William Bauchop Wilson

William Bauchop Wilson

William Bauchop Wilson, the son of a coal miner, was born in Blantyre, Scotland, on 2nd April, 1862. His father, Adam Wilson, was an active trade unionist and in 1868 his family was evicted from their company-owned house. Blacklisted, Wilson was unable to find work in Scotland and in 1870 the family emigrated to the United States.

The Wilson family settled in Arnot, Tioga County, Pennsylvania. William's father was barely literate and they used to attend lessons together at Hugh Kerwin's cobbler shop. Wilson later wrote: "As I look back on the group of men that formed our little circle in the early days at Arnot, many of them classed as illiterate, I am still amazed at the knowledge they possessed of many religious, social, economic, political, historical and scientific questions, their wisdom and tolerance in discussing them, and their wide acquaintance with good literature. It was a splendid school for any boy to attend."

At the age of nine William began work with his father in the local coal mine. In 1874 the two men joined the Miners and Laborers Benevolent Association. When they went on the strike later that year the family were evicted from their company owned home. However, the miners won the dispute when it was agreed that in future they would have the freedom to shop at non-company stores. At the age of fourteen Wilson agreed to become secretary of the local Miners' and Laborers' Benevolent Association.

Wilson remained active in the union until he was sacked and blacklisted in 1882. Forced to leave Tioga County, Wilson worked as a lumber jack, wood chopper, bark peeler and a log driver. Later he found employment as a fireman on the Illinois Central Railroad and as a typesetter in Blossburg, Pennsylvania.

On 7th June, 1883, Wilson married Agnes Williamson. Over the next few years the couple had eleven children. During this period he worked for the Amalgamated Association of Miners and the Knights of Labor. In January 1890, he helped establish the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). The following year he became a member of the UMWA's National Executive Board.

Wilson led the campaign to try to get a eight-hour workday. This brought him into conflict with the mine owners and he was arrested and imprisoned several times. Between July, 1899 and February, 1900, Wilson and Mary 'Mother' Jones led a bitter strike in Tioga County that led to a lockout and evictions from company-owned homes. Soon afterwards, John Mitchell, the president of the United Mine Workers of America, appointed Wilson as Secretary-Treasurer of the organization.

Wilson was member of the Democratic Party and in November 1906 was elected to Congress for the 15th Congressional District (Lycoming, Clinton, Potter and Tioga counties). Soon after his election Wilson introduced a bill to appoint a committee to investigate mining disasters. This committee eventually developed into the Bureau of Mines and Mining.

Reelected in November 1908, Wilson served on the Committee on Patents and the Committee on Ventilation and Acoustics during his second term in Congress. He also served on the committee that organized the 1910 Census. After the 1910 election Wilson was appointed chairman of the Labor Committee. However, Wilson lost the 1912 election when the Socialist Party candidate split the left-wing vote.

On 4th March 1913, President Woodrow Wilson appointed Wilson as America's first Secretary of Labor. During the First World War Wilson had the task of coordinating the movement of 6 million workers from non-essential to essential industries. He was also a member of America's Council of National Defense.

In 1917 the American government became concerned about the conviction and imprisonment of Tom Mooney and Warren Billings. Both men were trade union activists in San Francisco, and it was claimed they had not received a fair trial. Wilson delegated John Densmore, the Director of General Employment, to investigate the case. By secretly installing a dictaphone in the private office of the District Attorney it was discovered that Mooney and Billings had been framed by Charles Fickert and Martin Swanson.

The report was leaked to Fremont Older who published it in the San Francisco Call on 23rd November 1917. There were protests all over the world about this miscarriage of justice and President Woodrow Wilson called on William Stephens, the Governor of California, to look again at the case. Two weeks before Tom Mooney was scheduled to hang, Stephens commuted his sentence to life imprisonment in San Quentin. However, the two men remained in prison for another twenty-two years.

After leaving office in March 1921 Wilson became a member of the International Joint Commission created to prevent disputes regarding the use of the boundary waters between the United States and Canada.

William Bauchop Wilson died on 25th May, 1934.

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) William Bauchop Wilson wrote about his early life in an unpublished autobiography.

