The Zealous Work and Surprising Fate of an Early 1900s Labor Warrior
It was a tumultuous time of idealism, strikes and violence — and Louis Walsh chronicled it all, leaving behind a detailed written record before disappearing into the haze of history. What happened to him?
By Adam Hochschild
September 28, 2022 at 10:00 a.m. EDT
We often speak of today’s United States as torn by an unprecedented political divide. But however severe that tension may seem, it’s nothing new. Although now almost entirely forgotten, an equally great political chasm, frequently exploding into violence, ran through this country a century ago. In the Americans of that era, it called forth extremes of behavior: of commitment and cruelty, of sacrifice and betrayal.
Sometimes one person’s experience can be a window onto a time of upheaval. This is the tale of one such life — that of a man whose full story would not emerge until decades later. His vantage point was near the bottom of the social ladder, a place where few memoirs, diaries or other written records are produced. Yet he left behind a vivid, extraordinarily detailed, often day-to-day account of the battles that consumed our society 100 years ago, in an America as divided as is our own today.
The battles in which this man fought were between big business and labor. It was not just a philosophical divide, but a near war. Between 1890 and 1910, 75 strikes saw workers killed, for a total toll of 308 deaths. In 1899, hundreds of rebellious Idaho miners fighting police and corporate detectives blew up a company mill, after hijacking a train that became known as the Dynamite Express. In 1913 and 1914, more than 70 people, including women and children, died in battles between Colorado miners and National Guard troops defending a Rockefeller-owned coal mine.
When the United States entered the First World War in April 1917, this long-boiling conflict became intertwined with a new one: between enthusiasts and opponents of the war. Most Americans were eager to see their country join the fighting that had already ravaged Europe for nearly three years, but a significant vocal minority was opposed. This included, among others, most supporters of the Socialist Party, which had drawn 6 percent of the popular vote in the 1912 presidential election.
The left was particularly strong in industrial cities like Pittsburgh, a crucial hub in the manufacturing boom ignited by the war. Smoke billowed from hundreds of the high clustered stacks of the city’s steel mills, from which an endless river of the critical metal flowed out across the country to be made into ship hulls, artillery shells, gun barrels, and weapons and machinery of all kinds.
Industrialists and the government were worried, however, by Pittsburgh’s strong labor movement. Many members of its largely Slavic and Italian working class had brought socialist or anarchist convictions with them when they emigrated from Europe. In 1912, some neighborhoods in the area had given more than 25 percent of the vote to Eugene V. Debs, the Socialist Party candidate for president.
Among the groups eager to establish a foothold in Pittsburgh were the Industrial Workers of the World, the country’s most militant labor union. Known to all as the Wobblies — no one is really certain where the name came from — they never made up more than 5 percent of all American labor unionists, but their rhetoric caught the public imagination and produced impact beyond their numbers.
The Wobblies believed in “One Big Union” that would encompass all occupations, and they welcomed all workers: skilled or unskilled, Black or White, male or female, farm laborers or factory hands, native-born or immigrant. “Tell every slave you see along the line,” ran one Wobbly song, “it makes no difference what your color, creed or sex or kind.” In one IWW strike by Philadelphia longshoremen, Black and Irish American workers walked off the job together — something extremely rare, and threatening to business, in an era when employers routinely played ethnic groups off each other. When Pennsylvania state troopers killed a Wobbly steelworker in 1909, the eulogies at his burial were in 15 languages.
In July 1917, a Wobbly enthusiast arrived in Pittsburgh and introduced himself as an auto mechanic named Louis Walsh. The only known photograph of him from this time shows a man with dark hair, light-colored eyes, a mouth turned down at the corners and a broad, impassive face. A sociable type, Walsh went to left-wing gatherings and spent many evenings in working-class saloons like the Bismarck Café — drinking, talking about socialism and anarchism, and mocking the mainstream American Federation of Labor, which supported the war. Like most American radicals of any stripe, Walsh argued that workers from different countries should fight the capitalists, not be conscripted into vast armies to fight each other. When they formed the IWW’s Pittsburgh chapter a month after his arrival in the city, the members elected Walsh recording and financial secretary.
