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The Coal Kings Come To Judgment

April 2024
27min read

When the anthracite miners downed tools in 1902, economic feudalism went on trial

The highways leading south and west out of Scranton, Pennsylvania, wind through the graveyard of a dying industry. Its monuments are decaying company houses, boarded-up collieries, and mountainous piles of culm—the black, gravelly residue from the mining of anthracite coal.

Most of the area’s younger men have moved away now, unwilling to endure the bone-wearying labor and irregular pay checks their fathers knew, or unable to get jobs at all in the dwindling number of underground shafts still open or in the strip-mining operations that gouge great scars across the face of the land. The obituary pages of the local newspapers tell the story plainly: when old miners die, their funerals bring their surviving sons and daughters—and there are many of them, for this was a prolific immigrant stock—from New York, New Jersey, and other nearby states where they have gone in search of a better life.

Anthracite is finished now, replaced by oil and gas. Yet only fifty years ago northeastern Pennsylvania was a prosperous region. For here, in a 500-square-mile triangle of low mountains, deep valleys, and sharp outcroppings of rock, lies nearly all of the country’s hard coal, and at the turn of the century anthracite heated most of the homes, factories, and offices of the Atlantic seaboard. Along with food and shelter, it was a major necessity of life, and when in 1902 the supply was cut off by a bitter, five-month strike, the entire East was thrown into turmoil. The governor of Pennsylvania sent the state’s entire National Guard into the coal fields to keep order. In Wall Street J. P. Morgan, who seldom worried, was very worried indeed. So, as winter neared, was New York’s reform mayor, Seth Low, who feared bloody coal riots in the streets. Before it was over, the strike had helped spark a national revolution in the relationships among employers, employees, and the federal government. It had also thrust into national prominence a young union leader named John Mitchell, launching him on one of the most brilliant yet heartbreaking careers in the history of American labor.

In Scranton and Wilkes-Barre, in Shamokin, Mount Carmel, and Shenandoah, there are still men and women who remember John Mitchell. An elderly Hazleton librarian, then a little girl, recalls being taken by her lather to Mitchell’s headquarters in a local hotel so that the child could shake the hand of a man who was making history. And many an immigrant miner’s son remembers when the family parlor proudly displayed two pictures side by side: a chromo-lithograph of Jesus Christ and a photograph of “Johnny d’Mitch."

These old likenesses of Mitchell reveal a handsome man with dark hair combed straight back and luminous brown eyes set in a swarthy face. His slight, wiry figure is dressed in a plain black suit with a frock coat and a high, plain collar, giving him the appearance og a priest. The son of a soft-coal miner from Braidwood, Illinois, he had gone into the mines himself at twelve as a “trapper boy,” standing in the underground darkness and opening the heavy wooden doors to let the mule-drawn coal trucks go by. A shy, introspective man, he would as his world widened feel his lack of education keenly: dutifully, as he finished a book, he would write “Read” on its flyleaf and replace it on the shelf. Nevertheless, by sticking to the United Mine Workers in their earliest, most difficult days, by hard work, a talent for conciliation, and a quiet maturity that inspired confidence, he rose through the union’s ranks to become national president in 1898, when he was only twenty-eight years old.

Nearly all of the organization’s 40,000 members were then in the bituminous fields of western Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois. A year after Mitchell’s inauguration the union decided to organize the anthracite, and in the fall of 1899 Mitchell himself, with two lieutenants, Miles Dougherty and John Fahy, headed east to take on the job.

The industry was in the grip of a handful of coal-carrying railroads, all controlled by the giant among them, the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company, commonly called “the Reading.” The grip was tight and it squeezed the miner hard. An old epitaph in a coal-country cemetery reads:

Forty years I worked with pick and drill/ Down in the mines against my will/ The Coal King's slave but now it's passed/ Thanks be to God I am free at last.

