Filed Under Labor History

Frank Little Tour: Hennessy Building

Headquarters of the Anaconda Company

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.

Audio

Burton Wheeler Declines to Prosecute Frank Little Burton Wheeler, the federal district attorney for Montana in 1917, describes his interactions with Anaconda Company executive Con Kelley and L.O. Evans. Wheeler describes going to the sixth floor of the Hennessy building and telling Evans why he would not arrest Frank Little, and describes the feeling he had the night Little was murdered. Source: Montana Politics Oral History Collection, Special Collections and Archives, Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library, University of Montana Creator: Address to Montana History Class, November 27, 1972. Date: November 27, 1972
Clarence Miller on Frank Little Clarence Miller, who was working in the Butte mines in 1917, describes hearing Frank Little speak in 1917, his murder, and the funeral. He asks that the recording be turned off when asked about who killed Little. Source: Ray Calkins interviewer. Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives. Date: June 13, 1980

Images

Hennessy Building The Hennessy Building in Butte, circa 1910, likely during a 4th of July parade. Hennessy’s was an upscale department store. The sixth floor of the building also quickly became the headquarters of the mighty Anaconda Company, and arguably the power center of Montana in the early twentieth century. Source: Montana Historical Society Date: c.1910
View From the Sixth Floor of the Hennessy Building This photograph (from around 1900) shows what it looked like to peer out from the sixth floor of the Hennessy Building. The view is looking east, and slightly north, up toward the Butte hill. In the center are the seven prominent stacks of the Neversweat Mine. In the bottom left of the photo is the Butte Brewing Company. The Finlander Hall and Nora Byrne’s boarding house are out of frame to the left, although they would have been visible to a person on the sixth floor of the Hennessy Building. Source: Butte-Silver Bow Public Library Creator: Harry C. Freeman Date: c.1900

Location

130 N. Main | Private

Metadata

Leif Fredrickson, “Frank Little Tour: Hennessy Building,” Story of Butte, accessed January 27, 2023, https://storyofbutte.org/items/show/3420.