Memphis Street Railway Strike – Part I

By William Novarese

The Memphis Street Railway Company controlled all streetcar traffic in Memphis in 1916. The vital nature of Public transportation made its every move and change a major issue to Memphians and the city commission. Without the streetcars running, a large number of employees would not be able to get to work or to move around the city. Memphis would basically grind to a halt. Any issue that caused the Street cars to not run had to be addressed immediately. They were a vital necessity for the city, its industries and business’s to be able to function.

The years between 1900 and 1916 are known as the progressive era in America. Many groups were expressing their views seeking various rights and acknowledgement by gathering, marching and speaking out in public. In the second decade of the 20th century, unions were growing rapidly and actively recruiting members in all parts of the country. Often, the organization process was a bitter battle between union and non union supporters. Confrontations could lead to violence and often people on both sides were injured and some lost their lives.

Memphis had its share of attempts by unions to organize employees. Very few succeeded. The South in general was not as receptive to unions as were its Northern neighbors. A distrust of people Southerners viewed as “outsiders” created opposition for union organizers.

On June 22nd, 1916, an organizer from the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees of America By the name of Ben Commons came to Memphis. Mr. Commons was the President of the Union in New Orleans union and a fourth vice president of the railway employees union. He was involved in organizing the Street railway workers in the area around New Orleans. Commons organized a street car workers union at Pine Bluff Arkansas in the weeks preceding his visit to Memphis.

Commons came to Memphis in late June, 1916, and began talking to Memphis Street Railway Company workers about organizing a union. Immediately word spread to other railway employees and railway company management.

Commons spent several days in the city speaking with Railway Company employees. He soon came to believe he was being shadowed by non union supporting employees and claimed he was “roughed up” near the hotel where he was staying. After several days in the city he went home to New Orleans.

Ben Commons returned to Memphis the second week of July, 1916. He resumed his efforts to recruit railway workers into the union. He spoke with railway company employees at every opportunity trying to build interest in the organization of a union to represent them. He explained the many benefits of Union membership such as fair treatment in disciplinary situations. Commons also made them aware of the opportunity to have shorter working hours with overtime pay for working past the established time along other benefits.

Commons again left for his home New Orleans.

By the time he returned, the railway company employees were well aware of the attempt to organize the union. Street Railway employees had drawn lines between those for and those against the union.

Several Railway Company employees had been fired for union activity and the situation had become intense and focused by both sides. Any person heard talking about the Union was called in and let go. Street Railway President Tutwiler spoke of his employees being a family group but quickly approved the dismissal of those involved in any way with the Union.

The railway company requested assistance from the Police department in protecting their employees and property from possible retaliation by terminated employees.  Police Chief O.H. Perry refused the request.

The railway company began appointing special officers from rank and file to guard the car barns. Most of these men were conductors and motormen with no law enforcement experience. Charles Berry, a former Deputy Sheriff, employed by the railway company as a conductor, was placed in charge.

The railway company management would later state under oath that the special officers were instructed to not initiate any disturbances or violence. They were to call Police if any problem occurred but not to use force of any kind. Their function was to guard railway company property. They were also instructed not to carry arms of any kind. The problem with this was, many of the employees carried guns or knives or both on a daily basis anyway and were not inclined to stop on the company’s instruction.

The tension was running high at the time the special officers were appointed. The middle level railroad company management people were giving out different instructions, as it would later be brought out in court. Court testimony would later show front line supervisors were in many cases telling them to do what they had to stop the organization of the union and deal with sympathizers.

 Many of the special officers were armed with various weapons and many were carrying handguns. Several of special agents were given a Badge by Chief of Police Perry and granted arrest powers.

Clashes between Non Union employees and Union supporters had already happened. On Tuesday morning, July 18 a former employee and another man became involved in a fight outside the car barns. Police were called but the man had already left when they arrived.

The News Scimitar reported they received information that a man was chased down Walnut, from Eastmoreland to Vance. He was struck several times with a blackjack by one of the men chasing him and a shot was fired at him as he entered a house on Vance.

