Working Undercover in the Violent 1892 Coeur d’Alene Labor Strike
BY CHARLES A. SIRINGO
I concluded it was time for me to emigrate [in other words, leave the scene fast, while taking cover from gunfire, and after having been discovered as a Pinkerton spy during the bloody Coeur d’Alene miner’s strike of 1892], so I hurried down my ladder [set up for just such an escape] and through the window into the kitchen of the Nelson Hotel. Then I opened the back door to make a break for the bridge to fight my way past the three guards there. Just as I opened the door, the French cook grabbed me by the arm and jerked me back. I raised the rifle to strike him, but he threw up his hands and said: “For Christ’s sake, don’t go out there. They are laying for you. There are 50 men with Winchester rifles right around the corner of the house. I saw them just now when I went after wood.”
I had thrown the door wide open, and it still remained so.
From the end of the bridge across a swamp to this kitchen door, there was a board walk, and on it, coming towards us, was a lone man in his shirt sleeves, and unarmed. I recognized him as one of the Thiel guards at the Gem mine. He was about 50 yards from the kitchen door then. I said to the two cooks: “I’ll wait and see what they say to that guard. We all three had our eyes on him when a voice around the corner said: “Go back you !” He stopped suddenly and threw up his hands.
Just then a shot was fired and the poor fellow fell over dead, with a bullet through his heart. His name was Ivory Bean, and he was an honored member of the K. P. lodge. He had volunteered to come over to the drug store after some medicine for the big fellow who was wounded two nights before. He was supposed to be dying, and to relieve his suffering, Bean risked his life. He argued that the union miners surely wouldn’t harm him on an errand of mercy if he went in his shirt sleeves to show that he carried no fire-arms. The poor fellow hadn’t reckoned on the class of curs that he was dealing with.
This convinced me that I was “up against the real thing,” so shutting the door and thanking the cook for saving my life, I crawled back through the window. Just as I did so, Miss Olson came into the kitchen.
After Bean fell, the men at the Gem mine began to pepper the town of Gem with rifle-bullets. A big part of their shooting was at the rear of Daxon’s saloon?that being a union hang-out; but the men in there soon found the cellar. Billy Daxon had his clothes shot full of holes. A union man was killed by this shooting. The firing was still going on at the Frisco Mill. They were burning powder up there in a reckless, extravagant manner. I concluded that “war is hell,” sure enough, and that I was right in the midst of it without a way to get out.
I had Mrs. Shipley keep the store door locked, and told her to not let any one in. I then went out in the back yard to see if the coast was clear in the vicinity of my hole in the fence [which I had constructed for quick escapes]. I looked through a crack in the fence and discovered two armed men hiding behind a big log. I then went into a storeroom adjoining the fence on the east, and through a crack saw my friend Dallas walking a beat with a shotgun on his shoulder. He was evidently guarding a rat in a trap, and I happened to be that rat.
In this storeroom I discarded my hat and coat and in their place put on an old leather jacket and a black slouch hat. Then I got a saw and went into Mrs. Shipley’s room, and next to the store wall, tore up a square of carpet and began sawing a hole through the floor. I sawed out a place just large enough to admit my body. This done, I replaced the carpet in nice shape, loosely, over the hole.
At first I had planned a scheme to barricade the head of the stairs with furniture and bedding and then slaughter all who undertook to come up the stairs. Had I carried out this plan, the newspapers would have had some real live news to record; but I hated to wait upstairs for business to come my way, hence made up my mind to go under the floor and do some skirmishing, which would at least keep my mind occupied.
The back part of my store building rested flat on the ground, and the front part was up on piles three feet high.
Finally I bade Mrs. Shipley and her little five-year-old goodbye, and dropped out of sight. Then Mrs. Shipley pulled her trunk over the hole as per my instructions.
In scouting around under the house, I could find no possible way to get out, except up under the board sidewalk on the main street. Through a crack the width of my hand, on the east side, I saw Dallas resting on his beat. He was leaning on his shot-gun. I set up with my rifle and took aim at his heart, but before pulling the trigger, the thought of the danger from the smoke going up through the cracks and giving my hiding place away, flashed through my mind, and the rifle was taken from my shoulder.
Just then an explosion took place which shook the earth. It was up towards the Frisco Mill. The rifle shooting was still going on, but it soon ceased.
