The Voyagers

THE

VOYAGERS



BY BILL DONAHUE

In 1945, a father and his young son set out across the Bering Strait, fleeing Soviet Russia for a better life in America. Neither knew how perilous their journey would become.

The Atavist Magazine, No. 124


Bill Donahue has written for The New York Times Magazine, Outside, and Harper’s, among others. He lives in New Hampshire. His last Atavist story, “The Free and the Brave,” was published as Issue No. 106. Follow him on Twitter: @billdonahue13.

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Art Director: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Adam Przybyl
Illustrator: R. Fresson

Published in February 2022.


PART ONE

At 4 a.m. on June 23, 1945, beneath the bright Arctic sun, Valeri Minakov picked his way down to a beach on the cold, treeless coast of Chukotka, near the easternmost point of Russian Siberia. There, near the Cape Chaplino military weather station, Valeri climbed into a motorized kayak that he’d built himself, using walrus hide, a section of bicycle frame, and a small three-horsepower engine. The seawater in which his kayak bobbed was about 34 degrees Fahrenheit that morning, and clotted with blocks of ice the size of school buses. In the kayak’s bow, Valeri had a few five-liter cans of gasoline, some tinned food, a milk jug filled with drinking water, and a single passenger—a little boy.

Valeri’s son, Oleg, was six years old, black haired, and scrawny, with tentative brown eyes. He’d already been through much in his short life. When Oleg was three, his infant sister died of starvation, one of the Soviet Union’s 25 million war-era casualties. Oleg watched as his father placed the baby’s corpse on the metal kitchen table before it was taken away for burial. Soon after, in 1942, Oleg’s mother, Anna Yakovlev Kireyeva, ran off with a Red Army officer. For the next three years, Oleg was raised by his father, a naval mechanic, on a succession of military bases. Eventually, they wound up in the spartan reaches of Chukotka.

It was a lonely existence. Oleg didn’t have friends with whom he could play fox and geese—a game of chase—out in the snow. His father, Oleg later said, was “like a shadow. He was there, and then he wasn’t.” At 35, Valeri was erratic. He’d been traumatized, certainly, and was possibly mentally ill. When he went out at night to drink in bars, he left Oleg alone in the barracks where they lived. Valeri often got into fistfights while drunk. He was a muscular slice of a man—six-foot-one and 164 pounds—and Oleg was in awe of his physical prowess. Once, when a car jack wasn’t working, Valeri lifted the vehicle up by the bumper, slid the jack underneath, and continued his labors. Valeri’s strength, however, was tightly coiled. He was anxious, a chain smoker. He paced. He habitually clenched his jaw, grinding his teeth, and at times he raged at Oleg. When the boy caused a stir in a military dining hall by catapulting a spoonful of borscht into the face of a high-ranking officer, Valeri beat him.

But while Valeri was far from a model father, he and Oleg were a team out on the tundra. Oleg’s favorite moment each week came when his father got paid—Valeri would entrust the boy with a few kopecks and send him out on an errand. In a blacksmith’s forge where Valeri sometimes worked, he had Oleg work the bellows to keep the fire going. If father and son were outside and the wind got strong, Oleg would clench Valeri’s hand and curl in toward his dad’s long sealskin coat, lest he “get blown away to nowhere.”

Now Oleg sat in a 14-foot-long homemade kayak as his father prepared to row it into the Bering Strait, one of the earth’s most dangerous sea passages. The strait’s shallow floor, just 150 feet or so beneath the surface of the Bering Sea, is prone to kicking up monstrous waves. When the strait freezes, usually in October, it becomes a heaving jumble of ice floes that groan in the cold and crash into one another with immense force. The ice begins melting in June, which is why Valeri chose that month for their crossing.

Valeri began oaring away from the beach, hewing to the ice shelves along the cliff-lined shore. He kept the engine off. Valeri headed north, toward a group of islands where naval officers liked to hunt. If it came to it, he could always claim that he was taking his son out to shoot ducks.

Once they were far enough away from their launch point and hidden behind high blocks of ice, Valeri pulled the starter cord on the engine. It didn’t turn over. Valeri panicked. For three minutes he kept pulling. Then Oleg pointed out that the spark plug wasn’t connected. Valeri fixed it. The engine rumbled.

“Where are we going?” Oleg asked.

“America,” Valeri said.

Oleg had never heard of the place, so he said nothing. He sat in the front of the kayak, watching his papa guide the rudder. A cigarette hung loose between Valeri’s lips, and smoke plumed around his stubbled chin. America, Oleg figured, was probably far away. He laid his head on the side of the kayak and gathered a tarp around his torso for warmth. Then he drifted off to sleep.

When the strait freezes, usually in October, it becomes a heaving jumble of ice floes that groan in the cold and crash into one another with immense force.

Oleg was a sweet and susceptible child. When he was four, he became enchanted with a bombastic tune that was played on the radio every morning. It was a paean to Soviet leader Joseph Stalin that reveled, “He gave us happiness and freedom, the great wise leader of the people.” Oleg liked to hum along. In time, he decided that he wanted to be a paratrooper in Stalin’s military.

It was a dream he carried through his rough childhood. He was hungry much of the time; at one base where he and Valeri lived, Oleg snuck into a Red Cross tent and stole Velveeta cheese and powdered cocoa. Valeri worked long days, leaving Oleg to fend for himself. One day, Oleg wandered across a frozen lake and broke through the ice up to his shins. He found his way to a stranger’s cabin, several miles from home, and shivered by the fire until somehow his father arrived to retrieve him. There were times, though, when Valeri wasn’t there for Oleg, because he was away on ships or stationed in distant parts of the Soviet Union building diesel power plants. During those periods, Oleg was parked at an orphanage.

At one of those orphanages, Oleg learned that Stalin himself was coming for a visit. The staff spent several days painstakingly sewing Oleg a little wool paratrooper’s uniform, then brought Oleg, dressed in the suit, to Stalin. “I can see Stalin sitting back in a big easy chair, smiling,” Oleg later recalled, “and me climbing up onto his knee, then jumping off like a paratrooper.”

Much of Oleg’s life was less festive. He was surrounded by brutality. Near the base on Cape Chaplino, gulag labor crews were constructing a new city, Provideniya. Once while out walking, Oleg crested a hill and looked down into a valley where scores of Soviet prisoners were moving dirt in buckets as guards armed with pistols watched over them.

Valeri feared becoming one of those prisoners, or worse. He had arrived in Chukotka tortured by history. He was born in 1909, in a small Ukrainian farming village called Orlianske. His father, Tihon, fought in World War I and was captured by the Germans. Tihon escaped, but upon returning home he suffered from shell shock, or what is now called post-traumatic stress disorder. In 1918, after the Bolshevik Revolution, Tihon and his family faced a new threat. That year, Vladimir Lenin stressed that he viewed Ukraine as a pantry for the entire Soviet Union. In a missive to Bolshevik leaders in Ukraine, he called for “grain, grain, grain,” demanding that it be shipped out daily to less agrarian sectors of his domain.

The policy amounted to an attack on Valeri’s parents. The Minakovs owned about 110 acres, planted with grapes and wheat, and Lenin was intent on seizing their crops—indeed, the crops of all well-off, landowning peasants, or kulaks. Throughout Ukraine’s agrarian steppes, kulaks protested wildly. They got nowhere, though, and the Soviet requisition policy remained in place. It would prove fatal for many people. In 1921 and 1922, when Valeri turned 12, Ukraine suffered a drought and then a famine that devastated the Zaporizhia Oblast, the Vermont-size province where the Minakovs lived. When Norwegian diplomat Vidkun Quisling toured Zaporizhia in February 1922, on behalf of the League of Nations, he wrote, “The situation is terrible. Local official statistics show that of the province’s 1,288,000 inhabitants, 900,000 are without food. Sixty percent of the famished are children.”

As Stalin rose to power, he proved worse than Lenin. He launched a campaign to collectivize all kulak land, promised the “liquidation of the kulaks as a class,” and ultimately killed off 30,000 of them. In the fall of 1929, the Bolsheviks moved to confiscate the Minakovs’ property, and the family was forced to hide in a neighboring village.

In 1932, Valeri was drafted into the Soviet military. He hated Stalin but had no choice except to serve. He became a ship’s mechanic. Aboard one boat, Valeri watched as 50 political prisoners—all fellow kulaks—were pushed off the deck to their deaths, with weights tied around their necks.

When the Nazis occupied Ukraine in 1941, they seized grain even more zealously than Stalin had. By the time they were chased out in 1944, the population of Orlianske had plummeted from 2,000 to 78, according to one report. Valeri’s parents survived to see the Soviets return, but the effects of war and deprivation took their toll: In the summer of 1944, they both died of starvation.

The same year, thousands of miles away in Chukotka, Valeri was caught writing an anti-Stalin inscription in a library book. “I was surrounded by agents and spies,” he would later relate. Paranoia crept into his life. He came to believe that his superiors were plotting to have one of his eyes surgically removed, to use his cornea in a transplant intended to restore a general’s lost vision. Valeri may have imagined the threat, but it wasn’t unfathomable. Stalin was well on his way to killing off as many as 20 million political opponents over the course of his rule. If the Soviets wanted Valeri’s cornea, they would get it.

By 1945, Valeri’s parents were dead. His wife was gone. There was nothing left for him or for Oleg in the Soviet Union. Just past the horizon, America beckoned.

In early May 1945, Valeri began squirreling away wood to build the skeleton of a kayak. He found a bicycle frame that could be used as a bracket for an outboard rudder. He took a broken down single-cylinder, water-cooled engine, once used to generate power at a radio station, and rebuilt it. He bought walrus skins from Chukchi Natives, who used the hides to cover their hunting boats. While a wooden craft might splinter on rocks or ice, “the native skin boat is semi-rigid and warps with the motion of the water,” a Jesuit missionary told The New York Times, after traveling 700 miles along the Alaskan coast in 1938.

Valeri kept his project secret from Oleg, and he was canny about the boat’s construction. He rigged the steering system so it seemed broken—the boat went left when the rudder was pulled right, and vice versa. He lashed inner tubes to either side of the hull. These aided flotation, and also enhanced the boat’s salvage-heap appearance. Valeri wanted it to seem incapable of withstanding the Bering Sea’s heaving waves; he wanted it to look like a death trap. That way, if anyone questioned him about it, he could say it was just for puttering around Cape Chaplino.

When the boat was finished, Valeri took Oleg out for a test run. They went duck hunting. “My job,” Oleg said, “was to sit in the bow and be very quiet until we got right near the ducks. Then I’d yell so the ducks would fly up and he could shoot them. If I made noise too early, my papa got mad.” Oleg frequently flubbed the timing.

