Bloody Williamson’s History of Mine Massacres

Herrin Massacre map 1923From well before the turn of the century, coal became king in Southern Illinois and reshaped the economies and landscape of many counties, Williamson County among them. Coal mining has always been part and parcel of the lives and livelihoods of most of the citizenry of this county and back in the day if you didn’t work for the coal mines you assuredly knew someone who did.

With the advent of coal mining, eventually came union labor and among unions there was no more powerful or controversial than the United Mine Workers of America or U.M.W.A. with its formation in 1890.

By the mid 1890’s, Williamson County coal fields became union fields, period, no exceptions, and those who were inclined through history to think otherwise were quickly reminded with death threats or acts of violence and would find out why this county got the moniker of Bloody Williamson in the 1920’s.

The Carterville Mine Riots of 1899

The precedent of mine violence was formed early in our county history. In 1889, Samuel T. Brush started up a mining operation north of Carterville, Illinois called the St. Louis and Big Muddy Coal Company. Brush had been born in Carbondale and raised by his uncle who was one of the founders of that city and a Colonel in the Civil War.

After repeated strikes and trouble with the newly established locals of the U.M.W.A. in 1898 and 1899, Brush made the decision to bypass the union and import African American workers from out the county.

This was now “double trouble”, the workers weren’t union and they weren’t white. Most of Southern Illinois in those days were still considered “sun down” towns. Meaning, if the sun goes down and you’re black, you better not still be in town.

Brush made arrangements to have the men and their families brought by train into Carterville. The union having heard of these plans, ambushed the train with rifle fire as it pulled into the station, killing the wife of one of the workers.

The workers that Brush imported made their homes in the village of Dewmaine which was located on the mine property. The strife continued, and eventually forced the Governor to call out National Guard reserves from Carbondale to be stationed around Carterville. Later in the year on September 11th, thinking that the violence had subsided through the summer, he recalled the troops.

On September 17, 1899, a group of black miners from Brush’s mine left his mine property and went downtown to the train station. This was the opportunity that the union workers had been waiting for since they already had a wagon full of guns and ammunition prepared for the event.

Before the black miners could reach their destination they were confronted with the union workers and a gunfight ensued. In the end, several non-union workers were killed and several were wounded with no casualties on the union side. The union men responsible were rounded up, arrested, and jailed. After three days, all were released and no convictions were ever filed.

Brush had been taught a lesson and would sell his mine in 1906 to the Madison Coal Corporation. Even worse, a precedent had been set making it acceptable to commit murder.

The Herrin Massacre

By the 1920’s, the U.M.W.A. had changed slightly from the Brush Massacre days in 1899, in that they were now carding members that were African Americans, Italians, Irishmen, Poles, and Germans, many of whom now lived in or near Herrin, Illinois and surrounding towns. This did not go unnoticed by the Ku Klux Klan which has had a presence in Williamson County since the 1870’s.

The KKK had infiltrated and exerted a strong influence on a great many of the churches in the area and therefore influenced the actions of many of its members. Couple this with the advent of Prohibition in 1921 and the creation of bootlegging, corrupt officials and gang warfare and you have created a completely different set of problems that will be dealt with in another post, but keep in mind that they were all woven into the fabric of the times.

In 1922 William J. Lester, who had purchased property from Ed Crenshaw, began developing a mining operation called the Southern Illinois Coal Company. The property was located on the east side of what is now called N. Skyline Drive between New Route 13 and Crenshaw Crossing. Ironically, General Dynamics now uses the site to test ammunitions.

Lester had a plan, his mine would be a strip mine operation, unique for that time, and instead of making the mistake that Brush made by using black workers, he would use non-union white workers. He also figured that he could throw off the U.M.W.A. issues by telling people that he employed card carrying members of the Steam Shovelers Union, one not officially recognized by the U.M.W.A. leader, John Lewis, unfortunately.

His preparations involved hiring “armed muscle” for guards through the Hargrave Secret Service Agency out of Chicago, Illinois and arming them with a cache of guns and ammunition he had purchased. Lester then hired Claude McDowell as his mine Superintendent who had already broken coal strikes in Colorado and Kansas and had a reputation. His final move was to hire laborers out of the Bertrand Labor Agency located in Chicago to supply him with workers.

