‘A Day in the Life of an Agitator’ by Carlo Tresca from New Masses. Vol. 5 No. 4. September, 1929.

Wonderfully told memories of Carlo Tresca of the eventful day he tried to get George Andreychin our of jail durinng the 1916 I.W.W.-led Mesaba iron strike….and ended up himself in jail with Frank Little and charged with murder. It would be nine months before he walked free.

‘A Day in the Life of an Agitator’ by Carlo Tresca from New Masses. Vol. 5 No. 4. September, 1929.
George Andreytchine.

I started the day with a firm resolution to get Andreichin out on bail. We were leading the Mesaba Range strike of iron miners in Minnesota. Andreichin was pining away in the county jail of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and we needed him badly in Hibbing, Minnesota. The young man was absolutely indispensable. He was the only one who could speak a Slav language, arid the strikers were either Italians or Slavonians. In fact, there were ten thousand Slavonian ore diggers who had gone out on strike, and none of us could say a word to them outside of Andreichin. To a large extent the fate of the strike depended upon our success in securing his release.

It was a beautiful August morning and the hills of that section of Minnesota were in a haze. The sun was shining and the prospects of the strike seemed to be bright. In Hibbing we had comparative freedom, and contact with the stalwart fighters always was a source of inspiration for me. That morning I was inspired with a bright idea. In a flash I decided to take the bull by the horns: to go to the City Judge and ask him to release the seven hundred dollar bond he had imposed on Andreichin. Jauntily I walked into the chamber that was full of deputy sheriffs and strange looking mine guards. His Honor was sitting on the bench. I approached him, and upon his asking, “What do you want?” I told him that we needed Andreichin in the interests of peace. “The Slavonians,” I said, “are very restless, the situation is serious. Andreichin’s imprisonment in Grand Rapids has only increased the tension.” If the Judge were to release the seven hundred dollars I would go, I said, there and bring him back. I knew the proposition was a bold one, but…the Judge looked squarely into my face and then turned his gaze to the mine guards and deputy sheriffs. In a low tone he told me; “Well, I guess we’ll have to do it, but don’t let them know what it’s all about. Come later, I will fetch the money for you.”

Strikers marching.

One hour later I had the seven hundred dollars. In a few more hours I had collected three hundred more and was on my way to Grand Rapids.


Our delegation consisted of three : a local lawyer by the name of White, myself, and the chauffeur, who was a friend of the strikers and the owner of an Italian grocery store in Virginia, Minnesota.

Tresca in 1916.

It was about one o’clock in the afternoon when we left Hibbing and three hours later we entered the County Court building in Grand Rapids. Our way led us to the District Attorney’s office where we found one clerk. The clerk politely replied that the District Attorney would be back in a few minutes and asked us to take seats. Soon the telephone rang and there was a short conversation between the clerk and somebody on the other end of the wire. I cannot explain why that conversation stirred me. Is it because the tense situation made me supersensitive? Is it because I was in fear of danger, or did I actually overhear something? At any rate, I felt that there was danger in the air. This sense of lurking danger was nothing new to me. I had experienced it hundreds of times in similar situations. I leaned over to White and told him: “This clerk has received orders to arrest me.” To which White replied: “Nonsense. They cannot do anything to you here.” My assurance, however, was so great that I offered immediate proof. Whispering to White, “Watch,” I took my hat and started toward the door. The clerk immediately jumped up and told me: “Mr. Tresca the Sheriff wants to talk to you.” That was sufficient proof of the danger. But such is human nature that I almost triumphantly turned my face to White as if saying: “I told you so.”

Just then the District Attorney stepped into the office. He was a young, nice looking American type, very polite, very correct, very officious. Mr. White introduced me to him. He shook hands with me. “Glad,” he said, “to see the dangerous leader of the strike.” We sat down and had a nice chat. He expressed surprise at my insinuation that I was about to be arrested. He was all courtesy and decorum. Presently, however, while this polite conversation was going on, we heard a noise outside like the tramping of soldiers’ feet. Turning to the door we beheld a dramatic scene. The Sheriff in shirtsleeves with a belt of cartridges around his belly, with one gun on his hip, ferocious looking, stepped into the office with two husky deputy sheriffs at his heels. The man was red in the face, and without introduction began to shout: “You goddam agitator, what did you come here for?” I replied: “For business.” To which the deputy sheriff in a still more rasping voice said, “And it’s my business to run you out of this County as quick as I can.” Facing me at close range, he peremptorily ordered: “Give me that gun.”

