“If the courts of justice shield you
And your freedom you should gain,
Remember that your brows are marked
With the burning brand of Cain.
Oh, noble, noble, deputies
We always will remember
Your bloody work at Lattimer
On the 10th day of September.”
— The Hazelton Daily Standard, Sept. 17, 1897
hough the actual numbers of the murdered and wounded at the Lattimer Massacre in Luzerne County are unknown, many scholars agree that 19 miners were killed and at least 39 were wounded. After a series of broken promises from the mine owner, the 300 to 400 miners, mostly east European immigrants, peacefully marched to a coal mine in the tiny town of Lattimer in the Anthracite Coal district to support the new United Mine Workers of America. The sheriff and deputies involved testified that they fired their guns because the miners were running toward them. The sheriff later testified that he thought his life was in danger, but most people do not consider that to be truthful since a majority of the miners had been shot in the back. Some had been shot multiple times which suggested that they had been targeted.
The conditions leading to the Lattimer Massacre began with the working conditions for the miners. They worked ten hour shifts in the mine, day after day, with a constant fear that they would be crushed beneath the earth. As Michael Novak writes in The Guns of Lattimer, “They listened for loosened pebbles dropping from the roof. Sometimes no warning came at all. In the anthracite fields, three men died every two days, on the average. Nearly every miner bore external signs of injuries: a missing finger, stitches, scars, limps.” For all of the work they did, they only received pay from the coal they hauled from the mines, not for how many hours they worked doing it.
Immigrant miners were assigned the toughest and most dangerous jobs, such as the position of the mule driver. Mules were feisty creatures that killed miners and mule drivers, kicking them in the head or the chest. Mining companies cared more about the mules because a trained mule was worth about two hundred dollars. In August 1897, the mule drivers started a strike because the newly appointed Gomer Jones decided to make a central stable for all of the mules to save money. The mines only had to hire one crew to take care of the mules feeding and watering. The workers became upset because they had to travel even further to get the mules to start the day, but they were not compensated for the two extra hours to the stable. They had to wake up an hour earlier and did not get back home for another hour later.
“Some of the thirty-five mule drivers at Honey Brook went on strike on Friday the thirteenth,” Novak writes, “The next day, they set up a line to prevent anyone else from working. Most of them had earned only $300 in the whole preceding twelve months. Jones was laying off friends of theirs. What had they to lose? They were furious at being asked to do two hours of extra work every day. They were tired of being regarded as docile and stupid. They began to form a living fence, preventing anyone from going to the mine.”
When Gomer Jones discovered that his mule drivers were striking, he grabbed a crowbar and beat the nearest striker upon the shoulders. The striker, John Bodan, doubled over and then attacked Jones. The other strikers rushed to help and Bodan grabbed the crowbar out of Jones’ hands. The strikers kept hitting him and threw him to the ground, but the local supervisor, Oliver Welsh, shouted and stopped them. He said they were all fired and took Jones into the supervisor’s shed. Welsh’s scalp had been cut by a stone and blood oozed from the wound. He needed eight stitches to close the wound.
As news spread about the violence, more and more miners joined the strike. By that evening, eight hundred miners were on strike. By Monday, August 16, John Bodan swore to have Gomer Jones arrested. He presented the crowbar to Squire Dailey as evidence, agreed to speak at a hearing and provided a list of witnesses. The next day, Jones was arrested by Constable Gillespie.
The Hazleton Daily Standard reported on August 19 that “during the past few days, letters came pouring in from all over the state, encouraging the men, showing how widespread is the righteousness of their cause and the extent of their sympathy.” The newspaper continued to explain that while the strike began with Slavic mule drivers, it branched to all different nationalities, “Alex McMullen and William Hopkins to represent the English-speaking people, John Burska to represent the Hungarians, Pasco Delecto the Italians and Andrew Damian the Magyars. The committee represented every class of wage earners.”
