Death during wartime: The Murder of Billy Charley

I bid Sully Charley adieu, rejoined the family in the behemoth and we made our way out of Taholah and back out onto 109 south.
After winding 40 miles up and down the scenic highway, we arrive at the Timberland Library on 7th Street in Hoquiam.
For pure scenic pleasure, it was hard to beat the view near Chenoise Creek, where Billy Charley lived with his wife and two children at the time of his death. Here, a few miles outside of Hoquiam, looms a grotesque blightscape of disemboweled trees, clear-cut stumps, blackberry bushes and other noxious weeds. It makes you proud to be an American.
But back to the library.
The helpful librarian du jour was Mary Thornton, who scrambled and scuffled to unearth some information on Billy Charley. What she got mostly was frustration, though she did direct me to a book that included an index of local Indians. I was delighted to find a brief on Charley, which noted he had been killed in September 1917.
Off to the microfilm machine, where it didn’t take long to hit paydirt.
Turns out Billy Charley was a well-known Indian on Grays Harbor. He was even better known after he got his brains bashed in on his fishing boat on the night of Sept. 1, 1917.
That’s the headline, and it stretched all the way across the top of the front page of Sunday’s edition of the Daily Washingtonian.
INDIAN IS MURDERED. That’s a headline right there, boy. That’ll draw you in. Couldn’t get away with that today, for so many reasons.
The deck headline is three lines deep, above the story, which runs in the two columns on the right edge. It reads: “BILLIE CHARLEY IS BEATEN TO DEATH.”
There didn’t seem to be much mystery. Miraculously, the paper seemed to get the whole story in a matter of hours.
The top suspect was named in the opening paragraph:
“Billie Charley, one of the best known Indians on Grays Harbor, was beaten to death last night in a fight shortly before 12 o’clock with another man, believed to be Clarence John, another Indian.”
The row unfolded on Charley’s fishing boat, named Rainbow, which was moored near the Eighth Street bridge, a short walk from the Hoquiam library.
Both men were drunk. All the stories agreed on this. Hammered is probably more like it. Though there was disagreement on what they were drinking.
The story said an examination found that Charley’s neck had been broken, “probably by a blow with a heavy weapon.”
After the fatal fight, John went to his room, according to James Campbell, a “half-breed” who lived next door in the Connor rooming house on 8th Street. Campbell said John’s labored breathing made him suspicious. Campbell went into John’s room, where he found the suspect sitting on his bed in a blood-soaked undershirt and a busted-up mouth.
This is an amazing story, chock full of incredible detail. This is what John is reported to have said to Campbell:
“I believe I am in trouble. I had a fight with Billy Charley and I believe he is dead. He knocked me out and when I came to, I watched my chance and hit him.”
Campbell, who was married to Charley’s cousin, told police that John and Charley had been drinking Jamaican Ginger. Jamaican ginger extract, aka Jake, weighed in at 70 percent alcohol and was a favorite libation of the working poor.
Old Jake has a pretty fascinating history. Though the industrial chemical that caused “Jake leg” paralysis wasn’t added till about 1930, and before we find out maybe they weren’t drinking Jake after all, we’ll pause of a musical interlude, “Jake Liquor Blues” by Ishman Bracey:

Elsewhere, the story reports witnesses and friends of the two saying Charley and John were thought to be good friends. The story noted that Charley was known for his athletic prowess and that he was an “expert log roller, at one time holding the championship.”
Yeah, but we already knew that.
While John was “known as a wandering Indian who never made his headquarters long in one place,” Charley left behind his young family at Chenoise Creek.
Which brings me back to this photograph:

Goddamn. Poor Benny Charley.
Sure, he’s been dead for more than 30 years now, but still. He was just a kid. He was born in 1910. He couldn’t have been older than 7 when his father was killed. I thought the photo betrayed a deep, silent sadness, and that was before I learned that Benny’s daddy was killed not all that long after it was taken.
As the week wore on, the story remained on the front of the local newspapers. The Aberdeen World reported the story Monday. It said Charley, John and Henry Franklin had been drinking all afternoon and evening. They were drinking a mixture of cider, lemon extract and bitters. Ed John, Clarence’s brother, said they had gotten the alcoholic concoction from an unknown white man in Aberdeen.
This story also passed along rumors that robbery had been the motive. Charley, according to witnesses, had been brandishing a roll of money and “offering to bet that he could beat Tar Henderson at log rolling any day.”
This is why I love microfilm. I’m a freak. This kind of detail is priceless. Tar Henderson. Who the hell did he think he was? Billy Charley was the log-rolling man!
Charley kept the money in a black sack purse, the story said, and it was rumored to have contained nearly $100. Only $6 was found on the victim when the police arrived.
No paper, not the Washingtonian, not the World, not the Grays Harbor Post, failed in its solemn duty to report Charley’s status among the best-known Indians on Grays Harbor.

