Teach PA History
Lattimer Massacre: What's Beneath the Surface?
Background Information for Teachers

Lattimer Massacre
The Lattimer Massacre stands out as one of the most important events in labor and ethnic history. On September 10, 1897, nearly 400 immigrant coal miners began a peaceful march from Harwood to Lattimer in search of better pay and conditions in the coal fields of Pennsylvania. By the end of the day, over 30 of them would be injured and 19 killed as they were fired upon on the road to Lattimer.
The march to Lattimer was part of a larger labor strike in the northeastern Pennsylvania collieries. The strike first broke out in late August at the Honeybrook Colliery in McAdoo, against the Lehigh and Wilkes-Barre Coal Company, the strike quickly spread throughout the coal region. While this was not the area's first strike, it would quickly become its largest. Miners were marching from one coal community to the next, organizing workers and shutting down each successive company. These events prompted Sheriff James Martin to deputize nearly 90 men to put down the strikes breaking out throughout the region by any means necessary. Most of the deputized men were agents of the coal companies and already hostile to the labor force on strike.
Workers in the coal mines of Pennsylvania faced a hard and hazardous life. Boys began working as "breaker boys" in the collieries at an early age, even before becoming teenagers, spending long days on their feet picking and sorting the coal that came up from the mines. The miners themselves fared worse. Descending hundreds of feet into the ground, they worked in complete darkness from daybreak to dusk six days a week. The mine shafts were also dangerous, from collapses, accidental fires, and eventually from the coal dust the workers breathed into their lungs daily.
Most families lived in company towns where everything, from groceries to doctor visits, was charged against the miner's pay–about $375 a year. Most lived in poverty, even when women took jobs in silk and ribbon factories or as domestic help in the homes of colliery owners to make ends meet. Despite the wretched conditions of the coal workers, few Americans supported them in their demands when they went on strike. The public associated the coal unions with anarchy and violence, largely because of the legendary Molly Maguires. Many miners were recent eastern European immigrants, which added to the prejudice. The Lattimer Massacre would be significant in changing the public's opinion.
During the strike, union activist John Fahy was called into the region to help organize the miners. Due to the language and cultural differences among the foreign-born ethnic miners, encouraging them to join together in the United Mine Workers of America was not an easy task. Fahy, however, skillfully convinced many workers to pay the 25-cent dues, and the Harwood branch of the UMWA was started. This group went to Calvin Pardee, owner of the Lattimer and Harwood mines, with their demands, including increased wages, decreased prices on supplies, and elimination of several of the "company town" employees, including the company doctor. When these requests were denied, the group decided to march to Lattimer to enlist the workers and force a full shutdown of Pardee's mining operations.
By the time workers started their march on September 10, 1897, nearly 5,000 workers across the region were on strike. En route to Lattimer, the strikers were stopped shortly outside the town by Sheriff James Martin and several deputies, who had been waiting for the marchers in a railroad car. Warning them not to continue, Martin displayed a proclamation banning demonstrations that had been passed earlier in the strike. After several arrests, West Hazleton Police Chief Edwards Jones assisted the strikers, interfering on their behalf and allowing them to continue their peaceful march toward Lattimer.
When the marchers approached Lattimer, a sheriff's posse awaited them. The exact order of events that led to the massacre is unclear, but at some point during an argument between the sheriff and several strikers, a gun went off. With that single shot, the men in the sheriff's posse began firing their weapons into the unarmed crowd of 400 marchers. Disbursing in panic and running for shelter, many of the marchers were shot in the back. At the end of the shooting, 19 men had been killed and 38 wounded; six of them died later of their injuries. Even today, historians disagree on whether Sheriff Martin gave the command to fire upon the marchers.
As news of the attack spread throughout the region, and then throughout the country, it enflamed anger and resentment among the ethnic workers of the region and outraged the public. Calls for justice were made in most of the nation's largest newspapers warrants were issued for the arrest of Sheriff Martin and 78 of his deputies.
Between the massacre and the trial, other marches took place across the region, this time as funeral marches. Thousands of miners, mine workers and their families attending the funeral masses and burials of the 19 men who had died: Sebastian Broztowski, Michael Cheslock, Frank Chrzeszeski, Aldabert Czaja, John Fotta, Anthony Grekos, Andrew Jurecek, Stephen Jurico, George Kulick, Andrew Mieczkowski, Andrew Monizaski, Clement Platek, Raphael Rekiewicz, John Skrep, John Tarnowicz, Jacob Tomashontas, Stanley Zacorski, Adalbert Ziemba, and Adam Zieminski. Nearly 1,500 workers at the Lattimer Mines quit their jobs in protest of this treatment of the Harwood workers. Calvin Pardee continued to refuse to meet any of the demands of the strikers.
Sheriff Martin and his deputies stood trial in Luzerne County Courthouse in Wilkes-Barre from February 1, until March 2, 1898. During the trial, many of the miners called to testify before the court had to use interpreters, which played to the anti-Slavic arguments of the defense lawyers. During closing arguments, the defense called upon the prejudice of the jury, scathingly describing the Slavic people. Despite testimony from 140 witnesses who described the massacre of the unarmed workers by the sheriff and the deputies, all were acquitted of the charges on March 2.
Although the massacre was a tragedy still remembered annually at Masses today, the event also was a defining moment for the ethnic workers of the coal mines and the organized labor movement. Uniting together across ethnic lines and boundaries, they continued to fight for those rights the men of the Lattimer Massacre wanted. By 1900, the UMWA was the fastest growing union in the country. This event would demonstrate its importance through the collective unionization of mine workers across the region and a demonstration of the power and importance of immigrant workers in industrial America.
Many lessons can still be learned today from the events of September 10, 1897. Over time, historians have changed the way they viewed the Lattimer Massacre, from primarily an event in labor history to one more far-reaching that encompasses the important aspect of the workers' ethnicity.
In 1972, the first of two state historical markers to the Lattimer Massacre was erected, reading:
Seeking collective bargaining and civil liberty, immigrant miners on strike were marching, in protest, from Harwood to Lattimer. Here, on September 10, 1897, they were met by armed deputy sheriffs. The ensuing affray resulted in the death of more than twenty marchers.
The marker identified the site primarily by its significance to labor history.
More than 25 years later, a different, yet not inconsistent, viewpoint emerged. Ethnic heritage organizations in the area made the case that the events at Lattimer were important not just as an episode in labor history, but also as a chapter in American ethnic history. They noted that the ethnicity of the marchers and miners was a primary factor in the relationships among the miners, mine owners, and the small mining communities of the area. Accordingly, a second marker was erected during events commemorating the centennial of the Massacre. The new marker reads:
Near here at Harwood, on September 10, 1897, immigrant coal miners on strike began a march for higher wages and equal rights. Unarmed, they were fired upon at Lattimer by sheriff's deputies. Nineteen marchers- Polish, Slovack, and Lithuanian- were killed. The majority of the dead were buried in St. Stanislaus Cemetery, Hazleton. Others were interred in St. Joseph's and Vine Street Cemeteries, Hazleton, and in St. Patrick Cemetery, McAdoo.

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