In another incident, according to the Commercial Appeal, two men were fined $5 Wednesday afternoon before Squire Helms. Walter Hendren and Ned Russell were both involved in the fight. Hendren and Russell were charged with assault and Battery. They were accused of assaulting two former employees of the railway company.

With many of the special officers armed and tensions running high, a major incident was inevitable.  

The appointment of the so called “Special Agents” by the railway company would become a controversy as the investigation continued. They were chosen from the ranks of current employees. They were mostly Conductors and Motormen.

The premise of it seemed harmless and practical from the railway company’s point of view. It was supposed to fulfill a need to protect railway property and employees. The problem was that most if not all of the special agents had no training for security work nor were they properly supervised. All of them ended up carrying some type weapon either a handgun or a blackjack or both.

There is one thing that is always true of people who are given some type of authority, once they have it; they will look for a reason to use it. In the hands of untrained people it inevitably comes out on a personal level.

On Wednesday, July 19 at around 7 pm, a former conductor named J.D. Harris was sitting on a bread box talking to a friend in front of Mahans Grocery, at Vance and Walnut. Men employed by the railway company were often in the area. Many of them lived a short distance from Vance and Walnut and it was within two blocks of the car barns. It was a “hangout” so to speak for railway employees. It was not uncommon to find many of them in the area.

A railway Co employee named Cuff, one of the special agents, came down Walnut from the car barns and struck Harris over the head with a black jack. Harris took the blackjack away from Cuff and hit Cuff with it several times.

Word of the fight got back to the car barn and a group of between 15 or 20 men soon arrived at Vance and Walnut.  Harris had already left the area. J.C. Benson and J.O. Grooms, both former conductors, had just stepped out of the W.T. Magee Pool room on Walnut and walked over towards where the fight happened. Seeing that the fight was over, Grooms and Benson walked back in the direction of the pool room.

According to Benson’s statement to Police, one of the men in the crowd saw them and shouted “There’s two of the ____ ____ ___ now, let’s get them”. Benson and Grooms tried to run back into the pool room but were overtaken by the men from the car barns just as they reached the entrance. They were pulled away from the door before they could reenter.

Several of the men began attacking Grooms and he was struck over the head with a blackjack multiple times. Grooms managed to take the blackjack away from the assailant but the man pulled a gun and demanded the weapon back, Grooms complied.

Another of the agents from the car barns, W.A. Dillon was walking towards Vance and Walnut as the fight began. He just gotten off work and was trying to catch a car on Vance to ride home. He saw the disturbance that looked like a fight going on across the street and decided he would try to break it up. He crossed Walnut and approached the men who were fighting and the group surrounding them. As soon as he reached the group he was attacked.

In a statement to Police, Dillon stated he walked over to where the group was and felt a blow on his back. He turned and realized he was being attacked by a man armed with a knife. Dillon stated he began backing up, took out his hand gun and demanded the assailant stop. When he did not stop, Dillon fired at least one or more shots at his attacker who then turned and ran away. Dillon did not recognize his assailant.

At the same time the shots rang out, J.C. Benson was seen running across the street towards the Southern Railroad crossing. Benson ran as far as the railroad crossing signal tower and collapsed on the tracks in front of it. The attack on Grooms ended after the gunfire began and he went west on Vance Avenue.

Grooms and Benson were roommates at 278 Cossitt place and ex-streetcar conductors. Benson was fired for sympathizing with the union, Grooms said in a statement to the Evening Scimitar that after being told by railway inspector Phil Beck that he would be fired if he were seen talking to anybody about the union, he quit.

Police were quickly notified of the fight and shooting. Desk Sergeant Garibaldi sent Detectives Hoyle and Bruner along with Emergency Officers Olive, Clarke, Kirksey and Mathews to the scene.

Initial versions of the shooting varied. It is not unusual for witnesses to give varying versions of what happened.

