Original Document
Original Document
Frank Butler, "Coal and Iron Justice," The Nation, October 16, 1929.

Pittsburgh, October 1

PENNSYLVANIA justice had spoken. The courtroom was stunned. The three defendants stood immobile. Counsel were amazed. The widow Barkoski stared. Judge Gray turned white. "Gentlemen of the jury," the clerk droned, "you say you find the defendants not guilty?" "Yes," they chorused. Walter J. Lyster and Harold P. Watts turned and nodded to their mothers. Frank Slapikis heaved a sigh of relief. Tears stole down the cheeks of the widow Barkoski. Judge Gray thanked the jury, and the normal courtroom sounds replaced the hush.

Thus ended what had started out to be the exercise of justice by a sovereign State–the fixing of responsibility for the savage killing of John Barkoski, Allegheny County miner.

"This," said Prosecutor Roy T. Clunk when be got his breath, "is the most shocking miscarriage of justice in the history of this or any other country. I am glad the verdict is not on my conscience."

John Barkoski worked at Montour mine No. 9 of the Pittsburgh Coal Company at Santiago. He had rented a farm, which he worked in his off hours. He hoped eventually to leave the mine forever and spend his days peacefully on his farm.

But on February 9, 1929, he stepped into his mother-in-laws home, House No. 210, near the mine, and there fell into the hands of two coal and iron policemen employed by the Pittsburgh Coal Company, Harold Watts and Frank Slapikis. The defense said Barkoski had stabbed Watts. Eyewitnesses for the prosecution said Watts had launched an unprovoked attack on Barkoski. At any rate, Barkoski was delivered to the barracks of the coal and iron police at Imperial with the following injuries: Laceration of the left cheek, five or six head wounds, two broken ribs and a fractured nose.

Dr. J. M. Patterson, coal company physician, ascertained these injuries and treated them. He testified on the witness stand that he observed Lieutenant Lyster, who was in charge of the police, kicking and beating Barkoski while the miner lay semiconscious on the floor. Lyster, the physician said, beat Barkoski with a strap, twisted his ears until the man cried aloud, and twisted his broken nose until he lapsed again into unconsciousness. "All this time," testified the seventy-six-year-old doctor, "he seemed to be trying to make him say something. I warned Lyster 'This will have to stop, now, because his condition is serious.' Dr. Patterson left the barracks after that.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania resumed its testimony through another eye-witness, John Higgins, himself a former coal and iron policeman. "They beat him, they kicked him, they used everything imaginable on him until they took him to the hospital," was the way Higgins summed it up. Lyster, the witness said, beat Barkoski over the chest with a poker. He beat him until the poker bent, then straightened the implement and beat the man again. He stripped the miner to the waist, the better to use a strap. He kicked him until the miner's body rolled over and over on the floor of the barracks. Watts, too, Higgins said, beat Barkoski, kicked him, struck him aver the head with knucklers, and while Lyster grilled him for a confession, slapped him on the arms and legs and neck with his blackjack. The miner, Higgins told the jury, was helpless and unable to answer when the Pittsburgh coal officers said: "If you don't admit you stabbed our man, you Hunky –we'll kill you."

For more than four hours John Barkoski was in the barracks. He had been examined by Dr. Patterson soon after being brought in. At six in the morning, following his night of torture, he was taken directly to the Sewickley Valley Hospital. On his arrival there, Dr. Herbert M. Fleming, hospital surgeon, examined him. His report follows:

He was in a very critical condition, pulseless and unconscious. His left lung was perforated, several ribs were fractured, and he had a possible skull fracture. He was covered with bruises and bleeding from numerous cuts. He was bleeding at the mouth, his eyes were glassy, there was a depression in his head, and the left side of his chest was crushed in. His left lung had evidently collapsed. He was suffering from extreme shock and was on the verge of death, with heart action failing. There was also an injury to the abdomen, accompanied by paralysis of the intestinal tract.

