‘Death in the West,’ Montana-based podcast, wins national history award

By: - July 24, 2022 8:59 am

Based in Butte, the first season of "Death in the West" tells the story of the unsolved murder of labor organizer Frank Little. (Darrell Ehrlick of the Daily Montanan)

The Montana creators of the “Death in the West” podcast had little experience in audio reporting before producing a story exploring the murder of a union organizer in Butte in the 20th century, but the pairs of siblings and childhood friends just won a national history award for their first season.

“The story we ended up telling is full of crazy individuals and all sorts of rabbit holes you can go down,” said Leif Fredrickson, a co-host of the podcast and historian who teaches at the University of Montana.

“Death in the West: The Murder of Frank Little” received an Award of Excellence from the American Association for State and Local History. (Contributed by “Death in the West.”)

Last month, “Death in the West: The Murder of Frank Little” received an Award of Excellence from the American Association for State and Local History. “Death in the West” was the only awardee from Montana and one of few without a publishing company or historical society sponsor.

Before “Death in the West,” co-host Chad Dundas, a journalist and novelist based in Missoula, had an unscripted sports podcast, but his fellow co-hosts, Portland-based journalist brother Zach Dundas and Missoula journalist Erika Fredrickson, Leif’s sister, had no audio experience.

The first season investigates the unsolved lynching of Frank Little, a prominent anti-World War I advocate and union organizer in Butte in 1917, along with the formation of the American West.

“It opens questions like what were the dynamics of class struggles at the time?” Leif Fredrickson said. “Why would a corporation want to murder somebody, or was he killed by somebody who was angry at him for being opposed to the war? There was a very strong patriotic rot that went far beyond patriotism to an aggressive, violent enforcement of support for the war.”

Fredrickson also wanted to use Little’s story to introduce a broader audience to Butte’s history, a town he frequented while growing up. Fredrickson’s dad lived in Butte on the site of an open pit copper mine, and Fredrickson said his family held out longer than most to prevent the pit’s construction. 

The mining crews drove trucks by their house 24 hours a day and eventually forced them to sell out, an anecdote Fredrickson said was common and demonstrated the power the mining industry had over Butte during the 20th century when Butte was one of the biggest cities in the West.

“We’re fascinated by Butte’s beauty and its history. Butte is a place where there’s a lot of pride in the city and the history of labor. They’ve held onto their immigration history and had a strong effect on Montana’s politics as one of few remaining very blue spots in Montana as a labor center,” Fredrickson said. “We wanted to present that city well, so it was really cool to get a lot of people from Butte that liked it.”

The two pairs of siblings knew few details of the murder of Frank Little when starting the two-year season production process. They knew Little was a vibrant labor organizer and that he was lynched during tense union strikes against the Anaconda Mining Company. But his murder remains unsolved, and Fredrickson said there is popular belief that the Anaconda company had something to do with it.

Little came to Butte in 1917 as a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, known as the Wobblies, to bolster the efforts in what was quickly becoming one of the union capitals of the United States. The miner’s union in Butte dissolved from infighting in 1914, and Little arrived soon after a major mining disaster in 1917 to reinvigorate the union among calls for increased worker wages and safety.

Frank Little’s murder is unsolved, but the creators of “Death in the West” each concluded the Anaconda Mining Company had a hand in it, according to co-host Leif Fredrickson.

Little’s wage worker advocacy spread further than union work: He saw World War I as a worker issue. The copper mines made huge profits creating critical material for bullet casings and electrical equipment, and Little wanted wage workers to see their fair share.

“Little was a very influential person and pushed for a more radical approach to union organizing. There’s no question the Anaconda Mining Company knew who he was and that they were concerned about him in various ways,” Fredrickson said. “Little saw the war as one between capitalists and the working class. He saw war as a way companies and the government found justification for shutting down strikes and unions.”

Little was kidnapped from his boarding house less than a month after he arrived in Butte by six masked men and was beaten and hanged from a railroad trestle. His attackers left a note with the numbers 3-7-77, a sign of vigilantes at the time, and initials of other union leaders, suggesting future violence. Thousands of workers gathered at Little’s funeral procession, and it remains the largest funeral in Butte history, according to the Montana Historical Society.

The podcast explores theories of who killed Little with a range of suspects, including novelist Dashiell Hammett, the author of “Red Harvest,” based on a fictionalized Butte. Zach Dundas came across Hammett in research for a book on detective novels, and his story inspired the group to look into Little, Fredrickson said. Hammett reportedly was offered $5,000 to kill Little, but nothing was proven.

Despite “Death in the West’s” intensive research, the siblings did not solve Little’s murder, but Fredrickson said all the hosts concluded the Anaconda Mining Company likely had a hand in it.

“There’s no smoking gun, and we didn’t expect to discover one. This made it so people listening can develop their own theories about what happened,” Fredrickson said. “This was clearly planned and intended to send a message, so we concluded there were probably people in the company that were involved in some way, who knew about it ahead of time, and perhaps suggested or otherwise supported it.”

The “Death in the West” co-hosts used oral histories from the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library at UM and the Butte-Silver Bow Public Archives, travelled to Butte to report on-the-ground at Little’s murder site and other prominent locations in Butte’s mining history, and even opened a tip line for information on Little’s Murder. One of Fredrickson’s favorite visits was to the sixth floor of the Hennessy building, which housed the Anaconda company’s main office and was empty when their crew visited.

“You could look down from there and see the boarding house where Frank Little was staying, and the union hall. You got a sense of how an Anaconda company executive could be looking down on the miners and unions, everything was packed in so close together,” Fredrickson said. “There’s possibly no state that’s been more controlled by one corporation than Montana and the Anaconda company in the early 20th century, and that was the heart of it.”

Fredrickson said season one was more than just the story of an unsolved murder of a union advocate and the Anaconda Mining Company. It is one that Fredrickson hopes can demystify the West and the idea of individual pioneers creating cities like Butte from the ground up.

“The American West is maybe the most mythologized place on earth. Much of the land was not settled by individuals, but through violence and questionable treaties, and the federal government had a strong role in being a part of violent conflict with Native Americans,” Fredrickson said. “Those wage workers in Butte wanted to form unions and fight for their rights as laborers in a group, not as individuals. It was a place where there was a very strong and radical approach to society as a group.”

‘Death in the West’: Season Two

Season two focuses on skyjacking in the 60’s and 70’s, specifically on an unidentified man called D.B. Cooper that hijacked a Seattle flight and parachuted out, never to be found. People can listen to “Death in the West” as it comes out on https://deathinthewestpod.com/ or anywhere you get your podcasts. 

Editor’s note: This story was updated on July 25, 2022 to correctly identify Zach Dundas.

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Emily Tschetter
Emily Tschetter

Emily Tschetter is a junior studying journalism and political science at the University of Montana. She was born and raised in Billings and grew up surrounded with music between going to concerts and playing cello. She worked at the Montana Kaimin, University of Montana's independent student newspaper, as a news reporter last school year and will start as the news editor in the fall. In her free time Emily loves building up her vinyl collection, being overly critical of movies, going to cheap diners with friends and enjoying music whenever she can.