- Historic Sites
The Coal Kings Come To Judgment
When the anthracite miners downed tools in 1902, economic feudalism went on trial
April 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 3
When the Reverend Carl Hauser, a Lutheran minister, went to Lansford to conduct burial services for one of his foreign-born parishioners, he was met by a committee and told he should not bury the man, because he was a scab. “He is a Lutheran,” Mr. Hauser answered, “he is a Christian and belongs to my church, and I am called by the Lutheran people … to bury that man and I will bury that man.” But nobody would even go into the house to carry the corpse to the hearse. When finally the minister managed to corral four reluctant pallbearers, they emerged from the house to find an angry crowd—“they were not so-called foreigners but were American people,” Mr. Hauser noted—lining both sides of the street and yelling: “Let that dog lie. Bury somebody else,” and, “It’s a shame to bury a scab.” When the lonely little funeral cortege reached the cemetery, more strikers lined the fence. “Nobody went to the grave,” Mr. Hauser recalled later, “only the undertaker and a few women, I guess. I went back and before the big crowd I told the sexton, ‘You are responsible for that body.’ ” He was afraid they might desecrate the grave.
Pent-up emotions finally came to a head on July 30 in the town of Shenandoah. Deputy Sheriff Thomas Beddall, escorting two nonunion men, was surrounded by a crowd of five thousand strikers and forced to take refuge in the Reading Railroad depot. When Beddall’s brother Joseph attempted to get arms and ammunition to the beleaguered men, he was mobbed and beaten to death. The sheriff managed somehow to escape and to wire Pennsylvania’s Governor William A. Stone to send troops into the region to restore order. Next morning two regiments of National Guard infantry and a troop of cavalry under the command of Brigadier General John P. S. Gobin marched into Shenandoah.
Through August the strike dragged on, with no end in sight. The presence of so many soldiers patrolling the streets, as well as the large number of armed coal and iron police, grated on the nerves of men and women whose morale was already sagging from long weeks of want. The scattered violence increased, and on August 29 General Gobin felt compelled to issue an order to his unit commanders which concluded:
In moving troops, place reliable, competent and skilled marksmen on the flanks of the command and arm your file closers with loaded guns, and instruct them that in case of attack upon the columns by stones or missiles, where the attacking party cannot be reached, the men thus selected shall carefully note the man attacking the columns, and being certain of his man, fire upon him without any further orders.
To union sympathizers it was soon known as the “shoot-to-kill” order—though in fact the soldiers killed no one—and it made the mood of the strikers even uglier. With the strike going into its fourth month, their morale was at its lowest ebb. Early in August Mitchell himself had doubts; long afterward he recalled: “I am fully convinced that the strike would have collapsed had the operators at this time opened their mines and invited the strikers to return.”
But they did not. Instead, just at this juncture their principal spokesman made the greatest tactical blunder of the strike. Back in July a Wilkes-Barre photographer named William F. Clark had written to George F. Baer, president of the Reading, asking him to settle the strike. Clark hoped, he wrote, that God would “send the Holy Spirit to reason in your heart.” Baer’s answer, which for some reason did not become generally known until August, has become a classic example of capitalistic arrogance at its apogee:
My dear Mr. Clark:
I have your letter of the 16th inst. I do not know who you are. I see that you are a religious man; but you are evidently biased in favor of the right of the workingman to control a business in which he has no other interest than to secure fair wages for the work he does.
I beg of you not to be discouraged. The rights and interests of the laboring man will be protected and cared for—not by the labor agitators, but by the Christian men of property to whom God has given control of the property rights of the country, and upon the successful management of which so much depends. Do not be discouraged. Pray earnestly that right may triumph, always remembering that the Lord God Omnipotent still reigns, and that His reign is one of law and order, and not of violence and crime.
The newspapers of the country, which already favored the strikers, had a field day. “A good many people think they superintend the earth,” said The New York Times dryly, “but not many have the egregious vanity to describe themselves as its managing directors.” From then on public opinion was almost unanimously on the side of the miners.