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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 located about halfway between Herrin and Marion, Illinois. Lester complied with the strike at first. He had only recently opened the mine, and massive startup debts drove him to negotiate with the UMWA to allow his mine to remain open, providing no coal was shipped out.
By June, Lester's miners had dug out approximately 60,000 tons of coal. Strike-driven shortages had raised coal prices, and Lester would make a $250,000 profit if he could sell his coal. He decided to bring in mine guards and 50 replacement works, vilified as "scabs", recruited from employment agencies in Chicago. On June 16, 1922, Lester shipped out sixteen railroad cars filled with coal.
The Illinois Attorney General and the Illinois National Guard attempted to convince Lester to stop shipping coal and to fire the strikebreakers. He refused to do so, perhaps not realizing the violence with which previous strikebreaking attempts had been met. Coal miners from throughout southern Illinois and northwestern Kentucky began to rally against Lester.
Colonel Samuel Hunter of the Illinois National Guard repeatedly warned Lester that his mine could not be defended. He also advised the Williamson County, Illinois Sheriff, Melvin Thaxton, to deputize men and to deal with the situation. Thaxton was running for County Treasurer that year, and as a former miner he sympathized with the strikers. As a result, he did nothing to prevent the coming conflict.
Lester, responding to a reporter's questions, said that his steam shovel operators and the railroad workers were members of their respective unions.
John L. Lewis, president of the UMWA, responded to the situation in a telegram on June 20. He called the Steam Shovelmen's Union an "outlaw organization" that had also provided strikebreakers elsewhere. He told UMWA members that they "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."
Lewis' message was printed in newspapers that same day, and miners throughout the region were inspired to action. Early in the morning on June 21, a truck carrying armed guards and strikebreakers was ambushed near Carbondale, Illinois on its way to Lester's mine. The driver was killed and several of the strikebreakers were injured. Later that day several hundred miners rallied in the Herrin cemetery. Someone read Lewis' message to the crowd, exciting them further. The mob moved into town, looting the hardware store for weapons and ammunition. At about 3:30 p.m., the mob surrounded Lester's mine.
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 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 placeâ€”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 scabs 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.
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 scabs." 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.
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 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 scabs that where tied up where 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 Black Hospital. But 19 of the 50 strikebreakers died during the massacre. 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 Germans in World War I
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.
Two trials were held, the first on November 7, 1922, 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 then gave up and dismissed all the remaining indictments. Otis Clark was the first man to be tried. 214 total counts on Clark. Oddly enough 2 years later he was shot and killed. Galligan died in a mine.
"The Herrin massacre: A fair and impartial statement of all the facts ; the trial, evidence, verdict."
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