Lester was now ready to open his mine, but his timing couldn’t have been worse, deeming to fire up a non-union coal mine in the middle of union territory in the middle of a national labor strike, but the fuse had already been lit.

By Wednesday, June 21, 1922, the Lester’s Hargrave guards had already made numerous trips to the Illinois Central Depot in Carbondale to pick up non-union workers hired out of Chicago. On that day, the guards traveled on the then newly constructed Illinois route 13 to Carbondale, picked up the workers and were making their return trip as they had done before with the workers. The new workers rode in the back of a truck driven by a guard and a chase car followed along behind containing armed guards.

After leaving Carbondale and upon crossing into Williamson County, a car which had been following them from the station passed them and fired shots in the air. As if on cue, shots began being fired from the surrounding tree lines and the truck driver’s spinal cord was severed causing him to lose control of the truck. After the truck ran off the road, the workers in the back bailed out and started running back toward Carbondale.

Focus was then placed on the chase car with guards in it. Rather than fight it out and try and help their fallen guard in the truck, they turned around and tried to escape but the tires were shot out forcing them to escape on foot. They were chased through underbrush until they swam across the Muddy River which put them in Jackson County and the chase ended with that. After everyone had been run off, so to speak, the men responsible for the ambush conveniently dropped their weapons off at a farm house and walked back into town empty handed, leaving the seriously injured guard to die. The guard was paralyzed and lived for several months before dying in January 1923.

Only the day before this incident, a call had been made to John Lewis with the U.M.W.A. to find out if the Steam Shovelers Union was recognized, it wasn’t. Even before that tidbit hit the local papers, the union had gotten wind of it and held a meeting. A decision was made to ambush the scabs the next day but lots of guns and ammo would be needed.

Union members began hitting every store in Herrin stripping them of what guns and ammo they had and charged them to the union under the pretense of “bird hunting”. The merchants were never repaid, so it was actually theft.  When Herrin ran dry, which is hard to believe, they headed for Marion to do the same. Oldham Paisley, warned of their intent, quickly ran to the American Legion hall where WWI rifles were stored and hid them in a warehouse before they could arrive.

Apparently, when the men couldn’t procure what they considered enough weapons they started hitting individuals homes that were known to house guns. One home they went to was that of Judge DeWitt T. Hartwell who lived at 301 S. Market Street and was known for his gun collection. When the throng approached Hartwell and his wife on their front porch, his answer was perfect. He looked at his wife and loudly said, “You load while I shoot!”

After the ambush on the guards and workers coming from Carbondale, word filtered back to the remaining guards at Lester’s mine and they vow to shoot any miner coming within rifle range of the mine.

Ed Crenshaw who originally sold the land to Lester for his mine lived in a farmhouse less than half a mile north of the mine. It became a meeting point for the union miners, primarily because it had a view of the mine and the rail road spur leading out of the mine to the C&EI main line.

Around noon, Robert Tracy, the Lester mine locomotive engineer made a run out of the mine to the main spur to transfer coal. This move made him vulnerable to attack which came in the form of rifle fire at the cab. Tracy poured the coal to it and drove the engine as fast as he could back into the mine under a hail of gunfire locking the brakes as he reentered the mine. The battle was on.

With hills of stripped earth surrounding the mine it made for a good defensive position. The guards used this advantage and began firing at the Crenshaw house from behind the hilltops of dirt. Union miner George Henderson is killed in the gunfight.

The gun battle raged for three hours with hundreds of rounds going into and out of the Lester strip mine. McDowell, the mine superintendent, and the non-union workers hid behind steel box cars that the men had been using as living quarters and dining cars.

At first it didn’t look bad for the guards in the mine, they had wounded James Morris from Johnston City and John Sanders from Ziegler. Joseph Pitchavich and Guy Hudgens would later die from wounds received during the shootout.

By 5:30 in the afternoon, Colonel Sam Hunter of the Illinois National Guard, had spoken to Lester and they determined that if the union would call a cease fire that Lester would close the mine down till the national strike was settled if the union would allow the non-union miners to leave the mine and the mine was to go undamaged. Hunter had been in Marion for a few days, having come from his Springfield office to keep an eye on the affair, but as of yet, no one has asked for the National Guard to be called out to restore order.

