By Paul Shackel
University of Maryland
By Michael Roller
University of Maryland
By Kristin Sullivan
University of Maryland
September 10, 1897, in Lattimer, Pa. marks one of the bloodiest labor strikes in US history. The Lattimer massacre is the result of a conflict between immigrant laborers and coal operators in the anthracite region of northeastern Pennsylvania. It left 25 immigrant men of eastern and southern European descent dead and nearly forgotten. Not surprisingly, the event is missing from the official memory of our country, and it reflects the control capital has over the memory of the industrialization of America. In remembering the massacre Howard Zinn’s (1980) “people’s history” is overshadowed by the accomplishments and paternalistic behavior of the coal operators. While the massacre has been erased from national attention, local community historians, clergy, community leaders, and a handful of academics have kept the story alive. In 2009 the Anthropology program at the University of Maryland committed itself to help raise the profile of the event with the goal of making it part of the national public memory.
The Lattimer massacre was the culmination of a month long strike by immigrant coal miners who sought better wages and safer working conditions. They came to the anthracite region of Pennsylvania in order to escape poverty and oppression in their home country. They settled in ethnic enclaves in coal patch towns that usually consisted of several dozen poorly built structures without water or sanitation. These towns stood in close proximity to the coal mines where workers lived close to work, and they were also under the watchful eye of supervisors. Many of the new immigrants replaced Irish, Welsh and German miners, who were leaving their underground occupations for other types of work, mostly for the steel mills of western Pennsylvania. The new immigrants were being paid less than the naturalized laborers and miners, and a set of cost cutting measures led to a strike around Hazleton, the nearest city to Lattimer.
The day’s events that led to the Lattimer massacre began at 11:00 AM when a group of 250 miners decided to march and close all of the mines owned by the Pardee Company. Starting at Harwood, a patch town southwest of Hazleton, they began their six mile march north to Lattimer. Met by the sheriff and his posse on a public road outside of one of the Lattimer breakers, they were ordered to stop. A scuffle broke out between the sheriff and a few of the workers, and then the posse opened fire on the unarmed men. As the striking men ran from the scene the posse continued to shoot them down. The majority of the 25 miners who died were killed by gunshot wounds to the back.
The Catholic Church raised money to help the victims of the massacre and their families, as well as create a defense fund to bring the sheriff and his posse to trial. While 25 men were killed and dozens severely injured, the sheriff and his men were found innocent. The Lattimer massacre is one of the major miscarriages of justice in US history. As a result of the verdict, employees of the mine were told that if the company found that workers were part of the strike, or if any family members were connected to the strike, they would lose their jobs. As a result, a type of historical amnesia of the event soon spread throughout the anthracite region. People needed to work to feed their families.
Several historians have written about the massacre (Turner 2002), and Michael Novak (1978) wrote a popular historical novel about the event. Several local historians have also been active in keeping the memory alive (Pinkowski 1950). The placing of a memorial stone near the massacre site in 1972 provides a physical reminder of the event. An annual mass held by the Catholic Church occurred at the site from the 1970s through the beginning of the 2000s, and a centennial commemoration sponsored by the UMWA in 1997 included the unveiling of the Harwood roadside marker and a reenactment of part of the march.
In 2009, Kristin Sullivan developed an interactive blog that stated the University’s intention to develop a program related to the Lattimer massacre and requested information from anyone with information about or in relation to the event. Immediately it received a positive response from several of the local historians and other community residents, and it continues to draw interest under the care of Michael Roller (www.lattimermassacre.wordpress.com). A photo-hosting website was created as well, through which Hazleton-area residents and other photographers have posted pictures related to the massacre events, location, and memorialization (www.flickr.com/groups/lattimermassacre).
Sullivan made several trips to the Lattimer region to follow up on and meet contacts made through the blog, as well as gather information in local and regional libraries, archival repositories, and museums. Networks of local, interested persons met during these trips led to access to locally written poems and plays on the massacre, personal collections of relevant newspaper articles and other resources, and access to a private archive collection with material heretofore unwritten about. These revealed conflicting stories about the mood and demeanor of both the striking miners and local authorities, the precise location of the massacre, and events of the massacre trial. Historically, these sources show a story muddled by corruption, prejudice, and time. They also reveal a transition in memory of the massacre’s events and significance over time.
During her visits, Sullivan had the opportunity to interview four multi-generation Hazleton-area residents, including an active community member and local historian, a newspaper reporter and local history re-enactor, and two great-granddaughters of Michael Cheslock, the mineworker for whose murder the sheriff and deputies officially stood trial. These community members are interested in claiming the history of Lattimer for different political ends. Hazleton has had an influx of immigrants of Latin America descent, and the story of immigrant laborers justifies the way different people view and treat the new immigrants today.
