|A sheriff's posse of 100 men opened fire on an orderly march of Slavic miners at Lattimer, Pennsylvania shooting most of them in the back as they fled 120 years ago today.
Regular readers of this blog may be getting sick of the accounts of labor massacres and atrocities that fill these daily missives far too often. And Lord knows I get tired of writing about them, especially about the ones from various coal fields across the country and spanning decade after decade with numbing monotony. But someone must tell the stories of all of those who died and sacrificed, just as those of us living today need to make sure those sacrifices were not in vain.
So here is another one. Not the oldest by far, but from way back before the turn of the 20th Century the memory of which has been dimmed in the light of subsequent celebrated battles. But it was key in opening up some of America’s oldest anthracite fields to unionization and the dawning of justice.
By the 1890’s the coal fields of Pennsylvania had been providing the fuel for the Industrial Revolution in the Northeast for decades—fuel for the vast and expanding network of railroads tying the nation together, for iron and steel blast furnaces, for the generators that were illuminating the great cities, even for the homes of many residents, rich or poor. And just as long the battle between miners and bosses over wages, hours, safety, and clean and affordable housing for mine families it was equally intense. Native born coal diggers and colliers from England, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland had gradually overcome their mutual suspicions and increasingly united with a strong sense of solidarity and militancy.
Workers organized locally at first. Sometimes they simply struck with no permanent organization, with predictably disastrous results. Later they would walk out as Knights of Labor lodges or skilled workers would down tools as members of craft unions. Irish miners had organized in the secret society known as the Molly Maguires which they had brought with them from the old country and waged a guerilla war of bombings and assassinations against mine bosses in the 1870’s that was finally smashed by the infiltration of Pinkerton spies into their midst.
There were major strikes across the state in 1875, walkouts in conjunction with the nationwide uprising of the laboring classes remembered as the Great Railway Strike of 1877, and another major strike wave in 1887. Each time facing the use of the company thugs known as the Pennsylvania Coal and Iron Police, as well as local law enforcement, and the State Militia, the strikes had been broken and the miners had to return to work.
In the face of rising demand for coal and the rising militancy of their English speaking workforce, coal operators turned increasingly to recent immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe. Displaced and illiterate German, Polish, and other Slavic peasants were hired in large numbers and assigned the hardest and most dangerous jobs in the mines. These greenhorns, disparaged universally as Bohunks, were used as scabs to break strikes. Naturally English speaking miners resented them and the bosses did everything they could to keep their workers squabbling among themselves for scraps and crumbs.
Then one of the reoccurring national panics and depressions of the early 1890’s actually made things worse than ever. Thousands lost their jobs, bosses cut wages as much as 25% across the board, and increased rents in company owned housing. Corners were cut in an already dangerous industry. More than 30,000 miners had been killed outright in Pennsylvania alone since 1870, not counting those who escaped immediate death only to linger with what became known as Black Lung in the 20th Century.
By 1897 much of the nation was recovering from the Panic and wages were generally once again on the rise. But not in the coal fields. Instead the bosses, acting in concert, conspired to impose a new round of wage cuts along with rent increases and price boosts at company stores where most miners were compelled to buy their necessities. The bosses were confident that no matter what action militant English speakers might take, that their loyal and passive immigrant work force would, as before, willingly break any strike.
But two things were different this time. First the American Federation of Labor (AFL) had somewhat reluctantly given the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) permission to ignore craft divisions and enroll all mine workers, skilled and unskilled alike into one union similar to the inclusive lodges of the fading Knights of Labor. Secondly those Bohunks were just as fed up as English speakers and were ready to overcome their resentments at second class treatment and even persecution to support them. UMWA organizers in the field like John Mitchell encouraged and welcomed them.
|UMWA organizer John Mitchell made his mark in Pennslyania
Under the circumstances, it did not take much of a spark to set off a conflagration.
Things were tense around the region due to the latest rounds of wage cuts in early August of 1897 when the Honey Brook Division of the Lehigh and Wilkes-Barre Coal Company laid off its mostly English speaking workers at its strip mines, cut the pay of the remaining workers, and raised rent for housing in company towns. Then the company consolidated several mule barns causing most teamsters a much longer and uncompensated commute, usually on foot. It was the straw that broke the camel’s back for about 35 teenage mule skinners who walked off the job on August 14. By the next day most of the strip mine workers joined them. Then, to the astonishment of everyone, the Bohunks who were mostly confined to dangerous jobs as underground miners joined the effort instead of providing scabs.
Within two days the strike had spread to more than 2,000 workers and near-by operations. The UMWA, which had been organizing in the area for years with few members to show for it, suddenly swelled when the strikers joined in mass. Unable to break the strike, owners capitulated on August 23 and agreed to several concessions including payment for overtime, bringing wages up to the regional average, allowing miners to see their own doctors when injured, and no longer forcing miners to live in company-owned housing. It seemed a sweeping victory.
Naturally, such success spawned other actions. On August 35 youthful breaker boys at the A.S. Van Wickle Co. in Colerain struck for higher wages as well. When the company attempted to use Slavs as scabs, they joined the strike instead. The strike spread to two other nearby coal works and the company quickly agreed to raise wages ending the walk out after only three days.
