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The Lattimer Massacre: When an Entire Police Force Stood Trial

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“It was not a battle because they were not aggressive,
nor were they defensive because they had no weapons
of any kind and were simply shot down like so many
worthless objects, each of the licensed life-takers
trying to outdo the others in the butchery.”

– Inscription on monument erected in Lattimer, Pa.

If officials wanted to shine a light on the horrors of the past, every day could be the anniversary of some type of atrocity committed by a government agency or corporation. But leaders get to pick and choose which events are more important than others. American officials, just like leaders in all countries, want the nation memorializing incidents that serve their political and economic interests.

Sept. 10 is one of those days when government officials committed a major atrocity. But 9/10 never became a national day of remembrance.

Sept. 10, 2015, marked the 118th anniversary of the Lattimer Massacre in the anthracite coal mine region of eastern Pennsylvania. Like the 9/11 attacks, the mass murder in Pennsylvania was used as a springboard for something bigger. But in the case of the Lattimer Massacre, the murder of striking coal miners served as inspiration to build a more equitable society, not as an excuse to kill and harm more people.

All told, Luzerne County, Pa., sheriff deputies killed 19 unarmed miners and wounded at least 38. No sheriff deputies were killed. “The primary result of the massacre was rapid growth in unionism in the anthracite coal region. During the next four months approximately 15,000 new names were added to the UMWA rolls,” the United Mine Workers of America explains on its website.

The UMWA views the Lattimer Massacre as a major event in U.S. history. Even the commonwealth of Pennsylvania saw the actions by the local police on Sept. 10, 1897, as extreme and excessive. State prosecutors brought murder and felonious shooting charges against Luzerne County Sheriff James Martin and 78 of his deputies in the wake of their attack on the workers.

In the late 19th century, pro-labor sentiment was strong in the U.S. and, at least in this case, state prosecutors wanted the sheriff and his deputies held accountable. But as it turned out, the prosecutors were ill-prepared for the trial and ultimately argued a lackluster case against the defendants, all of whom were found not guilty of the charges after a five-week trial in 1898.

Labor activism, especially in the anthracite coal region of Pennsylvania, had been growing steadily since the mid-1800s. The Molly Maguires, a shadowy Irish labor organization, waged a violent battle against coal operators. In the late 1870s, 20 Mollies were hanged after being found guilty of murder and other charges.

In the wake of the crackdown on the Molly Maguires, labor activism in the region waned. But union activity in the anthracite coal fields picked up again as the century neared an end. Only two decades removed from the violent battles between the coal operators and the Mollies, state officials could have easily overlooked the Lattimer killings.

To their credit, Pennsylvania state prosecutors in 1897 tried to hold the police accountable in Luzerne County. The massacre occurred in the village of Lattimer, north the city of Hazleton, Pa., when Martin’s posse of deputies fired at between 300 and 400 coal miners, mostly of Slovak, Polish Lithuanian and German ethnicity, who were marching from Harwood, Pa., to Lattimer.

The miners wanted a pay raise of 15 cents per employee, the ability to select their own doctor, the right to get paid for work even if the machines they workers were out of order, and the freedom not have to buy from the company store. Workers had already shut down several other mines in the region. Expanding the strike to Lattimer would be a huge victory for the miners because it would go a long way to shutting down the entire the area and forcing the companies to grant workers’ demands.

Fearing their private guards could not pacify the striking workers, the coal mine owners solicited the help of Sheriff Martin, who responded by rounding up dozens of local men to serve as deputies. They met the hundreds of striking miners marchers in Lattimer, one of whom was holding an American flag. After the sheriff tried to tear the flag and grabbed one of the marchers, the deputies opened fire. The flag bearer was the first man hit. The striking miners began to disperse, running to get away from the shooters. Some deputies moved to different locations so they could take better aim at fleeing marchers, shooting them in the back as they ran.

The massacre at Lattimer was the largest in U.S. labor history until the Ludlow massacre in Colorado 17 years later when Colorado National Guard and mine guards attacked a camp of striking workers, killing two dozen people, including miners and their wives and children.

Michael Novak, a long-time scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, in 1978 published one of first major books on the massacre. “The story of the guns of Lattimer has been strangely neglected in history books, even in histories of violence in America, even in labor histories,” Novak wrote in The Guns of Lattimer, “The reasons may be that Lattimer’s victims did not speak English and, more than others, have lacked a public voice.”

