Follow the Fire in
the Hole script and accompanying images to rediscover the shocking un-American
acts that take place in Butte, Montana -- including the lynching of Frank
Little -- from 1912-1917.
By the summer of 1917
the copper mines of Butte, Montana were booming with war-time production.
The price of copper soared, and companies were making record profits. But
miners felt they were being left out of the boom. . .losing ground as they
dealt with skyrocketing inflation. A few years before, Butte had been considered
the very heart of the miners union -- the birthplace of the Western Federation
But while unions like
the I.W.W. pushed for radical confrontation, the federation had followed a
conservative path. And a subsequent Butte miners union was considered outright
docile. Frustration grew to the point that miners dynamited their own union
hall in butte in 1914. By 1917 the Gibralter of unionism was in fractured
But one of the worst
mine disasters of the West would rekindle the union movement. On the evening
of june 8th, 1917 a fire broke out as workers, ironically, were trying to
install a fire prevention system at the Speculator Mine near Butte. Over four
hundred men were underground as flame and smoke filled the shafts. A rescue
crew was lowered into the mine. Minutes later they were hauled back to the
The Butte Miner:
"An appalling site that
caused the strongest hearts to quail was the cremation of two men who were
trapped like rats in a double-decked cage about 20 feet above the collar of
the shaft, with flames flying from the shaft like a gigantic torch around
Hundreds of men were
trapped below ground. . .and soon were suffocating from toxic gas in the mine.
twenty-four hundred feet down, a young irish miner named Mannus Duggan had
his crew wall-off a tunnel to keep the gas and fire out. He took out a pencil
and started writing to his wife.
"We have rapped on the
air pipe continuously since four o'clock Saturday morning. No answer. Must
be some fire. I realize the hard work ahead of the rescue men. Have not confided
my fears to anyone, but have looked and looked for hope only."
Duggan's men held out
for thirty-eight hours underground. But Duggan died when he left the hideout
looking for rescue teams. One hundred and sixty-seven men died along with
Manus Duggan in the Speculator Mine – the worst metal mining disaster in American
history. After the fact, the speculator mine was found to be full of safety
violations – including the fact that escape routes had been blocked. Miner
complaints about safety had been ignored.
Montana Labor Commissioner:
"Butte for some time has
been a volcano on the point of eruption, and the heavy toll of life in the
speculator catastrophe proved to be the flaming torch."
"It was a catalyst, providing
an opportunity for those who have been waiting–many of the same leaders of
the I.W.W. and the abortive Butte Mine Workers Union – to try once again to
re-establish labor unionism in the mines of Butte."
Three days after the
Speculator Mine disaster. . .while funerals were still taking place. . .the
miners of Butte walked off the job and called a strike. They demanded an end
to blacklisting – the firing of workers for union membership. . .and demanded
that Montana's mine safety laws be honored. The mine owners rejected the demands.
"As far as the Clark
Mines are concerned, I will close them down. . .flood them, and not raise
a pound of copper before I will recognize the anarchist leaders of the union."
Facing a wall of mine
company opposition, the miners started to splinter into small groups. . .with
some miners returning to work out of fear of retribution.
"And when they didn't
stick with the strike, the strike began to collapse on itself. ‘Cause you
need everybody. . .as the I.W.W. said. . . everybody in solidarity, everybody
out on strike, for a strike to be successful. And of course they were right.
At that moment in mid-to late July, 1917, as the strike effort was beginning
to peter out, Frank Little came to Butte.
On July 18th, Frank Little
– a frail, small, one-eyed former miner nursing a recently broken leg– rode
into Butte. Looks were deceiving, for Little was a fiery union organizer determined
to infuse the faltering Butte strike with the passion of the Industrial Workers
of the World.
"An injury to one is
an injury to all! So all together, you diggers and muckers. Force the bosses
off your back. Put them down to work in the hole with the producers. Hand
them their muck sticks and make them earn a living for a change!" – Frank
The Butte Miner:
"In seditious remarks
which were short of treason, little displayed maniacal fury, talked of worker's
solidarity. . .a worldwide revolution." – The Butte Miner
Years later the writer
Dashiell Hammett would recall his days in Butte as an armed mercenary being
paid by the Pinkerton detective agency and the mine companies. One night,
as he sat in a Butte bar, Hammett said he was approached by a mine company
representative who offered him five-thousand dollars to kill Frank Little.
Beating Wobblies with clubs was one thing. . .murder was another, and Hammett
said he quit on the spot.
But five thousand dollars
was a lot of money.
Early in the morning
of August 1st, less than two weeks after he arrived in Butte, Frank Little
was dragged from his bed in a rooming house by six masked men. A rope was
thrown around Little, and he was dragged behind a car to the edge of town.
Little's already bloody body was beaten to pulp. The rope was tied around
his neck, and he was hung from a railroad trestle. The next morning, as workers
crossed the trestle to begin their workday, the body of Frank Little was discovered
with a sign around the neck.
"Others take notice. . .first and last warning. . .3-7-77" It was an old Montana
vigilante warning. . .3-7-77 were the required measurements for a gravesite.
"Good work! Let them
continue to hang every I.W.W. in the state. The time has come. It is beyond
the comprehension of the average citizen why the war department has not ordered
certain leaders arrested and shot. The people will not stand for much more."
But more than three thousand
people turned out for Frank Little's funeral. Much like Joe
Hill two years before, little was elevated as a martyr to the cause championed
by the I.W.W.
"He became a martyr like
all martyrs. Not for what he was, but because of what he represented. You
know, the victim. . . the working man murdered by the capitalist bosses. He
became a symbol of that. . and he remains so today."
Angered by Little's murder,
the Butte miners briefly rallied to press their strike against the copper
mines. But federal troops soon arrived to occupy Butte. . .and in the process,
drove the I.W.W. from the mines. Soon, federal and state laws were cracking
down on any activities that were deemed detrimental to the nation's war effort.
Strikes and anti-war speeches were specifically targeted.
"The war was a splendid
opportunity for capitalists to really stomp on labor unionism in general,
and militant labor unionism in particular."
Just how far that campaign
was prepared to go was already playing out in the nation's newest state.