By Richard Mellor - Facts For Working People, January 7, 2017
Facts For Working People is grateful to Esther Barnett Goffinet for sharing her father's story about the Centralia Massacre that took place in Centralia Washington in November 1919. Ripples Of A Lie tells of Eugene Barnett's life and how he came to witness these important events in US labor history. There is also contact information for those who wish to purchase the book.
When the American Legion attacked the [IWW] union hall in Centralia, Washington on November 11, 1919, it was the first time in history the union men fought back, leaving four soldiers dead. Innocent and unarmed, union man Eugene Barnett stood in the window of the hotel next door, a witness who could not be allowed to talk. “We know you had nothing to do with this,” the prosecutor said, “but unless you keep your mouth shut, we’re gonna send you up.”
Ripples of a Lie is a biographical/labor history of my father, Eugene Barnett. Written as a narrative that makes history come alive, it is the only book available that tells the true story of the Centralia Massacre and the aftermath. The only book written by a family member of the prisoners, from the prisoner’s perspective, and the only book written by someone who actually knew those involved. It is 468 pages not counting the index and bibliography, and has 96 pictures with footnotes so facts can be checked. It is academic quality and every word is true.
Born in the mountains of North Carolina to poor share croppers, Gene was the oldest of eight children. His father was also working as a carpenter making five cents per day. Encouraged by the promise of “good pay and good schools” for the children, Gene’s father moved the family to West Virginia to become a coal miner. The “good pay” was 50 cents a day for 14 hours work, 200 feet under-ground, in deplorable conditions. In many families the children starved to death while their fathers worked those long hard hours. They could expect to lose at least one in four children.
In most families, like mine, the oldest children were sent to work to help support the family. Some working children were as young as five years old. They were rock-pickers, hired to pick rocks off the rail tracks inside the mine so rail cars wouldn’t wreck. Many children died in accidents, those who didn’t were treated very cruelly, beaten by the guards if they stopped to play, or didn’t produce the work expected. This left a lasting impression on my father. Eugene Barnett was not quite eight years old when he was sent to work in the mines. As one of the “older children” he was a trapper boy, opening and closing a big tarp to keep air in the mine.
When my father ran away from home at age 14 he had already worked 6 years under-ground. By then his sisters, ages 10 and 12, were working in a laundry ironing sheets in a hot steamy room with no ventilation. They too, worked 14-hour days, 6 days in a row, for which they were paid $3 a week.
Gene met Mother Jones, the union supporter and activist who protected union members from anti-union thugs, and hearing her speak a few times he became interested in the unions. He proudly joined the United Mine Workers at age 14 and worked toward better and safer working conditions for the rest of his life. The book includes wages, prices, working and living conditions throughout those years.
My father worked his way west in 1910 and took a homestead in the mountains of Idaho. During WWI President Wilson put out an edict that “all miners return to the mines.” Coal was needed for the war effort. Gene leased his homestead and moved to Centralia, Washington and the coal mines. He got a second job in the lumber camps. He had a wife and baby so they lived in a tiny house near the mine. Most men lived in the bunk houses at the camps where they slept with lice and bed-bugs, 16 men in one room with no mattresses, no windows, no place to even wash after work. Jobs were bought and sold to the highest bidder. If someone offered the job-boss a dollar for your job you were finished. That was nearly a day’s pay. There was no job security. You didn’t know from one day to the next if you even had a job. So the men joined a union.
That is how Gene happened to be there when the American Legion, led by the area businessmen, attacked the union hall. They had succeeded before in running the union out of town and planned to do it again. The union secretary lived in the back of the hall, it was his home. When the soldiers broke through the door of the union hall the men shot back and four soldiers were killed. There is a monument in the Centralia City Park to honor those men who attacked the union hall.
Gene was not involved in the shooting, but he was a member of the union, and an eye-witness who could not be allowed to talk. Therefore he was arrested and accused of being the actual killer of the soldier who led the raid. There were eleven innocent men originally arrested for the deaths of the soldiers and that is them behind my father on the cover. Those who were actually guilty of the murder were never punished and lived out their lives as “respected” citizens. My book names names.
Gene refused to lie about what he had seen so he was framed and along with seven other innocent union men, was sent to prison for 25 to 40 years for first-degree murder. The life span in 1920 was 54 years so that was life in prison.
The prisoners became close friends for life and I was fortunate to know some of them and their children. They have given me their father’s papers, pictures, and letter and believed in me that I would write this book. We want one book out there that tells the truth. My father spent a lifetime labeled as a “convicted murderer” for a crime he didn’t commit. The effects of that label on his life and ours is the rest of the story.