Episode 5: Cracked Skull With Cracked Skull
As language agglomerates onto itself over the centuries it becomes unwittingly ornate. Take, for example, the English noun “deputy,” from which we dutifully formulate the verb “deputize,” heedless to the fact that when “deputy” found its way, centuries ago, into our mouths and quills it brought with it a perfectly serviceable English verb, now rarely used: depute, which means “to assign” or “to appoint.”
Well, the modern word deputize may be studded with rhinestones, but it does have the advantage of being specific. Every American knows what it means to deputize; it’s in our foundational mythology. A beleaguered lawman, somewhere on the frontier, temporarily bestows some of his executive authority on one or more competent and willing auxiliaries. It’s an essentially magical act, like the miracle of the loaves and fishes, but instead of multiplying bread and sardines to nourish the multitudes, the lawman multiplies a tin star to consecrate a posse.
The posse, or posse comitatus, emerged from the medieval English tradition of the hue and cry, which obligated anyone witnessing a crime to arouse their neighbors with shouting, or perhaps by blowing some kind of horn. All able bodied men within ear-shot were expected to help chase down the offender.
By the 9th century, the county, or shire, system was standardized across most of England by Alfred the Great. With the shire came the shire boss, called the reeve, and the shire reeve became our sheriff.
Starting a little after the Norman conquest, the office of constable represented the sheriff’s authority at the town level. The word comes from an old Roman authority, the comes stabuli, master of stables, but by the time the term made it to Western Europe, it just meant something like commander, or enforcer, so when new administrative roles were needed in feudal England to collect evidence, these proto detectives were called constables too.
In the 13th century, British cities that had grown too large for the hue and cry system started adopting the practice of the watch and ward, which assigned specific citizens to guard the city gates and patrol the streets.
This rudimentary system of sheriffs, constables, and watchmen went relatively unchanged for the next several centuries in England, and with the settling of the Jamestown colony in 1607, it formed the basis of policing in British North America. As the frontier slowly migrated westward, it brought with it this common-law authority even as older cities on the Eastern Seaboard continued to stay up to date with all the latest European policing innovations. Sheriffs in the American West were now popularly elected, rather than appointed by the crown, and constables were more likely to be called “marshals”, from a German word also meaning stable keeper, but other than that, the basic job descriptions were much the same as they had been since the writing of Beowulf.
Posse comitatus means “the power of the county;” it’s the sheriff’s implicit authority to appoint citizens to the watch and ward. A sheriff could deputize any able bodied person in their county, regardless of age, though before the 20th century the role was restricted to men. Like jury duty and the draft, deputy service typically could not be refused, but unlike jury duty or the draft, it was not populated blindly. Sheriffs would overwhelmingly deputize people they knew personally—or who were recommended to them by their trusted contacts. From the business community, say.
Like a jury, or an army of conscripts, the posse was ephemeral. Once a crisis was over—the wrongdoer caught or killed—it was dissolved without much ceremony.
In early American cities, volunteer night watchmen began patrolling the streets in the late 1600s. In the slaveholding south, slave patrols were an all-too-real phenomenon, but in most cases they tended to rely on either volunteers or conscripts. Full time professional police departments first emerged in the mid 19th century in most major cities. In rural America, though, even into the late 1800s, if the authorities needed warm bodies to enforce the law, they generally had to rely on amateurs. Even after such a radical cultural transformation as the industrial revolution, the rise of factories and mass wage labor did not immediately occasion a replacement of the centuries-old posse system outside of the major cities.
But increasingly, sheriffs and other authorities found that when confronted with a full-on crowd, the posse system had some serious disadvantages.
The labor historian J. Bernard Hogg posed the problem this way:
“What was a sheriff to do when faced not by a relatively small number of criminals whom everybody recognized for what they were but by hundreds and sometimes thousands of striking workers who were ordinarily peaceful, law-abiding citizens of a community? Could he call upon other citizens to drop their usual pursuits of life, take down their weapons, furnish their own food, and march against men who might be their own neighbors, merely to secure for some mill owner the right to operate his mill as he saw fit?
Public opinion was quite clear on the moral issue involved; enforcement of the rights of the property holder, however, was another matter. Especially was this true when the striking employee evinced a propensity to meet force with force, gun with gun, and a cracked skull with cracked skull. The sheriff and the country confronted a new problem.”
Distrust of crowds dates back to at least the classical period, probably earlier. The deaths of both Socrates and Christ were blamed on mobs by Plato and the Gospel authors, respectively. Roman leaders famously turned to “Bread and circuses” to harness and defuse the crowd’s libido and blood lust into what they hoped would be manageable proportions.
Following the French Revolution in 1789, the strange wildness of crowds became a fashionable preoccupation of the new academic field of sociology. The French historian Hyppolyte Taine saw the crowd as hopelessly, irredeemably sentimental and pre-rational. The sociologist Gabriel Tarde said the crowd was a wild beast without a name, setting the stage for the “father of crowd theory,” sociologist Gustave Le Bon, whose 1895 book “The Crowd” argued that the crowd’s transformative innocence and simplicity provided the perfect target for political opportunists and demagogues—what we would call today “outside agitators”— to press their cunning advantage on.
Through what he dubbed the “law of mental unity,” LeBon believed that crowd psychology short-circuited the capacity for personal introspection so thoroughly that for most people, once in the grips of it, it was nearly impossible to find their way to moral reasoning. Crowd members had ceased to become individuals, able to act only in crude and primitive fashion. No mere crowd could ever hope to muster the creativity or insight needed to propel society forward; only an individual could do that. The Italian sociologist and criminologist Scipio Sighele took this line of thinking one step further: Crowds make good people bad.