In the next few years, Walsh would be “shadowed for months by government agents,” according to the Pittsburgh Press; would be described in a headline by the Pittsburgh Gazette Times as an “I. W. W. Plot Leader”; and would give fiery speeches to rally his comrades. The Presscalled him “a nationally known radical.” Federal authorities apparently considered him highly dangerous. On one occasion when Walsh was arrested, he “was taken despite his own protests and those of his associates,” the paper reported, “and was spirited away by the government agents, who declined to say where he had been incarcerated.” Walsh would be released from this period of detention, but it would not be his only arrest. Indeed, the hounding of Walsh by law enforcement seemed to be a recurring theme of his new life in Pittsburgh.
To be a left-wing activist in this highly repressive era was not just a matter of belonging to one organization; you were part of an entire subculture. Walsh raised money for the IWW by selling “Industrial Freedom Certificates” to better-off supporters, he was active in Pittsburgh’s Radical Library, and he went to Socialist Party picnics and meetings at the Labor Temple and the Jewish Labor Lyceum. Even though it was performed by and for children, he faithfully attended a play put on by local Socialists, “When Peace Comes,” penned by the fiery activist Kate Richards O’Hare, sometimes known as “Red Kate” for her mass of red hair. The play, as Walsh described it, was about an American girl who dreams that she is “visited by characters who represented the children of soldiers in the many belligerent countries.” They blame each other for the war until the girl’s brother appears and “laid all the blame on the Capitalist system.”
For the most part, though, radicalism in the city was an adult and male world of fast friendships and late-night dinners, of long strategy sessions with Wobbly comrades visiting from other cities, trading news and gossip about activists on trial, in jail or on the run. It was also one where people danced, drank and went swimming together on hot summer days. When a Wobbly friend went to New York, he wrote to Walsh about visiting a dance hall in Greenwich Village: “I wish you were here with me. … Together I am sure we could be savages for one night.”
The constant harassment from business and government forged tight bonds among the Wobblies, and those in trouble knew they could turn to Walsh for aid. He was generous with advice and help for fellow radicals who confided in him about their efforts to avoid conscription, either by failing to register, forging draft cards or going underground; one young friend told Walsh he was fleeing Pittsburgh for Colorado Springs. When a veteran Scottish-born organizer named Sam Scarlett lost his job as a machinist, he moved into Walsh’s room at Gibson’s Hotel on the city’s Grant Street.
Walsh attended rallies, distributed IWW literature, went to a lecture by the muckraking journalist Lincoln Steffens and was invited to give a speech about unionism to a new group of Hungarian American Wobblies. He strategized with fellow Wobblies about the perennial problems of fundraising and getting publicity for their activities in a hostile press.
Walsh, it appears, found friendship among his comrades in Pittsburgh. “We loafed together until 11:00 P.M. then separated,” he wrote about one evening spent with fellow Wobblies. Another evening he stayed up talking “science and anarchy” in a bar until 5 a.m. He spent many other long evenings drinking with his comrades, often ending the night asleep on the couch or floor of a Wobbly’s room.
Starting in September 1917, a few months after Walsh’s arrival in Pittsburgh, the federal government staged a severe crackdown on the IWW, raiding all of the organization’s 48 field offices across the country and indicting some 300 Wobblies under the Espionage Act. This sweeping new law essentially criminalized any kind of dissent against the war, and before long Debs and hundreds of other war opponents would be imprisoned. Government agents ransacked Walsh’s room in Gibson’s Hotel and quickly seized his former roommate Sam Scarlett.
Several mass trials sent most of the arrested Wobblies to prison. In Pittsburgh, however, Walsh still served as secretary of the local branch.
In November 1917, news flashed around the world that the Bolsheviks, the most militant faction of revolutionaries in Russia, had seized power in that country’s capital, Petrograd (now St. Petersburg). Washington and the Allied powers in Europe were horrified, for the Bolsheviks had sworn to make a separate peace with Germany and to take their country out of the fighting. This would free up half a million German troops to strengthen the forces facing British, French and American soldiers on the front lines in France and Belgium. Furthermore, Western governments and business feared, the Russian Revolution might be contagious.
