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THE MURDER OF
FRANK LITTLE

“An Injury to One is an Injury to All”

 

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"Let the capitalists fight the battles and we will go into the munitions plants and see that they get plenty of bullets."
—Frank Little, July 21, 1917

Frank Little

Frank Little, 1879–1917, Wobbly organizer and martyr

“An Injury to One is an Injury to All: The Murder of Frank Little”
(Click to open .pdf)

Researching and writing “An Injury to One is an Injury to All: The Murder of Frank Little” was my first experience doing doing primary historical research.

The project began in 1972, when I was a junior at Sentinel High School in Missoula, Montana. With the support of a wonderful teacher, Nancy Walter, I was given special permission to do an independent project to meet my American History requirement, and I was excused from attending class. At Nancy's suggestion, I looked into the role of the Industrial Workers of the World (the IWW, known as the “Wobblies”) in Butte, Montana during the tumultuous labor struggles that occurred during the First World War. I quickly found myself focusing on the most dramatic, and infamous, episode of that time—the 1917 lynching of the Wobbly organizer, Frank Little.

In June, 1917 a major accident killed over 160 Butte miners and sparked a spontaneous walk-out. The strike was crippling copper production just as America was entering the First World War, and tensions between strikers and the Anaconda Copper Mining Company—whose domination over Butte and, indeed, the entire state of Montana has been described by one historian as "the ultimate example of economic colonialism in the American West"—were at a breaking point. When Little arrived the strike was already a month old. Hobbling on crutches, the result of a beating at the hands of union-busters a few weeks earlier, he proceeded to make a series of inflammatory speeches designed to emboldened the strikers and shake the company's resolve.

 
   


At the time I started my project, my mother owned a small drugstore in downtown Missoula where I worked every day after school. Around the corner was an Army/Navy surplus store run by two old-time "Butte boys," as they called themselves. (Of course, as a teenager, they seemed like old timers to me; but when I visited Missoula over thirty-five years later I was delighted to find one of them still working at the same store on Higgins Street.) When they learned about my research, they offered to share stories they had heard about the lynching from an old Wobbly they knew named Conn Lowney.

In 1917, Conn Lowney was a young man, working at a barbershop at the foot of the Anaconda Road, where the miners passed each day on their way to and from work. In Butte even the barbers belonged to unions, and Lowney was a committed Wobbly. According to the stories I was told, he knew and admired Little, and when he hear rumors that company gunmen were planning a lynching, he warned Little. Little laughed off the rumors; the next day he was found hanging from a railroad trestle south of town. Lowney claimed to know the identities of Little's killers and kept a journal recording their activities over the years. According to Lowney, they all “died with their boots on”—in the end, history avenged Frank Little's murder.

I did my best to follow up on these leads. I wrote to key figures who were still alive at that time, including Burton K. Wheeler and Jeannette Rankin. And I traveled to Butte to do research in the public library, interview old timers, and trace Little's footsteps. By the time I was done, I had a list of five names that Lowney's stories linked to the lynching. But they connection between these men only made the mystery deeper. In 1936, they were all involved in an horrific car accident; three died, one was left permanently brain damaged. But I had reached a dead end. These men were prominent Butte citizens. To accuse these men of being connected to Little's lynching would have been sensational even in 1972, six decades after the fact. Unable confirm the stories, I did not include them in the report I wrote.

At this point, based on new information from contacts at Butte that came about after I published on article on the story in 2007 (see the link above), I'm inclined to suspect just one as a possible suspect—and if so, he was likely the man who drove the limosine that took Little away to his untimely death that night.

Meanwhile, I’ve become aware of yet another dimension of the story, thanks to Karl Olsen, a Montana queer activist and historian. Karl made me aware of of the writings of Myron Brinig, who grew up in Butte in the early 1900s. Brinig was was both Jewish and gay. A prolific writer, he set several of his novels in his home town. The lynching of a labor organizer occurs, or is mentioned, in at least three of these, and the portrayal is clearly based on Frank Little—with a surprising, additional element. Brinig strongly hints (using the coded language of his time) that his Frank Little character is gay.

Hmmmm....it's true that Little died a single man—never married. And his friend, Conn Lowney, who kept his memory alive and tracked his murderers the rest of his life was an unmarried man as well. In 1972, at the age of 17, these kind of details went over my head....It seems the past always has new stories to tell us, and so I hope to follow up on these leads in the future...stay tuned!

P.S. For more on Butte history, including the Little murder, be sure to see Pamela Roberts moving documentary,Butte, America.