Tales from the Morgue

In 1917, Bisbee mine workers, members of the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.) went on strike. The group was considered a radical labor union.

Citizens of Bisbee got word that the striking miners planned to dynamite the mine shafts, so they armed themselves and rounded up the I.W.W.s, as they called them ─ they were also referred to as Wobblies ─ and put them on a train to New Mexico.

This was called a deportation, although they didn't leave the country. While the roundup of the strikers was effective, it was not without violence. There were two deaths, a striker and a deputy.

The I.W.W.s were not welcomed in New Mexico with open arms. They were turned away.

The following article is almost presented backwards. Updates that arrived before press time were added to the top of the story. A complete rewrite was a lot of work when the type was set by hand.

From the Arizona Daily Star, Friday, July 13, 1917:



1200 I. W. W.s, Deported from Bisbee in Cattle Cars by Armed Citizens, Turned Back From New Mexico

Federal Authorities Asked to Hold Men for Probe as Enemies of U.S., but Will Take No Hand in the Case

(By Associated Press)

COLUMBUS, July 12.─Nearly 1200 persons deported from Bisbee today arrived here about 9 o'clock tonight. F. B. King, division superintendent of the E. P. and S. W. railroad, was in charge and was arrested by the local authorities for bringing in the deportees. There were more than 200 armed guards on the train.

Local authorities refused to permit the men to be unloaded here. The army officer in command here, who had not issued any orders up to the time of their arrival, threw out a strong guard about the military establishment.

Later King was released when he agreed to take the men away and the train was started back toward Bisbee. It was said here the men would be detrained at Hermanas, N. M.

• • •

DOUGLAS, July 12.─The train carrying the I. W. W.s, deported from Bisbee today is due to arrive in Hermanas, N. M. about eleven o'clock tonight to be unloaded. Unless the men can overpower the guards it is not believed here that there is a possibility that the deported men will be able to return to Arizona. Hermanas is a small village, having only a few houses, one store and is a railroad junction.

• • •

DEMING, July 12.─Sheriff W. C. Simpson, of Luna county, in which both Columbus and Hermanas are located, tonight received instructions from Governor W. E. Lindsey of New Mexico to leave to the military authorities the situation caused by the unloading of the deported men in that county.

• • •

BISBEE, July 12.─A special train carrying members of the I. W. W. out of Bisbee arrived in Columbus, N. M., at 9:10 this evening, according to special dispatch received here. According to the information, the military authorities refused to have anything to do with the matter and turned the men loose. Colonel Sickle would have nothing to do with the case. The guards who accompanied the train expect to return to Bisbee in the morning, and may be accompanied by many of those who were deported today.

• • •

EL PASO, Texas, July 12.─Railroad officials here were advised late today that the train carrying I. W. W. men deported from Bisbee had passed Rodeo on the New Mexico-Arizona border. It is the intention of those in charge to release the men at Columbus, N. M., though vigorous protest from the New Mexico authorities is expected. Army men here discredit the report that the deported men are to be interned at Columbus, saying this could not be done without order from Washington, and no such order has been received.

• • •

COLUMBUS, N. M., July 12.─Nothing is known here of any intention to intern I. W. W. from Bisbee here. The garrison at Columbus is able to meet the situation in event the deported men are put off the train here.

• • •

SAN ANTONIO, Texas, July 12.─A report from Colonel J. J. Hornbrook, in command at Bisbee, Arizona, in the Southern department headquarters tonight stated that approximately 1100 members of the I. W. W. were deported from Bisbee today after being rounded up by the sheriff and a posse of citizens.

According to the report, soldiers took no part in the incident and it was stated at the southern department that no soldiers are quartered in Bisbee, the camp being some distance from the city.

The report of Colonel Hornbrook said the action of the sheriff and the posse met with some resistance, but made no mention of casualties. The report also failed to mention the destination of the men who are deported, but at southern headquarters it was said that the men presumably were being sent to Columbus, N. M.

