The Herrin Massacre

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The violence and bloodshed that occurred on a hot June day in Herrin, Illinois in 1922 left a legacy that still hangs over this community.  For decades the ugly mob action that led to the brutal murder of twenty strikebreakers by union sympathizers was not openly acknowledged or discussed in this Williamson County town.  The Herrin Massacre drew national attention and outrage, as evidenced by articles and editorials published in newspapers and magazines at the time, and helped cement the reputation of the area as "Bloody Williamson."  The events surrounding the massacre highlight the vital role of the union in the coal miners' lives and demonstrate the lengths that individuals and a whole community would go to in order to protect what the union gave them.  What is also clear from historical accounts is that local and state officials botched several opportunities to head off the 

Herrin, Illinois is located in Williamson County, the heart of what once was coal country.  Rich veins of coal were discovered within southern Illinois in the late 1800s, the heaviest  and most accessible concentrations being located in and around Williamson and Franklin counties.  The discovery of coal dramatically changed the nature of this region, which was dominated by farmers struggling to grow crops on small farms with soil not well-suited to such use.

Underground shaft mines sprouted up all over to dig out the veins of coal.  The new industry created an abundance of mining jobs -- and many of the new miners used to farm or still worked on the farms.  The work was dirty, difficult, and dangerous, with little attention paid to the safety and well-being of the workers.  As noted by Paul Angle in his book Bloody Williamson, a report by the United States Coal Commission described working conditions in Williamson County coal mines prior to the turn of the century:

"When mining was upon a ruinously competetive basis.  Profit was the sole object; the life and health of employees was of  no moment.  Men worked in water half-way up to their knees, in gas-filled rooms, in unventilated mines where the air was so foul that no man could work long without seriously impairing his health.  There was no workmen's compensation law; accidents were frequent...The average daily wage of the miner was from $1.25 to $2.00." 
Then around 1898 and 1899 unionization in the mines really started to become a reality.  There were significant struggles between miners and the mining companies, some that resulted in strikes, violence and deaths, before the unions were recognized and the workers won improvements in safety and wages. 

New laws were implemented to protect miners, working conditions gradually improved, and wages grew to between $7.00 and $15.00 a day.   These changes took hold during the early 1900s, and as a result standards of living rose dramatically and coal towns like Herrin prospered.  By 1922, half of the state's 60,000 miners lived and worked in the area, and they were all members of unions.  The district had the reputation as one of the strongest in the country (Coleman, 1924).

It should be not be difficult, then, to understand the extent that  the average coal miner identified with the union and would interpret any threat to the union as a threat to all that had been gained the past 25 years. 

By the 1920s, the unions were firmly entrenched in the coal mining industry in southern Illinois.  The last major attempt by a coal mine owner to run a non-union operation had failed miserably in violence and deaths in Zeigler, Illinois in 1910. 

Lester moves to break strike
In the 1920s the practice of surface or strip mining -- where large shovels and drag lines were used to strip the earth covering coal beds located relatively close to the surface -- was beginning to take hold.  Strip mining can be a more efficient and safe process than underground shaft mining.  In September, 1921 William J. Lester of Cleveland and his Southern Illinois Coal Company opened a new strip mine in Williamson County, about halfway between Herrin and Marion.  The mine employed about 50 workers, all card-carrying members of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA). 

On April 1, 1922, the UMWA went on a nationwide strike, and all coal mining operations effectively ceased throughout the country.  At this time there were approximately 33 coal mines in Williamson County alone.  Lester, who was deeply in debt from loans incurred to finance his new operation, felt he couldn't afford to let his mine shut down for too long without the risk of losing it all.  So he negotiated with the local union and they generously agreed to let him continue removing coal, with the understanding that that he would not load it on trains and ship it out.  This was a good deal for both the workers and Lester; the workers could still earn wages, and Lester could build up a supply of coal that could be shipped out immediately after the strike ended.

Early in June Lester had accumulated about 60,000 tons of coal.  Coal prices had risen considerably by that time due to strike-induced shortages, and Lester figured he could turn a neat profit of about $250,000 if only he could ship the coal.   Not being a native of southern Illinois and perhaps not completely appreciating the history and passion surrounding previous attempts to break strikes, he foolishly chose to fire the union miners and hired fifty strikebreakers and mine guards from Chicago.   On June 16, 1922, Lester shipped out sixteen cars of coal on the railroad. 

When word got out that Lester was operating his mine with non-union employees, everybody from the States Attorney General to the Illinois National Guard to the UMWA took notice and started working to convince Lester to stop.  Coal miners throughout the region began to rally. 

Donald Richardson, who was 8 years old at the time and whose father was a coal miner in nearby Energy, explained the miners' reactions in a 1996 interview with the Southern Illinoisan newspaper. "When somebody came in and worked non-union, he was taking a coal miner's job.  He was taking the coal miner's livelihood away from him.  If enough people came in and worked non-union, then the coal miner was without a job, a job he worked at all his life," Richardson said.  Union members knew that if Lester succeeded, other mines may attempt to do the same.  All the gains that the unions had brought the workers in terms of safety, security, and wages could be lost.

Lester, for his part, responded to a reporter's queries that his steam shovel operators and the rail car workers were members of their respective unions.  John Lewis, president of UMWA, issued a telegram on June 20 in response to the situation.   He called the Steam Shovelmen's Union an "outlaw organization" that had also provided strikebreakers elsewhere.  He proclaimed that UMWA members "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." 

Over the preceding several days, efforts to change Lester's mind were met with stubborn resistance.  Col. Samuel Hunter of the Illinois National Guard warned Lester several times that the situation was dangerous and his mine could not be protected.  Hunter regularly advised the local sheriff, Melvin Thaxton, to deputize additional men and act to handle the problem.  Thaxton, a former miner and currently a candidate running for the office of county treasurer, refused to do so and despite his reassurances that he could handle it, consistently failed to participate in efforts to defuse the tensions and prevent violence. 

By this time, miners from across the region were gathering in rallies and meetings.  Lewis' edict was printed in local newspapers the same day, and his words may well have fanned the flames of the situation.  The next morning, June 21, a truck with 11armed guards and strikebreakers, or "scabs" as many called them, was ambushed east of Carbondale.  The driver later died and several others were injured.

Later that morning word came that several hundred miners were rallying at Herrin Cemetery.  During the rally Lewis' words were read aloud and, as Angle wrote, "feeling was running high."  Soon afterwards hardware stores in Herrin were being looted of firearms an ammo and the mob moved out to the mine site.  During this time Sheriff Thaxton was nowhere to be found.

Around 3:30 pm, the mine superintendent, C.K. McDowell, made a call to Hunter and the other authorities, saying the mine was surrounded and they were being fired upon.  He could not locate Sheriff Thaxton, and pleaded for troops.  Hunter quickly called Thaxton's deputy and urged him to call the 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. 

Go to Page 2 - The Massacre...



"The most brutal and horrifying crime that has ever stained the garments of organized labor." 
-- St. Louis Globe-Democrat, June 24, 1922

Coal miners in Franklin Co., circa 1920s
Coal miners from Franklin County, Illinois, circa 1920s

Photo of a typical early-20th century surface coal mine and railroad cars loaded and ready for shipment  

UMWA logo


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Last updated August 15, 1999.
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