I had previously contacted Richard I. Gibson, a geologist who had relocated to Butte years ago, lured by the area’s mineral wealth. Gibson also became Butte’s historian-in-residence and a strong advocate for recording and preserving its architectural bones. Gibson also often reenacts my uncle Frank Little on special occasions.
We met Dick at Old Butte Historical Adventures, from which he often leads walking tours of the historic mining city. Once inside, my husband and I awkwardly squatted into children’s chairs and made small talk with Dick. Just as in Colorado Springs, I was nervous about explaining my connection to Frank and my project. I knew that Frank had become a legend in Butte, and just like other legends, misinformation accompanied his story. For example, myth #1: Frank was not a Quaker, nor was his father. Myth #2: Frank was not half American Indian, though he did have a drop of Cherokee blood. Dick raised his eyebrows at this piece of information. Part of Frank’s aura had been his “wild Indian blood.” Nonsense. My hobo-agitator uncle used his American Indian blood (anywhere from 1/16th to 1/32nd) to promote his organization among immigrant workers who were treated poorly in America. Frank was wise: it had been wartime, and if Frank’s being a half-breed American Indian became amplified, strike leaders had a better chance of convincing miners that the IWW was an organic American movement, and not the German-loving traitors that many newspapers promoted. No matter. I am certain that Dick Gibson portrays a wonderful half-breed hobo agitator when called upon.
After I asked about historic Butte, Dick produced a detailed map of the city, which he had created and which tourists could purchase at Old Butte Historical Adventures. The map portrayed the various ethnic groups in relation to city streets, neighborhoods, mines, etc. I learned that although the Irish predominated within the city, there were also Finns, Swedes, African Americans, Chinese, Welsh, English, Cornish, Italians, among others. When Irish immigrants arrived on Ellis Island, they often asked for directions to Butte, America. Such was the importance of Butte, Montana, to immigrant miners. Frank was especially close to the Finns.
If the map was any example of Dick’s expertise, I knew he would be invaluable as a resource. During my research over the years, I have often contacted Dick for information that I needed quickly. He has always cheerfully obliged me. He has also fine-tuned his approach to teaching tourists about Butte, and not surprisingly, connecting Butte to his geological expertise. [See his full web site at http://gravmag.com/index.html.]
Dick took us for a short walk to the Butte-Silver Bow Archives, housed in an old fire station. I was quickly out of breath in the Montana altitude, and Dick walked fast. If I could just live in Butte for a year or two, I know I could get into fine form! The old fire station surely was witness to horrifying scenes almost a hundred years when the Granite shaft in the Speculator mine caught fire. In the present, the restored and repurposed old building housed files I would need as well as a Frank Little display.
We sat in a nook to the side of the research area. After noticing one gentleman pass by twice, checking us out, I realized that a few people knew Frank Little’s niece was interviewing Dick Gibson. Butte is a small town, and apart from my dad and aunt visiting the library about twenty-five years ago, I was the first Little descendent to show up and inquire about my uncle.
After Dick’s introduction to Ellen Crain, head of the archives, we were in business. Frank’s file was surprisingly brief, with one document belonging to another Frank Little who committed a crime and had been jailed when my Frank Little was a boy. I hope they pulled that particular file. Otherwise, using Dick’s information about certain corrupt police detectives and events of the 1917 summer, we began digging into other vertical files, and of course, the newspapers. Ellen and her staff accommodated us the rest of the afternoon, and Dick left us after giving us tips on eateries.
I was on my way to falling in love with a town that had once been an accessory to a vicious murder.
I couldn’t wait to visit Butte! My immediate family had known very little about my uncle, except that Frank, a socialist, had been hanged in Butte. We were behind on the learning curve in 1992, primarily due to family secrecy begun over one hundred years ago, until labor enthusiast Gene Lanz contacted the family. My grandaunts Thaylia and Tommie, who knew Frank, were still alive when Lanz visited Aunt Thaylia. Lanz recalled this visit in a letter to friends and relatives of the Little family the following June and included a bibliography of resources on Frank. I give him credit for the first attempt at pioneering the path of Frank’s journey and rousing our family to rediscover our famous ancestor.
Aunt Thaylia had only been three years old and Aunt Tommie, thirteen years old, the last time they saw Frank. Aunt Tommie had a sharp memory of past events while Aunt Thaylia’s memory was failing. Aunt Thaylia relied on events or people she had “heard” about, rather than clear memories of the events of 1914 through 1917. Their siblings, had they not already passed, could have recalled first-hand accounts about Frank as could my grampa, Lee Little, who knew Frank intimately. Unfortunately, when I did press my aunts and uncles about family information, I was more interested in the romance of the Oklahoma Land Run, and not Frank Little.