Mesaba miners on the march.

Tense as the situation was, I didn’t fail to realize the comic side of it. I did not reply. The man approached me very closely, shouting into my face: “Give up that gun.” I said, “Why don’t you take it?” The Sheriff hurled at me a number of very ingenious insults, and only after giving vent to his temper did he order a deputy sheriff to search me. Of course, no gun was found on my person. This only increased the Sheriff’s ire. I looked at the District Attorney. I was really interested to watch his reactions. He finally interfered. He took the Sheriff by the arm, led him to another room where they had a brief consultation. Presently the young, polite fellow returned and informed me, first, that I had no business to come to his County; second, that White had nothing to do with the case; third, that he would not let me see Andreichin, and fourth, that I must get out of Grand Rapids and back to Hibbing as fast as I could. I tried to protest. In fact, I exchanged a few very sharp and unpleasant words with the Sheriff, but I decided to go back promptly. There had been three mass meetings organized in Hibbing for that night, and I couldn’t really stay away. In turning toward the door I said goodbye to the District Attorney in a courteous way, to which that polite and charming young officer replied, “Get the hell out of here, you S.O.B.” This was about too much for me, I stopped, looked squarely into his eyes and told him, “Look here, you are many and I am alone. You are armed and I am unarmed.” But before I finished, I felt the muzzle of the Sheriff’s gun at my back and the Sheriff was shouting, “Get out. Get out.” There was nothing to’ do but leave.


There begins now our journey back to Hibbing — a trip I’ll never forget as long as I live. It was more than a trip. It was a procession. Our little truck was followed by two other cars with the Sheriff in one and a number of armed men in the other. At a distance of three blocks from the Court House three more cars appeared from a side street, filled with men holding rifles in their hands. The three cars joined the procession. Soon we had left Grand Rapids and the country stretched on either side of us. We were alone, — three men followed by five cars filled with armed, hostile keepers of the Law.

In a few minutes we were approaching the mining town of Mishaevaka. Mr. White again seized my arm and nervously pointed at something ahead. There, at the entrance to the town, two columns of men many of them armed with rifles were lined on either side of the street, watching in silent gloom. White said to me: “This is a lynching party for you.” The only thing I could say was: “The sooner, the better.”

There was no misjudging the character of the groups that awaited us. My chauffeur-friend became very excited. Mr. White was becoming whiter and* whiter. Both were speechless. I saw that it was upon me to take the initiative. I said to White: “Let me get out of the car and walk back of it very slowly, while the chauffeur and you remain in your seats. Let’s go through the crowd facing them calmly. Never mind what happens to me. Take care of yourself. If this is a lynching party, let me be the victim. If we escape, then we’ll get into the car after the danger is over.”

Thus our strange procession entered the space between two lines of enraged, armed men. We heard curses on either side. “Damned agitator.” “Sucker”. “Damned foreigner.” “Get the hell out of here.” Fists were being clenched; distorted faces emitted words of insult; some of the men in the lines were about to throw themselves on us, but I soon discovered one element in the picture which made me breathe more easily. Behind the lines of armed men I noticed groups of miners in threatening postures.

I heard shouts from the distance: “Courage, Tresca! We won’t let ’em hurt you. Hurray for the strike!” I presume that this and our composed demeanor held the crowd in leash.

Amidst the storm of shouts, threatening gestures, curses and general bedlam, we proceeded to the end of the town. The imminent danger was over. We soon reached the county limit. By this time I was back in our truck. The Sheriff stood up in his car surrounded by the four other cars and gave us the last warning: “Remember forever that this place is not fit for you. When you come again I will kill you. Go, and keep going.” I certainly did keep going for more than an hour until we reached Hibbing late in the evening with my mission unaccomplished.