By the time the officers arrived, the railway company special agents had already left the area. Officers located a former conductor named W.J. Siefert who was a witness to the fight and shooting. The detectives asked Siefert to help identify the shooter and others involved. He agreed and went with Officers to the car barns.

A crowd of approximately 60 men were gathered around the entrance to the Railway Office building. Officers had to force their way through the crowd to get into the building. Once Detectives and Siefert entered the vestibule, Siefert immediately identified five of the men as members of the group involved in the fight and shooting. Two of the identified men tried to leave out a back exit. Detectives Hoyle and Clarke pointed their weapons at them and ordered them to halt. Both complied and returned to the room. Another disturbance began at the front door as several men from the group gathered outside the door tried to force their way into the room. Officers pointed their handguns at them and ordered them to stop. The men complied with the order and backed out the door.

A patrol wagon was called to the scene and the five identified men were transported to Headquarters. According to the News Scimitar they were:

Ned Russell, 30, a railway inspector. Russell had a loaded revolver and a blackjack. Charged with carrying a pistol.

E.O. Dunlap, 30, a railway inspector. Dunlap possessed a loaded revolver. Charged with carrying a pistol.

Walter Hendren, 32, a conductor. Hendren had a loaded revolver with two empty chambers. Charged with carrying a pistol.

Frank Berry, 30, a conductor. Berry did not have a weapon in his possession at the time he was taken into custody but did have an empty holster. Released pending action by the Grand Jury.

Guy Hines, 24, a conductor. Hines was also not in possession of a weapon but did have an empty holster. Released pending action by the Grand Jury.

All five men were held for investigation and later released on a $250 bond.

According to the Commercial Appeal, W.J. Seifert was also arrested on assault charges. His case was dismissed in city court the next day.

Once the 6 suspects were transported to headquarters, Walter Hendron was asked to go to a table where the confiscated guns were laid out and pick up the weapon that belonged to him. He picked up the one with two empty cylinders that also appeared to have been recently fired.

Detectives located Dillon at the City Hospital. He had a stab wound in his back and another wound across his right shoulder. Dillon walked away from the scene bleeding heavily from his wounds. He apparently was helped to the car barn by the members of the group of special agents. They placed him in a company service truck and transported him to the City Hospital for emergency treatment.

Dillon refused to talk with Detectives at the hospital and refused to give them his conductor’s badge number. They later searched his home and found his badge in a drawer. Dillon was a member of the Security squad formed by the railway company and was not carrying his conductor’s badge at the time of the shooting. Seven .32 cal cartridges were found in his coat pocket. Police also confiscated Dillon’s pistol for evidence.

J.C. Benson was taken to St Joseph Hospital from Vance and Walnut. Later that night Detectives went to the hospital spoke with Benson. Benson sustained serious internal injuries from the bullet wounds that, at the time, were not survivable. He was made aware that he was near death and Detectives asked him for a statement.  With his situation made clear Benson agreed to give Officers a dying declaration regarding the shooting. On July 19th at around 11:00 pm, Benson gave the following statement:

“I, J.C. Benson, believing that I am near my death, and cannot live but a short while, do herby make the following statement relative to the identity of the man who shot me tonight, July 19, 1916, about 7:45 pm”. “The man who shot me is the same man who ran as conductor with me on July 1, 1916 on swing run 8, on East End line. This is the truth to which I swear, believing I am about to die”.

“J.C. Benson”

J.C. Benson died at 12:30 A.M., July 20, 1916. The assault case was now a homicide.

Detectives returned to City Hospital and spoke with Dillon. They made him aware of the evidence they accumulated and the dying declaration by Benson. Dillon agreed to give Detectives a statement.

Dillon’s statement:

          Between 7 and 8 o’clock I walked up to the corner of Walnut and Vance. I noticed a fight in progress close to the Southern railway crossing. There were several standing around. I was fixing to catch a car. I walked across Walnut street and stepped down in the street. Someone ran up from behind me, and I felt a blow in my back. I wheeled around, saw a man with a knife in his hand. I ran backward. I don’t know the man. I told him to stop. He followed. I pulled my gun and fired. He wheeled as I fired. I don’t remember how many times I shot. I ran back up Walnut Street. I felt blood running down my back.

