Original Wobbly, Pierce Wetter
By Steve Thornton
I recently met Rénice Alban, age 90, the daughter of Pierce T. Wetter. Wetter was arrested in 1917 in a nationwide roundup of more than 100 IWW activists for opposing the United States’ entry into World War I. He and many others were imprisoned; he served five years in the Cook County Jail in Chicago and the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth, Kansas. His brother Telfair ran the Baltimore IWW office during this period.
As soon as she mentioned her father, Rénice Alban launched into “The Internationale”: “Arise you prisoners of starvation / Arise you wretched of the earth / for justice thunders condemnation / There’s a better world in birth!”
Her dad taught her the song. This was the first time she had sung it since she was a young girl. Now, living in a Hartford-area retirement community, Alban began to remember more. She knew he had written an article on behalf of those still imprisoned. “It’s in Joyce Kornbluh’s book [‘Rebel Voices’],” she recalled.
Pierce Wetter led an amazing life, before and after his five-year act of conscience. Besides being a Wobbly, he was a Quaker and a pacifist. He was born on April 4, 1895 in Madagascar, the son of the American consul. He and his siblings were raised in Georgia and Ohio, mostly by his aunt. His daughter remembered that Wetter was effectively abandoned at 12 years old, and with his brother they tramped around the country. He eventually inherited some family property. Pierce could trace his ancestry back to a member of the Continental Congress during the American Revolutionary War and former U.S. President Franklin Pierce.
In 1916, Wetter was an officer of the IWW’s Coal Mine Workers Industrial Union in Great Falls, Mont. He wrote to Bill Haywood of the workers’ enthusiasm for “sabotage” as a tactic in their organizing campaign, but Haywood did not approve, writing back that “there is nothing the enemy would like better” than to publicize the tactic. The letter was used against Wetter at his trial.
The federal government simultaneously raided 64 IWW offices in September 1917, arresting Wetter and many of the union’s most well-known leaders. The charges included interfering with the war effort and violating the Espionage Act of 1917. Their trial began on April 1, 1918. He and 114 other Wobblies were charged with 100 separate crimes each—over 10,000 criminal acts in total.
Historian Melvyn Dubofsky writes in his history of the Wobblies: “The Justice Department was indeed fortunate that public hysteria had convicted the Wobblies before the jury heard the prosecution’s evidence, for the prosecution, in fact, had no evidence.” Wetter served his full five years; some of the defendants received 20-year sentences.
Immediately after he was released from prison in 1922, Wetter was threatened with deportation by the federal immigration authorities. He was charged with being an illegal alien, even though the government had his citizenship records on file. With the help of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Wetter was able to stay in the United States. A Kansas newspaper called the government’s attempt “a legal kidnapping.”
After Leavenworth, Wetter continued to fight for the remaining Wobblies in prison. He wrote “Men I Left at Leavenworth,” a passionate plea for their release that focused on the personal stories of a number of the inmates. His article emphasized that they were jailed for their beliefs and nothing more.
“War hysteria prevented a fair trial,” he told a group of college students after his release. “When newspapers like the Chicago Tribune advocated that we should be shot without trial, when 10 tons of [our trial defense] material was held up at the post office, when funds for the defense were not permitted to reach us, the handicap was too great,” Wetter said. With a sense of humor that must have helped keep him sane in prison, he added: “I was rather fortunate when Judge [Kenesaw Mountain] Landis parceled out the sentences, for I only got only five years, though I don’t know why.”
In 1923 Wetter worked to organize a massive IWW mobilization at Port Arthur, Texas. The union had announced its intention of organizing longshoremen and sailors there. Wobbly James Holland and two other unidentified fellow workers were murdered after being arrested by police and turned over to the Ku Klux Klan. The New York Times wrote that “The plan, according to Wetter, is to ‘overrun the town with jobless I.W.W.s and thus create a problem for local authorities. At the same time, resolutions of protest will be forwarded to the Mayor.’”
Wetter had moved to Brooklyn by 1923 and studied to become a mechanical engineer. He and his family lived on Washington Square in Manhattan with Robertson Trowbridge (who had adopted Wetter at a late age). There he continued to fight the power, challenging Robert Moses, the controversial “master builder” of New York City.
Moses wielded great power that he used to build highways and parks, willfully ignoring the consequences to residents and their neighborhoods (he was also the reason the Dodgers left Brooklyn). When Moses wanted to put an encircling double roadway around Washington Square in 1939, Wetter organized community opposition to successfully stop the plan.
He faced Moses again in 1942 when the power broker planned to eliminate a waterfront complex in the Battery Park section of Manhattan. Before Ellis Island opened, Fort Clinton had been the first stopping point for 8 million immigrant families coming to America. Moses cared little about that kind of history and began demolition. Wetter led a campaign to halt its total destruction, saving the immigrant building.
Wetter felt the rage of Moses when the mogul used red baiting and ad hominem attacks against the activist during this fight. Moses, referring to the activist’s IWW membership, publicly called Wetter “one of a gang of thugs and saboteurs who interfered with the military and civil works of the United States government during the World War.” Wetter “did not have a single characteristic of a Quaker,” Moses sputtered, and he deserved “a good public sock in the jaw.” Fort Clinton is now a national monument.
Pierce Wetter was pardoned by Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1933. He died at the age of 68 on May 10, 1963.