The Herrin Massacre took place in June 1922 in Herrin, Illinois. Following an early morning gunfire attack on non-union miners going to work on June 21, three union miners (Jordie Henderson, Joseph Pitkewicius and one other) were killed in a confrontation after the striking union members marched on the mine. The next day, union miners killed 19 of fifty strikebreakers and mine guards, many of them in brutal ways. A twentieth victim from the non-union group would later be murdered, bringing the death total to twenty-three.
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 about halfway between Herrin and Marion, Illinois. Lester at first complied with the strike. He had only recently opened the mine, and massive startup debts made him negotiate with the UMWA to allow his mine to remain open, as long as no coal was shipped out. Under the agreement, some United Mine Workers members were allowed to continue working during the strike. Lester told an associate that local union leaders were friendly with him; however, he was warned this did not mean he had any control over the ordinary members.
By June, Lester’s miners had dug out nearly 60,000 tons of coal. Strike-driven shortages had raised coal prices, and Lester would make a $250,000 profit if he sold his coal. He decided to violate the agreement he had made. When the UMWA members working for him objected, he fired all of his union workers. Lester brought in mine guards and 50 strikebreakers, vilified as “scabs”, recruited by employment agencies in Chicago. On June 16, 1922, he shipped out sixteen railroad cars filled with coal. Testimony later revealed that his mine guards possessed machine guns. They aggressively searched passers-by, and “they frighten women, they boast and are hard-boiled.”
Lester, responding to a reporter’s questions, said his steam shovel operators and the railroad workers were members of their respective unions.
John L. Lewis, president of the UMWA, responded in a telegram on June 20. He called the Steam Shovelmen’s Union an “outlaw organization” which also provided strikebreakers elsewhere. UMWA members, he said, “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.”
There was confusion and disagreement between Lewis and William J. Tracy, representative of District No. 1, International Brotherhood of Steam Shovel and Dredgemen (IBSSD). Lewis in his widely publicized statement said that two representatives of the UMWA had contacted the IBSSD, but “have failed to secure any satisfaction.” He did note that the Steam Shovel union had been suspended from the American Federation of Labor, which the United Mine Workers also belonged to. Lewis claimed that the IBSSD was likewise strikebreaking in Ohio. Tracy responded that though he had sent four individuals to the site when requested, they turned away when they saw the guards. He stated that no one from his organization was working in Herrin. Tracy also criticized the UMWA for not communicating adequately about the situation. It is unclear if Lester was telling the truth, or if he had contacted the IBSSD to disguise the use of non-union workers. To Lewis, it didn’t matter. Lester’s workers were not UMWA members, and the UMWA claimed sole jurisdiction over all coal miners.
Lewis’ message was printed in newspapers, and miners throughout the region decided to take action. Early in the morning on June 21, a truck carrying Lester’s guards and strikebreakers was ambushed near Carbondale, Illinois on its way to his mine. Three men were wounded and six others jumped into the river. Later in the day several hundred miners rallied in the Herrin cemetery. Lewis’ message was read to the crowd, enraging them further. The union miners marched into Herrin and looted the hardware store of its firearms and ammunition. At about 3:30 p.m., they surrounded Lester’s mine. Lester’s guards opened fire, killing two of the UMWA members and mortally wounding a third.
The mine superintendent, C.K. McDowell, called National Guard 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. Hunter contacted the Adjutant General himself and convinced him to mobilize troops. Lester, who had left the area several days earlier, was reached by phone in Chicago. Realizing the gravity of the situation, he agreed to close the mine for the remainder of the nationwide UMWA strike. Hunter and a citizen’s group laid out a plan to get a truce in place — telephoning McDowell to tell him to raise a white flag, and asking the UMWA sub-district vice president, Fox Hughes, to go to the mine and do the same. The method 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 Hunter and the citizen’s group were optimistic that a disaster would be avoided. They decided the National Guard troops were not needed after all.
Hughes went to the mine with a white flag, but he never took it out or raised it. He later said he had not seen McDowell raise a white flag, so he decided Lester’s men had not lived up to the bargain. He went home and did nothing, later claiming he learned his boss in the UMWA leadership, Hugh Willis, was now involved and decided his role was finished.
