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The Passion of the Christ in Butte, Montana

  I won’t be going to see Mel Gibson’s movie, "The Passion of The Christ." Not because of any religious controversy, it’s just that I’m not sado-masochistic by nature. Besides, nothing can match my imagination when it comes to terror.

The most violent scene I’ve seen in any film is when Marlon Brando gets beaten to a pulp in "On the Waterfront." Actually, the beating occurs out of sight and the viewer can only hear the thuds of the punches and kicks, and Brando’s groaning. I’m sure the fight that occurred in my imagination was more brutal than anything I could have witnessed.

As for Christ’s sufferings, I have my own version and I don’t need Mel Gibson's heavy-handed interpretation. But there are other martyrs I wouldn’t mind learning more about; for an appropriate Christ figure, one only has to turn to Butte, Mont.

In 1917, during the height of World War I, Frank Little traveled to the "richest hill on earth" to recruit striking miners into the Industrial Workers of the World. Since the war had begun, prices for copper taken from the Butte mines had risen from 13.7 cents per pound to 29.2 cents per pound, thanks in some part to war profiteering. Although workers saw an increase wages from $4 a day to $4.75 a day, inflation in the cost-of-living far exceeded the wage increase.

On June 8, a fire swept through the Granite Mountain shaft of the Speculator Mine, killing 164 men. Rescue teams discovered that entryways called bulkheads leading to other tunnels had been illegally blocked. Many bodies were found piled near the bulkheads.

Three days after the fire, miners spontaneously walked off their jobs and formed the Metal Mine Workers’ Union. The union called for reinstatement of all blacklisted miners, a minimum wage of $6 a day, annual mine inspections, the institution of safety drills and construction of manholes in the concrete bulkheads. The operating companies responded by refusing to recognize the union.

Frank Little arrived in Butte in late-July. Like Jesus, he hated human greed. Little spoke twice to the miners in Butte, drawing crowds of 6,000 men each time. No one transcribed his words.

Like the Romans, the Anaconda Mining Co. found Little a threat to its empire. The Anaconda Standard newspaper, owned by AMC, portrayed Little and other strike leaders as enemies of this country who "should be given the consideration and treatment to which enemies are entitled and no more."

On Aug. 1, a local Judas fingered the boarding house on North Wyoming Street where Little was staying. Around 3 a.m., a half dozen men dragged Little, dressed only in his underwear, from his bed and forced him into a big black car. Little didn’t have to carry a cross, but his fate was just as painful.

After driving a few blocks, the thugs pulled over to tie Little to the end of a rope. They then dragged him over the pavement to the outskirts of Butte. Not satisfied, they savagely beat him. No one knows whether Little was still alive when they tied the rope around his neck and hung him from a railroad trestle.

No one was ever charged with the murder. Writer Dashiel Hammett, whose plot in the novel Red Harvest closely resembles many aspects of Little’s murder, worked as a Pinkerton detective in Butte during the time.

Fifty yearsafter the crime, he revealed that Anaconda had offered him $15,000 to kill the union organizer.

Frank Little did not rise from his grave, but for a while his struggle to help miners and his murder gave new energy to the strike — forcing the Anaconda empire to fight back through its political puppets.

In 1918, the Montana Legislature passed a lawmaking it a crime to belong to the IWW and similar institutions. The Montana Sedition Act also made it illegal to criticize the government or to "incite or inflame resistance" to it.

The might of Anaconda empire reached far beyond Montana. The U.S. Congress soon followed suit, amending the Espionage Act to prohibit strikes that interfered with the war effort. Shortly after passage, thousands of labor leaders, socialists, anarchists and communists were arrested across the country, including Eugene V. Debs, a three-time nominee for president on the Socialist ticket — as well as a man named Joseph McCarthy, who was later to become a U.S. senator and conduct a own witch hunt of his own during the 1950s.

Now, if Gibson made a movie about the martyrdom of Frank Little, I might go to see it — if he treated the suffering of the victim with respect.

Mark Matthews is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He writes in Missoula, Montana.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].