Workers were emboldened by the new spirit of solidarity in the field which was bridging old hostilities and grudges. And the bosses were just as alarmed by the new developments. Determining among themselves not to continue to allow workers to “extort” wage boosts and concessions from them, employers began to beef up their forces of mine guards—plug-uglies and petty criminals swept up from the streets of Pittsburgh—and plan for a new round of battle.
It did not take them long to get what they wanted. Van Wickle and other companies soon reneged on the promises they had made. On September 1 they announced that pay raises would go to only a few skilled workers—English speakers—and made vague promises to the Slavs to treat them better in the future. Neither set of miners were inclined to accept the greatly reduced offer. The strike resumed on September 3 when 3,000 miners marched on mass to four operations shutting them down. Day by day there were more marches and more closures as the strike spread.
|Luzerne County Sheriff James F. Martin organized a heavily armed posse.
The Coal and Iron Police and mine guards were ineffectual at stopping the marches. The companies turned to Luzerne County Sheriff James F. Martin who established a posse of about 100 English and Irish citizens—businessmen, clerks, middle class citizens—to prevent any further marches from occurring. Still, day by day the strike spread and by September 8 nearly 10,000 were out and growing daily. Owners attempted to convince the Sheriff of Schuylkill County arrest several thousand miners who had assembled near Pottsville and had forced a mine to shut down, but that officer refused.
Sheriff Martin, however, was made of sterner stuff. He had a public proclamation printed in the local papers warning against “unlawful assembly, tumult, and interference with the peaceful operation of any mines or mining equipment.” He even signed it as High Sheriff, an old country designation sure to inflame the passions of English and Irish miners.
On Friday September 10 400-500 Slavic and German miners assembled for a march on the mine owned by Calvin Pardee at Lattimer. Martin knew they were coming and deployed his posse around the entrance to the mine, including posting sharp shooters on high ground and behind a line of coal cars. Witnesses later testified that the special deputies were joking about the number of strikers they would kill.
Un-armed and marching in an orderly fashion behind a color bearer with the Stars and Stripes, the march arrived at the gates at 3:45 pm. Sheriff Martin stepped into the road to confront them. He ordered the men to disburse then attempted to grab the flag from the color bearer. A struggle ensued and the marchers surged forward. The posse opened fire. Marchers immediately turned to flee, but firing continued for several minutes. And not just random fire, but carefully aimed shots meant to bring down individuals. Nineteen strikers died on the scene. Fleeing marchers dragged as many of the wounded as possible with them, but some were left on the ground and at least some of these may have been executed where they lay. Virtually all of the dead and wounded—who numbered anywhere from twenty to nearly fifty—were shot in the back, some multiple times. Many of the wounded were afraid to seek medical help.
The shooting set off a round of rioting by strikers and their families in the area. Martin called for the assistance of the Pennsylvania National Guard and on September 11 2,500 troops of the Third Brigade, including artillery were deployed. A mass meeting of Slavic leaders was held on September 12 tried to urge restraint and to raise money for the victims. But tempers were too short to be easily assuaged.
|Families wait to receive the bodies of their men. But the Coroner refused to release many bodies and others were unidentified. Most victims were burried in an unmarked slit trench whose location was kept secret and has never been found.
On the 12th miners went hunting for Wilkes-Barre Coal Company Mine Superintendent Gomer Jones, and destroyed his home when they could not locate him. On the 20th women armed with rolling pins led about 150 boys on a charge on the gate of the McAdoo works but were turned back by the guard.
Slowly, the strike and marches petered out. By September 29 the Guard was withdrawn. Miners drifted back to work. It seemed that the owners, once again, had won by the application of brute force under the color of law.
But there was plenty of public indignation at Sheriff Martin and his goons. The Sheriff and 73 of his deputies were indicted and placed on trial in conjunction with the shooting. The Sheriff and his witnesses testified that his men shot in self-defense when a mob attacked him. This was contradicted by numerous victims, and witnesses who asserted that there was no attack and that victims had been shot while trying to flee or disburse. Even a keep defense witness let slip that the shooting began not because of an attack but because “we were afraid that they would attack.”
To the surprise of virtually no one, the men were all acquitted.
Despite the temporary setback, outrage over the shooting helped UMWA organizers like John Mitchel to sign up more than 10,000 new members in Pennsylvania over the next three years. In epic strikes in 1900-’01 the UMWA was able to win and enforce major concessions across the Keystone State coal fields. Mitchel, the advocate of uniting miners across ethnic divisions, rose the Presidency of the union in 1897.
|The Lattimer Massacre Memorial and adjacent Pennsylvania State Historical Marker.
The Pennsylvania fields became the bedrock upon which the union was built, soon challenging bosses from West Virginia and other Appalachian states, to Illinois and far off Colorado. A handsome monument to Mitchel inscribed, “Champion of Labor, Defender of Human Rights” has long stood outside of the Lackawanna County Courthouse in Scranton, Pennsylvania. But for many years there was no monument to the dead miners, whose bodies were unceremoniously dumped in an unmarked slit trench the location of which has been lost. It wasn’t until 1972 that the United Labor Council of Lower Luzerne and Carbon Counties and the UMWA finally erected a small memorial on the site of the shooting.