“The Whole System of the Present Must Be Overturned”: A Press Photo of Irene M. Smith, Spiritualist Socialist Candidate for Mayor of Los Angeles, 1919

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

There were many important, interesting, and instructive social and political movements afoot in America during the late 19th and early 20th centuries and the subject of tonight’s featured artifact from the Homestead’s collection, a press photograph from her 1919 run for mayor of Los Angeles, embodied a few of these. Irene M. Smith was a pastor in spiritualist churches and a dedicated and committed socialist who was among the first women to run for major public office in the Angel City. The fact that she held far left-wing political views and was from an unorthodox religious background made her a fringe figure who has long been forgotten, but her story is nonetheless interesting.

She was born Mary Irene Corey in Louisville, a town on the Canadian border in the far northern reaches New York in 1864 and married Julian Smith, a carpenter, in Wahpeton, a town south of Fargo, North Dakota, when she was 22. The couple had a son, Adins, and lived near Tacoma, Washington before they moved to Los Angeles sometime between 1910 and 1913 and settled in South Los Angeles, a growing working-class area.

Los Angeles Times, 10 August 1913.

As Irene came of age, married, and raised her family, the booming American economy was rife with inequality, especially during the so-called Gilded Age at the end of the 19th century. The gaping chasm between the well-to-do and the working classes were reflected in the rise of the labor movement and the reaction of the business class to strikes that were often fearfully violent. This led to a growing radicalization of those on the left including a significant growth by the dawn of the new century in those identifying as socialist.

Meanwhile, the growing power of woman suffrage was made increasingly manifest over the decades, with Wyoming, in 1869, being the first state to grant women the vote and California doing the same over four decades later with the federal franchise finally taking place with the 19th Amendment in 1919. Within just a short time after coming to the Angel City, Irene decided to make her first foray, under the Socialist banner, for political office when, in 1915, she sought election to the city council.

Los Angeles Record, 29 April 1915.

While she fell short, though she garnered over 7,500 votes (another candidate was the pioneer woman lawyer Clara Shortridge Foltz), it is notable that Estelle Lawton Lindsey, a socialist who garnered more than 13,000 votes in the primary, did win a seat on the council and even briefly served as mayor when the city’s chief executive, Charles E. Sebastian (who later resigned in scandal) and council president Martin Betkouski were out of town for a day-and-a-half to attend the famous Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco.

As for the religious element, there was a decidedly strong orientation in early 20th century Los Angeles towards religious expression well outside the mainstream, including evangelicalism, Pentecostalism, spiritualism, and many others. Women often had powerful leadership roles in these alternative schools of thought and practice, with Smith becoming a pastor in several churches, while she lectured frequently to religious, labor and other organizations on socialism and spiritualism.

Los Angeles Times, 10 February 1919.

The photo here is date stamped by the News Enterprise Association as 15 January 1924 and a pencil inscription reads “Mrs. Irene Smith of Los Angeles, candidate for mayor / From Dowell,” but the photo is from her candidacy for that office five years prior and C.L. Dowell published a feature about her that appeared in the Los Angeles Record of 20 March 1919. So, while it is unclear why the photo was stamped for the N.E.A.’s Reference Department nearly a half-decade later, Smith’s quixotic campaign does have historical interest.

For one thing, while Job Harriman proved to be a formidable Socialist Party candidate in the 1911 mayoral election, with his chances severely hampered by the domestic terrorist bombing of the pro-business and anti-union Los Angeles Times the prior fall, the successful campaign mounted by Lindsey for her historic city council win showed that left-wing politics still had some life in it as the decade moved into its middle stages.

Los Angeles Record, 20 March 1919.

By 1919, however, the patriotic fervor of the First World War and the horror with which most Americans greeted the Russian Revolution of two years before and the postwar environment in Europe in which socialists, communists and other left-wing movements were gaining much political ground, led to a decidedly strong conservative reaction in the United States. The Red Scare of that era is probably the best known example of how America’s turn to the right manifested itself, much as it would after the Second World War.

