“Red Is Her Color”: Aurora Samson, Rank-and-File Wobbly Organizer
On this week’s episode of History is Revolting we talked about Aurora Samson, nicknamed ‘Frenchy’ (scroll to the bottom of this post to listen to audio of this episode). Samson was a rank-and-file member and organizer with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in Colorado and Los Angeles in the 1920s. Like some of the other Wobbly leaders we have profiled on our show, Samson’s story has not been previously covered by historians. In our conversation we mostly talked about Samson’s role in a 1927 Colorado coal miners strike, and the severe repression she faced because of it. We also talked about how both the capitalist and movement press portrayed women who participated in strike actions, often casting them as “Amazon women” and/or miners’ girlfriends. We present here a basic overview of some of what we discussed in this episode, along with images of a number of primary source documents discussed on the program.
“Amazons” of the IWW
While the workforce was entirely men, Wobbly women played important roles as agitators and organizers during the 1927-1928 IWW Colorado coal strike. Before we delved into the experiences of Aurora Samson, our discussion briefly touched upon how the participation of women was interpreted and framed by both movement and capitalist press.
One of the things we noted was that Wobbly women who participated in pickets were often described in the capitalist press as “Amazon” warriors. We speculated that this was perhaps done to sensationalize the events being described. One of the effects of this language would have been to convey a message that Wobbly women were fundamentally different from their middle-class readership.
In her 2013 PhD dissertation, historian Leigh Cambell-Hale wrote about the use of the term “Amazon” in the 1927-1928 Colorado coal strike, placing it in historical context. Cambell-Hale wrote:
“Labeling militant women as Amazons was far from new. Starting in the late 1800s, newspapers had used the term in an attempt to turn unruly women into a non-threatening joke. This strike was no different, and the transformation came quickly. For example, within the first week of the strike, the Daily Camera [of Boulder] reported that out of sixty pickets who had been arrested on October 21 in southern Colorado, twenty were “chattering women,” one with a ‘suckling babe at her breast’ who ‘led the strikers’ ‘victory’ chorus in the plaintive strains of ‘Solidarity,’ battle cry of the radicals.’ By the next day, the paper had already converted the chattering women into sixteen, rock-hurling Amazons who got arrested alongside fifty-six men.” —Leigh Campbell-Hale, 2013 PhD dissertation “Remembering Ludlow but Forgetting the Columbine: The 1927-1928 Colorado Coal Strike,” page 101.
Perhaps narrating the same event as the one described by the Boulder Daily Camera above, the Chicago Tribune ran a similar report on October 23, 1927. We read a portion of this article (see below) on our radio show, and we discussed the gender and racial ideologies it conveyed:
“IWW Amazons Stone Guards in Colorado Strike: 16 Arrested Along with 30 Men Pickets; Walsenburg, Colo., Oct 22–(AP)–Standing shoulder to shoulder with their menfolk, women enrolled under the blazing banner of the IWW have added a new spirit of militancy to the coal strike in southern Colorado. Activities of the women in furthering the strike cause reached a climax today when ten women advanced on a group at the Ideal Mine of the Colorado Fuel & Iron Co., hurling stones and urging the guards to ‘start something.’ The women were arrested, along with 30 men pickets, who remained behind in motor cars while the amazons took the offensive. The mine guards ignored the attack… Sixteen women in all were arrested in the district during the morning. They refused to accept their freedom when it was offered by Sheriff Henry Capps. The feminine pickets said unless the men arrested at the same time were liberated they would remain in jail themselves… A 20-year-old bobbed haired Mexican girl, named Rosia, has been one of the most active of the women workers. She has trudged forth daily to help wage the conversational battle that has kept scores of men from the mines. Two of her brothers were killed in the bloody days of the 1913-14 Colorado coal strike. For the most part the miners are foreigners and the picket forces exhort the men not to work in a strange collection of tongues…” — “IWW Amazons Stone Guards in Colorado Strike,” Chicago Tribune, October 23, 1927
Similarly, we also discussed how this and other articles often used racialized language in descriptions of both Wobbly men and women as a way to highlight their otherness. We can see this in the article above in its characterization of strikers as mostly “foreigners” who “exhort the men not to work in a strange collection of tongues.”