In about 20 minutes Mrs. Shipley pulled the trunk from the hole, and putting her head down in it, cried: “Oh, Mr. Allison [my alias], run for your life. They have just blown up the Frisco Mill and killed lots of men and now they’re coming after you to burn you at the stake, so as to make an example of [Pinkerton] detectives.” Crawling nearer to the hole I asked Mrs. Shipley how she had found this out. She replied that Mrs. Weiss, a strong union woman, who was a friend of mine while I was in the union, had just told her when she went across the street to find out the cause of the explosion. I told Mrs. Shipley to keep cool and put the trunk back over the hole. It was explained to her that I could find no way to get out, hence must stay.
Soon I could hear the yelling of more than 1,000 throats as they came to get me. It wasn’t long until the street was jammed with angry men. I was directly under the center of our store and could hear the leaders commanding Mrs. Shipley to open the door, but she refused to do it. Then they broke it down and the mob rushed in. I could hear Dallas’ voice demanding that she tell where I was, but she denied having seen me since the night before. He told her that they knew better, as Miss Olsen had seen me crawl through the window, since which time a heavy guard had been kept around the house. I heard Mrs. Shipley ask why they wanted me. Then Dallas replied: “He’s a dirty [Pinkerton] detective and we intend to burn him at a stake as a warning to others of his kind.”
Mrs. Shipley asked why they didn’t kill me yesterday when they had a good chance.
To this Dallas replied: “The time wasn’t ripe yesterday, but it is now and we will find him, so you might as well tell us or it will go hard with you.” Mrs. Shipley then told them to do their worst, as she didn’t know where I was. I felt like patting the lady on the back, as one out of 10,000 who wouldn’t weaken and tell the secret with that vicious mob around her. I feared the child would tell, as he was bawling as though his little five-year-old heart would break.
Now I could hear “We’ll find the son of a bitch. He’s in this house,” etc.
Then a rush was made into Mrs. Shipley’s bedroom and out into the back yard and also upstairs. I couldn’t help but think of what a fine chance I was missing for making a world’s record as a man-killer; for had I carried out my first plan, this was the moment as the rush was being made upstairs, when there would have been “something doing.”
As I feared they might find the hole in the floor and then set fire to the building, I concluded to get out of there, even though I had to fight my way out.
The only opening was under the sidewalk, which was about a foot above the ground. I had no idea where it would lead me, but I thought of the old saying, “Nothing risked, nothing gained.”
Finally I started east, towards the Miners’ Union hall. The store buildings were built close together, except at my building where there was a narrow alleyway leading to the rear. It was in this narrow passage where Dallas had his policeman’s beat that morning. I had to crawl on my stomach, “all same” snake in the grass; but I had to move very slowly as I was afraid of being seen by the angry men who lined the sidewalk as thick as they could stand. Some of the cracks in the sidewalk were an inch or more wide. After going the width of two store buildings, I stopped to rest, and while doing so, I lay on my back so as to look up through a wide crack. I could see the men’s eyes and hear what they said. Most of their talk was about the “scabs” killed when they blew up the Frisco Mill with giant powder. Finally one big Irishman with a brogue as broad as the Atlantic Ocean, said: “Faith and why don’t they bring that spalpeen out. I’m wanting to spit in his face, the dirty thraitor. We Emericans have got to shtand on our rights and show the worreld that we can fight.” Of course I could have told this good “Emerican” citizen the reason for the delay in bringing me out to be burnt at a stake; and I could also have told him that he was then missing a good opportunity of spitting in my face, while alive, for my mind had been made up not to be taken until dead.
This was a hint for me to be moving, knowing that I was exploring new territory.
Another twenty-five feet brought me in front of a saloon, and here I found an opening to get under the building, which was built on piles and stood about four feet from the ground. In the rear I could see daylight. At this my heart leaped with joy. The ground was covered with slush and mud and there were all kinds of tree-tops, stumps and brush under this building.
In hurrying through this brush, my watch-chain caught and tore loose. On it was a charm, a $3 gold piece with my initials C. L. A. I hated to lose this, so stopped to consider as to whether I should go back to hunt it. While studying, I wondered if I was scared. I had to smile at the thought, so I concluded to test the matter by spitting; but bless you, my mouth was so dry I couldn’t spit anything but cotton, or what looked like cotton. I decided that it was a case of scared with a big S. I had always heard that when a person is badly frightened he can’t spit; but this was the first time I ever saw it tested.
A week or so later I bought the watch-chain and charm from a boy who had found it while the union had “kids” searching for me under these buildings on the day of the riot. When the chain was found, I suppose they figured that the bird had flown, all but this relic of his breast-feathers.
