The Herrin Massacre
took place in June 1922 in Herrin, Illinois
Herrin is a city in Williamson County, Illinois, United States. The population was 12,501 at the 2010 census. It is home to Country Musicstar David Lee Murphy, the hometown of baseball's Cleveland shortstop Ray Chapman, and the hometown of San Diego State University men's basketball coach Steve...
. Three union miners (Jordie Henderson, Joseph Pitkewicius and one other) were killed in a strike-related confrontation on June 21. The following day, 19 of of fifty strikebreakers and union guards were killed, many of them in a brutal way. A twentieth victim from the non-union group would later be killed, bringing the death count to twenty-three.
On April 1, 1922 the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) began a nationwide strike. W. J. Lester, the owner of the Southern Illinois Coal Company, operated a strip mine about halfway between Herrin
Herrin may refer to:* Herrin, Illinois, United States* Herrin, Nord, a commune of the Nord , in France...
and Marion, Illinois
The city of Marion is the county seat of Williamson County, Illinois. The 2010 census counted 17,193 residents, making Marion the 25th most populated city outside of the Chicago Metropolitan Area, in Illinois, and the second most populous city in Southern Illinois, outside of the Metro-East, behind...
. Lester at first complied with the strike. He had only recently opened the mine, and massive startup debts made him negotiate with the UMWA to allow his mine to remain open, as long as no coal
Coal is a combustible black or brownish-black sedimentary rock usually occurring in rock strata in layers or veins called coal beds or coal seams. The harder forms, such as anthracite coal, can be regarded as metamorphic rock because of later exposure to elevated temperature and pressure...
was shipped out. Under the agreement, some United Mine Workers members were allowed to continue working during the strike. Lester told an associate that local union leaders were friendly with him; however, he was warned this did not mean he had any control over the ordinary members.
By June, Lester's miners had dug out nearly 60,000 tons of coal. Strike
Strike action, also called labour strike, on strike, greve , or simply strike, is a work stoppage caused by the mass refusal of employees to work. A strike usually takes place in response to employee grievances. Strikes became important during the industrial revolution, when mass labour became...
-driven shortages had raised coal prices, and Lester would make a $250,000 profit if he sold his coal. He decided to violate the agreement he had made. When the UMWA members working for him objected, he fired all of his union workers. Lester brought in mine guards and 50 strikebreaker
A strikebreaker is a person who works despite an ongoing strike. Strikebreakers are usually individuals who are not employed by the company prior to the trade union dispute, but rather hired prior to or during the strike to keep the organisation running...
s, vilified as "scab
Scab can refer to the following:* Scab, a hard coating on the skin formed during the wound healing reconstruction phase* Derogatory term for a strikebreaker, a person who works despite strike action or against the will of other employees...
s", recruited by employment agencies in Chicago
Chicago is the largest city in the US state of Illinois. With nearly 2.7 million residents, it is the most populous city in the Midwestern United States and the third most populous in the US, after New York City and Los Angeles...
. On June 16, 1922, he shipped out sixteen railroad cars filled with coal. Testimony later revealed that his mine guards possessed machine guns. They aggressively searched passers-by, and "they frighten women, they boast and are hard-boiled."
Lester, responding to a reporter's questions, said his steam shovel operators and the railroad workers were members of their respective unions.
John L. Lewis
John Llewellyn Lewis was an American leader of organized labor who served as president of the United Mine Workers of America from 1920 to 1960...
, president of the UMWA, responded in a telegram on June 20. He called the Steam Shovelmen's Union an "outlaw organization" which also provided strikebreakers elsewhere. UMWA members, he said, "are justified in treating this crowd as an outlaw organization and in viewing its members in the same light as they do any other common strikebreakers."
There was confusion and disagreement between Lewis and William J. Tracy, representative of District No. 1, International Brotherhood of Steam Shovel and Dredgemen (IBSSD). Lewis in his widely publicized statement said that two representatives of the UMWA had contacted the IBSSD, but "have failed to secure any satisfaction." He did note that the Steam Shovel union had been suspended from the American Federation of Labor
The American Federation of Labor was one of the first federations of labor unions in the United States. It was founded in 1886 by an alliance of craft unions disaffected from the Knights of Labor, a national labor association. Samuel Gompers was elected president of the Federation at its...
, which the United Mine Workers also belonged to. Lewis claimed that the IBSSD was likewise strikebreaking in Ohio. Tracy responded that though he had sent four individuals to the site when requested, they turned away when they saw the guards. He stated that no one from his organization was working in Herrin. Tracy also criticized the UMWA for not communicating adequately about the situation. Is is unclear if Lester was telling the truth, or if he had contacted the IBSSD to disguise the use of non-union workers. To Lewis, it didn't matter. Lester's workers were not UMWA members, and the UMWA claimed sole jurisdiction over all coal miners.