Aurora Samson was a white woman and she was not a “foreigner,” and we will see that the press used different labels to describe her.
CF&I Spy Reports, October 1927
We first encountered Aurora Samson in the archives of the Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I), in a report filed in October 1927 by a company spy code-named XX. Known to the miners as George McGirl, and referred to by CF&I executives as Mr. Sibley, XX had successfully infiltrated the IWW’s operations in the southern coal fields by late August 1927. At 9:30am on October 17, 1927 (the day before the statewide strike was set to begin) XX made a report by phone to William H. Reno, head of CF&I intelligence gathering in Las Animas County. Near the end of the call XX reported:
“…There is a girl called “Frenchy” who is working in the Alpine Rose cafe at Walsenburg that is an under cover job delegate for the IWW. While talking to Svanum he got her to agree to bring the matter up in the Cooks & Waiters Union at Walsenburg and try to get them to join up with the IWW. This for your information so the proprietor of the Alpine Rose can be tipped off…” — October 17, 1927, XX Reports by Phone Page 2, CF&I Archives, Industrial Relations Box 1300 Folder 27
The Alpine Rose Cafe was a favorite hangout for IWW leaders in Walsenburg, at least for a while. At some point Samson was fired from the Alpine Rose, likely due to pressure exerted by CF&I. And on November 7, 1927 (according to the document below), fifteen Wobbly leaders were arrested at the Alpine Rose. Included among the arrestees were Kristen Svanum (secretary treasurer of IWW IU 210-220) and A.K. Orr (described in a CF&I report as “head publicity man” for the IWW). Both men were reportedly “picked up” by police at about four a.m.. Another thirteen Wobblies were arrested at the Alpine Rose a few hours later, sometime between eight and nine a.m..
A report dated January 30, 1928 written by George B. Parker (head of the CF&I “protective department” in the Walsenburg district) states that Aurora Samson “worked at the Alpine Rose Cafe in Walsenburg for a while before and during the earlier part of the strike.” After being “discharged” she “went to work at the Opera House Cafe in Walsenburg.”
This report also provides some of the details of the complicated story of Samson’s arrest, release, re-arrest, and journey crisscrossing the state while in police custody. Put concisely, for several days Samson and others were moved from jail to jail as authorities delayed filing legal charges. See below for more on this.
“Wobbly Queen,” Nov.-Dec. 1927
According to CF&I records, Aurora Samson was first arrested on Main Street in Walsenburg by Colorado State Police officers on November 14, 1927. After being held for investigation for two days she was released.
Just a few days later Samson was among several Wobblies at an “open-air” meeting in Boulder who spoke before “a varied audience of coeds of the University of Colorado, men students and business men,” according to a United Press article printed in the Baltimore Evening Sun on November 21, 1927. Of course since Samson was a woman, the reporter felt obligated to remark upon her fashion choices, writing: “Red-haired Aurora Samson, in a chic blue hat and coat, opened the speeches with a plea to ‘stick together and win.'”
On November 28, 1927, Samson was again arrested by the Colorado State Police. She was first held in the Walsenburg jail for two days, before she and two other IWW leaders were taken north, first to Colorado Springs and then to Denver. While being held as a “military prisoner in the Denver county jail,” Samson spoke with a reporter from the Denver Post. Her comments were printed in an article titled “‘Wobbly Queen’ Says Strike is Woman’s Fight,” alongside an image of her seated and smiling, presumably from inside the Denver jail, with the caption “Red Is Her Color” (see below)
The captions on the photo read: (top) “Red Is Her Color”; (bottom) Aurora Samson’s hair is red, and when she’s on active duty as a speaker for the IWW in the coal-strike region she sports a symbolic red tie. Military authorities have temporarily halted her speaking career. She is now in the Denver county jail.”
