Best of Texas Book Award for Historical Nonfiction: Frank Little and the IWW by Jane Little Botkin

Like other wage-working families smeared with the traitor label, the Little family endured raids, arrests, and indictments in IWW trials.

Frank Little and the IWW by Jane Little Botkin has received the Best in Texas Book Award for Historical Nonfiction. The award is presented by the Texas Association of Authors.

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The Story:

Franklin Henry Little (1878–1917), an organizer for the Western Federation of Miners and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), fought in some of the early twentieth century’s most contentious labor and free-speech struggles. Following his lynching in Butte, Montana, his life and legacy became shrouded in tragedy and family secrets. In Frank Little and the IWW, author Jane Little Botkin chronicles her great-granduncle’s fascinating life and reveals its connections to the history of American labor and the first Red Scare.

Beginning with Little’s childhood in Missouri and territorial Oklahoma, Botkin recounts his evolution as a renowned organizer and agitator on behalf of workers in corporate agriculture, oil, logging, and mining. Frank Little traveled the West and Midwest to gather workers beneath the banner of the Wobblies (as IWW members were known), making soapbox speeches on city street corners, organizing strikes, and writing polemics against unfair labor practices.

His brother and sister-in-law also joined the fight for labor, but it was Frank who led the charge—and who was regularly threatened, incarcerated, and assaulted for his efforts. In his final battles in Arizona and Montana, Botkin shows, Little and the IWW leadership faced their strongest opponent yet as powerful copper magnates countered union efforts with deep-laid networks of spies and gunmen, an antilabor press, and local vigilantes.

For a time, Frank Little’s murder became a rallying cry for the IWW. But after the United States entered the Great War and Congress passed the Sedition Act (1918) to ensure support for the war effort, many politicians and corporations used the act to target labor “radicals,” squelch dissent and inspire vigilantism. Like other wage-working families smeared with the traitor label, the Little family endured raids, arrests, and indictments in IWW trials.

Having scoured the West for firsthand sources in family, library, and museum collections, Botkin melds the personal narrative of an American family with the story of the labor movements that once shook the nation to its core. In doing so, she throws into sharp relief the lingering consequences of political repression.

Jane Little Botkin

The Prologue

In the early morning hours of August 1, 1917, a black Cadillac snaked slowly up North Wyoming Street from an old delivery barn below the hill in Butte, Montana. The weather had been arid and unusually warm, and tempers were heated as well. But in the serene coolness of night, there was an aural crispness—a heavy silence that descended on the city after days of strikers’ demands for safer working conditions and fair employment, days after the great Speculator Mine had swallowed 168 miners in fire and toxic fumes. The Butte town was exhausted and anxious.

Six men quietly slid out of the idling car. One stood sentry while the other five entered a boardinghouse at 316 North Wyoming Street. Some said the men wore uniforms; others remembered indistinct attire. But all agreed that the six men, anonymous behind their masquerade masks and cloaked in darkness, were on a sinister assignment. Once inside, they crept to a downstairs room and violently kicked in the door, shattering the silence, only to find the room empty. Someone muttered, “A mistake somewhere.” The men, apparently armed with misinformation from one of many paid informants, or “stoolies,” hired by mine agents, moved to the next door in the hall.

While throwing on her robe, landlady Nora Byrne heard their frustrated, muffled voices just before her own door was opened several inches, a large pistol penetrating the darkness above her bed. A flashlight obscured the intruders momentarily from her sleepy eyes. A muted voice identified the speaker as a law officer, while the man with the menacing pistol demanded in loud whispers that Mrs. Byrne tell them which room Frank Little occupied. She murmured that Frank was renting room thirty-two, next to the room they had entered moments earlier.

Frank surely heard the locked door splintering at the same time Mrs. Byrne was awakened by the ruckus. He knew what was about to transpire, as he had received numerous threats and beatings in the past. As Frank reached for his pocket watch, he was yanked roughly out of bed, the watch rattling across the wood floor. Wearing only his underwear and a plaster cast protecting a broken ankle, Frank, oddly enough, reached next for his hat, but he was told he would not need it where he was going. By then he could make no response since his captors had gagged his mouth with a towel.

Only Mrs. Byrne and her two other boarders timidly peered through their doors to witness what was taking place: a struggling tenant dragged out of the boardinghouse to a waiting car. Typical of many bystanders, they provided Frank with no immediate assistance, waiting at least half an hour before calling local authorities. Frank twisted and thrashed, but with a broken ankle and six men restraining him, he was easily gathered and thrown into the backseat, where side curtains hid the crime. The beating had already begun, though the result would be different from the assaults he had received before.

The black sedan drove back south down Wyoming Street, stopping abruptly just before it turned west into Butte’s business district. Wrenching Frank out of the Cadillac, his assailants tied him to the rear bumper and drove several more blocks, towing him in the car’s wake over the granite-paved streets. Both of Frank’s kneecaps were nearly ripped away, his toes and fingers reduced to bloody pulp. But he was still alive.

When the car was within sight of the Milwaukee Railroad trestle, about two miles south of town, it turned west onto a sandy road that led near the bridge. The car stopped directly underneath it, next to where a rope thrown over the ties above dangled in invitation. Someone quickly pinned a pasteboard placard on the right thigh of Frank’s dirtied underwear. Scribbled in blood-red crayon, its message read, “Others take notice! First and last warning! 3-7-77,” the numbers referring to an old Montana vigilante code. Added in lead pencil were the initials “L-D-C-S-S-W-T” with the L circled.

The men grasped Frank’s body, pistol-whipped and now mangled from the dragging, and heaved him on top of the big black car. Between glimmers of awareness and flutters of dark unconsciousness, Frank must have felt the rough noose squeeze around his neck. Perhaps he could not command his body to struggle as a surreal heaviness hugged his brain while he slipped into nothingness. The assassin car suddenly moved forward, leaving Frank’s slender frame to swing about five feet above the ground.

Then the mysterious hit men erased the evidence of their tracks and fled in their big black car, while Franklin Henry Little, youngest son of a quintessential American family, asphyxiated, alone, at the end of a hemp rope.

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