In 1918, Walsh was arrested in dramatic fashion: Three federal agents seized him in front of 50 people attending a Socialist Party meeting. Pittsburgh’s Gazette Times noted that, with Walsh’s arrest, “agents of the Department of Justice believe they have broken the backbone of a conspiracy, with headquarters in Pittsburgh and extending across the country. … According to the Federal operatives, Walsh is one of the big men of the I. W. W. … He has been traced from coast to coast, always leaving a trail of sedition and labor unrest behind him.”
The First World War ended in November 1918, but the fear of revolution remained. Throughout the United States, tensions were exacerbated by severe inflation that left the wages of millions lagging behind rising prices. On top of this, some 4 million men were released from the armed forces in 1919, to compete for jobs that were suddenly scarce, for no longer were factories hiring workers to turn out rifles, tanks and artillery.
The constant harassment from business and government forged tight bonds among the Wobblies, and those in trouble knew they could turn to Walsh for aid.
These stresses produced the greatest strike wave the country had ever seen. Four million people, 1 out of every 5 American workers, would walk off the job in 1919. They would include telephone operators in New England, blacksmiths in Ohio, cigarmakers in Baltimore, even actors on Broadway and, most shocking of all, more than 70 percent of the Boston police force. The police, after all, had for decades been used to suppress strikes. In Portland, Ore., and Tacoma, Wash., socialists, radical labor unionists and discharged soldiers borrowed a word from the Russians and formed groups they called soviets. A thousand people came to the first meeting of the Portland soviet.
On May Day 1919, the traditional international workers’ holiday, radical fervor was stronger than ever around Pittsburgh. Walsh’s Wobbly comrades asked him to give one of the speeches at an open-air rally in the nearby coal-mining town of Bentleyville, where there were many Italian and Russian American miners. It was preceded by a parade where, he wrote, “each one of the marchers wore a red ribbon on the lapel of his coat, and about one-half of the marchers wore red neck-ties.” Leading the parade was a 12-piece band, “which was followed by the principal speakers and a soldier in overseas uniform with an I. W. W. button prominently displayed in his cap.” The crowd carried banners urging the release of Debs and the hundreds of other Americans imprisoned under the Espionage Act, which continued to be wielded against outspoken radicals long after the war that occasioned it was over. In his 25-minute speech to a crowd of some 1,400, which Walsh was pleased to find “well received,” he urged people to contribute cash and war bonds to a bail fund for the prisoners, estimating later that they raised $1,200.
That same spring, Walsh loyally attended “a two act playlet” put on by a Russian American labor group, which he couldn’t understand because it was in Russian. But it was clear to him that the first act “depicted the oppression under the old regime in Russia” and the second the triumph of the new. In these stormy times, it was easy to believe that a similar upheaval might be coming in the United States.
Violence closer to home than the Russian Revolution exploded late on the evening of June 2, 1919, when the unusually hot night air of eight cities in the Northeast was torn by almost simultaneous bomb blasts. One, in New York City, missed the judge who was apparently its object but killed a night watchman. Most of the other victims targeted were prominent business or political figures, including the country’s attorney general, A. Mitchell Palmer. None were hurt, but the bombs severely damaged several homes and the country was shocked by the evidence of a coordinated conspiracy. At most of the bomb sites investigators found leaflets on pink paper proclaiming that “class war is on and can not cease but with a complete victory for the international proletariat.”
Pittsburgh was the only city to see two explosions, which came within five minutes of each other from pipe bombs filled with dynamite and shrapnel. Both were aimed at men involved in deportation cases against radicals — a federal judge and an immigration official. The authorities everywhere were taken by surprise, but the bombings provided the perfect excuse to once again crack down on the usual suspects. Jailing Wobblies was always a dependable way for police to show that they were on the job. “Wholesale Arrests After Blasts Wreck Homes,” read the headline in the Pittsburgh Press. It reported the arrest of “L.M. Walsh,” along with more than a dozen other local men, and quoted the city’s police chief promising that “every hangout of the I. W. W. and Bolsheviki will be cleaned out.”
The next day mug shots of Walsh and two comrades appeared on the newspaper’s front page, along with photos of bomb fragments. “Walsh,” another paper declared, was “regarded by government officials as one of the most dangerous labor propagandists in the country.”
