When he was 8 years old, Donald Richardson of Carterville could hear the gunshots fired in Energy between union and nonunion miners at the Lester strip mine on June 21 and 22, 1922.
"I could hear the shooting from right here because it was in Energy, only about four miles from here," said Richardson in 2004 and at that time he still lived in the same home he did as a child.
"I got empty 30-30 cartridges that I picked up over there after the shooting."
His father, who started working in coal mines at age 14, went to the Lester mine to see the damage shortly after the fighting ended. He saw a fiery field of destroyed coal mining equipment. His father also saw one of the men who had been shot.
"He wasn't dead yet. He was just lying there. I don't know if he survived or not," Richardson said. "(My father) talked to him. He was a strikebreaker and said, ‘I didn't know what I was getting into.'"
The events leading to the so called Herrin Massacre started in September 1921 when William J. Lester began operating the Southern Illinois Coal Co. strip mine between Herrin and Marion, Paul M. Angle wrote in his book, "Bloody Williamson."
The mine ran regularly with United Mine Workers miners. But in April 1922, soft coal miners of the country went on strike. Angle wrote that Lester had entered an agreement with the union to allow him to uncover as much coal as he could, provided that he not load or ship the coal.
By June, Lester had uncovered 60,000 tons of coal, which back then during a national strike meant a profit of $250,000. On June 13, 1922, the union coal miners were dismissed and, two days later, were replaced by workers from Chicago, many of whom were guards.
About 50 men were needed to work the mine. Lester called for a rail transport on June 16. He was refused by one train crew, but not by a second.
"That was the worst thing that could possibly happen," said Richardson, who owned and operated his own mine from 1948 to 1950 near Carbondale. He said strip mining is different than underground mining because most of the equipment used in strip mining is also used in other industries.
Coal mining was, however, just about the only industry in Southern Illinois at the time. Richardson said that, at one time, there were 33 mines in Williamson County.
"You don't have to be a coal miner to work in an open-pit coal mine. If you can operate a truck or a power shovel or a dragline, you can work in the open-pit coal mines. So Lester recruited a bunch of construction workers from Chicago," Richardson said.
"When they recruited these men, these men probably had never left the city and had no idea what a coal mine looked like," he said. "And they had no idea of the character of a coal miner. When somebody came in and worked nonunion, he was taking a coal miner's job. He was taking the coal miner's livelihood away from him. If enough people came in and worked non-union, then the coal miner was without a job - a job he worked at all his life."
The UMW, led then by President John L. Lewis, was well-organized. Union members recognized that if Lester succeeded in operating his mine with nonunion employees, the union could be broken because other mines would likely attempt the same.
Angle wrote that armed guards from the mine took posts on a nearby road. Meanwhile, Col. Samuel N. Hunter, personnel officer for Carlos E. Black, the Illinois National Guard adjutant general in Springfield, read a June 17 article in the Chicago Tribune that Lester's coal company had started to ship coal.
Previously active in Perry County politics, Hunter knew Southern Illinois well, and he anticipated trouble. He arrived in Marion on June 18 with a National Guard officer and he met with the mine superintendent, urging him to stop operations. He was not obliged. Another meeting was held the next day. At that meeting were State's Attorney Delos Duty, Sheriff Melvin Thaxton, Lester and another mine operator.
Lester was urged to close the mine at least twice, and twice he refused. Later that day, Hunter told Adjutant General Black that he thought troops from the National Guard would be needed in Williamson County. However, a local newspaper quoted Hunter as saying he thought an agreement would be reached that would avoid trouble.
Chatland Parker, author of "The Herrin Massacre," wrote that on June 20, UMW President Lewis released a statement that the workers for this "outlaw organization" would be considered strikebreakers. The statement was reported in local newspapers that afternoon and read to miners the next day.
"Miners and sympathizers began to arrive by train and automobile from Indiana, Kentucky and Southern Illinois," Parker wrote. "In a very short time, several hundred miners were collected in each of the nearby towns, all with hatred in their hearts for the enemy of their union."
The morning of June 21, Parker wrote, a truck loaded with 11 "scab miners and armed guards," driven by replacement worker Sidney Morrison, was ambushed about three miles east of Carbondale. Morrison later died in a Chicago hospital.
Others were injured, and some escaped. Sheriff Thaxton, Parker wrote, was notified of the ambush, "but he did not arrive on the scene of the shooting or at the (Carbondale) hospital" until several hours later.
Thaxton was a former miner and was elected by miners. And, he was a candidate for county treasurer at the time, Parker wrote. No arrests were made. On June 22, the St. Louis Globe-Democrat reported that union miners said they were going to the mine, unarmed, to request that the strikebreakers stop working. They claimed they were fired upon.
Later in the afternoon, hardware stores were being looted for weapons and ammunition. Thaxton, Angle wrote, could not be found. He had been investigating the morning ambush. At 3:30 p.m., a call was received from the mine superintendent.
"They laid siege to that mine," Richardson said of the union miners. "They took dynamite and destroyed the machinery. They blew the draglines and the shovels and bulldozers. They blew them apart. That mine never operated again."
There were some union miners and supporters killed during the fighting. Col. Hunter again appealed to his superior for troops, who were now wanted by the mine superintendent. Lester, too, appealed to the adjutant general and Gov. Len Small.
Troops were prepared for mobilization. But Lester was later reached in Chicago and agreed to close the mine for the rest of the national strike, while a citizens' group and Hunter worked out a truce. Some hours later, the fighting began to subside and the need for troops seemed unnecessary.
It was announced that there would be a cease-fire, under the truce, and that replacement workers would be removed from the mine. Both sides were to lift white flags. So the troops were not called. However, Fox Hughes, vice president of the UMW's subdistrict, came to the mine and claimed he did not see the mine's white flag. He left the mine and later learned that his superior had been contacted and concluded the truce was no longer his concern, Angle wrote.
Further attempts at implementing a truce were made, and it was agreed that the sheriff would oversee the cease-fire. But Sheriff Thaxton said he would not go to the mine until the next morning. It was 9 a.m. on June 22 when he and others arrived. Three hours earlier, the strikebreakers had surrendered and had been "marched off toward Herrin," Angle wrote.
The number of those marched from the mine varied in newspaper accounts, as did the number of union workers and supporters leading the march. Some reports said 200, while others said 5,000. At least 24 strikebreakers were killed during the march from Crenshaw Crossing, between Marion and Herrin, and Herrin School near the Harrison Woods.
Most of those killed were shot, hanged or their throats were slashed. Only a few escaped. Reports of the number of dead also varied. Angle wrote that the total number of dead was 23, three of whom were union miners. The rest were mine guards and strikebreakers.
A grand jury returned 214 indictments for murder, conspiracy, rioting and assault to murder. No indictments were handed down for the three deaths that resulted from fighting at the mine on June 21 because the grand jury could not determine "who fired shots from the strip mine..." Angle wrote.
After two trials involving nine defendants, not one person was found guilty.
- Reprinted from The Southern's Legacies of Little Egypt