In 1840, at the height of the Jacksonian period, when anxieties about mob rule were rippling through American society, a magazine called “Atkinson’s Casket” ran a piece called “The Man of the Crowd,” by Edgar Allan Poe.
In this story, the protagonist sits in a London coffeehouse after just having recovered from an illness. His mood is exultant, and he takes sensual pleasure out of the most ordinary activities, reading the paper, watching the other patrons in the cafe, and finally, as night begins to fall, gazing on the bustle on the street outside. He spends some time observing the throng of people heading home from work, or en route to dinner engagements, or just up to no good, surveying them as they pass, the merchants, the aristocrats, the clerks, the peddlers; the gamblers, the pickpockets, and prostitutes.
The narrator amuses himself with this activity for several hours, until one face in particular, that of an old, decrepit man, snaps him from his reverie. Alone among everyone he has been observing, the expression on this man’s face is unique and inscrutable to him; it resists being cataloged. A confusion of contradictory impressions fills the narrator’s mind, and he is compelled to rush into the street and follow the old man, hoping that closer observation will help him understand the man’s place in the multitudes weaving around him.
Through the streets of London the narrator tails his subject, who seems to have nowhere in particular to go, with no hurry to get there. When the sun comes up, the narrator is briefly startled to find himself outside the coffeehouse he started from, but he gathers himself together and continues his pursuit through the next day, until evening comes again, and finally, exhausted, and still having learned nothing coherent from his chase, he resorts to one last deep hard look into the man’s face, before leaving him to continue his wanderings unmolested. Finding nothing useful, he concludes in defeat that the old man is unknowable and unfathomable, saying “This old man is the type and the genius of deep crime. He refuses to be alone. He is the man of the crowd. It will be in vain to follow; for I shall learn no more of him, nor of his deeds.”
“The crowd is untruth,” wrote Soren Kierkegaard, a few years after Poe’s story was published. “Even if every individual possessed the truth in private,” he continued, “if they came together into a crowd, untruth would at once be let in.”
Kierkegaard reasoned that since God offers his children salvation or damnation on an individual basis, soul by soul, then to take one’s place in a crowd is to deny Him the substrate by which He would judge you. It would be impossible to as much as say or hear a true thing without God’s direct mediation, since how could the wellspring of Truth itself not participate in its transmission? Taking one’s place in a crowd, then, is to become unseen by God, which is to say, unreal. Try to share a truth with a crowd and you become a statistic, a specimen, a representation, an unsouled non-self.
Kierkegaard’s biggest concern about crowds was the erosion of personal accountability. An anonymous person in a crowd might say things that they would never have the courage to express alone without fear of reprisal. Only individuals can apprehend the divine. Only individuals can be truly free, which to Kierkegaard meant first and foremost the freedom to commit acts of martyrdom.
Writing about 90 years later, in the pause between two world wars, Walter Benjamin looked around him at the lingering generational trauma of total war and described the individual of his day as “screaming like a newborn baby in the dirty diapers of the present.” The ability to directly speak of their experience, from mouth to ear, had been taken away from the soldiers who returned home from The Great War; they had nothing true to relate except for a litany of pointless atrocities that they did not want to speak aloud, and which no one around them wanted to hear.
Into the vacuum created by this dearth of shared experience, Benjamin said, gushed an overflowing river of frivolous cultural forms: palmistry, astrology, spiritualism; abundant but unconnected to lived experience, because magical thinking is private; it can’t be shared. Looking anxiously ahead at the coming war, Benjamin wondered if the people of his milieu would be able to recognize their cultural bankruptcy, and embrace what he called “positive barbarianism,” where having dismissed the pretense of having a living, breathing culture, one is free to start from scratch, and reconnect to the world of life and death.
It’s a strange choice of words. Barbarianism.
In Episode 4, I mentioned that “barbarian” was originally a Greek word for someone who didn’t speak Greek, but that’s not quite accurate. The root word, barbaros, means babbler; implying that the person described spoke no actual language at all, that the best they could do was clumsily mimic human speech. Or perhaps implying that the listener could not be bothered to figure out if there were languages other than their own, expressing thoughts and feelings just as sublime as theirs, or perhaps even more so. That might be something they’d prefer not to find out.
To be a barbarian therefore was to lack civilization, even the ability to reason. In the place of reason, one was sure to find prejudice, superstition, cruelty and violence, which is why it was so important to put up the strongest gates and fortifications against barbarians, to Keep Them Out. These caricatures don’t seem like very good candidates for the rejuvenation Benjamin was talking about. So what then?
To illustrate what starting from scratch might look like, he offers the examples of Paul Klee and Albert Einstein, famously iconoclastic, practically avatars of individual contribution. But in mentioning this I must admit that my language instantly struggles against me, gesturing back toward the paradox. The original, prototypical iconoclasts, in 8th century Byzantium, were not mavericks, free thinkers, or lone wolves, they were military factotums carrying out the edict of their emperor, Leo III, to smash the holy icons in Byzantine churches. They were basically stormtroopers, utterly typifying Kierkegaard’s description of the crowd as the nullification of the individual. Positive Barbarianism eludes us again.
In one of his most quoted lines, written shortly before his death in 1940, Benjamin declared: “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.” By this time war had come, and it’s not impossible that the reality of it had shattered whatever hopefulness might have been ensconced in his call for a start from scratch just a few years before.
