How women & socialists toppled Seattle chain gangs

As word of the dire conditions in Seattle's jail and on the chain gang spread, the city's civilizing forces gained steam.
As word of the dire conditions in Seattle's jail and on the chain gang spread, the city's civilizing forces gained steam.

Editor's Note: This is the third in a four-part series about life on Seattle's chain gangs. Read parts one and two, Life on a Seattle chain gang and Life in an early Seattle jail here.

As the new century moved on, Seattle entered the so-called Progressive era, a time of general reforms and political upheaval. The chain gang was still a fixture, but anti-gang voices began to be heard more. In general, police and prison reform moved to the front burner of civic debate.

For one thing, the deplorable jail conditions and treatment of prisoners became more public. A situation that was already toxic in 1900 was even worse by 1907. Another factor was a growing sense that chain gang punishments were not being applied fairly and that police and judges were showing both bias and favoritism. An editorial in the Seattle Republican, a newspaper run by the crusading African American couple Horace and Susie Revels Cayton, argued that the chain gang was punishment for men who had committed nothing other than "the atrocious crime of being poor."
Crosscut archive image.As it became more and more obvious that rich white men never ended up on the gang, the progressive Seattle Star noted that "The man who beats his wife is nonetheless low and brutal because he has money." In 1907, the Rev. W.A. Stevenson of Cherry St. Presbyterian church, railed against the morals of some Seattle society leaders who, he said, "have such vicious tendencies that they would contaminate the prisoners on the chain gang."
At right: A 1907 Seattle Times article on chain gangs.
Abusers of women were commonly sentenced to the gang, along with exploiters and pimps — sometimes known as the "pink cuff gentry" — who were considered vagrants because they didn't work for a living, but sponged off women who did. But wealthier men — drunks, wife beaters, gamblers, johns — often got off with fines, or had their charges dismissed. There was a common belief that the wealthy had friends at the court house and their problems were routinely being "fixed."
Well-to-do contractor and real estate man, J. Powell Light, beat his wife on Christmas night and was arrested in his pajamas. He spent a night in jail and was threatened with 30 days on the gang, according to an almost gleeful account by the Seattle Star. Rather than do his time on the gang, Light paid the $100 fine — a price that was almost impossible for anyone but the rich to pay in 1907.
If some people were chafing at the difference of treatment due to class, gender was also becoming an issue. After the turn of the century, Seattle's women grew as a political force, advocating for cleaning up the jail, the hiring of jail matrons and ending the chain gang. The Humane Society, which at that time played a key role in expanding the humane treatment of prisoners, women and children caught up in the justice system, called the chain gang a disgrace to the city. In general, the new women's movement disapproved of Seattle's reliance on sin and police corruption in the management of prostitution and vice districts.

In 1906, a Seattle Times expose on the jail brought the brutal realities of jail life to a larger audience. They found "hordes of rats," meager meals and a "ghoulish" dampness that would "chill the heart" in the jail's dungeons. They concluded: "There is no sign of hope, not a ray of comfort, not a glimpse or a suggestion of anything but dismal suffering, vicious brutality, filth and the lowest dregs of the reeking gutter."
The next year, a distinguished group of Socialist and labor activists, including representatives of the Tailors Union, the Machinists Union and a Dr. Hermon Titus, who had suffered a night in the jail for "talking socialism on the public street," approached the Seattle Board of Health. Would the board, they asked, make a personal inspection of the jail?
They did the next day. After an hour-long tour, board members were so appalled that, according to the Times, all "emerged from the jail with a raging headache and a feeling of nausea."  As Titus observed, "No clean, sane, sensitive man could live long in such surroundings."
Though the jail was ordered condemned, a new permanent facility wouldn't be ready for another two years.
Meanwhile, opposition to chain gangs continued to bubble up along gender lines as Seattle women's groups became an active anti-gang and jail reform force. In 1909, the Washington State Federation of Women's Clubs formally came out against chain gangs — and, by the way, the scourge of cigarettes. Interestingly, their opposition wasn't to prison labor per se, but to doing it in public. The following year, Seattle women won the vote, which they used to provide the electoral muscle needed to recall mayor Hiram Gill. (Accused of being in the clutch of vice interests.)

The movement was the beginning of a larger trend toward dealing with many "vagrants" and crime victims more humanely; toward leaning on social services rather than the criminal system. It was also key in forcing the retirement of the brutal jailer John Corbett in 1912.
Backing up the female contingent were the city's socialists, who opposed the chain gang as a matter of support for the working class. The socialist speaker, Walter Thomas Mills, objected to chain gangs because they deprived men of honest work they should be getting paid for. The Central Labor Council opposed them for the same reason. But the socialists also had more good cause to object: Seattle police were increasingly arresting activists. The courts were sentencing them to the gang for merely exercising their right to free speech.

In 1907, between 30 and 40 socialist street speakers were arrested at Pike Place and found guilty of street obstruction. They were tried as one, spurring a protest over the unfairness of the proceeding. At this time, the ranks of the chain gang swelled to more than 70 members, some of which were likely there because of their political beliefs.
Fired up by injustice and overreach, the Seattle Socialist party adopted a resolution to abolish the city chain gang in 1908. Like the women of Seattle, the party was working not to end prison labor per se, but to get rid of the "chains, shackles or other irons" it involved. "This barbarous institution," the resolution declared, "is a disgrace to an enlightened community."
Crosscut archive image.Gang abolition began to spread into the political mainstream as well. Mayoral candidates and party leaders took up the cause, including John F. Miller, a county prosecutor and Republican, who promised to abolish the gang during his successful mayoral campaign in 1908. Prominent Democrat Charles A. Reynolds also condemned the city jail, saying it should be vacated immediately and the chain gang abolished. "There is no politics in the matter. It is simply humanity."
At right: John F. Miller. Photo: Seattle Municipal Archives.

Even so, during Seattle's boom and bust cycles, the police were often approached by men seeking shelter or begging for work. As anti-gang forces grew in popularity, the Seattle police department set up work camps in areas like West Seattle and Rainier Beach in 1908. The idea was to get out-of-work men working on projects like building a road to Renton. Any "loafer" who refused the city work offered was told they'd be put on the chain gang.

In exchange for their labor, the men received "board and bunk" and a set of work clothes, and a daily allotment of tobacco. Needless to say, it was a much better deal than being doing a stint with a ball and chain with no pay.


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About the Authors & Contributors

Knute Berger

Knute Berger

Knute “Mossback” Berger is Crosscut's Editor-at-Large.