I was almost ready to say: “This is the end of a perfect day,” when I realized that the end of the day was not yet. Passing through Main Street, opposite the office of the local paper, we saw boys rushing with shouts of “Extra! Extra!” There it was, printed with fresh black ink: “Clash in Biwabick. Deputy Sheriff Murdered.” Biwabick was another mining town where the strike was on. The murder of a deputy sheriff was not to be disregarded. There seemed to be more trouble ahead.

While I was reading the paper, a crowd of strikers and sympathizers surrounded me, only to confirm the alarming news. Three strikers had been killed, they told me, and the situation was very bad. I hastily took leave of Mr. White and rushed to the local strike headquarters, only to find the place deserted, closed and dark. I had the creeping feeling of impending danger. I couldn’t rest. I had to go to Virginia which was the headquarters of the strike committee and also my own headquarters. I asked the chauffeur to drive there. The poor soul replied: “I’ll be damned if I do. For God’s sake, let’s stay here; I’m afraid.” I didn’t blame the man, but I had to go and was about to take the trolley car. The faithful soul didn’t let me go alone, however, “I don’t care what happens,” he said, “I must go with you.” And so we started out for Virginia, the very same evening.

What a deserted city! What gloom! What an eerie feeling! All stores closed. Headquarters deserted. Dark. Nobody walking in the streets. I was looking around for any one of the Committee. Could find none. Nothing remained for me to do but to go to that little Italian house where I used to spend my nights. It was a modest one story frame structure owned by one of the strikers. I used to sleep there because I felt protected: eight young, strong Italian strikers always slept with me in the same house, all armed with guns and ready for action. They did not sleep all the time, either: they kept vigil in turn. I found them on the spot.

My first question was about Frank Little, who was among the leaders of the strike. I was particularly concerned about Frank because I knew he did not feel well; besides, he was practically alone since the strikers were either Italians, Slavonians or Finns with hardly a native American among them. To my consternation I learned that he had gone to sleep in a hotel, contrary to the advice of my Italian friends. Under given conditions this was a foolhardy step, to say the least. The only thing I could do was to go to his hotel and beg him to go hiding. I explained to him that, owing to the Biwabick situation, there was every likelihood that we would be arrested; that the only thing to do was to stay away. Frank, half asleep, muttered: “You are seeing red, Carlo! You mustn’t get excited.” When I insisted he said: “Oh, go to sleep. Let me alone.” I: “They will come, Frank, and take you.” He: “Aw, let ’em come. What do I care?” It was rather amusing to see this fighter displaying such a degree of equanimity. He turned his back to me and fell asleep. Still, I did not want to leave him alone, I sent my Italian body guards back and took a room in the same hotel, keeping only one man with me, the I.W.W. organizer, Gildea, a native American.


It was about four o’clock in the morning when I heard loud knocks at my door and harsh voices shouting: “Get out there.”

Finnish wobblies during the strike.

I jumped out of bed asking who it was. Through the window that opened onto the corridor (the room was dark while the corridor was lighted), I saw two searchlights playing and the muzzles of two guns pointed into my room. It was a very interesting play of silhouettes against the opaque glass. I cannot say that I felt very comfortable, yet I knew that I had to be firm. I said: “I won’t open before I am told who it is.” To which a still harsher voice shouted: “You are wanted by the sheriff.” When I asked about a warrant, the strange voice replied: “We don’t need no warrants for fellows like you.” Whereupon I said: “If that’s the case, you might as well break the door at your own risk.”

Frank Little.

And thus we stood in the room, Gildea and I, without lighting the lights, ready to meet the assailants in case they should break the door. It was the part of wisdom to stay inside from the window, through which the guns were stretching their threatening muzzles. Soon new voices were added to those outside. There was a tramping of feet, a hubbub of conversation and a woman’s voice screaming at a high pitch: “For heaven’s stake, Mr. Tresca, come out and spare us the trouble, or else our hotel will suffer damage.” To which I replied with all the gallantry I could muster: “Well, Madam, I never fail with ladies. If you tell me who is there, and tell me the truth, I will open the door.” There was some whispering and shuffling behind the door, then the lady imparted to me the cheerful news that there were outside of the door eighteen plain clothes men with a chief. The information made it advisable for me to surrender. I said: “Well, Madam, if you tell me to open the door, I obey.”