The strike momentarily ended with the aforementioned men negotiating new terms for the miners. What they received was a ten cent pay increase; what they wanted was to be treated like the American miners, to not have to buy from the company store where prices were raised dramatically, and to not have to pay the three percent tax for being an immigrant.
By August 25, the strike rose again from the frustrations the miners felt. The Wilkes-Barre Times reported 300 miners started marching, while the Hazleton Daily Standard reported 500 miners. One reporter reported the marchers as “yelling and shouting like baseball rooters when the score is tied in the thirteenth inning with two out and Kelly at bat.” Most men wore ordinary street clothes, but some wore their black working clothes. Citizens watched the miners walk down the street. Some felt the same excitement, while some began to be afraid for what would happen.
A large meeting of miners was held in Minersville with eight chairmen. In the morning, they would present their demands to Superintendent Roderick. They wanted their wages raised, in addition to the abolition of the company store and company butcher. The company butcher was disliked for his unfair treatment of the miners. He would drop off meat the family had not ordered, deliver cuts of the wrong type or wrong amount, and could overcharge without anyone knowing. The police had prevented the marchers from ransacking the butcher shop at Beaver Meadow on Friday, August 27.
By September 4, the strikers made a new list of demands for Superintendent Long. They wanted an increase of fifteen cents per day for every employee, the privilege of selecting and paying for their doctor, pay for when they were at work even if the machinery was out of order, and to not have to buy from the company store and company butcher. Superintendent Long told them that since that Dr. John Wentz, the company president, was away in Europe, a decision might not be reached for the vice president might lack the authority.
The men at Coleraine and Milnesville went back to work on Labor Day that year, Monday, September 6. Unlike the miners from other locations who still marched, their demands at Coleraine and Milnesville had been mostly met. Superintendent Roderick told a reporter, “There will positively be no compulsion to deal with the company store, nor will any intimidation be permitted by any of the subordinate officers of the company. The alien tax that was withheld last week will be repaid to the men next pay day.” What he did not say is that the alien tax had to be paid back because the Court had just ruled it unconstitutional. B. W. Wilde, one of Roderick’s miners, said, “As to the company store and company butcher, the Superintendent has the right to continue the same, while at the same time the men have the privilege to deal where they desire.”
That same day, Sheriff Martin of Luzerne County had a meeting with superintendents Lanthrop, Lawall and Stearns of the Cross Creek Coal Company, all from different mines. Together, they decided that they would not give in to the strikers’ demands. Instead, they would pay for an armed force of deputies to help the Coal and Iron Police. Sheriff Martin would go to Hazleton and gather a posse.
While Sheriff Martin was at the meeting, thousands of miners held peaceful Labor Day marches throughout the coal region. At Bunker Hill, Pennsylvania, more than three thousand miners assembled, bringing with them as many American flags as they could get their hands on.
The Wilkes-Barre Times and the Hazleton Daily Standard disagreed with whom to side. The Times sided with the superintendents, quoting Lawall that they were making every effort to help the miners. They blamed the miners for being difficult for the cause of the continuation for the strike.
The Daily Standard journalists wrote their opinion about the strike into an article, “There is no good reason why the Lehigh & Wilkes-Barre officials or even the Lehigh Valley Coal Company officials should not pay the same rate of wages as A. S. Van Wickle; they are in a position to do it and ought to. … For the benefit of all, we suggest that the operators at least meet the men half-way, and the trouble will soon be a thing of the past.” However, the newspaper’s suggestion went largely ignored by those in charge.
To try to stop the trouble before it went any further, Sheriff Martin issued a proclamation on Monday and had it sent to the Wilkes-Barre Times. The proclamation warned the strikers against any “tumultuous and unlawful assembly and from all acts of disorder or violence, and from all acts interfering with the liberty of other citizens, or tending to a breach of the peace.” The sheriffs of surrounding counties were urged to do likewise to avoid any problems in their counties.
