. The Bolsheviks had come to power in Russia and many feared that the IWW's intentions were similar, due in part to constant inflammatory allegations of ties between the two. Union members were being arrested across the country on federal sedition charges. IWW members were often targeted by vigilante violence around the region. To the business owners of Centralia, and the American Legion members in particular, the political leanings of the Wobblies were believed to be un-American and possibly treasonous.
On April 30, 1918, the union hall was looted during a Red Cross parade. The building was severely damaged and a number of Wobblies were dumped on the outskirts of town and warned against returning. However, both sides dispute the details. According to the IWW, the looters were not just local residents but included hired thugs acting under orders from the lumber companies which the union had been organizing. In addition, the members thrown out into the street were then humiliated and beaten by both the alleged hired muscle and some of Centralia's business owners.
After this incident, the IWW reopened its union hall in the old Roderick Hotel. The Wobblies vowed they would not be evicted again.
Elmer Smith was a Centralia lawyer sympathetic to the IWW. A pacifist, Smith strongly encouraged union members to pursue a non-violent course and to try to reach a peaceful arrangement with the other residents of Centralia. He also reached out to the governor to attempt to get him to intervene to prevent a vigilante raid. The landlady for the hall and Britt Smith, the local secretary, contacted law enforcement and asked for protection, but were told nothing was possible. The Wobblies then printed and widely distributed a flier calling on the people of Centralia to take action. None of these efforts yielded any response. With this being the case an extra-legal raid on the Wobbly hall seemed likely.
With attempts at a peaceful compromise unsuccessful, local IWW leader Britt Smith pressed Elmer Smith for additional advice. Elmer Smith agreed that it would be legal for the Wobblies to physically defend themselves, but, as he later testified, only in self-defense if attacked first. The IWW members interpreted this legal advice as justification to arm themselves for what they perceived as an inevitable and dangerous confrontation.
During Smith's trial the following year for his part in the Centralia Massacre, prosecutors would present this advice as proof that the IWW had planned the massacre. However, considering Elmer Smith's strong belief in non-violence and seeming good character, it is doubtful that armed conflict was his objective. The true intent of Smith's recommendation will probably never be known.
Legion Post Commander Warren Grimm, the first casualty of the massacre, was a local lawyer who interacted regularly with Smith. Despite vastly different viewpoints, evidence from personal logs indicates that the professional dealings between these two men were generally respectful and they had an appreciation for each other's legal acumen.
Grimm was one of the leading figures in Centralia. A local high-school football star and an All-American at the University of Washington, he had served with distinction as a U.S. Army officer with the American Expeditionary Force Siberia protecting the Trans-Siberian Railway during the Russian Revolution. To this day, the American Legion believes that Grimm was specifically singled out in advance as a target, especially since he had made a public speech about the "evils of the Bolsheviks" based on his experiences in Siberia, and was known to be strongly anti-IWW. The post-massacre Labor Jury of union leaders paints him as a lead participant in a Centralia Conspiracy who subverted his own men into attacking the Roderick Hotel. Wobbly-sympathetic author John Dos Passos ironically described Grimm as a "young man of good family and manners" in 1919, the second book of the U.S.A. trilogy, published in 1932.
Warren's brother and law partner, Huber "Polly" Grimm, was Centralia's city attorney at the time. Regardless of his personal feelings toward the Wobblies, Huber is on record during the town hall meeting of October 20, 1919 asserting that the IWW had legal rights and there was no law that could be used to force them to leave town.
To celebrate Armistice Day, the town leaders of Centralia planned a combined parade with the neighboring city of Chehalis, to be followed by festivities. The full contingent of both Centralia and Chehalis American Legion Posts, along with other civic organizations, were to march in the parade. This helped create a parade body that was overly crowded and unwieldy.
To make matters worse, the route was entirely inadequate, with the parade doubling back on itself at 3rd Avenue, a short way from the IWW Hall on North Tower. In addition, the route was modified only weeks before the festivities. According to event planners, this new route meant to accommodate the larger-than-usual parade. In consequence, the parade was beset by a high number of starts and stops, tight crowding, and large gaps. More menacing, for the first time, part of the changes would result in the parade passing directly in front of the new Wobbly hall.
