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Martyrs of Lattimer Mines

  • An old, grainy photo by an unknown photographer shows striking miners unknowingly marching to their death on September 10, 1987.
    An old, grainy photo by an unknown photographer shows striking miners unknowingly marching to their death on September 10, 1987.
Published October 11. 2013 05:00PM

The Lattimer Massacre was utter carnage.

Many lay dead. Others, crying, lay dying, their blood soaking into the dusty road.

Well over one dozen were murdered. Many shot in the back. Another 36 were critically wounded. Some later died.

Their bodies had been ripped apart by metal-piercing bullets and buckshot from sixteen-cartridge Winchesters.

The scene was so gory that Sheriff James Martin, who'd orchestrated the slaughter by posse, mumbled the words "I am not well," as he gazed at what must have looked like a war scene. But this wasn't war.

The victims were peaceful and unarmed. They had hurt nobody and had destroyed no private property.

The 300 who marched on the tiny village of Lattimer Mines represented more than 10,000 striking miners from lower Luzerne, Carbon and Schuylkill counties.

And their sacrifice on September 10, 1897, takes on greater significance as historians chronicle the progress of organized labor and the plight of the American worker.

Extremely adverse working conditions were largely to blame for the unrest, according to historical accounts. But to understand the forces behind what took place, one must examine the plight of the miner.

The coal company allegedly mistreated workers, victims of ethnic intimidation. Many were Slavic, called "hunkies" in demeaning fashion. Slavic miners often were given the most dangerous yet low-paying jobs.

Workers were forced to pay inflated prices at company-owned stores and high fees to company doctors, sometimes resulting in zero take-home pay.

Discrimination was apparent even at the government level. Workers were targeted by the Pa. General Assembly for an "alien tax" of three cents per day levied on immigrants. The tax didn't apply to Anglo-Saxon workers.

Also, coal companies often ignored mandates to pay employees every two weeks. Instead, they paid monthly.

Finally, "Big Mary" Septak, a Slavic woman and Lattimer innkeeper, incited workers to oppose the tyranny. She advocated for collective bargaining. But mine policies were unrelenting. As a result, there was widespread unrest and picketing at mine sites.

On Monday, August 16, 1897, more than 350 angry workers protested a violent attack on a young picketer at the Honey Brook Colliery in McAdoo, northern Schuylkill County. Marchers walked to several nearby Lehigh and Wilkes-Barre collieries, closing them down.

In a matter of hours, more than three thousand workers joined the strike. Angry miners voted to join the fledgling United Mine Workers Association (UMWA). On September 1, Lehigh and Wilkes-Barre workers voted to strike. The walkout soon swelled to five thousand, intent on shutting down collieries.

"On September 3, a group of more than a thousand men proceeded from McAdoo to Hazleton and closed down several collieries," says researcher Peter Wolensky in a publication of the Pa. Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC).

"Demonstrations continued throughout Labor Day weekend and by midweek, some ten thousand workers from throughout lower Luzerne County and neighboring Carbon and Schuylkill Counties joined the protest."

On a warm, sunny Friday, September 10, about 3:45 p.m., 300 hundred men assembled at Harwood and stepped off to Lattimer, 15 miles north of Tamaqua. They carried American flags. Their goal, apparently, was to shut down a mine owned by Ariovistus Pardee of Hazleton. They deemed their action appropriate, part of their American right to free speech and assembly.

At the entrance to Lattimer, they were met by Sheriff Martin and an armed posse of eighty deputized volunteers, along with perhaps seventy more from the coal company police. A scuffle broke out at the fork in the road.

Martin tried to grab the flag from the hands of marcher Steve Jurich. Thwarted, Martin grabbed a marcher from the second row. Others came to the marcher's aid and turmoil broke out. Deputies opened fire on the miners. The flag bearer was first to be shot. Realizing what was happening, many of the miners tried to flee to safety. Each was shot in the back.

The sobering inscription on the Lattimer Massacre monument describes what happened:

"It was not a battle because they were not aggressive, nor were they defensive because they had no weapons of any kind and were simply shot down like so many worthless objects, each of the licensed life-takers trying to outdo the others in butchery."

According to PHMC research, miner Andrew Jurecheck attempted to run toward the schoolhouse and was stopped by a bullet in his back. He pleaded in vain that he wanted to see his wife before he died. Mathias Czaja also was shot in the back and fell to the ground. Some of the wounded cried out for help. One eyewitness reportedly heard a deputy respond, "We'll give you hell, not water, hunkies!"

Some said the killings lasted three minutes or more. Others said only a minute and a half. Whatever the case, victims dropped dead one by one before the guns of Lattimer fell silent. On that day, history was made.

The story of horror was carved into bone by unforgiving bullets.

Never in the history of anthracite coal had so many men been killed during a strike.

The governor sent 2,500 state militia troops of the Third Brigade to Lattimer to maintain public order.

Funeral services were held for days, drawing crowds of up to 8,000. Polish, Lithuanian, Slovak and other ethnic organizations denounced the murders and called for justice. Public outrage ran high.

Fourteen victims were buried in nearby St. Stanislaus Polish Roman Catholic Cemetery, Hazleton, below a large granite block stating: The men were "seeking to protect their civil and human rights."

Sheriff Martin and 73 deputies were arrested and, in February, 1898, tried for murder at Luzerne County Court House, Wilkes-Barre. However, after 27 days of testimony and deliberation, all were acquitted. Not one person spent time in jail. People were outraged.

But for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

The martyrs of Lattimer Mines were not forgotten. Following the trial, the ranks of the UMWA swelled and the organization gained foothold in the anthracite coal regions, rising to prominence to defend miners' rights. In fact, local membership ballooned to over 100,000 workers.

Surprisingly, the site of the bloodshed remained unmarked for 80 years. Finally, in 1972, the United Labor Council of Lower Luzerne and Carbon counties joined with the UMWA to erect a memorial, which stands today.

The Lattimer Massacre must never be forgotten.

It was one of our darkest days. But it represents a beacon of light in our understanding of the human spirit. It showcases the determination of the oppressed worker and his fierce commitment to fight injustice and provide for his family.

In the end, the Lattimer Massacre is about a never-ending struggle for survival and the sacrifice of innocent men, brave enough to stand up for what is right.

As long as a hard-working man fights for fairness, the men of Lattimer did not die in vain.

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