Memphis Street Railway Strike – Part II

2nd in a 3 part series – read the 1st installment here.

By William Novarese

Following the statement to the public, the committee requested all union men on the car lines to stop work at 2 pm and report at once to the headquarters at Carpenters Hall. A mass meeting was called for 3 pm Sunday afternoon at Italian Hall.

President Tutwiler again said on Saturday that he believed a majority of the men were not in sympathy with a strike and that most of them were satisfied with the wages and treatment given them by the company. He also said the pay to the different grades of employees is as good as or better than that in other cities the size of Memphis.

At 2 pm on Saturday July 22, 1916, street railway employees began stopping and abandoning their cars. The first was Car 181 at Madison and Third. A group of union men began pulling the electrical line off to stop the car. The motorman and the conductor stepped off and joined the crowd to cheers and handshakes.

Two railway Inspectors ran the car up the street away from the crowd and stopped. The strikers and others crowded around the car and cut the trolley ropes allowing the feed wires to crash up to the feed wires causing the car to stop.

The strikers would surround the motormen and conductors urging them to join the union and the strike. No violence was threatened or used against non strikers and many left the cars and joined the strike.

The Carmen who refused to join sat in the cars and waited for assistance to arrive.

A Peabody car was next to pass. The lines were pulled off but the motorman did not stop. The car was allowed to continue down Main Street. At 2:10 an East End car traveling west reached Third and Madison. The large crowd blocked the path of the car but the motorman refused to leave the car amid jeers and hoots from the crowd.

Cars were being abandoned along the various lines. Two cars were left standing at Main and Poplar.

The largest areas of concentration of people were Third and Madison and Main and Madison. All streetcars passed through that point during their respective runs.

The News Scimitar reported a large “uptown crowd” had gathered at various points anticipating trouble. The crowd grew as the afternoon passed. By nightfall, the crowd covered two city blocks centered at Main and Madison. Estimates ran as high as 10,000 people gathered in the area.

In 1916, the majority of retail businesses and department stores, probably 98 percent, were located downtown. The streets were always crowded with shoppers on Saturdays. Having public transportation available generated a large amount of revenue for the streetcar company and downtown businesses. Saturday was chosen for that reason. It provided the best opportunity to disrupt the normal flow of shoppers and workers who depended on the streetcars. It brought attention to the union movement without damaging people’s lives. Public support was vital for a transportation strike to be successful. 

A strike on Saturday that might continue into Sunday morning would disrupt the movement of shoppers along with people who depended on the streetcars to get to church. Most jobs would not be affected as the ride to work was not an issue with the strike scheduled to start at 2 pm. The lack of a ride home was a source of irritation to the public and it, along with the affected business owners, would help put pressure on the street car company to settle. 

Union organizers used these methods often. They worked out the timing of the strike so that it had a maximum effect on the Company Management and inconvenienced the public without doing harm. A transportation strike on Saturday allowed the management 48 hours to settle and placed them under great pressure to do so. It was planned with Military precision.

The growing crowd along with the abandoned streetcars caused the streets to be shut down. The mounted patrol was brought in around four pm from Barksdale Station to assist with crowd control with Sergeant Lee in command. Police were patrolling in the area in large numbers. Both night and day shift were on duty and all vacations and days off were canceled on July 21st.  Officers patrolled the downtown streets until morning. Chief Perry was on the scene with his Officers taking personal command of the situation. The crowd lingered all afternoon and late into the night.

The Commercial Appeal reported that the Police, the crowd and sight seers were all, “good natured”. The morning newspaper stated that the crowds chaffed the Police and the Police chaffed back.

The crowd was made up of men, women and children some watching, others filling the streets. Most watched from the curb, but a few joined the strikers in the street. Some of the crowd cheered as men left the cars and joined the strike. There was no violence or tension. The mood of the crowd was cheerful and festive.

Shoppers and downtown workers watched for a while then were left to walk home. The jitney busses were taking full advantage of the situation and swarmed the area looking for fares. The normal nickel fare (jitney) immediately increased to a quarter.

Young boys climbed into the cars ringing the gongs and ringing up fares.

Mayor Ashcroft and Chief Perry met at 2:30 pm. The Mayor kept in touch with Chief Perry and walked the streets monitoring the situation.

T. H. Tutwiler

The Mayor spoke with President T.H. Tutwiler and after issued an order to place uniformed Officers on each car sent out from the barns. Railway inspectors and other employees were able to move most of the stopped cars back to the barn late in the evening just before dark.

Mounted Officers worked to keep the streets open. Two Officers were needed to open up a lane in the crowd to allow automobiles to pass. Two Police Patrol vehicles passed through and were hooted, jeered and cheered by the crowd.

A group attempted to overturn over the Crump bus but the guard placed around the bus prevailed. An intoxicated man became loud and was removed by Sergeant Hendricks with the crowd following him.