          W.A. Dillon

Once Dillon gave his statement the charge was changed from assault to murder.  Dillon was arrested and placed under Police Guard at the hospital.

Two other witnesses were located. One of the witnesses was Harry O. True, county election commissioner and president of the True-Tagg Paint Company. Mr. True stated he was traveling west on Vance in his automobile when shots rang out. He saw J.C. Benson stagger and fall. Mr. True saw a man running north on Walnut after the shots were fired but he was too far away for him to get a good description.

Jack Martin, advertising specialist, was in front of Kullman’s store, 336 Walnut, watching eight men come down Walnut Street to Vance Avenue. He saw them attack Grooms and Benson as they walked out of the poolroom.

According to Martin, Benson ran as soon as the fight started and could not have stabbed the man who fired the shots at him.

On Friday, July 21st Dillon was moved from City Hospital to St Joseph. He remained under Police guard. Officers Kanaley and Moore taking turn are guarding him.

Officers were also placed at the car barn on both the night and day shift with orders to protect property and handle any disturbances. Detectives Carmichael and Bizot and Patrolmen Mathis, Newell and English were placed in the area of the car barns on dayshift with orders to patrol the area. The night shift officers were detailed by Captain Condon. They were Officers Pride, Brigance, Westbrook and Brett. In 1916, Patrol Officers worked 12 hour shifts.

On Thursday, July 20th, a meeting was held at Italian Hall attended by union supporters and several labor leaders. Before the meeting began, groups of men congregated at the entrance. There were men from the railway company, men who had been discharged for union sympathy, and men from other area labor unions. They spoke in low tones about the shooting of discharged motorman John C. Benson. Just before 8:00 pm the men began filing in.

As the men were entering the hall a disturbance began at the front door. A man suspected of being a “spotter or spy” for the street railway company attempted to enter the meeting. When he could not produce a union card, threats of physical violence were made against him. He was quickly removed down the steps and into the street by a door watchman. This action protected the man from injury and calmed the crowd.

 Labor organizer Ben Commons, representing the Street Railway Union, was the principal speaker. Commons wore a bandage on his hand and had several scars on his face alleged to be from encounters with Memphis Street Railway Company representatives. Commons spoke for almost an hour.

He was cheered when he spoke of his struggle to gain a foothold for a union of the Carmen. Men shouted “We’re with you and you’re right”, often interrupting his speech. Commons told them they were fighting for their rights, rights that could only be gained by the power of organized numbers.

Speeches were made criticizing the termination of men by the Railway Company for union sympathy. The shooting of fired conductor J.C. Benson on the 19th of July was also discussed.

A committee was appointed to represent the terminated employees and to present the union agenda to the Railway Company. The committee was instructed to present a demand to the officers of the Memphis Street Railway Company that the terminated employees be reinstated. They were also asked to approach the Mayor, Chief of Police and the Sherriff, for protection of the men working to organize the union.

There was talk among attendees after the meeting of a possible strike if the demands of the committee were not met by the Railroad Company.

Memphis Street Railway President Thomas Henry Tutwiler gave a statement to the Commercial Appeal on July 21 regarding the meeting at Italian Hall.

Mr. Tutwiler stated:

          “This Meeting and the agitation which has been going on for the past month has been worked up by Ben Commons, an organizer from New Orleans. He came here without any request of solicitation upon the part of our employees and attempted to interfere in a situation where relations between employer and employee are cordial and personal”.

          “He succeeded in gaining the support of a few of our employees who immediately became agitators, and their services were dispensed with for the good of the service, and in the interest of harmony. This action was approved by a vast majority of the employees’.

          “The employees of the company as a whole are satisfied and they are not in favor of a union and resent this interference on the part of an outsider and disinterested party”.

