Feb 23 1903: Mother Jones and the Massacre of the Raleigh County Miners
“Has anyone ever told you, my children, about the lives you are living…?”
Let us stop and consider, for a moment, what would cause thousands of miners to lay down their tools and go out on strike, when striking meant homelessness and hunger for themselves and their families. Striking also brought down upon them the terror of the company guards, heavily armed deputies (often one and the same), state militia, bullpens, raids, court injunctions, and the wrath of the capitalistic press.
In 1897, Mother Jones was in West Virginia traveling and speaking to miners and their families. John Walker of the United Mine Workers of America was traveling with her. In 1904, a reporter who had accompanied her wrote this account of one of her speeches:
‘Has any one ever told you, my children, about the lives you are living, more so that you may understand how it is you pass your days on earth? Have you told each other about it and thought it over among yourselves, so that you might imagine a brighter day and begin to bring it to pass? If no one has done so, I will do it for you today. I want you to see yourselves as you are, Mothers and children, and to think if it is not time you look on yourselves, and upon each other. Let us consider this together, for I am on of you, and I know what it is to suffer.’
So the old lady, standing very quietly in her deep, far-reaching voice, painted a picture of the life of a miner from his young boyhood to his old age. It was a vivid picture. She talked of the first introduction a boy had to those dismal caves under the earth, dripping with moisture often so low that he must crawl into the coal veins; most lie on his back to work. She told how miners stood bent over until the back ached too much to straighten, or in sulpher water that ate through the shoes and made sores on the flesh; how their hands became cracked and the nails broken off in the quick; how the bit of bacon and beans in the dinner pail failed to stop the craving of their empty stomachs, and the thought of the barefoot children, at home and the sick mother was all too dreary to make the homegoing a cheerful one….
And so, while he smoked, the miner thought how he could never own a home, were it ever so humble; how he could not make his wife happy, or his children any better than himself, and how he must get up in the morning and go through it all again; how that some day the fall of rock would come or the rheumatism cripple him; that Mary herself might die and leave him, and some day there would be no longer for him even the job that was so hard and old age and hunger and pain would be his lot. And why, because some other human beings, no more the sons of God than the coal diggers, broke the commandment of God which says, ‘Thou shalt not steal.’ and took from the toiler all the wealth which he created, all but enough to keep him alive for a period of years through which he might toil for their advantage.
‘You pity yourselves, but you do not pity your brothers, or you would stand together to help on another,’ said “Mother” Jones. And then in an impassioned vein she called upon them to awaken their minds so that they might live another life. As she ceased speaking men and women looked at each other with shamed faces, for almost every one had been weeping. and suddenly a man pushed his way through the crowd. He was sniveling on his coat sleeve, but he cried out hoarsely:
‘You, John Walker; don’t you go tell us that ‘ere’s “Mother” Jones. That’s Jesus Christ come down on earth again , and saying he’s an old woman so he can come here and talk to us poor devils. God, God-nobody else knows what the poor suffer that way.’
The man was quieted by his wife and led away, while ‘Mother’ Jones looked after him with dilating eyes, and then broke out fiercely in one of her characteristically impassioned appeals for organization. The reporter feared the outbreak was too sacrilegious for publication….
“I dislike to ask you always to take the dangerous fields…”
On May 10, 1902, John Mitchell wrote to Mother Jones who was working as an organizer for the United Mine Workers:
Mother Mary Jones
Montgomery, W. Va
…I think the Fairmont [field] would be the place in which you could do the most good, as the coal companies up there have evidently scared our boys, and of course, with good reason, as they have brutally beaten some of them. I dislike to ask you always to take the dangerous fields, but I know that you are willing to go wherever you can perform the best service…
With love and best wishes, I am,
President U. M. W. of A.
District 17 of the UMW called for a strike to begin June 7, 1902. And then came the evictions, the beatings, the gunthugs, and the court injunctions followed by arrests and mass imprisonments. Mother Jones was arrested June 20th near Clarksburg by a federal marshal for violating an injunction. Thus began her famous interactions with Judge Jackson. There she was also castigated by the prosecuting attorney who pointed her out in the courtroom as “the most dangerous woman in America.” The Judge would not send her to prison with her boys, as she had requested, but instead released her with the admonition to occupy herself in the future with more ladylike pursuits. He suggested charity work.
Mother later wrote:
I would tear down every Charity Institution in the country to-day build on their ruins the Temple of Justice. My plea was for Justice not Charity…
April 19, 1903, Letter to Henry Demarest Lloyd
Mother Jones continued to face daily danger as union organizer in the West Virginia strike zone. In August, she was in the New River field holding a meeting for strikers when someone opened fire on the meeting. A. D. Lavidner, a miner, carried Mother Jones on his back, out of danger, to the other side of the creek. December 2nd, her hotel in Montgomery was set on fire. Mother barely escaped alive. This was the third fire within a few weeks time. It was suspected that Mother Jones was the target.