At one point Valeri let Oleg steer, and the boy ran the stern of the boat into an ice floe, bending the engine’s propeller. Back home, Valeri fixed the damage. Then he began packing up their belongings. More than 20,000 Soviets would attempt to defect to the United States in the aftermath of World War II. Valeri and Oleg were about to become the first—and only—Soviet defectors to seek freedom in the West by crossing the Bering Strait.

The strait is the only place where Russia and the United States share a border. At its narrowest, the passage is 53 miles across. Once called the “Ice Curtain” by a spokesman for Soviet premier Mikhail Gorbachev, the Bering Strait has special political relevance today. As the polar ice cap melts and the northern seas become more navigable, it’s expected that the shipping industry will route ever more cargo carriers through the strait rather than the Panama Canal. Russian president Vladimir Putin is intent on shoring up control of the region. Since 2015, Russia has opened or reopened about 50 military bases in the Arctic as NATO has stepped up military exercises and troop deployments in the Norwegian Arctic.

In the spring of 1945, as the Minakovs set out in their kayak, the Bering Strait was already shot through with a certain political chill. During World War II, the United States and the Soviet Union were technically allies. Indeed, Washington gave the Soviets $11.3 billion—$180 billion in today’s dollars—and shipped them a total of 14,000 aircraft, usually via the strait. But the alliance was far from friendly. In 1940, Franklin Roosevelt called Stalin’s government a “dictatorship as absolute as any other dictatorship in the world.” Later, he likened his liaison with the Soviet leader to holding hands with the devil. For his part, Stalin was already playing hardball on the Bering Strait. When Father Tom Cunningham, a Jesuit missionary in Alaska, had ventured across the frozen strait into Soviet territory to hunt walrus in the late 1930s, soldiers seized him at gunpoint.

Valeri hoped to evade capture by threading the needle of Arctic weather. June was still cold enough that most military planes were grounded at ice-encrusted airports. The melting strait was a tangle of seawater and ice floes that made it all but impossible for the pilots of seaplanes to find a surface to land. The myriad boats moored in Soviet harbors were hemmed in by ice, incapable of getting out to sea quickly. The only craft the military could use to chase Valeri and Oleg were six small whaleboats. Valeri knew about the fleet because of his job in the navy; in the days leading up to his escape, he’d disabled the engine on each boat.

Still, once he and Oleg were out on the water, Valeri kept his guard up. About five miles into their journey, the Minakovs saw two Chukchi out on the ice, hunting seals. The men called to Valeri, and he responded by firing two gunshots, exactly as he would have if he too were hunting. From there Valeri navigated the shallow waters over the Banka Bruks reef and turned due east. Valeri didn’t know much about America, but he knew where he wanted to land. Nome was a bad idea; Russian military personnel abounded there. But to the south of Nome, near the mouth of the Yukon River, he’d heard that there was a community of Russian families who’d immigrated to mainland Alaska from the Aleutian Islands. His hope was that they’d welcome him and his son.

At about 11 a.m. on the Minakovs’ first morning at sea, a Soviet sailing ship, a ketch, suddenly appeared behind the kayak. It was following them, and closing in. The ship wasn’t near enough for Oleg to see the men on deck, but he figured that he and his father might be shot at. Valeri decided that their best hopes lay in deception. He turned off the kayak’s engine and held up his hands, feigning surrender. As the ship neared the Minakovs, Valeri reached for some twine that he’d knotted around a stick of dynamite, which is waterproof. He lit the fuse, dropped the dynamite into the sea, and surreptitiously paid the twine out behind the boat until the explosive was positioned somewhere between the Minakovs and their would-be captors.

The dynamite blew up when the ketch was about 100 yards from the kayak. The explosion was loud, and the Minakovs’ pursuers paused. Maybe, Oleg thought, the men feared that they’d encountered an ocean minefield. Even at six, he knew about underwater bombs.

Valeri cut south, into the wind, hoping that the Soviet sailboat would be incapable of following. Waves crashed against the kayak. Valeri and Oleg could see the ketch’s sails—the Soviets were giving chase. Valeri needed speed, so he opened the engine’s throttle and did what he could to lighten the kayak’s load. He threw overboard a pump for draining seawater. He also tossed the jug of drinking water. It was an outrageous move. Surely he knew that he and Oleg could die out on the ocean without any fresh water. But Valeri’s fear of being caught was greater than his fear of fatal dehydration.

Soon the Minakovs had the advantage: The sea became thick with floating spires of ice, and the nimble kayak was able to navigate the obstacle course far better than the ketch. Then came more luck. The wind subsided and a thick fog rolled in, shrouding the ocean and mercifully affording the Minakovs cover. Still, the fog obliged them to slow down lest they slam into an ice floe. In the middle of the sea, another bent propeller could seal their fate. Oleg crouched in the bow, afraid each time the boat came close to a chunk of ice.

Given the circumstances, Valeri adjusted his plan; instead of aiming for the mouth of the Yukon River, he resolved to land in the middle of the strait, on Saint Lawrence Island. Ninety miles long, the island sits on the Alaskan side of the Ice Curtain. At the time, it was home to about 600 people, nearly all of them Native Yupiks.

Before alighting on Saint Lawrence, Valeri stopped at a small, rocky isle nearby. He took out a green tin teapot and filled it with seagull eggs that he found in the crevices between rocks. He would give them as a gift when he and Oleg reached the Yupik settlement. Across the water on Saint Lawrence, four islanders were watching Valeri and Oleg closely. A pair of pale-skinned strangers washing up onshore was a suspect occurrence. The islanders may have feared that the Minakovs were agents of what the U.S. had increasingly come to view as an evil empire. That spring, in the wake of Germany’s surrender, America’s tenuous pact with the Soviet Union had begun unraveling. In June, The New York Times’ military editor, Hanson W. Baldwin, described Soviet foreign policy as “brusque, hard, aggressive, and ruthless.” The Minakovs had steered toward Saint Lawrence at a moment of heightened border security. The United States was also fearful that the Japanese, who had yet to lay down their arms, would invade Alaska to plunder its abundant deposits of platinum, a metal used to make explosives. In more than 100 communities along mainland and island coastlines, volunteer defense squads, many of them Native, stood at the ready, trained and armed by the U.S. military.

The Territorial Guard on Saint Lawrence was almost entirely Yupik. Their base was in the village of Savoonga, and that’s where the Minakovs landed near midnight, some 20 hours after embarking on their journey. Valeri presented his seagull eggs to the guardsmen and managed to pantomime his hatred for Stalin. He also made it clear that if they tried to send him back to Chukotka, he would shoot Oleg and then kill himself.

A schoolteacher named Frank Daugherty was at home in Saint Lawrence’s biggest village, Gambell, on duty as a dispatcher for the Territorial Guard, when news of the Minakovs’ landing crackled over his shortwave radio. Daugherty quickly sent a boat to escort them to Gambell. The journey to Savoonga was 60 miles, over rough seas, and by the time the boat arrived, Oleg was already winning hearts and minds. “The boy wore boots, a winter hat and a sheepskin-lined coat,” Daugherty later wrote in a story for Alaska magazine. “[He] had adjusted quickly and was leading Savoonga youngsters in play.”

Remembering Valeri’s threat, though, the guardsmen exercised caution, separating father and son for the journey back to Gambell. Valeri navigated his own kayak, and Oleg traveled with Dave Evanson, a 24-year-old National Weather Service forecaster from North Dakota who moved to Alaska in 1940, grew his hair out, and spent his off hours making anthropological films of the area. After a full day at sea, some 12 miles shy of Gambell, Evanson beached at a place known as Lester’s Camp for supplies. As he tried shoving the boat back into the water, a large wave upturned it, and Evanson was thrown into the sea. “I dragged him out of the water and pulled him onto the shore,” Oleg later said.

Evanson was capable enough—as a kid, he’d made balsa-wood planes that he flew out of the hayloft in his family’s barn. Now, though, the boat’s engine was drenched, possibly ruined. It couldn’t make the rest of the trip to Gambell. Oleg and Evanson had no way of telling anyone where they were.

There was a shack on the beach where Evanson tried to persuade Oleg to keep warm beneath the reindeer-skin blankets. Oleg refused. Evanson offered the boy sardines. Oleg refused those too, but eventually ate some crackers. For several days and nights, the pair slept on sacks of flour and subsisted on canned food. “We didn’t communicate very much,” Oleg recalled. “I was pretty much on my own.”

Still, Oleg wasn’t scared. He’d been in difficult situations before. “I knew that my papa would eventually come rescue me,” he said. While he waited, Oleg walked on the beach for hours alone.

Sometimes the hum of a U.S. Navy seaplane reached the shack. “We thought someone was looking for us, but we couldn’t see them,” Oleg said. “Every day it was foggy.” One pilot spotted Evanson’s boat, but he couldn’t land—the seas were too rough.

In Gambell, residents were so worried about the fate of Evanson and Oleg that the local Presbyterian church hosted a prayer circle. Valeri had made it to the village, where he was staying with Frank Daugherty. He didn’t know if his son was alive or dead, and he was stressed about his own fate. When Daugherty offered to help return the Minakovs to Chukotka, Valeri responded by writing an imploring note. In the Soviet Union, he pointed out, Oleg would encounter trials worse than “the black forces of hell.” Valeri pleaded, “We could receive life from your hands. Do not turn us over to the state, but rather let us go all the four directions. You can do this.” Eventually, the ocean calmed enough that several Gambell residents were able to make it to Lester’s Camp in a skin kayak, a larger version of the one the Minakovs had made their escape in. They retrieved Evanson and Oleg, and brought the boy to his father. By then, Valeri’s plea for compassion had swayed Daughtery. He helped the Soviet defector apply to the U.S. State Department for asylum.

“We could receive life from your hands. Do not turn us over to the state, but rather let us go all the four directions.

On July 4, 1945, Oleg watched in awe as brave Yupik children marked Independence Day by jumping into the freezing ocean, swimming in the narrow channels of water churning between towers of ice. He went to a feast, took a bite of whale blubber, and vomited.

Valeri, too, exulted in the joys of living in a free and prosperous country. When he laid eyes upon the Daughertys’ porcelain bathtub, he exclaimed, “A-may-rika! A-may-rika!”