According to the testimony of the defense, Watts had been cut by Barkoski and the two grappled. He was forced to strike the miner with his gun. They struggled over hard frozen ground. During this scuffle, the defense maintained, the injuries that killed Barkoski were sustained. There were sweeping denials that any violence had taken place in the barracks, or at any time after Barkoski was arrested. The jury of eleven men and one graying, matronly woman listened attentively to the testimony, but gave no noticeable reaction, except that the woman smiled upon the mother of Watts every time their eyes met, and that a young salesman, Juror No. 10 smiled frequently at a comely young woman who sat in the front row with the defendants' relatives. The jury was out for eighteen hours, and on the morning of September 28 brought in their verdict.

At the next court session, two days after the verdict, District Attorney Samuel H. Gardner went before Judge Gray and moved the court to discharge the jury from further service as "incompetent and without moral stamina." Judge Gray, a man of liberal outlook and independent political affiliations, replied.:

'Your suggestion is altogether proper. I was never more surprised in my life. It seems to me that nothing less than second-degree verdicts should have been returned against Lyster and Watts, although the evidence may have justified such a verdict for Slapikis. I quite agree with you that the jurors were not competent and were without moral stamina.

Public condemnation of the verdict was universal and violent.... In a front-page editorial the Scripps-Howard Pittsburgh Press said: "The State which so freely commissioned armed guards for private authority cannot escape responsibility for the death of Barkoski, even though a Jury says he was not murdered."

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette called the action of the Jury "a miserable travesty on justice," but added that it has served "through the general indignation it has aroused to emphasize one significant point to the lawmakers and other public authorities. The feeling against the private police system that produces such outrages as the one in this case is both wide and deep. It is a feeling that will not abate until the unsound and unjustifiable practice of delegating public authority to private hands is eliminated."

When the fight to abolish the coal police started last February, Governor Fisher admitted the need of reform and pointed to the fact that he had revoked thousands of commissions during his term. Representative Michael A. Musmanno, defender of Sacco and Vanzetti, first proposed a bill to do away with the system entirely and then consented to introduce a bill sponsored by the Governor which proposed no drastic changes. A similar bill was introduced In the Senate by W. D. Mansfield.

Neither measure, however, satisfied the people who sought to wipe out the chief evil of the system–the right of the coal and iron officers to roam at large and enjoy the powers of a policeman of a first-class city. Musmanno succeeded m having his bill amended so as to grant some of the changes demanded. The Mansfield bill remained as it was. It gave the mine guards powers of inestimable value to coal companies in time of strike: the power to place prisoners in their own or any jail without a commitment by a magistrate; the right to be a coal and iron policeman and a peace officer of the Commonwealth at the same time. The only changes proposed were that three citizens of the State–officials of the coal companies not excluded–should indorse each candidate for a commission, and a change in name from Coal and Iron Police to Industrial Police.

The Musmanno measure restricted the activities of the police to the property of the coal company except when guarding pay rolls; required that all prisoners be committed before magistrates; prohibited the coal policemen from holding other governmental jobs; and limited the applicants to citizens of the United States indorsed by three reputable Citizens, only one of whom could be an employee of the hiring coal company.

With the Musmanno bill amended, the public relaxed its vigilance. The coal operators and other industrial interests then began to put in their silent but effective work to preserve the status quo. The session of the Assembly was nearing its end when the correspondents of the Pittsburgh newspapers at the capital discovered that the Musmanno bill was being allowed to die in committee and that only superhuman efforts could save it.

A superhuman effort was made. The public, in press and pulpit, voiced the demand of an outraged community that the Musmanno bill be made law. The members of the Senate judiciary committee grew panicky and hastily reported the bill out. Simultaneously, on orders of the political overlords, the Mansfield bill was revived in the House committee. Both measures were passed and the whole matter laid squarely at the Governor's door. He signed the Mansfield bill and hurriedly left the capital on a fishing-trip.

As far as the Governor and the legislature were concerned, then, the system was to be continued with little change, but the public hoped that the court action in the Ratkoski case would prove an effective deterrent to coal and iron officers in the future.

With the acquittal of the former employees of the Pittsburgh Coal Company this last hope for immediate relief from oppression in the mining towns has vanished.

The three coal and iron policemen are still to be tried for involuntary manslaughter, indeed. But by this time the public has lost hope. Few expect convictions. Few expect reform. The "industrial policeman" can still swagger down the streets of mining towns, his own boss, his own judge and jury.

Has John Barkoski died in vain?

Credit: Frank Butler, "Coal and Iron Justice," The Nation, October 16, 1929.
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