• • •

BISBEE, Ariz., July 12.─Following the deportation of 1,200 members and sympathizers of the I. W. W.s and the killing of two men, which marked the launching of a "clean up" day early this morning by armed citizens, the Warren district was quiet tonight.

The leaders of the strike called two weeks ago by the Metal Mine Workers Branch of the I. W. W., who, with hundreds of followers, were sent out of the district today on a special train made up of 24 cattle and box cars, are due to arrive at Columbus, New Mexico, early tomorrow morning and, it is reported, will there be placed in an internment camp pending investigation as to their attempts to aid in tying up the metal mining industry of the nation.

The two men killed here today were Orson P. McRae a member of the Workmen's Loyalty League, and shift boss at one of the Copper Queen mines and James Brew, a former employee of the Denn mine, which closed down the first day of the strike.

McRae was killed when Brew fired through the door of his room where McRae and several other men were rounding up I. W. W. sympathizers. McRae, it is said, was unarmed. Brew fired several more shots and then stepped out of his room. Three of McRae's companions fired at him and he dropped beside his victim, dying five minutes later.

Just twelve hours after Sheriff Wheeler started making plans for a "drive" on I. W. W.'s, 1,200 I. W. W. and supporters were marched into railroad cars and the train rolled away for New Mexico. Six hours later the 3,000 citizens and deputy sheriffs who had rid the district of the element which they considered a national menace, had calmly returned to their homes, abandoned their rifles, revolvers and shot guns and were preparing for normal conditions in the district, which they are confident will return with the strike agitators gone.

The action of the citizens in taking the situation in their own hands burst like a bombshell in the district, and probably accounted for the absence of clashes of any extent between their forces and those of the I. W. W. during the rounding up and deportation of the latter.


Although hastily organized, the armed citizens showed none of the actions of a mob. Every plan and movement was carried out deliberately. Shortly before midnight last night, Sheriff Wheeler and his deputies decided that it would be necessary to rid the district of every member or supporter of the I. W. W. to prevent serious trouble.

Within two hours 1,200 citizens had been deputized by telephone and ordered to be ready for duty at four o'clock. At that time no less than a dozen squads, of from 25 to 150 men each, met in as many different sections of the district, elected captains and made their plans. Every man who had a gun of any description brought it with him, and those who had none were speedily supplied with high-powered rifles.

Unaware of the actions of the citizens, hundreds of pickets and strike sympathizers assembled at the entrances to the various mines as usual at 6:30 o'clock this morning, marching slowly backward and forward in front of the men going on and coming off shift. Suddenly five squads of heavily armed citizens swung down the five main streets leading to the plaza, in front of the post office. Another squad sprang from the dimly lighted lobby of the post office and cut off escape for the big crowd of pickets assembled on the plaza. Military guard lines had been stationed throughout the city and the streets were free of women and children, who had been warned to remain at their homes throughout the day.

When several hundred prisoners had been rounded up and brought to the plaza, they were surrounded by armed citizens and carefully searched. The prisoners offered no resistance, some urging the citizens to "come on, shoot down your brothers," and a few pleading to be allowed to leave.


The citizens then escorted their prisoners through the main streets to the railway depot. Fifty picked sharpshooters, members of the local rifle club, were posted on fences and buildings along the line of march, and in the center of one of the winding streets a machine gun, hurriedly mounted on the sheriff's automobile, commanded a sweeping range of the procession. At the depot, another favorite haunt for the pickets, several hundred more I. W. W. sympathizers were arrested and placed in line.

The procession then started down the railroad tracks, the citizens marching "open ranks" on each side of the long, thin line of the men who were to be deported. Hundreds of other pickets and strike sympathizers were picked up on the way to Lowell, as little squads of citizens disappeared up narrow canyons and rocky gulches and emerged with groups of Mexicans, Austrians and Slavonians. As the marchers swung out on the boulevard leading to Warren, another squad guarded by two auto loads of deputy sheriffs joined them from South Bisbee and a third group composed entirely of Mexicans marched across the mesa from Tintown, the Mexican section.


