For much of the past 100 years, Centralia has been known as a city with a dark chapter in its history.
But the details surrounding the 1919 event are about to become a little more clear.
On Friday, a former Centralia resident donated about 2,500 pages of new and existing trial documents from C.D. Cunningham, a prosecutor in the 1919 Centralia Armistice Day Tragedy trials, to the Centralia College library, Centralia Timberland Library and the Lewis County Historical Museum.
The tragedy is widely known as the Centralia Massacre.
The files — which total more than 80 gigabytes of evidence, correspondence, legal documents and a complete trial transcript, all owned by Cunningham — could shine new light on the court proceedings that convicted eight Industrial Workers of the World members, also known as Wobblies, for the alleged killing of American Legionnaires and provide newfound context into the tragedy, which has embroiled the community in debate for decades.
“I just want the information to be open. I don’t want it to be closed down anymore — ‘cause it was closed down,” said Joan Kuder Bell, 69, a Centralia native who spearheaded the project. “These aren’t secrets, but they’ve been held under such strenuous lockdown that it was really hard to get to them.”
From the comfort of her home in Boulder, Colorado, Bell led the work to digitize these documents with the permission of the American Legion National Library, which holds the rights to the Cunningham papers.
Through the University of Washington, Bell paid $1,000 to have the documents scanned and digitized.
On Friday, Jay Hupp, a Shelton resident and local historian, met with Centralia College Library circulation supervisor Hyesoo Albright to hand off the documents. Hupp handed her a copy of the Cunningham papers by way of a small thumb drive. Albright, well aware of the importance of the documents and event as a whole, held the drive as if she’d just found gold.
On Nov. 11, 1919 — during a parade marking the first anniversary of Armistice Day, the end of World War I — marching members of the American Legion and the local Industrial Workers of the World clashed in the streets of downtown Centralia. Both sides had been feuding in the leadup to clash outside the Roderick Hotel, where the Wobblies were headquartered.
Five Legionnaires lost their lives that day, with another Wobbly killed by lynching during an alleged raid on a jail. Debate continues to this day on how the violence started.
“That’s the reason it continues to vibrate in this community, that’s what causes this pulsation. It’s because neither side of it is absolutely provable. Well, these materials lead researchers down a road that gets them closer to what will be the truth in their minds,” Hupp said. “Wherever those researchers in the future are going to settle out on the subject, it facilitates the formulation of their conclusions about what really happened.”
But Hupp said the complexities of the event may never be fully unwound, noting that neither side may ever uncover the “smoking gun” that answers the question as to who started the conflict outside the hotel.
“It doesn’t make a difference which side you come from,” he said. “That smoking gun has not been uncovered and may never be uncovered. Probably won’t ever be.”
But the Cunningham papers may lead to a better understanding of the trial, at the very least. The papers make more widely available 1,200 pages of trial transcripts that led to the conviction of eight Wobblies involved in the shooting.
“It expands the story considerably. We’ve been lucky enough to have the trail photos,” said Lewis County Historical Museum Executive Director Jason Mattson.
The nine-month process Bell undertook to get the Cunningham papers in her possession first started at the Gray Harbor District Courthouse in Montesano, where the trials took place. Her search was initially sparked by motivation to turn the trials into a play to be performed; Bell, a Centralia College graduate, is a playwright.
She was pointed to the University of Washington (UW) after fruitless efforts. While the Seattle university had the Cunningham papers, they needed permission from the American Legion to release the rights for the documents, Bell said.
“There was some sort of hold on them,” she said.
The American Legion obliged, allowing UW access to the microfiche to digitize.
After Bell got back the trial transcript — her goldmine — she began the process of manually typing out the whole document into plain text on a Word document. It took her months, she said.
“It’s eight volumes and it’s huge,” Bell said, noting the trials took place over more than six weeks. “It is so huge. There is nothing small about this event.”
Considering the length of the transcript, Bell said she’s reconsidering a play. This trial, she said, deserves something more along the lines of a documentary, likely in multiple installments.
“Plays are short and they’re compact. I’d like something along the lines of a Ken Burns, or an ‘American Experience’ on PBS. Give them just 10 episodes — and not just a trial, but the whole episode. It is so complicated and I may have to break this down,” she said. “There are just so many different angles you could take it from, so I think that’s why I would like a documentary based on it.”
Bell said she’s sympathetic to the defendants and the hell that they went through following the tragedy.
She said she’s been in contact with Esther Barnett Goffinet, the daughter of Eugene Barnett, a Wobbly member accused of killing a Legionnaire and later having served 11 years.
“They’ve been threatened with life and death consequences, they’ve been spat upon. I’m just hoping this opens up people’s eyes,” Bell said, characterizing the defendants as “peace loving.”
“I will still try writing a play, but it’s a huge, huge piece of history,” she said.