While I waded deep into microfilm in search of further developments in the Billy Charley saga, my eye was diverted by another story that increasingly dominated the news.
The United States had declared war on Germany in April, and mobilization was hitting full stride. War fever hung heavy in the air. The Washingtonian did its best to convince the public about the righteousness of the American cause.
The “Washie,” as it was fondly called, issued the following call to arms:
“The most important business that the American people ever undertook is that of winning the war with Germany. The quicker the people awake to a full realization of the grave task before them, the sooner will victory come and with it, everlasting peace and guaranteed safety for democracy throughout the world.
“This newspaper is publishing this war information, furnished us by the State Council of Defense and the National Committee of Public Information, to impress upon our readers the extreme seriousness of the present war situation.”
Ah, the Committee for Public Information. The CPI, otherwise known as the Creel Committee, was the first official propaganda arm of the U.S. government. The committee, headed by former muckracking journalist George Creel, was given the job of whipping a disinterested American public into a belligerent frenzy. It succeeded spectacularly and would have valuable lessons to teach the Nazi propaganda machine.

Meanwhile, Clarence John surrendered to Hoquiam police, who had “hunted high and low for him.” Also … “Ed John, who was arrested shortly after Franklin in his room in the Connor rooming house on Eighth Street because it was believed he might have knowledge of how his wash basin happened to be badly bloodstained, was released.”
The accused stuck to his story that he assaulted Charley after having been knocked cold. He said he hit Charley, who fell backward and struck the back of his head on the boat and died from the accidental blow.
The sheriff was not convinced. On Sept. 5 we learned that
“Surprising developments are expected at the trial of Clarence John. … It was learned yesterday the state is in touch with witnesses so far unnamed who were quiet observers of the entire encounter between the two Indians and whose testimony is expected to clear up the point of doubt about whether Charlie died from a broken neck he received when his head struck the bulwarks of his boat, Rainbow, in falling backward, or whether he was struck on the head or neck with a heavy implement.
“An investigation amounting to an inquest at the Whiteside Undertaking parlors yesterday lent color to the latter theory. It was at first believed the neck of the deceased had been broken, but further investigation created doubt and showed where the skull had been crushed in the rear from heavy blows. Instead of opening up the neck to prove or disprove the first theory, it was decided to bring in a verdict of death from heavy blow from behind, especially in view of the evidence obtained from the unnamed witnesses.”
Oh boy, it doesn’t look good for Clarence John. If you’re going to engage in Indian-on-Indian violence, you don’t fuck with one of the best-known Indians around.
As for the funeral, mourners were told to expect a big crowd. Because, you know …
“Charlie was one of the best known Indians on the harbor and it is expected his funeral will be well attended. Large numbers of Indians were assembling in the city yesterday afternoon from various points to take part.”

On Sept. 6 the Washie reported that the first contingent from Grays Harbor in the “new National Army” were expected to receive a great send-off, or a grand farewell, or a jolly-good goodbye. In other news, the government was coming down hard on the IWW.
In order to “end the antiwar propaganda in the name of the International Workers of the World, the Socialist Party and other organizations throughout the county,” U.S. marshals, accompanied by local law enforcement, descended on IWW locals all across the country.
The local offices were not spared.
“The I.W.W. headquarters in Hoquiam at the corner of Eighth and J streets were last night the scene of a quiet and speedy raid conducted by United States Deputy Marshal Flannagan and his assistant, J.B. McCormick of the Department of Justice, assisted by Sheriff Jeff Bartell, Mayor McKee, Chief of Police Frank O’Brien, Chief Dean of Aberdeen” and a whole battalion of local gendarmes.
The story noted that the federal force arrived in Hoquiam at 5 p.m. on the heels of a similar raid across the river in Aberdeen.
Now, it turns out the Washie was owned by Albert Johnson, its former editor who was at this time busy flexing his muscles as a Republican Congressman in the other Washington. Albert Johnson had a long history of promoting visceral hatred for things like unions, immigrants and the rule of law. Prior to becoming the Hon. Albert Johnson, he reportedly joined a vigilante committee of Grays Harbor businessmen that attacked Wobblies and their families in an effort to drive them out of town.
And when an agent for a local maritime union named William Gohl was arrested and charged with murder, Johnson frothed at the mouth in an editorial entitled “Listen, William Gohl!” This is too good not to quote in full:
“Do you imagine that you hear the roar of the mob in pursuit of a human being? A mob swayed by passion! William Gohl, can you hear it? The yelp of the wolf, the horrid laugh of the hyena, the growl of the bear, the howl of the dog, all combining to make the wild cry of the mob, seeking in vengeance the blood of a fellow man?”
Not surprisingly, things were to get worse for the Wobblies. Johnson’s Washie dutifully offered up the following conspiracy theory as news on Sept. 8, under the headline GERMANY’S MONEY FINANCED THE I.W.W.
“Evidence is said to be fast accumulating in support of the belief that a gigantic conspiracy has existed for some time to cripple the conduct of the war.  … There are indications that German money financed the propaganda partly, and that German funds were freely spent to further the conspirators’ ends.”
Evidence is said to be … in support of the belief … this is the kind of innuendo-as-fact journalism you don’t see much anymore. Unless you count the run-up to the Iraq war, and the unquestioned support of drone killings, and, well, nevermind. Same as it’s ever been.
In any case, Hoquiam had more or less been built by timber money. So, well, fuck the Wobblies.
In that vein … In the Sept. 8 Washie, we find a half-page ad supporting the war effort while accusing the Wobblies of sedition. It was paid for by the Northwest Timber trust.

