At last report, you could still join the most ass-kicking labor union in U.S. history by signing up with a fellow at Irish Times bar in Butte. Membership in the Industrial Workers of the World is down somewhat from the estimated three million American mine, mill, factory and agricultural workers who once swelled its ranks, but if anyplace is the place to join symbolically, it’s Butte—the final resting place of Wobbly organizer Frank Little. The Oklahoma-born Little had been in Butte for less than two weeks when he was rousted from his boarding house in the middle of the night, literally dragged to the edge of town and hanged from a railroad trestle. Scarcely more is known about his life than the circumstances of his death, but urban legend has slowly crept in to replace the particulars of his short stay in Butte like minerals in a chunk of petrified wood. His funeral attracted 8,000 mourners, making it the biggest in the city’s history. He lives on in half-remembered stories and vague recollections, a shadowy bit of the distant past that, like so many other legacies of Butte’s turbulent history, simply refuses to go away.
“I never found anybody who claimed to have any firsthand knowledge of persons involved,” says filmmaker Travis Wilkerson, whose new documentary about Little, An Injury to One, will get a screening in Missoula this week, “Most people in Butte know some strange little detail that they claim is true, but who knows if it really is or not?”
It’s generally agreed that the Anaconda Copper Mining Company was somehow behind the killing. With The Great War on in Europe, copper was at a premium in 1917 and the company was producing some 10 percent of the world’s supply. With the United States involved in the fighting, mining copper became nothing short of a patriotic duty. In the two weeks he spent on the once-thriving “Richest Hill on Earth,” Frank Little regularly addressed crowds of thousands of disenchanted miners whose union, the Western Federation of Miners, had been systematically drained of its bargaining power by the Anaconda Company through one under-handed move after another. Agitating ceaselessly for the I.W.W., Little harangued the company for inflating the value of copper to make obscene profits from the wartime demand, called the Constitution a “scrap of paper” to be torn up whenever capitalist interests deemed it inconvenient, and denounced President Wilson as “a lying tyrant.”
Not exactly the kind of public speaker the company wanted hanging around aggravating a labor situation that was already uneasy after a catastrophic June 8 fire in the Speculator mine that killed 163 miners, and the general strike that followed three days later. On the night of August 1, six masked men claiming to be officers abducted Little from his lodgings in a boarding house called the Steel Block, tied him to a car bumper and dragged him for several miles, scraping his kneecaps off along the way.
“A lot of the rumors are really strange,” says Wilkerson, who asked dozens of older Butte men about Little prior to the filming of the documentary. “And who knows? One common rumor is that Little was castrated, although I don’t think that’s necessarily true. Another one is that he was made to kiss the flag, but who would know that? Other people will say, ‘Oh, Dashiell Hammett killed Frank Little.’ That’s a fairly common one in Butte, but people in the rest of the country have never heard of that before.”
Detective writer Hammett drew on his experience as a detective for the Pinkerton detective agency to write 1929’s Red Harvest, set in a town obviously modeled on boomtown Butte but renamed “Poisonville.” Hammett’s first wife, a nurse whom he met while recovering from tuberculosis in a Tacoma sanatorium, grew up in Anaconda and worked at a Butte hospital during the troubled summer of 1917. It’s likely that Josephine Hammett’s recollections fired her husband’s imagination, but later in his life Hammett also claimed to have been offered $5,000 to kill Little himself. He further claimed to have received a divot in his skull from a brick thrown by a striking Butte miner, and that he once shot a man while defending a company powder magazine. Hammett biographers, on the other hand, disagree over how much time Hammett actually spent in Butte—or whether he ever spent time there at all.
For Wilkerson, a Butte resident from junior high school through his early studies at Montana Tech, rumors and legends like these are just part of the Butte fabric. It doesn’t really matter, he says, if they hold any truth or not, and in any case there’s no proving or disproving them now.
“There’s really not much left,” he admits. “It’s pretty hard to track down. The trestle he was hanged from was torn down 10 or 15 years ago. I had to ask people a lot just to figure out where it was, and there’s nothing to even shoot there now.”
Few photographs of Little survive, but the one glowering out from An Injury to One, is as square-jawed and resolute as you’d imagine of the Wobbly. Wilkerson is on intimate terms with what remains of Little’s legacy, and An Injury of One is a visually haunting look at a city haunted by its industrial past. Shot with a spring-wound Bolex on black and white reversal and color negative film, the documentary is true to Butte in a way that only 16mm could be: less honest—but far more flattering—than video, more to the scale of the city’s downsized dreams. The grimness and the defiant pride of modern Butte are there in the grain—commingled, you imagine, with the spirit of Frank Little.