A telegram sent the night of September 8 brought hope to the strikers. The Superintendent Elmer H. Lawall in Hazleton had agreed to another 10 cent per day raise for all stripping laborers. That brought their daily pay to $1.10. Lawall also said he would meet with a committee of miners on Thursday, the next day. The Lehigh and Wilkes-Barre workers now had the same pay as the other collieries.
Thursday came, as did the train on which Lawall was to ride. Yet Lawall was not there. He sent a telegram that explained how he had been unavoidably delayed. He also said that he could not state when he could meet with the committee. Some of the more cynical strikers believed that the companies tricked them to gain a day of peace. Other believed that Lawall could not keep the promises made.
Miners from Lattimer, who had thus far stayed away from the strike, asked the Harwood strikers if they could join the strike. An Italian spokesman for the group said that if the strikers would march to Lattimer to help them, they would join the group. Since the Harwood strikers had just joined the United Mine Workers of America union, they thought that this could be their first big act since doing so. Because Lattimer and Harwood were both Pardee collieries, a strike on both sides would completely stop the company from running until they were given fairer working conditions.
Headlines in national newspapers showed the horror of the murders that occurred within just a few minutes when the strikers reached the Lattimer mine on September 10. The Detroit Free Press wrote, “Laid Low by Bullets, the Men Fell Like Sheep Before the Murderous Winchesters of the Officials.” The Boston Daily Globe wrote, “Dead in Heaps, Deputies Fire on Miners at Lattimer, Penn., Men Were Huddled Closely and Slaughter Was Terrific.” The Hazleton Daily Standard wrote, “Yesterday’s Butchery --- A Mob of Heartless Deputies Fire Into a Throng of Marchers and Accomplish Deadly Work.” In a Slovak newspaper, Amerikansko Slovenske Noviny, reporters wrote, “Massacre of Slavs—In the Freest Country Under the Sun People Are Shot Like Dogs—Slavs Are the Victims of American Savagery.”
In the days after the Lattimer Massacre, chaos occurred. Local and national newspapers did not know who to blame for the murders. Some newspapers, particularly the Philadelphia Inquirer switched from blaming the miners to blaming the sheriff in a matter of days as more information about the day was discovered.
The Philadelphia Inquirer reported on September 11 that “the Sheriff, who had just read the riot act, [tried] to disperse the mob. The miners assaulted the Sheriff, and as he was trying to arrest one miner the deputies fired and dispersed the mob. There is a dispute as to who ordered the deputies to fire.” The article then continues, explaining that there is trouble feared throughout the area that the strikers will try to take revenge on the people who killed their comrades.
The massacre was described later by the Inquirer as “a human slaughter in which men were mowed down like grain stalks before a scythe, by the deadly bullets which stormed for fully two minutes. An exact list of the dead and wounded is impossible to be obtained to-night, but The Inquirer reporter counted twelve men dead in the field. Two others died at the hospital and a number of others are expected to die at any moment.”
After repeatedly questioned by reporters, Sheriff Martin gave his side of the story, which the Inquirer reported as conflicting. He began his tale by saying that he had heard that morning of September 10 that miners were marching to the breaker at Lattimer to try to stop the men from working. A deputy told him that the miners would probably be heavily armed, so he gathered 70 deputies, all of whom were armed. He said he told the deputies to keep cool no matter what happened. When the marchers arrived around three o’clock, he read them the proclamation. He said they refused to pay attention to him and resumed marching. Martin also told the leader to stop, but the leader ignored him. He tried to arrest the leader, but the strikers gathered around Martin and began kicking and attacking him.
He told reporters, “I realized that something had to be done at once or I would be killed. I called to the deputies to discharge their firearms into the air over the heads of the strikers, as it might probably frighten them. It was done at once, but it had no effect [sic] whatever on the infuriated foreigners, who used me so much the rougher and became fiercer and fiercer, more like wild beasts than human beings.” Sheriff Martin continued to say that he knew that the miners were desperate and that they did not value human life. He said he told the deputies to shoot only if they must to protect their lives and the property they were called to defend. He felt bad about giving the order to shoot, but as sheriff, he said it was his duty since they refused to listen to the proclamation.