For instance, the former Hazleton mayor, and now congressman for the district, is a descendant of Italian immigrants who arrived at the turn of the twentieth century. In 2005 he signed into law the “Illegal Immigration Relief Act,” which made English the official language of Hazleton, barred landlords from renting to undocumented workers and families, and made it illegal to hire unnaturalized workers. The law was eventually struck down by District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania. In September 2010, a federal appeals court upheld the ban on Hazleton’s controversial immigration law. The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals noted that immigration is clearly “within the exclusive domain of the federal government.” In December 2010, the City of Hazleton appealed this decision to the Supreme Court.
Semi-structured interviews reveal a mixture of perceived public amnesia, and many people lack a connection between the massacre and related events today. One interviewee does clearly see all of these revelations present in massacre memory and discourse; however, informal interviews conducted in Lattimer by Sullivan and Roller, as well as reviews of recent news media, underscore a public memory disconnect between the issues of the massacre and the issues of today, particularly as it pertains to immigration. So, while Hazleton is a city of immigrants, many of its inhabitants have endorsed the anti-immigrant laws being passed by the city. Aside from forgetting their roots, the claim of an immigrant background allows the xenophobic population to hide behind this shield, which allows them to treat the new outsider poorly, and get away with it.
In 2010 Michael Roller began an investigation of the material dimensions of the events surrounding the Lattimer massacre. This began with a survey of the massacre site itself. Like forensic anthropologists at a crime scene, we searched for material evidence of the massacre. Locating bullets and shell casing would provide two things. First of all, accounts of the event are highly contested, an obfuscation that began the day of the massacre as contrary newspaper accounts were filed by the sheriff and others. Additionally, complete court transcripts from the lengthy trial detailing the accounts of eye witnesses are missing, though fragments recounted in newspapers are being compiled. With the survey, the project aims to add archaeology as an entirely new form of account to contest, affirm or provide entirely new forms of evidence. Furthermore, with the immediate physicality of the evidence, and the community interest it stirs, we hope to bring attention again to the events of the massacre. Importantly, we hope that this interest will lead to new connections with the community, along with the sharing of stories, photographs and accounts of life before and after the massacre.
The archaeological survey was undertaken with the collaboration of Dan Sivilich and BRAVO (Battlefield Restoration & Archaeological Volunteer Organization), of New Jersey. BRAVO is a non-profit metal detecting organization that provides support to professional archaeology programs with the goal of identifying battlefield scenes. Sivilich, who grew up in the anthracite region and has a connection to the region’s mining heritage, eagerly responded to Roller’s request for help.
Based upon historical accounts, photographs and aerial photography, a broad survey area was delineated and the general location of the “the gum tree” was identified. The gum tree marks where the sheriff and the strikers met, and the place where the initial shooting occurred and the first workers met their death. It served as a historical landmark until the late twentieth century when a townsperson cut it down. Metal detection was employed on the site during two weekends in November and December of 2010. Crewmembers worked along rough transects, a task made difficult by the heavy primary growth across the wooded survey area. Artifacts were bagged and tagged and their locations recorded with either a handheld GPS unit or a laser total station, depending on the accessibility of the locations to established benchmarks. An initial analysis of the artifacts identified a variety of ordnance from the period situated in a cluster near the road and close to the gum tree.
The archaeology survey at Lattimer recalls the struggle between labor and capital, much like at other labor-related sites of violence including Ludlow, Colorado (McGuire and Larkin 2009) and Blair Mountain in West Virginia (Nida and Adkins 2011). By performing the oral histories and the archaeology survey the memory of the Lattimer massacres has been awakened once again. Our goal is to eventually place the massacre site and the town on the National Register of Historic Places in order to achieve nationally recognized status by the federal government. We also hope that the place can be a touchstone for a dialogue related to issues about immigration and social justice.
McGuire, Randall and Karin Larkin (editors). 2009. The Archaeology of Class War: The Colorado Coalfield Strike of 1913-1914. Boulder: The University Press of Colorado.
Nida, Brandon and Michael Jessee Adkins. 2011. The Social and Environmental Upheaval of Blair Mountain: A Working Class Struggle for Unionization and Historic Preservation. In Heritage, Labour, and the Working Classes. Routledge, London.
Novak, Michael. 1978 The Guns of Lattimer: The True Story of a Massacre and a Trial, August 1897 – March 1898. Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, New York.
Pinkowski, Edward. 1950. Lattimer Massacre. Sunshine Press, Philadelphia, PA.
Turner, George A. 2002. The Lattimer Massacre: A Perspective from the Ethnic Community. In Pennsylvania History: A Journal of Mid-Atlantic Studies, Special Issue: The Lattimer Massacre (1897). Special Guest Editor, Harold W. Aurand. 69(1):11-30.
Zinn, Howard. 1980. A People’s History of the United States. New York: Harper & Row.