December 13, 1920: Bisbee’s deportations are confirmed
On the morning of July 12, 1917, Mrs. HR McLellan was surprised to see hundreds of men walking just below her home in Bisbee, Arizona. From her home on Chihuahua Hill, she could see them parading down Naco Road, escorted by men carrying guns. Her husband immediately guessed what was happening: a roundup of strikers from the mining town’s foundry.
Rushing towards the city center, she only discovered armed men patrolling otherwise deserted streets. When she returned home, her two children were alone, still asleep, and her husband was gone. “I guess they had my husband while I was downtown for two hours,” she wrote later that day.
The roundup, which included 1,186 inmates, was part of a general deportation action organized by Cochise County Sheriff Harry Wheeler. Later known as the Bisbee Deportation, the operation involved around 2,000 citizens of nearby Bisbee and Douglas, mostly anti-worker members of the local Citizen’s Protective League. Citing vague threats of anarchist violence, Wheeler had tasked them with rounding up and transporting the company-owned men by rail across state borders, where the plan was for them to be detained by the military at Camp Furlong.
The train arrived late afternoon at Camp Furlong, where Army officials refused to accommodate the detainees because they had not received orders from Washington to do so and the sanitary facilities and d accommodation was insufficient.
The extraordinary expulsion was the culmination of a three-week labor dispute at the Phelps Dodge copper smelter in Bisbee involving the International Union of Mine, Factory and Smelter Workers. But the conflict over rules and working conditions had intensified with the arrival of the “Wobblies” – members of the most militant industrial workers in the world. Their radical reputation and opposition to the ongoing war in Europe has not been warmly received in Bisbee, even by the union.
But once Wheeler’s operation began, it swept away not only Wobblies and foreign-born strikers, but also labor sympathizers, even longtime residents of Bisbee who refused to cross the lines. picketing or simply did not show up for work. Local telephone and telegraph lines were cut. A few shots were exchanged, killing two people. And because inmates were loaded into 23 stock cars and cattle cars owned by Phelps Dodge, they were ordered never to return to Bisbee – or Arizona – or death or grievous bodily harm.
The deportation itself turned out to be chaotic. The cars were crowded, hot and dirty. Water was scarce and food even more scarce. And when Camp Furlong refused to accept the inmates, the train backed up to a train station in Hermanas, New Mexico, where food and water were eventually provided. A few days later, soldiers from Camp Furlong took them to Columbus, New Mexico, where for the next two months they roamed freely or simply left.
Back in Bisbee, the deportations continued until August, authorized by “courts” created by Wheeler. They were cut short when a presidential commission was announced to investigate the sources of the wartime labor unrest. As the first order of work, the commission investigated Bisbee’s deportation, helping to mediate the return to work of some of the deported strikers. But his November 1917 report, written by commission lawyer Felix Frankfurter, concluded that fears of violence against the strikers were unwarranted and that Bisbee’s deportation had been “totally illegal and without legal, state or federal authority”.
In May 1918, a federal grand jury indicted Wheeler and two dozen others, including senior management at Phelps Dodge and Calumet & Arizona Mining, with conspiracy to intimidate and oppress strikers. But at a preliminary hearing, the charges were quashed by the trial judge, who concluded that the federal government did not have the power to bring the case.
On December 13, 1920, the Supreme Court of the United States gave its consent. In an 8-1 opinion written by Chief Justice Edward Douglass White, the court argued – as it did during the decline of Reconstruction – that only states had the constitutional power to punish individual citizens for having violated the constitutional “privileges and immunities” of others; the federal government could only enforce violations by the states themselves. It did not matter whether Wheeler and his deputies claimed to act under state authority; seizing and deporting citizens from one state to another did not violate any existing federal law.
This story originally appeared in the December 2021 / January 2022 issue of the magazine ABA Journal under the headline: “Bisbee’s evictions confirmed”.