Aug 14, 2023 - Culture

Old News: How Utah media spun an anti-union brawl in 1913

The Salt Lake Tribune, Aug. 13, 1913

For the next few Mondays, we're checking out Utah's once-significant role in the labor movement — starting with a violent brawl that shows how long it can take for the truth to get its shoes on when wealth and power are at stake.

  • This is Old News, our weekly trip into Utah's history.

What happened: On this day 110 years ago, Salt Lake City was mopping up downtown after six people were shot in a melee during a union meeting of the International Workers of the World.

The intrigue: News accounts at the time directly contradict each other, showing how an agenda can drastically skew a story.

Context: Salt Lake played a formative role in the IWW (aka the Wobblies), a lefty powerhouse of the early 20th-century labor movement.

  • One of its founders, Big Bill Heywood, grew up here. The famous Salt Lake organizer and songwriter Joe Hill also was a Wobblies leader.

Zoom in: In June 1913, IWW leader James Morgan helped organize a rail-worker strike in Spanish Fork Canyon.

  • The sheriff brought in a posse led by ex-deputy Axel Steele (not making that up) to block the canyon, and Morgan was arrested.
  • Morgan spent 50 days in jail — even though "no direct testimony was offered" against him, and the charge of disturbing the peace was based on "the fact of his leadership" in the IWW, the Salt Lake Telegram reported.

After his release, Morgan convened an Aug. 12 union meeting on what is now Regent Street.

  • Here's where the stories diverge.

Details: The Salt Lake Tribune and the Deseret Evening News provide similar accounts.

  • Steele, angry because Morgan called him "a dirty rat," rounded up 15 friends to beat up Morgan mid-speech. IWW worker Tom Murphy shot six of his attackers.
  • Morgan got back up and kept speaking despite multiple head wounds, periodically stopping to wipe his blood out of his eyes and mouth — until police arrested him and rammed the paddy wagon into the crowd of workers.
  • Then the fire department came and hosed down the workers and bystanders.

The other side: The Salt Lake Herald-Republican, which had a history of anti-labor coverage, claimed Morgan denounced the U.S. flag in his speech and instigated the brawl by attacking Steele just for carrying one.

  • "Dispute over American flag is cause of downtown riot," the headline trumpets.
  • That's the version that appeared in most of the newspapers outside of Salt Lake — union-heavy Carbon County being a notable exception.

The rest of the story: Subsequent reports confirm that Steele started the attack — but he was not charged.

The bottom line: Salt Lake County sheriff Andrew Smith Jr. defended his refusal to arrest Steele with remarks that sum up his regard for the First Amendment.

  • Morgan "was defaming the flag and spoke of [Steele] personally in the vilest language that it is possible to use. It is clear to me that [Morgan] was disobeying the laws."

Previously in Old News:

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