The slavery began, for most miners’ sons, at the age of ten or eleven, when they went to the breaker, separating slate from coal for as little as thirty-five cents a day. “I have seen boys going to the breaker that did not seem really able to carry their dinner pail,” said the Reverend James Moore, a Methodist minister from Avoca. “I am not very tall myself, but I have seen some little fellows with the bucket nearly touching the ground.” The breaker was at once the miner’s grammar school and old-age home—for after thirty or forty years underground he would return to it, crippled by accident or racked by miner’s asthma, and sit on the dusty floor with the little boys, doing the same work for the same pittance as they.

In between, if all went well, he might work his way up through a variety of jobs inside the mine to become a laborer and, finally, a contract miner. This was the top of the profession. Most of the anthracite was produced, in those days, by small teams working under an experienced older miner who entered into a contract with an operator to produce coal at so much a carload. Out of this gross income, which in a very good year might amount to as much as nine hundred dollars, he was expected to hire as many laborers as he needed, to furnish his own tools, and to buy—usually horn the company, at highly inflated prices—the fuses and powder with which he blasted the coal out of the ground. George R. Leighton, in his Five Cities, has graphically described the miner’s daily routine:

It was up to the miner to fire the shots, to use the most delicately exact skill in placing the timber. The work required an alert mind and great physical strength. … The pitching coal veins made the work never the same; sometimes erect, sometimes on his knees, sometimes on his side or back, the miner worked in an endless night, a soft black velvet darkness, with only the light of his miner’s lamp to see by.

Death—from a sudden fall of rock, from gas, from a premature explosion caused by a faulty fuse—was everywhere about him. In the year 1901 alone, 441 miners were killed, to say nothing of scores of others deprived of sight or limbs, or condemned to an early death by the irritating coal dust. According to a minefield doctor who had performed many an autopsy, a lifetime of breathing the dust made a miner’s lungs resemble nothing so much as lumps of anthracite coal.

Safety devices were pitifully primitive, and the effectiveness of the state-appointed mine inspectors was often nullified by the fact that the foremen accompanied them on their rounds. One miner, asked why he didn’t voice his complaints to the inspector, answered that “if the boss was along with him I would sooner be still.”

Fluctuations in the market price of coal made work irregular—in an average year a miner might work only two hundred days—and unemployment compensation was a generation away. Miners complained that they were forced to put up to eighteen inches of “topping” on the cars before they left the mines, for coal was naturally shaken down, and some of it was jarred off, as the cars rumbled over the uneven rails to the weighing point. At the scale there was no representative of the miners to check the weight jotted down by the company weighmaster, so a man had no way of knowing whether he was receiving honest pay for an honest day’s work. To compensate for the unmarketable impurities always present in anthracite as it comes out of the mine, the operators arbitrarily fixed the “miner’s ton”—the basis on which he was paid—at 3,360 pounds, and even higher.

There was no such thing as a standard scale of wages; often men working side by side in the same mine, doing the same work, received different amounts in their pay envelopes. This had the effect of depressing all wages to the lowest level—“mining the miners,” the men called it. Under circumstances like these, not even the mine operators knew what the average miner’s salary amounted to. John Mitchell, after investigation, placed it at about three hundred dollars a year, and the chances are he was not far wrong. What that meant in human terms can be gleaned from the description by a miner’s wife of what happened when her husband brought home his pay envelope. “People comes in and wants money so quick we haven’t time to have it in our hands, hardly,” Mrs. Sophia Bolland said, “I can’t count it up; sure not … I throw it to his feet sometimes, when there is nothing in it.... Eight dollars was not so bad, or ten or twelve, but when he brings home only three or four, or two dollars, I had to cry.” She was speaking of two weeks’ pay.

