Old-School Corporate Greed

Hundreds of men were illegally rounded up and brutally deported from Bisbee 100 years ago. Here’s why.

July 12, 1917 was supposed to be one of the best days in the life of Eli Vuksanovich.

A few years earlier, he and several members of his extended family had made the dangerous trip from their native Montenegro in the war-ravaged Balkans to their new home in the southwest part of the United States. Vuksanovich had found work in the sprawling copper mine in Bisbee, Arizona and had his sights firmly set on the American dream built around home and work and family.

That very day, he was returning home from Tombstone, the then-seat of Cochise County. Having picked up the paperwork that would allow him to become an American citizen, he was hurrying back to Bisbee to share the good news. As he made his way down through Tombstone Canyon at the northwest edge of town, armed men wielding rifles accosted him. Most of the men were wearing suits; all of the men had white armbands that were prominently displayed.

The armed men approached Vuksanovich and began shouting orders at him. He gave them a puzzled look and, in his best possible English (considering the circumstances), he attempted to explain that there must be some kind of mistake. The armed vigilantes were having none of it and they brusquely herded Vuksanovich and others down the winding road toward the middle of town. Along the way, the number of armed men grew into the hundreds, while the number of those being accosted and pushed along grew into the thousands.

The mass of men eventually ended up at the fancy new baseball park in Warren, which is basically a suburb of Bisbee (if one can think in terms that small). Despite the nearly mile-high altitude of Bisbee, it was mid-July and was going to be another hot-and-nasty-humid day in the Sonoran Desert. For the crestfallen and bewildered Eli Vuksanovich, the day was about to get a whole lot worse.

The trouble had been brewing for some time. In the early part of the 20th century, mine workers across the country led dangerous and largely unappreciated lives. Pay was low and safety measures were nonexistent. Many miners led their entire (truncated) lives completely controlled by the company. A large number weren't even paid in American currency, but rather in scrip, which could only be used at the general store, which was also owned by the mine company.

Some work stoppages had been successful and that undoubtedly emboldened others to make an attempt at improving the lives of workers. In May of 1917 (about a month after the United States entered World War I), International Workers of the World Local 800 presented a list of demands to the Phelps Dodge company that controlled the Bisbee Mine and just about everything else in Bisbee. The demands included two men (instead of one) on each ore drilling machine; two men on each ore elevator; an end to blasting while men were still in the mine; and an end to personal inspections of workers. (The company said that the final thing was necessary to cut down on theft. While the Copper Queen Mine was rich in copper, there were also significant deposits of gold, silver, molybdenum, and the famous Bisbee Blue turquoise.)

The president of Phelps Dodge at the time was Walter S. Douglas, the son of Dr. James Douglas, the developer of the Copper Queen Mine and the person for whom the border town of Douglas (AZ) is named. The company rejected the demands and the workers at Phelps Dodge and other mines in the area—nearly 3,000 in number—walked off the job on June 26. It should be noted that the International Union of Mine, Mill and Smelter Workers (IUMMSW), which turned out to be more of a fraternal organization than a labor union, did not support the IWW strike.

Virtually everyone involved on both sides (as well as those caught in the middle) later admitted that the strike was peaceful, but Phelps Dodge was having none of it. On July 5, in the Arizona town of Jerome, the IWW local went on strike against the Phelps Dodge facility there. Walter Douglas ordered the immediate removal of all striking union members from Jerome. Around dawn on July 10, about 100 striking miners were rounded up at gunpoint by mine supervisors, a couple hundred local businessmen and even a few members of the IUMMSW. Sixty-seven men were loaded onto cattle cars and taken by train to Needles, California. They were dumped in the Mojave Desert (in July!) and told never to return to Jerome.

Word didn't travel particularly fast in those days and it would have been a while before the news of what had happened in Jerome got out, after which the outrage would burst forth. As it turned out, the action in Jerome take place in Bisbee just two days later. On July 11, Phelps Dodge executives met with Cochise County Sheriff Harry Wheeler to plan their big move. Wheeler formed a "posse" of more than 2,000 men in Bisbee and Douglas (the PD company-owner Bisbee Daily Review claimed that the members of the posse were all "loyal Americans"). At 4 a.m. on July 12, the posse members took up their positions throughout Bisbee. At 6:30 that morning, they commenced their operation. Going from door to door, they rounded up every striking miner, plus, as it turns out, a whole lot of other people who had nothing to do with the strike or the mine.