The bombings were never solved and today are widely believed to have been the work of a tiny group of Italian American anarchists, with only a few dozen members in the entire country. But Wobblies numbered in the tens of thousands, supporters of the Socialist Party in the hundreds of thousands, and participants in the great strikes that were shaking the country in the millions. These were the people whom the authorities used the bombings as an excuse to go after.
Several months after Walsh’s latest arrest, the country’s steelworkers went on strike. In Pittsburgh, three-quarters of steel plants had come to a halt and the companies rushed to surround their mills with rifle-carrying guards and to press sheriffs’ departments to swear in thousands of new deputies. Bitter clashes here and elsewhere left a mounting number of deaths and injuries. Still working with the Wobblies, Walsh was eager to enlist as a supporter of any strike in the region and, it appears, was elected to the steelworkers’ strike committee in the city, for he would later write blow-by-blow accounts of its meetings — including one noting that “there is a great deal of dissention among” strike organizers.
Yet another strike hit in 1919 when Pittsburgh streetcar workers demanded higher wages. The large car barn on the city’s Craft Avenue filled with bedding and mattresses, sleeping quarters for strikebreakers brought in from Philadelphia and New York after Pittsburgh’s drivers and ticket takers walked off the job. Cars that set off down the tracks from the barn carried armed guards. Protesters halted one streetcar by yanking its pole from the power line overhead and throwing bricks, stones, bottles and horseshoes at the strikebreakers. Mounted police had to push through the crowd to rescue the out-of-town crew. At least four of the imported strikebreakers were injured, as well as three police officers, and several streetcars were wrecked.
In the thick of the fighting was Walsh. He later jubilantly described how he had “assisted” a Wobbly companion in breaking into one car with a switch iron, the metal bar used to adjust track switches. The two of them “knocked the motorman and another strike breaker unconscious” while other leftists “were busily engaged breaking windows, beating strike breakers and finally in taking the oily waste from the journal boxes and setting it on fire, in an attempt to burn up the car.”
Curiously, none of Walsh’s IWW friends ever seemed puzzled that this man — repeatedly described in the press as dangerous — was always released within a few days of being arrested. They would have been dismayed if they had known why: “Walsh” was Agent 836 of the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation. On one occasion when newspapers reported him in jail he was not behind bars at all but visiting his pregnant girlfriend in Ohio. His real name was Leo M. Wendell.
Back in 1917, the bureau had heard rumors that the IWW was planning to organize in Pittsburgh and an official reported to his superiors that it could be “an easy matter for a clever person to rope in with this outfit” — but that it ought to be someone unknown, from out of town. “Roper” was detective slang for an undercover informer, and the 32-year-old Wendell was the roper chosen. Like many undercover men for the Bureau of Investigation (which would add “Federal” to its name some years later), he had been a private detective.
Despite countless films and novels to the contrary, such detectives were not hard-boiled private eyes with hearts of gold who solved mysterious murders and rescued grateful heiresses from kidnappers. They were foot soldiers in the long-simmering war American business waged on labor. In the early 20th century, theirs was a booming trade: The three largest detective firms alone employed 135,000 agents, and smaller ones many more.
Corporate undercover surveillance had been a profitable business for decades. But American entry into the First World War suddenly created a demand for such operatives from the government. Not only did many liberals and radicals oppose the war, but more than 3 million Americans failed to register for the draft or did not show up when called. Government agencies began worrying about subversives. The previously small Bureau of Investigation expanded dramatically, the Army started a military intelligence branch to spy on civilians, and local police departments began forming red squads and state governments their own leftist-hunting units.
The confidential reports of these thousands of undercover operatives are now often available in archives, but nearly all the agents signed their reports only with code numbers, and we do not know who they were. Leo Wendell was a rare exception, for historian Charles H. McCormick discovered some years ago that for several months at the beginning of Wendell’s Bureau of Investigation career, he signed his reports with his real name, before switching to “836.”
From the moment of his arrival in Pittsburgh, Wendell filed a steady blizzard of reports to his bureau superiors about the Wobblies and other labor and leftist figures of all kinds. Since he left few written traces beyond these documents, we can only guess at what motivated him, leading him not just to infiltrate the IWW but to organize demonstrations and give speeches.