As he toured the mine fields John Mitchell heard story after story of the heartlessness of the operators. For example, the husband of Mrs. Kate Burns had operated a pump at the G. K. Markle mine at Jeddo until he was killed by a locomotive. She began scrubbing doors and taking in washing seven days a week to support her children, of whom the oldest, a boy, was eight. When the boy was fourteen he too went to work in the breaker, but after a month brought home only a due bill; the family owed the company $396—the rent that had accumulated on the miserable, two-room company house they had occupied since Burns’s death. It took Mrs. Burns, her son, and one of his younger brothers twelve years to work off the debt, in Pennsylvania’s steel towns you will find an occasional library, clinic, or park donated by the Mellons or the Carnegies. In the anthracite towns you will look hard and long before finding anything of the kind. What happened to Mrs. Sophia Bolland and the Widow Burns happened to the people and the region as a whole. “They never give me anything,” Kate Burns said, “but all they took off me.”

Against conditions like these the miners had made several attempts to organize. Each in its turn had been defeated—by the hated coal and iron police (”coalies,” the miners called them) hired and armed by the operators; by the lack of unity among the twenty or more nationality groups among the men themselves; or simply by gnawing hunger, which drove strikers back to work one by one.

John Mitchell, then, had to reverse a tradition of failure as he sought to build a new union. He had also to cope with the divisive antagonisms among the nationality groups in the area. The original anthracite miners had been largely Welsh and Irish, but in the 1870’s and 1880’s successive waves of foreign-speaking immigrants arrived. Rivalries—between old-timers and newcomers and among the newcomers themselves— were unbelievably strong, extending even to the altar. Most of the immigrants were Catholics and all of them were poor; yet so closely did they cling to their native language and customs that each group willingly made the sacrifices necessary to support its own Catholic parish. Today it is not rare to see even in a small anthracite town as many as three or four churches—monuments to an earlier disunity now happily blurred by time.

Leaving his assistants, Fahy and Dougherty, to organize the English-speaking miners, John Mitchell concentrated on these foreigners, going from town to town and from mine patch to mine patch, speaking in turn to Poles, Italians, Ukrainians, Hungarians, and Lithuanians. He spoke everywhere he could gather an audience—in miners’ kitchens, in taverns, in parish halls—securing the backing of their priests and convincing the men themselves that in unity lay their only hope. And gradually he won them over. “To a great many of the newly arrived miners, John Mitchell is the one great man in the United States,” wrote Walter Wellman of the Chicago Record-Herald; ”… ask the first Hun or Polander on the streets who is president of the United States and the odds are about even that he will reply, ‘Johnny d’Mitch.’ ”

And Mitchell seems to have been ahead of his time in understanding the necessity for all the workers in an industry to act together. The contract miners, for example, sought to keep the breaker boys away from union meetings; Mitchell insisted on their right to attend: they worked as hard as the men and were even more shamelessly exploited. Of the young slate-pickers Mitchell, a man not often capable of eloquence, said: “They have the bodies and faces of boys but they came to meetings where I spoke and stood as still as the men and listened for every word. I was shocked and amazed … as I saw those eager eyes peering at me from eager little faces; the fight had a new meaning for me; 1 felt that I was fighting for the boys, fighting a battle for innocent childhood …” The boys repaid him with the unalloyed devotion that only the young can give.

Little by little, Mitchell began to lay the foundations of an enduring union which has engendered a loyalty probably unsurpassed in any other labor organization in America. Touring the anthracite area four decades later, Leighton could write:

It would be inaccurate to say that the miner’s attitude toward the union resembles that of the Roman toward the citizenship, but the feeling invoked is as powerful and as subtle. To utter the word is to touch a vital nerve. The union may be hoary with age, may be racked with faction, officials may be corrupt, a miner’s card may have lapsed years ago … he may be a judge on the bench after a slate picker’s childhood, he may have quit the mines and the region—it makes no difference. Under all these ashes the idea of the union is still a live coal.