But the German language also has its share of rhinestones.
The German word Benjamin reaches for when describing horror and atrocity, as in this late 1940 quote, is Barbarei, meaning inhuman cruelty, barbarism. When proposing his positive barbarianism, though, he uses a different word, possibly one that he coined himself, Barbarentum. In English, the literal translation would be something like barbarianhood, or barbarianness. The literature scholar Kevin McLaughlin has suggested that the use of such a clunky made-up word may even be a little joke, gesturing toward the way forward.
The silly, unexpected word “Barbarianness” breaks the spell; we can send home the Barbarian from central casting, and usher in the genuine article, the creative spirit, who can “erase the traces,” and build something new, however barbaric it might seem to people with too rigid a sense of civilization.
As far as we’ve come into this digression, we might as well also wheel in one last famous quote about barbarism and culture, written in 1949 by Benjamin’s friend and colleague Theodor Adorno: “Nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist barbarisch;” “Writing a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.”
This utterance was taken by Adorno’s readers to mean either that one could not or should not write poetry after Auschwitz, which seemed so patently false that Adorno ended up disavowing the quote in later works. But maybe, somewhere in the back of his mind, Adorno was reminded of the positive barbarianism of his old friend, who unlike Adorno did not outlive the Third Reich and never had the chance to look back on it for lessons. Maybe writing a poem after Auschwitz demands a radical departure from the barbarism of the culture, high and low alike, that permitted the operation of the camps.
At the end of his essay on Experience and Poverty, Benjamin nods again to the crowd, writing that that culture and norms have become “the monopoly of a few powerful people who, God knows, are no more human than the many; for the most part they are more barbaric, and not in the good way. Everyone else has to adapt … Let us hope that from time to time the individual will give a little humanity to the masses, who one day will repay him with compound interest.”
To return to Professor Hogg’s question, then—what was a sheriff to do?—one answer was to cut the amateurs out of the loop, by deputizing professional private detectives, the Pinkertons and their emulators.
Pinkerton Prime was Allan Pinkerton, a Scottish immigrant who discovered a talent for detective work after stumbling upon a counterfeiting ring in the Illinois woods near the Chicago suburb of Dundee. After a brief stint on the payroll of the newly formed Chicago Police Department, where he served as the department’s first detective, he formed the Pinkerton Detective Agency in 1850, providing investigation services primarily to railroad companies.
While Pinkerton agents did sometimes investigate train robberies, like the iconic one at the center of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, what the railroads really appreciated was the Pinkertons’ use of spycraft to root out employee theft.
Then, in 1866 the Pinkerton Detective Agency sent guards to Braidwood, Illinois, just south of Joliet, to put down a coal miners’ strike, beginning the era of the Pinkertons’ greatest fame and/or infamy. It was during this period that the legendary Pinkerton agent James McParland went undercover in the ranks of the Workingmen’s Benevolent Association in the Anthracite fields of Pennsylvania.
In 1892, when striking steelworkers occupying the Carnegie Homestead mill on the outskirts of Pittsburgh successfully drove off imported scab workers, the operators asked the Sheriff to deputize a posse to take back the mill. The sheriff attempted to recruit 100 men, but was successful in deputizing only 11. When these 11 were also driven off by the strikers, the steel baron Henry Clay Frick hired 300 armed Pinkertons to mount an assault using river barges. But after a day-long battle, these detectives, too, were driven back. The union was only defeated after the governor called out 8,000 National Guardsmen, who were able to take back control of the mill.
Which brings us to the second answer to Professor Hogg’s question. Where Pinkertons fall short, nothing beats the National Guard for crowd control. The hitch is that neither a sheriff nor an owner of a mine, mill, or factory can order the National Guard into the field; only the state governor can do that, and depending on the political situation in a given state at a given time, this runs the risk of sending everything back to square one: the governor represents the people who elected him or her, who are, in theory at least, the same people the Sheriff couldn’t successfully convince to beat up their friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens in the first place.
But in Southern Colorado, in late October 1913, the mine operators’ strategy of forcing the Governor’s hand with a Baldwin Felts terror campaign had finally succeeded. At Ludlow there were two Guard detachments. Company K, commanded by Captain Phillip Van Cise, a young Denver lawyer, set up camp just across the railroad tracks from the Ludlow tent colony. Company B, assembled from the mine guards Karl Lindefelt had already been commanding in Berwind Canyon, was established just outside the canyon, about a mile and a half to the Southwest of the Ludlow Colony, on a rise called Cedar Hill. Linderfelt’s command of the company was made official upon arrival of the National Guard troops, and he was given a commission of 1st lieutenant.
Karl Linderfelt had been a soldier and gunman for most of his life. After a bout of dysentery denied him his chance to ride up San Juan Hill with the Rough Riders, he was shipped to the Phillipines in 1899 with the 4th cavalry, where he learned how to administer “the water cure,” a form of torture that forces a victim to effectively choose between swallowing more water than their stomach can hold, or drowning. One soldier describing the procedure said of its victims, “they swell up like toads.”
The Philippines War began just as the Spanish-American war was drawing to a close. In December 1898, the Treaty of Paris ceded the Philippines to the United States, along with Puerto Rico, Cuba, and Guam. There was just one problem: In December 1898 the Philippines weren’t really Spain’s to give. A revolutionary independence movement called the Katipunan had been fighting the Spanish since 1896. After taking control of most of the main island of Luzon, they declared independence in June 1898, forming the First Philippine Republic in January 1899, with Katipunero leader Emiliano Aguinaldo as President.
