The 1917 Bisbee “Deportations”

In 1917, at the height of the First World War, a copper workers strike in Arizona came to a head when thousands of people were illegally rounded up and “deported” into the desert.

The Bisbee deportations photo from WikiCommons

When the United States entered the First World War in April 1917, it was completely unprepared. Although America was already an economic power, it lacked any semblance of an effective military, and it needed to devote massive resources to building up a war footing as quickly as possible. This, in turn, required enormous amounts of strategic raw materials. 

One such vital material was copper, and the center of US copper production was Arizona. There had been commercial copper mining in Arizona since before the Civil War, but the construction of the national railroad networks in the 1880s allowed the industry to skyrocket. “King Copper” dominated the economy, and large mining corporations virtually ran the state singlehandedly—and now copper was a vital necessity for the US.

Copper mining was, however, dirty and dangerous work, done mostly by immigrants from Europe, Asia and Mexico. The horrible working conditions and meager pay sparked a series of union movements—which were in turn crushed by the mining companies and the state government. One of the centers of this union activity was the town of Bisbee, which was at this time the third-largest city in the state. The city was based almost entirely on copper mining and smelting, and the Phelps-Dodge Company owned virtually everything. Bisbee was in essence a “company town”.

And so, in 1917, the copper plants in Bisbee were targeted for an organizing drive by the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). Known popularly as the “Wobblies”, the IWW was the most radical labor union the US has ever seen, based on an ideology of anarcho-syndicalism and motivated by a fierce anti-capitalism. It’s revolutionary motto was “One Big Union, One General Strike”.  (DISCLOSURE:  I have been a member of the IWW and served two terms as Co-Chair of the General Executive Board.)

Since materials like copper and steel were so vital to the war effort, President Woodrow Wilson had set up a special commission, the War Labor Board, to resolve any disputes over wages or working conditions in an attempt to prevent work stoppages or strikes. But as the price of copper doubled and company profits went up, wages remained stagnant and the mines remained unsafe. In Bisbee, the copper workers responded by organizing with the IWW, and a strike was called.

The Wobblies were already unpopular among many Americans, since the union was opposed to US entry into the First World War and was especially opposed to the military draft. They were labelled “anarchists” and “traitors”, and the Wilson administration passed a number of laws making it illegal to criticize the government or the war. The fear of “radicals” quickly grew to encompass a hatred for “foreigners”, especially on poor immigrants and African-Americans. Rightwing demagogues popped up like mushrooms, and membership in the Ku Klux Klan soared (it was rumored that WiIson himself was a member).  

In Arizona, Governor Thomas Campbell passed laws forbidding the IWW from speaking on street corners or holding rallies, declaring “The whole thing appears to be pro-German and anti-American”. In Bisbee, the mine owners organized a “Citizens’ Protective League” to “defend” the town against “radicals and outside agitators”.

Things reached the bursting point on July 10, 1917. In the nearby mining town of Jerome, an armed mob of vigilantes organized by the copper companies rounded up over a hundred IWW organizers and supporters, held a drumhead “trial”, packed them onto a railroad car, and sent them off to California. Two days later, at dawn, it was Bisbee’s turn. Although the strike had already largely ended in failure, local newspapers (some of which were owned by the Phelps-Dodge Company) continued to feed anti-radical and anti-foreigner hysteria. An armed vigilante mob of 2,000 people, who had been “deputized” by the county sheriff, gathered in town and went on a rampage. Breaking in doors and raiding copper worker camps, they rounded up over a thousand people—some for being IWW members, some for having been on strike, and some just for being Mexicans or Europeans. The Phelps-Dodge Company helpfully provided a list of targeted employees it considered to be “undesirable”. One miner who resisted his “arrest” shot and killed one of the “deputies” and was then himself shot and killed by the mob.

As local police stood by and watched, all of the “deportees” were first marched to the local baseball field and held there, then packed into 23 railroad boxcars (which had been specially dispatched by the local railroad companies). To insure that nobody escaped, armed vigilantes lined both sides of the tracks. And to make sure no word of the deportations got out, the vigilantes seized the telephone and telegraph offices, shut down the lines, and detained all the newspaper journalists who were there to report on the strike.

When the train pulled away, it had no destination. Instead, after traveling for 15 hours without food or water, the train crossed into New Mexico and came to a stop in the middle of the open desert, and armed vigilantes forced everyone from the boxcars, then pulled away and left them there at the side of the track. Fortunately there was a small military base nearby (at this time, there had been tensions with Mexico and Pancho Villa), and 1,186 “deportees” were found and taken in. The Governor of New Mexico ordered state militia to provide food and shelter for the stranded men.

Meanwhile, to prevent any of the “deportees” from returning to Bisbee, the Sheriff set up armed guards at the city’s streets and required anyone entering town to have a special “passport” issued by the Sheriff’s Office.

While President Wilson was no fan of the Wobblies, even he was so disgusted by the blatantly illegal act that he ordered a Federal investigation. The Justice Department concluded that the city’s actions had been “wholly illegal and without authority in law, either State or Federal.” The Sheriff in Bisbee admitted, “Perhaps everything that I did wasn’t legal,” but defended himself by declaring, “I would repeat the operation any time I find my own people endangered by a mob composed of eighty percent aliens and enemies of my Government.”

A series of Federal charges including kidnapping would eventually be filed against a total of 21 city officials, Phelps-Dodge Company executives, and the Sheriff (the Sheriff was never arrested because he was serving with the US Army in France), but the Supreme Court dismissed all these cases on the grounds that they had not broken any Federal laws. (There would be no specific Federal law against kidnapping until after the Lindbergh case in 1932.) Instead, the Court ruled that the defendants had to be tried in State courts. Not surprisingly, given the atmosphere in Arizona at the time, the State declined to file any charges against anyone.

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