Still, organizing was slow, slogging work, and by the beginning of 1900 the United Mine Workers could count just 8,993 members—only about six per cent of the anthracite working force of more than 140,000. But the accumulated weight of their grievances began to engender among all the men a determination to strike. Mitchell held them off as long as he could, doubting that the union was strong enough to win and knowing its national treasury could not sustain many families should the stoppage be prolonged. But despite all he could do, the vote to strike was taken.

To his unlooked-for delight, between 80,000 and 100,000 men walked out of the mines on September 17. Their number grew to 125,000, but the mine operators, believing that once they recognized the union their control over their men would be lost forever, refused even to meet with Mitchell to negotiate the issues.

At this point politics entered the scene. Mark Hanna, running McKinley’s “Full Dinner Pail” campaign, impressed upon the operators that if the strike were not settled, it might spread into the midwestern bituminous states—which also happened to be the core of McKinley’s support—and seriously hurt Republican chances. Reluctantly, the mine owners yielded. They still would not deign to meet with Mitchell. But at their collieries they posted notices of a ten per cent wage increase, and on October 29 the miners, mollified by this partial victory, returned to work. Ever since then, October 29, known as “Mitchell Day,” has been a holiday throughout the anthracite.

Both sides seemed to realize that it was a phony peace. After the settlement the operators complained that wildcat strikes were multiplying. They regretted having yielded to Hanna’s coaxing. For their part, the miners complained that management was doing everything it could to stamp out the union. The operators began building stockades around their collieries, hiring “coalies” to guard them, and stockpiling coal against another strike. Meanwhile, Mitchell and his corps of organizers sought to extend their membership gains. All through the mine fields, the stage was being set for another test; on both sides the feeling grew that this one would be fought to a finish.

Again Mitchell, an innately conservative man who preferred to settle differences by arbitration, sought to stave it off. Throughout 1901 “the cold coal war,” as Robert J. Cornell has called it in his excellent recent study, went on. Several times Mitchell sought a conference with the railroad presidents. His courteously phrased requests were refused—or ignored. Once when he and the union presidents of the three major anthracite districts went to New York to see President E. B. Thomas of the Erie, they were informed he had gone to Europe, and when Thomas returned he would not even answer Mitchell’s letters.

Finally, in March of 1902, after a year of trying, a full-dress conference was arranged. Mitchell outlined the union’s demands:

Recognition of the United Mine Workers

A minimum wage scale

An eight-hour day

A twenty per cent wage increase

The weighing of coal using as the legal ton 2,240 pounds, for which the minimum rate would be sixty cents.

The operators replied that granting these demands would drive some of them into bankruptcy, and negotiations dragged on without practical result, except to postpone a strike that now seemed inevitable.

And yet, looking back, one has the distinct impression that it was not.

One of the operators remarked after the conference that he “did not know but what it was the best thing to do—to make a contract with Mr. Mitchell’s organization”; Mitchell, he said, had impressed him “with being a very fair and conservative man.” Another said: “I am not prepared to go that far, but I will say this: that I have changed my mind on several points. This man Mitchell is quite a man. I am beginning to like him.”

Nevertheless, because those on each side of the table were what they were, a strike became a certainty. Behind the intransigence of the rank-and-file miner was not his immediate condition (though by modern standards that was bad enough) but the long, hard past, with its crippled and dead, its endless grubbing to make ends meet, the years of dreary living in dreary company houses with the debts piling up at the “pluck-me” company store. The miners held the firm opinion, based upon hard experience, that whatever concessions the operators had ever granted had had to be wrung out of them. The only wringer the miners knew was the strike. Behind the obstinacy of the operators, on the other hand, lay a longing for the freewheeling past, when they could run their businesses as they pleased.

And so, on May 12, 1902, 147,000 miners walked off the job. The great anthracite strike was on.

As the days of idleness mounted into weeks and the weeks into months, the strike laid a heavy burden on the miners and their families. What savings they had were soon used up. And yet children had to be fed, and household expenses, pared to the minimum, could be pared no further. Nerves frayed, tempers flared easily, and crowds of idle men turned suddenly ugly.