Two cars were sitting on Main at South Court. The crowd began poking fun at the Officers inside the cars in a good natured way. Somebody in the crowd said let’s give them a joy ride, immediately approximately 20 men were pushing the car. All of this was done in a light hearted way.

Many of the cars were vandalized and any loose items were taken by various individuals. Various incidents that could have resulted in an arrest were passed up by Police. A plain clothes Officer tried to arrest one of the people involved in the vandalism of a car at Third and Madison. Officers were unable to move through the crowd and were threatened them. They let the perpetrator go rather than provoke trouble. About 1500 people were jammed into that area at the time.

Early in the strike Main between Madison and Jefferson was packed with people. Mounted officers rode back and forth pushing the crowd up onto the sidewalk. At North Court and Main an officer had a problem with two men and he used his club. The crowd immediately reacted and there were shouts of “Take him off”, meaning the mounted officer. Had that happened it might have become tragic.

Chief Perry intervened and acted quickly. He ordered the two men placed under arrest and taken to headquarters. He issued several orders in a commanding voice and the orders were quickly obeyed. In less than two minutes the crowd was quieted and order returned.

He moved to Main and Madison where he found the intersection to be congested with people. He gave the order “clear the street, stand back gentlemen.” Immediately the crowd moved back and the street was cleared. Traffic moved smoothly.

Labor organizer Ben Commons made it clear to the strikers the need to not provoke violence. There are always hotheads in any group of people, but they did not assert themselves on the first day of the strike. Most strikers went to the union headquarters at Carpenters Hall after leaving their respective cars.

Women, wives and or relatives, were present and helped persuade others to join the strike. The ladies used their persuasive way to get the non striking car men to come over to the side of the striking car men. Many of the employee’s who would not give in to the requests of their fellow workers to join the union, did so at the request of the ladies.

A car, operated by a railway inspector, arrived at crowded intersection. When the car stopped, one of the ladies went into the car, placed her arm around the inspector and asked him to get off and join those striking. He relented and walked away from the car to the cheers of the crowd. They lifted him up on their shoulders and carried him around the intersection.

By night fall no streetcars were running. The system was completely shut down. There was talk of running some cars on Sunday morning for the benefit of the Church goers. Without the availability of transportation, most Churches would have a sparse turnout.

The crowd remained for most of the evening. Restaurants and hotels were very busy. Around 10 pm the crowd began to thin and was considerably thinner by midnight. Taxi cabs and jitney busses did a record business.

As a rule, the first day of a strike is usually not violent or confrontational. After a few days or weeks the mood changes and the reality of no pay and an uncertain future set in. Most working class people in the US live from pay check to pay check on a monthly cycle. Once this is disrupted and the bills fall behind pressure builds and trouble can follow. Sometimes outsiders called strike breakers come in and there is intimidation and violence. Large crowds and tension between strikers and companies are very volatile. The longer the strike goes on the greater the possibility of trouble.

The first day of the railway workers strike in Memphis was more like a holiday. A few fist fights and some minor vandalism were the worst of it. Police kept a tight rein and quickly dealt with any problem that came up. After midnight the crowds thinned. Officers remained on duty all night.

The outcome of the strike was still to be determined. Ben Commons claimed in a statement, given at another location, that the strike was as good as won. Railway officials held a different view and had intentions of running cars on Sunday morning. The outcome was not clearly decided by Saturday Night.

At Carpenters Hall, union headquarters, on Saturday night, Ben Commons said that Memphis Street Railway Employees had won their strike.

Commons said:

“We have more than 500 members of the Memphis Local,” said Commons. “The car company has only 650 employees, and this leaves less than 150 men of the company who have not gone out on strike.”

“The company has not enough men to man their cars.” Their service is already stopped and they are not turning a wheel, except on the Cross town line.”

Once the men left their cars to go on strike they went immediately to their headquarters at Carpenters Hall at Second Street and Union Avenue. The union secretary enrolled 360 new men by 9 pm.

Ben Commons admitted that only 102 men were enrolled when the strike began. He addressed the men present at 5 pm about 150 were present and again strongly advised them not to threaten or use any violence against men not on strike.

The following morning the street cars were still not running. The majority of the railway employees had joined the strike and there were not enough employees left to effectively run cars.

At 1:30 pm on Sunday the 23rd, railway company President T.H. Tutwiler and the general committee of the union met at the offices of the Memphis Street Railway Company in the Memphis Trust building. The committee presented President Tutwiler with the original demands initially. Ben commons a short time later presented a new agreement and after a short discussion the compromise agreement was signed by all parties.

A compromise agreement was reached at 2:25pm. The agreement was put in the form of a contract and signed by both parties.

