The murder of Frank Little was never solved. At the time many people believed the order to kill Little came from the sixth floor of the Hennessy Building.
In the aftermath of Frank Little’s death, theories about who did it proliferated. Many people believed the order to kill Little originated on the sixth floor of the Hennessy Building – the Anaconda Company’s headquarters.
The Hennessy Building was built in 1898 to house a fancy department store. The six-story, Renaissance Revival style building had both an elegant and an imposing air to it. The Anaconda Company moved into its top floor in 1901. From there, it could survey its mining empire and look down on uptown Butte, including the Miners Union Hall. The sixth floor would have afforded an easy view of the Finlander Hall and Norah Byrne’s boarding house where Frank Little was staying.
By 1917, the phrase the “sixth floor” had become synonymous with the idea of power in Montana. Few states were as dominated by a single corporation as Montana in that period. The Company thus certainly had a lot at stake in the Butte strike of 1917. But did such a powerful company really see Frank Little as a threat? Enough of a threat to murder him?
The Company did express concern about Little. On July 31, L.O. Evans, a Company lawyer, called Burton Wheeler up to the sixth floor. Wheeler was U.S. Attorney General for Montana and Evans wanted him to arrest Little for his inflammatory speeches. Wheeler refused. Hours later, Little was abducted and murdered.
A number of Company executives were fingered as culprits over time, especially those who bridged the gap between the sixth floor and the hired street muscle that the Company often employed. Some of these hired guns were notorious, like Billy Oates, who had a hook for one hand. Another suspected gunman, John Berkin, was literally the son of one of the original Montana vigilantes.
There were other possibilities. Most newspapers expressed regret over Little’s murder. But not William Campbell of the Helena Independent who wrote: “Good Work: Let them continue to hang every IWW in the state.” Campbell was associated with the Montana Council of Defense, an organization that aggressively, and sometimes violently, enforced patriotic support for the war. One theory is that Little’s murderers were enraged by his criticism of soldiers and the war.
Butte’s police, some of whom were known to be violent and to work outside the law, were also suspected. Others believed that labor leaders killed Little, either because he was a rival, or because they believed he was actually a Company spy. There is no evidence for that theory.
The official investigation did not resolve any of these theories. No one was ever brought to trial, let alone convicted of Little’s murder. Key investigation documents, including lots of testimony and the final coroner’s report, disappeared quickly, hamstringing subsequent investigations.
Smoking gun or not, the mystery behind Frank Little’s murder opens up a rich and broad view of the urban, industrialized West. Little’s life and death illustrate the pervasiveness of class conflict in this time, as well as the extreme levels of corporate power. But it also tells a story of individuals, organizations, and communities who pursued solidarity in the face of great obstacles.