There were persistent rumors circulating among union members that the lumber companies and local business leaders were ready for a repeat of the 1918 incident and would use the Armistice Day parade as cover. The changes to the parade route, along with various inflammatory speeches by Centralia leaders, helped to fuel these fears.
Regardless of the veracity of these rumors, they began to take on a life of their own. They became so prevalent that the owner of the Roderick Hotel, who was renting the facility to the IWW, asked the local sheriff for assistance during the march. The sheriff declined to provide protection. According to the Centralia Sheriff's Department, it was unable to commit already scarce resources simply on the basis of a rumor. In contrast, the Wobblies viewed this unwillingness as additional proof of what they believed to be the developing conspiracy against them.
Members of the Legion marched with rubber hoses and gas pipes. The postmaster and a local minister were seen carrying nooses.
According to the IWW, their union members, fearing attack, decided to place men armed with pistols within their hall. To help prevent a repeat of the 1918 street beatings, additional Wobblies were staked out across the street in the Avalon and Arnold hotels. Members were also stationed on nearby Seminary Hill, with a commanding view of the street in front of the Roderick.
According to other people living in Centralia, the IWW, being on the losing end of the previous confrontations, was looking for a fight and wanted to even the score with bloodshed. As proof, they point out that only seven Wobblies were actually inside the hall. The rest, allegedly armed with high-powered rifles and stationed in those other buildings and on Seminary Hill, served not as lookouts but as ambushers. Since they could not influence any confrontation within the hall, these residents believed, the Wobblies' goal was to create a killing field in the middle of North Tower Street.
Both sides have cited witnesses, claimed witness intimidation and false testimony by the other, and have used forensic evidence to support their arguments.
Armistice Day, November 11, 1919, was a celebration marking the end of World War I and commemorating the millions of victims. The memorial parade kicked off with the usual fanfare as local civic organizations and war veterans marched in full regalia. As the parade unevenly wound its way through Centralia, the Chehalis contingent of the American Legion passed in front of the IWW Union Hall.
Both sides agree that the Centralia contingent, which was beginning to press up on the Chehalis contingent, paused just before reaching the site of the hall. As the gap began to open back up with the Chehalis group, Warren Grimm turned to address his troops and uttered the command "Halt. Close up." at which point the front ranks began to mark time.
According to the American Legion, this realigning of ranks presented Wobbly Eugene Barnett, stationed in the Avalon, a direct shot at Grimm. The bullet from Barnett's high-powered rifle caught Grimm in the chest, passing through his body and eviscerating him where he stood. Legionnaire McElfresh, standing nearby, was next. Hit in the brain by a .22 caliber bullet allegedly fired from Seminary Hill over 500 yards away, he was killed instantly. As the mortally wounded Grimm was dragged to the sidewalk, additional shots rained down on the unarmed Legionnaires. At this point, caught between dying in the open and charging their ambushers, the Legionnaires stormed the Roderick and surrounding buildings.
In contrast, the IWW claims that, as the Legionnaires paused, a small group, possibly with Grimm's complicity, broke off and charged the Roderick with the intent to repeat the events of the previous year. When this initial group broke down the doors, the Wobblies, fearing for their lives, fired in self-defense. As the first group of Legionnaires fell back in disarray, Grimm was gut shot in the entrance of the hall leading a second group of attackers. McElfresh was then shot by John Doe Davis, one of the few Wobblies never to be captured, as he waited his turn outside.