On reaching the rear of the saloon, I found plenty of room to get out in the open, but before making the break, I examined my rifle and pistol to see that they were in working order.
All ready, I sprung from under the house and stood once more in glorious sunshine. The Winchester was up, ready for action. Only three men were in sight and their backs were towards me. They stood at the corner of the saloon building, looking up a vacant space towards the main street. They had evidently been placed behind these buildings to watch for me, but in their eagerness to be at the burning, they were watching the crowd in the street, knowing that the movements of the mob would indicate when the “fatted calf” was ready for the slaughter. My first impulse was to start shooting and kill these three men, but my finer feeling got the best of me. It would be too much like taking advantage and committing cold-blooded murder.
I glanced straight south. There, in front of me, about fifty yards distant, was the high railroad grade which shut off the view from the Gem mill where I knew my friends awaited me. But to undertake to scale this high grade I would be placing myself between two fires, for the chances were, my friends would take me for an enemy and start shooting.
Quicker than a flash the thought struck me to fool these three men and make them think I was going up to the top of the grade to get a shot at the “scabs.”
A little to the left there was a swift stream of water flowing through a culvert under the railroad grade, and to avoid being shot by my friends I concluded to go through this and sink or swim.
I started in a slow run, half stooped like a hunter slipping upon game, as though intending to crawl up on the grade and get a shot at the enemy, my course being a few feet to the right of the boxed culvert. I didn’t look back, as I knew my footsteps would attract the attention of the three men, and I didn’t want them to see my face or to note that my movements were suspicious. When within a few feet of the rushing water, I made a quick turn to the left and into the culvert. Just then one bullet whizzed past my head. This was the only shot fired. It was all I could do to stem the force of the water, which reached to my arm-pits. The Winchester was now in my left hand while my right extended forward holding on to the upright timber on the west wall of the culvert. After I had worked my way far enough into this culvert so that I was in the dark and out of sight of my enemy, I braced myself against an upright timber and turned around to look back. There in plain view, were three drunken Swedes trying to see me so as to get another shot. Now I held the winning hand, and raised my rifle to take advantage of my opportunity; but my heart failed me at the thought of murdering a drunken Swede, for I had found them to be a hard-working lot of sheep who were always ready to follow heartless Irish leaders. I also thought of the danger of shooting, as the flash from my rifle would indicate my whereabouts and shots might be fired in that direction. Although from the way these Swedes or Finlanders were staggering around, I didn’t think they could shoot very straight. I began to work my way to daylight on the other side, a distance of about fifty feet. I would reach ahead and get hold of an upright timber and then pull myself forward against the raging torrent. I finally emerged from the culvert and found myself under a Swede’s house, which was built over the opposite end of this culvert, with the entrance to the house fronting on the railroad track. On walking from under the house, which was built on piles, a Swede woman at her back door recognized me. She called me by name and asked what I had been doing under her house. Her husband had been one of my best union friends. I told her that I was just prowling around a little for exercise. She laughed.
Now I had to march across a 200-yard open space to reach the Gem mill and I had to take chances of being shot at by both sides.
On reaching the “scab” forts?high ricks of cordwood with port holes?I was halted by a voice behind the woodpile which said: “Drop that gun you and walk up here with your hands up.” I replied that I was a friend. He answered: “It don’t make a damn bit of
difference; if you don’t drop that gun your head goes off.” I dropped it, and with both hands raised, I walked up to the port hole which was made by a stick of the wood being pulled out. The fellow then told me to pull off my hat so he could see my face. I did so, and he said: “Are you that detective who came to our camp last night?” I replied yes. Then he told me to hurry and get behind the fort before the union took a shot at me. It was a relief to get behind the fort and shake hands with the Thiel guards there.
From here I went to the concentrator, or mill, where I found Superintendent John Monihan and a crowd, among them being Fred Carter, a wild and woolly cowboy who had been in the Frisco Mill blow-up and had run the gauntlet through a shower of bullets to reach this haven of safety. One bullet had torn the heel off one boot and crippled his heel, and another knocked one knuckle off his right hand. I afterwards saw the bullet marks in the railroad ties where this fellow ran along the railroad track. No doubt 50 to 100 shots had been fired at him. He was the only man who escaped. The others who were not killed or wounded were taken prisoners.
This fellow Carter, had brought in bunches of “scabs” and I saw his courage tested on several occasions. He was not afraid of man nor the devil, when he had half a chance.