Arrangements had already been made to care for the prisoners at the baseball park at Warren about four miles from Bisbee. As the procession neared the park a score of mounted deputy sheriffs and hundreds of guards on foot, drew up at the sides of the big gates as the prisoners filed in. The citizens' escort remained outside the park, drove the crowds fifty yards back from the fence and then deployed around the grounds.

News that a "round-up" was under way had spread rapidly throughout the district and hundreds of automobiles loaded with women and children who feared to remain in Bisbee, were on hand to greet the citizens and their prisoners. As the I. W. W. marched into the park a cheer went up from the stand. Some of the leaders tried to take advantage of the rest afforded by the delay in the arrival of the special train to preach their doctrines to the crowd of spectators.

About half of the guards rushed back to Bisbee and Lowell and started a systematic search of every rooming house and restaurant in the two cities. Others returned to the plaza, where the pickets who had escaped the first raid were making a timid effort to keep up the picket line and still other squads invaded the residence districts and arrested every man how could not satisfactorily account for his presence.

The official emblem of the citizens' forces was a white handkerchief ties around the right arm, and those who did not wear this insignia found it difficult to keep out of the clutches of the citizens.

Every few minutes a squad of men would dash through the streets in the direction of the home or place of business of some sympathizers of the I. W. W. and few were fortunate enough to evade the searchers.

For four hours after the first big raid, the streets were filled with armed men and Naco road, leading to Warren was dotted with small groups of citizens marching toward the baseball park with from ten to 100 captives per group.

Special trains from Douglas had brought scores of additional citizens and rifles, and the men from the smelter city stationed themselves south and southwest of Bisbee and Lowell, cutting off the only avenue of escape for the men who fled in front of the citizens' squads. Street car traffic was blocked by the crowds, stores were closed, the mines shut down all day and practically the entire population of the Warren district assembled at the baseball park to watch the departure of the captives.


At noon a special train of 24 cars arrived at the park from Douglas. As the train pulled in the prisoners were marched single file through the gates and up runways to the car doors. Here the sheriff and a delegation of citizens questioned each man.

"Are you working?" "Do you want to work?" and "have you anyone to vouch for you?" were the principal questions. The majority of those who answered any or all of the questions in the affirmative were released. The greater number of the men, however, declared they were not working, would not work and could give no references. Their answers were frequently interspersed with curses and they were given no second chance.

Fifty men were places in each car with food and drink to last them until they reached Columbus. Only once did the crowd cease cheering as the men entered the cars. This was when Wm. B. Cleary, a prominent attorney of Bisbee, marched defiantly up the runway and took his place in a cattle car. Cleary, known throughout the southwest as a labor agitator, was warned early this morning that he might be included in those rounded up. He was taken in custody while driving from the city in an automobile and placed in the baseball park with the crowd.

Several other prominent residents of the district, whose sympathies were known to be with the I. W. W., avoided being deported only upon the pleas of friends, who promised to stand good for their conduct in the future. The train left at 12:27, heavily guarded by deputy sheriffs.


Although hundreds of citizens are still searching the city tonight for more I. W. W. agitators, there is no indication of any impending raids on a large scale.

Mine operators declared tonight that they were confident the action of the citizens had completely broken the strike, as every officer of the Metal Mine Workers Union was deported with the crowd.

Sheriff Wheeler, former Arizona ranger, who is known here as the "Fighting Little Captain" announced tonight that he believed the citizens and officers were in complete control of the situation and that he expected no further trouble with the I. W. W.

A censorship over telegraph and telephone service during the day prevented reports from reaching outside districts. The censorship was said to have been invoked by two army officers at Douglas. The ban on the use of the telegraph office at Bisbee and Douglas was not lifted until after four o'clock this afternoon.

Fifty-five years later a reporter interviewed one of the citizen deputies who helped round up the I.W.W.s. The man was 95 years old at the time of the interview.

