Monday, April 21, 2014

National Poetry Month—A Centennial of Death at Ludlow

Yesterday was the 100th anniversary of the Ludlow Massacre, probably the most brutal episode in the decades of open class warfare that gripped the U.S. from the Great Railway Strike of 1877 to the eve of the nation’s entry into World War II.  The story of that horrific morning at a squalid encampment of families of striking Colorado coal miners who had been evicted from their company housing is missing from the history you probably studied in high school.  And not by accident.
Briefly, in the summer of 1913 a strike for better wages, the 8 hour day, an end to child labor, and recognition of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) broke out across the southern Colorado coal fields up and down the Eastern Slope of the Rocky Mountains.  It was just the latest instalment in a series of bloody battles between largely immigrant miners and the powerful corporations that dominated the industry including the Rockefeller owned Colorado Fuel and Iron.  It would not even be the last. 
Ten years earlier the legendary Mother Jones had been active in an earlier strike, urging miners to defy injunctions, leading marches, and organizing mine wives to take their husbands place on the picket lines.  There had been mass arrests, deportations, random shootings.  Mother Jones was arrested and President Theodore Roosevelt dubbed the old rabble rouser “the most dangerous woman in America.”  That strike had been broken and worker returned to wretched conditions in the virtual prisons of the company towns.
Early in the 1913 strike, workers got the upper hand by effectively blocking the canyon heads through which scabs would have to pass to get to the mines.  The company responded, as usual, by evicting the strikers, and then harassing the tent colonies that they set up.  There were also mass arrests, detention in open-air bull pens—virtual concentration camps—deportations to the state line, and random assaults on strikers and their families.
To beef up their already sizable force of mine “guards” called the Fuel and Iron Police called on the services of the Baldwin–Felts Detective Agency.  The Pinkertons may be better known and reviled by unionists as scab herders and strike breakers.  They could, and did bust heads or use firearms, usually in the guise of “protecting” scabs.  And they were notorious for planting operatives as spies and occasionally framing union official.  But for sheer brutality, Baldwin-Felts was unmatched.  It was less a detective agency than a hired army.  The agency had cut its teeth in the mine wars of West Virginia and left a trail of bodies and brutalized victims in its wake.  I worked best were local authorities were firmly in the pockets of the bosses and willing to look the other way at any violation of legal niceties.  That was certainly the case in Colorado where the governor and most county official were beholden to Rockefeller interests.  Companies that hired Baldwin-Felts did so with the intention of settling a strike by body count.
Scores of agency men arrived on the scene heavily armed.  An armored car mounting a .50 caliber machine gun and known to miners as the Death Special was built for their use.  In addition to escorting scabs, the agency harassed the miners’ squatter camps with the car and agency snipers regularly peppered tents with gun fire at night, wounding several.  Local leaders and rank-and-file members who were caught out alone were often beaten or shot.
Despite the harassment and intimidation, the strike held up.  In October Governor Elias M. Ammons called out the National Guard openly on the side of mine owners.  Under the command of Adjutant-General John Chase, a veteran of the Cripple Creek Strike ten years earlier imposed virtual martial law.  Although violence somewhat abated, arrests and detentions soared, a strict curfew was imposed, and all meetings and picketing outlawed.

Mother Jones, fresh from being released from West Virginia imprisonment, rushed to the scene.  As she had before, she organized the women in support of their husbands and tried to arrange food and clothing relief for the striking families, especially the large numbers of children in the camps.
The strike endured through the brutal winter, but action seemed to pick up as spring neared.  It looked to many as though the use of the Guard and gun thugs had essentially broken the strike.  Many mines were able to operate with scabs.  Anger built among the strikers as did attacks on scabs, and when they could be found vulnerable, Baldwin-Felts gunmen.
Infamous Company A, Colorado National Guard Cavalry

