The Herrin Massacre
By H. W. Linsenmeyer-Keyser who is retired and living in Arkansas. This commentary appeared in The Southern Illinoisan in September, 1998.
June 22, 1922- The coal miners were on strike, not unusual during those early struggles for higher wages and better working conditions, and several mines in Williamson and adjoining counties were closed. Except one. The owner of the Lester Strip Mine between Herrin and Crenshaw Crossing, had announced that he would continue to operate his mine and had hired about 50 non-union laborers from an employment agency to produce the coal for shipment to markets. Union officials and the county sheriff warned that there would be trouble ahead, but the mine boss ignored them.
Most local union members owned guns, as hunting was a favorite pastime in this traditionally farming area. Those who did not own their own guns had been supplied with them on loan from dealers or borrowed them from others.
Our dad had warned us to stay home on our farm as there might be some trouble ahead and we would be all right if we stayed put and stayed quiet. Our silence was broken by a series of popping sounds like firecrackers exploding. We huddled still closer together, wondering if dad and our brothers had heard them too and if they would rush home to look after us. They did not as they didn't return until the sun was setting and the field work was completed.
The popping sounds came closer to our farmhouse and were interspersed with shouts of rage and screams of dying men. They gradually faded as the union miners and their quarry, the Scabs or union breakers, had turned north through a wooded area and were heading toward Herrin. We worked off our anxiety by staying inside, preparing and eating breakfast and starting on the household chores.
In about a half-hour, neighbors appeared to tell us what had happened. These womenfolk had followed their husbands to the road from the Scab-operated mine toward Herrin, and stood watching while enraged husbands shot the Scabs dead. Leaving us with this news, they left for their own homes to wait for the return of their husbands and reflect on what had happened.
By the time our dad and brothers returned home, the Herrin newspaper had arrived, relating bare facts of the day's event. The following two or more years were spent in investigations, trials and delays in settling the case. The Herrin Massacre had found its place in the history of coal mining in Illinois.
The owner of the Lester Strip Mine later attempted to develop other mines without much success but was moderately successful as a consulting engineer in Indiana. He died in 1935. The miners union survived, however in more recent years, the market in for bituminous coal has given way to the usage of hard coal with little or no sulfur content, as a lesser environmental hazard.
In 1955, I was living in Chicago, working for a publishing company and a fellow employee asked where I was from. Oh yes, she said, I remember Williamson County quite well. My husband and I were just getting started in our own employment office. One day we received an emergency phone call asking if we could provide about 50 laborers to work in a coal mine down there. We could and did. They arrived down there and within a week every one of them was killed in a big fight, and our business folded.
More information on the Herrin Massacre can be found in the book by Paul M. Angle, Bloody Williamson: A Chapter in American Lawlessness, University of Illinois Press, 1952.
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