He may have scrambled a few facts ─ the state was only five years old at the time of the deportation, not seven ─ but he certainly conveyed the mood of the Bisbee citizens at the time.

From the Star, Wednesday, July 12, 1972:

Bisbee Deportation Stormy Chapter in History

By Jim Steinberg

Special To The Star

It was July 12, 1917, in Bisbee. As the smell of coffee percolated Into the early morning air, 2,100 deputies from Bisbee and Douglas lined the red brick walls along the alleys of this mining town of 12,000. Telegraph wires were cut. This was to be an internal affair.

"We knew what we were going to do was against the law but we had to do it," said Dr. Nelson C. Bledsoe, who took time out from his medical practice to be a deputy that day.

The Bisbee Deportation created a national controversy that led to a presidential investigation. "It's still controversy," said William C. Epler, editor of the Brewery Gultch Gazette, a Bisbee weekly.

On signal, the deputies fanned out, combing the city's narrow hilly streets, and the steep, rust colored foothills just outside the city, looking for "Wobblies", members of the radical labor group, The International Workers of the World (IWW).

The night before there had been a meeting in the Copper Queen Dispensary. Lawyers, businessmen and mining officials attended, Dr. Bledsoe said. He was there too. Cochise County Sheriff Harry O. Wheeler presided.

Wheeler was "a quiet, levelheaded man," Dr. Bledsoe said. He was also said to be one of the fastest guns left (and accurate ─ he could hit 1 out of 200 bullseyes). During territorial days he was a captain of the Arizona Rangers where he earned a reputation for fairness ─ he would pay for his prisoners lawyer if they couldn't ─ and dedication ─ he spent his vacations chasing fugitives in Mexico. In 1916 he was given leave of absence by the board of supervisors to go after Francisco "Pancho" Villa.

"We got word that they were going to dynamite the shafts," Dr. Bledsoe said. Dr. Bledsoe practiced medicine in Bisbee for forty years. Now he is retired and lives in Tucson. He is 95 years old.

Bisbee had been in the throes of a strike instituted by the IWW in March. In early spring, hundreds of organizers came into the city from "all over," Dr. Bledsoe said.

"We knew the Wobblies caused trouble everywhere they went. In Everett, Wash, they called it 'Bloody Sunday.' " Bledsoe said memories of Wobblie violence were fresh in the minds of Bisbee citizens from incidents in Ray and Jerome earlier in the year.

In the 1900s Bisbee was one of the largest copper ore producing areas in the country. It was a quiet town, having none or the violence which had plagued neighboring Tombstone. Some say Bisbee was a nice peaceful place because it had the highest wage scales and best working conditions in the area. Others say it was a repressive place and the conditions were terrible. Complaints of dry drilling, an economical practice for mine owners, but one causing silicosis or miner's TB, for the workman, can be found in news clips from that era.

Which side is believed to a large extent determines whether the deportation deserves praise or scorn.

World War I cranked up the nation's demand for copper. Industry and the nation were vulnerable. It was time for the IWW, the Weathermen of the labor movement, to move. They hit Bisbee.

Their credo: "Between the two classes (labor and management) a struggle must go on until the workers of the world organize as a class, take possession of the earth, the machinery of production and abolish the monetary system."

Organizers came in from out of town. How many? That depends. Those who sympathized with the deportation said about 1,000 came in, or the same as the number deported. Those opposed to the idea of the deportation saw the number of outsiders as much smaller.

Anyway 2,000 miners struck in March. The United States officially entered the war April 6. Pressure mounted on the strikers, "economic and patriotic, as copper production was linked to the war effort. The number of strikers dwindled.

Organizers of the IWW were not going to give up. Throughout the nation their radical ideological grip on the labor movement was weakening, being supplanted by the more peaceful, pragmatic unions, such as the United Mine Workers.

From the beginning of the strike, the mine companies organized special "cells," teams of men, to guard the mine shafts. Even so, there were incidents between strikers and non-strikers daily.

