The Lattimer massacre
was an incident in which a sheriff's posse
killed nineteen unarmed immigrant miners and wounded scores more. On September 10, 1897 at the Lattimer mine near Hazleton, Pennsylvania
, men under the authority of the Luzerne County
sheriff fired on a peaceful labor demonstration made up of mostly Polish
, and Lithuanian anthracite
miners. This incident stands not only as the largest massacre
of Central Europeans
in the United States, but also as a turning point in the American labor movement
The agricultural economy of Central
and Eastern Europe
was in difficulty in the late 19th century. Most families farmed small plots of land which were sometimes no bigger than today's suburban backyards. These conditions led to a mass exodus to the United States, which was experiencing rapid industrialization and an explosion in steel
production at the time. Many of these new immigrants mined the coal
needed to fuel this burgeoning industry.
The immigrants, used to the harshness of Old World
poverty, were initially willing to work in the dangerous mines for little pay. The mines of that era were very profit-oriented; safety was a low priority, and miners were considered expendable and easily replaceable. Under this system, miners were paid wages below subsistence level, which forced them to go into debt to the company-run store
, thereby placing them firmly in the company's pocket. The mining companies further controlled their employees' lives by requiring them to live in company-owned housing
and to be treated by company doctors.
Furthermore, the immigrant miners received a harsh welcome from the local population. These predominantly Catholic immigrants faced bigotry from nativist Protestants in America. The ethnic slur "hunky," (or "honky") a reference to the central-European nation of Austria-Hungary, was commonly used.
1897 was a bad year for the coal industry. Low anthracite prices resulted in particularly poor pay and sporadic work for miners. Labor organizers from the United Mine Workers of America came to northeast Pennsylvania in order to organize strikes.
On September 1, workers throughout Northeast Pennsylvania began to strike. About 5,000 miners joined the walkout. Demonstrators marched from mine to mine, shutting down each mining operation and adding more people to the strike. By midweek, the strike had swelled to 10,000 workers. The mine owners, in order to protect their property and their bottom line, demanded help from the County Sheriff.
The municipal governments in Luzerne County were essentially under the control of the local mining companies. Sheriff James Martin declared a state of civil disorder, which allowed him to deputize a posse of 87 men, most of whom were locally-born Protestants. They were armed with Winchester repeating rifles loaded with, it is reported, metal-jacketed bullets giving the rounds greater penetration, and shotguns loaded with buckshot..". The posse was ordered to "use whatever means necessary to quell the strikes."
On September 10, about 400 strikers were on their way to shut down the A.D. Pardee & Co. colliery at Lattimer. They marched entirely unarmed. The demonstrators were met by the sheriff and several deputies. While Sheriff Martin read a proclamation banning demonstrators in his county, he pointed his pistol at the head of a miner; meanwhile, his deputies roughed up the strikers, breaking one man's arm with a rifle butt. The miners were not deterred, however. They continued towards the Pardee mine.
Reportedly, some of the deputies were intent on more violent confrontation with the strikers. While on a streetcar headed for Lattimer with the sheriff and his comrades, one deputy was overheard saying "I bet I drop six of them when I get over there."
When the demonstrators reached Lattimer, they were met again by the Sheriff and a semi-circle of about sixty armed deputies. The sheriff again ordered the crowd to disperse, but this only served to raise the tension to a boiling point. The halted march had resulted in confusion, compounded by the fact that many of the marchers spoke different languages.
When an unidentified member of the posse (unevidenced accusations later fell on the sheriff) reportedly yelled "Fire!" and "Give two or three shots!", the posse opened fire on the strikers, killing nineteen. Fourteen Poles, four Slovaks, and one Lithuanian were killed. About forty more of the demonstrators were wounded, at least six of whom later died of their wounds. Exact figures regarding the wounded are uncertain, because many were afraid to seek treatment at the local hospital. About 150 rounds were fired, which is equivalent to emptying nine of the sixteen-round Winchesters. While some of the deputies rendered assistance to the wounded, others reacted more callously. It is reported that when one wounded man cried for water, an onlooker heard a deputy respond, "We'll give you hell, not water, hunkies!"
Reporters from many major east-coast newspapers were already in the county covering the strike when the massacre occurred. The resulting headlines outraged the American public. The Pennsylvania National Guard
was immediately dispatched to the county to restore order. Sheriff Martin and 78 of his 87 deputies were arrested and put on trial, but were later acquitted. This verdict upset those involved in the American labor movement, as well as the government of Austria-Hungary (the homeland of some of the wounded). These parties alleged that the trial was conducted unfairly, and speculated that the locally-born jury was unlikely to return a verdict favoring the foreign-born miners.
The massacre's publicity drew sympathy from the American middle class towards the plight of Slavic laborers. However, the incident prompted Slavic laborers to distrust the American politico-justice system. The backlash added 15,000 new names to the rolls of the United Mine Workers of America.
Although the posse was acquitted, the incident set an important precedent. In the future, only the National Guard would be used to restore order in times of civil disorder. The Ludlow Massacre of 1914, however, gave the Guard a similarly violent reputation.
- Bloodshed at Lattimer (Wayback copy). Standard Speaker newspaper — Local History section. . and
- The Lattimer Massacre (page 2). Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission Site. .
- The Lattimer Massacre (page 3). Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission Site. .
- The Lattimer Massacre (page 4). Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission Site. .