But then, on July 12, a ship appeared on the horizon, approaching Gambell, Daugherty wrote, “from the direction of the Russian naval base at Provideniya Bay.” Daugherty hid Valeri in a closet. Oleg was outside playing. Instinctively, he knew that he needed to hide. He ran behind an abandoned building and found a bin with a wooden lid. It was half full of coal. He climbed in, then piled coal atop his head.

The Soviet soldiers’ search was brief—their ship anchored for only a few minutes—but Oleg remained in the coal bin for hours. Several people lifted the lid, but Oleg stayed utterly quiet. At last, Daugherty burrowed down into the bin and found Oleg. He wrote, “Seeing that youngster’s face, I knew the real meaning of bone-chilling fear.”

Still, another threat faced the Minakovs. A week earlier, a U.S. military plane had landed on Saint Lawrence carrying three Army intelligence officers, a Russian interpreter, and an FBI agent. The team would spend three weeks investigating the Minakovs, with the principal mission of interrogating Valeri. They questioned him backward and forward to determine if he was a spy.

The FBI’s file on the Minakovs, which runs to more than 350 pages and is now declassified, reveals that as Valeri told the story of his Bering Strait crossing, his interlocutors decided he wasn’t being “cooperative.” They doubted that an experienced seaman who worked for the Soviet navy would be so rash as to throw his drinking water overboard. They told Valeri that they didn’t believe him. “He was permitted,” the FBI papers read, “to return to his room where for about an hour he walked the floor continuously and appeared to be worrying about something.”

On July 25, the Army plane carried the Minakovs to Anchorage, where the interrogations continued. From there they were flown to Seattle, and briefly detained by the Immigration and Naturalization Service. Oleg recalled being kept in “a small room split in two by a chain-link fence that didn’t quite reach the ceiling. My papa was taken away each morning for questioning, and I’d climb over the gap in the fence, then across to a window well, and spend hours looking out onto the traffic below.

“I didn’t know why I was in jail,” Oleg continued, “and my papa, he’d just walk back and forth in the room gnashing his teeth and smoking cigarettes. He was in his own world.”

PART TWO

Ultimately, according to the FBI file, the “investigation revealed no indication that Subject is an espionage agent.” Not only had the Minakovs survived a perilous journey, they now had a new home: They were permanent residents of the United States.

From the start, Valeri felt like an outsider, especially as he mingled with Seattle’s sizable Russian community. In an August 16, 1945, letter to Frank Daugherty, Valeri said he hoped, working from a distance, that he could help to sink Stalin and his cronies. “I thought that there was a better chance outside the Russian borders,” Valeri wrote, “to work against this Beast which calls itself the Party.” But he was dismayed to find that other Russians in his midst weren’t as concerned with Stalin’s abuses. “The majority of Russians here have lost their identity,” he told Daugherty, referring to their pre-Soviet heritage. “They represent a very convenient material from the midst of which the Bolsheviks may enlist many agents for their dark deeds.”

There was one Russian in Seattle whom Valeri liked: Michael Danilchik, a middle-aged priest at a Russian Orthodox Church called St. Nicholas. Danilchik had overseen the construction of a magnificent cathedral crowned by five gilded domes, and he was a staunch anti-communist—a “rabid monarchist,” as Valeri put it in his letter to Daugherty. When St. Nicholas opened in 1937, Danilchik designated it, according to the church’s website, a “memorial to the martyred Tsar Nicholas II,” killed by Bolshevik revolutionaries in 1918, and to “his Royal Family and all the Russian soldiers and people who died defending their faith, tsar and country.”

Danilchik believed that Orthodox leaders in Russia had lost their way, consorting with godless Communists, and he was intent on sustaining a proud Orthodox community in Seattle. He helped many Russian newcomers settle in the city, including Valeri. “He is a kindly man,” Valeri wrote to Daugherty. “He took me to his house … and found me a job.” Valeri worked as a mechanic in a garage.

But Valeri was not destined to stay long at the $1.38-an-hour gig. Daugherty had a sister who lived 180 miles southeast of Seattle, in Washington’s dry, sparsely populated wheat country. Mabel Upton ran a Seventh Day Adventist nursing home out of her house in the tiny town of Mabton. She and her husband, William, invited the Minakovs to stay for a while. The seemingly endless fields around the Uptons’ place bore similarities to Valeri’s native Ukraine. So the Minakovs moved out there, and Valeri, who spoke almost no English, landed a succession of low-paying jobs—as a farmhand, for instance, and as a maintenance man pruning trees that obstructed electrical wires.

What Valeri couldn’t account for in deciding to move was how Danilchik, the priest, would react. Secretly, Danilchik was an FBI informant. In 1948, he advised the FBI to keep a close watch on Valeri—his basement apartment at the Uptons’ was close to the Hanford Site, home of the world’s first full-scale plutonium reactor.

The FBI was by now a large and powerful operation. Its roster of secret agents had quintupled between 1940 and 1945, and they were focused on disrupting a robust network of Soviet spies infiltrating the American military-industrial complex, where they could take notes on U.S. war plans, airplane manufacturing, and radar use. But “the number one objective of Soviet espionage,” according to a 1945 report by the FBI, was nuclear-bomb construction.

Was Valeri complicit in this covert effort? He’d moved out to Mabton “without any apparent good reason,” according to FBI records, and he was odd and nervous. Though the agency had no evidence that Valeri was engaged in espionage, paranoia was in the air. It was during the summer of 1948 that Alger Hiss, a government official, found himself sitting in the U.S. Capitol building, facing interrogation by the House Un-American Activities Committee, which had accused him of being a Soviet spy. 

On July 1, a telephone operator advised the FBI that someone in the Upton home had placed a call to a Russian man named “Civinsky” in Seattle. Adam Tsvinsky would soon become Valeri’s housemate. Quite possibly the two men had discussed how they might split the light bill, but the agency sensed a Bolshevik conspiracy. In mid-August, six federal agents descended on Mabton to track Valeri for four days. From the hayloft of a neighbor’s barn, they recorded his quotidian movements:

8/14/48, 7:05 pm. Subject drove into the yard; got out of car; talked to small boy, possibly his son; both entered house through basement door.

The surveillance log revealed the movements of a lonely man. One night Valeri drove to a movie theater and sat in the back alone, dressed in a dark blue sport coat, a white shirt, brown gabardine slacks, and maroon suede shoes. After the film he went to a bar. “Subject drank one glass of beer,” an agent noted in his report. “Subject was not observed talking to anyone in theater or tavern.”

Amid cresting anti-communist fervor, Valeri’s neighbors seemed more than happy to facilitate the FBI’s furtive sniffing. They offered the agents housing, supplied them with roosts for spying, and shared everything they knew about Valeri’s incoming mail. Even Frank Daugherty handed over to the bureau the heartfelt letters Valeri had written to him on Saint Lawrence.

It’s unlikely Valeri knew of these betrayals, but as the FBI trailed his 1938 Oldsmobile Tudor, he drove as though he was aware of—and perhaps haunted by—his observers. “On one occasion,” the report noted, he “pulled off to the side and parked his car ninety degrees to the highway and appeared to be observing the passing traffic.” He drove “erratically,” making “many unnecessary turns and changing directions for seemingly no cause.”

Valeri surely sensed the distrust swirling about him. He had survived Stalin’s Russia—he was a connoisseur of paranoia, a man who’d come stateside to escape dark suspicion and ominous innuendo. Now it was descending upon him again, and he could only bear so much.

Amid cresting anti-communist fervor, Valeri’s neighbors seemed more than happy to facilitate the FBI’s furtive sniffing.

In 1949, Valeri told a doctor that bearded men were “coming into his room and hypnotizing him,” according to one medical report. “He thought that people were poisoning his food and that there were tappings in his room all the time.” The Uptons reported that “he would often go outdoors and sit half a day just staring into space.” At times he would cry out, “Evil forces are working against me!”

To Oleg, Valeri described his persecutors as “men in black suits.” Whenever he sensed that they were closing in, he’d direct Oleg to sprint away from him and hide until Valeri felt that the threat was gone. Sometimes Oleg found himself crouched in a meadow or ditch for hours.

On other occasions, Valeri and Oleg went for walks in the Horse Heaven Hills outside Mabton. But they didn’t bond. In fact, father and son could scarcely communicate: Soon after Oleg’s arrival in America, he’d all but forgotten how to speak Russian. Oleg would play by himself in the high grass as Valeri sat a good distance away on a rock, smoking.

There were days when Valeri raved about wanting to return to the Soviet Union to kill Stalin, and others when he became convinced that Stalinist agents were in his orbit. On June 30, 1949, he showed up at the FBI’s Seattle office to insist that Michael Danilchik wasn’t the royalist Orthodox priest he claimed to be, but the leader of a vast conspiracy in which Seattle-based Russians obligingly spied for the Bolsheviks. In April 1950, Valeri visited his old housemate Adam Tsvinsky. He was there, ostensibly, to pick up a lamp and a record player, but he arrived, Tsvinsky wrote to a King County prosecuting attorney, “intending to kill me.” In his letter, which he copied to FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, Tsvinsky explained, “In the moment when Minakov lifted his hand to strike me, I succeeded escaping to a neighbour.”

Two months later, Valeri’s search for employment brought him to far eastern Washington. In the town of Ritzville, his car broke down. He abandoned the vehicle and walked toward the nearest farmhouse, carrying “a pipe and a knife,” according to his FBI file. A farmer suspected Valeri was “prowling,” and when the police arrived Valeri insisted that his car had been stolen, though it was sitting nearby. On account of what the FBI called “peculiar behavior,” the police ushered Valeri to the Ritzville jail. There he tore his metal cot from its concrete mooring and rammed it against the cell door repeatedly. He threatened to kill his jailers, and “it took several attendants to subdue him,” according to a record of the incident. The attendants had to use teargas to do so.

Within hours, Valeri was transferred to the Washington State Mental Hospital at Medical Lake, where he was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. He would reside in the institution for the next 17 years.

There were days when Valeri raved about wanting to return to the Soviet Union to kill Stalin, and others when he became convinced Stalinist agents were in his orbit.

Like many other mental hospitals of that era, Medical Lake was founded on the belief in “moral treatment”—the idea that fresh air and graceful architecture could cure the mentally ill. The waters of the facility’s namesake lake were supposed to be salubrious, but there’s a reason Ken Kesey wrote his 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and why so many state hospitals closed soon after it was published: In the mid-20th century, these institutions became nightmarish places where extreme procedures like lobotomy trumped humane treatment, and where patients were usually presumed defective, degenerate, or dangerous.