Aguinaldo had just come out of exile to re-join the revolution the previous May, with encouragement from the American Consul to Singapore, E. Spencer Pratt, who was happy to let Aguinaldo believe that the US would help the Katipuneros win their independence. The bait and switch was consummated in August 1898, when the US and Spain, having already broadly agreed on peace terms, but formally still at war, staged a mock battle in Manila choreographed to transfer the city from Spanish to American control without bloodshed, while keeping Aguinaldo’s forces from entering the city.
During the mock battle, the US Navy bombarded an empty fort until the Spanish, reading from the same script, raised the white flag. As American infantry moved in to accept the surrender, they quickly took control of the Spanish trenches to make sure no one else came in after them. Aguinaldo was shut out of Manila, and for the next two years, American occupation of the Philippines would take the form of a counterinsurgency campaign, before finally putting an end to the First Philippine Republic, and assuming full civilian control of the country in July 1901.
Linderfelt got a hardship discharge that year, when his father died, putting him back in Colorado in time to help the National Guard break the Western Federation of Miners strike in 1903, where he served under General Sherman Bell. Bell’s civilian job in Colorado was managing a number of gold mining operations, but he was persuaded to take leadership of the National Guard when the mine owners promised to subsidize his salary as adjutant general so he wouldn’t see a hit to his income.
Sherman Bell described the Guard’s engagement with the Western Federation of Miners this way: “I came to do up this damned anarchistic federation; my orders were to wipe them off the face of the earth.” The WFM would survive extermination, but just barely. They were driven out of Colorado, and within two years president Charles Moyer, and secretary Big Bill Haywood, found themselves facing trumped up charges for the murder of Idaho Governor Frank Steunenberg. They would ultimately be exonerated, but the trial marked the end of the Western Federation of Miners. At least by that name—the union would have a second act in the decades to come as the International Union of Mine, Mill, and Smelter Workers, or “Mine Mill” for short.
Linderfelt stayed in Cripple Creek for a while after the strike, taking work as a quartz miner and mine guard until 1910, when he left the country again, this time for Mexico as a foreign legion mercenary in the army of Francisco Madero, who was leading a revolt against the infamously corrupt sitting president, Porfirio Diaz.
As labor historian Anthony DeStefanis notes, there’s a bit of ironic foreshadowing in this particular adventure. In joining Madero’s forces, Linderfelt was, without knowing it, putting himself in the service of John D. Rockefeller, whose Standard Oil corporation was seeking market expansion in Mexico.
Rockefeller believed a Madero presidency would give him better access to Mexican petroleum distribution networks, which under Diaz had been controlled by a British monopoly. The official stance of the Taft administration was to support the Diaz government, but Rockefeller’s friends in high places helped Madero get money, weapons, and ammunition across the border undetected. Many of those weapons found their way into the hands of American soldiers of fortune who collectively numbered around 5,000, and who tended to have more wartime experience than the insurrectos recruited from within Mexico. One minister in the Diaz government would later complain that they could have put down the Madero insurrection in two weeks if only they had been able to keep out American mercenaries.
Linderfelt shows up in American newspaper reports in May 1911 as the leader of an assault on a bullfighting ring in the Battle of Ciudad Juarez, the battle which won the war for Madero, forcing Diaz to resign and flee to Spain. His discharge papers show he was mustered out of the foreign legion the day after the city surrendered to Madero’s forces. His next order of business was finding a way to either smuggle or fence his share of the booty of jewels, silks, cigars, and opium he had seized, as part of a looting operation of 14 other legionnaire officers.
Linderfelt then made his way back to the familiar confines of Southern Colorado, having first taken up work as a miner in Cripple Creek, then as a guard at Berwind, and finally taking command of Colorado National Guard Company B, a unit into which he would recruit several of his war buddies from the Philippines and Mexico campaigns, to help elevate the unit up to a military standard he thought was too great for mere weekend warriors to take on. To Linderfelt’s mind, Captain Van Cise and the other officers in the vicinity of Ludlow were just not willing to do what was needed, and so he was, as he put it, “pushed into the limelight.”
On December 30, 1913, a little after sunset, the Ludlow Postmaster, Susan Hollearin headed to the railroad depot with some mail to go out on the #2 train. Arriving there she came upon a small commotion, a National Guardsman, Corporal Cuthbertson had just been brought in injured, after having been thrown from, and then stepped on by his horse. A doctor was brought in to see him; then Linderfelt barged in, “like a mad lion” as Hollearin put it.
The story that began to emerge was that Cutherbertson had been thrown when his horse tripped on a strand of barbed wire that Linderfelt believed had been stretched across the road intentionally as a booby trap. He began shouting at the other soldiers gathered at the depot to find the person who had set the trap. At just this moment, Louis Tikas, who had also come to meet the #2 train, arrived at the depot accompanied by a teen-aged Greek immigrant, a union member, who was immediately identified by one of the soldiers as the trap setter.
Linderfelt dragged the boy out of the depot to interrogate him, but as the boy spoke almost no English, the lieutenant had to content himself with pistol whipping him in the head. Hollearin describes the boy as looking “very dilapidated” when he was brought back in.
Then Linderfelt brought Tikas outside. With a revolver in Tikas’ face, Linderfelt told him that the men under his command had just returned from Old Mexico, and that they were going to “clean out every goddamn striker and dago in the country.” Tikas was taken under arrest, though he would later be released, and no good evidence was ever produced that anyone had set any barbed wire traps.