Shortly after my arrival at the Gem mine, a union man under a flag of truce, in the shape of a white rag, came to tell Monihan that if he didn’t surrender in a given time the Gem Mill would suffer the same fate as the Frisco Mill by being blown up. Monihan refused to surrender, and the fellow went back.
Soon we could see squads of men going around over the mountains back of the mill towards the main tunnel of the mine, up the side of the heavily timbered mountain, from whence a tramway was run to conduct the ore into the mill. Monihan and I decided that they intended to capture the mine-tunnel and then turn a tramway car loaded with dynamite and a burning fuse, down the side of the mountain into the mill. This had been done, so Fred Carter told us, at the Frisco Mill, but they failed to make the fuse long enough and the charge went off before reaching the mill, and as to how the Frisco Mill was finally blown up, was then a mystery to Carter.
In order to offset a scheme of this kind, I suggested to Monihan that I go with some men half way up the tramway and there tie some heavy poles across the rails in order to ditch a car if sent down. A couple of men were sent with me. On reaching the station over the mill I discovered that one of the men supposed to be guarding this part of the works was a union spy, and I so reported to Monihan later. Though I didn’t know it for a fact, I felt confident of it. About twelve years later the fellow confessed it to me. His name was Oscar W.
After tying the poles across the track, we continued on to the tunnel, being exposed to union bullets, as we could be seen from town.
At the tunnel I found among our guards, a rank union man who had been a shift-boss. I knew this fellow’s record in the union. He acted sheepish as though he knew that I would tell Monihan of his past record, which I did.
Shortly after my return to the mill, Monihan received orders through Ed. Kinney, French and Campbell’s confidential secretary, to surrender to the union in order to save their valuable mill from being blown up. Ed. Kinney who had been passing back and forth under a flag of truce, had received this message over the wires. Monihan asked my advice. I told him it was a bad mistake, as it placed the lives of all his men and himself at the mercy of a lot of cut-throats. He agreed that I was right, but said in the face of his orders he would have to surrender. I told him that I would never surrender alive, and that I would fight it out alone.
A young man by the name of Frank Stark, who had come in as a guard with Joe Warren and the first batch of non-union men, asked me if he couldn’t stay with me. He said he didn’t care to risk his life by surrendering. As he had an honest face and seemed to be made of good material, I consented.
We then bade Monihan farewell and slipped through the heavy timber and brush up a side canyon towards the top of the mountain to the southwest. We knew that the union had armed guards all around us, as they could be seen moving to and fro. On reaching a secluded spot on the side of the mountain from whence could be seen Gem and the union miners, we waited to see the surrender. Monihan and his 120 to 130 men marched to the depot platform and surrendered their arms to the union officials. Then we could hear loud cheering by the unionists. Finally all the prisoners were lined up in rows and a committee seemed to be examining them. I afterwards learned that it was Dallas and his gang searching for me; that after they had looked at the face of each man Dallas remarked: “He must have gone over the hill.” Then I heard men were sent to guard the approaches into Wallace.
While sitting here resting, I realized for the first time that I was hungry, for all I had eaten since supper the night before, was a sandwich and cup of coffee which Mrs. Shipley had put down into the hole for me, and it was in the middle of the afternoon now.
On reaching the top of the mountain range, we discovered three armed men standing in our trail, a footpath over the mountain. They were on the summit of the mountain and we dare not go below them to get past, for we could be seen. Here I got my 2 by 4 brain to working and soon studied up a scheme that might work without having to kill them. I laid my plan before Stark and he agreed to follow my instructions, which were as follows: To crawl just as near as possible to the men and then both take aim at separate ones. Then I was to say in a voice loud enough to be heard by them: “Now you shoot the one the right and I’ll kill the one on the left,” and then if they raised their guns to fight, we were to shoot and fight it out to a finish.
It worked like a charm, and we could hear the brush cracking where they were falling and rolling down the steep gulch to the right. We laughed until our sides hurt.
That night, just after dark, we reached the wagon road half a mile above Wallace. It was a relief to get in a smooth road after traveling so long through brush and fallen timber. We had traveled about ten miles the way we had come, and were worn out.
