Ramsey County History – Winter 2008: “Labor Found a Friend: W.W. Erwin for the Defense”

David Riehle

Labor Found a Friend: W.W. Erwin for the Defense
Author: David Riehle

Known as “The Northwest Whirlwind” or “The Tall Pine,” William Wallis Erwin (1842–1908) was an accomplished defense attorney. Even though he was respected throughout the country as a champion of underdogs, he is little known in the city where he lived. Erwin came to St. Paul in 1870 from New York. He was a splendid orator, often quoting classical writers, and became a favorite speaker at local labor events. He became nationally famous when he successfully defended the strikers who were arrested during the 1893 Homestead Strike in Pittsburgh by using a “justification defense.” One of his greatest moments was being the lead defense council for Eugene V. Debs and the members of the American Railway Union after the turbulent 1894 Pullman strike. Although he ably defended Debs, the case was lost. Nevertheless, Erwin became a hero of the labor movement. He moved to Florida in 1900 and died there eight years later.
PDF of Riehle article