120 Years Ago Today

Brotherhood of Firemen Journal 1898 Massacre Scene

Today marks the 120th Anniversary of the Lattimer Massacre. The Lattimer Massacre took place over about three minutes in September of 1897. A posse of as many as 150 deputized local men armed with pistols and rifles shot immigrant coal mine laborers marching on strike in the town of Lattimer, Pennsylvania. The posse killed at least 19 and wounded as many as forty more, emptying their rifles into the backs of the fleeing men. The victims were Eastern Europeans, demonstrating for fair wages and working and living conditions. Many details of the event are obscured by the passage of time and by many conflicting accounts. In such incidents of explicit subjective violence, we can see the crystallization of hidden social antagonisms suddenly materialized.

Tensions were on the rise between capital and labor in the years leading up to the Massacre of 1897. Beginning in the early 1880s, a series of global and regional economic depressions affected the industry. Leading up to the Panic of 1893, the price of coal dropped to the lowest it had been since its peak in about 1865, with the exception of the 1877 depression. In these uncertain times, coal operators had recourse to a few options to maintain profitability. They could moderate productivity to drive up prices by work stoppages or limiting the coal cars available for miners (Blatz 2004:48; Walker 1924). They could also cut production costs by mechanizing extraction processes and decreasing labor costs. In testimony to a Federal investigation of these monopolistic price controls during the strike of 1888, an attorney described this system as one in which “[the coal operators] take first the miner by the throat with one hand and the consumer by the throat with the other” (W.H. Hines, to Congress 1889: 530).

In this period coal mine operators always maintained a pool of surplus labor. Doing so granted them the logistical flexibility to respond to the exigencies of an unpredictable market. In 1898 one operator admitted to a reporter that he, “must have more men on hand than could be used at any except for the best business periods” (Brooks 1898: 306). Throughout the last couple decades of the nineteenth century, immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe filled these ranks, joining or replacing earlier generations of workers.

As in many industrial contexts, new immigrants were at first put to work in relatively unskilled laboring roles, and paid considerably less than longer established groups. At this time, coal operators introduced mechanized processes such as strip mining and washery operations. Washery operations used mechanical means to reclaim small fraction coal from the ubiquitous waste, or culm banks of the region. At their introduction, long established underground miners recognized these new processes as efforts to bypass or destabilize the value of their craft skills. A motto of strikes during the time incited a boycott of coal produced through the washery process: “Don’t handle washery coal; that is what the operator stole from the miner” (quoted in Roberts 1901: 212).

The diversity of groups entering the region offered an additional advantage to operators, whose carefully balanced arrangements were threatened most by the possibility of organization. Competition, hierarchicalization and language barriers made organization particularly difficult. Edward Pinkowski (1950: 209) alleges that, “[Calvin Pardee] filled the houses at Lattimer largely with Italian immigrants and those in Harwood with Slovaks, Poles and Lithuanians. With a wholesale mixture of nationalities he felt that there would be less chance of a consolidation of the working men against his interests”. Despite their responsibility for the initial introduction of new immigrant labor to the region, coal mine operators nonetheless kept a wary eye out for signs of radicalism in their new workers.

Blatz, Perry K.
1994 Democratic Miners Work and Labor Relations in the Anthracite Coal Industry, 1875-1925. State University of New York Press, Albany.

Pinkowski, Edward
1950 The Lattimer Massacre. Sunshine, Philadelphia.

Roberts, Peter
1901 The Anthracite Coal Industry. Macmillan Company, London.

Walker, Francis
1924 The Development of the Anthracite Combination. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 111:234-248.

Advertisements