After speaking to Lester, Colonel Hunter called the only union official he could reach and spoke to Mr. Fox Hughes, Vice President of the union sub-district. Hughes agrees to try and sell the cease fire to the miners. Hunter then calls the mine and tells them to expect a cease fire. He then recalls the union leader and is told that he has left to arrange the cease fire. When Hunter recalls McDowell at the mine, he is told that shooting has subsided but doesn’t want to leave the mine at night and will wait till morning, then the line went dead, cut by the union miners.

So far, no one had been seriously hurt inside the mine itself, but more and more union members and locals were beginning to show up and the mine was being surrounded. With only twenty Hargrave guards inside the mine, the odds weren’t looking good and night was beginning to fall.

Late that evening in Marion, a meeting is held including Colonel Hunter, Sheriff Melvin Thaxton, State’s Attorney Delos Duty, Major Davis of the National Guard at Carbondale, and Hugh Willis, President of the union local district. The decision is made to go to the mine the next morning at 6 A.M. to make sure that terms of the cease fire are being carried out. They are to meet in the morning.

While this very meeting is taking place all of the Hargrave agents, but four, see the writing on the wall and slip away from the mine leaving it nearly defenseless. The union miners take advantage of the darkness and lack of return fire to get closer and start dynamiting buildings, equipment and the railroad spur. Lester was effectively out of business at this point.

The gunfire and explosions taking place throughout the night could be heard in Herrin and Marion and no one would volunteer to do anything about it.

On the next morning, June 22, 1922, Sheriff Thaxton, who had drug his feet as long as possible finally started heading for the mine from Marion at 8:30 A.M. When they arrived, the mine was a virtual mob scene. Everything had either been burned or dynamited or was in the process of being destroyed or plundered. When the miners were asked where Superintendent McDowell and the non-union miners were at, they were told that they had been marched toward Herrin two and a half hours ago.

In fact, McDowell and the miners had given up that morning under a white flag of truce and were told that they would be seen out of the county.

Sheriff Thaxton and his deputy turn a blind eye to the damage being done. He takes his deputy and leaves toward Herrin.  Major Davis wants to pursue the men toward Herrin to assure their safety, but is overridden by Colonel Hunter, so they return to Marion.

When McDowell had surrendered the mine earlier, all of the 47 men were surrounded and searched for weapons. They were then lined up two by two and marched a quarter mile north to Crenshaw Crossing where one of the leaders entered a store to call Hugh Willis, the local union President to update him. While he was gone, one of the locals named Otis Clark started talking the crowd up about how all the scabs should be killed. He then recognized McDowell as being involved in previous strike breaking. When the individual who made the phone call returned, he attempted to remind the crowd that the men had surrendered under a truce and they should be treated like POW’s.  Clark told him to shut up and the sole voice of reason retreated. Clark then made his point and bashed McDowell in the head with his gun.

The men were then marched a half mile west to Moak’s Crossing. By this time, the very large crowd split off with many returning to Lester’s mine to see what could be destroyed or plundered.

As the march continued, the mob surrounding the men began to get more vocal about “killing the scabs” and would take turns brutalizing or demeaning them. McDowell took most of the abuse, being repeatedly hit with rifle stocks and the butts of guns until Otis Clark knocked him unconscious. Clark and another man named Oscar Howard hauled Clarks unconscious body down a nearby farmers lane and dispatched McDowell with two shots to the chest. The mob cheered at the sound of his demise.

The remaining 46 men are marched toward Herrin and are stopped alongside the road with the intention of killing them. About that time, Hugh Willis, the local union President stops by and indicates that there are too many people around on the road  and to take the men to the nearby Coal Belt power house and kill them.

The men are marched north through the woods to the Coal Belt Electric Line’s power house with a hundred miners surrounding them. A circle is being formed around the men in anticipation of killing them. The men, aware of what’s about to happen, make a break for a barbed wire fence not far away.

Over half the men are able to clear the barbed wire as the miners open fire on the fleeing men. Twenty men are shot or killed and twenty six make it over the fence, but some are wounded. The mob splits up with half remaining and half following the escaping workers.

One of the wounded men had propped himself against a tree and tried to keep from going down. He was shot repeatedly and eventually a Marion cab driver, annoyed by his persistence, put a gun to his chest and killed him.

