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T-Bone Slim

T-Bone Slim’s Forgotten Finnish-Language Writings in the IWW Press

Author: Saku Pinta

T-Bone Slim’s Forgotten Finnish-Language Writings in the IWW Press

Many new discoveries have been uncovered as the T-Bone Slim and the transnational poetics of the migrant left in North America research project has progressed over the last ten months. These discoveries have helped to shed considerable light not only on Slim’s life but also on his relationship to the Finnish-language and to Finnish immigrant communities in North America.

Last month, for instance, project research assistant Lotta Leiwo announced the discovery of a Finnish-language text written by Slim in 1903, using the pseudonym Mathew Houghton, during his time as a participant in the Finnish immigrant temperance movement.

This discovery shows that Slim had a much higher level of Finnish-language fluency than previously assumed. Until very recently, Fred Thompson – formerly the editor of the Industrial Worker newspaper as well as an instructor and director of the Work People’s College, among his many other roles in the IWW – had been the main source of information on the topic of T-Bone Slim’s ability to communicate in the Finnish-language.

T-Bone Slim’s Finnish Writing: The Evidence

This comes from one little snippet from an interview conducted by Franklin Rosemont with Thompson – who personally knew Slim – which appeared in the introduction to Rosemont’s edited volume Juice is Stranger than Friction: Selected Writings of T-Bone Slim. In the interview, Thompson says “I doubt whether T-Bone was familiar enough in Finnish to be funny…though he could speak it.” As a non-Finnish speaker, Thompson could only modestly doubt, rather than completely rule out, Slim’s ability to communicate effectively enough in Finnish to be funny.

However, we now have compelling evidence that suggests that Slim wrote for the Finnish- language IWW press in the early 1920s. As many as three Finnish-language writings by T- Bone Slim have been uncovered, but there may be more. This blog post will focus on one of these texts – the earliest confirmed Finnish-language writing by T-Bone Slim, or at least the earliest one uncovered so far.

It is a short piece entitled “Joitakin Terveysopillisia Neuvoja” (Some Hygienics Advice) which appeared in the August 27, 1922 issue of the Duluth, Minnesota-based Finnish IWW newspaper Industrialisti.

The English-language translation is as follows:

Some Hygienics Advice
By T-Bone Slim

Exercise for fifteen minutes in the morning, and the same amount in the evening. Do it when the boss is watching.

Use as much oxygen as possible. Sit down and breathe deeply occasionally. Nobody will care about that – they will think you are sighing. [Note: in the original Slim says “happoa” or acid, instead of “happea” or oxygen. This may be a typo or it might be that Slim accidentally used the wrong Finnish word – albeit one that was similar to the intended word – which was then reproduced in the newspaper.]

Never unbutton after eating – buy looser fitting clothes. Sleep sixteen hours a day in an airy room.

Don’t try to lift too much. There are over 6,000,000 unemployed, who are very willing to “give a hand” and also – you can tear something.

Don’t eat hastily (A horse is given an hour and fifteen minutes to eat).

Don’t go to work early. “Organization in everything.” Your employer might soon say that you are showing too much affection for the workplace – which is “theirs.”

Read I.W.W. literature, in order to be able to say something.

T-Bone Slim’s Finnish Writing: Some Conclusions

How do we know that this is a text originally written in Finnish?

Again, no English-language version of this short piece has been found (although there is one text with similarities, which will be discussed below). Also, unlike most of the Finnish-language translations of Slim’s writings that appeared in Industrialisti in the 1920s, of which there are several examples, this one did not include the short introduction from the translator. These short intros by a translator would became standard feature, apologetically noting that much of Slim’s wordplay is nearly impossible to render into Finnish from English, and has thus been lost in translation. Finally, the possible accidental use of the word “happoa” instead of “happea” as well as the use of a fairly well-known, old Finnish idiom in quotation marks also suggest that this was originally written in Finnish. The idiom in question is “Järjestelmällisyyttä kaikessa”, translated above as “Organization in everything,” which could also be rendered in English as “systemitization in everything” or “be methodical in everything”.

Those familiar with T-Bone Slim’s writings will notice similarities between “Some Hygienics Advice” and “Recipes for Health,” published about a year later in 1923 in the pamphlet Starving Amidst Too Much. Aside from being similarly structured as a series of eight, short pieces of advice for workers, these two pieces also discuss things like the importance of an airy room for sleeping as well as cautioning against being in a rush.

