Monday, January 7, 2019

The Virden, Illinois, Coal Mine Massacre on October 12, 1898

It had been raining in Virden (25 miles south of Springfield, Illinois) for days. A cold October rain. Day and night, dozens of members of the newly formed United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) patrolled the railroad tracks which led northward toward the Chicago-Virden Coal Company mine.
Joining Virden miners, a contingent of 60 miners from Mt. Olive patrolled in shifts of 40, while the other 20 freezing and exhausted men slept in the hayloft of a friendly farmer's barn. Along with miners from Springfield and smaller surrounding towns, they watched and they waited.

The miners were organizing to fight back against the intransigence (refusal to change one's views or to agree about something) of the Chicago-Virden Coal Company. Despite an agreement arrived at between the new union and coal operators statewide in January of 1898 to settle a biter six-month strike, Chicago-Virden and a handful of other companies were determined not to pay the new higher wage scale of 40 cents per ton of coal mined.
All spring and summer, the coal operators made their preparations. They recruited African-American miners from Birmingham, Alabama, promising them high wages and good conditions. In this way they sought to drive a wedge between white and Negro miners. They built a stockade of four-inch oak around the mine. They hired ex-police from Chicago and private detectives from St. Louis and bought them brand new Winchester rifles. And now the train carrying strikebreakers sped north from St. Louis to the big Virden mine. 

It was October 12, shortly after the noon hour, when the miners stationed south of the mine spied the train coming. A miner posted on lookout fired a warning signal. And soon the train, carrying strikebreakers and armed train guards, approached the stockaded mine. Miners waited, armed with hunting rifles, pistols and shotguns. As the train slowed down at the depot, a shot rang out and then the battle began in earnest, continuing as the train moved along and then stopped in front of the stockades. With the miners in an open field they took the brunt of the carnage. To a mine guard who survived, the bloodshed conjured up images of the Spanish-American War then raging in Cuba and the Philippines.It was "hotter than San Juan Hill," he recalled. After ten minutes of mayhem, having received a gunshot wound, the train engineer thought better of stopping in Virden and continued on to Springfield, his strikebreaking cargo still aboard.
The union miners paid for their militant stand: eight died, four of these from Mt. Olive, and some forty were injured. The mine guards also paid a price: four dead and five wounded. And at least one Negro strikebreaker aboard the train was seriously wounded. For the UMWA, the victory was worth the cost. A month later, the company repented and granted the wage increase and Illinois became a bastion of union power in the coalfields for decades.

For years afterward, area miners remembered the Battle of Virden, the deadly toll it had taken, and its importance to the building of the union. In 1918, members of the nearby Girard, Illinois local addressed an appeal to the state union office for help. Two fellow union miners from Girard, who had been shot dead at Virden in 1898, had left widows who were now penniless. In making their case for special aid, the Girard miners proclaimed the following of their fallen union brothers: "By their blood we cam into being as prosperous, powerful free men." Proudly they added that "The stockades of slaves have been removed from all mines in our state...We stand today as most respected citizens." And once again they reminded union officials that "it cost blood to gain our recognition."

Twenty years after the victory which catapulted the UMWA to power in the Illinois coalfields, miners had to muster their rhetorical skills to ensure that the families of the Virden martyrs received their due. Today, a full century after the bloody Battle of Virden, there is an even more pressing need to explain how this intense battle cam about, who the union fighters were, what they achieved, and failed to achieved, and why the lessons of Virden are still relevant to working people today.

The essential prelude to the bloodshed at Virden was the great strike of 1897, which encompassed miners from West Virginia to Pennsylvania to Illinois and established the first agreements between coal operators and the UMWA. In announcing the strike, which began on July 4, UMWA national president Michael Ratchford declared that "Independence day" cannot be celebrated by American slaves in a more patriotic manner than to make proclamation to the world that they will no longer submit to industrial servitude. In Illinois, that "industrial servitude" was experienced daily by miners and their families. To begin with, miners endured the effects of a deep economic depression, the most recent sparked by a stock market crash in 1893. As a result, employment was highly uncertain. During 1897 in Macoupin County, for instance, miners worked an average of 179 out of a possible 300 workdays. For this they earned an average $190. Even in relatively good times, miners lost income because of the still widespread practice of "screening" the mined coal, which cut down on the tonnage recorded. Or they lost from the practice of underweighing, which happened often in the absence of a union checkweighman (a worker who checked the weight of the coal against the company's calculations).