Novak’s book was sympathetic to the miners. “The whole body of four hundred marching men, unarmed, incompetent in English, carefully carrying two American flags, and painfully aware that in the Austro-Hungarian Empire they could conduct no such open and peaceful protest as they did here,” Novak wrote. “That their march should have ended in brutal bloodshed — the worst labor massacre in the history of Pennsylvania and in the nation until that time — deepened in them and in other Slavic communities around the nation a familiar sense of tragedy and injustice.”

Several other books and scholarly articles have covered the massacre. The latest book, The Lattimer Massacre Trial, published by Dorrance Publishing Co., provides a unique look at the event. The book was compiled by Pasco L. Schiavo, a prominent lawyer in the city of Hazleton and the person who now owns the land on which the massacre occurred.

Born and raised in Hazleton and a descendent of Italian immigrant coal miners, Schivao compiled day-to-day newspaper reports from the 1898 Lattimer trial of the sheriff and 72 deputies, a chronological collection that includes pre-trial jury selection, witnesses’ testimony and the final verdict. Schivao’s book contains clippings from The Press, what he calls a “reputable Philadelphia, Pennsylvania newspaper which is no longer in existence.”

The newspaper articles covered the trial in detail and included verbatim some of the statements made by the witnesses testifying at the trial, “something which is particularly important in light of the court transcripts or records of testimony having been lost years ago,” Schivao writes in the book’s introduction.

In his closing argument, the prosecuting attorney emphasized that “the strikers were peaceable and unarmed.” Only a handful of the slain strikers were shot from the front; the rest of them were shot in the back. Referring to the deputies, the district attorney stated “if these boys had protected the lives of these poor creatures of God with the same solicitude they displayed in protecting the property of the employers there would be no case here today.”

Even though none of the deputies was killed, witnesses for the defense claimed the strikers were armed with pistols and clubs. In a post-mortem published in The Times of Philadelphia, the newspaper’s writers argued that the assembly of strikers “was utterly lawless, and when the members refused to disperse upon notice from the Sheriff, given in the presence of his armed deputies, they not only openly defied the law, but they precipitated the destruction of life by violently resisting the Sheriff when in the performance of his lawful duty.”

Schiavo told a Hazleton newspaper that he chose to compile the book because the newspaper articles “report as close to the truth as possibly on a daily basis.” On the other hand, “the books and other publications I have read tend to give a slant one or another as to what really happened at Lattimer,” he was quoted as saying in the Aug. 2 article.

Even today, debate continues on whether the deputies were justified in killing the workers. Dan Sivilich, president of the Battlefield Restoration and Archaeological Volunteers Organization, told a local newspaper that the “the sheriff was not stupid.”

“As soon as those miners entered the gate, and they entered mine property, someone opened fire on them. At that point, they were trespassing, and deadly force is allowed when someone is trespassing on your property,” Sivilich said.

Lethal police force is still being used on a regular basis against U.S. residents who are viewed as expendable. Few of the perpetrators are facing prosecution. The same is true in other countries. A similar massacre occurred in South Africa in August 2012 when police opened fire on striking miners at the Lonmin platinum mine near Rustenburg, South Africa, killing 34 miners and wounding an additional 78. The police violence, known as the Marikana Massacre, was the single most lethal use of force by South African police against civilians since the Sharpeville massacre in 1960 when the nation’s official policy of apartheid was in full force.

Instead of bringing criminal charges against the police, South African authorities charged the surviving miners with murder. The authorities used the doctrine of common purpose against the survivors, assigning responsibility upon them for the murders because they participated in the strike. The murder charges, however, were later dropped and all 270 miners were released.

At least Pennsylvania authorities did not stoop so low to bring murder charges against the surviving miners in Lattimer. In remembrance of the slain miners, a small memorial now stands at a highway intersection in Lattimer. The memorial includes a monument with an inscription and the names of the killed miners. A shovel and a pickaxe lean against the front of the monument, and a small rail wagon with a pile of anthracite coal sits behind it.
“The migrant workers that struck during the summer of 1897 imagined a better world for themselves, one that offered them the baseline of equal living and working conditions to the longer-established nativized miners,” the Lattimer Massacre Project website says.

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Mark Hand has reported on the energy industry for more than 25 years. He can be found on Twitter @MarkFHand.

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