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The Herrin Massacre

Haley E. Anderson
Anna-Jonesboro Community High School, Anna

"No episode in the history of American industrial warfare has ever shocked public opinion more violently than the Herrin Massacre," wrote historian Paul M. Angle, in his Bloody Williamson: A Chapter in American Lawlessness. Between June 21 and June 22, 1922, one of the bloodiest, most brutal crimes in the history of Williamson County, Illinois, occurred. In less than twenty-four hours, a total of eighteen nonunion workers, professional strike breakers, and some employees of a Chicago detective agency were ruthlessly killed. The brutal killing of these people at the Lester strip mine is now known as the Herrin Massacre. One question must be answered: What contributed to the murder of these workers?

Although the extreme hatred between the miners and strikebreakers was expressed between June 21 and June 22, 1922, the trouble was already evident in September 1921. The Southern Illinois Coal Company opened the Lester Strip Mine in early September. William J. Lester, who owned the Southern Illinois Coal Company, had leased about eighty acres of land four miles from Herrin. All of the workers at the Lester mine were union members. However, around April, a strike by the union workers caused the price of coal to skyrocket. Lester then decided to fire the union workers. In return, he hired strikebreakers from Chicago. These strikebreakers were also known as "scabs" by the union strikers. A scab is someone who takes a striker's place but is not a member of a labor union or one who refuses to join. Lester figured that he could mine the coal while the demand was high and make an exceptional profit. Consequently, the union workers began to worry that other mines would hire only nonunion workers. The union workers thought action had to be taken to correct Lester's mistake of hiring strikebreakers.

On June 21, about one hundred miners met in the Herrin cemetery. Meanwhile, large mobs of people stole guns and ammunition in town. At 3:30 in the afternoon, armed men surrounded the mine. Both the miners and the strikebreakers shot at each other. Perhaps five hundred gunshots were exchanged. Surprisingly, no authorities intervened.

A little after four o'clock, Colonel Sam Hunter of the National Militia called the mine superintendent, C. K. McDowell. Hunter asked for a truce between the two enemies. Lester also agreed to shut down the mine. Hunter asked the union's sub-district vice-president, Fox Hughes, if he agreed with the truce. Hughes accepted the truce and marched down to the mine with a white flag. The gunshots finally stopped.

That night, union workers still surrounded the strikebreakers. Bernard Jones, a mine guard, finally got the courage to step out and surrender. One union worker yelled, "Come on out and we'll get you out of the county." This was what the strikebreakers needed to hear to convince them to also surrender.

The union workers forced the strikebreakers to walk towards Herrin. On the way, a man with a revolver stated, "The only way to free the country of strikebreakers is to kill them all off and stop the breed." At Moake Crossing, superintendent McDowell was bleeding severely because he had been hit in the head with a gun. Two men took McDowell away from the pack. Later, a farmer heard gunshots and ventured out to investigate. He found C.K. McDowell with two bullet wounds in his stomach, one through the body, and one through the head.

The prisoners and the angry mob continued to Power House Woods where yet another group of radical union workers waited. In the woods was a large barbed wire fence. The hostages were placed in front of it and told to run for their lives. Fire rang out and some of the strikebreakers were hit. Others climbed over the fence. Shoemaker, the assistant superintendent, was alive but unconscious. One of the radicals noticed that Shoemaker was still alive and shot him in the head. Some men made it past the fence but were tracked down and murdered. The more fortunate escaped without harm.

One man was captured on the farm of George Harrison. They strangled him slowly and then shot him. In another situation, six men were taken to Herrin and told to take off their shoes and shirts. They then had to crawl to the Herrin Cemetery. When the men reached the cemetery, a single rope was tied around all of them. The mob shot the six mine workers, but three were still alive. Someone from the mob took a knife and cut the throats of the men. Later, Sheriff Melvin Thaxton of Williamson County arrived and sent some bodies to the hospital and others to the morgue.

The victims were buried, but with little remorse. Not so much as a relative came to the burial of the strikebreakers. The deaths of two union mine workers, however, were mourned by thousands of people.

Altogether there were two trials, the first on November 7, 1922. The accused were tried before Circuit Court Judge Dewitt T. Hartwell. Otis Clark, Leva Mann, Peter Hiller, Bert Grace, and Joe


Carnhagi were indicted for the murder of Howard Hoffman. The final day of the trial was on January 18, 1923. The defendants, however, were found not guilty and were released under $20,000 bonds each. Thus, there was no justice for the men who died while trying to make a living.

One change that resulted from the attention of the Herrin Massacre came from President Warren Harding. President Harding asked Congress to extend the jurisdiction of the federal courts so that justice could prevail for such uncivilized crimes. [From Paul M. Angle, Bloody Williamson; Jim R. Martin, Looking the Other Way; Chatland Parker, The Herrin Massacre; Mrs. S. Glenn Young, Life and Exploits of S. Glenn Young.]


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