There were reports of posse members rioting. Several (non-PD) grocery stores were broken into, their owners gathered up with the strikers, and the contents of the stores and the stores' cash registers looted by posse members. During the round-up, a sheriff's deputy and a miner got in a shootout and both men died in the hail of gunfire.

Once everyone had been corralled at the baseball park, those who were not IWW members were told that if they publicly denounced the union and went back to work, they would be freed. Nearly 700 men agreed to those terms, while the rest sang protest songs, jeered, and/or shouted profanities at their armed captors.

Around 11 a.m., a train from the El Paso and Southwestern Railroad rolled into town, pulling 23 cattle cars. To hammer their point home ever further, Phelps Dodge had asked that the cars not be cleaned. Many of the cattle cars had a layer of manure several inches thick on the floor. Again at gunpoint, the miners were ordered into the cars. Once all the cars were loaded, the train left Bisbee, heading east. Despite temperatures in the mid-90s, the miners had not been given any food or water during the ordeal.

Under heavy armed guard, the train made a stop east of Douglas to take on water, with some of the water being distributed to the deportees. The train then continued on to its destination, Columbus, New Mexico. Just five years earlier, Columbus had been attacked by the forces of the Mexican bandit, Pancho Villa. Several Americans were killed in the battle and the United States dispatched Black Jack Pershing on an expedition into Mexico to hunt down and kill Villa. However, while today, Columbus has a Pancho Villa Park, when the striking mine workers were told to disembark from the cattle cars, they were met by armed residents of the New Mexico town, telling them that they were not welcome.

(I'm sorry, but I can't help but think of the Blazing Saddles moment of " ... but we don't want the Irish!")

"Oh yes, I've heard the stories," says Sam Borozan, whose maternal grandfather, Eli Vuksanovich, was on that train. "My grandfather told my mother that someone from Columbus ran up to him, called him a dirty foreigner, and pointed a gun straight at him."

(The Borozan family is well known throughout Southern Arizona and the 88-year-old Sam has been a fixture in local sports for decades. When I contacted him for this story, he was actually in the hospital for abdominal distress, but he insisted on being interviewed, saying that "it's important that this story never be forgotten.")

The train actually had to back up to Tres Hermanas, where the men were ordered off the train at 3 a.m. They had endured the 16-hour trip with no food and very little water. Most had no money and all were ordered not to return to Bisbee under penalty of death.

Meanwhile, back in Bisbee, Phelps Dodge had shut down all telephone and telegraph service to prevent the news from getting out. Members of the news media were prevented from filing stories. Sheriff Wheeler admitted that his actions had been illegal, but added, "It came down to whether 'Are you an American or are you not?'"

The Governor of New Mexico provided shelter for the strikers. Many stayed in tents in Columbus that had five years earlier been used by Mexican citizens fleeing from Pancho Villa. Eli Vuksanovich made his way back to Bisbee and got a job in the mine. The strike had been broken; there would be no pay raise and no safety measures would be implemented. He died in a mine-shaft cave-in on June 20, 1920, leaving behind a wife and three children.

The news of illegal deportation finally got out and was, for a time a cause célèbre, but it was muted by war fervor. Many people in positions of authority who should have known (and acted) better, shrugged it off, using terminology that today would be straight out of the "national security" playbook. Even former President Theodore Roosevelt unexpectedly came down on the side of the owners, claiming that "no human being in his senses doubts that the men deported from Bisbee were bent on destruction and murder." (This, despite the fact there had been no violence whatsoever during the strike and before the deportation.)

The federal government finally took up the matter. A commission headed by Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson and future Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter looked into the Bisbee Deportation and issued a scathing report, noting, "The deportation was wholly illegal and was without authority in law, either State or Federal."

Despite that finding, not one person involved in the mass kidnapping, torture and deportation of innocent citizens ever suffered any legal consequences for their actions. The U.S. Department of Justice arrested 21 Phelps Dodge executives, including Walter S. Douglas, but the courts quickly dropped all charges and life went on.