In the County jail where we were temporarily interned, we found Sam Scarlett, an I.W.W. organizer and Frank Little, without a coat, but in a very cheerful mood. “You see,” Frank said, “they did spoil my good sleep, those rascals.” Before long detectives and policemen invaded the jail, handcuffed all four of us and took us out without telling us where we were going. As I looked around, I realized that we were being escorted by a large number of policemen and deputy sheriffs, armed with rifles.


There was little time for meditation, however. It was not long before we reached the little railway station where we found a special train, consisting of an engine and one car. We were ordered to enter the car where we found four men, three of them handcuffed to each other by the wrists, while the fourth was lying on a bench badly wounded in the legs. All of them were without coats; their shirts were badly torn and bespattered with blood; the head of one was all bandaged. Nor were the strikers alone. There were other deputy sheriffs there and the whole thing bore the marks of something very mysterious.

As soon as we entered the coach, our handcuffs were removed and we were seated, each on a bench with two detectives on each side.

Milica Masonovich, wife of miner Philip Masonovich, also arrested.

It was all very queer. I was used to all the vicissitudes of labor struggles, but this journey in the early morning in a special train was something new. I asked my “companions”: “Where are we going?” The reply was: “I don’t know; I don’t care to tell you. But be sure you won’t see Virginia any longer.”

As the train sped on through meadows sprinkled with dew, among clumps of trees swaying in the light morning breeze, under a clear sky that looked bathed after the night’s gloom, the tension relaxed. We began to talk to each other. The guards relented, and we soon learned what happened in Biwabick. Four deputy sheriffs had gone to the house of a striker by the name of Philip Masonovich with a warrant for the arrest of one of the boarders. The men of the Law were very rough and they beat up Philip’s wife. There were three Montenegran workers boarding in the house. The fellows were former soldiers who had participated in many a war in the Balkans. They were courageous fellows. They could not allow the deputy sheriffs to continue their dastardly acts. So they dashed against the four deputy sheriffs, took away their guns, killed one and severely wounded another. There was a real battle between deputy sheriffs and the strikers, and they were all arrested. These were the four men that we found in the railway car. They were all being conveyed to Duluth to be imprisoned on a charge of murder in the first degree. As to Little, Gildea, Scarlett and myself, we were also charged with murder as accessories before the fact . This is why we were in the car. We were being accused of a murder that took place in our absence in a different town. We were being attached artificially to the murder case in order to eliminate us from the strike picture.

It was about ten o’clock in the morning when we finally landed in the Duluth jail and I could tell myself that one day of my life had been completed. ’Twas a crowded day, indeed.

December 2, 1916 demonstration in New York supporting Tresca and Minnesota prisoners.

The New Masses was the continuation of Workers Monthly which began publishing in 1924 as a merger of the ‘Liberator’, the Trade Union Educational League magazine ‘Labor Herald’, and Friends of Soviet Russia’s monthly ‘Soviet Russia Pictorial’ as an explicitly Communist Party publication, but drawing in a wide range of contributors and sympathizers. In 1927 Workers Monthly ceased and The New Masses began. A major left cultural magazine of the late 1920s and early 1940s, the early editors of The New Masses included Hugo Gellert, John F. Sloan, Max Eastman, Mike Gold, and Joseph Freeman. Writers included William Carlos Williams, Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Upton Sinclair, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, Dorothy Parker, Dorothy Day, John Breecher, Langston Hughes, Eugene O’Neill, Rex Stout and Ernest Hemingway. Artists included Hugo Gellert, Stuart Davis, Boardman Robinson, Wanda Gag, William Gropper and Otto Soglow. Over time, the New Masses became narrower politically and the articles more commentary than comment. However, particularly in it first years, New Masses was the epitome of the era’s finest revolutionary cultural and artistic traditions.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/new-masses/1929/v05n04-sep-1929-New-Masses.pdf

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