His story changed shortly after the first interview. A reporter asked him if the men were on company property. The sheriff said they were on the public road. The reporter asked if the strikers had committed any act that was not peaceful and the sheriff said no. The reporter then followed up asking why Sheriff Martin gave the order to shoot. He replied, “I did not order the deputies to fire; some one [sic] else did that. First came a single shot and then a volley. I gave no order.” The next day, the Inquirer featured an article on the front page that read that the Sheriff was in Wilkes-Barre, with warrants for his arrest, as well as his 102 deputies, charging them all with murder.
The funerals started September 13, reported the Philadelphia Inquirer. The four victims who were buried that day were attended by 3,000 people. Andrew Yureck and Steven Urick were buried in a single, doubly-wide grave. John Futa and Michael Chislock were buried in separate graves. The mother of Futa, who relied on her 17-year-old son to support her, called for vengeance and said nothing but the blood of Sheriff Martin and his deputies would atone for the wrongs she suffered. Straz, a Slavic newspaper, used a phrase from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address to express hope for those who had died at Lattimer, “May their death not be in vain, may they become the patron saints of the working people in America.”
To achieve both the goal of Futa’s mother and of the Slavic newspaper, money was raised for charity and the prosecution fund. Between September 11, 1897 and August 1898, they collected $9,167.27. George A. Turner, in an essay published in Hard Coal, Hard Times, valued that amount to be at least $100,000 in the 1980s.
The trial of Sheriff Martin and his deputies began February 1, 1898 in Wilkes-Barre. The trial lasted five and a half weeks and received testimony from almost 200 witnesses. On March 9, the jury voted “not guilty.” The failure to convict shocked and confused many, including the Springfield (MA) Daily Republican, which wrote the next day, “Might not the tragedy have been avoided? It is not clear that the miners should have been prevented from marching on the highway; it is not clear that they should have been denied the opportunity to show themselves within sight of the miners at work; it is not clear that the deputies should have fired as soon as they did.”
In a way, the killed miners of Lattimer did become patron saints for the working people of America, as the Straz paper desired. During the peaceful marches of the massacre, more and more miners joined the United Mine Workers of America for help in their fight. After the massacre, 15,000 more workers joined. With time, the UMWA became the most powerful representative of anthracite workers. Its number of workers in the region swelled to 150,000. The UMWA website provides a brief history of the Lattimer Massacre and its connection to the union.
A monument known as Remembrance Rock in Lattimer stands near the site of the massacre, with a Pennsylvania State Historical Marker marking the spot. Lattimer Massacre Project, which began in the beginning of 2010, utilizes a blog and an online photograph album where people can submit content about anything to do with the massacre. The project began because one of the site owners, Dr. Paul Shackel, felt that the massacre was an important event, but many people knew nothing about it.
Shackel told the Standard Speaker, the present day Hazleton newspaper, “The real point of why I’m interested in Lattimer is because not a lot of people know about it, and it’s one of the biggest tragedies in history. I think it’s a shame there’s this amnesia in the national memory of it.” They created the website, which includes a brief history of Lattimer Massacre. They kept it brief so that people could read what they wrote and comment about what they heard, since the stories about what happened vary so much.
The story of the massacre may have changed as of November 2010, Shackel reported. He, along with graduate students and volunteers, searched the area of the massacre and found bullets that they believe were shot during the massacre. He explained that the age of the bullets, the type of bullets and how buried the bullets were all point to that they were shot around 1897. The bullets were found on company property, which would support what Sheriff Martin first said about why he attacked the miners. The bullets indicate that the miners may have been lined up on company property and shot. No matter what new evidence is found, it seems that the details of those few minutes at Lattimer will always remain a mystery; the incident as a whole will always be a tragedy.
The Center wishes to thank the Lattimer Massacre Project for their assistance illustrating this article.