Did he believe that he was defending his country against dangerous threats? Unlikely, for there are no statements of fervent patriotism in the thousands of pages he wrote for the bureau. Was he driven by money? Also improbable, for there were surely more lucrative and less risky ways of earning a living than as an undercover agent making $4 or $5 a day. As with many other spies throughout history, it was more likely the enjoyment of successfully playing a role, with a secret no one around him knew.
Walsh, wrote Pittsburgh’s Gazette Times, “has been traced from coast to coast, always leaving a trail of sedition and labor unrest behind him.”
Sometimes, as if flaunting that role, he writes a report from “836” describing a meeting where “Walsh” was one of the speakers. Wendell took a professional’s pride in how much his IWW friends trusted him. He transcribed for his bureau superiors that handwritten personal letter to him from the comrade who went to New York. When he dutifully sold Industrial Freedom Certificates to raise money for the IWW, he passed the names of the buyers on to the bureau. When his onetime roommate Sam Scarlett was arrested, it was because Wendell told the bureau where to find him in Ohio, where he was by then organizing under another name.
Playing the role of the ultraradical, Wendell did his best to disrupt the activities of every organization he joined. When he became active in the local branch of a national antiwar coalition, the People’s Council of America for Democracy and Peace, he proudly reported starting a “factional fight” with the aim “to break up the Peoples Council.” When there was a proposal to bring the local tailors union into the IWW fold, Wendell told the bureau, “I have discouraged [this] as much as possible without creating suspicion” because “practically all of these Tailors are foreigners and over fifty per cent Italian … and could do great harm” if their numbers augmented the Wobblies. He evidently succeeded, for a few days later the group dropped the plan to include the tailors. “Attended a meeting of the Socialist Party,” he also boasted, “and started another fight within the party by having an Anarchist elected to membership.”
In the months following the Russian Revolution, many of Wendell’s reports concerned Jacob Margolis, a left-wing Pittsburgh lawyer he had befriended. Margolis knew leading radicals all over the country, including Emma Goldman, perhaps the most famous of them all, who corresponded with him from the prison cell where she was serving a two-year sentence for organizing against the draft. Wendell was dismayed, however, when Margolis, a foe of autocracy of all kinds, began denouncing the Russian Bolsheviks, thereby alienating sympathizers of theirs in Pittsburgh whom Wendell was eager to monitor. The life of an undercover agent can be difficult when someone you’re spying on is not as subversive as you want him to be.
Wendell’s hundreds of reports to the bureau — sometimes several pages long and often produced at the rate of a few per week — were all neatly typed on special forms with his code number, 836, in a box in the upper left-hand corner. Where did he type them? He would not have risked doing so in his room at Gibson’s Hotel, or taken the chance of being noticed entering the local Bureau of Investigation office. Most likely the bureau maintained an inconspicuous safe house in some neighborhood where Wendell would not be suspected by his comrades if he were seen.
Bureau officials kept his identity a tightly held secret. At least three other undercover operatives filed reports mentioning the activities of “Walsh,” seemingly convinced they were providing information about a dangerous subversive. Another possibility, however, is that this was a deliberate effort by the bureau to maintain Wendell’s cover, since the bureau shared these reports with other agencies and didn’t want word leaking out that the notorious Walsh was really its own man.
The bureau considered Wendell’s intelligence so valuable that several times he was summoned to Washington or New York to give briefings to a fast-rising young official who had begun his career in the Justice Department the same month Wendell arrived in Pittsburgh: J. Edgar Hoover, impressed with Wendell’s sleuthing, “examined him at great length and had him remain over,” according to Hoover’s record, in 1919, of what was apparently the first meeting between the two men. “I believe there is no better confidential informant in the service,” Hoover wrote the following year.
Evidently the bureau asked Wendell to provoke violence that the public would then blame on radicals, especially the IWW. As Wendell’s role-playing reached new heights, he could barely contain his pleasure. The second paragraph of his report on his 1919 attack on the strikebreakers manning a Pittsburgh streetcar begins: “The day was filled with excitement.” Given his background as a private detective working for corporations, he had most likely fought such battles before — on the side of strikebreakers. But for him the thrill seemed to be in the fighting itself.