The day after the barbed wire incident, a Ludlow resident named Bryan Orf was walking toward the depot with his cousin, Helen Rhay, a schoolteacher from Missouri, when he was stopped by a detachment of soldiers guarding the depot, who told him he’d have to come back another time. The colony was being searched for weapons, and the depot would be off limits until the search was over.
Orf, who was 17, and who had no connection whatsoever to the United Mine Workers, asked how long the soldiers would be there. One soldier responded that they’d stay as long as they damn well pleased. This being 1913, Orf took umbrage at profane language being used in the presence of a lady, and he asked the soldier to apologize for his coarseness. Instead, the soldier placed him under arrest.
Two Guardsmen took Orf to see Lt. Linderfelt at Water Tank Hill, a barely perceptible rise on the plain to the south of the railroad depot which for all its topographical modesty was universally agreed to have critical strategic importance, given its location, and its unimpeded view of the tent colony, the depot, the rail lines, and the main road to Trinidad.
A machine gun was mounted on Water Tank Hill, pointing at the tent colony, in case the search being conducted there should encounter any resistance. Witnesses would later describe the beaming joy with which Linderfelt bragged about how effortless it would be to mow down the whole colony from that location.
Orf pleaded his case to Linderfelt, telling him of the soldier’s use of profanity at the depot. Linderfelt replied, “I would not blame that fellow if he had taken the butt of his gun and hit you in the jaw with it, that’s the only way we can teach you ignorant people anything.” He then added, evincing a very unorthodox take on Christian doctrine, “I am Jesus Christ, and my men on horses are Jesus Christ, and we will be obeyed.”
For the first month after the arrival of the National Guard into the strike zone, an order by the Governor prohibited strikebreakers from being escorted into the mines and a 10-man detail was posted at the depot to enforce the order. Governor Ammons believed, when he called out the Guard on October 27, that the strike might still soon be solved by mediation. He seems to have seen the calling out of the Guard as a way to end the escalating tensions that he thought was keeping both the union and the mine operators from the negotiating table.
But efforts to negotiate a settlement over the next few weeks, even with the direct involvement of US Labor Secretary Willam B. Wilson, were not fruitful. On November 27, before his final proposed settlement plan even went to a vote, Ammons rescinded his order preventing scabs from entering the mines in the strike zone. The primary military mission of the Colorado National Guard was about to take an abrupt turn, from preventing strikebreakers from entering the mines, to preventing anyone from interfering with strikebreakers entering the mines.
In 1936, over 20 years after the events in our story, the attorney and legal scholar Frank. E. Cooper published an article in the Michigan Law Review that surveyed the existing picket law of the day, finding that even in the 19 states that provided the right to peacefully picket, the legal protections were so tepid that they could barely be distinguished from the restrictions imposed by states that outlawed picketing. So bleak was the climate of jurisprudence on labor rights, Cooper wrote, that courts had no trouble finding that pickets were not peaceful—and therefore illegal—even when they entailed no acts of violence. He wrote, “The making of grimaces is considered a display of force, and the use of a single epithet brands the picket’s conduct as unlawful. The mere display of banners may be deemed intimidating.”
In fact, a number of court cases in the early 20th century questioned whether the notion of peaceful picketing wasn’t a complete oxymoron in the first place. Were picketers merely airing a grievance in public? Or were they, by gathering in large concentrated masses in close proximity to their place of business, implicitly threatening what would develop if they didn’t get their way?
In 1918 the Alabama Supreme Court declared that picketing was intended “not alone for purposes of publicity and persuasion, but for coercion and intimidation as well.”
In 1905, Judge Smith McPherson of the US District Court for the Southern District of Iowa wrote that “There is and can be no such thing as peaceful picketing, any more than there can be chaste vulgarity, or peaceful mobbing, or lawful lynching.” He argued in defense of that portion of the population, be they potential customers, potential employees, or scab workers, who were just naturally timid—frail even—who were not only entitled to go about their business without being subjected to threats, but needed even to be spared from the possibility of a “mental disturbance.”
In 1920 the Supreme Court of Iowa ruled in Ellis v. Journeyman Barbers’ International Union, holding that:
“Force threatened is the equivalent of force exercised, because it amounts to intimidation and duress in either event. … Picketing is usually an invitation to violence. Where it is persisted in with a declared purpose to continue until its victim is destroyed, it is a challenge to violence of the most effective kind. It is not in normal human nature to submit to it, except under the duress of superior force.”
The decision continues, “A humble American citizen who seeks by sheer industry to make a modest living is driven into covert hiding in his own shop, like a cowering dog into his kennel, while a powerful organization, through its officers, camps upon his shop entrance and holds a scorpion over his door. Its vigilant thrust is intended to wound every entrant, whether owner, or employee, or patron.” It must be noted that case involved only a single picketer outside a barber shop.
In a landmark Massachusetts decision from 1897, the court [what court] found that when picketing made scabs feel uncomfortable, it constituted a form of “moral intimidation.” The deciding judge wrote:
“Intimidation is not limited to threats of violence or of physical injury to person or property. It has a broader signification, and there also may be a moral intimidation which is illegal.”
But this ruling was not unanimous. One of the Federal Judges hearing the case was Oliver Wendall Holmes, whose dissent noted that common law doesn’t prohibit persuading another person to abandon their work, as long as the persuasion is truthful and nonviolent. Holmes wrote:
“It cannot be said, I think, that two men walking together up and down a sidewalk and speaking to those who enter a certain shop, do necessarily and always thereby convey a threat of force. I do not think it possible to discriminate and to say that two workmen do.”
