- The Saga of Ella May Wiggins
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[End Page 111]
While doing research on textiles during the Great Depression, I found this poem about Ella May Wiggins on the March 8, 1932 editorial page of the Greensboro Daily News in a regular column titled “Shucks and Nubbins.” The author signed the piece with the initials S. A. J., but did not provide any other information about the poem.
During the 1929 strike at Gastonia’s Loray Mill, Wiggins became the campaign’s “poet laureate” through the ballads she composed using melodies from contemporary hillbilly music. Her murder by a mill thug made her a martyr for the cause and led proletarian novelist Mary Heaton Vorse to transform her into a heroic figure. Folk music collector Margaret Larkin took her songs north where they became inspiration for Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.
This poem offers an unusual point of view. It is a lament from a fellow striker that Wiggins’s death did not bring any resolution of the workers’ complaints. It begins at the funeral where her children are “a mournin’ and a cryin’ out their eyes.” It then flashes back to her murder while traveling to a rally in a truck where “blood now stains the seat where Ella May was struck.” The poet offers a novel and dramatic description of the aftermath when quiet falls over the scene because, as the poet explains, “the man who had shot her really hadn’t come to kill.” When the poem returns to the funeral, the reader finds that union leaders plan to take her children on a northern publicity tour, but the locals prevent that by placing them in an orphanage. The accusation that union leaders wanted to “kidnap” the children later appeared in conservative writing.1 The poem continues with an erroneous reference to Wiggins’s four husbands. At its close, the poet proclaims that the strike and the murder did nothing to resolve labor’s complaints because they had been forgotten, and the residents of Gastonia “can’t get up much feeling twixt the owner and the hand.” Uncertain about a solution, the poet ends with “it seems like God should take a hand to clear us of this mess.”
This poem offers tantalizing new elements to the story of Ella May Wiggins and her murder, but we are left with no certainty about the accuracy of these details. We only have these few words.
“Saga of Ella May Wiggins” They stopped off the spinnin’ and shet down the warps, So all the folks could take a look at Ella May’s corpse.
Twas a sad, sad, day and many a man did weep, As they looked on Ella’s face in its last and final sleep. [End Page 112]
Her children were a mournin’ and a cryin’ out their eyes, Fer their maw who had done went to her home up in the skies.
“I’m returnin’ to the mountains,” as often Ella said, But she’ll never see the mountains fer poor Ella May is dead.
Now folks I’ll tell the story of how I seen poor Ella die, And maybe you’ll forgive me if I sometimes stop to cry.
The folks in town had beat us up almost beyond belief, And when the cops rush up on us we killed the police chief.
Nobody knowed who done it but ‘round us bullets sang, An’ folks were all a shouting’ by God we’ll lynch this gang.
So all the striker boys was languishin’ in jail, Cause we couldn’t raise the money to git ‘em out on bail.
The leaders called a rally to give the boys some cheer, An’ fore the day was over thet rally cost us dear.
The vig’lance committee said, “no speaking we’ll abide, If we have to put some bullets in them dirty Roosians’ hides.” [End Page 113]
The strikers from Besmer City were...