As if meager and uncertain wages weren't enough, coal miners worked in an extremely dangerous industry. Illinois mines generally did not build up large amounts of methane gas, but this very fact led mine workers to spend less in protecting their investment underground. The four main categories of hazards were what miners referred to as bad top, bad roads, (inside the mine), bad shots and bad air. For miners and loaders (unskilled workers who only shoveled coal and did not do skilled undercutting with a pick), by far the most common cause of injury and death was bad top or a collapsing mine roof. In 1899, for instance, Frank Stroff arrived for work at a Madison County coal mine and worked for only twenty minutes when a gigantic piece of slate fell directly on him, instantly crushing the life out of him. The year before, just fifteen days after the Virden battle, Nicholas Lacquet went to work at a St. Clair county mine and was crushed by a falling top, living only a day more, and leaving a wife and a fourteen-year-old son to forge on without him.
Before 1897 most mining families faced the twin hazards of hunger above ground and death down below without benefit of a union. In 1892, two yeas after the UMWA was formed, the treasury of the Illinois District 12 contained the grand total of $5.40. The depression decimated the ranks of what unions did exist. On the eve of the 1897 strike, out of 35,000 Illinois coal miners in Illinois, only 400 belonged to the UMWA. Miners in DuQuoin, among other areas, were forced to sign "yellow-dog" contracts, in which miners pledged they would not join a labor organization. The 1890's had witnessed many defeats for workers and their efforts to organize against the greed of corporations. In 1892 workers waged a pitched battle against Pinkertons at Homestead in an effort to keep their union and such benefits as the eight-hour day. After the state militia arrived, Andrew Carnegie won that battle, and consequently workers witnessed the advent of twelve-hour days and the destruction of hard won gains. In 1894 the famous Pullman strike went down to defeat after President Cleveland called federal troops to Chicago to defeat the strikers. It was this deprivation of rights that made Ratchford's appeal to miners as slaves who sought liberty ring so true.
Despite the fact that a tiny minority of miners belonged to the union in 1897, coal diggers all over the state responded with a massive show of solidarity. Starting on July 15, in Mt. Olive, a bastion of unionism, miners undertook a grand march south through one coal town after another, calling miners out of the pits. "Gathering strength like a rolling snowball," as one reporter put it, the miners held impromptu rallies, won broad moral and material support from the communities they marched through, and often collapsed in a heap at the end of the day. In many towns, local merchants offered free food and drink and town officials offered city facilities for miners to meet and sleep. Women in coal mining families played an important part in their success. A Glen Carbon woman gave the strikers all the food in her house. She then brewed a large pot of coffee and came "trudging though the weeds with her little girl following behind with a basketful of teacups." "Do you want some coffee," she asked. "O, no mam!" they joked, "we don't want any coffee," as they devoured the two gallons in two minutes.

Who were the miners who led this fight? The best known was Alexander Bradley, a 32-years-old mule driver who worked in the Mt. Olive mines. Born in England in 1866, Bradley came to Illinois at age seven and within two years was already working as a slate picker in a Collinsville mine called "Devil's Hole." By the mid-1890's, Bradley had traveled widely throughout the Midwest, tramping with other unemployed miners to Chicago and taking part in the famous march to Washington, DC of Coxey's Army of the unemployed of 1894. Now living in Mt. Olive, Bradley led the march which stepped off in July, 1897. In the course of the strike, "General" Bradley, as he became known, developed a well-earned reputation as a colorful and charismatic figure.8 Arriving with his "troops" in Collinsville, for instance, Bradley sported "corduroy trousers, a light blue coat, white shirt, brown straw hat, toothpick (narrow and pointed) shoes, at least three emblems of secret societies and several rings on his fingers...[as well as] a light cane or a furled umbrella.