Some miners, uncommitted to the union or simply driven by need, returned to work, and these soon became prime targets for the strikers. Wherever they went they—and their wives and children—were taunted by cries of “Scab!” Some were even set upon by mobs, and a few were killed. One man awoke in the middle of the night to find his house on fire; outside was an angry mob calling for him to be shot. He barely escaped with his life.

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.

Meanwhile autumn was at hand, and in great cities coal supplies were dwindling dangerously. Even President Theodore Roosevelt was worried. He had been worried, in fact, for some time. As early as June 27, he had asked Attorney General Philander Chase Knox if there was any way in which the federal government could intervene. Did the coal and railroad companies constitute a combination in restraint of trade liable to prosecution under the Sherman Act? The statute was too vague, Knox had answered. As Mayor Low of New York City and other local officials communicated to Washington their fears of the consequences of a continued fuel shortage, Roosevelt wrote to Robert Bacon of J. P. Morgan and Company: “The situation is bad, especially because it is possible it may grow infinitely worse. If when the severe weather comes on there is a coal famine I dread to think of the suffering, in parts of our great cities especially, and I fear there will be fuel riots of as bad a type as any bread riots we have ever seen.”

He was not oblivious to the political effect of the strike, either. Anthracite, which normally retailed for five or six dollars a ton, was up to twenty dollars in New York, and from Massachusetts, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge was warning the President that factors like this could defeat the Republican party in the forthcoming congressional elections. At least, Roosevelt decided, he would do what he could. He dispatched telegrams to Mitchell and to the principal representatives of the operators, asking them to confer with him in Washington on the morning of October 3.

The meeting was held at No. 22 Lafayette Square, for the White House was undergoing repairs. At one end of the room were Baer and the other coal operators; Attorney General Knox; Roosevelt’s secretary, George B. Cortelyou; and Carroll D. Wright, Commissioner of Labor. At the other end were Mitchell and the presidents of the three United Mine Workers anthracite districts. A few seconds after 11 A.M. the President entered the room in a wheelchair—he had been injured in a traffic accident the month before—and launched at once into an earnest appeal for peace. Disclaiming any legal right to intervene, he asked both parties whether they had considered the interests of a third—the public. He went on to detail the horrors of a winter coal famine and concluded: “With all the earnestness there is in me I ask that there be an immediate resumption of operations in the coal mines in some such way as will, without a day’s unnecessary delay, meet the crying needs of the people. I appeal to your patriotism, to the spirit that sinks personal consideration and makes individual sacrifices for the general good.”

Mitchell was on his feet immediately. “I am much pleased, Mr. President, with what you say. We are willing that you shall name a tribunal which shall determine the issues that have resulted in the strike; and if the gentlemen representing the operators will accept the award or decision of such a tribunal, the miners will willingly accept it, even if it be against our claims.”

Baer quickly demonstrated an attitude that showed that his famous “divine right” letter had not been a temporary lapse of common sense. To the President of the United States, his tone was almost as condescending as to the obscure Wilkes-Barre photographer: “Thousands of other workmen are deterred from working by the intimidation, violence, and crime inaugurated by the United Mine Workers, over whom John Mitchell, whom you have invited to meet you, is chief.” John Markle, representing the independent operators, asked Roosevelt bluntly: “Are you asking us to deal with a set of outlaws?” And he proceeded to instruct the President in his responsibilities: ”… I now ask you to perform the duties invested in you as President of the United States, to at once squelch the anarchistic conditions of affairs existing in the anthracite coal regions by the strong arm of the military at your command.”