Evidence supports and contradicts both theories. First, Grimm's and McElfresh's wounds were caused by rifle bullets fired at medium to long range, not revolvers, and the blood trails from both men began in the middle of the street. In contrast, the IWW claims that Grimm and McElfresh were two of the three "secret committeemen" behind the Centralia Conspiracy and points to the significant fact that Grimm did give the order to halt in front of the Wobbly hall. The American Legion counters by pointing out what they believe is the incriminating coincidence that Grimm and McElfresh were the first two men killed by the Wobblies and both were shot in the street over 100 feet away from the Roderick on the north side of Second Street on Tower Avenue. The IWW responds with a statement by Dr. Frank Bickford asserting that he personally led the raid and that the Legionnaires initiated the conflict. Dr. Bickford later testified, "the door of the I.W.W. was kicked open before the shooting from inside began." The Legionnaires counter that Bickford was a lying braggart and, by his own admission on the stand, was legally deaf and thus could not know when the shooting actually started. The Legionnaires further counter with statements from IWW member Tom Morgan who was inside the Wobbly hall during the massacre and testified "that shots were fired before any rush was made upon the I.W.W. Hall". The IWW replies that Tom Morgan committed perjury in order to "make a deal," as evidenced by all charges against him being dropped. Both sides have additional eyewitnesses that support their side of the story. Most of the witnesses supporting the IWW's version of events were members of various unions. Most of those supporting the American Legion's version were war veterans and local businessmen sympathetic to the Legion.
A close examination of the trial transcript and the most reasonable interpretation of the evidence is that Davis killed Grimm while firing from the Avalon Hotel; McElfresh was killed by a Wobbly firing from the IWW hall, and that Cassagranda was killed while running west on Second Avenue by a revolver probably fired by Davis firing from the Avalon Hotel.
A third theory was advanced by defense counsel George Vanderveer. In his opening statement, Vanderveer said "I exonerate now and forever the American Legion from any responsibility for this. They were made catpaws." According to Vanderveer, as the Centralia contingent of Legionnaires began to pass by the Wobbly hall, a small group of men did in fact attempt to storm the building. However, although a few Legionnaires as individuals may have participated, the main aggressors were from the Centralia Citizens' Committee acting at the behest of F.B. Hubbard, president of the Eastern Railway & Lumber Company. Grimm, facing partially backwards towards the first platoon, would have seen this movement and assumed they were his troops. Thus, his command "Halt. Close Up." makes more sense and could have been an attempt to return those men to the parade. However, when Wobblies saw this smaller group of men start towards their union hall, they naturally opened fire. Since the main body of Legionnaires was facing forward, they would not have seen this smaller group and, thus, honestly believed that they were fired upon first. In addition, these packed Legionnaires, including Grimm, standing stationary in the street would have been the easiest targets.
Much of this theory depends upon the character of Grimm. Like Elmer Smith, he may simply have been a man unfortunately caught in the middle. Although anti-Wobbly, he also seemed a man of outstanding character who valued individual respect and order in the ranks.
After these opening movements, the subsequent series of events is somewhat agreed upon, as the group (or second group) of enraged Legionnaires charged the hall. Legionnaire Bernard Eubanks took a bullet in the leg on the curb in front of the Wobbly hall and Eugene Pfitzer was shot through the arm.
Then, as additional Legionnaires broke into the hall and began to overpower the armed men, Wobbly Wesley Everest ran for the back of the hall. John Earl Watts was shot and wounded in the side by Everest and fell within a few feet of the mortally wounded Cassagranda. Ironically Watts was not a member of the American Legion but a I.W.W. Member-he had been invited to join the parade because he had served in the U.S. Army Everest was able to escape out the rear of the Roderick Hotel, firing at his pursuers and reloading as he ran. Legionnaire Alva Coleman grabbed a non-functioning revolver (either from a captured Wobbly or a nearby house) and began to chase Everest. Shot and wounded by Everest, he passed the revolver to Legionnaire Dale Hubbard, a noted athlete, who caught up with Everest as the Wobbly was trying to ford the Skookumchuck River. Pointing the useless revolver at Everest, Hubbard ordered Everest to drop his gun and surrender. It is not known whether Hubbard knew his revolver was useless. Everest most certainly would have assumed it was not. Everest, unable to cross the river, turned and shot Hubbard. Everest returned to shore and, according to the townsmen next to arrive on the scene, proceeded to pistol whip the mortally wounded Hubbard before being subdued. In contrast, IWW memoirs make no mention of this final act.
All of the captured Wobblies were taken to the local jail. Elmer Smith, who did not participate in the actual massacre, was also rounded up and incarcerated. There is also some confusion over whether IWW leader Britt Smith was jailed at this point or captured soon thereafter. Wobbly Loren Roberts, 16, turned himself in on November 13.
