Bloodshed at Lattimer

Bloodshed at Lattimer
What Happened
The trial
Lattimer Photos
A Family Remembers

 
Miners march outside Hazleton in September 1897. It's not certain whether these are the miners who were gunned down at Lattimer or a group marching later in sympathy.

By JEFF COX

Trouble began on a late summer day in 1897 at the Honeybrook Colliery, near McAdoo. Twenty driver boys refused to obey an order from Gomer Jones, division superintendent of the Lehigh and Wilkes-Barre Coal Company, to stable their mules. Jones fired the driver boys. In a short period of time a strike was born that would leave a permanent mark on the face of labor relations in Pennsylvania's coal fields.

Though strikes were nothing new in Northeastern Pennsylvania collieries, this one was worse than most. Miners from throughout the area realized they were being mistreated in return for the strenuous labor they performed. News of the action soon reached county Sheriff James Martin, but he decided to take a vacation in Atlantic City. 

Not long after, Martin was notified there was trouble back home. He deputized 87 men, many of whom were prominent people in the community. They were told to use whatever means necessary to quell the strikes that had spread through the area into the Cranberry fields. At the same time, strikers were marching from company to company. Workers in Harwood were told to leave their jobs and join the effort. The next target was Lattimer. Martin, a former mine foreman himself who was an imposing 6 feet, 3 inches tall and weighing more than 200 pounds, organized not only deputies but also sheriffs from Carbon and Schuylkill counties. Jointly they issued a proclamation banning mob parades and demonstrations. The sides had been drawn; it soon became clear that trouble imminent. On Sept. 10, the commotion began. As many as 400 miners began marching from Harwood, picking up recruits in Crystal Ridge and Cranberry. What became known as the Lattimer Massacre was only a few hours away. 


‘You dare not go ahead. This is against the law.’’ Sheriff Martin said, warning the marchers not to proceed into West Hazleton. ‘‘Me no care, me go to Lattimer.’’

— Steve Yusko, a Polish miner who would pay dearly for his stand against the coal barons. 


John Fahy was called in during the strike to help organize the miners. Fahy had a strong reputation as a union leader, and he encouraged the men to join a new union called the United Mine Workers of America. Though there were deep language differences between the mostly Polish, Slovak and Lithuanian immigrants from Austria-Hungary, Fahy was skilled at communication and persuaded them to join the UMWA at a cost of 25 cents each. The Harwood branch would become known as District 7. 

The group soon presented its demands to the office of Calvin Pardee, who ran the Lattimer and Harwood mines. These demands were: raise wages 10 cents and reduce powder from $2.75 to $1.50 per keg, as well as the elimination of the butcher store and doctor. These demands were rebuked. On Sept. 9, a Thursday night, the Harwood miners met and discussed how to bring the Lattimer workers over to their side. A decision was reached to send a committee of 10 men to Lattimer to discuss the situation with workers there. The next morning, the sun blazed above as young boys contemplated going swimming and their fathers thought about marching. As the committee was about to leave, someone suggested that the men of the town accompany the group. The march began. 


 ‘‘The sheriff said if his life or our own would seem in danger, we were to use our own judgment in the matter of firing.’’ 

    — A deputy who testified at the trial of Sheriff Martin and the others who opened fire on the strikers. 


After passing through Crystal Ridge and Cranberry, the marchers, numbering 400, proceeded out of the patch towns toward the West Hazleton limits. Martin and several deputies, waiting for the marchers in a railroad car behind a culm bank, popped out and warned the miners not to proceed. At that time, Yusko made his remark that the marchers were going to Lattimer. Despite Martin's warning, Yusko kept walking. A deputy chased him and grabbed Yusko. Another deputy came up from behind and crashed the butt of his rifle across Yusko's left arm, breaking it. As miners grew angry over the incident, Martin displayed a proclamation banning demonstrations. 

The only thing that kept the march going was West Hazleton Chief of Police Edward Jones, who criticized the deputies for their behavior and said the strikers had a right to procede peacefully to Lattimer. Before the confrontation was finished, another striker was arrested and deputy Ario Pardee Platt tore a flag from a marcher's hands and ripped it apart. Jones showed the strikers the way through West Hazleton, but told them to skirt Hazleton. The marchers proceeded to Harleigh, another patch town near Lattimer. The sheriff's posse watched from a hill in front of Farley's Motel as the marchers decided to approach the No. 1 breaker. As the strikers made a right turn to the Lattimer road, the posse stopped in front of the first house in Lattimer. The group formed a horseshoe around the house and called more deputies stationed at the No. 1 and No. 3 breakers. Shortly after 3 p.m., the strikers and the posse met. After the sheriff argued with a few marchers, a shot went off. 