When Valeri lived at Medical Lake, there were about 2,000 patients packed into a single overcrowded brick building. Concertina wire sat atop the fences separating residents from the outside world. The lake itself was off-limits, and Valeri’s doctors often refused to let him see visitors, fearing that social contact would be too much for his fragile nerves.

When Danilchik traveled to Medical Lake to see Valeri in 1953, the staff turned him away. And when Oleg accompanied Mabel Upton, by now his foster mother, to the hospital, he was obliged to wait in the car while she checked on Valeri. “I felt guilty that I couldn’t help him,” Oleg said. “I cried a lot.” In 1951, when he was 13, Oleg wrote a letter to Valeri’s doctors asking, “When do you think he’ll be better? Sure is bad you know when you just got one papa and no one else.” He also wrote to his father, but Mabel insisted on editing these letters, to ensure that they contained nothing that would upset Valeri. “This caused me to feel helpless,” Oleg said, “to the point that I did not know what to write.”

At school Oleg got called a “dirty commie.” But he considered himself an American now, and he saw the Cold War through an American lens. With his foster brother, Tommy Upton, he perfected the “Stalin salute,” which involved urinating such that the liquid traced a high arc through the air, a sarcastic homage to Stalin’s round belly.

Oleg grew up to be tall and dashing, with an easy grin. He could strip down and rebuild cars with ease, and would often wheel around in a stylish vehicle—like the 1949 Ford sedan he stole from outside a movie theater one evening. He was gentle and well-liked at school. Girls loved him.

Oleg put almost no effort into his studies. He dropped out of the 11th grade and got in several scrapes with the cops for drinking and joyriding. He was hardworking—whenever the Uptons asked him to help with the harvest or fix the hay baler, he did so eagerly—but he lacked direction and drive. It was as though he were still that kid out on the Bering Strait, bobbing along without any control over where he was headed.

At age 18, a local cop threatened Oleg with trouble unless he joined the Navy. He enlisted but routinely slept through his alarm and was late to muster. Oleg would eventually explain his waywardness by saying, “I wanted freedom, just like my papa.” Still, there was a vacant quality to his life. In his early twenties, Oleg worked in Seattle, making copies at an insurance agency, and hosted huge parties attended by the stylish young women earning their credentials at a local hairstyling school. He got stoned and watched Star Trek on eight TVs at once. Sometimes, when he did drugs, he wept as he thought about Valeri. “He missed his dad,” explained Noelle Barton, a former romantic partner of Oleg’s. “He would talk about his dad all the time. That’s why he became a pothead, I think—to numb that interiority.”

While Oleg drifted, Valeri suffered. “He does not talk very often,” one doctor wrote in 1955. “He is odd and mean and suspicious and from time to time irritable.” A 1956 medical report reads, “It is impossible to tell whether he is delusional.” Another, from 1966, states, “It is doubtful if he could ever qualify for release from the hospital.”

Oleg saw Valeri only once in his adult life. It was 1961, and Oleg found his father locked in a large cage at Medical Lake. Valeri’s manner was subdued, but during the brief visit he seethed at his son, the muscles in his jaws rippling. “Why haven’t you helped me?” Valeri asked. “Why have you done nothing to get me out of this place?” Afterward, the superintendent of the hospital, Harris F. Bunnell, joined a social worker in sending Oleg a letter that blamed him for Valeri’s cool contempt. “It is our feeling,” the two men wrote, “that such a reception was the result of the long time in which he had not heard from you.”

PART THREE

It’s October 2021, and I’m in San Rafael, California, where the weather has been dry for weeks. Parched leaves rustle across the pavement, and a warm breeze brushes the hotel patio where I’m sitting in the sun, finishing lunch. I’m waiting for Oleg Minakov.

In 1966, as the hippie era was blossoming, Oleg emigrated to San Francisco in a pink Lincoln convertible, accompanied by his new wife, a Swede. He has been in California ever since. His first job was as a bouncer at the Red Balloon, a nightclub in North Beach. Later, he procured weed for Carlos Santana, then became the equipment manager for the psychedelic rock band the Charlatans, whose members dressed in the dandyish, late-nineteenth-century style of Oscar Wilde. In time, after divorcing the Swede, he moved into a hippie commune called Olompali. The Grateful Dead visited frequently, and the community’s founder and financier, Don McCoy, once decided, while tripping on acid, that he was a Messiah destined to bring “peace, love, and understanding” to the Western world.

Oleg is 83 now, and over the past six months he and I have been talking over the phone about his Bering Strait crossing and the years that followed. It’s been a slow process. Oleg has Parkinson’s disease, which can affect speech and mobility. Sometimes while talking to me, he’ll halt for a second or two mid-sentence as his synapses steady. He’s forthcoming in our conversations, however, and neither self-aggrandizing nor excessively humble, inclined to answer questions both bluntly and thoughtfully.

“What do you know about your dad’s ancestry?” I asked him once.

“Nothing.”

“You survived Stalin. You survived the Bering Strait. How do you make sense of that?”

“If I were going to write a book about it, I’d call it A Flock of Angels. Because I wouldn’t have made it unless there were a flock of angels taking care of me.”

Today, Oleg is running late for our meeting. It’s a complicated weekend for him. Usually, he lives at the Veterans Home of California in Yountville, 75 minutes north of where I’m staying. But for the past two days he’s been in Marin County visiting a friend: Anna-lisa Smoker, a 58-year-old singer-songwriter with whom he enjoys a deep connection that is at once platonic and stormy. Smoker is busy tonight, so Oleg has booked a room at my hotel. He will be, in effect, under my watch. It’s a decidedly tenuous arrangement.

Oleg seems destined to an old age steeped in uncertainty. His whole life has been unstable. Before his diagnosis, he spent 35 years scraping by as a handyman, building stone walls and fixing cars. He still believes “peyote can make you one with God,” and in 1992 he got caught selling acid, which led to a six-month stay in prison. Julie Lanzarin, his romantic partner from the 1970s through the early nineties, remembers when DEA agents raided their home. “My eight-year-old son, Tahan, had to watch his dad have a gun put to his head,” she told me.

When Smoker finally arrives with Oleg at the hotel in her vintage red Mustang, he is lean and white haired and somewhat stooped. He’s holding his hands out in front of him, protectively, as those with Parkinson’s often do. He has brought a trash bag stuffed with clothes and a large watermelon. We proceed into the hotel, Oleg shuffling along in a pair of very worn moccasin slippers. When we enter his room—the Captain’s Room, it’s called—he rejoices over the skylight and the clawfoot bathtub. “This place is far out!” he exclaims.

It’s hard to convey how much I like Oleg in this moment. Despite his troubles, he speaks with joie de vivre, in the Haight-Ashbury vernacular circa 1967. His life, which has always been the stuff of novels, still seems governed by absurdity. Why, for instance, is he in possession of a watermelon? Why wouldn’t he be, it seems, is the real question. Oleg and I sit down to carve it.

Oleg tells me how, decades ago, as he battled something akin to dyslexia, he devised what he calls an “earth alphabet,” which integrates both Latin and Greek letters and runs to more than 200 characters. Oleg devised it phonetically, to facilitate easy reading, and around 1970 the alphabet afforded him a sliver of fame. Some member of the Grateful Dead—Oleg can’t remember which one—tacked a scroll with the earth alphabet on it to the wall of his home. In 1985, Oleg wrote in an unpublished memoir that he hoped it would “unify the different languages of the earth,” and thereby meet his father’s wish to “prove that there can be one good Russian … who could do something good to make the world a better place to live in.”

Soon, Oleg is singing the earth alphabet for me. He rolls into it by humming theatrically for a full ten seconds, breaking into a jazz scat, and then finally beginning: “Ay east west and go chest…”

When he’s finished, our conversation circles back to Valeri. Oleg zeroes in on the moment at the orphanage when he sat in Stalin’s lap. “In my subconscious awareness, my papa was in back of me that day, like a shadow, observing everything,” he says. “The shadow has always been there. As I’m talking to you, I can visualize him. He’s there, asking that I be a righteous person.”

Oleg regrets his failure to liberate his father from the state hospital. When he was living at the Olompali commune, he tells me, he wanted to bring Valeri there. It was an impractical idea. Olompali, named after a combination of Miwok terms meaning something like “southern village,” was chaotic and often unsafe. In February 1969, the primitive wiring in the commune’s main building caught fire, and the place burned to the ground. That June two preschool girls, unsupervised and riding tricycles at the edge of a swimming pool, fell in and drowned.

Still, as Oleg and I talk, he seems convinced that it would have worked, if only he’d called Medical Lake sooner. “I blame myself for not getting him out of there,” he tells me. “It still breaks my heart.”

At the end of the night, as I’m about to retire to my room, Oleg instructs me to turn on his TV. “I always sleep with it on,” he says. “When it’s off, I think about how I never got my papa out of prison.” There’s a six-inch step up to the bathroom in Oleg’s room, and all night I’m concerned he’ll trip on it. At around 3 a.m., I shamble downstairs to check on him. He’s sleeping soundly, snoring away. The TV is still on.

I’m not the only one charmed by Oleg. Julie Lanzarin remains in his life some three decades after they separated. On my second day in California, she picks me and Oleg up for a dinner outing.

Lanzarin is 63. She was once a high school basketball star; she scored 59 points in a single game. Now she works as a coach at a private school. She is a jaunty and practical person. It was Lanzarin who found Oleg refuge in the Veterans Home, Lanzarin who helped me secure Valeri’s psychiatric records. Valeri’s green teapot—the one in which he collected seagull eggs near Saint Lawrence in 1945—along with Oleg’s immigration papers, sit in Lanzarin’s storage closet.

Oleg and Lanzarin met when she came to Olompali at age ten. Six years later, in 1974, her parents went AWOL—her mother was lost to a religious group, her father to alcohol and a second family in New Mexico. Oleg, a longtime family friend, invited her to live with him. The ensuing romance wasn’t appropriate by any measure—nor was it legal—but what Lanzarin remembers is Oleg’s tender supportiveness. “He took care of me,” she says, “and when I talked about dropping out of school, he pushed me. I didn’t have anybody else.” They were together for more than 15 years.

When Oleg was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, Lanzarin knew that it was her turn to care for him. Now she’s the one who worries. “Look at where he’s ended up,” she says to me one afternoon—meaning, in a nursing home with no family around him.

Lanzarin never met Valeri, of course, but she knows his story, knows that there’s no record of any other little Soviet boy who defected to America via the Bering Strait. “Valeri risked his life to get Oleg to the U.S.,” she says, “and I think he was hoping that his son would become, I don’t know, an engineer. I don’t think that Oleg thinks of himself as that one good Russian.”