The deployment of hundreds of Guardsmen, however, was nearly bankrupting the state government.  Believing that it had the upper-hand, most were de-mobilized.  But a brand new unit, designated Troop A of the cavalry was created with members “recruited” from the Fuel and Iron Police and Baldwin-Felts, their pay subsidized by the company.
 Mother Jones was arrested by Chase and held in confinement and was eventually deported to the Kansas state line.  The strikers’ wives organized a march in the main city of the mining district, Trinidad.  The orderly march drew hundreds of women and their children.  Under Chase’s order cavalrymen from Troop A charged the women, injuring and arresting several.
After a scab was found dead near a railroad line on March 10, camp near Forbes was attacked, burned and residents sent scattering.  Harassment at other camps increased.  Dug-outs were built under many tents for cover when sniper fire erupted.
Early in the morning of April 20, three Guardsmen entered the camp at Ludlow demanding the “release” of a scab they claimed was being detained there.  The respected leader of the camps Greeks, Louis Tikas volunteered to go into town to negotiate with the officer in charge.  But on the way he saw that machine guns were being set up on Water Tank Hill, just south of Ludlow commanding the camp.  He ran back to the camp to alert the miners who armed themselves to protect the camp.  Some tried to outflank the machine gun position.  A fire fight broke out and lasted most of the day.
Members of Company A arrived to reinforce the members of Company B already on the scene and set up a second machine gun which set up a crossfire.  About 150 guardsmen also poured rifle fire into the camp.  At one point a freight train pulled up along the camp allowing many of the women and children to escape to the Black Hills above the camp.
Others found shelter in the dug-outs under the tents.  By early evening Guardsmen were entering the camp.  Guardsmen soaked the tents with kerosene regardless of who might be inside.  By 7 pm the camp was ablaze.  The next morning the bodies of two women and 11 children were found huddled together in the dug-out under one tent. 
Tikas and two other known union leaders were captured.  Lieutenant Karl Linderfelt, who had several run-ins with Tikas during the strike, broke a rifle butt over the Greeks head.  Later, Tikas and the two others were found shot to death.  Tikas was shot three times in the back.  Their bodies were left on a rail way embankment for three days as a “lesson” for other strikers.
The exact death toll in the camp may never be precisely known and is estimated at between 19 and 25 with many more injured.  The three executed men, the women and children, and three other men were identified.  Three company guards and one Guardsman also died that day, at least some of whom were caught in their own cross fire.
As word spread among the camps, so did the outrage.  Miner’s organized their own militia armed mostly with Winchester 30-30 rifles obtained by the union for self-defense and assorted private arms went on the offensive.  For ten day well organized units attacked mines, scabs, Baldwin-Felts thugs, and gunmen.  Scores were killed on both sides in merciless fighting.  The governor re-activated more Guard units, but fighting did not stop until Federal Troops intervened on the order of President Woodrow Wilson who disarmed both sides.
The strike officially struggled on until June when UMWA official conceded defeat.  The union then all but abandoned Colorado.  In 1927 an new mine strike, this time led by the Industrial Workers of the World would erupt in both the northern and southern coal fields and another bitter chapter of the coal wars would be written.
Meanwhile Mother Jones and surviving women testified before Congress.  An investigation was launched which mainly confirmed the strikers accounts of the events, but no action was taken against Guard officer or the company.  Public outrage soon faded.  Then came the all-too successful attempts to blot the whole thing from American memory.
In 1944 on the 30th anniversary of the massacre Woody Guthrie wrote one of his angriest songs.  When it was later released, it revived interest in the massacre.
Today, the UMWA owns the massacre site where a monument was dedicated there in 1919.  It was vandalized and badly damaged in 2003 and restored and re-dedicated by the union in 2007.  This week dozens of events in Colorado commemorate the anniversary.
Of course poetry was inspired.  We’ll start with that Woody Guthrie ballad.