Cornelius ‘‘Connie’’ Burke, who was 11 at the time, witnessed the massacre and spoke of it in 1972: ‘‘I ran to see the excitement. When I was on my way up the Main Street, the shooting took place. I was too far back to see what actually happened, but I could hear the sound of gunfire. ‘‘When I got up there ... Oh my God, the poor fellows were lying across the trolley tracks on the hillside. Some had died and some were dying. Some were crying for water.’’ 

The strikers disbursed in panic. Some tried to make it to a nearby school house, but one of them went down in the gunfire. Others in front dropped as the bullets pierced their backs. Steve Urich, a Slovak immigrant carrying the American flag, was reportedly the first striker who died. ‘‘My God,’’ he said in Slovonian, according to an account appearing in Edward Pinkowski's booklet Lattimer Massacre, ‘‘That is enough.’’ The ammunition in the guns carried by Martin and his deputies was high-powered and deadly. Some of the miners had bullets pass right through their bodies. 

‘‘The reporters who accompanied the expedition gazed on the miniature battle from the rear. Such a scene of carnage they never before beheld,’’ read a report in the following day's Plain Speaker. ‘‘Men were mowed down like grass. They lay on the ground crying and helpless.’’ The attack was brief, but its toll was huge. By the time it ended, 19 people had died and at least twice as many were seriously wounded. Six more men would die of gunshot wounds. Frantic calls went out for help. An ambulance came to the scene. Hospitals eventually were jammed with the dying miners. 

Burke: ‘‘I know I picked up a little can and carried some water to one of the dying miners. It was a terrible sight and so much confusion existed. Everyone was running in all directions. They searched some of the men who were shot and found they carried no weapons. . . . They simply had joined the march feeling that a large representation would be effective.’’ 

But the large representation was no match for the bullets from the deputies. Hazleton State Hospital soon became a vivid example of how savage the strikers had been attacked. Its 51 beds, 37 of which were filled already, weren't enough to help the strikers who had been shot. Some of the men were more composed about their wounds, while others groaned loudly. Back in Lattimer, the scene was chaos. One of the great debates over the Lattimer Massacre was over whether Martin ever told the deputies to fire. The sheriff himself told two different stories. He initially stated that he had no choice but to give the order to shoot, but later recanted that he did not do so. In the towns, citizens seethed with hatred over the way Martin and his deputies handled the situation; groups of men gathered on corners to decide what to do. 

Then-Hazleton Mayor Justus Altmiller: ‘‘All I can say is I call this shooting a butchery. I can see no excuse for the sheriff's people having shot those men. There is no doubt in my mind that the sheriff and the deputies lost their heads. Had they been cool, calm and collected, had they looked upon the situation with care, this slaughter would never have occurred and the name of our good city would never have been besmirched as it is today.’’ 

News of the slaughter soon spread outside the Hazleton area as Gov. Daniel H. Hastings told Brig. Gen. John P. Gobin, the head of the Pennsylvania National Guard, to take five regiments to the town. But many of the strikers wanted to destroy the town. Others were terrified, though, and many men and boys spent the night sleeping in the mines. Strikers looked for guns and ransacked Gomer Jones' home.

 

Gen. John Gobin with National Guardsmen in front of their headquarters at the Valley Hotel after the violence.

Across the country, news spread of the attack and outrage grew. Reporters streamed to this area to interview Martin and other participants and witnesses of the massacre. Speaking to a reporter for the Philadelphia North American, Martin said he ‘‘hated to give the command to shoot and was awful sorry that I was compelled to do so, but I was there to do my duty.’’ Soon after, he recanted the statement. He said he never gave the order to shoot. The day after the shooting, warrants were sought against Martin and 102 deputies. Cries for justice permeated the region as much as the bullets from Martin and his deputies had the day before. The Lattimer martyrs, as they would become known, would be avenged, the strikers swore. 


‘‘My boy is dead. My boy, who was my only support. He earned sometimes 75 cents a day. He was a good boy. He took care of his poor widowed mother. Now he is dead. The dog of a sheriff and the dogs of men killed him. They killed your people. Now the soldiers are here to kill us, too. We must not let them. We must fight. We must avenge the death of our people.’’