That year was filled with other kinds of excitement for Wendell. Hoover was so impressed with his work that he sent him to New York, to see what information he could gather about Emma Goldman. Hoover was readying a deportation case against the anarchist firebrand, who had just been released from prison and whom he would succeed in expelling from the country at the year’s end. Apparently still posing as a Pittsburgh Wobbly, Wendell attended a party for Goldman organized by her niece. He reported that she and her colleague Alexander Berkman were “very much dissatisfied with their attorney, Mr. Harry Weinberger, whom they think has taken all of their money and has not been able to produce any results.” (Wendell may have been manufacturing news he thought would please Hoover, for in Goldman’s autobiography, which does not stint on sharp judgments, she has nothing but praise for Weinberger.)
Wendell was soon busy on another front as well. By now American supporters of the Russian Bolsheviks had formed themselves into two rival Communist parties. Wendell joined the Pittsburgh branch of one and, he reported happily, sowed discord and confusion by telling a party meeting that it “was only a rendezvous for temperamental, hysterical radicals” and that members should leave and join the IWW instead. He then urged both Wobblies and Communists to wrest a local left-wing meeting hall out of the control of the “reactionary” Socialists. Soon afterward, perhaps to allay any suspicions that he was an agent provocateur, the authorities seized him yet again — supposedly for helping foment a strike of railway workers. To the pleasure of his handlers, no doubt, this “well known I. W. W. agitator” once more made the front pages of Pittsburgh’s newspapers.
In 1920, Hoover sent Wendell on another mission to New York to socialize with radical activists there. It appears to have been on this trip that Wendell investigated the American Civil Liberties Union, which had been operating for several years but had recently adopted a new name. He informed Hoover that the group had “unlimited financial backing” — news that might have surprised its tiny staff — and that it was determined to support “free speech, free press, etcetera” for everybody, “no matter whether they be anarchists, IWW, Communists or whatever.”
As the 1920s continued, some of the country’s tensions subsided. Despite the fears of the authorities, the Russian Revolution did not spread to the United States. Weakened by several years of harsh repression that began in 1917, the labor movement shrank; even the resolutely moderate American Federation of Labor lost a million members. The Socialist Party and the Wobblies, after seeing so many of their leaders jailed and their newspapers and magazines forced to cease publishing, would never regain their former influence. The vast number of union-busting private detectives in the United States appears to have somewhat diminished.
Leo Wendell, meanwhile, enjoyed playing roles so much that he finally played too many. After he worked undercover in a new job with the Employers’ Association of Pittsburgh, in 1924, a labor newspaper discovered who he was and blew his cover. He then moved to Detroit and started an aboveground life, launching a detective and public relations agency, which he called, with a triumphant flourish invoking his Pittsburgh alias, Wendell, Walsh and Brown. There is no clue who Brown was — or if he even existed.
Wendell did not lose the love of violence that had been so visible when he beat senseless those strikebreakers on a Pittsburgh streetcar. He now worked for a time as a grand jury investigator but lost one such job when, according to an account of the case, “the special prosecutor learned that [Wendell’s] methods of acquiring information included dangling recalcitrant witnesses by their heels from upper story hotel windows.”
Such practices did not prevent Wendell from winning a commission in the intelligence branch of the Michigan State Troops, predecessor to the Michigan National Guard, where he rose to lieutenant colonel before pneumonia and heart troubles ended his life in 1945. He left a house in Michigan, vacation homes in Canada and Florida, no will and some angry creditors; untangling these matters kept lawyers busy for years.
He also left four children born to three women, only one of whom he was married to at the time of the child’s birth. Did he deploy some of his con artist’s skills in these relationships, promising eternal love to one woman while having his eye on the next? We cannot tell. One of the few things we know is that his legal widow managed to seize from a safe-deposit box money he had set aside for his last lover, the mother of one of his children. The widow left her rival a taunting note in the empty box: “Find what you were looking for?”
Several obituaries, presumably based on an account left by Wendell or told by him to family members, declared that it was he who made the famous seizure of an attache’s briefcase on a New York City elevated train in 1915 that helped unravel Germany’s First World War American spy network. It made for a great story. All historians, however, credit another agent. Evidence suggests that Wendell was a private detective in Cleveland at that time, having nothing to do with pursuing German spies. Yet none of the newspapers published retractions. Leo Wendell had successfully pulled off one last, posthumous con job.