“The Boys have Gone (God bless ’em)
Those who are left behind must Do Their Bit
We are waging an economic as well as military campaign – in other words we must Work and Save, Speed-up and Economize.
We Must Build Ships
And Airplanes More ships and More Airplanes
Money and resources are being conscripted as well as fighting men.
(George Creel must’ve been pleased. And now we get to the crux of the ad)
Industries that do not produce are an economic loss -a war loss in both finances and material.
To cripple such industries by unreasonable demands has been the special unpatriotic mission of the I.W.W.s.
Hiding under the cloak of labor’s betterment, disguising their real mission of sedition, these mouthy agitators have never been the friends of labor, and it is impossible to believe they are red-blooded Americans.
(Mouthy agitators. Nice.)
The Pacific Northwest Lumber industry favors the eight-hour day, but cannot grant a local eight-hour day and survive the competition of Southern and Lake mills operating a ten-hour day.
(Always good to have a handy excuse.)
The Pacific Northwest Lumber Industry
We favor the National Eight-Hour Day

Meanwhile, in preparation to joining the slaughter overseas, the new recruits were yucking it up outside of Tacoma: BOYS HAVING TIME OF LIFE AT LEWIS*

Then, a bit of good news emerges for Clarence John.
Turns out his granddaddy was an even better-known Indian than Billy Charley. On Oct. 16, the day before the trial, the Washie reported that CLARENCE JOHN IS A GRANDSON OF NOTED CHIEF.
“John is probably not much, if any, over 21 years of age. He seems little disturbed over the seriousness of the charge against him. Attorney W.E. Campbell, who as many in Hoquiam know has been gathering early historical matter of the Grays Harbor country for many years, said this afternoon that John is the grandson of the only Indian who actually signed the famous Stevens treaty made at Cosmopolis but torn up by the war governor of the territory of Washington.
“The grandfather of this boy, said Campbell, was really quite a celebrated Indian and a good friend of the whites.”
Oh well, guess it wasn’t murder after all. Still like the headline, though.
“The jury was out of the court room only 15 minutes this afternoon to decide this. Judge Ben Sheeks in his instructions had dismissed the charges of murder in either the first or second degree. He said if there was any crime it was manslaughter. The jury said there was no crime.”
So, the judge and jury bought John’s claim that it all had been a terrible accident. He said he had been working for Charley fishing.  They were friends, after all.
No one seemed to wonder what became of the post-mortem investigation that showed where Charley’s skull had been “crushed in the rear from heavy blows.”
Ah well, c’est la vie. Et la mort.
The kind ladies on the jury did have some sweet advice for the freed Clarence John:
“Some of the jury women, who met the defendant in the court house hall after the trial, shook hands with him and advised him never again to drink, warning him it had come near costing him his liberty, possibly for life. Judge Sheeks said at the conclusion that he did not remember ever having known of a shorter murder trial.”
Well, I’m sure all the lawyers and jurors had better things to do.
RIP, Billy Charley.

* Wherever they may be keeping time now, the boys will be glad to know it all turned out OK. We won the war, made the world safe for democracy and ushered in an era of permanent peace. War to end all wars. That was a good one.

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