Weekly Wire
Tucson Weekly Revisiting Infamy

By Gregory McNamee

APRIL 19, 1999:  REVISITING INFAMY: On the morning of July 12, 1917, two thousand hastily deputized men, armed with rifles, pistols and machine guns, entered the streets of Bisbee, Arizona. Led by Sheriff Harry Wheeler, the posse went to work rounding up copper miners who had gone on strike against the Phelps Dodge Corporation three weeks earlier.

The strikers, organized by Big Bill Heywood's Industrial Workers of the World, were protesting the long war-production shifts that had come with America's involvement in World War I; for working these shifts they received no overtime pay, and their wages were already low. Most of those strikers were Serbs, recent immigrants from the Balkans. Because of their accents and appearance, they were branded by Phelps Dodge as "German agitators"--a meaningful charge in a time of widespread anti-German sentiment.

The posse rounded up some 1,200 miners and herded them to waiting freight and cattle cars, which took the men far out into the desert of southern New Mexico. There the strikers were abandoned, left without water and food. They almost certainly would have died had not a detachment of American soldiers, stationed nearby to protect the border from Pancho Villa's raids, given them provisions. In the meanwhile, Phelps Dodge had staffed the Copper Queen mine with strikebreakers, and the IWW's power in Arizona was broken once and for all.

"Next to the roundup of Japanese Americans in World War II," writes historian Carlos Schwantes in The Oxford History of the American West, "the Bisbee deportation is the greatest mass violation of civil liberties in the 20th-century West." It also very nearly escaped historical attention: Phelps Dodge, which once exercised a powerful influence on nearly every aspect of life in Arizona, made sure that company records were made unavailable to researchers, and did its best to see that the deportation was swept under the rug.

In the early 1980s, when the University of Arizona Press published James Byrkit's scholarly study of the Bisbee strike and deportation, Forging the Copper Collar, the company threatened to withdraw funding of various kinds from the university. The Press was undeterred, even using a phrase from a Phelps Dodge attorney's letter--"I never read such goddamn crap in my life"--in local advertising for Byrkit's book.

Phelps Dodge, its influence much diminished, will doubtless be displeased that UA Press is now reissuing Robert Houston's historical novel Bisbee '17, 20 years to the month after the book's initial release by Pantheon Books. Houston's novel is a vivid, carefully imagined reconstruction of what the times were like for ordinary Arizonans in the age of labor agitation and big-mining power, and it was deservedly praised on its original publication (by journals such as The New York Times) and favorably compared to other recent historical fictions, especially Robert Coover's The Public Burning and E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime.

Houston, director of creative writing at the University of Arizona, had been intrigued by the story of the Bisbee deportation for years. "The way I came to write the book," he says, "is by going to Bisbee in the first place and sensing that the history of the place was quite strange. I thought, when I first went there in the early '70s, that this was the damndest place I'd ever seen. Then in 1977 I read a piece in the Arizona Daily Star about the 60th anniversary of the deportation, and I thought, hey, here's a story about the end of the Old West--your usual shoot-out of a kind, except that all the characters were wrong.

"I started looking into the story," Houston continues, "and found that there really had been nothing published about the deportation in Arizona. It was taboo to talk about the strike because of the power of Phelps Dodge and the other copper companies. People in Bisbee were very reluctant to talk about it, even six decades after the fact. It took a lot of digging to get stories from eyewitnesses, stories that I was then able to put to use not as a historian, but as a novelist. And when the book came out, bookstores in Arizona, and especially in Bisbee, were reluctant to carry it."

Will Big Copper move against the book now? Probably not, Houston reckons. "When my book came out it had an immediate political impact," he says. "I don't know whether it will have the same impact today. The fact that it's resurfacing after 20 years, though, indicates to me that there's still a need for writers to challenge myths. And everything about the deportation is surrounded by myth, full of tragic characters--including Sheriff Harry Wheeler, who was as much a victim as anyone, in a way. One of the myths is that of the old cowboy-and-Indian West, which is not the way it was: the West was industrial, then and now, a place of money and power. I think the story is timeless, and I'm glad that it's getting another chance at life."

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