On other occasions Bradley wore a Prince Albert coat and a black silk top hat, and seemed to have an unflappable ability to inspire his fellow miners to continue the fight. Using ballads and cajoling and the presence of mass marches, Bradley inspired his fellows to fight for their "liberty" in the same way they braved the mines every day underground. Their time was coming, he assured his brothers and their families.

The strike and mass actions of 1897 developed new rank and file leadership, including recently arrived immigrant miners from Eastern Europe, who generally worked as unskilled loaders in the Illinois mines. Right beside General Bradley as he stepped off from Mt. Olive, for instance, marched a Slavic co-worker, probably Bohemian, who bore aloft a huge American Flag. Workers seemed to discover that mass action and inclusivity could bring victory.

New immigrants who had learned these lessons, including Bohemians, also would be among those who streamed into Virden from surrounding communities and who shed their blood at Virden on October 12. Compared to Mt. Olive miners, who included a relatively high proportion of new immigrants at this time - mainly from Croatia, Bohemia and Italy - Virden's mining work force was overwhelmingly English-speaking, both native-born and from England and Scotland. One National Guard officer at Virden, reflecting widespread anti-immigrant prejudice, suggested that "foreigners" from outside of town were responsible for the violence at Virden. Anti-immigrant prejudice also surfaced in the UMWA in the period after the 1897 strike. But when miners at a subsequent convention used the derogatory term "hunkies" to refer to Eastern European immigrants, a union leader recalled the role they had played in the great strike. "If it were not for those so called Austrians, Hunks and Bohemians before the '97 strike," he told the delegates, "you would not have what you have today. Those were the men who went out and ate grasshopper soup to help win the strike." As in 1897, the 1898 battle at Virden found new and old immigrants and native born joining together to enforce a determined solidarity. This time some would make the ultimate sacrifice for the union.

What did the union fighters of 1898 achieve? Most obviously, they secured nearly statewide recognition of the UMWA and turned back employers' attempt to undercut the newly won 1897 standards. In addition to the tonnage scale increase, which meant a wage increase, they won an eight-hour day for hourly workers, mine-run payment for coal (limited screening), official status for the union pit committee, and a check-off of union dues. The victorious strike also brought to the fore a new generation of younger, militant UMWA leaders such as John Walker, Adolph Germer, and Frank Hayes, all of whom became leaders also in the new Socialist Party of America. Illinois went on to gain the well-deserved reputation as the single largest, richest and most militant district in the UMWA. A generation of union fighters would remember the significance of Virden in securing Illinois' reputation in the larger national union and in the pantheon of labor history. In subsequent contracts the Illinois UMWA won October 12 as an official holiday - Virden Memorial Day - as a way to honor their fallen comrades.

Famed union organizer Mother Jones, the "Miners' Angel," was so inspired by the heroism displayed at Virden that she asked to be buried next to the "brave boys" who gave their life for the union. In tribute to them, she lies buried in the Mt. Olive Union Miners' Cemetery today."

A less obvious achievement of the Battle of Virden is something that did not happen: Republican Governor Tanner did not send in troops to break the strike. At Homestead and Pullman, government troops had played a decisive part in defeating workers. Unlike their corporate counterparts in these battles, the stubborn Illinois coal operators found that the State of Illinois would not so easily cooperate. T.C. Loucks and Fred Lukins of Chicago-Virden Coal initially expected and then desperately pleaded with Governor Tanner to call out the National Guard for strikebreaking duty. But he refused. Only after the gunfight in Virden did the troops arrive, and for the next month they prevented strikebreakers from landing in Virden.

Part of the explanation is that 1898 was a mid-term election year. In stumping for Congressional candidates, the Republican Governor Tanner competed with former Governor John Peter Altgeld, Democratic Party leader and darling of the Illinois labor movement. As a result, Tanner posed as the friend of the strikers.