So, while there was some precedent for female socialists having electoral success just a few years prior to Smith’s campaign for mayor, the environment had changed radically, as well. Still, she mounted a spirited campaign after she announced her candidacy early in the year for the primary election of May. The Times, always strident about those on the left side of the political spectrum, had nothing good to say about Smith.

Los Angeles Times, 19 April 1919.

In its 10 February 1919 edition, it reported that she spoke at an International Workers of the World (Wobblies) meeting to a few hundred people, of which the paper claimed not even half were “converted” to the radical labor union’s cause. While she wasn’t the featured speaker, Smith was described as having “a great deal to say” but as “she endeavored to explain the mental processes of humanity” her audience did not purportedly follow her train of thought, as her ruminations were deemed “too deep for her auditors.”

A week later, the paper covered an I.W.W. “invasion” of the city’s Labor Temple at a mass meeting that the Times claimed only generated a little north of $20 in donations “for the cause of revolution in America.” Smith and another orator “made typical I.W.W.-class war speeches, jeering at the American government and flag and calling Los Angeles workingmen cowards for not going on a general strike” like those underway in Seattle during that year filled with labor unrest. Another week went by and Smith unleashed “a fiery speech” at another Wobblies confab which included some arrests and high drama.

San Pedro Daily Pilot, 28 April 1919.

By mid-March, Smith announced her candidacy as part of a Socialist Party slate. The Times was dismissive, repeating a few times the sentiment that “her main qualification, so far as has been ascertained, is a voice of good carrying qualities.” The Record, however, which was much more liberal than its dominant competitor gave her more press, including Dowell’s lengthy feature of 20 March. Headlined “Woman Candidate For Mayor Lives In Midst of Pets and Flowers,” the piece features the photo featured here and a full-length of one standing at the door of her modest bungalow and holding a broom (to sweep out corruption, perhaps?)

Dowell wrote that Smith had been active for some two decades in radical politics and “sitting in her sunny, cheerful living room,” the candidate moved back and forth in a rocking chair discoursing on the political situation while the songs of birds were heard through an open window and “the scent of newly blown roses climbing riotously over trellises which cover the yard” filled the home. Smith was quoted as saying

If I was to be elected mayor of Los Angeles, I would see to it every man, the head of a family and every soldier and sailor [the war had ended several months prior and a massive mustering out was underway] had a job. I would create these jobs by extensive public works such as boring tunnels, paving streets and the construction of storm drains and sewers. Graft is rampant in the city. You can see it everywhere.

Her platform of a huge investment in public works was and remains popular with many liberal economists and politicians and the economic situation in the nation was trending toward a major recession, while finding jobs for returning veterans was a significant issue. Dealing more specifically with the major tenet of socialism, Smith added, “of course I believe in municipal ownership, but we Socialists believe this is only a step in the right direction. I would have every industry owned and operated by the municipality.”

Los Angeles Times, 4 May 1919.

She continued her discussion by proclaiming “if I were to become mayor I would labor with might and main for everything that would help the worker and I would be against everything that is opposed to his interests.” Dowell noted that, with “her eyes shining,” Smith slapped her palm against the chair “to give emphasis to her feelings, though she then told him “first and foremost I am for my home” and then, after giving him a tour of her menagerie of pets, she stated, “a woman’s place is in her home.” Then, she turned fiery by ending with, “the whole system of the present must be overturned and the people given a chance to rule, and I am going to see they do rule if I am elected.”

In the course of the several weeks leading up to the primary election, Smith spoke at several gatherings, including a meeting of Socialists, at which another orator talked about “Reactionary Watchful Waiting, or Immediate Revolutionary Activity.” At the end of April, she traveled to San Pedro, where a great many laborers lived and worked, to present her platform along with others “thoroughly conversant with the Labor Movement” and who were “voices [for] the interest of the working class.”

Los Angeles Record, 5 May 1919.