The mob was in the process of walking through the workers and kicking them to see if they were alive and finish them off, if necessary, when word came that troops were coming. Troops were not coming but it stopped the carnage with only nine dead and eleven wounded in this group.

Of the escaped workers, two found their way to Herrin and turned themselves into the police. Two of the men found their way to Marion. A group of three workers were discovered by miner Bert Grace and his buddies. They shot two of the men and hung the third because they recognized him as a guard at the mine.

Two more of the escaped workers sought refuge in a barn but were discovered and shot. One stayed alive long enough for the barns owner to take him to the Herrin Hospital.

One wounded worker attempted to hide under a porch but was quickly discovered. He narrowly avoided being hung only because of word arriving that they had discovered five more and they were being taken into Herrin, so he was taken there and placed with the other five.

The six men taken to Herrin were tied together with rope around their necks and paraded through the streets of Herrin so they could be displayed and taunted. The decision was made to take them to the cemetery and kill them. At one point, they were forced to crawl on their hands and knees, most of them already wounded or beaten. Carloads of people lined the parade route to the cemetery to see the spectacle, women and children included.

At the cemetery, the men were surrounded by a group of about ten men and they were fired upon. Three of them still displayed signs of life and were fired upon at close range. One local by the name of Peter Hiller, pulled a knife out of his pocket and began cutting all of the men’s throats. One of the men presented a problem, since he couldn’t get to his throat properly, so he just stabbed him in the throat and then put his knife away, content with his work.

An attractive, beautiful woman holding a baby stepped forward out of the crowd, put her foot on one of the dead men’s wounds and pushed her foot down to watch the blood escape.

Half an hour later, a hearse pulled in and the men’s bodies were stacked like wood into the back of the truck. When it was determined, miraculously, that two were still alive they were dropped off at the hospital and the dead were deposited in an empty store room in the Dillard building.

Mine Superintendent McDowell’s body had been taken to Marion but the remaining corpses in Herrin which numbered sixteen were gathered in a pile at the Dillard building in Herrin for the curious to look at.   

Twenty one people were killed in twenty four hours and three would die later from complications. The story of the brutality witnessed in Herrin lit up the national press wire services and phone lines. By Friday evening, forty major news agencies had their men on the streets as far away as New York and Chicago. The local newspapers, feeling it necessary to be more guarded in their reporting, called it an “unfortunate incident.”

The streets of Herrin filled with “rubber neckers” who had come to see the “dead scabs” and the destroyed Lester strip mine. Families made a day of it and packed Herrin’s restaurants and facilities.

No attempts were ever made by the police to determine identification of the bodies. Most of the men’s money, rings and personal goods had already been stolen by the mobs anyway.  Even so, most of them had letters from home, military I.D.’s, and papers that could have identified them, but why give a wild animal a name and make it personal, so they didn’t.

Herrin officials eventually determined that it probably wouldn’t reflect well on the city to have a pile of dead corpses stripped down to their underwear and starting to attract flies as beneficial so the decision was made to have the Albert Storme Funeral Home in Herrin at least clean the bodies.

The bodies were prepared by washing and laid out on pine boxes in a row. When the bodies were again placed on public display at the morgue, the Herrin police, in charge of crowd control, allowed the crowds to spit on the bodies, lift the sheets and probe the wounds and stick cigar butts in the corpse’s mouths as a joke. All witnessed by outside press. No pictures were allowed to be taken of the victims and when it did happen, the camera would be smashed.

The bodies sitting in a building with open doors and windows began to form pools of blood on the floor underneath them and the dead became a feeding ground for insects.

By the next day, reality began to seep in and the crowds were much more subdued. Williamson County had now become “Bloody Williamson” and county citizens would be looked at by the national press as ruthless and lawless degenerates for years to come.

When the bodies began to decompose and smell in the summer heat they were moved to the Storme Funeral Home where they were embalmed to delay the decomposition. Even in the funeral home, the depersonalization continued as each man was given a number from 1 to 16 as his name on the death record. This numbering system continued with metal grave markers and tags on their coffins, even though they were fairly certain of their names.

