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Frank Little Death mask

Frank Little's death mask, cast after his murder on August 1, 1917.

In Butte, so the saying goes, the identities of Frank Little's killers are well-known. But on the 99th anniversary of the radical labor organizer's murder, researchers still can't agree on just who did it.

Not that there is a shortage of suspects. At least 21 men have been publicly fingered as one of Little’s six murderers in the last century, ranging from a future state senator to America’s original hard-boiled noir novelist.

The details of Little’s murder are common knowledge. Just after 3 in the morning on August 1, 1917, five men in carnival masks dragged Frank Little from Nora Byrne’s boarding house on 316 N. Wyoming St. and stuffed him into a Cadillac with a waiting driver. Little was beaten and his skull fractured. He was dragged behind the car by a rope until his knee caps were shorn off. The car stopped at the Milwaukee railroad trestle, and the men threw the rope over the top. Still alive, Little was hoisted into the air by the neck and strangled. A note pinned to his corpse threatened local labor leaders with the same fate.

Knowing who killed Frank Little may be impossible, but the historical forces that came together that summer night give researchers insight into how a miners' strike ended in murder.

Butte, America, in 1917

Once nicknamed the Gibraltar of labor for the strength of its unions, Butte’s progressive miners dynamited the conservative Butte Miners Union Hall in June of 1914 for kowtowing to the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, and in the disorder, the city became an open shop. A month later, unions worldwide were split between supporting their home nations or international labor when the Great War broke out in Europe. Faced with treason, most supported war.

Butte’s Irish cheered as the kaiser’s submarines torpedoed British shipping in the aftermath of the failed 1916 Easter Rising, but Germany’s unrestricted naval warfare and British urging dragged American doughboys into the trenches of northern France in April 1917. Revolutionaries toppled the Russian tsar the following month, terrifying barons of all stripes, and when a fire killed 168 men in the Granite Mountain Mine, 14,000 Butte copper miners went on strike in the midst of full wartime production.

Into this powder keg hobbled Frank Little on a broken leg with little more than a jaunty fedora, a grimace, and a glass eye like his IWW boss Big Bill Haywood. A veteran labor organizer and general executive board member of the Wobblies, Little was radicalized in the brutal Gilded Age mining camps of Colorado. By the time of America’s entry into the war, he had been beaten, kidnapped, and arrested for his support of free speech and striking iron rangers, stevedores, farmworkers, oil hands, and lumberjacks across the West for over a decade.

Little’s opposition to the draft was radical even among the radicals of the IWW. Though formed to unite workers across professions into one big union to destroy capitalism through a nationwide general strike, IWW leaders feared an unparalleled government crackdown should they act out against the war. Little felt the shoe was to drop nonetheless.

Arriving in Butte, Little gave a speech on June 19 decrying the war and the Company, arguing for the solidarity of labor and calling American soldiers “Uncle Sam’s scabs in uniform.” More followed.

The company-owned papers excoriated Little, demanding his arrest for treason. Threats were delivered to Little and other organizers from Anaconda Company offices, and Little was warned a day before his murder that a posse was forming to come for him. He brushed it all off; he was, after all, a survivor.

Little wouldn’t survive Butte — nor would he ever leave. Little's grave at Mountain View Cemetery is nearly picturesque, with Walmart barely visible through the trees.

Accusations and gossip

The most common theories of Little’s murderers stem from a series of editorials in the radical Butte Bulletin in the aftermath of the lynching. Men accused of complicity included Company employees William Oates, Herman Gillis, Peter Beaudin, Frank Middleton, and Jack Ryan. The Bulletin never put forward any evidence.

When the Butte Miner published an unlikely story in 1923 about a spurned prostitute accusing her husband of the murder, the Bulletin shot back by implicating mining company employees Roy Alley, John Berkin, L.O. Evans, Oscar Rohn, J.F. Taylor, Gay Stivers, and James Rowe as knowing who killed Little, again without evidence.

Also accused by some of complicity in Little's murder was hard-boiled noir novelist Dashiell Hammett, who reportedly spurned a $5,000 offer from the Anaconda Company to kill Little. Hammett’s late-in-life lover Lillian Hellman thought it preposterous and said the novelist often and proudly brought up denying the contract-killing as the moment the precocious Pinkerton had a change of heart and drifted left enough to be blacklisted and jailed for communist subversion during the Second Red Scare. Hammett likely wasn’t even in Butte at the time of the murder.