Lewis' message was printed in newspapers, and miners throughout the region decided to take action. Early in the morning on June 21, a truck carrying Lester's guards and strikebreakers was ambushed near Carbondale, Illinois
Carbondale is a city in Jackson County, in the state of Illinois, within the Southern Illinois region. It is located at the junction of Illinois Route 13 and U.S. Route 51, southeast of St. Louis, Missouri, on the northern edge of the Shawnee National Forest...
on its way to his mine. Three men were wounded and six others jumped into the river. Later in the day several hundred miners rallied in the Herrin cemetery. Lewis' message was read to the crowd, enraging them further. The union miners marched into Herrin and looted the hardware store of its firearms and ammunition. At about 3:30 p.m., they surrounded Lester's mine. Lester's guards opened fire, killing two of the UMWA members and mortally wounding a third.
The mine superintendent, C.K. McDowell, called Col. Hunter to tell him the mine was surrounded and being fired upon. McDowell said he could not reach Sheriff Thaxton, and pleaded for troops. Col. Hunter called Thaxton's deputy and told him to ask the Illinois National Guard Adjutant General
An Adjutant General is a military chief administrative officer.-Imperial Russia:In Imperial Russia, the General-Adjutant was a Court officer, who was usually an army general. He served as a personal aide to the Tsar and hence was a member of the H. I. M. Retinue...
for troops and to move out to the mine with as many men as possible to stop the attack and break up the mob action.
Thaxton's men did nothing. Col. Hunter contacted the Adjutant General himself and convinced him to mobilize troops. Lester, who had left the area several days before, was contacted by phone in Chicago. Realizing the gravity of the situation, he agreed to close the mine for the remainder of the nationwide UMWA strike. Col. Hunter and a citizen's group laid out a plan to get a truce in place—telephoning McDowell to tell him raise a white flag, and asking the UMWA sub-district vice president, Fox Hughes, to go out to the site and do the same. The means of getting the strikebreakers safely out of the mine would be worked out later.
McDowell later reported by phone that the shooting had died down, and Col. Hunter and the citizen's group were optimistic that a disaster was going to be avoided. The National Guard troops were not needed after all, they decided.
Hughes went to the mine with a white flag, but never took it out and raised it. He later claimed to never have seen McDowell raise a white flag, so he decided Lester's men hadn't lived up to their part of the truce. He went home and took no further action, explaining later that he found out his boss in the UMWA leadership, Hugh Willis, was now involved and therefore concluded his role in the drama was finished.
During the evening more and more union supporters gathered guns and ammunition, and made their way to the strip mine. McDowell was to have called Col. Hunter when the truce took effect. When the call didn't come, Col. Hunter tried to telephone the mine, but he found the phone lines were dead. No law enforcement personnel went to the mine. No government officials accompanied Hughes to check if the white flags were raised; and no troops were ever activated by the Guard despite repeated signs that Thaxton and his men could not be counted on to act. No action was taken to enforce a truce.
Late in the evening of June 21, Sheriff Thaxton reluctantly agreed to go to the mine to make sure the truce was carried out and that the strikebreakers were given safe passage out of the county. Despite urgings that he go immediately, he insisted he needed rest and that it could wait until morning. Thaxton promised to meet Hunter and Major Davis of the Carbondale National Guard unit at the sheriff's office at 6 a.m. the next day. That evening, Hugh Willis, the local UMWA leader, spoke to union supporters in Herrin. During his speech Willis said of the strikebreakers: "God damn them, they ought to have known better than to come down here; but now that they're here, let them take what's coming to them."
Gunfire continued throughout the night, and the mob began destroying mine equipment to prevent the mine from reopening. They used hammers, shovels, and dynamite to wreck the draglines and bulldozers while keeping the scabs pinned down inside coal cars and behind barricades.
The strikebreakers finally sent out a mine guard, Bernard Jones, with an apron tied to a broomstick. Jones told the mob that the men were ready to surrender if their safety would be guaranteed. Someone said, "Come on out and we'll get you out of the county." The strikebreakers came out, and the striking miners began to march them toward Herrin, five miles away.
After walking about a half mile, the group found more men waiting for them at Crenshaw Crossing. One of these men shouted out, "The only way to free the county of strikebreakers is to kill them all off and stop the breed!" The mob grew more agitated and violent as they turned west and continued along. Some struck the strikebreakers with the butts of their guns.
The Chase and Massacre
A half mile past Crenshaw Crossing at Moake Crossing, McDowell was bloodied and limping, unable to go any further. The man who'd spoken earlier said "I'm going to kill you and use you for bait to catch the other men." He and another man grabbed McDowell and walked off down a side road. Shots rang out, and everyone else continued towards Herrin. A farmer later found McDowell's body. He'd been shot four times: twice in the stomach, and once each in the chest and head by the mob.
A car pulled up to the procession, and a man came out whom some of the strikebreakers overheard being called "Hugh Willis" and "the president." According to the accounts of surviving captives, he said, "Listen, don't you go killing these fellows on a public highway. There are too many women and children and witnesses around to do that. Take them over in the woods and give it to them. Kill all you can."
The prisoners were taken off the road into the woods, where they reached a barbed wire fence. The strikebreakers were told to run for their lives. One man shouted, "Let's see how fast you can run between here and Chicago, you damned gutter-bums!" The mob opened fire behind the strikebreakers as they ran. Many of the captives were caught up in the fence and shot to death. Others, making it over the fence but not knowing where they were, ran through Harrison's Woods toward Herrin, still a mile north. One strikebreaker caught inside the woods was hanged and three others were shot to death at his feet. The assistant superintendent of the mine, was alive but unconscious. One of the union men noticed that he was still alive and shot him in the head. The chase continued on into the morning of the 22nd.