Baer and Markle had threatened the wrong man. Roosevelt kept his temper, but just barely. Inwardly he was seething. Afterward he said, speaking of Baer: “If it wasn’t for the high office I hold, I would have taken him by the seat of the breeches and the nape of the neck and chucked him out of that window.” And again: “There was only one man in that conference who acted like a gentleman, and that man was not I.” The reference was to Mitchell. Indeed, the President wrote to his friend Joseph Bucklin Bishop: “Mitchell shone so in comparison with [the operators] as to make me have a very uncomfortable feeling that they might be far more to blame relatively to the miners than I had supposed. I never knew six men to show to less advantage.” That was, in fact, the only effect the meeting had: to convince the President that maybe the miners were right.


Once the conference had failed, however, there seemed little he could do. He had no power to send federal troops, as Markle had demanded, unless the governor of Pennsylvania asked for them. But that did not for a moment discourage the President. “The one condition Roosevelt’s spirit could not endure,” his friend Mark Sullivan wrote, “was any situation in which individuals or groups seemed able to defy or ignore the people as a whole and their representative in the White House. … He could not endure to be dared.” If a request from the governor was necessary, Roosevelt would make sure one came. Through Senator Matthew Quay of Pennsylvania he sought to persuade Stone to ask for federal assistance; then he would send in the Army to operate the mines. He had even chosen a troop commander—Major General J. M. Schofield. But the Quay-Stone gambit failed: no request for troops ever came.

Nevertheless, sentiment for a settlement of some kind continued to build up. The operators were under particularly heavy pressure. Roosevelt was too shrewd a politician not to let some word of his take-over plan get through to them. In addition, their conduct at the Washington conference, coming on top of Baer’s infamous letter, placed the coal-hungry public even more squarely behind the miners. The strike had now been in progress for almost five months. Violence was increasing; the entire Pennsylvania National Guard—8,750 strong—was now on duty in the coal region.

To Secretary of War Root, who on his own initiative had carefully reviewed the proceedings of the October 3 meeting, it seemed clear that the strike had now reached the point where pride, more than the issues, prevented either side from backing down. He felt the only hope of settlement lay in an agreement similar to the one Mitchell had suggested: the miners to return to work pending appointment of an impartial board of arbitration whose award both they and the operators would consent in advance to accept.

Still on his own hook, but with Roosevelt’s acquiescence, Root on October 11 met with J. P. Morgan in New York. Together they worked out a memorandum—which Morgan next day persuaded Baer and his colleagues to sign—asking Roosevelt to set up an arbitration commission. The operators did not, however, entirely abandon their pride. Though they refrained from naming the members for him, they told the President exactly what kinds of men to select: an engineer from one of the military services, a professional mining engineer, a federal judge from the eastern district of Pennsylvania, a businessman familiar with the anthracite industry, and, finally, “a man of prominence, eminent as a sociologist.”

Roosevelt was chagrined—and so was Mitchell, when he learned of the memorandum—to note that not one man with a labor background had been suggested. Both felt there should be at least one such individual, and that in addition, because so many of the miners were Catholics, a high-ranking Catholic prelate ought to be named. The operators could not very well oppose the latter suggestion, but they could and did fight very vigorously the naming of any pro-labor representative. A crisis was reached late in the evening of October 15. Roosevelt and two of Morgan’s junior partners, Bacon and George W. Perkins, were in the White House with telephone lines open to the offices of Morgan and Baer. All at once there ensued a scene of high comedy, which only Roosevelt could appreciate fully; for suddenly it dawned on him “that the mighty brains of these captains of industry would rather have anarchy than tweedledum, but that if I would use the word tweedledee they would hail it as meaning peace.” The President explained:

… it never occurred to me that the operators were willing to run all this risk on a mere point of foolish pride; but Bacon finally happened to mention that they would not object to any latitude I chose under the headings that they had given. I instantly said that I should appoint my labor man as the “eminent sociologist.” To my intense relief, this utter absurdity was received with delight by Bacon and Perkins who said they were sure the operators would agree to it! Morgan and Baer gave their consent by telephone and the thing was done.