         “Under these circumstances it is the company’s plain duty to its employees to decline to treat with this committee, who do not authoritatively represent its employees.  The company will take this stand in no uncertain manner. We will, however, courteously receive this or any other committee of Memphis men, and state our position to them. We will decline to have any conference or dealings with Commons. Commons will of course make representations that he has already signed up a majority of the men and will threaten a strike but we know to the contrary”.

Thomas Henry Tutwiler was appointed President of the Memphis Street Railway Company in 1905 during company reorganization. He was originally from Palmyra Virginia. He studied engineering under private tutorship. He supervised the construction of a drawbridge over the Sunflower River in Mississippi and was later employed by the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad. The town of Tutwiler Mississippi was named for him. He later became engineer for the railway system in New Orleans for 9 years and after that the street railway system in Birmingham Alabama. Later he played a part in the conversion of the Kansas City MO and Kansas City KS, street railway system to electric power. He also had charge of rehabilitating the street railway system at Nashville.

In 1905 after a change in ownership of the Memphis Street Railway Company Mr. Tutwiler was brought to Memphis and made Vice President and General Manager.  He later became President and was still holding that office in 1916.

Benson’s body was handed over to Coroner Ingram on July 20th. He immediately ordered an inquest be held and an autopsy. The bullet was needed for a size comparison in order to try and determine the weapon it was fired from. Sophisticated forensics used today did not exist at that time.

An inquest was held on July 21st, conducted by Coroner N.T. Ingram. The coroner’s jury ruled the death of John C. Benson to be murder by a party unknown. Several witnesses were called and none could testify to seeing a knife in Benson’s possession nor see him stab any one.

An autopsy was performed on July 21st by Dr. C.E. Duvall. Dr. Duvall found that one of the bullets entered Benson’s body near the waste line and lodged in the right shoulder. The Police were given this bullet for comparison with the ammunition used by Dillon. The second bullet entered three inches above his waistline and traveled in an upward path indicating Benson was falling when he was hit.

Dr. Duvall had been Bensons attending Physician at St. Joseph Hospital. He stated that during conversations between them, Benson said he had attacked no one and was trying to escape when shot.

J.C. Benson’s brother, W.T. Benson and a cousin J.P. Benson arrived in Memphis Friday afternoon, July 21st and took Benson’s body to his family home in New Hebron MS for burial.

The negotiating committee, representing the street railway workers, led by Chairman H.B. Reid, was made up of labor men from different labor organizations. President Tutwiler stated on Thursday, July 20th he would be willing to listen to any group of Memphis men who requested a meeting, but would not want to meet with outsiders and would not meet with labor organizer Ben Commons.

The committee of 10 labor union men, formed at the meeting of union supporters on Thursday night July 20th, created a list of 12 demands that were drawn up in the form of a contract. The contract would be entered into between the Memphis Street Railway Company and the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electrical Railway Employees of America, Division (Local) 713 of Memphis Tn.

These demands were presented to railway company President T.H. Tutwiler Friday afternoon, the 21st at the law offices of Wright, Miles, Waring & Walker, the company’s attorneys. The Demands included higher wages, a shorter work day and a closed shop.

Present were railway President T.H. Tutwiler, attorney Luke E. Wright, Railway Superintendent E.W. Ford and the committee of 10 representing the street railway workers.

The meeting concluded with Mr. Tutwiler refusing to sign the agreement. H.B. Reid, committee chairman, said after the conference:

“Mr. Tutwiler said he could not at this time consider the organization of his men into a union. He said he felt they were satisfied with conditions under which they work and did not desire that a union be formed. The conference was cordial.”

President Tutwiler refused to accept the demands of the committee stating that as the majority of the company’s employees were not in sympathy with it he could not treat with the committee. He again stated he did not want to deal with Ben Commons, a union organizer and outsider from New Orleans.

According to the Commercial Appeal, Ben Commons said the Memphis Local was granted a charter two weeks ago. He says there are enough members among the company’s employees to stop every street car wheel moving in Memphis should a strike be called. He did not provide a list of names or a number of men belonging to the organization.

