Herrin Massacre

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Herrin Massacre

United States 1922


On 21-22 June 1922 a coal miners' strike near the small town of Herrin in southern Illinois erupted in deadly violence. Twenty-three men were killed in the strike; all but two were strikebreakers. Along with the Chicago Battle of the Viaduct during the great railroad strike of 1877 (30 fatalities), the Homestead strike of 1892 (18), and the Ludlow Massacre in 1914 (19), the Herrin Massacre was among the deadliest single incidents of strike violence in American history. Despite impassioned cries for blood in the nation's press, no one was ever punished for any strike-related activities. A look at the causes of the massacre, its authors, and the failed efforts to punish them casts important light on the character of U.S. industrial relations during this period.

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the United States was well known for high levels of labor violence. In large-scale strike actions, such as the great railroad strike of 1877 or the American Railway Union strike of 1894, the U.S. federal government intervened forcefully, often at the command of the judiciary. But most labor violence occurred at the local level, and here the federal and even state governments were notable for their absence. Local-level strike conflicts often dissolved into violent encounters between unionized strikers and employers' private police forces. Much attention has been given to cases where employers triumphed; less attention has been devoted to the frequent cases where they were defeated. Indeed, the lack of a national police force and the local election of police authorities gave considerable advantages to working-class groups such as coal miners, who were often concentrated in large numbers in rural areas where they had experience in using weapons. At Herrin, the fact that hundreds of armed miners were able to besiege 50 armed strikebreakers for two days without any interference and slaughter them without any retribution illustrates the remarkably limited character of U.S. federal and state intervention in many local class conflicts during the era of high industrialization.


  • 1907: At the Second Hague Peace Conference, 46 nations adopt 10 conventions governing the rules of war.
  • 1912: Titanic sinks on its maiden voyage, from Southampton to New York, on 14 April. More than 1,500 people are killed.
  • 1917: In Russia, a revolution in March (or February according to the old Russian calendar) forces the abdication of Czar Nicholas II. By July, Alexander Kerensky has formed a democratic socialist government, and continues to fight the Germans, even as starvation and unrest sweep the nation. On 7 November (25 October old style), the Bolsheviks under V. I. Lenin and Leon Trotsky seize power. By 15 December, they have removed Russia from the war by signing the Treaty of Brest Litovsk with Germany.
  • 1919: With the formation of the Third International (Comintern), the Bolshevik government of Russia establishes its control over communist movements worldwide.
  • 1922: Inspired by the Bolsheviks' example of imposing revolution by means of a coup, Benito Mussolini leads his blackshirts in an October "March on Rome," and forms a new fascist government.
  • 1922: Great Britain establishes the Irish Free State as a dominion of the British Empire.
  • 1922: With the centuries-old Ottoman Empire dissolved, Mustafa Kemal, a.k.a. Atatürk, overthrows the last sultan and establishes the modern Turkish republic.
  • 1922: Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) is formed.
  • 1922: Published this year James Joyce's novel Ulysses and T. S. Eliot's poem The Waste Land will transform literature and inaugurate the era of modernism.
  • 1925: European leaders attempt to secure the peace at the Locarno Conference, which guarantees the boundaries between France and Germany, and Belgium and Germany.
  • 1927: Charles A. Lindbergh makes the first successful solo nonstop flight across the Atlantic, and becomes an international hero.
  • 1932: When Ukrainians refuse to surrender their grain to his commissars, Stalin seals off supplies to the region, creating a manmade famine that will produce a greater death toll than the entirety of World War I.

Event and Its Context

Roots of the Massacre

The Herrin Massacre was the culmination of a long history of violence in the Illinois coalfields in general and in those of Franklin and Williamson Counties in particular. Violent encounters between armed strikers and strikebreakers had produced fatalities in the central-southern Illinois coalfields in Pana and Virden in 1899. In southern Illinois, earlier struggles had clearly foreshadowed the events of 1922. In September 1899 in two separate incidents, five African American strikebreakers and the wife of a strikebreaker were killed by armed strikers in Carterville. In 1904-1905 strikebreakers in the company town of Zeigler were besieged by hundreds of armed miners. Barricaded in a fortified Zeigler, the employers and their armed retainers successfully resisted strikers' armed forays. However, three successive coal-mining disasters between 1905 and 1908, which killed 51, 26, and 3 men, respectively, ended the attempt to run a nonunion mine in the area. Company officials privately alleged that striking miners caused the disasters, but there can be no question of the negligence of the mine's owner who, while spending large sums to secure his mines, neglected elementary rules of mine safety.