We moved to Haughhead in the suburbs of Hamilton. There I witnessed the only mine explosion I ever saw. I was playing with a number of children not far from the pit. In the midst of our games we were startled by a loud roar, and a great cloud of black smoke and rubbish shot out of the shaft as though propelled from the mouth of a cannon. Immediately there was consternation in the village. Women and children ran, excitedly screaming, to the pithead. Fortunately there were a number of experienced miners at hand. The mines had been shut down for repairs and most of the miners were at home. It was known, however, that there were eight men in the pit making repairs. A rescue party was organized at once. It was comprised of my father, two uncles and two other men. Shortly after they had been lowered into the pit, a second explosion took place. They were all given up for lost. Yet they were safe. Their search for the other men had taken them into a place where there was only one opening... and the explosion swept past them leaving them uninjured...This was in 1868, but young as I was it left a deep impression on my mind.

(2) Roger Babson, William B. Wilson and the Department of Labor (1919)

Mr. Wilson took charge of the situation (1899-1900 strike) resulting from a prolonged lockout. A change of managers of a mine property and the abrogation by the new manager of the conference system...resulted in a lockout. It was a long and bitter contest in which Mr. Wilson, while steadily working to bring the opposing forces together and to re-establish the conference plan, sometimes lost the confidence of some of the more radical of the men he was leading.

(3) In her autobiography Mary 'Mother' Jones wrote about William Wilson and the 1899-1900 strike in Tioga County (1925)

After months of terrible hardships the strike was about won. The mines were not working. The spirit of the men was splendid. William B. Wilson had come home from the western part of the state. I was staying at his home. The family had gone to bed. We sat up late talking over matters when there came a knock at the door. A very cautious knock.

"Come in," said Mr. Wilson.

Three men entered. The looked at me uneasily and Mr. Wilson asked me to step in an adjoining room. They talked the strike over and called Wilson's attention to the fact that there were mortgages on his little home, held by the bank which was owned by the coal company, and they said, "We will take the mortgage off your home and give you $25,000 in cash if you will just leave and the strike die out."

I shall never forget his reply: "Gentlemen, if you come to visit my family the hospitality of the whole house is yours. But if you come to bribe me with dollars to betray my manhood and my brothers who trust me, I want you to leave this door and never come here again."

The strike lasted a few weeks longer. Meantime, Wilson, when strikers were evicted, cleaned out his barn and took care of the evicted miners until homes could be provided. One by one he killed his chickens and his hogs. Everything that he had he shared. He ate dry bread and drank chicory (instead of coffee). He knew every hardship that the rank and file of the organization knew. We do not have such leaders now."

(4) In his unpublished autobiography William Bauchop Wilson wrote about his campaign for a closed shop in the mining industry.

Union men generally believe that there is no such thing as an open shop except on a small and insignificant scale. An operation either becomes all union or all non-union and is ... promulgated principally by antagonistic employers who do not hesitate to discharge a union man whenever they find him in their establishment.... It is generally acknowledged that the aggressive power of a union in periods of industrial activity and its defensive strength during periods of depression maintain a higher standard of living not only for themselves but for nonunion men in the same line of work than would be obtained with out it. Reasoning from that standpoint, they insist that common honesty should teach the person who receives the benefits brought about by the union to pay his share to maintain it.

(5) In 1917 Wilson delegated John Densmore, the Director of General Employment, to investigate the Mooney and Billings Case. Densmore's report was passed to Wilson in November 1917.

As one reads the testimony and studies the way in which the cases were conducted one is apt to wonder at many things - at the apparent failure of the district attorney's office to conduct a real investigation at the scene of the crime; at the easy adaptability of some of the star witnesses; at the irregular methods pursued by the prosecution in identifying the various defendants; at the sorry type of men and women brought forward to prove essential matters of fact in a case of the gravest importance; at the seeming inefficacy of even a well-established alibi; at the sangfroid with which the prosecution occasionally discarded an untenable theory to adopt another not quite so preposterous; at the refusal of the public prosecutor to call as witnesses people who actually saw the falling of the bomb; in short, at the general flimsiness and improbability of the testimony adduced, together with a total absence of anything that looks like a genuine effort

to arrive at the facts in the case.

These things, as one reads and studies the complete record, are calculated to cause in the minds of even the most blasé a decided mental rebellion. The plain truth is, there is nothing about the cases to produce a feeling of confidence that the dignity and majesty of the law have been upheld. There is nowhere anything even remotely resembling consistency, the effect being that of patchwork, of incongruous makeshift, of clumsy and often desperate expediency.

