It is 1922 in Southern Illinois, and you are a hard man. Life has been hard, with summer days without a breeze and winter days with the soil frozen solid. Your fields sit fallow because you are too poor to buy seed. It seems the only thing you, or your father, or your grandfather, ever got to grow was sandstone rock. Every year you go out into the fields with your oldest boys in a mule cart, and carry away a ton of sandstone, hoping to avoid breaking a plow blade. Corn grows thin and erosion exposes the roots. Wheat is prone to wild onions. There is not yet a market for soybeans. Hay grows well, at least, but it sells cheap, and doesn’t transport out of the local area. You would buy more cattle, but the bank is not going to give you any more loans. Face the facts - the farm is not going to turn a profit.
It is the "Roaring Twenties" and you keep hearing about people getting rich, but you are not seeing any evidence of that. This great disparity between the rich and poor is leading you ever closer to The Great Depression, which will hit in about 7 more years, but you don’t know that yet. You think life is about as hard as it can get right now.
There is an industrial revolution going on, and industry needs power. Coal mines open nearby, and they pay in cash. You gain specialized knowledge. Suddenly you are the in-demand technologist of the era; you are a coal miner. Use those profits to pay off loans and land taxes, and you just might be able to keep the farm your grandfather bought. This is the difference between homelessness and having food on the table. This coal mining operation is important to you and your hard wife and your lean children.
Your father worked in the coal mines too, starting back around 1899. Things were different back then - harder, meaner. Your hard, mean dad worked for 14 hours a day in a shaft that was only three feet high, sometimes up to his ankles in water. He would spend all day bent over, loading coal onto carts that would be pulled to the surface by old mules. The mules would go blind from so much time in the dark. Dad died in the mines from bad air. Everyone died back then from bad air, or collapses, or shaft fires. The lucky ones made it out of the mines alive, only to face the future with black lung. You remember watching poor people die, while the rich got richer.
Then came the Union, in the early 1900’s. There were strikes, violence and deaths, but the unionization came anyway. The mine owners had to clean up shop. The last attempt at operating a non-union mine in Southern Illinois got some people murdered. I think the message is pretty clear, now, don’t you? Treat the workers as people, or lose your business.
Air got better, along with lighting, structural support, and even pay. You are making $8.50 an hour. Now, finally, you are seeing some of that roaring twenties profit. Your life is beginning to stabilize. You see a future. The stock market is wild with enthusiasm, cresting on a great bullish bubble. Industry, and your place within it, has made you into an important cog in the wheel of our nations financial well-being. You want more pay. You deserve it. You are the basis of this whole wild economic ride.
In April 1922, you work at a strip mine ran by the Southern Illinois Coal Company, owned by William J. Lester. You have about 50 coworkers, every single one of them card-carrying members of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). When the UMWA sent an announcement organizing a nationwide strike, every single one of you complied.
But come on now, it doesn’t make sense to force Lester into closing the mine. A local arrangement is made, and William Lester is given permission to mine coal, and keep you all busy, until the UMWA orders the strike off. This special provision has one important point though - that coal must not be shipped or sold. This puts Lester in a favorable position. The moment the nationwide strike ends, Lester will be ready to ship his coal at huge profit (which will really help in paying those high wages). Everybody wins, right?
On June 16, 1922, William J. Lester had 60,000 tons of coal just sitting around, waiting for a strike to end, and the price per ton had sky-rocketed. He shipped 16 cars of coal. Some people never learn.
So now the strike is real. You quit working completely. Your union manager is throwing a shit-fit, wanting to get a hold of Lester and slap some sense into him. The States Attorney General, the National Guard, and the UMWA are calling Lester up trying to convince him to stop shipping coal. He is warned that this could lead to violence.
Lester thought otherwise. He hired some strikebreakers out of Chicago. These scabs are working the mine now. You are unemployed. Back to the farm you go, hayseed. Just in case though, Lester relocates to Chicago.
Stop for a moment. Visualize the rage you feel - the hatred, the fear. You just lost your paycheck. You are no longer in control. If Lester gets away with this, then you have two choices: One, to starve to death, or two, to wind up in the same miserable conditions that killed your father. Take your time to think about the answer.
No, wait. There is a third choice. Kill them all.
On June 21, 1922, hardware stores are looted. You have a shotgun. You and your neighbors surround the Southern Illinois Coal Company mine and fire shots at the scabs, telling them to come out with their hands up. The scabs call the sheriff’s office, but he is not available. One of the scab guards comes out carrying a broomstick with an apron tied to it, waving it over his head. He says they agree to surrender if they can leave town unharmed.
You say, "Come on out and we'll get you out of the county."
The strikebreakers come out and are told to sit with shotguns pointed at them as you and some others blow up the steam shovels and draglines with dynamite. You told them that this mine was out of business, and now they see you meant it.
It’s getting on late into the evening. The strikebreakers are stood up and told to march. You and the rest of your gang march them toward Herrin. You’re drinking. You’re mad. You’re armed. Somewhere near Crenshaw Crossing a car pulls up. It’s the local UMWA representative, Hugh Willis. He offers some advice that seems reasonable at the time:
"Listen, don't you go killing these fellows on a public highway. There are too many women and children around to do that. Take them over in the woods and give it to them. Kill all you can."
And the massacre begins. Beaten with the butts of guns, stabbed with pitchforks, the strikebreakers take off running. Many get shot immediately. Some get trapped trying to climb over a barbed wire fence, and are gunned down.
By the time morning comes, all the rest are found hiding in the woods. They are lead to the Herrin Cemetery, where a crowd has formed. They are all killed - every single one of them. A woman you know is holding her child’s hand. "See that man," she says, pointing at a strikebreaker’s corpse, "He tried to take the food out of your mouth." Another man you know urinates on one of the corpses.
Newspapers hear of the event. The massacre becomes an object of national outrage. But locally, you are a hero. You killed the scabs. Depending on eyewitness testimony, the prosecution fails to convict you. You got away with murder, in Williamson County, Illinois.
Why did I put you in the story? Because there are plenty of sources for reading about the Herrin Massacre, and Bloody Williamson, in the more traditional newspaper reporter format. I put you in the story because that’s how it was always relayed to me as a child, told to me by my father. "What would you do?" He would ask.
- My father, mother, neighbors and friends, who I grew up with in Southern Illinois
- Bloody Williamson: A Chapter in American Lawlessness, (Prairie State Books) by Paul M. Angle
- http://www.geocities.com/Heartland/7847/massacre.htm - The Herrin Massacre
- http://www.lib.niu.edu/ipo/ihy971204.html - An Element of Greed