In earlier strikes, as in the Herrin Massacre, private armies of strikebreakers and union members confronted one another. Local authorities struggled to get out of the way. County sheriffs were not anxious to act against the miners who elected them, nor were they eager to call in state authorities who would require their cooperation. Without reliable local contacts, the state's efforts to intervene in strike conflicts could not succeed. The inactivity of local authorities favored violent actions among a mining population that was well armed and well organized—and violence succeeded. In the wake of the Pana-Virden and Carterville strikes, management retreated and gave up efforts to dig non-union coal. In the Carterville as in the Herrin shootings, southern Illinois juries refused to convict miners accused of killing strikebreakers.

Mining violence was not a product of left-wing radicalism. Although southern Illinois was not as conservative as many claimed, it was no seedbed of left-wing militancy. In the early 1920s, radical groups such as the Industrial Workers of the World, the Socialist Labor Party, and the newly founded American Communist Party had a foothold among Italian miners and an even smaller following among native whites. These native whites, who composed the majority of the labor force in the larger mining towns, came from local farming populations but traced their origin to migration in the first half of the nineteenth century from rural Kentucky or Tennessee. As a heritage of the Civil War, the rural population voted Republican, but it espoused a militant Protestant fundamentalism retained by many of its sons who entered the mines. The religious revivals that periodically swept Protestant communities threatened relations with immigrant workers who were predominantly Italian, Lithuanian, and Polish Catholics. The Ku Klux Klan had a greater appeal to the mass of Franklin and Williamson County natives than radical leftist groups.

The Herrin Massacre

The Herrin Massacre was not caused by doctrines of class struggle but emerged from a fierce local class conflict. The proximate cause of the massacre was the attempt of the Southern Illinois Coal Company (SICC) to run a mine whose workers were not members of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) during the middle of a national coal strike. Larger issues of trust and betrayal were involved and strongly promoted violence. Following in the wake of a great wave of wildcat strikes in 1919, the 1922 national strike was a bitter conflict. Broad support for the strike expressed Illinois miners' deep discontent with the cooperation of their union with employers and the government during World War I and efforts to preserve this cooperation into the postwar era. Local mining officials were on the defensive and anxious to defend their militant reputation. Local officials of UMWA District 12, comprising all Illinois coal miners, had agreed to permit the owner of the SICC, William J. Lester, to open a strip mine in Williamson County during the 1922 strike with the proviso that he would not load or ship the coal to market until the strike was over. Giving employment to a few miners when many thousands of miners were on strike was a controversial policy. Allegations of corruption arose after the massacre and are not to be dismissed, but the local officials' deal with the SICC had been well known.

Unfortunately, as the strike wore on, Lester found himself hard pressed to pay debts incurred by his start-up costs—and this at a time when he was accumulating large quantities of coal that could be sold for high prices. Finally greed triumphed, and on 13 June 1922 Lester fired his UMWA workers and announced that he would run the mine with members of the Steam Shovelmen's Union.

In southern Illinois, Lester's actions were condemned universally. Responsible authorities on the scene such as Colonel Samuel Hunter, the personnel officer of the Illinois adjutant general, worked for compromise. The national UMWA leadership was less conciliatory. At the time, District 12's chief, Frank Farrington, was locked in a bitter conflict with the UMWA president, John L. Lewis, and Lewis was probably not sorry to see the District 12 leadership embarrassed by the local officials' deal with Lester. In any case, Lewis's telegram to a local miners' leader that the Steam Shovelmen's Union was an "outlaw organization" and that its members should be seen as "common strikebreakers" undoubtedly exacerbated tensions on the eve of the massacre. Regardless, Lester's public violation of his commitment and subsequent conduct were almost bound to produce violence. Having charted a dangerous course of action, he took no half measures. Lester and his mine manager, C. K. McDowell, openly expressed their contempt for the UMWA. Lester's strikebreakers and mine guards, imported from Chicago, antagonized everyone, closing off local farm roads around the mine, bullying neighboring farmers, and even giving short shrift to local policemen.