— The mother of John Futa, a slain miner, speaking at his funeral. 


The next time the miners would march would be in a death procession. Thousands of people would follow three caskets buried in St. Joseph's Cemetery on the following Sunday; another somber ceremony followed on Monday as 12 more victims would be buried. In the days that followed, men with names like Broztowski, Chrzeszeski, Czaja, Skrep, Tomashontas and Ziemba would be buried. Some of their remains are buried today in unmarked graves, while others were put at St. Stanislaus cemetery, where their headstones can still be viewed. After the dead were buried, the labor strife continued. The 1,500 employees who worked at the Lattimer Colliery quit in protest to the way the Harwood workers were treated. More men left their jobs as Calvin Pardee was presented with further demands from the miners, all of which were refused. Strike-breakers went to work in several collieries, and eventually the others had to return to work on the same terms as before. But there were still hopes that justice would be carried out against Sheriff Martin and the deputies. 


‘The essential question is whether the degree of force employed was, or was not, lawful.’’ 

    — Secretary of State John Sherman. 


Sheriff Martin and 78 deputies were brought to the Luzerne County Courthouse in Wilkes-Barre on Sept. 21, eleven days after warrants were issued for their arrests, for a preliminary hearing. The group pleaded not guilty and was released on $6,000 bail, pending a hearing before a grand jury. Eventually, the case would be sent to trial, which began Feb. 1, 1898 before Judge Stanley Woodward. For most of the miners who would be called to testify, it would be their first look at the American justice system, and it proved to be a grueling, heated, dramatic ordeal. Prejudice against Polish and Slovak immigrants ran high, and was evidenced by those picked to serve on the jury. The prosecution chose the case of Mike Cheslock as the first it would prosecute because he was well-known. Many of the witnesses had to speak through interpreters as they were questioned by prominent defense lawyers such as John T. Lenahan, former state Sen. Clarence W. Kline, and Henry W. Palmer, the state's former attorney general under Gov. Henry Holt. John McGahren led the prosecution, and said in his opening address that the jurors were not to consider race or creed, but rather ‘‘the duties and powers of a sheriff.’’ Witness after witness — there were about 140 of them — told tales of how the miners were mistreated and how the sheriff and his deputies mauled the group of unarmed strikers. But it was in the closing arguments from the opposing attorneys that cemented the verdict. Palmer used his to issue a scathing indictment against the Slavic people, drawing on the prejudices of the jurors. 
 


    ‘‘I expected all along to be acquitted.’’ 

— Sheriff Martin.


On March 2, the verdict was read — not guilty. The verdict ignited passions from both sides. Gov. Holt reviewed the trial, determining that the case was handled properly. Robert D. Coxe, an attorney representing the Austro-Hungarian government, however disagreed, saying: ‘‘the trial resulted in a miscarriage of justice.’’ Coxe argued that the jury was not representative of the community, and that the Hazleton area was not in a state of public disorder, as the defense claimed. In view of Coxe's report, the Austro-Hungarian government wanted indemnity for the families of the killed miners, but the U.S. government flatly refused. 
 


    ‘‘They suffered so we can be where we are today. What happened at Lattimer as the early immigrants tried to move their life in America closer to their ideals was the beginning of a wave that achieved great things in labor.’’

— Michael Novak, author of The Guns of Lattimer.


    In the years since the massacre, those who died have been remembered annually at Masses that have been attended by labor leaders from across the country. A monument now sits at the site where the men gave their lives for what they believed in. Three books and countless news stories have been written about the massacre. At a memorial service in 1990, Robert T. McIntyre, executive vice president/COPE director of the Pennsylvania AFL-CIO, said, ‘‘Union people remember the dead who fought like hell for the living.’’ Explaining the long-ranging effects the event had on labor, he said, ‘‘People pulled together and extended a hand to each other ... the wives, the children and friends of these people joined together, began the organized labor movement and carried on what their loved ones gave their lives for.’’ 


‘Seeking collective bargaining and civil liberty, immigrant miners on strike were marching in protest from Harwood to Lattimer. Here, on Sept. 10, 1897, they were met by armed deputy sheriffs. The ensuing affray resulted in the death of more than twenty marchers.’’

— Monument at the site of the Lattimer Massacre.