The last fatality was Deputy Sheriff John M. Haney, who was killed on November 15. Haney was shot by members of a posse from Centralia because he failed to give the proper countersign.
Bert Bland was the last Wobbly captured on November 19.
As evening fell on November 11, 1919, a vigilante mob began to form outside the jailhouse. Electrical power to Centralia was cut off and American Legionnaires ordered drivers to shut off their headlights to preserve the darkness. Hidden by the darkness they'd somehow produced, the mob took Wesley Everest from the prison. Although Everest's personal identity was unknown, with some believing him to be IWW leader Britt Smith, he was positively recognized as the Wobbly who had shot and killed Hubbard. Everest was the only Wobbly taken from the jail.
Everest was taken to the Chehalis River Bridge and lynched. The next day his body was cut down and returned to the jail with the rope by which he had been hanged still around his neck.
Later published versions, uncritically following the account published in "The Centralia Conspiracy" by IWW member Ralph Chaplin six months after the massacre, said that Everest was castrated before being lynched. According to historian Tom Copeland, Chaplin and his co-author Walker Smith either fabricated this story or were the first to repeat the myth in print.
A police report, filed on the day after the lynching, casts doubt on the castration story. The report includes a set of fingerprints and a description of the body but makes no mention of castration.
The captured Wobblies were charged with murder and the resulting trial was held in Montesano, in nearby Grays Harbor County. After a trial that received national coverage, two Wobblies were acquitted (including Elmer Smith), one was found not guilty by reason of insanity, two were found guilty of third-degree murder, and the other five were convicted of second-degree murder. Judge John Wilson refused to accept the verdict since Washington state law did not recognize a charge of third-degree murder. After a few more hours of deliberation the jury changed its verdict for those two prisoners. Those convicted were sentenced to prison terms of 25–40 years, a sentence which, as Historian Tom Copeland said, "shocked both the jury and the prisoners." The seven convicted IWW members appealed their lengthy sentences to the Washington Supreme Court, which unanimously affirmed Wilson's judgement in April 1921.
As time passed and passions cooled, a public campaign was spearheaded by Elmer Smith. Smith never lived to see the release of the Centralia Massacre prisoners. However, in 1933, the newly elected Democratic governor, Clarence D. Martin (1884–1955), commuted their sentences Although their convictions were never overturned, all of the remaining Wobblies save Ray Becker were paroled in 1931 and 1932. Continuing to maintain his innocence, Becker refused parole and was eventually pardoned in 1939, with his sentence commuted to time served.
A bronze statue of a doughboy, erected to honor the four Legionnaires killed in the massacre, was erected in Centralia's George Washington Park. Although E. M. Viquesney received a letter in 1921 from the American Legion informing him his statue, Spirit of the American Doughboy, had won the organization's design award competition and was to be the monument placed at Centralia, in 1924, Alonzo Victor Lewis's statue The Sentinel was placed there instead.
In 1999, the owner of the nearby former Elks building commissioned a mural to memorialize Wesley Everest and the Wobblies.
A brief scene of the massacre is also featured in the 2011 film J. Edgar.
One significant fact not in dispute is the identities of the victims:
Killed:Warren Grimm, American Legion Post Commander
Arthur McElfresh, American Legion
Ben Cassagranda, American Legion
Dale Hubbard, American Legion
Wesley Everest, IWW
John M. Haney, Centralia Deputy Sheriff
Wounded:Bernard Eubanks, American Legion
Eugene Pfitzer, American Legion
Alva Coleman, American Legion
John Earl Watt, I.W.W. Member in parade
Seven Wobblies were convicted of 2nd degree murder for their roles in the massacre:Eugene Barnett;
Mike Sheehan and Elmer Smith were acquitted. Loren Roberts was found not guilty by reason of insanity and committed to the state peniteniary indefinitely (he would later be transferred to state prison at Walla Walla with the other defendants). Charges against Bert Faulkner were dismissed. Tom Morgan, who decided to turn state's evidence, had their charges dropped.