Wheeler asked for help, from Arizona Gov. Thomas E. Campbell and the United States Army. Campbell was powerless because the state militia had been inducted into the Army. Dr. Bledsoe said the Army refused to help because troops could not be spared from the war effort.

However a paper in the Arizona Historical Society Library in Tucson said the Army sent an investigator to Bisbee who reported finding the situation there not as serious as Wheeler described it.

"Why wait for the Wobblies to cause trouble? We knew they were going to. At the meeting Wheeler told us what to do. He used the cell structure of the mines' guards as a core force and expanded it. He directed the whole thing," Dr. Bledsoe said.

The next morning, armed with rifles and pistols, the deputies began herding troublemakers to the baseball field in Warren, a community three miles to the southeast.

"That morning when I went out as a deputy, I didn't know if I would come back or not. I had a .30-30 and a six-gun," Dr. Bledsoe said.

The round-up went quickly and smoothly. The Wobblies had been taken by complete surprise. So far, the deputies, all wearing white arm bands, kept the safety latches of their guns on, as Wheeler instructed.

"Bill Cleary, a lawyer representing the IWW, almost got away. He sneaked into his car and drove as far as Douglas. They got him down there and sent him to the Warren Field," Dr. Bledsoe said.

Then there was a shot through a screen door. Orson P. McRae, a deputy fell to the street, dead, and his blood seeped in between cobblestone cracks. Ten deputies blindly returned gunfire into the doorway, unable to see through the meshing. Afterward they found John Blum, a Wobblie, dead.

"You have to understand, Arizona had only been a state for seven years. People were used to taking direct action. They didn't put up with the stuff they do now," Epler said.

Eventually some 1,000 Wobblies and Wobbly sympathizers were penned in the Warren Baseball Field. The men were loaded onto waiting railroad boxcars at the Warren station. A barrel of water and a box of bread went into each car along with 40 men.

The plan was to transport the men half-way halfway across New Mexico to an Army camp at Columbus. Two days later when the train reached Columbus, the commander of the Army encampment refused to accept the cargo.

"If you ask me who paid for all this I'm afraid I don't know," Dr. Bledsoe said. And why did Wheeler opt for deportation? One article in the Historical Society library said Wheeler was paid by the mines as much as $10,000 to "bust" the strike. Another says Wheeler believed the strikers were paid by agents of the German government through agents in Mexico to sabotage the mines.

The commander of the camp ordered the train and its contents returned to Bisbee. So the train headed West for 24 miles and stopped. The crew deserted, leaving some 1,000 men, many very sick, stranded. The Army provided an emergency tent city for the deported men and gave them food and medication until they drifted to new homes.

Of the deportation, a New York Times editorial read, "Bisbee has the right to defend against violence, it has no right to do violence." Of Sheriff Wheeler the Times wrote: "A sheriff who makes his own laws is on indefensible grounds; and inhumanity is worse than the IWW."

A furor arose in labor groups throughout the land. President Woodrow Wilson appointed an investigatory commission, which included then Harvard Law Professor Felix Frankfurther, later a Supreme Court justice.

The commission was unable to press charges. There were not then federal statutes on kidnaping or interference with interstate communication. They recommended action at the state level.

Immediately after the deportation, guards were placed at Bisbee's two entrances "to keep out union sympathizers" Dr. Bledsoe said. All others were welcome he said except for a certain reporter.

"He spoke to some hysterical women alter the deportation and told some untruths about it. The guards at one of the entrances caught him and warmed the seat of his pants with a piece of garden hose. He went as far as Tombstone where he spat forth venom. But he never came back to Bisbee. Of course, you couldn't do something like that now," Dr. Bledsoe said.

Johanna Eubank is an online content producer for the Arizona Daily Star and tucson.com. Contact her at jeubank@tucson.com

About Tales from the Morgue: The "morgue," is what those in the newspaper business call the archives. Before digital archives, the morgue was a room full of clippings and other files of old newspapers.