AUTHOR: Saku Pinta
Who Killed T-Bone Slim?
You can read the first part here.
The October 24, 1942 issue of the Industrial Worker made T-Bone Slim’s death widely known in an article entitled “T-Bone Slim, IWW Humorist, Passes Away.” The information published in the Industrial Worker was, however, apparently first uncovered by a certain Anna Mattson – presumably someone who knew Slim well enough to go on a fact-finding mission – and published nearly two weeks earlier, on October 12, in the Industrialisti.
As the Industrialisti article explains, T-Bone Slim was a well-known writer who worked as a deck scow captain in New York, but belonged to the “hobo army” of agricultural workers who criss-crossed the continent, working and travelling by freight train, with no fixed address. Many of the paper’s readers had wondered why Slim hadn’t published anything at all over the summer. Rumours began circulating that he had drowned. Anna Mattson – a member of the Finnish IWW-affiliated Tarmo Club on 2036 Fifth Avenue in Harlem (a location that Slim was known to frequent and had in the past used as a mailing address) – took it upon herself to find out.
In her investigation, Mattson contacted one of the officers of Slim’s other union, the Deck Scow Captain’s Local 933-4 of the International Longshoremen’s Association, who confirmed the drowning. With a membership of between 700 and 1000 workers, Local 933-4 had the same two paid officials from its formation in 1934 up around 1960, or a short time after the local disaffiliated from the ILA. These two union officials were Hugo Kaston (secretary-treasurer) and David Graham (delegate).
Did one of these union officials from Local 933-4 identify Slim’s body? They certainly would have been familiar with him. As Mattson found out, Slim’s last known address was 2 Stone Street in Lower Manhattan – the address of the ILA union hall. A sizeable minority of deck scow captains chose to stay on the living quarters aboard their scow on a more or less permanent basis, maintaining a shore address for mail.
Who identified the body was not a central concern. The Industrialisti article mourned the loss of T-Bone Slim as a valuable organizer and educator for the cause of industrial unionism, and concluded that his death “added to the number of casualties in industrial accidents on the alter of the capitalist system of exploitation and profit.”
This raises another question: was it a workplace accident that claimed the life of T-Bone Slim? It is a possibility. Other New York Wobblies – above all those who frequented the lively IWW Marine Transport Workers Industrial Union hall on 134 Broad Street – and many of those who knew him well similarly concluded that his death was an accident.
Cause of death: workplace hazards?
Work on the waterfront and maritime industries can be dangerous, even with the many occupational health and safety improvements that have been implemented over the years, so one can only imagine what working conditions were like in the 1940s. Working alone, as was typical for T-Bone Slim and other deck scow captains, is a significant hazard as is fatigue. Slim in fact complained about being overworked in the months leading up to his death.
In the September 20, 1941 issue of the Industrial Worker, Slim explained that the unusual three-month gap between his columns in the paper was due to the long hours he was working. He claimed that at one point he had worked a 62.5 hour shift without sleep, joking that he might “be the sole cause of all this unemployment we hear about.” As wartime production ramped up in the maritime industry, the imposition of long hours became much more common. In a March 13, 1942 article – less than a month from T-Bone Slim’s death – one Finnish shipyard worker and New York correspondent to the Industrialisti complained of the 7 day work weeks and 10 to 11 hour days.
Belonging to a radical union like the IWW was another well-known workplace hazard, especially in the mobster-controlled New York waterfront of the 1940s. In March 1942, the New York mafia began to act with impunity on the waterfront thanks to a deal they had struck with a seemingly unlikely ally: the United States federal government. “Operation Underworld”, the code name of the top secret organized crime deal, was designed to protect northeastern American ports from enemy sabotage and to ensure labour peace by violently crushing militant unions and leftist union organizers. As Jeffrey St. Clair and Alexander Cockburn have documented in their book Whiteout: The CIA, Drugs and the Press, “between 1942 and 1946 there were 26 unsolved murders of labor organizers and dockworkers, dumped in the water by the Mob, working in collusion with Navy Intelligence”. Similarly, political assassinations carried out by mafioso, like that of the Italian-American anarchist organizer Carlo Tresca – shot point blank in an unsolved murder a little more than a year after Slim died – were not unheard of during this period. For this patriotic service the crime boss Lucky Luciano, who controlled the waterfront and longshore unions from his prison cell, was freed after the war.
Was T-Bone Slim the victim of mobsters? This too is a possibility. Consider the following, almost surreal, occurrence.
So, who killed T-Bone Slim?
The May 18, 1942 issue of Industrialisti reported that the body of a Finnish deck scow captain had been pulled from the Hudson River on May 4, eleven days before Slim’s body was discovered. The body was that of George Blad (alias of Yrjö Lehti), an active member of the Tarmo Club in Harlem who had gone missing sometime between the evening of April 17th and the morning of the 18th. Blad who, despite being slightly younger (42) at the time of his death than Slim (62), was in many ways his doppelganger. Both had “hoboed” around the continent working various jobs. Both worked as deck scow captains on the New York waterfront. Both belonged to the IWW and, presumably, to the same ILA local. They may have even known each other. Both had Finnish ancestry, Blad having been born in Finland, Slim having been born to Finnish immigrant parents. And astonishingly, Blad too was a poet, but he wrote in his native tongue for the Finnish-language IWW press.
The death of two IWW poets on the New York waterfront, whose bodies were recovered within eleven days of each other. Strange indeed. Evidently nobody had made this unusual connection at the time, again, due to the 5 month gap between T-Bone Slim’s death and his death becoming widely known, so it did not raise any suspicions.
So who killed T-Bone Slim? Perhaps the only thing that we will ever know for certain is that he and others, like George Blad, did not die of natural causes. They were either victims of direct violence – sanctioned by the powerful – or had succumbed to some form of the indirect, “slow violence” so brutally common to working-class life in the twentieth century: unsafe and unsanitary working conditions, starvation wages (or the impacts of what today might be called the social determinants of health), minds and bodies ground down over years of hard work and uncertainty.