The railway employees won their most important demands. The recognition of the union, arbitration on future wages, hours of work and any other matter that may arise in the future. The reinstatement of employees fired for union activity was also part of the agreement. The demand for a closed shop was not included.

Memphis Street Railway Company President T.H. Tutwiler gave this statement to the media:

“When I first met with a committee from the union organizers, the vast majority of our Carmen were not in favor of a union and their demands were declined.”

“By noon Sunday, due to conditions which prevailed Saturday night, I was convinced that a majority were in favor of the union being recognized. This and consideration of the public necessity for street car transportation led us to recognize the union. More than anything else, the convenience of our patrons and their needs were a dominant factor in my decision.”

Once the agreement was reached the strikers committee went to Carpenters Hall to inform union members. The agreement was read by Ben Commons to the 500 employees assembled there. As the agreed on terms were read out there were cheers from the union members.

Once the contract was read to the employees, Ben Commons ordered the members to the car barns to resume street car service. At 3:10 pm Sunday the first car left the barn manned by Conductor Greer and Motorman Martin.

Once the striking Carmen went back to work, word spread quickly. Large crowds gathered along Main Street and cheered every car and its crew as they passed. People in the crowd waved their hats and the streetcar crews waved their hats in reply. People were glad to have the streetcars back in service and showed their approval with orderly demonstrations.

The return of car service meant they could get to work on time Monday morning. Most blue collar workers depended on the streetcar system for transportation to and from work. Memphis, in those days, was a blue collar city.

Rumors were abundant during and after the strike. A rumor that a Florida car was set on fire proved to be false. A rumor that the company had 50 strike breakers on the way from Chicago whom the IC railroad placed on a siding before they could arrive also proved to be false. One railroad company refused to bring in coal trains for the power house at the street railway company but there was no other involvement by the railroads.

There was also a rumor that the employees who were placed as special officers by the company would not be allowed to join the Union. It was true of one person as of the 25th. The opinion was that the railway company put these employees in plain clothes with instructions to stop the union from becoming organized.

President Tutwiler had on several occasions denied that and indicated that it was an attempt to protect property and employees. It was in no way an attempt to stop union activity. The committee had the names of those who worked as special officers. This would not be the last time the so called “Special Officers” would be an issue

The in initial agreement contained the following terms:

  1. The street car company agreed to recognize the union
  2. That the strike be immediately called off and the men return to work
  3. That the company and the union would negotiate on wages, scheduled hours and other matters.
  4. Should negotiations fail, the issue would be submitted to arbitration.
  5. All men discharged for joining the union will be put back to work and paid for the time they lost.
  6. Railway Company and union officials will meet and discuss details of the contract in order to arrive at a final agreement

President Tutwiler and union representatives signed the agreement at 2:25 pm. Within the hour, cars were running again.

Street railway Superintendent Ford was given a list of the men discharged for participating in the union. It was indicated that all of the men would be put back to work and paid for the time they were off.

The first union member operated car left the barn just after 3 pm. Car 565 rolled out of the car barn onto Beale Street to the cheers of bystanders who had gathered near the barns. They waved their hats and the motorman and conductor waved theirs in return. A group decided they wanted to ride the first union operated car and crowded in.

Ben Commons sat in an automobile near the car barns. Men who had not previously joined the union stood in line at his vehicle as he signed them up as members.

Car 565 proceeded South on Walnut from Beale then west on Vance, to Main Street. Groups cheered along the way as it passed. As car 565 crossed Madison and Main Street the sidewalks were crowded with people

Word of the settlement was received at Police headquarters shortly after the agreement was signed. Acting Captain Kehoe left headquarters, boarded an automobile and rode down Main Street giving orders to the Sergeants and patrolmen to spread the word among the crowd that the strike was over.

Not long after the agreement was signed streetcars cars began moving through downtown and within a half hour something of a normal schedule was reached. The crowds gradually dispersed and things began to return to normal.

A wrongful death lawsuit was filed in Federal Court on September 18, 1916, by W.P. Benson, the brother of John C. Benson. The suit alleges that “special agents” working for the railway company attacked John C. Benson at the corner of Vance and Walnut on July 19, 1916. The attack, it is alleged, triggered circumstances that ended with his brother losing his life.

The Police investigation into the death of former Conductor John C. Benson continued through the fall of 1916.

On October 20, 1916, 13 people were indicted for 1st Degree Murder in the death of J.C. Benson at Vance and Walnut on July 19, 1916. W.J. Dillon had been charged earlier and was out on Bond. All but two of the eleven indicted were arrested on Oct 21, 1916. Capiases were issued for the two remaining and the understanding was they would turn themselves in once they returned to the City.

Indicted were:

E.O. Dunlap
Ned Russell
Guy Hines
S.J. Smith
Walter Hendron
S.C. Stagna
A.S, Keywood
Jesse Litton
E.T. Broadfoot
W.E. Miller
R.S. Wiseman
Tom Scarbrough
B.F. Cuff
W.A. Dillon

A trial date had not been set.