Ludlow Massacre 

It was early spring time that the strike was on
They moved us miners out of doors
Out from the houses that the company owned
We moved into tents at old Ludlow
I was worried bad about my children
Soldiers guarding the railroad bridge
Every once in a while a bullet would fly
Kick up gravel under my feet
We were so afraid they would kill our children
We dug us a cave that was seven foot deep
Carried our young ones and a pregnant woman
Down inside the cave to sleep
That very night, you soldier waited
Until us miners were asleep
You snuck around our little tent town
Soaked our tents with your kerosene
You struck a match and the blaze it started
You pulled the triggers of your Gatling guns
I made a run for the children
But the fire wall stopped me
Thirteen children died from your guns
I carried my blanket to a wire fence corner
Watched the fire ‘til the blaze died down
I helped some people grab their belongings
While your bullets killed us all around
I will never forget the looks on the faces
Of the men and women that awful day
When we stood around to preach their funerals
And lay the corpses of the dead away
We told the Colorado governor to call the President
Tell him to call off his National Guard
But the National Guard belong to the governor
So he didn't try so very hard
Our women from Trinidad they hauled some potatoes
Up to Walsenburg in a little cart
They sold their potatoes and brought some guns back
And put a gun in every hand
The state soldiers jumped us in a wire fence corner
They did not know that we had these guns
And the redneck miners mowed down them troopers
You should have seen those poor boys run
We took some cement and walled that cave up
Where you killed those thirteen children inside
I said, “God bless the Mine Workers’ Union”
And then I hung my head and cried

—Woody Guthrie

William M. Jones commemorated Mother Jones in this poem which he read at a state convention of West Virginia union a few years earlier.  Utah Phillips frequently recited it in his performances.

The Charge on Mother Jones

The patriotic soldiers came marching down the pike,
Prepared to shoot and slaughter in the Colorado strike;
With whiskey in their bellies and vengeance in their souls,
They prayed that God would help them shoot the miners full of

In front of these brave soldiers loomed a sight you seldom see:
A white-haired rebel woman whose age was eighty-three.
“Charge!” cried the valiant captain, in awful thunder tones,
And the patriotic soldiers “CHARGED” and captured Mother Jones.

‘Tis great to be a soldier with a musket in your hand,
Ready' for any bloody work the lords of earth command.
‘Tis great to shoot a miner and hear his dying groans
But never was such glory as that “charge” on Mother Jones.

—William M. Jones

In 2007 David Mason, the acclaimed Poet Laureate of Colorado release his novel in verse, Ludlow.  It is currently being adapted as an opera by Lori Laitman.  Mason will participate in several of this weeks’ events.  Here is a short excerpt introducing one of his characters.

Excerpt from the Novel Ludlow

“Luisa,” Too Tall stopped to touch her hair.
“Lass, this man’s your new employer. Chin up.
Let’s look at you.” She saw the man’s good shoes
when he stepped down, the trousers, buttoned vest.
“George Reed,” said Mr. Reed. Don’t be afraid.”
He swung his hat off, a man of thirty years
with blue eyes and a blond mustache, his hair
parted almost down the middle. “That’s it,
good girl.” His mustache bristled when he smiled.
“She’s not much older’n mine. You say she can read?”
“She’s had it hard,” said Too Tall.
                                        “There’s plenty
around here had it hard,” said Mr. Reed.
“But we could use the help if she can work.
You can work, can’t you, young lady? Luisa,
right? Luisa, you can work, can’t you?”
Luisa nodded. “That a girl. Good girl.”

They loaded up her apple crates of clothing,
Bible, the wooden santo her mother brought
from a village far away, the carver’s name
made shiny by the rub of hands: abuelo.
“No tiene uno ni madre,” said
a voice behind her. “Good lass. Good lassie.”
“Work hard and don’t forget us,” said Mrs,
“Good-bye,” said the house, the hens, the risen dust.

—David Mason

1 comment:

  1. If you know the history of Ludlow and the massacre, it remains depressing to recall what happened there when you visit.