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May 20, 2022

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Clark County History: Mike Hennessy IWW case


On Nov. 15, 1919, an itinerant laborer visited a Vancouver pool hall at Fourth and Washington streets and ordered a cider, the code word for liquor. Clark County was dry, but that didn’t stop the flow of spirits. Nor did the police care. How many “ciders” Mike Hennessy downed is unclear. The barroom banter turned to the International Workers of the World, or Wobblies, who were blamed for Centralia’s Armistice Day Riot four days earlier. Amid the banter, Hennessy flashed his red IWW card and declared he was a proud member.

A patron asked him to repeat those “dangerous words.” Hennessy did. The barkeep and patrons reacted quickly, roughing up Hennessy and tossing him into the street. Either drunk or unconscious, he lay there 20 minutes until a police officer arrived. The same night, the Odd Fellows Club members tossed an IWW member through a window, and Sheriff George Johnson brought two more union card carriers from Camas and arrested another at the train station.

At the police station, Hennessy was initially fined $100 and sent to jail for 30 days for drunkenness. Then the police asked if he had anything in his room. Not understanding their intent, he responded, “a suitcase.” When retrieved and opened at the station, it revealed a trove of IWW literature — documents, brochures, handbills and books on sabotage. Seeing these, the police arrested Hennessy for criminal syndicalism in violation of the espionage and sedition acts passed during World War I.

Founded in 1905, the IWW organized loggers, factory workers and general laborers and pushed for fair wages. The union preached nonviolence, yet businesses reacted brutally to some strikes. That December, a few members retaliated by bombing and killing Frank Steunenberg, ex-governor of Idaho. A Chicago trial put one Wobbly in prison but freed the others.

Hennessy claimed he joined the IWW to get a job but never distributed any union materials. Judge R.H. Back presided over the trial on Jan. 8, 1920. To defend Hennessy, the IWW provided George Vanderveer, a scrappy Seattle attorney who’d won cases for the union. Regardless, the trial transcript makes it clear the defendant’s fate was already sealed. The judge sentenced Hennessy to five years in the Walla Walla state prison. The same day, he sentenced two other IWW members to one to 10 years in the state reformatory.

Finally, in March 1921, the Clark County prosecuting attorney’s office requested Gov. Louis Hart issue Hennessy an executive pardon. The judge, the prosecutor and the sheriff signed the notice. Between the conviction and the letter, they’d decided “there was little proof to show that Hennessy had ever associated with the IWW.” Accordingly, the governor restored Hennessy’s freedom and civil rights on May 1, 1922.

Days before Mike Hennessy’s arrest, the Centralia Armistice Day Riot created an atmosphere of fear. When mixed with the prevailing animosity for the IWW, it set the perfect background for a miscarriage of justice. After temporarily laboring for Sheriff Johnson, Hennessy left Vancouver to seek work elsewhere, leaving his legal footnote to history.

Martin Middlewood is editor of the Clark County Historical Society Annual. Reach him at


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