The next day, Lanzarin and I drive Oleg back to the Veterans Home in Yountville. Parkinson’s is laying him low. He’s sulky, unresponsive. “I already told you too much,” he says at one point.

As we drive north, Lanzarin is sweet with Oleg, reciting a list of the old cars he’d fixed up for her. “And then there was that Saab that couldn’t go in reverse,” she says.

When we reach Yountville, we make a quick stop so that Lanzarin can help Oleg buy some new moccasins. Oleg is monosyllabic during the process. But there is something charming, I decide, even about his orneriness. It’s skin-deep, and calls to mind a petulant child. Oleg’s ex Noelle Barton summed him up when she told me, “He is a kind, simple person. He’s stubborn, but he has no personal greed, no envy.”

As we drive through downtown Yountville, Oleg keeps brooding, so Lanzarin teases him in tender tones. “Oh Oleg,” she says, “your dad put you in a little kayak and took you to a different country and then disappeared. No wonder you are riddled with problems!”

On the lawn outside the Veterans Home, before Oleg goes inside, Lanzarin gives him a haircut. I watch as his white, wispy locks flutter over the grass in the wind.

When eventually we approach the back entrance to Oleg’s building, he insists on getting himself inside without help. The last time I see him, he is pushing a wheelchair loaded with all his stuff down a long linoleum-floored hallway. He’s weaving a bit, stumbling some in his new moccasins, but still moving forward.

In this manner, the voyage continues.


© 2022 The Atavist Magazine. Proudly powered by Newspack by Automattic.

The Free and the Brave

THE FREE AND THE BRAVE

A patriotic parade, a bloody brawl, and the origins of U.S. law enforcement’s war on the political left.

By Bill Donahue

The Atavist Magazine, No. 106


Bill Donahue has written for The New York Times Magazine, Outside, and Harper’s, among other publications. He is based in New Hampshire. Follow him on Twitter: @billdonahue13.

Editor: Jonah Ogles
Designer: Ed Johnson
Copy Editor: Sean Cooper
Fact Checker: Kate Wheeling
Illustrator: John Lee

Published in August 2020.

I.

American flags lined the parade route, and more than 200 men in shined boots stepped into formation. The date was November 11, 1919—a proud occasion, the first Armistice Day. It had been exactly one year since Germany signed a pledge to stop fighting Great Britain, France, the United States, and other allies, thereby ending World War I. If ever there was a moment for solemn patriotism, this was it. And if ever there was a town suited to express rock-ribbed, God-fearing devotion to America, then Centralia, Washington, was the place.

Centralia was a tidy and prosperous logging town of 7,300 set amid the primeval forests of the Pacific Northwest. Its municipal fathers had taken special pains to ensure that their town stood head and shoulders above other, less civilized western outposts, with their dingy saloons and whorehouses. Centralia had concrete sidewalks. It had streetlights and streetcars and a sewer system. It had a volunteer fire department and a newspaper that dutifully championed the decency and civility of the town’s leaders as they shaped Centralia into a bona fide municipality.

The morning of the parade, that paper, The Centralia Daily Chronicle, reminded readers that Armistice Day was not a party. It was, rather, a holiday “warning against any efforts to interrupt the natural development of Christian Civilization.” The largest perceived impediment to “Christian Civilization” in 1919 was Bolshevism, which had reached full flower two years earlier during the Russian Revolution and found a foothold in America by way of a growing labor movement. A Red Scare was in full swing, and the Chronicle’s editorial homed in on that newfound American obsession. “We can sing and shout and march to the tuneful music of the fife and drums and the martial bands,” it read, “but in all we must not forget the battle is not all won until the disease spots have been eradicated.”

The Armistice Day marchers believed in the righteousness of that battle. Members of the local Elks Club were there, along with a contingent of Boy Scouts and some Marines. Centralia was also home to a newly minted chapter of the American Legion, a national veterans’ group. The Grant Hodge Post was named after a local Army lieutenant who died in France’s Argonne Forest. Eighty of its Legionnaires brought up the rear of the parade.

They were led by a young veteran and lawyer named Warren Grimm. Solidly built and fair, with thinning dark blond hair, Grimm had played football at the University of Washington a decade earlier. As a freshman, he earned himself the nickname Wedge by playing the starring role in a brutal hazing ritual: He led 50 classmates to victory over a sophomore squad in a no-rules skirmish by forming them into a wedge and charging. Now Grimm, 31, led a different kind of configuration. As the Legionnaires divided themselves into eight platoons of ten men each, a marching band played the popular World War I–era tune “Over There.” The lyrics went:

Johnnie, get your gun, get your gun, get your gun
Make your daddy glad to have had such a lad
Tell your sweetheart not to pine, to be proud her boy’s in line.

The parade kicked off at 2 p.m. and followed Centralia’s brick-paved main thoroughfare, Tower Avenue. At the north end sat Centralia’s grandest edifice, the Union Loan & Trust Building, a three-story brick structure replete with a Doric arch over its doorway and a belt of white stone running the length of the facade. Many of its hundred or so windows were elegantly domed at the crest, and the building’s size and heft clearly identified it as the seat of all rectitude and power in Centralia. A men’s clothing store selling dress suits occupied the building’s ground level, exuding respectability. The president of Union Loan & Trust kept his office on the second floor, while the third floor was home to the Elks Club. At one point, the Chronicle was housed in the basement, where it served as a pep squad for the town’s elite and the resource-rich county over which they held dominion. “There are more opportunities to the square inch,” the paper once proclaimed, “than in any other place in the world.”

Just a half-mile away from the Union Loan & Trust Building, the view from the north end of Tower Avenue was harder and grimier. It featured a clutter of low-rent boarding houses that drew itinerant loggers who felled trees in the forests surrounding town. Two stories high, with a warren of small rooms equipped with cold-water sinks, the hotels were home to a constellation of weary and solitary men who typically arrived in town with just a few bucks to their name. There was the Arnold, the Avalon, the Michigan House, the Queen, and the Roderick.

It was in front of the Roderick that Centralia’s Legionnaires suddenly stopped during the parade. Warren Grimm raised his arm and shouted, “Halt, close up ranks!” It was a strange command. The Armistice Day marchers were spaced out by then, with Grimm’s men well behind the rest of the procession. By halting, the Legionnaires would only widen the gap.

Facing the veterans on the Roderick’s ground floor was a 1,000-square-foot space that served as the union hall for the local chapter of the Workers of the World. A large storefront window bore the initials IWW, three letters that evoked the purported evils of Bolshevism or the virtues of economic brotherhood, depending on who was reading them. Grimm’s men stood motionless for a moment. The crowd that had gathered to view the parade waited for the Legionnaires’ next move.

So did several armed Wobblies, as IWW members called themselves. The Wobblies were hidden from view, prepared to attack if anyone tried to eradicate “disease spots.” They wouldn’t let that happen—not again.

II.

Centralia was in some ways a wholesome idyll—the kind of place that in November 1919 ran a news story about “seven boys charged with Hallowe’en pranks” who appeared “before Police Judge Hodge yesterday evening.” (The boys, the Chronicle reported, were “given a lecture by the court and ordered to repair the damages they did.”) But the town was also plagued by troubles that would seem familiar today. The influenza epidemic cast a shadow over everything. In the fall of 1918, it had killed eight people inside of 36 hours in and around the nearby town of Chehalis, and just a few weeks before the Armistice Day parade, the Chronicle had intoned, “Many medical men say we will probably have another epidemic this fall.” Influenza masks were everywhere, and the paper carried advertisements for a dubious elixir, cascara quinine bromide, said to kill the flu if swallowed.

Meanwhile, America was riven by a political divide that deepened sharply in 1919, cutting into small towns like Centralia. The American Legion was founded that March by a contingent of World War I veterans who aimed, according to their constitution, to “foster and perpetuate a 100 percent Americanism.” The group’s language would soon be picked up by another growing movement devoted to patriotic purity: The Ku Klux Klan, revived by a Methodist minister in 1915, also began touting “100 percent Americanism.” The KKK beat and lynched African Americans. It went after Jews and Catholics. It deplored communists and anyone associated with them.

So did the most powerful men in U.S. law enforcement, who fixated on acts of violence staged by a few extremists as evidence of the American left’s wider, nefarious aims. Luigi Galleani, an infamous anarchist orator and political sage of the day, espoused “propaganda of the deed,” which to him involved eradicating capitalism by using explosives. On April 29, 1919, disciples of Galleani sent former Georgia senator Thomas Hardwick a package bomb that blew off his housekeeper’s hands. On June 2, another bomb went off at the Washington, D.C., home of U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. Though no one in the home was injured, it shattered the windows—and engendered a historic shift in the way the United States policed the political left.

To combat what he deemed a burgeoning terrorist movement composed of “ultradicals or Bolshevists,” Palmer opened the Radical Division inside the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation. As he staffed this new unit, he made an unorthodox promotion, choosing as its director a recent law-school graduate, just 24 years old, who’d began his career by helping the government track down “alien enemies” during World War I. J. Edgar Hoover joined the Radical Division in August 1919. Three months later, on the night of November 7, the boy wonder set anticommunist shock troops loose on 12 cities nationwide. In each locale, the target was the Union of Russian Workers. Hoover’s men rounded up 1,100 suspects, whom young J. Edgar aimed to deport. In Manhattan alone, at the Russian Peoples House in Union Square, the troops arrested more than 200 people and injured many by whacking them on the head, according to one man, with “a twelve-inch steel jimmy and a stair bannister.” Then they herded the accused into the Justice Department’s local bureau. The interrogations lasted until 4:30 a.m.

Powerful men fixated on acts of violence staged by a few extremists as evidence of the American left’s wider, nefarious aims.

Nothing so dramatic had yet happened in Centralia. Still, local politics reflected the national backdrop. Centralia’s young professionals, men like Warren Grimm, were in thrall to one F.B. Hubbard. At 73, Hubbard was a charter member of the Elks Club and president of the town’s largest employer, the Eastern Railway & Lumber Company. Also the president of his own bank, he was the financier behind the Union Loan & Trust Building. Hubbard had silver hair and a broad, bushy mustache. In photographs, his gaze was so steady, his posture so ramrod straight, that he seemed carved in stone, his torso and head forming an invincible marble bust. A New York native, Hubbard had made a small fortune mass-producing narrow wooden crossarms for telegraph poles before moving to Centralia in 1908. By 1919, he had more than 200 people working for him, distributed across 9,000 acres he owned—magnificent, lumber-rich forest, all of it underlain, according to the Chronicle, with “a fine coal deposit.” His allegiance to the town was so deep that the newspaper once saw fit to uppercase his virtues—“Energy” and “Thoroughness”—before noting, “His counsel is much sought and prized by the public, and his natural tendency … is to aid every industry that makes for the social, mental, physical and financial betterment of the district.” 