“The wind blows cold…”
The striking miners and their families faced a bleak winter in the tent colonies. Mother Jones wrote an open letter to Julius Wayland which was printed October 5, 1902 by the Appeal to Reason:
The wind blows cold this morning, but these cruel coal barons do not feel the winter blast; their babes, nay even their poodle dogs are warm and have a comfortable breakfast, while these slaves of the caves, who in the past have moved the commerce of the world, are out on the highways without clothes or shelter. Nearly 3,000 families have been thrown out of the corporation shacks to face the cold blasts of winter weather.
“DEADLY RIOT IN WEST VIRGINIA”
On February 25, 1902, newspapers across the country carried headlines of fierce battle between United States deputy marshals and miners in Raleigh County, West Virginia. The reports of the number killed varies. The above headline is from the Pennsylvania Pittston Gazette which reported the story:
SHERIFF’S POSSE AND STRIKING MINERS CLASH.
ELEVEN REPORTED DEAD
Charleston, W. Va., Feb. 25-Deputy United States Marshal Cunningham and a posse was fired on by rioting miners at the Lannock mines, Raleigh county, early this morning. They returned the fire and a battle ensued in which, it is said, one of the posse and ten rioters were killed. The marshal was trying to arrest miners for contempt of Judge Keller’s blanket injunction.
Several newspapers end the story:
An ugly strike in progress there is the cause of the trouble. Most of the mob are foreigners.
Another paper claimed in a huge headline:
MINERS IN WEST VIRGINIA HAD STRYCHNINE TO KILL MANY
Estimates of the dead were lowered a few days later, and reporting indicated that between three and six miners had died. None of the reporters seem to have gotten any closer to the scene than Charleston, about sixty miles away. Not one of them appears to have made any attempt to interview miners or anyone from the union.
“Slaughtering of miners..forced to struggle for a just cause…”
The miners tell a story far different from that of the nation’s kept press. Chris Evans, an official with the United Mine Workers, was sent to investigate the killings in Raleigh County. He found that the miners had not been given a chance to surrender but had been killed early in the morning, before they even had a chance to dress. The miners were not “foreigners;” they were American citizens of African descent. He wrote a letter which appeared in the March 3, 1903 issue of the United Mine Workers’ Journal:
This shooting took place without anything being said to those on the inside [of the house] and the three colored men …were found dead on the floor. Two were in their night clothes and the other one was partly dressed, with one shoe on partly laced and the other foot bare…In no instance could we find where these people had asked to surrender until after the deputies had commenced shooting at the occupants of the houses named…this slaughtering of miners, simply because they are forced to struggle for a just cause [is] a sad commentary on our boasted Republic.
Lois McLean adds to the story:
Battle of Stanaford
The miners were ambushed the next morning when they arose. Shots were fired into G. W. Jackson’s home, where he, his wife, four small children, and eight miners were sleeping. When the firing ceased, there were three dead men in Jackson’s house; one from a bullet in the back of his head. The Jacksons were an African-American family, and the men killed there were black. Elsewhere, three white miners were fatally wounded.
When a Raleigh County jury questioned the actions of the posse and its leaders, Federal Judge B. F. Keller exonerated the posse, ruling that they were acting to arrest men who had violated his August 1902 injunction and who had been indicted by a federal grand jury in January 1903.
WE NEVER FORGET
There remains the question the three white miners: their names, and where, exactly, they were killed. The answer may lie in the March 5, 1903 edition of the <em>United Mine Workers’ Journal</em> which is not yet available online. For now, we remember them as unknown workers:
WE NEVER FORGET
“Bring my papa back to me.”
In her Autobiography, Mother Jones remembered going to visit the survivors of the massacre:
I took the short trail up the hillside to Stanford Mountain. It seemed to me as I came toward the camps as if those wretched shacks were huddling closer in terror. Everything was deathly still. As I came nearer the miners’ homes, I could hear sobbing. Then I saw between the stilts that popped up a miner’s shack the clay red with blood. I pushed open the door. On a mattress, wet with blood, lay a miner. His brains had been blown out while he slept. His shack was riddled with bullets.
In five other shacks men lay dead. In one of them a baby boy and his mother sobbed over the father’s corpse. When the little fellow saw me, he said, ‘Mother Jones, bring back my papa to me. I want to kiss him.’
Strikers were rounded up in Raleigh County and brought to Beckley. More than 200 indictments were handed down for violations of the blanket federal injunction. The strike was crushed through legalized terror, and what Mother Jones called, “Government by Injunction.” But, the United Mine Workers, District 17 was not yet dead, as the coal operators were to find out ten years later.
Mother Jones Speaks -ed by Philip S Foner, NY, 1983
The Correspondence of Mother Jones -ed by Edward M Steel, U of Pittsburgh Press, 1985
Mother Jones The Most Dangerous Woman in America -by Elliott J Gorn, NY, 2001
The Autobiography of Mother Jones -ed by Mary Field Parton, Charles H Kerr Pub, 1990, Pittston Strike Commemorative Edition
History of the Labor Movement in the United States Vol. 3 The Policies and Practices of the American Federation of Labor 1900-1909 -by Philip S Foner International Pub, 198
Photo from the George Grantham Bain Collection (Library of Congress)