The American Dream enticed, taunted, and ultimately eluded the Rabinowitz family of New York City, just as it had for many immigrants in the early 20th century. Living in a Lower East Side flat with no running hot water, the family gained comfort through the Judaism they had transported from Vilna. Hopes had been dashed there, too, when anti-Semitic tensions became too much to bear.
The eldest of five Rabinowitz children, Abraham, studied at the City University of New York and dreamed of becoming a journalist. His father, though, wanted him to be a rabbi, and sent him packing. Abe rode the rails west in search of work — and probably a good story.
Around the same time Abe was in college, a social movement was taking hold some 3,000 miles away in another corner of the country. Members of the Industrial Workers of the World, known as Wobblies, had declared the Puget Sound area an epicenter in the fight for workers’ rights. The labor union attracted the young and dispossessed from all over the world — and its socialist ideals hooked Abe (along with other young Jewish men, like Abraham Wimborne, an English rabbi’s son). In his 20s, Abe joined the IWW as an organizer, ultimately playing a tragic role in the Everett Massacre of November 5, 1916, a sensational event of local infamy also known as “Bloody Sunday.”
Much of what we know about Abe today comes from his brother Maurice’s son, Dan Robinson (né Rabinowitz), who told his uncle’s story to Denise Ohio, a local filmmaker working on a documentary about the Everett Massacre. Other details have been filled in by John Miller (also known as Jack Leonard), who was considered the last known survivor of the Everett Massacre when he died in 1986. Within the brotherhood of Seattle’s union halls, Abe had struck up an unlikely kinship with Miller, whose own radical journey began as a Kentucky country boy. Miller described Abe in a 1982 interview: “Five feet tall, always looked like he had just stepped out of a clothing store. Unusual for a Wobbly. Soft spoken, always pleasant.”
In a handwritten note preserved at the University of Washington, Miller recalled the morning of the massacre. Singing songs of solidarity, some 300 Wobblies marched from the IWW hall on Second Avenue to Colman Dock and boarded two steamships to Everett for a day of demonstrations. Aware of the potential dangers ahead, Abe tried to lighten the mood, telling Miller, “They can kill us, but we’re too tough to eat!”
After the ships docked in Everett, the Wobblies faced off with a Snohomish County sheriff’s posse. When the sheriff refused to let the union members disembark, gunfire rang out. Two lawmen and at least five Wobblies were killed, including Abe, who was shot in the back of the head on the deck of the Verona. The IWW published photos of victims’ bodies to promote the struggle.
A century later, Abe still is held up as a martyr, one of the “loyal soldiers of the great class war,” as the IWW once put it. Abe’s body was sent home to New York for burial. His youngest sibling, Lena, 12, made the arrangements on behalf of her parents, who spoke broken English. Maurice said after his brother was killed, he never saw his mother joyful again.