The Martyrdom of Frank Little

The other day we received an interesting artifact here at the museum, a plat map of the Ingalls Oklahoma cemetery. The map is drawn in pencil on the back of an oil-cloth with the names of the people who purchased the plots for $7.00. Among the names is William McGinty, one of Roosevelt's Rough Riders during the Spanish-American war. A far more interesting name to me is Dr. Walter R. Little. Why is Dr. Little more interesting than a Rough Rider? Dr. Little participated in the Land Run of 1889 and while that is interesting, it is really his son Frank that is important. Frank Little the son of 89’ers, grew up on a 160 acre homestead outside of Ingalls Oklahoma and would die a Martyr’s Death in Butte Montana.

Little organized workers all over the west for the International Workers of the World (IWW) or as they were commonly known the Wobblies. The Wobblies sought to create “One Big Union,” a Union to represent all labor not individual trades, a Union organized along class lines regardless of color, ethnicity, or religion, A Union to place the means of production in the hands of the producers for the benefit of all the people. This idea of Industrial Unionism would provide leverage for workers in their struggles for better pay and working conditions, “An Injury To One, Is An Injury To All,” is the motto of the IWW, it formed as a radical organization and remains so today.

So how does the son of an 89’er become a radical? Third party movements abounded during the years between the Civil War and World War I; Greenback Party, Anti-Monopoly Party, Temperance Party, Populist Party, Socialist Party. These movements held great appeal to farmers on the Great Plains who suffered under the vagaries of an economy and government controlled by Railroad monopolies.

Settlers displaced from their homes in Austria, France and the German States by revolutions in 1848 brought with them Socialist political ideologies. Socialist newspapers like The Answer in Pawnee, The Peoples Voice in Norman, The Oklahoma Leader in Oklahoma City, The Sword of Truth in Sentinel, and the Sledge Hammer in Okemah spread the Socialist ideology across Oklahoma for four decades. For many, Socialism was a viable political and economic system.

Little’s efforts took him to mines in Arizona and farm fields in California and eventually to the Anaconda Copper mine in Butte Montana. The Anaconda mine opened in 1881 and would be “the Richest Hill on Earth,” It produced more than $300 billion worth of copper before it closed and became a Superfund Site. Working conditions and mine safety were major concerns of the miners in Butte after the Speculator mine disaster that killed 168 miners on June 8, 1917.

Little arrived in Butte on crutches with a broken leg on July 18, 1917. He immediately began to rally and organize for the IWW, giving impassioned speeches to join the “One Big Union,” and to resist the draft. The United States had declared war on Germany on April 6, 1917. Little was strongly opposed to U.S. involvement and openly called for workers to fight the capitalists and not the Germans.

Around 3 am on the night of August 1, 1917 six masked men entered the boarding house of Nora Byrne and kicked in the door of Frank Littles room and drug him out in his underwear to a waiting car. They men tied Little to the bumper and drug him through the streets of Butte to the Milwaukee Bridge and hung him by the neck until he strangled to death. In the morning when he was discovered he had a note pinned to the thigh of his underwear, “Others take notice, first and last warning, 3–7–77.”

3–7–77 could mean anything but it is most assuredly a Vigilante symbol to invoke fear in those on the wrong side of social order. One theory is that it is that the numbers represent the dimensions of a grave: 3 feet wide, 7 feet deep, and 77 inches long, this is the explanation given by Norman Maclean in his novella A River Runs Through It. Then there is here is a $3 ticket on the 7:00 train/bus/stage out of town by the 77 member vigilance committee. Just recently I heard of homeless people in other cities being given bus tickets to Oklahoma City so they will leave town by nightfall. I don’t know how true it is but the story is very much in keeping with 3–7–77. Another is you have 3 hours, 7 minutes, 77 seconds to leave town. The Montana Highway Patrol to this day wears a patch adorned with the numbers 3–7–77 to honor the first law and order in Montana.

Dashiell Hammett author of The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man, and numerous other “Hard Boiled Detective” novels is alleged to have been offered $5000 to murder Little. At the time of the killing he was working for the Pinkerton detective agency as a strike breaker. His experience in Butte led to his first novel Red Harvest, set around a union strike. Hammett will always be tied to the Frank Little murder but no one is sure if he played a role or not. Pinkerton strike breakers, Anaconda mine guards, Patriotic townspeople, and members of the Butte Police force have at different times been implicated in the murder. No one has ever been indicted and the case remains unsolved.

Frank Little is buried in Butte’s Mountain View Cemetery. His tombstone reads “Slain by Capitalist Interests for Organizing and Inspiring his Fellow Men.”

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