In a 2009 interview for former Montana Secretary of State Bob Brown’s oral history project, former Butte Democratic state senator Dan Harrington implicated fellow Butte Democrat Frank Reardon based on gossip from restaurant owner William Harrington. He wasn’t the first to name Reardon.

The researchers

Reardon and four others came up for Missoula high schooler Will Roscoe in 1972 when his senior history teacher let him investigate Little’s murder instead of taking the class. Roscoe heard rumors about barber Conn Lowney, an old Butte Wobbly.

Lowney apparently said he knew the identities of the killers and that several died in a car crash. Roscoe tracked down the names and the accident, a 1936 Nevada crash that killed Dr. H.D. Kistler, car dealership owner Howard Pierce, and taxi driver Alex Loiselle; institutionalized Hansen Packing Company president Walter Hansen; and briefly hospitalized Reardon. Lowney suspected several of those men, according to Roscoe.

The research paper had a huge effect on Roscoe. None of what he learned was taught in history class. Roscoe grew into a gay civil rights activist and worked for San Francisco politician Harvey Milk until the public official’s murder in 1978. Roscoe compares Milk's and Little’s murders as improperly resolved cases that left scars on the psyches of both cities, hate crimes meant to intimidate the disenfranchised into submission.

Montana Department of Transportation historian Jon Axline thinks it’s no coincidence Butte police never solved the case. Little’s murder inspired Axline to write his 1985 master’s thesis on the reform of the Butte police department in the aftermath of the killing.

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Axline attributes Little’s murders to Butte police acting at the behest of the Anaconda Company, specifically the notoriously violent Chief Detective Ed Morrissey.

“Surprisingly, Chief Detective Morrissey was not called in to assist with the investigation. Morrissey, himself, was drunk continuously for several days after the murder, often mumbling about killing someone,” Axline’s thesis reads.

Axline also rebuts claims by newspapers (then owned by mining companies) that Little was killed by the IWW for being a company plant or because he was growing popular enough to challenge Haywood’s leadership or by Butte’s Metal Mine Workers Union for hijacking their strike and disrupting negotiations.

Little’s biographer Arnold Stead agrees and said Little was a grassroots organizer who never kept an office even as a chairman of the IWW — no threat to a political leader like Haywood.

“He wasn’t an intellectual,” Stead said, “he was a warrior.”

Like most, Stead believes Little’s death was orchestrated by the Anaconda Company — not a crowd of patriotic drunks, as Company papers alleged — but that he was killed not just to end the strike in Butte but to nip his nascent anti-war movement in the bud.

“It was a relatively small union that had a powerful effect on working people,” Stead said. “If they’d have shut down the harvesters and the miners, they could have damaged the war effort powerfully. Killing Little did real damage to the radical wing of the IWW.”

Stead said it matters more that people know why Little was killed more than the exact men who murdered him.

The Little family

Jane Little Botkin agrees with Stead.

Frank Little’s great-grand-niece grew up during the fearful early days of the Cold War and said her family burned every photo of Little save one during J. Edgar Hoover’s and later Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts. Her great uncle was spoken of by older relatives in hushed tones as little more than a “lynched socialist.”

Dissatisfied with chronicles of Little’s life citing regurgitated disinformation, Botkin endeavored to write a better biography of her slain great uncle.

Crisscrossing the ghost towns and mining camps of the West for seven years, Botkin was more interested in Little's unknown early years than his murder. She chronicles those years in her upcoming book, “Frank Little and the IWW: The Blood that Stained an American Family,” out next May.

“Butte is just a very small chapter at the end of Frank’s life,” Botkin said.

Digging through declassified FBI records, Botkin disproved her family’s long-held suspicion that Little was assassinated by the federal government. That was just a happy coincidence courtesy of the Anaconda Company, she said.

Botkin hypothesizes that the ultimate cause of Little’s murder was the threat he posed to the Company, but that the patriotic killers hired by the Company opposed him for his anti-war stance.

Her most troubling discovery was a rumor that a family member was complicit in the murder. She said an Anaconda man accused by some of the murder moved to Texas and married into her family, but she refused to identify him in her book. She said the family has suffered enough.

Botkin hopes her book rehabilitates the family black sheep as a pioneer of passive resistance and free speech.

“I’m really proud of him for this,” she said.

“We have the right to do that. We have the right to protest and to speak out, and that’s what he was pointing out, even to the very government that was supposed to give him those freedoms and was abusing him because they didn’t like what he had to say,” she said.

Botkin is inspired by the lengths Frank was willing to go to to stand up for free speech, even in wartime Butte when he knew what it likely meant.

“Without a doubt he knew he was going to be killed,” she said.

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