Hubbard’s archenemy was organized labor, which had a strong appeal in western Washington. Loggers in the region earned about two dollars a day for up to 12 hours of work. When they were on the job, they lodged for weeks on end in cramped cabins in the woods. There were “40 men in the bunkhouse,” according to Eugene Barnett, a logger who moved to Centralia in 1918. “You worked all day in the rain. You came in at night and hung your soggy clothes up around the one stove in the center of the room with wires going out from it in all directions like a spider web, and they hung there and steamed all night. And you slept there in that steam. That’s the only bath you got.”

In 1914, a short-lived group called the International Union of Timber Workers zeroed in on Hubbard’s practice of paying employees poverty wages—some of the workers at his plant made as little as $1.35 a day. When two of Centralia’s Protestant ministers showed up at Hubbard’s office, sympathetic to his workers and hoping to have a look at his payroll, he showed them the door. The union decided to go on strike, and 125 men walked off the job that August. As the picket began, the president and the secretary of the union jointly wrote a letter to the Chronicle, noting that in Hubbard’s lumber camps, loggers were charged 50 cents a month for the use of $4 mattresses.

The Chronicle hurt the union’s cause by calling strikers “agitators” and running a puff piece that extolled Hubbard’s “almost paternal consideration for his employees.” The paper went so far as to claim that Hubbard had “some ideas that might be considered almost socialistic by more material captains of industry.”

Hubbard didn’t change his policies. Instead, he increased the length of the workday at his mill from eight to ten hours, and also hired scabs. In January 1915, more than 70 of these new workers sent a joint letter to the newspaper that pilloried the “self-styled strikers” and proclaimed, “We, the employees, are satisfied with the treatment and the scale of the wages paid us.”

It wasn’t long before the strike ended and Hubbard moved on to more pressing concerns, such as the purchase of a couple of three-car locomotives to transport his timber. But the battle between industry and labor in Centralia was just getting started. 

 F.B. Hubbard

III.

The IWW was a vehemently anti-capitalist organization. When it was founded in 1905, in Chicago, the IWW drafted a constitution that borrowed a page from Karl Marx, calling on the workers of the world to “organize as a class, take possession of the means of production, abolish the wage system, and live in harmony with the Earth.” By the middle of the next decade, the IWW had chapters across America. The IWW’s 150,000 members took to the nation’s streets, spouting diatribes against monied interests as police endeavored to silence them with billy clubs.

The IWW’s foot soldiers were shunned even by mainstream groups such as the American Federation of Labor. Wobblies lived on the margins, fraternally bound as outsiders. Often they rode freight cars together from town to town. As they rattled along, they raised their voices to sing political anthems. One, entitled “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum,” had a line that went, “If I didn’t eat, I’d have money to burn.”

Hubbard and other lumber barons glowered as the IWW took a stand in the Pacific Northwest. In 1916, even before the U.S. entered World War I, the timber industry had begun supplying the Allied powers with lightweight, tensile Sitka spruce that was perfect for making airplanes. The IWW monkey-wrenched this effort in 1917 by rallying some 10,000 loggers into a three-month strike aimed at reducing the length of their workday from ten to eight hours. Once the men prevailed upon some of the logging companies to reduce hours, the Wobblies ended the strike but encouraged loggers employed by inflexible bosses to lollygag on the job. An eye-catching Wobbly sticker declared, “The hours are long and the pay is small. Take your time and buck them all.”

The stronghold of the 1917 IWW strike in Washington State lay just west of Centralia, amid the fog and spattering rain of the Olympic Peninsula, in towns such as Aberdeen and Hoquiam, where meagerly paid, left-leaning Finnish immigrants maintained large “Red Finn” halls at which the IWW’s leading luminaries—poet and journalist Ralph Chaplin, for instance—stopped to lecture. The IWW didn’t yet have a strong organized presence in Centralia, though it wasn’t for lack of trying. In 1915, vigilantes marched a group of Wobblies out of town. In 1917, the IWW opened up a local hall, but the landlord soon evicted them under public pressure. After the Wobblies rented a new space, Centralia’s Commercial Club met to consider a plan to “take matters into their own hands,” according to the Chronicle.

Hubbard was among the residents of Centralia intent on deflecting the IWW’s encroachment. In May 1918, during a parade that was part of a fundraising drive for the town’s chapter of the Red Cross, Hubbard’s Elks detoured from the route to raid Centralia’s IWW hall. They burned the union’s typewriter along with its files and newspaper archives. They carried the IWW’s Victrola and rolltop desk into the middle of Tower Avenue, then held an impromptu street auction to benefit the Red Cross. Hubbard himself scored the desk, which he donated to Centralia’s chamber of commerce. Meanwhile, the half-dozen Wobblies lingering inside the hall were “lifted by their ears into a truck,” according to one report, and taken to a nearby field, where they were flogged with sticks and ax handles.

The following summer, the Wobblies again tried to make inroads in Centralia. A logger named Britt Smith was able to convince the owner of the Roderick Hotel to rent the bottom of her building to the IWW for use as a hall. Smith moved in on September 1, 1919. He set up an apartment in the back and appointed the front with furniture. He had good reason to hope that the hall would grow into a sort of community center. On the Olympic Peninsula, the sprawling Red Finn halls had libraries and gymnasiums. Labor groups used the facilities for union business—meetings and fundraisers and such—and also for wiener roasts and wedding showers, plays and funerals.

But as Smith harbored dreams of a promising Wobbly future in Centralia, he also worried that the union’s opponents might try to rid the town of its despised red blight once and for all. In June 1919, the Centralia chamber of commerce met to discuss the Wobbly problem. It formed a Citizens Protective Association and made Hubbard its chair. When the association gathered at Centralia’s Elks Club on October 20, Hubbard pressed the police chief to force the Wobblies out of town. The chief declined, saying there was nothing illegal about the IWW being there. If he was the head of police, Hubbard shouted, he would toss the Wobblies out right away.

Later that night, Hubbard formed another committee, this one dedicated to seeking extralegal methods of evicting the Wobblies. Warren Grimm was named chair. Grimm’s experience with communism, and his disdain for it, was well known in town. During the war, he had been stationed in Siberia. What he saw there disgusted him. In a guest column for the Chronicle, he once sniffed, “Vladivostock, although a city of 125,000, has neither sewerage nor water systems.” In June 1918, when an IWW sympathizer named Tom Lassiter—a partially blind man—was attacked in Centralia, Grimm took the side of his assailants. Lassiter ran a newspaper stand selling labor rags such as the Industrial Worker. Two thugs kidnapped him, drove him out of town, and threw him into a ditch. Discussing the incident with a fellow lawyer, Grimm said, “That’s the proper way to treat such a fellow.” Soon after, in a Labor Day speech delivered in Centralia’s Riverside Park, Grimm fulminated about “the American Bolsheviki—the industrial workers of the world.”

No wonder, then, that the Wobblies feared the first Armistice Day might bring fresh trouble. They met the night before the parade to hatch a plan: They would secret guns to strategic positions in and around the hall, from which they could protect it. If the parade, led by Hubbard, turned into the sort of attack they’d seen before, they’d be ready.

When Grimm ordered the Legionnaires to halt at the Roderick, the Wobblies on the lookout had only to raise and cock their guns. When several of Grimm’s men burst into motion, hurling themselves at the IWW hall’s locked door and breaking the large storefront window, the Wobblies took aim. As shattered glass flew, five gunmen had Grimm in their sight.

IV.

Three of the men were a block to the east, across a set of railroad tracks, lying prone on Seminary Ridge. The elevated position gave them a bird’s-eye view of Tower Avenue. Another Wobbly, O.C. Bland, a father of seven, was situated across the street from the Roderick, wielding a .25-35 rifle in an upstairs room of the Arnold Hotel. He was in such a hurry to get the barrel of his gun out the window that he smashed the glass and cut a bloody gash into the back of his hand.

A block away, in the Avalon Hotel, was a large mustached man who had just arrived in Centralia. At a meeting in the IWW hall the night before, he’d mentioned that his name was Davis, but no one seemed to know him, and there was something clownish about him: When presented with the challenge of sneaking a rifle into the Avalon to avoid suspicion, he tried stuffing it down the leg of his pant. His stiff gait prompted other Wobblies to laugh, so he wrapped the gun in an overcoat. Now he was aiming the rifle through the slit of an open window.

What did Davis see, peering down? Some historians contend that, as the rest of the Armistice Day parade moved down Tower Avenue, Grimm shouted, “Boys, aren’t you with us?” He tried to beckon some of the marchers back to help with the Legionnaires’ attack on the Wobblies’ hall. A corollary theory holds that Grimm channeled his athletic past. Did he put the Wedge, the maneuver from his college days, into action as his men charged the hall? Did he lead the way? There is, of course, no footage of Centralia’s Armistice Day parade, but it seems likely that Grimm, at the very least, took part in the assault.

Perhaps no one inside the IWW hall was more willing to fire upon the Legionnaires than Wesley Everest.

At about 2:35 p.m., a few moments after the violence began, Grimm was struck in the chest by a bullet fired from above. It likely came from Davis’s gun, aiming from across the street. Grimm staggered half a block to a shed behind a candy store, where he told a doctor—a fellow Legionnaire who’d raced to help him—that he felt “an awful pain” in his stomach. By the time he climbed into the car that rushed him toward Centralia’s hospital, his wound was as “big as an inkwell,” according to a fellow passenger. Grimm would not survive the day.

From his perch in the Avalon, Davis could see a Legionnaire rushing north on Tower Avenue. His name was Arthur McElfresh. He’d fought in the Argonne Forest and now, at 26, was the manager of the Prigmore & Sears pharmacy. With a few other Legionnaires, he found cover behind a building located some 50 feet from the IWW hall, on the same side of the street. When McElfresh peered around the corner to look at the Roderick, he took a fatal bullet to the head. It’s impossible to say with certainty who shot him, but it was likely Davis, who would have had a clear line of sight on McElfresh.

The three gunmen on Seminary Ridge began shooting, peppering the parade’s marchers and spectators. Most of the crowd dispersed in a frenzy, unsure of where the shots were coming from. Centralia’s Legionnaires, however, kept pouring into the IWW Hall—they were trained soldiers and undeterred by artillery fire.