To celebrate Aunt Tommie’s ninety-first birthday in 1992, my family had traveled to Turney, Missouri. There, Frank’s story began to bubble back up, and Oklahoma stories filled the family’s reminiscences, all because the “union man” had visited Aunt Thaylia in Yale, Oklahoma. With new interest, my father and his sister took a trip to Butte to find out more about Frank Little’s murder. Their presence aroused curiosity, and a newspaper photographer captured Aunt Dolores and her boyfriend’s visit to the Butte-Silver Bow County Archives. Frank Little Day had been declared, and my father was especially excited to be part of the celebration. They came home with folders of materials, the first documents I would use in my search for the truth of Frank Little’s story.
Then in 1995, Montana PBS produced a documentary called The Hobo Agitator. I watched it over and over, becoming consumed with Butte, Montana. But I did not want to make my appearance there until I studied the facts of Frank’s last days—at least as much as I could discover about a vicious murder that had appeared to have been sanctioned and covered up.
Over the last hundred years, historians, authors, and workingmen have added various sobriquets to the once bawdy city of Butte, names generally depicting the town as civilized and captivating, criminal and dangerous, or toxic and dead. Today the city is rejuvenated, with restored elegant mansions, humble cottages, and verdigris-encrusted buildings framed by grassy slopes and imported trees. Attractive slanted streets, newly painted gallows (gallus) head frames, and prominent historical museums and libraries add to its charm. It has outgrown the six or seven blocks that were the primary building district in 1917, an area once thronged day and night with men looking for end-of-shift drinks or female companionship. The old city shrugs off decline and welcomes the rebirth that proudly claims all Butte’s characterizations. Butte is at peace with its history.
My husband and I flew into Salt Lake City where we rented a car. I recall I was unprepared for Utah’s late June weather. It was hot and miserable, and I looked forward to Butte’s cooler weather six hours away. About two years earlier at about the same time of year, I had ridden behind my husband on a Harley-Davidson from Billings to Red Lodge, Montana. After an overnight stay in Red Lodge, the temperature dropped as we crossed over Beartooth Pass into Wyoming and Yellowstone National Park. My hands froze. Days later, when we crossed Wyoming east from Worland to Buffalo, I almost had heat stroke. After miles on a lonely, narrow road, we finally found a hole-in-the-wall bar in Ten Sleep where we could pack ice onto the back of my neck. Such are the extremes.
Before leaving Salt Lake, I made a mental note to check the old train station from which Frank had traveled to Butte on July 17, 1917. His overnight journey in a Chicago and North Western Railroad’s Pullman berth followed our route. When we reached Butte, I would investigate the Front Street Depot so I could visualize the end of his journey. Admittedly, most railroad depots looked the same to me by now—usually one story, frontier-red brick buildings that for some reason survived longer than neighboring buildings of the same era. Still, Frank had been in terrible physical shape when he left Salt Lake, and my great-great-grandmother had just passed, Frank’s mother. The trip must have been miserable. I wanted to follow his journey.
Upon reaching Butte, we drove up the hill, or Up-Town as Butte residents call it, to Broadway Street and our accommodations in the Finlen Hotel. To get to the hotel, we crossed streets named after the abundant minerals found in the area, Copper, Granite, Mercury, Quartz, well you get the idea. One of the street names I couldn’t even pronounce, let alone know what it meant, but it had to be a mineral too, since the street was wedged in between Gold and Platinum streets and Silver and Galena streets. I am betting Butte is the only city in America with a street named Porphyry. You don’t have to look it up; porphyry is a type of igneous rock that contains quartz or feldspar crystals. It looks a lot like the material used in quartz countertops to me.
The historic Finlen Hotel had been recommended to us since it was a key location in Frank Little’s story. Shortly after Frank had arrived in 1917 and delivered a fiery speech, police chief Jere Murphy met with gunmen, likely from Anaconda Mining Company, city officials, and other law enforcement downstairs in the Finlen. Murphy had quite a reputation for subduing unruly miners, and he also moonlighted for the lawyer and private secretary of Anaconda Mining Company’s president. I was certain that the topic of their conversation had been Frank.
We pulled into the parking lot to the side of the Finlen and checked in quickly. Unfortunately, the hotel was remodeling portions of the downstairs area where Murphy held his meeting, but its former elegance was still evident. Still, without even unpacking, I had only one thing on my mind. After years of peering at an old photo of Frank’s grave, we left and drove out to Mountain View Cemetery. I wanted to meet Frank, finally.
Jane Little Botkin
In 1917, Butte, Montana, was rumored to have more residents occupying its cemeteries than living on its streets. It is true that many men in their prime succumbed to mine-related accidents and illnesses, mostly lung diseases. Silicosis, from breathing an accumulation of rock dust, and pneumonia, also caused by sandpapered lungs, abounded. Tuberculosis stealthily invaded poor neighborhoods, causing both old and young to die. I have firsthand experience with the latter since my grandmother and aunt both died from tuberculosis at ages thirty-four and twenty-six, respectively. My dad always tested positive. The family had lived in a Texas oil camp, where my grampa, Frank Little’s nephew, worked on oil rigs. Oil camps were not that much different from mining camps.
