Yesterday marked the 119th anniversary of the Lattimer Massacre, an event which transpired over the course of about three minutes in September of 1897 in a northeast Pennsylvania coal town on the outskirts of Hazleton. In the next few days people all over the country were in a daze, sorting out exactly what happened and interpreting the significance of the event. An article in the Philadelphia Inquirer printed on the 12th of September gave this report of the scene:
The shooting occurred at the bend of a dusty road leading from Hazleton and bordered by a rank growth of bush. For a background, however, the affray had a row of half a dozen frame cottages, mean enough in appearance, yet in the little yard in front of each a few bright-hued flowers grow. To-day only a step from these desert blossoms lay a portion of a man’s brains, and a little beyond a horrible bundle of gory rags, upon which the blood was still wet.
(Philadelphia Inquirer, 12 September 1897)
The day after the massacre, newspapers across the country expressed shock and dismay in language such as “Yesterday’s butchery- A Mob of Heartless Deputies Fire into a Throng of Marchers and Accomplish Deadly Work” (The Daily Standard), “Strikers Shot in Cold Blood” (Pottsville Republican), “Strikers march to Death” (The New York Tribune), “Mowed Down by Deputies” (San Francisco Chronicle), and “Dead in Heaps, Deputies Fire on Miners at Lattimer” (Boston Daly Globe).
Ethnic newspapers expressed dismay fully appraised the racial, nationalist or ethnic victimization inherent to the brutality, poignantly editorializing the implications. In the socialist Slovak-American newspaper Fakla an editor opined, “In the freest country under the sun, people are shot like dogs. Slavs are the victims of American savagery” (Pucher-Ciernovodsky 1897, quoted in Stolarik 2002:35). A Ukranian paper based in the Anthracite region, Svoboda, used the massacre as an opportunity to illuminate the role of anti-immigration sentiments in the violence when it lamented, “Knowing what hatred is breathing every capricious American against any Slavonic man…. It can be said with certainty, that the sheriff ordered to shoot toward hated Hungarians…” (Svoboda 1897, quoted in Turner 1984:127).
Other editorialists connected the tragedy to other transnational events such as the growing American imperialism evident in the concurrent U.S. involvement in the Spanish-American War. In the saber-rattling aftermath of the blowing up of the Maine, the massacre was invoked by a commentator that questioned the nation’s readiness to mobilize for war in this instance, but for the “carnival of carnage that takes place everyday” in the mines and industrial work environments, “no popular uproar is heard” (Zinn 2003:307). Similarly, a London based paper suggested that, “There is no reason for America to fight Spain after all. An outlet for her fighting energy is provided by the indiscreet vigor of a Pennsylvania Sheriff” (The Daily Mail, 14 September 1897, quoted in Greene 1964:210). Likewise, Lucifer, Light Bringer an anarchist newspaper based in Chicago suggested there was a direct connection between the massacre and imperialism in this stunning passage I quote in full:
If this is not imperialism, pray in what does imperialism consist? From the state of this centralized Federal power packing the Supreme Court with its creatures and partisans… the arrest of Emma Goldman and the massacre of the helpless strikers at Lattimer, Pennsylvania, this hydra-headed imperialism overshadows the land. In brief, the United States has finally become under the evolution of despotism, a judicial military ecclesiastical capitalistic, plutocracy embodying the aristocratic principle of the Doges of Venice, with the imperialism of ancient Rome working through the Parliamentary machinery of monarchial England. Every avenue of the nation’s life is fed and poisoned by a capitalistic corrupted and religion-by law-perverted public school system….And worst of all, the enslaved and degenerate American, thanks to the public school, loves his chains [Baylor 1898:57].
Anarchist organizations throughout the country used the example of Hazleton to call for violent retribution. Branch 2 of the organization Social Democracy in America passed a resolution demanding that for, “every miner killed or wounded a millionaire should be treated in the same manner” (Falk 2003:288). A member of that organization’s board of directors responded that he would “burn every dollar’s worth of their property” and “destroy their palaces” (Falk 2003:288).
Other media sources were more supportive of the cause of the Sheriff’s cause, writing in support of the Sheriff, generally supporting his unequivocal duty to maintain the peace and the strength of law. For example, on the 23 September 1897 the New York Observer wrote that, “The first duty of government is to protect life and property, so to defend its citizens in possession of the results of their toil….It is for such emergencies that sheriff’s posses exist, and the law places no limit to the means they shall use…” Similarly, Life Magazine wrote that given the lack of available troops at Lattimer at the time we should accept that, “…the Sheriff did his best, there is nothing for it but to back him up, condone his indiscretion if he was indiscreet, and admit that he did his duty” (23 September 1897, Life).
Three days after the massacre Emma Goldman gave a speech in Boston, asking the crowd a crucial question, contextualizing the violence by initiating a similar exploration into everyday life (Falk 2003:286). She theorized:
If those strikers had been Americans the sheriff would not have dared to fire upon them. But they were foreigners, and foreigners do not amount to anything. The foreigner is good enough to build your elegant houses and your roads, sew your clothes, and do everything for your comfort, but he is not good enough to enjoy the advantages that belong to the heads of the government….
In her speech Emma Goldman uses the instance of violence to ask crucial questions about everyday life and history in America. As Goldman suggests, the crucial clue to the origins of the violence comes not from the sequence of the event, but in the social, political and material context that allowed the violence to take place.
Falk, Candace (editor)
2003 Emma Goldman: A Documentary History of the American Years: Made in America,1890–1901, Vol 1. University of California Press, Berkeley.
Greene, Victor R.
1964 A Study In Slavs, Strikes, And Unions: The Anthracite Strike Of 1897. Pennsylvania History 31(2):199-215.
Stolarik, M. Mark
2002 A Slovak Perspective on the Lattimer Massacre. Pennsylvania History 96(1):31-41.
1984 Ethnic Responses to the Lattimer Massacre. In Hard Coal, Hard Times: Ethnicity and Labor in the Anthracite Region, edited by David L. Salay, pp. 126-152. The Anthracite Museum Press, Scranton, Pennsylvania.
2003 A People’s History of the United States. Harper Perennial, New York.