“In the legal profession, Labor found a friend,
A lawyer on whom the toilers could depend.
A fearless advocate of truth and right,
And foe to every wrong upheld by might.
This man was Erwin, dauntless, bold and free,
Whose name shall live in glorious memory.
Whenever workingmen, who toil for bread,
Remember July 6th at brave Homestead.”
(A tribute to WW Erwin by an anonymous worker-poet in 1893.)
WW Erwin’s parents must have intended him to be a battler for justice. They named him “William Wallace,” after the legendary fighter for Scottish independence who stood at the Stirling Bridge against the forces of English King Edward I. History does not disclose whether Wallace looked like Mel Gibson, who played him in the 1995 film, “Braveheart,” but in St Paul he was known as "a tall man with the body of a giant,” as a medieval Scottish historian described Wallace. Pseudonymous columnist Benjamin Backnumber of the St Paul Daily News remembered Erwin as a “six-foot frame of sinew, tireless strength and panther suppleness. The working people of St Paul and beyond knew him as “The Tall Pine,” and honored him for his defense of labor’s rights. Erwin was arguably THE outstanding defense attorneys here. He was, the St. Paul Dispatch wrote on the occasion of his death, “the greatest criminal lawyer the Northwest ever knew.”
At the peak of his powers and success, Erwin embraced the labor movement that erupted in the last two decades of the nineteenth century. Perhaps because his legal career had been devoted to defense of the underdog, he offered his forensic talents freely to insurgent workers brought before the courts. Erwin was the outstanding defense attorney for participants in two of the three biggest labor battles of the nineteenth century, the Pullman railroad strike and boycott of 1894 and the strike against Andrew Carnegie’s Steel Works at Homestead, Pennsylvania, in 1892. These strikes were met with heavy military and judicial repression—and with unprecedented enthusiasm and solidarity from the ranks of labor.
On July 6, 1892, an armed force of about 300 men from the Pinkerton Detective Agency that industrialist Andrew Carnegie had procured battled over 1,000 striking steel workers, family members, and supporters who had massed on the banks of the Allegheny River to confront Carnegie’s men. The violence that followed left nine workers and three Pinkertons dead. Mass protest meetings, sponsored by city central bodies of the American Federation of Labor (AFL), were held all across the country in support of the steel workers. When strikers at Homestead were indicted for murder, riot, conspiracy and even treason, the St Paul Trades and Labor Assembly, some 900 miles removed, took a remarkable initiative procuring the services of Erwin to serve as lead counsel for the defendants. Erwin quickly secured the acquittal of the first two defendants; the prosecution of the remaining defendants was abandoned.
In 1894, Erwin went to Chicago to join the defense team, which included Clarence Darrow, representing American Railway Union leaders including Eugene V Debs, and Minneapolis railroad worker Sylvester Keliher, who were charged with contempt of court for failing to heed a Federal Court injunction instructing them to terminate the nationwide boycott by the ARU in support of striking Pullman workers. Denied a trial by jury, the defendants were convicted and sentenced to six months in prison. Nonetheless, Erwin’s performance in the courtroom was celebrated far and wide.
“Bill Irwin’s Oratory,” the New York Sun reported, “is the wonder of the bar and the admiration of the Northwest . . . . His voice now cracks into ice, now boils into geysers, is now thrown at the jury like a hammer . . . now leaps like thunder . . . now stops with the guttural protest of a Third avenue cable car kicking against the brake. The plaster drops, the nails are drawn out, the ceiling topples, the floor sags, even the janitor trembles in his slippers.”
Erwin’s home at 481 Iglehart was unfortunately torn down in the 1960’s.