We had no map to find Frank Little’s grave among the ornate tombstones in Mountain View Cemetery’s manicured lawns. I only had the old photograph that my father had taken years ago. Without knowing the location of Frank’s grave, my husband and I wandered briefly before spying a grand, granite marker paying tribute to a group of miners.
On June 9, 1917, the Granite shaft of the Speculator mine had accidentally caught fire, burning and asphyxiating 168 miners. The city had been mired in protests and blame, with most union families denunciating mine management. It took weeks for all the bodies to be brought to the top, so the city was still mourning its dead when my uncle arrived to assist a new union about five weeks later. To this day, the accident is recorded as the worst mining calamity in American history. Frank’s death is included as a labor statistic, along with the Speculator dead, after the 1917 summer in Butte.
My research told me that the cemetery would be full of men who lived short lives. I recall gazing beyond the memorial to a prairie-like field with purple mountains looming behind, and there I could make out one larger, solitary granite tombstone, with a black fence edging the grave. Surrounding it was a lake of rusty stakes and a few smaller headstones. We walked through the potter’s field, navigating the crooked and sometimes flattened metal markers, and found Frank. How fitting it was that he had been buried among poor, working class men. My eyes watered. This had been a journey, indeed, uncovering his life, and I felt like I knew him intimately.
Because of its constant visitors, someone, perhaps the IWW, had protected the gravesite. A short iron fence had been erected around the gravesite, and a concrete cap covered the grave. All sorts of items were scattered within the ironwork. I was dismayed at first to see an odd assortment of broken glass, plastic flowers, baby pacifiers, a liquor bottle, etc. On closer inspection, I found IWW buttons and membership cards, other union items from as far away as Sweden, all types of rocks, foreign coins, a miner’s lamp, photos, a black cat (IWW symbol), a small American flag, and the preamble to the IWW constitution wrapped in plastic—not the usual items found on or around a grave. Visitors had evidently left some part of themselves to honor Frank. Others had simply toasted his life.
I decided that I would return to clean up at least the broken glass and trash outside of the grave before I left Butte. Now I was ready to begin my research in Butte, Montana.
Above Butte is a viewing area and tribute to the Speculator dead from the June 9, 1917, mining catastrophe. Frank’s death is also recorded there, as a casualty of the suppression of labor. The Speculator accident had occurred after a carbide lantern on a miner’s helmet touched an oily cable. After the accident, Frank had pushed for eliminating carbide lanterns in mines. I am uncertain as to how he would have remedied lighting, but when he worked as miner, he used candles, clipped onto holders that could be stuck into the ribs of a stope or tunnel. Both methods of illumination seem dangerous to me.
Beyond this memorial, at the base of the East Ridge Mountains, sits a 1700-foot-deep hole filled with toxic water: the Berkeley Pit. The former open-mining pit consumed miles of copper-rich tunnels and the poor neighborhoods atop them when Anaconda Copper Mining Company determined a more efficient way to mine copper ore. I had heard that the water was so toxic that mine workers used sound to dissuade migrating Canadian geese from landing in the water. Just recently, an article appeared on the BBC network reporting geese deaths from the toxic waters. Why the pit has not been cleaned up is unknown to me, but I am certain remediation would entail enormous expense. In my research, I found that other mining and smelting companies had been forced to remedy similar situations, particularly Phelps Dodge and ASARCO. In the meantime, the Berkeley Pit awaits a proper resolution. Still, viewing the yellowish hills and pit was breathtaking for me, another piece of Butte’s history that I found fascinating.
I was reminded of author Dashiell Hammett’s naming a setting Poisonville in his novel Red Harvest. Poisonville, toxic because of factors beyond mining, was based on Butte. Hammett had worked in Butte as a mining operative and claimed to have been offered $5000 to kill my uncle Frank Little. He was said to have been so upset by the events in Butte, the offer, and Frank’s murder that he left the Pinkertons and wrote the book. Curious to see if Hammett’s book reveals clues to Frank’s murder, I resolved to read it. Investigating Hammett and his novel became just another “rabbit” I would chase. (See “Chasing Rabbits” in the menu box under My Journey Researching Frank Little.)
No union workers labored at the edge of the Butte pit at the time of our visit. Today, high above sparse trees and low yellow hills, atop the pine-fringed Continental Divide, stands a ninety-foot-tall white statue. Our Lady of the Rockies spreads her arms over a city that was ripped apart by both unions and copper mining corporations.
After visiting the memorial, we drove the surviving neighborhoods where miners and their families had lived. With Dick Gibson’s ethnic map in my hands, I tried to visualize life in 1917, although Butte today is vastly different from scenes in old photos. Afterwards we returned to Mountain View Cemetery and wandered among graves, some certainly belonging to the same miners who labored around and in the pit area, their faded names marked by rusty sign holders. This area, more a paupers’ cemetery, had not been mown in some time, and many of the markers were lying flat on the ground. I cleaned up debris surrounding Frank’s grave, careful to leave the mementos others had left to honor him. Then I placed red carnations on his grave, certainly not the first red flowers left behind, and said goodbye.