To Finley Peter Dunne, creator of Mr. Dooley, Roosevelt wrote: “I feel like throwing up my hands and going to the circus, but as that is not possible I think I shall try a turkey shoot or bear hunt …” For the benefit of the country, however, he played it straight: in naming as the “eminent sociologist” E. E. Clark, Grand Chief of the Order of Railway Conductors, the White House spokesman added, with tongue in cheek, ”… the President assuming that for the purpose of such a commission the term sociologist means a man who has thought and studied deeply on social questions and has practically applied his knowledge.”

John Lancaster Spalding, Bishop of Peoria, Illinois, was the Catholic prelate selected, and the other members of the commission were Judge George Gray of the United States Circuit Court, who was elected chairman; Edward W. Parker, editor of the Engineering and Mining Record ; Thomas H. Watkins, a businessman who for twenty years had operated a mine in Scranton; and Brigadier General John M. Wilson, formerly the Army’s Chief of Engineers. “Clark and Spalding,” wrote Walter Wellman, “would be set down as leaning toward the miners; Parker and Watkins to the owners; with Gray and Wilson as wholly neutral.” The President also appointed Labor Commissioner Wright as recorder, and the others promptly elected him a full member of the commission. Roosevelt had chosen an extremely well-qualified group, and in the process had managed to please both parties to the strike. The miners returned to work and the commission members, after a personal inspection tour of the mines, began their formal hearings in Scranton on November 14. There, in a high-ceilinged Victorian courtroom, economic feudalism went on trial.


No one, apparently, expected that the hearings would be brief, and Judge Gray allowed lawyers for all three factions—the nonunion mine workers were presenting their case separately—as much time as they wished. As a result, the hearings continued, in Scranton and later in Philadelphia, for over three months, with a recess at Christmas. A total of 558 witnesses were heard—240 for the United Mine Workers, 153 for the nonunion men, 154 for the operators, and eleven called by the commission itself. The fifty-six volumes of testimony—by turns bitter and shocking, funny and sad—constitutes a remarkable historical document.

As chief of its legal staff the union had hired Clarence Darrow, who in the next quarter century would make his name as the ablest defense attorney in modern courtroom history. Darrow, playing his cards skillfully, led with his ace: he called John Mitchell to the stand.

If any members of the commission had expected a wild-eyed, fire-eating agitator, they were soon disappointed. Mitchell, dressed as usual in his near-clerical black, the strain of the long strike written clearly in his still-youthful face, stated the union’s case calmly and fairly. After Darrow had completed his friendly questioning, Wayne MacVeagh, a former United States attorney general, took over for the operators. His long and grueling cross-examination lasted more than four days, but not once—despite ample provocation—did Mitchell lose his temper. On the contrary, he managed occasionally to enliven the proceedings with rare darts of dry wit. MacVeagh had been badgering him about how, when profits were low, he expected the operators to give the men a raise without passing it on to the consumers, many of whom were poor families:

MACVEAGH : … If you demand an increase and they have no profits, where are they going to place it except on the bowed backs of the poor?

MITCHELL : They might put it on the bowed backs of the rich.

With one eye on the commission, the other on public opinion, Darrow followed Mitchell with 239 witnesses, for the most part ordinary miners and their families. Day after day, week after week, there moved across the stand a pitiable parade of the blinded and maimed, the widowed and orphaned, the oppressed and exploited. Darrow was also careful to include a generous leavening of priests and ministers—and in truth such men were in the majority among the minefield clergy—who favored the union’s cause. Compared with their powerful stories, the testimony of the nonunion miners and that of the operators’ witnesses fails to move one nearly so deeply, at least when read at a remove of nearly sixty years.