“There is a notion, [Holmes continues] which latterly has been insisted on a good deal, that a combination of persons to do what any one of them lawfully might do by himself will make the otherwise lawful conduct unlawful. I think it plainly untrue, both on authority and principle.”
In Colorado, in 1913 there was an anti-picketing statute on the books. The legislature had voted to repeal it, but in May 1913, in a move that was surely seen as a sign of things to come for union organizers, Governor Ammons vetoed the repeal bill, asking the press, in the rhetorical style we’d today call a concern troll, “why open the doors again to turmoil and bloodshed in Colorado?”
The United Mine Workers, though, considered the anti-picketing bill unconstitutional, and believed the case law would bear this out. In the previous year, Edmund Shumway, the president of the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company, had filed for an injunction against picketing strikers in Louisville and Lafayette, in the Northern fields, who Shumway said had “terrorized” the strikebreakers working in the mines with the use of “public bells and whistles” in the towns neighboring the mines. But the Judge hearing the case denied the request, saying there was no evidence of any picketers interfering with mine property, and that the rest of it boiled down to what he called a “quarrel” between union and non-union miners, which the court took no interest in.
Speaking before a meeting of Union Miners on October 2, 1913, Ed Doyle, the Secretary-Treasurer of United Mine Workers District 15, conveyed the union’s position on picketing.
“I am of the opinion… that our right to do peaceful picketing and use every peaceful and lawful means to prohibit men from taking our work at the mines, or to influence them to join the organization after they have secured work in the mines, is a right that we cannot be denied; even a sheriff’s or governor’s office should not deny us that right, and if they deem to do so, as indications they are going to, my advice is that we ignore their orders and exercise our rights as citizens to use all peaceful and lawful means to accomplish our desired end.” He continued.
“I am going to ask you men to-night to appoint committees, say, two or three men, to meet incoming trains and picket the various places where men can be met and talked to, and to explain to these men why we are striking and the reason why we are entitled to all that we demand; explain to them why it is necessary to have an organization and make every effort to have them assist our cause by refraining from working in these mines.
The deputy sheriffs … will no doubt endeavor to stop your committees, and if they do, my advice to you is to refuse to stop picketing, and if the deputy or the sheriff sees fit to arrest you for violating his instructions, submit to the arrest peacefully, notify the district office, and we will see that proper legal steps are taken to protect you in all your rights; do not be afraid to go to jail for a short time, if you have to, and in all cases refrain from using loud, boisterous, or profane language. Let reason be the weapon with which you fight.”
As soon as the governor lifted the ban on importing strikebreakers, recruitment campaigns went into high gear wherever there were concentrations of workers: Toledo, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Chicago. Joplin, Missouri was a favorite of Western mine operators dating back to the 1893 Western Federation of Miners strike, due to its high percentage of native-born workers, who were predominantly anti-union, at least by reputation. In mining camps in In Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, at the turn of the 20th century, the common slang for scab was “Joplin Man”. Mine owners were often able to present these new job opportunities along lines of racial solidarity, Anglo Saxon workers helping Anglo Saxon industrialists overcome their difficulties with restive, foreign laborers.
But an equally effective recruitment strategy was simply to tell prospects that the strike had ended, and to offer a number of apparent freebies, like train tickets, living accommodations, and favorable terms on parcels of land.
In an episode that would have been right at home in the HBO series Deadwood, newlyweds Robert and Mildred Brockett met with an employment agent in Joplin Missouri named Robert J. Copeland on December 19, 1913. Copeland, who had been with CF&I since 1883, told the Brocketts there had been a strike in the Southern Field, but it had been resolved, and the company was now trying to fill the spaces of the small number of striking miners who had not returned to work. The Brocketts were given a contract for 20 acres of land, near the Delagua mine, for which they would pay $10 out of each paycheck until it was paid off. They were also promised a furnished cottage to rent until they were able to build a home on their land.
When they arrived, they found the cottage completely unfurnished, so they paid $250—well over $5k in today’s money—to furnish all 4 rooms, hoping to attract borders. The borders they brought in didn’t like the look of things in the camp, though, and skipped town after 3 days. By the end of their first week, the Brocketts were denied credit at the company store, the superintendent telling them their grocery orders were coming in too fast. Mrs. Brockett took not being able to feed her husband while he worked as reason enough to head back to Joplin, but the superintendent told her they were not at liberty to leave until they paid back the money for the train fare, and their bill at the company store. The Brocketts managed to secure a pass from a Lieutenant in the militia and were able to leave after just 10 days work, the entirety of Robert’s pay deducted to cover costs.
When questioned later by a Congressional committee about the land contract, Copeland, the company agent, replied “I didn’t talk to them about any land at all.”
Linderfelt’s Company B was an anti-picketing unit. One of its main patrol duties was to clear Water Tank Hill whenever groups of strikers would camp there. For their part, the strikers found Water Tank Hill an ideal spot to mount a picket for the same reason the militia like to stick a machine gun there from time to time. As Linderfelt once put it. “That hill has command of the military situation around Ludlow”
In oral histories, organizers would later describe these pickets in this way. A strikebreaker would walk off a train at Ludlow, and perhaps be approached by a group of strikers of the same nationality, who would greet them in their own language, welcome them into the colony for dinner, and maybe a little wine and conversation, and the next day they’d walk over to the big tent and fill out a union card. It worked fairly well, much of the time, without resort to any obvious threat of violence. There are several stories of this kind of picket-by-persuasion working pretty effectively in Southern Colorado before the arrival of the militia in November 1913.