Unfortunately for the cause of broader labor solidarity, the way he did this was to whip up the miners' racial, class and nativist prejudices against "imported labor." At one point, while careful not to mention the question of skin color, Tanner boasted that he would not allow Illinois to become a "dumping ground for the criminal and idle classes of other countries or other states." Tanner was undoubtedly gunning for votes. But, aside from the low quality of this kind of "help" for the miners, it would be a mistake to see only election strategy at work. A good deal of the credit for the Governor's "pro-labor" stand must go to the strikers of the previous year who had convinced the large majority of the state's coal operators, and the state's political establishment, that they had no choice but to deal with the UMWA if they wished to get their precious coal to market. The union had garnered a great deal of public sympathy for their cause. After all, nearly all the coal companies had already signed with the UMWA. Because of the militant solidarity displayed in 1897, that is, Governor Tanner had little choice in 1898.

And what of the limits of miners' success in the Battle of Virden? That would have to be the powerful and ongoing scourge of racism in the region.

Ironically, just as the divisions between native-born and immigrant miners were beginning to weaken, those separating Negro and white miners seemed to grow stronger. This is despite the fact that African -American union miners, mainly from Springfield, were among those who patrolled the tracks approaching Virden in a show of solidarity with their Virden brothers. In addition, a group of Negro union miners in Alabama, learning that operators sought to trick Negro workers into serving as strikebreakers in the nearby town of Pana, held a meeting that denounced the scheme. Moreover, most of the penniless Negro miners and their families who arrived in Virden refused to serve as strikebreakers once they learned the truth of the situation. But the operators' divide and conquer tactic was partly successful. It seemed to many Illinois miners that "Negro" and "strikebreaker" meant the same thing.

This misidentification made it easier for Governor Tanner to pose as a friend of labor, as he subtly played on the racial prejudices of working people. In the larger international context, such ideas of racial superiority were critical in mobilizing the entire nation to fight wars against the Spanish Empire in 1898 and then against the heroic Filipino independence movement during these years. Closer to home, at least in part as a result of the racist dynamics of the strike, the Negro population of the region's mining towns remained quite small. Compared to the other major unions of the day, the UMWA succeeded to an impressive degree at including Negroes in its ranks. But the racially segregated nature of the mine workforce in this corner of Illinois pointed to the challenges for forging working-class solidarity which lay ahead."

In 1900, Cal Robinson, a negro man, stood before the Illinois union convention and spoke of the work to be done, "There are five shafts in and around Springfield, all supposed to be managed by good union men, and in these shafts no colored men work, simply on account of their color... If you do what is right in this matter, gentlemen, you will have none of your Virden and Carterville riots, and no blood will be spilled. If this discrimination is blotted out you will never hear of such riots as we have had in this State. This discrimination means that when the negroes are barred from these shafts and if there is a strike ordered at these places, the operators will say they will get negroes from the South and that they will run the shafts. Gentlemen, we should get closer together; it behooves all to do this; it will stop all friction."

By Carl Weinberg, Illinois Labor History Society 
Edited by Neil Gale, Ph.D.


  1. My greatgrandfather Domenico Trione 1854-1934 from Turin, immigrated 1879, worked in Illinois coal mines 1879-1889. One of his children was born in 1885 in Springfield. He worked in Clark City mine and in Collinsville. He settled in Alabama, farmed there 1889 to1934. There was a movement to resettle Italian miners on farmland. Perhaps you have heard of Alessandro Mastrovalerio (not the artist his nephew) a journalist who worked for railroads on resettlement. Railroads were selling land to populate their lines.

  2. The Virden riot has a lesson to teach, but it is very different from what this article offers. A white men’s paramilitary militia that opens fire on a trainload of African American men, women and children cannot be defending a picket line or fighting for union rights.
    Research into official state records has shown that there was only one African American coal miner left in Macoupin County Illinois ( where Virden is located) , ten years after the mine riot. This action, and the murders at Pana and Carterville, constituted a nakba for black coal miners in Illinois. A month after Virden, the UMWA local at Toluca, Illinois lynched a black man in revenge for the “massacre” at Virden.
    This article says Virden was a great labor victory that we should honor, even as it had a “limit of success” with regard to the “scourge” of racism. But white supremacy is not inert. It is an active historical dialectic of class collaboration. If the governor is on your side, you must be doing something wrong.


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