But the hearings did more than lengthen the short and simple annals of the poor. The last two men the commission heard before adjourning to consider its decision were Baer, summing up for the operators, and Darrow, for the miners. American history rarely presents such an opportunity to study within a narrow compass the contrast between two utterly opposed philosophies of the social order. Baer—spade-bearded, almond-eyed, self-assured, quoting Seneca, Cervantes, and the Roman law—spoke for the glories of the half century just passed, when capitalism was unrestricted and capitalists answered only to their stockholders. Darrow—given to the florid phrase and the dramatic gesture—spoke for the century just beginning, which would assert the rights of the individual workingman and his union, and would bring an end to the world George Baer had known. A few statements from their long summations, selected at random and juxtaposed, will point up the contrast:

BAER : … we do not admit the right of an organization … to coerce us … or [interfere] with our management. The employer ought, I think, to meet his employees personally …

DARROW : … these gentlemen who all these long and weary months have refused to know us, to recognize us, have demanded as a condition that these men must give up their union … and must come to them with their hat in their hand, each one in a position to be discharged the next moment if they dare to raise their voice.

BAER : [The strike furnished] a record of lawlessness and crimes unparalleled in any community save where contending armies met on fields of legal battle …

DARROW : So far as the demands of the Mine Workers are concerned, it makes no difference whether crimes have been committed or not. If John Smith earned $500 a year, it is no answer to say that Tom Jones murdered somebody in cold blood. … The question is, what has [Smith] earned?

BAER : If a man comes to me and offers to work for me and I am willing to pay him $2 a day and he is content to take it, that is a bargain as good and as sacred in the eyes of the law as any bargain could be …

DARROW : Mr. Baer and his friends imagine no doubt that they are fighting for a grand principle when they fight for what they say is the God-given right of every man to work for any wages he sees fit. … But that is not [the] God-given right these gentlemen are interested in. They are interested in the God-given right to hire the cheapest man they can get.

BAER : … the eight-hour system, it is proposed, shall bring about … the leisure to enable [the miners] to learn to read good novels and sound religious books. (Laughter)

DARROW : It is no answer to say, as some employers have said in this case, “If you give him shorter hours he will not use them wisely.” … One man may stumble; ten men may stumble; but in the long sweep of time, and in the evolution of events, it must be that greater opportunities mean a more perfect man …

And Darrow had the last word:

The blunders are theirs, and the victories have been ours. The blunders are theirs because, [in] this old, old strife they are fighting for slavery, while we are fighting for freedom. They are fighting for the rule of man over man, for despotism, for darkness, for the past. We are striving to build up man. We are working for democracy, for humanity, for the future, for the days that will come too late for us to see it or know it or receive its benefits, but which still will come …

And so it has turned out.

When the commission finally announced its award on March 22, 1903, it granted the contract miners a ten per cent wage increase, and there were a few other gains important enough for the rank and file of the strikers to regard the settlement as a victory. Yet since the primary object of the strike—recognition of the United Mine Workers—was not achieved, there were those who said that the miners had lost the strike. But what mattered more was that they had won the battle of public opinion; formal recognition of their union would come. And quite as important—for organized labor and for the nation as a whole—the federal government, for the first time in its history, had intervened in a strike not to break it, but to bring about a peaceful settlement. The great anthracite strike of 1902 cast a long shadow.

Roosevelt went to Mississippi for his bear hunt, and Lodge and the Republicans got their majority at the polls. For Mitchell, however, the fruits of victory were bitter. He stayed on as the United Mine Workers president for five more years, but they were years full of factionalism and eventually, in 1907, he failed to win re-election. The opposition, it was true, came mostly from the bituminous delegates; in the anthracite John Mitchell was still a demigod. But the defeat was final, for all that.

Mitchell was still a young man, but there seemed nothing for him to do. There was some talk of his succeeding Samuel Gompers as president of the American Federation of Labor, and later of his becoming the first Secretary of Labor when Woodrow Wilson made that appointment in 1913. But neither job materialized. Away from the union and the mines Mitchell was lost, and he died, frustrated and worn out, in 1919. He was forty-nine.

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