It is not the purpose of this report to enter into a detailed analysis of the evidence presented in these cases - evidence which, in its general outlines at least, is already familiar to you in your capacity as president, ex officio, of the Mediation Commission. It will be enough to remind you that Billings was tried first; that in September 1916, he was found guilty, owing largely to the testimony of Estelle Smith, John McDonald, Mellie and Sadie Edeau, and Louis Rominger, all of whom have long since been thoroughly discredited; that when Mooney was placed on trial, in January of the year following, the prosecution decided, for reasons which were obvious, not to use Rominger or Estelle Smith, but to add to the list of witnesses a certain Frank C. Oxman, whose testimony, corroborative of the testimony of the two Edeau women, formed the strongest link in the chain of evidence against the defendant; that on the strength of this testimony Mooney was found guilty; that on February 24, 1917, he was sentenced to death; and that subsequently, to wit, in April of the same year, it was demonstrated beyond the shadow of a doubt that Oxman, the prosecution's star witness, had attempted to suborn perjury and had thus in effect destroyed his own credibility.

The exposure of Oxman's perfidy, involving as it did the district attorney's office, seemed at first to promise that Mooney would be granted a new trial. The district attorney himself, Mr. Charles M. Fickert, when confronted with the facts, acknowledged in the presence of reputable witnesses that he would agree to a new trial. His principal assistant, Mr. Edward A. Cunha, made a virtual confession of guilty knowledge of the facts relating to Oxman, and promised, in a spirit of contrition, to see that justice should be done the man who had been convicted through Oxman's testimony. The trial judge, Franklin A. Griffin, one of the first to recognize the terrible significance of the expose, and keenly jealous of his own honor, lost no time in officially suggesting the propriety of a new trial. The attorney general of the state, Hon. Ulysses S. Webb, urged similar action in a request filed with the Supreme Court of California.

Matters thus seemed in a fair way to be rectified, when two things occurred to upset the hopes of the defense. The first was a sudden change of front on the part of Fickert, who now denied that he had ever agreed to a new trial, and whose efforts henceforth were devoted to a clumsy attempt to whitewash Oxman and justify his own motives and conduct throughout. The second was a decision of the Supreme Court to the effect that it could not go outside the record in the case - in other words, that judgment could not be set aside merely for the reason that it was predicated upon perjured testimony.

There are excellent grounds for believing that Fickert's sudden change of attitude was prompted by emissaries from some of the local corporate interests most bitterly opposed to union labor. It was charged by the Mooney defendants, with considerable plausibility, that Fickert was the creature and tool of these powerful interests, chief among which are the Chamber of Commerce and the principal public-service utilities of the city of San Francisco. In this connection it is of the utmost significance that Fickert should have entrusted the major portion of the investigating work necessary in these cases to Martin Swanson, a corporation detective, who for some time prior to the bomb explosion had been vainly attempting to connect these same defendants with other crimes of violence.

Since the Oxman exposure, the district attorney's case has melted steadily away until there is little left but an unsavory record of manipulation and perjury, further revelations having impeached the credibility of practically all the principal witnesses for the prosecution. And if any additional confirmation were needed of the inherent weakness of the cases against these codefendants, the acquittal of Mrs. Mooney on July 26, 1917, and of Israel Weinberg on the 27th of the following October would seem to supply it.

These acquittals were followed by the investigation of the Mediation Commission and its report to the President under date of January 16, 1918. The Commission's report, while disregarding entirely the question of the guilt or innocence of the accused, nevertheless found in the attendant circumstances sufficient grounds for uneasiness and doubt as to whether the two men convicted had received fair and impartial trials.

Ordinarily the relentless persecution of four or five defendants, even though it resulted in unmerited punishment for them all, would conceivably have but a local effect, which would soon be obliterated and forgotten. But in the Mooney case, which is nothing but a phase of the old war between capital and organized labor, a miscarriage of justice would inflame the passions of laboring men everywhere and add to a conviction, already too widespread, that workingmen can expect no justice from an orderly appeal to the established courts.

Yet this miscarriage of justice is in process of rapid consummation. One man is about to be hanged; another is in prison for life; the remaining defendants are still in peril of their liberty or lives, one or the other of which they will surely lose if some check is not given to the activities of this most amazing of district attorneys.