While Slim’s hygienics advice may have served as a kind of template or first draft of his “Recipes for Health,” there is a notable difference. “Some Hygienics Advice” uses humour and hyperbole to emphasize the fact that workers and bosses have different interests. The main lesson is that workers should not eagerly participate in their own exploitation. Rather, slowing down at work can, for example, serve to reclaim some dignity (even a horse is given more time to eat than a worker) or convince the boss to hire more people and thereby reduce unemployment (working faster, or working overtime, as the old union saying goes, is scabbing on the unemployed). “Recipes for Health”, by contrast, uses a much more serious and forthright tone throughout.

There is much more work to be done around Slim’s Finnish-language writings and the many questions that they raise. But one thing is certain: the satisfaction of uncovering these lost writings by T-Bone Slim is only matched by the satisfaction of making them available to a wider readership. We very much look forward to finding and sharing the next discovery.

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T-Bone Slim

Who Killed T-Bone Slim? PART 2

AUTHOR: Saku Pinta

Who Killed T-Bone Slim?
PART II

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.

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T-Bone Slim

Who Killed T-Bone Slim? PART 1

AUTHOR: Saku Pinta

Who Killed T-Bone Slim?
PART I

“To say the least, blackout is a promise, a prophecy, foreboding eternal darkness.” These chilling, and perhaps even cryptic words, penned by T-Bone Slim (born Matti Valentininpoika Huhta) appeared in his semi-regular column, published April 4, 1942 in the Industrial Worker, the newspaper of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW or “Wobblies”) union.

The grim “eternal darkness” that Slim evoked turned out to be all too prophetic, as they would be among his last known words to appear in print. The Finnish-language IWW newspaper the Industrialisti reprinted the column that they appeared in six days later, and then he fell silent. A little over one month later – on the early evening of May 15, 1942 – the lifeless body of T-Bone Slim was recovered from the East River near Pier 9 in New York City.

While the exact date of his death is unknown, the autopsy report produced by the Office of the Medical Examiner – describing an unidentified white male “found floating in water, undetermined circumstances” – estimated that the body had been in the water for about four days. This suggests that Slim passed away on or around May 11th – exactly eighty years ago today.

It is unknown how the medical examiner determined the length of time that the body was in the water. It is not even known who identified the body. Like so many aspects of T-Bone Slim’s enigmatic life it seems that once one mystery is unravelled, another puzzle soon emerges to take its place.

The final spring of Slim’s life, in the city that never sleeps, is no exception. An examination of the most recent discoveries of his final weeks and days is a reminder that “beyond the walls of intelligence, life is defined.” We may never get the answers that we are looking for, but that shouldn’t stop us from looking.

Slim’s last column provides a starting point. Is there deeper meaning behind this “eternal darkness”? Did T-Bone Slim foresee his own death?

Last column in the Industrialisti

To place this passage into context, the “blackouts” T-Bone Slim discussed refer to the blackout and dim-out drills that began in New York in December 1941.These drills began soon after the bombing of Pearl Harbor that same month – along with the entry of the United States into the Second World War – as precautions against German U-boat attacks and possible bombing raids.

In his final column Slim mentions the danger that U-boats posed to sailors on the North Atlantic and the fact that the last three ships to be sunk by torpedoes were north of Norfolk, Virginia. Over the span of around eight months in 1942, German U-boats sank some 500 American ships – killing over 5000 sailors – along the U.S. Atlantic coast in a disastrous, and lesser-known today, series of attacks.

“When New York City is bombed, say May 10-20, you may be sure I will not run.” Slim continued, “I’d be an awful donkey, were I to skedadle, good as my insteps are. No, I would give them the bronx cheer and stand my ground.”

Slim maintains a fatalistic yet defiant tone here. Not only will he not run, but he will stand his ground. However, there is something unsettling about the fact that dates when he expected New York to be bombed are within the date range of when his death and when his body was found. The fact that Slim’s father – with whom he shared a first name and an occupation as a maritime worker – had drowned after plunging into the waters of Erie Bay from Hanna Dock in Erie, Pennsylvania in August 1901, in an apparent suicide, certainly adds a tragic, macabre dimension to Huhta family lore.

Yet the dark tone of Slim’s writing would not have seemed out of the ordinary at the time. It only seems strange with the benefit of hindsight, because the death of T-Bone Slim only became known to the Wobblies and others five months after his body was found in the East River.

Read “Who Killed T-Bone Slim? PART II” here.