The Commercial Appeal also stated that Ben Commons said yesterday that a strike had not been called at this time. He was empowered to call a strike at any time in Memphis during the present situation. He said it would be announced at a meeting of the general committee at noon today (July 22, 1916) at Italian Hall. An earlier secret meeting was held there at 3:00 am.

The Committee met with Mayor Ashcroft, Commissioner McLain and Chief of Police Perry behind closed doors at 4:00 pm Friday. It was believed this meeting was in regards to Police protection. Police were asked to patrol the area of the car barns to prevent clashes between the parties involved and protect property.

Chief Perry had detailed six extra men to the area of the car barns at Beale and Walnut. Officers were ordered to arrest any person or persons starting a disturbance. Chief Perry addressed the clash on Wednesday at Vance and Walnut. He said that that situation was unavoidable as far as the Police were concerned. The clash happened 4 blocks from the car barns and no matter how many Police Officers he had stationed at the car barns none of them would have been near Vance and Walnut to deal with the fight and shooting.  

 On Saturday the 22nd of July, the union of street railway men became a permanent organization or local of the Amalgamated Association of Street & Electric Railway Employees. Conductor L.A. Johns was elected President of the union local.

After a noon meeting of the union general committee on Saturday July 22nd at Italian Hall, the newly formed union gave the officers of the street railway company until 2:00 pm to agree and sign their list of demands or a strike would be called.

President Tutwiler maintained his earlier stance and refused to accept the demands presented to him by the committee. He stated earlier he would not negotiate with people he considered to be outsiders and agitators.

President Tutwiler said to the committee that all employees of the company who could prove they were unjustly discharged recently would be put back to work at once and their back salary restored to them.

Tutwiler also stated that Ben Commons has inflated the list of men he has not talked to and signed up. These men are told of this, and become indignant and search out the man misrepresenting them. Many of the rows have been on account of this.

The union members spent Saturday morning organizing. They opened a headquarters at Carpenters Hall where Ben Commons met there with men who were in sympathy with the union. Approximately 100 signed an agreement to strike if necessary.

President of the Carmen’s Union of the United States, Bill Mahon, was said to be in route to Memphis from Detroit to take charge.

President Tutwiler, Superintendent Ford and Special Officer Berry from the street railway company asked Chief of Police Perry for protection of their property and men should the strike become violent.

The two Police emergency vehicles were normally manned by two officers. Chief Perry added two more officers to each vehicle. Both vehicles were being kept at Headquarters ready to respond to any disturbance that might flare up. The number of emergency officers on duty was double the normal number

Locations considered likely points of trouble had officers assigned to them with orders to arrest any person who caused a problem. Among the locations were McLemore and Rayburn (Third), Florida and Speedway and Vance and Walnut. Several city detectives and four patrolmen working two shifts have been assigned to the car barns since the disturbance Wednesday night.  

Chief Perry stated:

“The officers have orders to quell any disturbance and arrest all offenders, regardless of their affiliation with the union or the street car company. We are absolutely neutral, but we demand that order be maintained and life and property protected.”

The committee issued a statement to the public explaining their actions.

“The committee appointed by the mass meeting in compliance with their instructions, have made every effort to effect a settlement between the street railway company and its employees”.

“We have failed because Mr. Tutwiler refused to entertain any proposition offered.”

“We hereby indorse the action of the representatives of the International Association of Street Carmen in calling a strike at 2 pm.”

Signed The Committee


Find out how the strike unfolded and what happened next in our next installment of Memphis Street Railway Strike – Part II

4 thoughts on “Memphis Street Railway Strike – Part I

  1. Very detailed and objective. I noticed numerous names of Memphis families still around today. I assume Tutwiler was named for the President of the Railway Company. Enjoyed all the local color about times and places like “Italian Hall” and several other identifiable locations. Cannot wait for “Chapter 2” of this rousing tale. Don’t know which side to pull for. Thanks for the excellent story.

  2. Very thoroughly researched and interesting Bill. Well done.
    The Italian Hall was on Second St near Court. I have a photo of it somewhere will try to find and send to you.

Leave a Reply