Six men were recaptured and ordered to remove their shirts and shoes. They were then told to crawl to Herrin Cemetery. By noon a crowd of about 1,000 spectators had gathered at the cemetery. They watched as the strikebreakers were roped together and men took turns beating and shooting them. The men that were tied up were also urinated upon. Those who were still alive at the end had their throats cut by a man wielding a pocketknife. Other townspeople came out to look at and taunt the dead and dying along the route to the cemetery. One reporter tried to give one of the dying men some water and was told that if he gave the man water, "he wouldn't live to see the next day".
Sheriff Thaxton had failed to meet Col. Hunter and Major Davis at his office at 6 a.m. as promised; he finally showed up at 8 a.m. By then Hunter and Davis had already heard rumors of the violence against the strikebreakers. When the three finally arrived at the mine, what remained of the operation was in flames, and they learned the mob had left three hours earlier.
When they retraced the steps of the mob, they found the grisly evidence of the dead, dying, and wounded. Those that weren't dead were taken to Dr. J. Taylor Black's Herrin Hospital. But 19 of the 50 strikebreakers died during the massacre
A massacre is an event with a heavy death toll.Massacre may also refer to:-Entertainment:*Massacre , a DC Comics villain*Massacre , a 1932 drama film starring Richard Barthelmess*Massacre, a 1956 Western starring Dane Clark...
. Two union miners had been shot and killed during the siege of the strip mine, bringing the total number of victims to 21.
The dead strikebreakers were laid out in the Dillard Building in downtown Herrin, and most of the town turned out to look at them. Some gazed quietly, others cursed and spit on the bodies. 16 of the 19 strikebreakers killed in the action were later buried in the potter's field area of Herrin Cemetery.
Thousands attended the funerals of the two union miners who died during the siege.
The nation reacted to the massacre with disgust. One newspaper editorial said "Herrin, Illinois should be ostracized. Shut off from all communication with the outside world and the people there left to soak in the blood they have spilled." President Warren Harding called it a "shocking crime, barbarity, butchery, rot and madness." Others also compared the people of Herrin to the alleged behaviour of German troops in World War I
World War I , which was predominantly called the World War or the Great War from its occurrence until 1939, and the First World War or World War I thereafter, was a major war centred in Europe that began on 28 July 1914 and lasted until 11 November 1918...
Lester, whose double-dealing set the tragic events into motion, made a significant profit when the union bought his mine at "a handsome price" in order to avoid lawsuits.
At first, the inquest held by the coroner concluded that all the strikebreakers were killed by unknown individuals, and stated that "the deaths of the decedents were due to the acts direct and indirect of the officials of the Southern Illinois Coal Company." They recommended that the company and its officers be investigated in order to affix appropriate responsibility on them. It was obvious the victims could not gain justice in Herrin.
Two trials were held, the first on November 7, 1922, and the second in the winter of 1923. Only six men were ever indicted for the massacre, and both trials ended in acquittals for all the defendants. The prosecution gave up and dismissed the remaining indictments. Otis Clark was the first man to be tried on a total of 214 charges. Two years later, Clark would be shot and killed. Another of the accused would died in a mine accident.
A Williamson County Grand Jury investigating the incident faulted the Southern Illinois Coal Company for introducing strike breakers and armed guards, and for committing illegal activities such as closing public highways. It criticized the state administration for refusing to take necessary measures once the trouble had begun. Herbert David Croly of the New Republic
criticized the state of Illinois for allowing the Illinois Chamber of Commerce to fund the investigation. Croly described the retaliation for the deaths of two strikers (the third had been mortally wounded) "atrocious", but noted that while the perpetrators were likely to escape punishment, those who harmed strikers—such as Hamrock after Ludlow
The Ludlow Massacre was an attack by the Colorado National Guard on a tent colony of 1,200 striking coal miners and their families at Ludlow, Colorado on April 20, 1914....
, or Wheeler after Bisbee
The Bisbee Deportation was the illegal deportation of about 1,300 striking mine workers, their supporters, and citizen bystanders by 2,000 vigilantes on July 12, 1917. The workers and others were kidnapped in the U.S. town of Bisbee, Arizona and held at a local baseball park. They were then loaded...
—likewise frequently escaped justice. Croly noted that the local government was sympathetic to the union, as was public sentiment, and under such circumstances, the union had a responsibility to police its own members.
"The Herrin massacre: A fair and impartial statement of all the facts ; the trial, evidence, verdict."
- Song written by folksinger, Jerry Swan in 2006, titled, "The Herrin Massacre"
- Columbus Museum of Art Web page on The Herrin Massacre, a painting by Paul Cadmus
Paul Cadmus was an American artist. He is best known for his paintings and drawings of nude male figures. His works combined elements of eroticism and social critique to produce a style often called magic realism...
(click on picture for larger version of painting)