Friday, December 23, 2016

Kidnapping and Murder in the Coeur d'Alene Mining Districts [otd 12/23]

On the evening of December 23, 1897, “persons unknown” kidnapped mine foreman Fred D. Whitney from his apartment in Frisco, about four miles northeast of Wallace, Idaho. Then he apparently broke for freedom and the abductors shot him. Whitney died two days later.
Frisco, ca 1897.
University of Idaho Special Collections.
The Coeur d’Alene mining district experienced considerable labor unrest during the 1890’s. Lode mining for silver and lead involves brutally difficult and dangerous labor, with constant threats from cave-ins, flooding, and other hazards. Union organizers thus found fertile ground for their recruiting efforts.

Unfortunately, the great silver discoveries in the Coeur d’Alene region generally coincided with a gradual depression in silver prices. Ironically, the large production from those mines contributed to the slump. Mine owners naturally sought wage concessions, which fueled the militancy of the unions. This was, unfortunately, a period of intense labor-management strife anyway. Radical unionists faced off against equally intransigent owners, and both ignored the “voice of reason.”

The first widespread dispute in the Coeur d’Alene region occurred in July 1891. Miners were already paying monthly “hospital dues” – a health care fee. They demanded the right to designate which institution received those funds, rather than letting the companies make that decision. It does not appear they particularly distrusted the choices the owners might make, they  simply wanted the freedom to choose … and they won on that issue.

Events turned more serious the following year. To offset higher freight rates imposed by the railroads, owners announced a lower wage scale for some types of workers. When the unions went out on strike, the companies imported replacements. That clash escalated to violence that resulted in the deaths of six men [blog, July 11]. Subsequent talks reached an uneasy settlement, but confrontations and intimidation continued.

As often happened, a three-way clash developed, with non-union workers (“defectors” or imports) adding to the volatile tension between union workers and company representatives.
Ore Mill, Coeur d’Alene mining district, ca 1898.
Illustrated History of the State of Idaho.
In 1894, a band of radical unionists – as many as forty men, by some reports – threatened a supervisor and a foreman, along with two workers who were apparently suspected of being in league with the company. The group ordered the four to leave the country and, to back up their threat, they murdered one John Kneebone. Kneebone was supposedly viewed as a turncoat by the union men. No one was ever arrested or charged for that killing.

It is not known for sure why the band of kidnappers targeted Fred Whitney in 1897; he was a union member himself. As foreman he had virtually no say in setting wages. The Idaho Statesman report (December 25, 1897) about the shooting said, “Whitney had only been at the mine a short time but was disliked by the men.”

Apparently a round of layoffs had followed the arrival of Whitney and a new superintendent. Rightly or wrongly, union men blamed the two, and thugs had tried to run both of them out of the country a few weeks before the attack on Whitney.

Despite $17 thousand in aggregate rewards offered, the killers were never identified. Nor was this the end of the strife: Two years later, the area experienced yet more violence [blog, Apr 29].
References: [B&W], [Illust-North], [Illust-State]

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