In later years, it wasn't a corporation doing the deporting, but the government itself. During the Great Depression, perhaps as many as two million Latinos were deported. Then came the illegal internment of more than 100,000 U.S. citizens who had the misfortune of looking like some people with which the U.S. was at war. And then, in the 1950s, in the horribly named Operation Wetback, about a million Mexican citizens (and more than a few Mexican-Americans) were sent to Mexico, despite the fact that many had been brought to the U.S. to work in the fields while American-born men had gone off to fight in World War II.

It would be comforting to look at the Bisbee Deportation that happened 100 years ago this week and think of it as an oddity of a bygone era, something that could never happen today. But, if something similar were to happen in 2017, on which side do you think our current government would come down?

Bare-knuckle times

Like much of what passes for American history these days, the Labor Movement of the late-19th and early-20th centuries get gets neither the attention nor credit it deserves. For many, the mention of organized labor brings to mind the stereotypical union boss of the 1950s, making book with the criminal underworld and feathering his own nest while neglecting the needs of the workers he is supposed to be representing. (Or maybe of a gaggle of orange-vested guys standing around, collecting healthy paychecks while watching just one guy work.)

The notion that the labor movement was largely responsible for the creation and ascension of the American middleclass has been shoved aside by an upper class that finds it to be, at the very least, inconvenient. One might think in a country as vibrant and exceptional as the United States, there wouldn't be a need for workers to unite to present their grievances to the bosses and perhaps to ask for a few more crumbs in the pay envelope next time around. But one of the enduring truths about capitalism is that thems that's got are incredibly disinclined to share with thems that ain't.

For the sake of clarity and fairness, the early labor movement is not to be romanticized. It was a bare-knuckle time in America, an era of billionaires and market crashes, of robber barons and drought-caused famine. It was a time in which one guy got so rich that (for a price, of course) he kept the United States from going broke after the Panic of 1893.

Indeed, said "Movement" wasn't really one, per se, but rather a series of disjointed events—some violent and even some of those unnecessarily so—that helped to nudge the fledgling country to a place where there was at least a hint of a promise of upward mobility. It was an era that lasted (somewhat arbitrarily) from the Panic of 1873 (there were many panics back in those days) until World War I.

It was a wild time full of colorful characters. There were angels and ne'er-do-wells, the ambitious and the altruistic, patriots and scalawags. There was Joe Hill, the itinerant worker who made a name for himself by rewriting the lyrics to popular songs, making them into pro-union anthems sung by striking workers. (Hill was unjustly convicted of murder and executed in 1915. At Woodstock in 1969, Joan Baez sang, "I Dreamed I Saw Joe Hill Last Night," a song first popularized by blacklisted entertainer Paul Robeson back in the 1940s.)

There was Mother Jones, a union activist who fled the Irish Potato Famine and came to America. She then lost her family to a yellow fever outbreak and her home in the Chicago fire. She campaigned for the United Mine Workers, founded the Social Democratic Party, and was instrumental in the founding of the Industrial Workers of the World (often derogatorily referred to as "Wobblies.")

Another founder of the IWW as Eugene V. Debs, who five times ran for President of the United States as a Socialist. His work on behalf of working people twice landed him in prison, the first time for his part in the nation-crippling Pullman Strike against the railroads in 1894 and then for having the nerve to speak out publicly against the U.S.'s entry into World War I. (Yes, somehow that was a crime.)

The final founder of the IWW, that group most associated with the Bisbee Deportation, was Big Bill Haywood. He first came to national attention when he was put on trial for the murder of the former Governor of the state of Idaho, Frank Steunenberg. The anti-labor Steunenberg was killed by a bomb that was attached to his fence. A man named Harry Orchard admitted to the crime, but Idaho authorities went after Haywood and others for either having instigated (or orchestrated) the assassination.

None other than United States Senator William Borah handled the prosecution of the case, but he was no match for Defense Attorney Clarence Darrow, who got Haywood acquitted after the jury deliberated for only a few hours.

One odd note: Pulitzer Prize-winning author J. Anthony Lukas wrote the definitive work on the Steunenberg trial, Big Trouble: A Murder in a Small Western Town Sets Off a Struggle for the Soul of America. However, just before the release of the sprawling work, Lukas committed suicide, claiming that he didn't feel that the book lived up to his standards. At the time, there were rumors that, after having completed the book, Lukas came upon some evidence that might have proven Haywood's complicity in the assassination.