May/june 1997 | Volume 48, Issue 3
On June 21, labor violence erupted at the Southern Illinois Coal Company’s strip mine near Herrin, Illinois. The United Mine Workers (U.M.W.) was in the midst of a nationwide strike, but it had agreed to let members of the steam-shovelmen’s union remove dirt from the site. In mid-June, however, the shovelmen started loading coal. In the strikers’ eyes, this made them scabs—not a good thing to be in Williamson County, where 90 percent of the work force, even shopkeepers and farmers, held U.M.W. cards.
The fighting began on the morning of June 21 when a truckload of laborers, recruited from Chicago without being told they would be strikebreakers, was stopped on the way to the mine. Accounts differ as to who shot first, but gunfire was exchanged on the road and, shortly after, at the mine. One strikebreaker and two strikers were killed, and a third striker was mortally wounded. Within hours, union men from surrounding communities were flocking to the mine, liberating guns and ammunition from stores as they went.
A brief skirmish convinced the men inside the mine that they were vastly outnumbered. They surrendered and agreed to stop work in return for a promise of safe passage out of the county. On the morning of June 22, some fifty or sixty workers filed out of the mine with their hands up. The strikers began marching them toward town, pausing only to kill the mine’s elderly, one-legged superintendent, whom they held responsible for the previous day’s killings.
After several miles, the column reached a barbed-wire fence. By this time, whatever discipline had existed in the mob was completely gone. The scabs were lined up against the fence and told to run for their lives. As they clawed desperately at the wire, the union men opened fire. Some fell down dead or mortally wounded; others escaped into the woods, where strikers continued to hunt them down. One man saved his life by giving the Elks’ secret sign and finding some fellow members among his would-be murderers. An unlucky few were captured, marched to a cemetery, and shot; those who were still breathing then had their throats cut. The final death toll was twenty-one, with most of the survivors badly injured.
The massacre’s follow-up, while less bloody, was nearly as dispiriting. Prosecutors obtained 214 indictments, but when the first few resulted in acquittals by sympathetic local juries, the rest were dropped. The strikers’ victory was hollow, however. Repugnance over the massacre spread across the country, leading miners to desert the U.M.W. in droves. John L. Lewis, the union’s president, sent his men back to work under the old contract, and the dissension-wracked U.M.W. continued to lose power and membership through the rest of the 1920s.