Just before reaching a high rocky point on the bank of the river, a few hundred yards above the depot, on the edge of Wallace, we discovered four men with rifles guarding the road, two being on one side and two on the other, about fifty feet apart. No doubt these men were guards sent to watch for me. Now it was a case of going miles around through the hills or to risk a fight with these four men. Stark agreed to leave the matter to my judgment. I decided to fight rather than quit the road, but I told Stark not to shoot until I said fire. He was to take charge of the two on the left of the road while I took care of the other two. They didn’t see us until we were within fifty feet of them. We kept the middle of the road, I watching my men, and Stark his. After passing them we kept watch over our shoulders. They hadn’t spoken or moved until we got passed them. Then my two ran over to the other two. We were soon around the high rocky point in the glare of the electric lights at the depot. Here it was as light as day, and I saw we were in a bad place.
I jumped down the bank and into the swift stream. Stark following. The water struck us about the waist and the stream was about forty feet wide. Reaching a dark place in the timber on the opposite bank we sat down to await results. But we didn’t have a minute to wait, as the four men came running around the bluff. When they reached the full electric lighted space to the depot a few hundred yards distant, and didn’t see us, they were puzzled. It was comical to see their maneuvers. Their actions showed that they never suspected the truth. Their whole minds seemed to be centered on the high cliff to the right of the road, as though we had hid in some crevice. They knew we didn’t have time to have reached the depot, the first building. In a few minutes three of them started back to their post while the other ran as hard as he could to town. We then hurried through the timber to the rear of the Carter Hotel, which had been the stopping place for mine owners. Stark was secreted in a dark place to shoot whoever undertook to harm me.
I knocked on the rear door and the porter came out. I asked who of the mine owners were there. He replied that all the mine owners but Mr. Goss had “flew the coop” on a special train, but that Mr. Monihan and Mr. Goss a millionaire mine owner, from Wisconsin, who owned a big share of the Morning mine at Mullen, were upstairs in their rooms. I told him to tell them that Allison wanted to see them at the head of the back stairs. Soon both appeared greatly excited. They begged me to skip out and get away from the hotel as they would be murdered if I were found there. They said the union men were scouring the country for me. I shook hands and bade them goodbye.
We then “sneaked” into French and Campbell’s private quarters where I knew Ed. Kinney and young Harry Allen, the bookkeeper, slept. Both were there and tickled to see us, but they feared the union had guards watching the place and might have seen us come in through the rear gate. So for that reason, we concluded not to waste any time telling funny stories; but we remained long enough to fill up on sardines and crackers and to put on dry underclothes. Then we struck out up a side canyon towards the southwest for “tall timber,” there to await future results.
Thus the first act in the great Coeur D’Alene miners’ strike of 1892 ends.
Note: In Charles Siringo’s original text, the Pinkerton Detective Agency was referred to as just that, using the word Pinkerton, and correctly so. After the agency launched a campaign against the publisher, though, the name was changed to Dickenson Detective Agency, an edit we have chosen not to include here for the sake of historical accuracy and due to the dramatic impact of the word Pinkerton. In his later book Two Evilisms: Pinkertonism and Anarchism, published in 1915, Siringo painted a dark picture of both the Pinkertons and the violent Anarchist labor movement that was the forerunner of the radical Wobblies. The Pinkerton campaign to spike Siringo’s story (Cowboy Detective) included purchasing all available copies in print. Their tactics delayed the book’s publication until 1912, long after some of the matters recorded by the author took place.
In Two Evilisms, readers of Old West history may find it of note that Siringo asserts, “William A. Pinkerton told me that Tom Horn was guilty of [killing Nate Champion and Nick Ray on April 9, 1892, while in the employ of the Wyoming Stockgrowers Association], but that his people [the Pinkertons] could not allow him [Horn] to go to prison while in their employ,” an indication, if true, it would seem, of the power and influence of the famous detective agency. The Pinkerton Agency forced Horn to resign in 1894, and ten years later Horn was hanged in Cheyenne, Wyoming, for killing a 14-year-old boy, Willie Nickell, probably having mistaken him for a cattle rustler at a long distance (though Horn’s guilt is a matter of dispute). Horn, though, according to Siringo, was no angel. Siringo respected Horn as a tracker and Pinkerton, but indicated that he observed within the man a wicked streak, as he not only investigated cattle rustlers on behalf of barons of the industry, but became, as it were, a hired gun who executed (with fair warning) obstinate cattle thieves, sometimes point blank at close range, all in the days before the long arm of official justice found her way across the wild west. Horn, having been charged and acquitted of various murders in the 1890s, did not ultimately escape the hangman’s noose, and with Charles Siringo, remains one of the more famous (or infamous) Pinkerton Detectives.