The Lattimer Massacre, 10 September 1897

Pennsylvania has long been a center of coal production. In the 1800s, jobs such as coal mining tended to go to the to the poorer, lower class people. This usually meant immigrants—people who had not been and/or established themselves in the United States. As a group would establish itself, more children became "native born," and the members of the group moved into better paying jobs, another group would fill in the void. The earlier waves were English, Welsh, and German. As the mid century mark rolled around, many Irish shifted into the occupation. As the 19th century was coming to a close, Slavic people from eastern Europe made up a large percentage of the mine workers (many having been brought to the mines in order to "break" the strikes of other workers).

Coal mining, especially in the 1800s when there was not even nominal attention paid to safety or regulations concerning such things, was dangerous work (part of the reason the jobs fell on new or relatively new immigrants). Mining interests, concerned with profit and maximizing production viewed the workers as a means to an end, easily replaced, and unimportant as human beings. Besides the conditions of the mining itself, hours were long, wages were particularly low, and the men were often mistreated. Strikes were not an uncommon thing, miners from one mine leaving and marching to another, asking the workers there to join them, all in an attempt to better the working conditions/wages.

While this didn't always work and when it did, changes were few and token, it didn't stop the workers from trying to effect change that way (not having other recourse unless resorting to violence, which would be self-defeating). The end of summer 1897 it became tragic.

Aside from the aforementioned reasons, other events figured into the march. In June of that year, the governor had signed an act that taxed the corporations 3¢ per day if they employed one or more persons who were foreign-born non-citizens over the age of twenty-one. This, of course, necessarily meant the mining companies would be taxed. It also led to irregular work schedules and wage reductions. To maximize productivity, extra responsibilities had to be shouldered by the already overworked miners. Being "coerced" to purchase items from the company-run store (at over-inflated cost) was another issue.

The strike began shortly after a group of "driver boys" refused to return their mules to the stable. They were summarily fired. It was the proverbial last straw for the workers and they chose to strike. An organizer for the new union (the United Mine Workers of America) came to help supervise the strike and convince the men to join (which took some doing since the varying language differences between the workers—largely made up of Polish, Slovak, Lithuanian, Austrian, Hungarian, and some German and Italian). Demands were made to the management: a 10¢ raise in wages, reduction in the price per keg of powder (for blasting, apparently they had to buy their own), and elimination of the company-run businesses they were "pushed" to use. The demands were soundly rejected.

In the meantime, the local sheriff—James Martin—had been informed by the mining concerns that there was trouble. Strikes not usually being a pressing matter, he chose to take his vacation (Atlantic City) anyway. As the striking miners began marching from mine to mine, looking for other workers to join them, the companies became more concerned and again contacted the sheriff, insisting on action. He deputized 87 men, many of whom were members of good standing in the community (some suggest a good number were connected to the mining companies, as well). They were to "use whatever means necessary to quell the strikes."

The next mine the marchers planned to visit was at Lattimer. The miners were unarmed and only carried a number of American flags with them. An estimated 300-400 marched toward Lattimer.

First Confrontation
Before the group got near Lattimer, the sheriff and several deputies met the group. They were ordered to stop. One member said they were going to Lattimer and continued walking. One deputy grabbed him and another broke his arm with the butt of his rifle. The sheriff showed them a proclamation that banned demonstrations. That angered the marchers but it might have ended there, had not the chief of police of the nearest town criticized the men for their behavior and stated that the marchers had the right to continue (right on both counts). Before the episode ended, one miner was arrested and a flag had been taken from another and torn to shreds. The group was allowed to proceed through the immediate town but told to go around the next. They agreed.

"Men were mowed down like grass. They lay on the ground crying and helpless."

The sheriff and the "posse" continued to watch and follow the strikers. As they arrived at Lattimer, they were again met by the sheriff and his men, who had formed a semicircle around the area. Again they were asked to disperse and arguments ensued (it seems that many of the workers knew little or no English, something no one seemed to take into account—or simply ignored).

As the tension mounted, something had to give. The marchers had no intention of stopping and the "law" no intention of letting them continue. The men opened fire into the crowd.

It was brief but deadly. When the smoke cleared nineteen unarmed men were dead. Thirty-eight more were wounded. An additional six died later from their injuries. Most were shot in the back as they tried to escape the bullets, that in some cases passed right through their bodies.

The marchers were not alone. Reporters had come along for a story (staying at the back of the group, fortunately for them). One described it (in addition to the above quotation) by saying "the reporters who accompanied the expedition gazed on the miniature battlefield from the rear. Such a scene of carnage they never before beheld." An 11 year old boy from the town who had heard the shooting came to see the "excitement." Years later he described what he saw: "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 local hospital filled to capacity with the victims (in addition to their current patients). More from the recollections of the 11 year old witness:

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.

Many were incensed, including the mayor of nearby Hazleton (the town they went around):

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.

The governor, upon hearing about the incident, ordered the Pennsylvania National Guard to the area. While some of the miners wanted to destroy the town, many others feared for their lives, even hiding in the mines in order to feel safe enough to sleep. Some others "ransacked" the home of the man who had fired the "driver boys" and looked for guns.

There was a public outrage and headlines denouncing the massacre (contrary to Howard Zinn's assertion that there was "no outcry from the press" in his otherwise excellent A People's History of the United States). The day after the incident, warrants were sought against Martin and the deputies. A couple weeks later, he and 78 of the deputies were brought to court. They pled "not guilty" and were released on $6000 bail. In the meantime, Martin had recanted on his original statement to the press that he had "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." He claimed no such order was given.

In February of 1898, the trial took place. Rather than a jury of their peers, it was largely composed of the sort of people who made up the "posse." It is likely prejudice was involved with the handling of the case and the verdict (certainly not helped by the victims unfamiliarity with the American legal system and the need for many to testify through interpreters). Even though some 140 people came and testified to the mistreatment of the workers and how the incident had progressed, it came to nothing. The verdict: not guilty.

The governor reviewed the case and proclaimed it was "handled properly." Sheriff Martin "expected all along to be acquitted." An attorney representing the Austro-Hungarian government stated that it was a "miscarriage of justice" and that not only was the jury not representative of the community, but that the prosecution's assertion that the area had been in a "state of public disorder" was untrue and inaccurate. His report back to the government encouraged it to seek "indemnity for the families of the killed miners." The US government refused.

Conditions for workers had marginally improved at the onset but things gradually returned to the old status quo, only leaving the companies slightly more willing to negotiate. They did learn, however, that instead of the local sheriff, the National Guard was the path to take in putting down striking workers.

(Sources:, quotes from here;;

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