Depending on who you believe, there may also have been some more coercive examples of picketing. Linderfelt—Lieutenant Jesus Christ—in his testimony before the Industrial Commission, described typical picketing efforts by the colonists as much less congenial. Picketers would spend the evening on Water Tank Hill with a keg or two of beer, he claimed, and approach men getting off the train in small groups, with rifles or pistols in evidence, and ask where they were off to. If the answer was “off to work” they’d tell the stranger “you just keep drifting.”
Linderfelt was probably not the most credible source on how pickets were ordinarily conducted, but we know from the armed attacks on Berwind Canyon in October that the colony leaders, John Lawson, Louis Tikas and others, weren’t always able to get everyone in the colony to stick to the plan. Accounts of union strikers intimidating scabs aren’t very well documented, and seem to be the exception to the rule, but they weren’t entirely unknown.
Even today scabbing remains perfectly legal in the United States. As this episode goes live in late 2023, workers in United Mine Workers District 20 in northern Alabama are back at work after two years on strike, having failed to win a new contract with Warrior Met. As District 20 vice president Larry Spencer put it when the strike was called off “we couldn’t get the coal production slowed down.” Throughout the strike Warrior Met made record profits, using strikebreakers from Pennsylvania and West Virginia, where the number of mining jobs has cratered over the last few recent decades.
I close this episode with a brief coda on Edmund Shumway, the owner of Rocky Mountain Fuel whose unsuccessful injunction motion against picketers in Boulder County signaled hopefully to the United Mine Workers that the Colorado Anti-Picketing Law might soon be declared unconstitutional.
On December 16, 1913, there was an explosion in the lower level of the Vulcan mine, a Rocky Mountain Fuel property about 50 miles north of Aspen, Colorado. The mine had not been sprinkled—though the sprinkler system was fully operational. When a plume of coal dust was released by a fall of coal, it was ignited, perhaps ignited by an open lamp, by a controlled charge, or by sparks from pickwork, killing 37 miners.
Shumway went out to the mine the next day, reportedly to help with rescue efforts. Soon after his visit, he took ill, and was confined to his bed for the next four weeks, dying on January 11, 1914. Shumway’s physicians attributed his death to the fumes he inhaled during his time on rescue duty, which were thought to be after-damp, or carbon monoxide.
Carbon monoxide poisoning, though, was apparently not covered in Shumway’s life insurance policy, because 3 years after his death, his widow, Emma, filed suit with The London Accident and Guarantee Company, claiming that his cause of death had originally been misreported, and that she had just recently learned that her husband had died not from inhaling gasses in the mine, but from drinking gasoline, a whole tumbler full, believing it to be water.
Effigy is written, produced and read to you by Chris Schoen. This episode’s cold opens were read by Rita O’Connell and Guy Massey.
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Episode 4: Peril To Your Head
No one is who they are supposed to be.
The Celts for example. If we think of the Celts at all on any given day, it’s probably as a people specifically indigenous to the British Isles, because the Celts of Ireland, Scotland, Cornwall, and Wales were pretty much the only ones left un-Latinized by the time the Roman Empire began to recede from Western Europe in the 300s AD. But for several centuries, Celts formed the dominant culture across Europe, extending as far south as Spain, as far East as Ukraine, and as far north as the Netherlands. It suited Julius Caesar to say that All Gaul was divided into 3 parts, but there were in fact dozens of Celtic tribes, some of whom left behind their names—or at least their names as jotted down by the Romans—in Paris, Belgium, Remagen, Bologna, and Zurich.
One Celtic tribe, called by the Romans the Boii, and who probably called themselves something like the Boio, lived and migrated across Western Europe, from Northern Italy to Bavaria. When Roman writers first needed a name for the lands known today as Slovakia and the Czech Republic, they borrowed the name German tribes were using at the time: boiohaimum, home of the Boio. Why German tribes? Because by this point the Celts there had already been conquered by the Gothic Macromanni. They were gone. Or assimilated. The name stuck, though, and by the early Middle Ages, after the Germanic rulers had been driven out in their turn by Baltic Slavs, the land would come to be known first as the Duchy—and later the Kingdom—of Bohemia.
English speakers rarely describe anyone as Bohemian in an ethnic or nationalist sense any more, though the term has endured as a description of a subcultural type grounded more in affectation than ancestry. This usage first appeared in Paris a century and a half ago. The source material for the Puccini opera La Boheme, was Henri Murger’s “Scenes from a Bohemian Life,” which portrayed the lives of artists and free-spirits in the Latin Quarter with no obvious or apparent Central European pedigree. In Thackeray’s Vanity Fair, which came out at roughly the same time as Murger’s novel, Becky Sharpe’s willfulness is credited to her being raised by “bohemian” parents, which is to say permissive, not slavic. An 1862 article on Bohemian literature in the Westminster Review opens by making clear that it will not be concerned with literary works from the country that has Prague for its capital, but instead will be examining the type of author who “secedes from conventionality.” That kind of Bohemian.
This drift in meaning from ethnic to cultural is mostly indebted to a popular and not quite accurate conception of the Romani as disdainful of the settled life. When the Romani first came into France in the late Middle Ages, they were believed—again, not entirely accurately—to have traveled there directly from the Kingdom of Bohemia. The resulting term Boheme, was, if a bit of misnomer, still superior in at least one sense to another French ethnic term for the Romani, Gitane, the French version of our word “gypsy,” meaning Egyptian.