Seven Wobblies waited inside the hall, and they were the salt of the earth. Their leader, Britt Smith, was a native of southwestern Washington, who walked with a limp. In time, legal papers would describe him as “sober, honest and reasonably industrious.” Bert Faulkner, a 31-year-old veteran, had attended high school with Grimm in Centralia. He was missing his left middle finger, the result of a logging accident. Mike Sheehan, a Wobbly elder in his sixties, was a Spanish-American War vet who had been involved in organized labor ever since he joined his father’s butcher’s union at the age of eight. Another man in the hall was a minister’s son and ideologue named Ray Becker. Twenty-six years old, Becker had fled divinity school to work in the woods of Wisconsin, Illinois, and Minnesota. He’d served jail time for evading the draft, and arrived in Centralia just two days before the parade, with a zealot’s fire for social justice and a .38 pistol.

But perhaps no one inside the IWW hall was more willing to fire upon the Legionnaires than Wesley Everest. He was 28 and handsome, with red hair. He crouched in the back of the hall with an Army-issue .45 automatic pistol. Within moments he would turn himself into a folk hero, the subject of myth. 

By the mid-1910s, the IWW had 150,000 members.

V.

John Dos Passos, one of America’s most widely read 20th-century writers, would later refer to Everest, a World War I vet, as a “sharpshooter,” alleging that he fought in the trenches of France. In his landmark novel 1919, Dos Passos claimed that Everest earned “a medal for a crack shot.” Elsewhere, Dos Passos made Everest sound like Daniel Boone, writing of the veteran, “His folks were of the old Tennessee and Kentucky stock of woodsmen and squirrel hunters.” Others have traded on the salacious tale that Everest married and fathered a child with Marie Equi, an Oregon lesbian, physician, and Wobbly icon.

None of this was true. Everest was a hard-luck case and a nobody who, by odd twists of fate, found himself at the center of a historic street battle on Armistice Day. He grew up on a farm in tiny Newberg, Oregon, and his life was shaped by trauma. His father, a schoolteacher and postmaster, died before Everest was even a teenager. In 1904, when he was 13, Everest’s mother was thrown from the seat of a horse buggy. Her head hit a rock and she died hours later, leaving behind seven orphans. “We children were distributed among aunts and other relatives,” his younger brother Charles wrote in a 1977 letter that offers one of the few original accounts of Everest’s life.

For Everest, the third-oldest child, the fatal accident gave way to an unsettled existence. At first he lived on a great-aunt’s farm outside Portland, and then, when milking cows no longer agreed with him, he ran away. He wasn’t yet 15. “I do not know where he went or what he did,” Charles wrote, “but I heard he was felling timber in the woods at age 17.” Charles didn’t see his brother again until 1911, when Everest got a job on the railroad near where Charles lived. “He worked a short time,” Charles wrote, “and disappeared.”

Everest was working for the IWW by the age of 21. In 1913, he was on Oregon’s southern coast, in the village of Marshfield, organizing a logging strike summed up eloquently in a headline that appeared in The Coos Bay Harbor: “35 Men Refuse to Work in Deep Mud. Strike for Less Hours and More Pay.” The six-week campaign failed. Along with another Wobbly leader, Everest was escorted out of town by what The Coos Bay Times called a “committee” of 600 armed citizens—a group that included “practically every businessman in Marshfield.” The men dragged Everest through the streets until he was scarcely able to walk. They forced him to kneel and kiss the American flag. They put him on a boat bound for a distant beach. And they advised him to never return to Marshfield, “as he might,” in the newspaper’s words, “suffer greater violence.”

When Everest was conscripted in 1917, it was into a special contingent of the Army that logged spruce for airplanes in western Washington. He stubbornly resisted the lessons of Marshfield. During his 16-month Army hitch, he spent much of his time in the stockade, repeatedly punished for refusing to salute the American flag. “In the mornings,” writes John McClelland Jr., the author of Wobbly War: The Centralia Story, “Everest would be let out of the stockade at reveille when the flag was raised. Everest would refuse to salute whereupon he would be marched back to the stockade for another day.”

Everest arrived in Centralia in the spring of 1919, and he liked to wear his Army uniform around town. It allowed him to blend in, and he likely donned it on a visit to the Elks’ clubhouse, where a group of concerned Centralia citizens gathered that October to discuss the threat of organized labor. He came away convinced that the town’s citizens were determined to shoot up the IWW hall on Armistice Day. “When those fellows come,” he told other Wobblies at their own meeting, “they will come prepared to clean us out, and this building will be honeycombed with bullets inside of ten minutes.”

It was Everest who argued that the Wobblies should arm themselves for the parade. Listening to him make his case, 21-year-old IWW logger Loren Roberts concluded that Everest was “a desperate character. He didn’t give a goddamn for nothing. He didn’t give a damn whether he got killed or not.”

Everest had been right that the Legionnaires were planning an attack. He was wrong, though, about the hall being “honeycombed with bullets.” When Grimm’s men charged, they were unarmed.

VI.

As the Legionnaires forced their way inside the hall, Everest and Ray Becker, the minister’s son, shot wildly, hitting no one. The vets kept coming. Four Wobblies, including Becker, ran to the back porch of the Roderick, where they hid in an unused freezer. Everest kept running, past the porch and into an alley. Men in military uniform sprinted after him. He kept shooting, and this time his aim was good. Ben Casagranda, a Legionnaire and the owner of a Centralia shoeshine parlor, fell to the ground with a bullet in his gut. Another veteran, John Watt, fell beside him, hit in the spleen. Watt would survive; Casagranda would not.

The Legionnaires, who greatly outnumbered the Wobblies, began asking neighbors of the Roderick for their weapons. Some broke into a hardware store, searching for guns and cartridges. A few who were still unarmed followed Everest at a careful distance.

Everest scrambled west down alleyways, through vacant lots, and past horse stables. He was moving toward the Skookumchuck River, less than half a mile from the IWW hall. On the north bank were farms and forests through which he could escape into the mist.

As he ran, Everest stopped every so often to hide behind a building and shoot at the soldiers on his trail. He missed, wasting bullets. When he got to the river, it was swollen with autumn rains and moving too quickly to cross. Everest was trapped.

The Legionnaires began asking neighbors for their weapons. Some broke into a hardware store, searching for guns and cartridges.

F.B. Hubbard’s nephew, Dale, lumbered toward him, pointing a pistol at Everest as two other Legionnaires hurried to assist. He instructed Everest to drop his gun. Like Grimm, Dale Hubbard had played football at the University of Washington. He’d served in France, with a division of forestry engineers, and gotten married a month earlier. He was 26. He’d borrowed the pistol he was holding from someone he’d encountered en route to the riverbank. The gun didn’t work, though—Dale was bluffing.

Everest didn’t know this, and he likely regarded Dale’s steady pointing of the weapon as a death threat. Still, he didn’t acquiesce to the command that he drop his pistol. Instead, according to legal papers, Everest hurled “defiant curses” at Dale. When Dale moved toward him, Everest fired repeatedly, wounding Dale repeatedly. Dale fell to the ground. He would die that night. 

Everest had just shot a veteran in front of two other soldiers, and his gun was now out of bullets. He tried to reload, but Dale Hubbard’s allies tackled him. The Legionnaires kicked him in the head, drawing blood. When he refused to walk, they strung a belt around his neck and dragged him a mile to the Centralia jail.

The assault on the IWW hall.

VII.

As Everest was hauled through town, no one asked questions. Instead, a crowd grew around him, convinced he was evil, and eventually he found himself “in the vanguard of a howling, sneering mob,” one witness wrote decades later in the Chronicle. “His head was a bloody mass of welts from both men and women who dashed out sporadically from the curb to pummel him with their fists.”

Someone in the mob threw a hangman’s noose around a light pole, according to one eyewitness. Everest was led beneath it. As he stood waiting for his end, he berated the crowd, calling them “cowards, rats, and Hubbard’s hirelings.” As the crowd aggravated for the Wobbly’s demise, an elderly woman intervened and begged Everest’s tormenters not to hang him.

Soldiers lifted Everest off the ground by his neck and feet like a sack of potatoes. They tossed him into a jail cell. As he lay in a pool of blood, squads of Legionnaires combed the streets of Centralia looking for other Wobblies. The IWW hall had been ransacked and destroyed. Mobs burned the Wobblies’ furniture in the street, along with piles of books and labor newspapers. They tore a porch off the side of the Roderick, prompting the building’s worried owner, Mary McAllister, to hastily install an American flag in her window lest the whole place be leveled.

Across the street, O.C. Bland wrapped a towel around his bloody hand. He left the Arnold Hotel, crossed Tower Avenue, and walked east, hoping to convalesce at a friend’s. When he reached Seminary Ridge, he encountered Davis, the crack Wobbly gunman who had likely killed two people that day. The Legionnaires were searching for him. When The New York Times reported on the hunt the following morning, it wrote that the servicemen “searched the highways and byways for all suspicious persons and then sent out parties into the timbered country around the city.”

When they could not find Davis in the open air, the Legionnaires stormed a seedy, smoky pool hall. According to the Times, they “lined about 100 persons against the wall and searched them.” Sixteen men carrying IWW cards were arrested. At least 25 alleged Wobblies ended up in Centralia’s jail alongside Everest.

At 5 p.m., Centralia’s Elks and Legion Post #17 gathered for an emergency meeting in the Union Loan & Trust Building. They adjourned briefly to return home for their guns, then convened again to devise a plan of action, booting anyone who was neither an Elk nor a Legionnaire from the room.

Shortly after the men emerged at 7 p.m., they arrived at the jail in a caravan of six vehicles, each of which had its headlights switched off. The men occupying the vehicles had no problem getting inside. The jail was guarded by a lone watchman, and they were operating under cover of darkness—someone, possibly Centralia’s mayor, had managed to temporarily cut the electricity flowing from the town’s power plant.

“The first person to enter the jail was F.B. Hubbard,” Esther Barnett Goffinet, daughter of Wobbly Eugene Barnett, wrote in her 2010 book, Ripples of a Lie. “Someone in front of the jail turned their headlights on and Hubbard yelled, ‘Turn off that light! Some IWW son-of-a-bitch might see our faces.’” 

It’s not clear that Hubbard actually said this—or that he was even at the jail that night. Goffinet’s source was a pair of affidavits given several years later by two Wobbly prisoners with an ax to grind. Still, the vignette gets the deeper story right. Working his connections and exercising his clout, Hubbard had spent much of 1919 quarterbacking Centralia’s war against the red scourge. Now his ugly hopes were coming to fruition.