On October 26, 1916, J.O. Grooms filed a lawsuit in Federal Court against the Memphis Street Railway Company for 10,000, about 60,000 in today’s money. He alleged that he was attacked by a group of men employed by the street railway company and severely beaten and his companion shot and killed. He asked damages for his injuries and the shock of his co-worker being killed.

On January 9th, 1917, the trial date for both wrongful death lawsuits against the Memphis Street Railway Company were set for February 12, 1917 in federal court.

On January 16, 1917, the trial began with jury selection. Over 100 witnesses were named and another 100 are to be polled for Jury selection. A large number of challenges from both the Defense and State it was believed would take several days to work through. The trial was set to begin on Wednesday January 23nd in Division 1 of Criminal Court. Judge Puryear presiding.

The States case was handled by Attorney General Hunter Wilson and assistant John Brown. The defense attorneys were from the firm of Prescott & Magevney along with attorney William R. Harrison.

W.E. Miller was released, charges were dropped due to insufficient evidence January 17, 1916. As of 5:30 pm on January 22nd, the Jury was seated. Finally on Wednesday the 23rd the first witnesses were called and the trial was underway.

The States attorney’s and the defense argued a large number of points of law to begin the trial. The arguments were so numerous that the Jury was removed from the courtroom until they could be disposed of. The large number of witnesses called by the State would require several days to be heard.

Three items of evidence were introduced, Photographs of the area and pistol and blackjack owned by one of the defendants, B.F. Cuff

The State was attempting to prove that the railway company used the special officers to suppress union activity. All of the men on trial were appointed as special officers and were present at the scene of the shooting. It was the State’s contention that they were complicit in the death of J.C. Benson along with A.W. Dillon even though Dillon had admitted to firing the shots in self defense.

The special officers were mainly Conductors and Motorman who were pulled off their runs with instruction to protect railway property and non union supporting employees. Early testimony focused on the clashes between employees discharged for union activity and the special officers on or near the streetcar barns at Beale and Walnut.

The first witnesses called by the State were mostly employees who were discharged. They were asked direct questions about the special officers and their interaction with former employees who were union supporters in the form of bullying or intimidation. Most of the testimony indicated that there were several fights between individuals with others standing and watching.

Independent witnesses, who were mainly passersby’s, described what they saw at Vance and Walnut the night of the shooting.

One witness, Bud Bugg, who was driving by as the shooting happened gave basically the same testimony as others. He saw one man strike another. Then five or six men were around Grooms striking him, but that Benson was not surrounded. Next he saw Benson running and heard three shots. He also testified that a Mr. Foster, a representative of the railway company, asked him for a statement. He stated under questioning that Mr. Foster did not add anything or take anything away from his statement, or try to put words in his mouth. He saw Dillon walk away from the confrontation and heard him say “I’m cut” and saw a trail of blood from where Dillon walked away.

Another witness, H.D. Turner, testified that he was taken off his run and told to report to Tom Scarbrough. Union organizer Ben Commons was staying at the Gehring Hotel on Union near Main Street. Turner testified that Scarbrough told him they would stand on a corner near the hotel and watch to see if any employees from the railway company visited him. Turner stated he was not instructed to cause anyone harm.

Turner admitted he signed a letter circulated among the Railway Company employees asking for their loyalty. He stated he was not altogether happy with the treatment from the company, but was afraid he would be fired if he did not sign. He later joined the union out of fear he would not be allowed to work if he did not.

E.F. Fitzgerald Chauffeur assigned to drive Commons around town testified about an assault committed on Commons and his companion. The alleged assault was committed by a man named Wilkerson who is not one of the Defendants. Broadfoot, Russell and Scarbrough were present but did not participate. Commons saw Scarbrough and his companions near the hotel and told Fitzgerald to follow them just before the assault.

J.M. Owens, who was assisting Ben Commons organize the union stated he saw the men across the street when they left the Gehrig Hotel. The alleged assault happened on Main Street, south of Union on June 29th, 1916. Owens testified he was hit from behind and did not see what happened to Commons. Owens was not a railway employee.

Most of the remaining witnesses gave similar testimony. Most of the witnesses called by the State were used to try to convince the Jury that the special officers charged in this case were all responsible for the death of J.C. Benson. The State had approximately 60 witnesses set to testify when the trial started. Most of them were not involved in the actual shooting in any way. Very little of the testimony so far was not about the actual shooting.

On the 27th the State began questioning witnesses regarding the actions of railway supervisors who suggested the use force and violence against union sympathizers. There was testimony about remarks from Supervisors regarding the use of force.

There was no testimony that any of it was actually carried out.

Watch for the exciting conclusion to this three part series!

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