During the evening, more union supporters stole guns and ammunition, and made their way to the strip mine. McDowell was to have called Hunter when the truce took effect. When he, Col. Hunter tried to telephone the mine, only to find the phone lines had been cut. No law enforcement officers went to the mine, no government officials accompanied Hughes to ensure the white flags were raised, and no troops were activated by the National Guard despite repeated signs that Thaxton 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 ensure the truce was carried out and the strikebreakers were given safe passage. Despite being urged to go immediately, he claimed he needed to rest. Thaxton promised to meet Hunter and Major Davis of the Carbondale National Guard company at the sheriff’s office at 6 a.m. the following morning. That evening, Hugh Willis, the local UMWA leader, spoke to union supporters in Herrin. 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 equipment to prevent the mine from reopening. They used hammers, shovels, and dynamite to wreck the draglines and bulldozers, while keeping the strikebreakers pinned down inside coal cars and behind barricades.
The besieged strikebreakers finally sent out a mine guard, Bernard Jones, with an apron tied to a broomstick. Jones told the mob the men would surrender if their safety would be guaranteed. He was told, “Come on out and we’ll get you out of the county.” The strikebreakers did as they were told, and the union miners began marching them to Herrin, five miles away.
After about a half mile, the strikebreakers encountered more men waiting for them at Crenshaw Crossing. One of them shouted, “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 continued on. Some struck the strikebreakers with the butts of their rifles and shotguns.
The Chase and Massacre
By about half mile past Crenshaw Crossing at Moake Crossing, McDowell was already bloodied and limping, unable to walk any further. A union man told him, “I’m going to kill you and use you for bait to catch the other men.” He and another man grabbed McDowell and led him down a side road. Gun shots were heard, and the rest continued towards Herrin. A farmer later discovered McDowell’s body. He’d been shot four times – twice in the stomach, and once each in the chest and head.
A car drove up to the procession, and a man came out whom some said they overheard being called “Hugh Willis” and “the president.” According to the accounts of surviving captives, Willis said, “Listen, don’t you go killing these fellows on a public highway. There are too many women and children and witnesses around to do that. Take them over in the woods and give it to them. Kill all you can.”
The breakers were taken into the woods, where they reached a barbed wire fence. They were then told to run for their lives. A union man shouted, “Let’s see how fast you can run between here and Chicago, you damned gutter-bums!” The mob opened fire as they ran. Many were caught in the fence and shot dead. Others, making it over the fence but not knowing where they were, ran through Harrison’s Woods toward Herrin, a mile further north. One strikebreaker was caught and hanged and three more were shot to death at his feet. The assistant superintendent of the mine, was still alive but unconscious. A union man noticed and shot him in the head. The chase continued into the morning of the 22nd.
Six breakers 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. They were also urinated upon. Those still alive at the end had their throats cut by a union man with a pocketknife. Townspeople came to watch and taunt the dead and dying along the route to the cemetery. A reporter tried to give a dying men some water and was told that if he did, “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 with injuries were taken to Dr. J. Taylor Black’s Herrin Hospital. In total, 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 spat 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 alleged behavior of German troops during World War I
Lester, whose double-dealing set the tragic events into motion, made a significant profit when the union bought his mine at “a handsome price” in order to avoid lawsuits.
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. It was obvious the victims could not gain justice in Herrin.
Two trials were held, the first on November 7, 1922, and the second in the winter of 1923. Only six men were ever indicted for the massacre, and the first two trials ended in acquittals for all the defendants. The prosecution gave up and dismissed the remaining indictments. Otis Clark was the first man to be tried on a total of 214 charges. Two years later, Clark would be shot and killed. Another of the accused would die in a mine accident.
A Williamson County Grand Jury investigating the incident faulted the Southern Illinois Coal Company for introducing strike breakers and armed guards, and for committing illegal activities such as closing public highways. It criticized the state administration for refusing to take necessary measures once the trouble had begun. Herbert David Croly of the New Republic criticized the state of Illinois for allowing the Illinois Chamber of Commerce to fund the investigation. Croly described the retaliation for the deaths of two strikers (the third had been mortally wounded) “atrocious”, but noted that while the perpetrators were likely to escape punishment, those who harmed strikers—such as Hamrock after Ludlow, or Wheeler after Bisbee—likewise frequently escaped justice. Croly noted that the local government was sympathetic to the union, as was public sentiment, and under such circumstances, the union had a responsibility to police its own members.