That Day in Lattimer

Painting by Lynn Sutherland Jaskowiak.

One of the bloodiest days in American labor history occurred on the outskirts of Lattimer, Pennsylvania, on Sunday, September 10th, 1897.

Roughly 400 anthracite coal miners ( the vast majority of them foreign born eastern Europeans) had had enough of the darkened servitude imposed on them by the Calvin Pardee Company. The miners worked 60 hours a week underground. They were forced to live in company homes and buy what they needed to live from the company store. They had to buy their own kegs of blasting powder from the company store, which were marked up to 300% beyond what the Calvin Pardee Company paid for them. It was profiteering on top of servitude. It was inhumane. It was unjust. It was intolerable.

So the miners organized a march to close down the Calvin Pardee Company mine operations in Lattimer, demanding a shorter work week, better wages, and an end to the three cent per day tax effectively levied against foreign born miners through passage of the Campbell Act, which discriminated against non-naturalized citizens.

In response to the march Luzerne County Sheriff James Martin deputized over 80 men and, along with coal company police, formed a posse armed with shotguns, rifles, and pistols. They met the marching miners on the outskirts of Lattimer and ordered them to turn back and disperse. The miners, unarmed and convinced that their brand new First Amendment rights as American citizens would protect them, refused. A scuffle was reported to have broken out and a shot was fired. Then someone gave the command to fire and the posse started shooting. The shooting went on for more than two minutes.

By the time it was over 19 miners lay dead in a public road in rural Pennsylvania. 14 of them had been shot in the back. In the following days another five would die. Dozens more suffered gunshot wounds. A great many people lost a husband, a son, a brother, a father. The horror, shock and grief of that day would reverberate through families across multiple generations. It’s felt to this day.

Sheriff Martin and his deputies were charged with the murder of just one miner. The defense lawyers portrayed the striking miners as savages who had come to America to destroy peace and liberty. The jury acquitted Martin and his deputies.

Almost immediately a press whitewashing of the massacre began. The newspapers echoed the sentiments of Martin’s defense attorneys, inaccurately reported that the miners had provoked the lethal assault, and routinely referred to the massacre as the “ Lattimer riots“.

In short order it was all but forgotten and would remain so for decades. Finally, 75 years after the massacre, Pennsylvania Governor Milton Shapp declared 1972 as “ Lattimer Labor Memorial Year”, and encouraged Pennsylvanians to remember and appreciate the efforts of the coal miners who had died. And yet, in 2021, the massacre is still largely unknown in the public consciousness.

So we wrote a song to keep the memory alive, and as a tribute to the miners who died that day, and for the families who mourn their loved ones still.

That Day in Lattimer

Out in northeast Pennsylvania, gravestones on a hill
The names go unremembered, though the bloodshed never will
19 striking miners, met up with their fate
On that day in Lattimer

Migrants from the old world, they didn’t speak the English tongue
With revolution in their heads, and coal dust in their lungs
They marched for decent treatment, they marched for dignity
On that day in Lattimer

They came to America, a new life to be found
A life of darkened servitude, underneath the ground
So they raised their voice together, to join the union cause
On that day in Lattimer

Pardee coal opposed the union, they sought to shut it down
So they bought themselves a Sheriff, who deputized the town
They met the unarmed miners, armed to the teeth
On that day in Lattimer

The Sheriff’s posse started shooting, the miners turned and fled
The law shot them in the back, 19 of them lay dead
19 grieving families prepared their funeral songs
On that day in Lattimer

The lawmen went to trial, the jury let them go
Sometimes the wheels of justice, run backwards when they roll
Murder in the first degree as the judge winked his eye
On that day in Lattimer

Out in northeast Pennsylvania, gravestones on a hill
The story told through families, who mourn their loved ones still
19 striking miners, shot down in the road
On that day in Lattimer

 

Lynn Sutherland Jaskowiak is a writer and artist living in Eau Claire WI. Her great grandfather, Klemenz Platek, was one of the 19 miners murdered on September 10, 1987, in Lattimer Pennsylvania. Her great grandmother Magdalena was seven months pregnant with her grandmother, Katerina, at the time of Klemenz murder. Magdalena’s brother, Adelbert Czaja, was also murdered that day and her brother Mattias Czaja was gravely wounded. Lynn can be reached at Lynn32855@gmail.com Steve Carlson is a semi-retired union/community/political organizer, educator, social worker and occasional songwriter. He is the former Wisconsin state volunteer coordinator for Progressive Democrats of America. He can be reached at carlsonbbv@gmail.com