After the massacre, the Illinois Governor requested information as to whether arrests had been made and whether law and order had been restored. When his request went unanswered he threatened to send troops in to restore order. Sheriff Melvin Thaxton, who appears to have tried his best to stay out of the union’s way through the whole affair, informed the Governor that all was well, but the Governor sent investigators in any way to put some heat on the county.

Over the coming days and weeks, five families claimed remains of the victims and the rest were buried in the “potter’s field” of Herrin Cemetery.

When the State’s Attorney, Delos Duty, was asked by a reporter if any arrests would ever be made, he said, “ Yes, there will be arrests, and there will be trials, but there won’t be any convictions.” He added that it would be impossible to find a jury that would convict the accused.

The month of July came and went with the Chicago Tribune keeping count in their newspapers of days without someone being indicted. Attorney General Brundage posted a $1,000 dollar reward for information about the murders leading to a conviction. He would never have to pay it, but he got enough letters with information to announce that arrests would be forthcoming. Unfortunately, he got more letters saying that he would be killed if he ever came to Williamson County.

On August 12th, 1922, the first arrests had been made and a grand jury had been seated and evidence presented. The first indictments resulted in the arrest of fifty nine men. Some fled and the rest were rounded up or turned themselves in.

The arrested men were placed in the Williamson County Jail and held without bond. It was clear from their treatment while in jail that the community was behind them. The prisoners were brought home cooked meals and fans. One of the main protagonists, Otis Clark, had been in the process of finishing building his home when he was arrested, so the carpenters union completed it for him while he was incarcerated.

Since the county or state didn’t have the money to finance a trial proceeding it got sponsored by the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. Interestingly enough but not too surprising, Illinois State Governor Small was being tried on criminal charges for misuse of public funds when the massacre was taking place and was likely distracted.

The first trial started on November 18, 1922 to a packed house and public square in Marion with a jury of mostly male union coal miners and a few farmers related to union coal miners. The judge on the case was D.T. Hartwell and the State’s Attorney, Delos Duty. In the trial, there was no doubt about who did what and the evidence and testimony was overwhelming.

Hartwell put the evidence in the hands of the jury for them to deliberate. Of course, the verdict was a forgone conclusion, so after three hours of deliberation (?) it was determined that all concerned were not guilty on all charges. The jury was polled individually and the verdict was the same.

Prosecutors had chosen to save the murder of one of the workers named Antonio Molkovich to try separately. They thought that since Molkovich was a decorated WWI veteran who had served on three major fronts during the war that there would be more sympathy for him and therefore a different result.

Molkovich’s murder trial began on February 12, 1923 and in comparison to the crowds at the first trial, the entire spectacle was beginning to fade as do all big news stories with time. Where fifty or more newsmen covered the first trial, less than half a dozen attended the second. Most newspapers chose to use Oldham Paisley’s coverage of the trial in the Marion Daily as their wire service.

When the jury deliberated on April 7, 1923, all involved with the death of Antonio Molkovich were found to be not guilty including Hugh Willis, President of the local union.

With this, the whole affair began to fade from memory. Most folks in Herrin and the area that had knowledge or memories of the event didn’t talk much about it, for good reason. Those who did speak of it tended to color the “scab” workers as “foreigners”, making it, in some way, more palatable.

In the late 1930’s, the county was visited by a Chicago writer named Paul Angle gathering information for a book he was researching. He published the book “Bloody Williamson” in 1952. The latest book on the subject at this writing is a book called “Herrin Massacre” by Scott Doody released in 2013.

The names I have of the workers and guards of the Lester Mine who died are as follows:

Howard Edward Hoffman 1888-1922, Claude K. McDowell 1894-1922, Robert J. Anderson 1896-1922 WWI Veteran, Robert Marsh WWI Veteran, Horatio Gosman 1887-1922, Arthur B. Miller 1883-1922, John Earl Shoemaker 1881-1922, Antonio Molkovich WWI Veteran, John Emil, Bud Lang, James Sayghizo WWI Veteran, Allen C. Novine, C.E. Davis,  Raymond Jacobs, Fred Lang, John C. Smith, Edward Miller, John Casper and G. Ward WWI Veteran.

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(Data and extracts from Pioneer Folks and Places, Barbara Barr Hubbs; “Bloody Williamson, Paul Angle, 1952; “Herrin Massacre”, Scoot Doody; Compiled by Sam Lattuca on 05/30/2011)


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