Fittingly, on the 1st of May (May Day, an important labor holiday), she was part of a candidates forum for the San Pedro Chamber of Commerce and the San Pedro Daily Pilot reported she “took advantage of the opportunity to tell business men that they will have themselves to blame if they do not heed the warning of the socialists and listen to the workers.” Notably, the several male candidates present were given much more space in the article for their pronouncements and exhortations.

A few days later, a correspondent to the Times from tbe Ebell Club, a powerful organization of middle and upper class women, gleefully and irreverently reported on a candidate forum, though she noted that Smith could not attend. This, however, “was a blessing, for you never heard such ranting as she poured out for our benefit at the Woman’s City Club [another organization of the well-to-do], last week.” Then, in a brazenly heartless fashion, “Jane” concluded with venom that Smith “was going about personally to see that there were not babies starving in the community!”

Times, 8 May 1919.

The day prior to the election, the Times offered its critique of candidates and with Smith, it opined that she was “a red card Socialist” and “advocates [a] most radical sort of Socialism,” while repeating the canard that her only virtue was her loudness. By contrast, the Record allowed candidates to speak for themselves and quoted her as saying “I am the only candidate in the city representing the working class. My platform is known to be allied to the movement to obtain a living wage for all workers, and particularly do I want the school teachers to get more pay.”

The paper added, a couple of days later, that Smith “candidly admitted that she would be surprised if she did gain a place on the ticket in the finals,” in other words, placed in the top two to advance to the general election in the fall. Moreover, “Mrs. Smith was equally frank in admitting that she should have a place if people understood the issues.”

Pages, including a deposition attesting to Smith’s loyalty and a photo, for her passport application later in 1919 to travel to Europe.

Alas, the results were probably as everyone, the candidate included, expected. Of the six candidates for the chief executive office, Smith finished fifth, with former mayor and eventual victor, Meredith P. Snyder leading incument Frederick T. Woodman by four thousand votes out of more than 60,000 cast. Smith picked up just over 1,500 or not far above 2% of the tally. Incidentally, the second highest vote-getter for a city council seat was Boyle Workman, son of former mayor and treasurer William H. Workman and the grand-nephew of William and Nicolasa Workman, founders of the Homestead. Boyle went on to serve eight years including a long stretch as council president and did not emerge successful in the 1929 primary campaign for mayor.

Smith returned to her pets and flowers at her home, which also served as The Spiritualist Fellowship Church, of which she, naturally, the pastor. Later in 1919, she applied for a passport to travel to Europe, but, almost certainly because of radical political philosophy, she was obligated to submit a deposition certified by the federal district court in Los Angeles that “she wishes to visit England, France & Italy for the purpose [of] Teaching, Lecturing, & publishing Books, also visiting museums [!] and Library’s [sic] for gathering data for the furthering of her knowledge in the interest of Humanity.” She, did, however, have to add that

she is a Loyal American citizen and will under all circumstances work for American Ideals.

Whether she made the trip of not, she did remain in Los Angeles for many years. In the early Twenties, she was affiliated with the Sunshine Spiritualist Church at Spring and Sixth streets in downtown Los Angeles, where she offered a “class in spiritual unfoldment.” Later in the decade, she gave lectures at the Church of
Soul Scientist on Vermont Avenue and 50th Street not far from her home.

In 1929, she ran again for public office, this time for a seat on the Los Angeles Board of Education, and was endorsed by several unions, though that effort also failed. With the worsening of the Great Depression, she continued her socialist advocacy as right for the times and continued in her political activism through the middle Thirties. A widow by the end of the decade, she lived in a downtown apartment, but nothing could be discovered beyond the 1940 federal census.

Given our current polarized political environment amid discussions of the purported prevalence of socialism and communism while right-wing sentiments are very strongly expressed in large segments of American society, this look back a century or so ago is particularly noteworthy. Irene Smith has been long forgotten, but she does deserve a place in our regional political history.

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