The posse dragged Everest outside, where a crowd of about 2,000 people were now “swarming like bees,” the Tacoma News-Tribune reported. “They were rough men, angry, scornful men whose pockets bulged menacingly with the weapons they made small effort to conceal.” Some in the crowd wanted every single Wobbly in Centralia to hang. They shouted, “Lynch ’em!”

The caravan moved west, bound for the broad Chehalis River. Everest was defiant. “I got my man and done my duty,” he said, not specifying which of his victims he intended to kill. “String me up now if you want to.”

Men who were never charged in court knotted a noose to a crossarm of a bridge over the Chehalis. They put it around Everest’s neck and let him drop. A moment later they heard a low moan and knew that Everest was still alive—they’d flubbed the hanging. They pulled him up. They found a longer rope and let Everest drop again. This time his neck snapped. When at last his body went limp, the vigilantes in the caravan turned their headlights on so they could take aim. They shot some 20 or 30 bullets into Everest’s corpse.

They left his body dangling. Early the next morning, November 12, someone cut the rope. That evening, the Seattle Star reported, Everest’s corpse “was dragged through the streets. The body was taken to the jail and placed in a cell in full view of 30 alleged IWW prisoners.” 

“The sight was intended as an object lesson not only for the prisoners huddled in their cells,” the Star noted, “but to all men who fail to respect the men who fought for the United States.”

VIII.

In the lyrics to a 1920 song titled “Wesley Everest,” Wobbly Ralph Chaplin channeled Christ’s crucifixion as he envisioned the activist hanging from a noose. “Torn and defiant as a wind-lashed reed,” the song goes, “a rebel unto Caesar—then as now—alone, thorn crowned, a spear wound in His side.” In The Centralia Conspiracy, a book published the same year, Chaplin burnished Everest’s martyr status by suggesting that his killers had castrated him. “In the automobile, on the way to the lynching,” Chaplin writes, “he was unsexed by a human fiend, a well known Centralia business man.”

The story of Everest’s castration is arguably the most remembered detail of the Centralia tragedy. It is so widely accepted that Howard Zinn presented it as fact in A People’s History of the United States. The story is likely bogus, however. In a meticulous 1986 essay, Wesley Everest, IWW Martyr, author Thomas Copeland makes clear that, in late 1919, not a single report—from journalists, from Everest’s fellow Wobblies, or from the coroner—mentioned castration.

Still, Chaplin’s mythmaking is nothing compared with the stagecraft of the trial that ensued after the Armistice Day violence. In early 1920, in a courthouse in Montesano, Washington, 11 Wobblies stood accused of committing murder during the shootout. To intimidate the jury, Hubbard’s company joined other citizens in paying 50 World War I veterans $4 a day to sit in the gallery dressed in uniform. Outside the courtroom, the soldiers enjoyed free meals at Montesano’s city hall and met trains to discourage IWW supporters from disembarking.

The troops camped outside the courthouse for two weeks and stirred such fear that two jurors secretly carried guns.

The judge presiding over the case, John M. Wilson, refused to let the jury consider the buildup to the shootout—the 1918 attack on Centralia’s IWW hall, for instance, and the October meeting at the Elks Club to discuss the “Wobbly problem.” Prosecutor Herman Allen, meanwhile, turned the proceedings into a circus. Mid-trial, Allen summoned assistance from the Army as what he called a “precautionary measure” against Wobbly violence. Eighty enlisted men were dutifully sent to town. The troops, who arrived armed, camped outside the courthouse for two weeks and stirred such fear that two jurors secretly carried guns in case of a Wobbly attack. Their fear was unfounded, however. Nobody on the union’s side was calling for an uprising in Montesano. In fact, leftist protestors stayed away from the heavily patrolled town.

For the Wobblies on trial, there was one sliver of light: Davis, the stranger who’d probably killed two Legionnaires, had escaped. Somehow, despite extensive searching, Davis had vanished, never to be found. The only other Wobbly known to have killed anyone was Everest, and he had been lynched. As it sought payback for the death of four Legionnaires—Grimm, Hubbard, Casagranda, and McElfresh—the prosecution offered a tenuous argument that the defendants were to blame.

Allen tried to build a case that Wobbly Eugene Barnett, not Davis, had leaned out the window of the Avalon Hotel to kill Grimm. Credible testimony, however, suggested that Barnett wasn’t even in the Avalon when the shooting broke out; he managed to wriggle free of first-degree-murder charges. In the end, the jury zeroed in on the planning that had gone into the Wobblies’ armed resistance, and found seven men, including Barnett, Ray Becker, O.C. Bland, and Britt Smith, guilty of second-degree murder. Each received a 25-to-40-year sentence.

Wesley Everest

IX.

Wesley Everest, Warren Grimm, F.B. Hubbard—indeed, everyone who walked the streets of Centralia in 1919—were bit players in a larger drama. Throughout American history, corrupt power had always found a way to justify cruelty by reframing truth and instilling fear. In 1830, when Andrew Jackson forced thousands of Native Americans west along what became known as the Trail of Tears, he asked, “What good man would prefer a country covered with forests and ranged by a few thousand savages to our extensive Republic, studded with cities, towns, and prosperous farms?” In Plessy v. Ferguson, the Supreme Court enshrined white supremacy under the false promise of separate but equal.

In the case of Centralia, the shootout shook an already anxious nation. Three days after it happened, The New York Times ran an editorial declaring that the incident “has probably done more than anything else to arouse the American people to the existence, not of a menace to their Government, but of human miscreants from whom no life is safe, however humble.” The Red Scare would die out in 1920, when the Justice Department lost face by issuing warnings about a May Day anarchist uprising that never happened. Still, Centralia left its imprint. A new suspicion had wormed its way into the back of the American mind. Citizens opposed to leftist politics now harbored a heightened sense that evil could emerge anywhere, even in the streets of a small town in the woods.

Centralia also afforded young J. Edgar Hoover an opening. At the time, Hoover was still living with his parents, but in the wake of the Armistice Day tragedy, the world opted to take him seriously. He ran with it. In a memo, he asked an aide to “obtain for me all the facts surrounding the Centralia matter.” The following month, four days before Christmas, at 4 a.m. in the frigid darkness, Hoover showed up at Ellis Island. The 249 Russian dissidents he had rounded up were herded toward a creaky old troopship that would carry them back to the Soviet Union. Soon, Hoover began compiling a file on Isaac Schorr, the activist lawyer who represented many Ellis Island detainees. Then, on January 2, 1920, Hoover orchestrated his biggest set of raids yet. This time, at least 3,000 suspected communists were captured in more than 30 U.S. cities—all on the same evening.

In time, Hoover became the most prominent reactionary public official in America. Instrumental in the FBI’s founding, he directed the agency for 48 years and kept secret files on thousands of Americans. When a reporter once asked him whether justice might play a role in addressing the civil rights movement, Hoover responded coolly, voicing words that might have played well in Centralia in 1919 (and the nation’s capital today). “Justice,” he said, “is merely incidental to law and order.”

Throughout the 1920s, a dedicated and conscientious Centralia lawyer, Elmer Smith, tried to fight Hoover’s law-and-order approach. He led a campaign to free the Wobblies convicted of conspiring to murder Legionnaires on the first Armistice Day, and he did so with such flourish that he once drew 5,000 people to a speech in Seattle. That day, Smith argued that the Northwest’s lumber barons, having sent the Centralia Wobblies to jail, also had the power to free them.

Smith got no judicial traction, though. The Wobblies languished in prison. One of them, an Irishman named James McInerney, died of tuberculosis in 1930 while behind bars. The following year, Eugene Barnett was allowed to go home to nurse his wife, who was sick with cancer. O.C. Bland was paroled soon after, and in 1933, Washington’s then governor, Clarence Martin, granted parole to three more Wobblies.

Only Ray Becker, the minister’s son, remained behind bars. Bitter, paranoid, and holding firm to his anti-capitalist convictions, Becker refused to seek parole. Instead, he wrote handwritten pleas—to newspapers and also to a judge—as he sought admissions of guilt from everyone he believed had conspired in framing him for murder. Becker did not leave jail until 1939, when Governor Martin announced that, after 18 years, he had served his time.

X.

The legacy of the Centralia shootout is still palpable in the town. In the center of its main green space, George Washington Park, fronted by a long, regal concrete walkway, is a bronze statue erected in 1924. The Sentinel features a helmeted World War I soldier, his lowered hands gently wrapped around the barrel of a rifle. An American flag flutters high on a pole behind him, and an inscription on the statue’s side honors Warren Grimm and the three other soldiers “slain on the streets of Centralia … while on peaceful parade wearing the uniform of the country they loyally and faithfully served.”

Not 200 feet from The Sentinel’s patinated nose, on the exterior wall of the Centralia Square Hotel, is a bright mural titled The Resurrection of Wesley Everest. Awash in splashy oranges and yellows, installed by artist Mike Alewitz in 1997, the mural depicts the lynched Wobbly with his arms held high in victory. Flames crackle beneath him; they signal, Alewitz has said, “discontent.”

When I visited Centralia not long ago, I stayed at the Square Hotel, so that every time I stepped into the street I found myself crossing the energetic force field between the statue and the mural. It was pouring rain most of the time I was in town, so usually I hurried, intent on staying dry and on ducking the bad municipal feng shui achieved by the memorials’ counterposition.

Once, though, heading out for an interview near the former home of the IWW, I paused in the space between. I watched as the flag above The Sentinel was pelted by steady rain. The shootout in Centralia was a fight over what that flag meant. One side wanted an America that was fair and equitable, framed by the right to free speech and steeped in justice for all. The other was mesmerized by the battlefield glory that the flag represented, the legacy of bloodshed knitted into its stars and stripes. In their opinion, such a legacy demanded obedience. It was worthy of vigilant defense, and if marginal citizens did not behave like 100 percent Americans, well, it didn’t matter if they got trampled.

Standing there, I wanted to believe that in the 101 years since the Centralia shootout, the Legionnaires’ cruel patriotism had withered away—that the intervening century had delivered the nation to a gentler, more humane outlook. But I knew that wasn’t completely true. In recent years, Donald Trump had resurrected the exclusionary nationalism of the early 20th century, justifying racist and xenophobic policies under the banner of making America “great” again. At the same time, a socialist was a legitimate contender for president—twice—and Black Lives Matter grew into the largest social justice movement in U.S. history. There was still hope, but it had to be nourished.

The rain picked up. I was running late. I hurried north toward the scene of battle.


© 2022 The Atavist Magazine. Proudly powered by Newspack by Automattic.