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Pardons Granted To “Wobblies” 80 Years After Murder Convictions

May 13, 1987

CARSON CITY, Nev. (AP) _ The first posthumous pardons in Nevada history have been granted to two members of the radical Industrial Workers of the World who were convicted of murder 80 years ago in a gold mining boomtown.

The Nevada Pardons Board voted 6-1 Tuesday to pardon Joseph Smith and Morrie Preston, both ″Wobblies,″ the moniker for members of the IWW.

Their trial for a 1907 slaying in Goldfield and the controversy it evoked was a blow to the IWW movement, which had grown rapidly across the West and Midwest.

Six months later, federal troops were sent in to suppress union activists in Goldfield. Preston was nominated for president by the Socialist Labor Party while still in jail.

Preston, who had no children, died in 1924. Fourteen descendants of Smith, who died in poverty in 1935, applauded after the board’s decision.

The posthumous pardons are ″important to me because I can tell my children that justice does prevail, that right does prevail over wrong,″ said Smith’s granddaughter, Diane Smith Varni.

″In our minds we know that our grandfather was innocent, and we feel Morrie Preston was framed,″ added Ms. Varni, a newspaper photographer in Watsonville, Calif. ″We’re satisfied with what we have. This will be fine.″

Gov. Dick Bryan, Pardons Board chairman, said he was persuaded there were ″grave errors″ in the trial. Supreme Court Justice Clifton Young cast the lone ″no″ vote.

A chronicle of the trial was recently published by authors Sally Zanjani and Guy Rocha, Nevada’s state archivist. Their book, ″The Ignoble Conspiracy: Radicalism on Trial in Nevada,″ led Smith’s descendants to try to get his name cleared.

The authors said their research found that Preston shot restaurant owner John Silva in self-defense after Silva became enraged over pickets in front of his restaurant and aimed a gun at Preston. Smith, an IWW organizer, had called for the restaurant boycott because Silva docked the pay of a waitress who left without notice.

Rocha and Ms. Zanjani said the two were victims of an ″ignoble conspiracy″ by mining company tycoons, notably George Wingfield, who quietly ran northern Nevada politics at the time.

There were allegations of perjury at the trial. Prosecution witnesses included a gunfighter and convicted murderer known as ″Diamondfield Jack″ Davis, one of Wingfield’s bodyguards, and ″Gunplay″ Maxwell, once a member of the Wild Bunch gang led by Butch Cassidy.

The book says then-Gov. Tasker Oddie got veiled threats from Wingfield operatives not to pardon the two union members in 1913, and during a Pardons Board hearing that year, Oddie was the only member to vote against pardons for them. The rule then and now is that the governor must vote with the majority to grant a pardon.

Preston wound up with a 25-year prison term while Smith got a 10-year sentence for involuntary manslaughter. Preston served nearly seven years, and Smith spent five years in prison.

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