On our radio show we spoke very briefly about the tropes at play in this article, with Samson being portrayed not just as a girlfriend to the miners, but as their “queen”! Perhaps she was accorded a different status here than the “Amazons” because of her different social position. Many of the women picketers described as Amazons were wives, daughters, and sisters of miners. They were also often immigrants or the children of immigrants. Samson on the other hand was a relatively young and single waitress. She was also white and not an immigrant. Perhaps in the eyes of the headline writer this somehow made Samson the “queen” of the striking miners?
Several passages in this article portray Samson as a sort of girlfriend to the miners. She is described as looking “wistfully out of the window” when other Wobbly leaders were removed from the jail. “I don’t mind being in jail,” the article quotes her as saying, “but I do hate to be left behind. Jail is all right when they are with me, Dear boys, I’ve worked with them so long. They are just fine.”
The article also provides some background information on Samson and her history with the IWW. From the article: “Thirty-one years old, but looking younger, Aurora is new to the active end of IWW work. Although she has been a member for the organization for many years, this is her first work as a speaker and director of strike activities.” Then later in the article: “Aurora is secretary of the waitresses union in Walsenburg. She came to Colorado from Los Angeles, but her home is in Brooklyn, N.Y.”
Something we did not address on the show but should be mentioned here: it seems telling that Samson is repeatedly referred to by her first name only, and not by her last name or both names together. We do not see male subjects referred to solely by their first names in other Denver Post articles on the strike. This level of informality seems to have been reserved only for Samson. She is also repeatedly identified in the article as a “girl,” despite being 31-years-old. This sort of language, together with her portrayal as the miners’ girlfriend and a “Wobbly queen” suggests that readers were not supposed to see Samson as a serious organizer. Yet authorities perceived Samson as enough of a threat to warrant arresting her.
In this article Samson is quoted making several statements on the role of women in the strike, and why women have an interest in the outcome of the strike. For example, from the article:
Aurora Samson: “All we want is higher wages and better working conditions. We want our husbands and our sweethearts protected against the dangers of the mine. All the women are heart and soul of this thing. They have babies and must stay at home with them, but they are proud to see their men go out and battle for their rights… I am unmarried so it is my place to go out and stand with the men. There is nothing for me to do sitting at home.” — Denver Post, December 2, 1927, page 43
On our radio show we briefly discussed this statement. First, these comments do seem to play into traditional patriarchal notions of gender roles, though perhaps this is not enough to go on to try to draw broader conclusions about Samson’s attitudes on such issues. Also, given her comments about the attitudes of women staying home with their children, we wondered if perhaps Samson had been meeting with some of the miners’ wives as part of her organizing work. Finally, Samson was no doubt correct in asserting that taking care of children prevented large numbers of women from participating in pickets. Yet, as we briefly mentioned on the show, we have evidence that at times Wobbly women participated in pickets together with their children (e.g. see Leigh Campbell-Hale’s excerpt earlier in this essay).
The Denver Post article also briefly discusses Samson’s arrest and incarceration, as well as the efforts of IWW legal representatives to secure her release. From the article: “Miss Samson explained her removal from jail to jail as a trick to keep her behind bars without filing charges and to prevent R.W. Henderson, IWW attorney, from obtaining her release on a writ of habeas corpus.”
Samson was still in jail as the article went to print, and it was suggested that she would likely have to wait several more days before her attorney would get a hearing before a judge. An internal CF&I report from January 30, 1928 written by George B. Parker (the same report discussed earlier in this essay) helps to clarifies the outcome of these proceedings. It also explains why Samson’s name is absent from subsequent spy reports and newspaper articles.
From the report:
“Writ of Habeas Corpus served December 1st demanding that she be produced, and she was returned to Walsenburg County Jail, December 6th. Information filed in Huerfano County District Court December 2nd, charging vagrancy. Bond was set at $300.00 and she was released on personal bond December 9th, 1927. A few days later she was given a ticket and told to be out of town in twelve hours. She left and has not been heard of since.” –“IWW Leaders Active in Present Strike: Colorado Coal Fields,” CF&I Report written by George B. Parker, January 31, 1928, Colorado Fuel & Iron Company Archives, Industrial Relations Group, Box 1301, Folder 7
On our show we speculated that Samson was likely threatened and feared more serious retribution if she did not leave Colorado. We suggested that she likely feared for her life. As we will see in the final section of this essay below, while Samson left Walsenburg before the strike was over, she did not leave the working class movement. She became an active and committed Wobbly in the Los Angeles IWW chapter.
