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Herrin Massacre still stands out 90 years later

Jon Musgrave
updated: 6/22/2012 9:19 PM

It';s been 90 years today since 20 replacement workers and guards died at the hands of a mob organized by the United Mine Workers of America in what';s still the largest massacre of workers initiated by a union in America';s history. A driver for the mine, later died from a separate ambush the day before, bringing the count to 21.

Three U.M.W.A. miners are also counted among the victims bringing the total to 24. They died following an attack on the Lester strip mine the previous day as well. The mine stood about a half mile north of the present-day Williamson County Pavilion and then halfway between the county';s largest community of Herrin and the county seat of Marion.

The attack of June 22, 1922, quickly became known as the Herrin Massacre and helped blacklist nationwide the county as Bloody Williamson where more than 70 men, women and children were killed during a five-year period as Klan violence and a gang war followed in its aftermath.

Nine decades later the violence and societal breakdown still entrances historians and writers. In the last three years authors have published two fictional accounts of the period, one by the grandson of the U.M.W.A. leader who just happened to be out of town that day, and the other by former Williamson and Saline County Circuit Judge Brockton Lockwood, now of Harrisburg, whose early law partner was a nephew of Williamson County State's Attorney Delos Duty who unsuccessfully prosecuted the miners.

Twice in the months following massacre juries acquitted the miners. Lockwood';s research, including interviews of family members of the jurors, found that the union had engaged in massive bribery to rig the vote in their members'; favor.

Lockwood would know something about bribery. Three decades ago as a circuit judge on temporary assignment to the Cook County court system he wore a wire for the feds investigating judicial corruption in Operation Greylord.

The acquittals and subsequent state legislative investigation were followed within a week by the first cross-burning in Williamson County on what was either the west half of the Marion V.A. Medical Center property or the property to the west, then all part of the same large farm.

Although the Klan had already started organizing in other parts of the region as an effort to combat Prohibition Era bootlegging, Lockwood sees a direct tie between the failure of the courts to deal with the perpetrators and the rise of the Klan who historically pursued their version of justice outside the law.

"I think it had a lot to do with it," Lockwood said. "I don';t think you would have had a Klan had the people charged with the massacre been convicted."

In fact, Duty';s successor as state';s attorney, Arlie O. Boswell, who was elected as the Klan';s candidate for the office was just out of law school when he witnessed the last deaths of the massacre at the Herrin City Cemetery, according to an account he told Gary DeNeal in the mid ';70s. DeNeal, who later used Boswell as a major source for his book on Charlie Birger, joined Lockwood in writing their recent novel "Shades of Gray" set during that period.

"I think the affects were all pretty individual. Some people were embarrassed. Some people were enraged. There was a lot of conflict in the communities and in families," Lockwood explained. "The labor side won. Usually it was the people who owned the mines or owned the coal rights. They had the Pinkerton men. They';d won all the prior conflicts."


Prior conflicts set the stage

Conflicts like the Ludlow Massacre in Colorado in 1914 left between 19 and 25 people dead depending on the source. The majority of victims weren';t miners but at least two women and 11 children who died in an attack by mine guards and national guardsmen on the U.M.W.A.';s tent colony during a strike.

Just the summer before the Herrin Massacre in May 1921, the union won a street battle with mine guards from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency in downtown Matewan, West Virginia. The union had been trying to organize the coal fields of that state. The battle left seven detectives and four residents dead.

The situation worsened over the summer and relatives of the slain detective on Aug. 1, assassinated the Matewan police chief whose attempted arrest of the detectives had led to the original shootout. That led to what';s been described as one of the largest civil uprisings in American history when some 10,000 armed union coal miners confronted 3,000 lawmen, mine guards and non-union miners.

In that Battle of Blair Mountain from Aug. 29 to Sept. 2, the coal companies were better armed and the U.M.W.A. lost, not only the battle, but found their efforts to unionize the Appalachian coal fields setback by more than a decade.

Days later a shot across the street in Rosiclare killed a fluorspar miner who had been a leader in a strike a few years earlier. Newspaper accounts differ greatly as to whether this was a single event or part of a larger riot.

Not only did the event follow Blair Mountain; it took place over the Labor Day weekend when neighboring Elizabethtown -- county seat -- was hosting hundreds if not thousands for a regional labor convention.

Although the Rosiclare miners didn';t belong to the U.M.W.A., union coal miners from around the region -- but particularly from Franklin County -- led the charge for action against the mines around Rosiclare then shut down due to lack of demand. Mob action was prevented, but the call to arms so quickly after the violence in West Virginia conceived at least parts of the mob nine months later in Herrin.

NEXT: Prosperity falters as Herrin Massacre approaches.

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