TST, Vol. 9, Issue No. 26/2002

The Lattimer Massacre: Most of the hastily armed deputies were middle-class Anglo-Saxon Protestants

John Radzilowski

On September 10, 1897, at half past three in the afternoon, a group of over 400 striking immigrant coal miners marched toward the Pardee Mine outside of Lattimer, Pennsylvania. Most of miners were Poles, but with them were also Slovaks and some Italians, Hungarians, and Lithuanians. They had been on strike for some time, and had had several violent confrontations with strikebreakers, the infamous "Coal and Iron Police," and local law enforcement. The strikers were unarmed and marching peacefully behind a large American flag.

At about quarter to four, nearing the mine, they were confronted by Sheriff James L. Martin, brandishing a revolver. Hidden behind a low rise, along the line of march, were some 60 sheriff's deputies, armed with Winchester rifles. Most of the hastily armed deputies were middle-class Anglo-Saxon Protestants, and deeply resentful of the foreigners they saw before them. Many had been heard to boast about shooting strikers. As Martin approached, he tried to stop the marchers, ordering them to disperse and trying to take away their American flag. The strikers told them their march was legal and that they would go forward.

Then, without warning, the deputies opened fire from ambush. The strikers tried to flee as the bullets cut down their comrades right and left. Many of the fleeing strikers were literally cut to pieces by the volleys. The enraged deputies, screaming, ran forward to pursue the fleeing miners, firing wildly. Some paused to beat and kick the dying and wounded men lying in the road. When one of the injured cried out for water a deputy yelled, "We'll give you hell, not water, hunky!"

The wounded staggered into the town. One witness heard Andrzej Jurczek, clutching his entrails, cry out "No! Want to see wife. Before die." As the firing died away, some of the deputies fled. Others, however, went back to town, boasting about how many they had shot.

In all at least 19 strikers were killed, 14 of whom were Poles; four were Slovaks, and one was Lithuanian. The number of wounded may never be known, since many were treated at home, for fear of being arrested if they went to the hospital, but conservative estimates put the number at about 40. The sheriff and the deputies were later brought to trial, but were acquitted of all charges by a jury made up entirely of Anglo-Saxon Protestant farmers and businessmen.

This September marks the 105th anniversary of the Lattimer Massacre, one of the worst instances of violence against Polish immigrants in U.S. history. It was not, however, the only one. For example, Polish workers on strike at a Lamont, Illinois, canal in 1893 were attacked by black strike breakers armed with rifles and led by white foremen. The fact that company owners used strikes to pit different ethnic groups again each other only made such incident more tragic.

From the 1890s onward Polish immigrants, who were always given the hardest, dirtiest, lowest paying jobs, stood up and demanded their rights as workers and as American citizens. Prior to the 1930s large trade unions frequently shunned Poles and other immigrants, leaving them to struggle alone. Many times they lost the battle. Company owners had the police, the press, the courts, and most of mainstream society on their side. This did not stop the immigrants and their children from continuing to demand their rights. Polish men and women often faced police and company-hired thugs in fierce street battles. On more than one occasion, when police threatened to shoot down a crowd of striking Polish workers, their wives and daughters formed a protective line in front of the police guns, holding up their babies and small children, daring the police to shoot.

In the 1930s, as industrial union organizing reached its height, the sons and daughters of Lamont and Lattimer, Buffalo and Detroit, Chicago and Cleveland joined the Congress of Industrial Organization (CIO) in massive numbers. Poles were the largest single ethnic group in many key unions, like the United Auto Workers. Without the help of Polish immigrants and their children, the struggle for workers' rights in America would not have succeeded.

Many of the rights we take for granted in the workplace--eight-hour days, a minimum wage, safe working conditions, and others--are a result of the union movement. It is no exaggeration to say that it was America's first Civil Rights movement. Without the example of the successful civil disobedience and the challenging of entrenched power and authority shown by ethnic workers, it is hard to imagine that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s would have had the success that it did.

September 2002 should be a time to remember the victims of the Lattimer Massacre and all Polish Americans who fought for the rights of working people. Without their sacrifices, the country in which we live and the places in which we work would be far less humane.

TST, Vol. 9, Issue No. 26/2002

The Summit Times

Copyright 2002 by Andrzej M. Salski