“A Real Rebel Girl”: Los Angeles IWW, 1928-?
An article from the Sydney, Australia IWW newspaper Direct Action from February 9, 1929 (see below) provides some information about what happened to Aurora Samson after she left Walsenburg in December 1927. With the headline “A Real Rebel Girl,” the article is essentially a letter from Samson herself, prefaced by a short (and sexist) exhortation from the editor of Direct Action for working-class women in Sydney to “join up in the movement.” This is followed by a reprint of a short article about Samson that was first published at some point during the strike in a newspaper called The Californian.
While we were unfortunately running short on time, near the end of our radio show we briefly discussed the glaring sexism on display in the comments from the editor of Direct Action. Holding up Aurora Samson as an ideal form, the editor asked: “Have the women and girls who sympathise here in Australia with the Revolutionary movement ever visualised the useful work they could do in the movement ? To our lady friends we say, ‘Get a close-up view of the possibility.'” While we do not know much about the history of the IWW in Australian, we reasoned that in 1929 it was likely that large numbers of Australian women were already doing quite “useful work” for the “movement.” We speculated that perhaps these women might not have been enthused by these comments.
We found Samson’s letter to the editor to be more interesting. From the letter we can see that after leaving Walsenburg, she moved to Los Angeles and was an active member of the IWW branch there. Samson also provided information on her background before the strike, stating in the letter that she had been a member of the IWW since 1923.
Samson’s letter also illustrates some of her experiences while in jail, and provides a glimpse into her continued commitment to the working-class movement, despite the threat of reprisals.
From the article: “…I was in that wonderful strike in Colorado. I was arrested four times, got beat up in gaol, and then they brought me from one gaol to another, and fellow worker, ‘I salute the Red Flag of the workers.’ I am willing to go all over again, and die for the working-class any day.”
Finally, on our radio show we did not have time to discuss the reprinted Californian article. Before closing out this essay though we would like to briefly draw attention to one part of this article. Near the end it was suggested that Samson had “attributes similar to those of Joan of Arc.” This allusion to Joan of Arc seems to be a trope that we have seen in other movement literature about other Wobbly women involved in the strike, such as “Flaming Milka” Sablich. We will likely do a show about Sablich at some point in the near future, during which we will be sure to discuss this trope and the purposes it served.
Further Research Required
We do not yet know much about Aurora Samson’s life after 1930, other than that she continued to live in Los Angeles for at least several years. Based solely on the information discussed above we also do not know much about her earlier life, other than that she had been a dues-paying Wobbly since 1923, and that she had lived in both Los Angeles and Brooklyn before 1927.
To try to better understand Samson we have begun to conduct some preliminary genealogical research into Samson, the results of which we consider to be tentative until further research is conducted.
First, a New York census record shows that in 1915, an 18-year-old Aurore [sic] Samson who was from Fall Rivers, Massachusetts, was an inmate at the New York State Reformatory for Women. Unfortunately this document does not tell us when she was incarcerated, when she was released, and/or what her conviction was for. However, it does show her occupation as a worker in a cotton factory. We assume this means her occupation before she was incarcerated. We suspect that this person later became Wobbly organizer Aurora Samson.
We also found a record from New York that shows that on August 6, 1919, an Aurora Samson married a William H. Sears in Brooklyn, New York. We believe this is also likely our Samson, before she became a Wobbly organizer. We also believe that Samson and Sears got a divorce at some point before the 1927 strike (she referred to herself in the Denver Post article above as “unmarried”).
A record from Los Angeles from the 1930 US census provides support for the above claims. We found an Aurora Samson in the 1930 US census living in Los Angeles, listed as divorced, who listed her place of birth as Massachusetts. Taken together with the articles and spy reports we have already discussed, these various documents seem to corroborate each other and suggest that they all refer to the same person.
That being said, we welcome thoughts, critiques, hate mail, and collaboration. Please share any information or ideas you might have.