While the mine guards' attitudes toward the police were unwise, they reflected justified suspicions. Whatever else they were, in Williamson County the police were not the agents of a bourgeois state. In the coming elections, the county sheriff was running for county treasurer and was determined not to antagonize coal miners and their family members, who constituted an overwhelming majority of the electorate. The sheriff's position became nearly impossible when on 21 June hundreds of miners at an open-air meeting finally decided to take immediate action. When local coal miners raided hardware stores for arms, when convoys of armed miners clogged Herrin's streets, and when the mine manager made frantic calls to the sheriff's office, the sheriff disappeared.

On the morning of the second day of the siege, the strikebreakers' situation was desperate—the number of armed strikers was increasing rapidly, outnumbering the armed strikebreakers by at least ten to one. The strikebreakers' better aim had made their position much worse. Embattled strikebreakers and mine police killed one of the besieging miners and fatally wounded another, but their supplies began to run out. Finally, under great pressure, Lester accepted a truce, agreeing not to export coal; in exchange, the embattled strikebreakers would be allowed to depart. While state authorities in the person of Colonel Hunter were reassured by the truce, little attention was given to the actual details of the surrender. Under the most charitable interpretation, local UMWA officials made only halfhearted efforts to oversee the agreement.

With no help forthcoming that morning, the surrounded strikebreakers gave up and triumphant miners immediately began to dynamite the mine and its equipment. No responsible public or trade union official was present and authorized to accept the surrender of those who had already fatally wounded two strikers. As the strikebreakers were marched out of the mine, they were attacked by members of the crowd. Badly beaten, the hated mine manager, McDowell, was taken away to a nearby grove and killed with three bullets. Women and children from the mining community joined the crowd mocking the parade of surrendered men. Small groups of strikebreakers were whisked out of sight to be killed. Survivors were forced to run across a field separated from an adjacent wood by a barbed-wire fence; there, the real butchery began. Almost all of the strikebreakers were injured; 18 were killed that afternoon and 2 more died later of injuries. In addition, the driver of a truck carrying strikebreakers had also been killed on 21 June. After the massacre the sheriff appeared in time to collect the wounded and the dead.

The Herrin Massacre captured national headlines and provoked angry indignation throughout the country. The Illinois legislature commissioned its own investigation. The legal system was prodigal with indictments. Outrage was almost universal—except in Williamson and Franklin Counties. When a judge set bail for some of the defendants, Herrin's citizens lined up to subscribe. The Illinois miners' union paid for fans to cool the eight defendants denied bail during the hot southern Illinois summer. A union local donated a Victrola and miners' wives prepared home-cooked meals for imprisoned miners. Local juries would not convict union men. It would be 50 years before another coal company attempted to mine non-union coal in southern Illinois.

Key Players

Lester, William J. (1889-1935): Trained as a civil engineer, Lester was involved in a string of failed mining projects after the Herrin Massacre. He finally established a practice as a consulting engineer in Indiana.

Lewis, John L. (1880-1969): Lewis was president of the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) from 1919 to 1960. Between 1919 and 1932, Lewis's dictatorial rule almost destroyed the UMWA. But faced with the crisis of the 1930s, Lewis became one of America's greatest national labor leaders, founding the Congress of Industrial Organizations and helping to unionize millions of American workers. His creation of the UMWA welfare and retirement fund in 1946 was an outstanding accomplishment, greatly benefiting those coal miners with sufficient seniority to resist the shrinking of the mining workforce.

See also: Pullman Strike; Railroad Strike of 1877; United Mine Workers of America.



Angle, Paul M. Bloody Williamson: A Chapter in American Lawlessness. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

Friedman, Gerald. State-making and Labor Movements: France and the United States, 1876-1914. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998.

Parker, Chatland. The Herrin Massacre. Marion, IL:Williamson County Historical Society, 1979.


Westra, Curt. "The Herrin Massacre." 15 August 1999 [cited5 January 2003]. <http://www.geocities.com/Heartland/7847/massacre.htm>.

—Michael Hanagan

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