This false Egyptian association was placed upon the Romani early on, as far back as the late Byzantine period. The Byzantines suspected that the Romani practiced sorcery, which was a thing they also imagined the ancient Egyptians to have done, Egypt being then, as now, a ready-made exotic locale for mysticism and magic.
Once this association was established, it was an easy thing to affix legends to, such as the belief that the Romani were the specific Egyptians prophesied by Ezekiel to be scattered by God among the many nations.
Humans have been doing this kind of thing to one another since forever. One of the most common names that various pre-Columbian North American people used for themselves translates to something like “the true people.” This includes the tribes we know today as the Navajo, the Cherokee, the Illiniwek, the Inuit, the Hopi, the the Comanche, and the Cheyenne. But most of these names, the names we know these people by today, were not self-administered; they were given to them by neighboring tribes, or by European settlers.
The Cherokee’s name for themselves, in their own language—and I’m taking a stab in the dark at the pronunciation here, so brace yourselves,—is Aniyunwiya, “the principal people,” the “real people.” The name “Cherokee” on the other hand is a Muskogee word meaning “speakers of another language,” which makes “Cherokee” very similar to our word “barbarian,” which we get from Greek, and which originally meant, just, “people who don’t speak Greek.”
The Muskogee, in their turn, were already a multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic confederation when Hernando de Soto’s expedition encountered them in the 1500s. They called their confederation the Holly Leaf People, since use of that plant was part of their common culture. English traders called them the “Creeks”, because they first encountered them near Ochese Creek in what’s now central Georgia—or more accurately because they encountered them near the Ocmulgee river, which the English mistakenly called Ochese Creek, confusing it with a nearby town of that name.
One branch of the Muscogee, who migrated south into Florida when the English came, were called by the Spaniards there “Cimmarón,” meaning wild or feral, which over time became the tribal name Seminole.
Cimmarón is also the source of the English word “maroon,” a word sometimes used to describe the numerous creole communities in the American South formed when escaped slaves joined and intermarried with groups of indigenous people, and even with a few Europeans who thought that this life might be better than life-long manual labor under English or Spanish rule. Many of these communities had to keep fleeing Westward as the slavocracy expanded into new territory. In northern Mexico today lives a group called the Negros Mascogos—the Black Muskogee—descended from one of these Afro-Seminole creole tribes.
Down the Danube a short way from Bohemia lies its neighbor, Hungary. There’s no solid consensus on why Europeans started calling Hungary Hungary. Hungarians call Hungary Magyarorszag, land of the Magyars. The Latin name for the region, Hungaria, probably originally referred to a confederation of Turkish tribes called the Onogur or Oungur, who lived in the area before the Magyars showed up.
But the proximity of the word Hungary to the word Hun is too good for some people to pass up, so another popular theory is that Hungaria was the Roman term for “land of the Huns.” There was a medieval myth that claimed the Huns and the Magyars were the descendents of twin princes, Hunor and Magor, and so were ultimately of one blood. Today, the male name Atilla is more popular in Hungary than anywhere else on earth, which is probably fine; there haven’t been any Huns around to complain since the 5th century, when—as far as we can tell—the surviving Huns upon the death of Atilla, took on the ethnic identities of the people they lived among: the Bulgars, the Goths, the Avars, and Khazars. To be a Hun today is to be a nothing, belonging to nothing. You might as well try to resurrect the Clan of the Cave Bear.
In the 1830s, most of the pieces were in place for American industrialism to emerge, but there were still a few kinks to work out.
To get to the bituminous coal in the United States required a railroad; using wagon trains to bring in the supplies that would provision a working mine, and then ship out the mined coal for consumption, wasn’t even close to being cost effective.
To make a railroad requires steel. To make steel requires smelting iron ore into pig iron. You can smelt iron with charcoal, but it’s slow going. You can also smelt iron with coke, which is sort of the fossil fuel equivalent of charcoal, made from bituminous coal, but when all the bituminous coal in the US is still waiting for steel rails for transport to the ironworks, well, you can see the problem.
Anthracite coal, though, burns so hot that you don’t need to coke it to smelt iron, and the anthracite coalfields of Eastern Pennsylvania were already near the budding industrial centers of the Eastern Seaboard, and well integrated with the existing canal transport system. The only remaining problem was that no one at this point had figured out how to make anthracite burn in a blast furnace. So the coal and steel partnership that would be so emblematic of the industrial age were, in the early part of the century, more like star-crossed lovers. Merely a gleam in each other’s eyes.
The answer ultimately lay in replacing the cold blast furnace that had been used for centuries in charcoal smelting, with a hot blast furnace, which just means that the air blown into the furnace to aid combustion was pre-heated. Anthracite coal, as it turns out, hates to catch a chill.
The details were a little trickier than what I’ve just described, though, and these tricks would be worked out by ironmasters with the longest experience working with anthracite fuel, the Welsh. American steelmakers lured some of these Welsh ironmasters to Pennsylvania with generous salaries, and once the anthracite furnaces were up and running by around 1840, the ironmasters were followed by tens of thousands of experienced coal miners from anthracite regions in the UK, Wales and Scotland.
It was worth importing miners from abroad because not only was anthracite hard to burn, it was hard to mine. It was just hard generally, much less brittle than bituminous or lignite, and because it had been in the ground much longer than softer coals, it had also been exposed to significantly more geological indignity than other coals. What was needed to get it out of the ground in good enough condition to sell, was trained journeyman hard-coal miners, which Wales had in spades.
As late as 1880, Pennsylvania hard-coal mining was an almost exclusively Anglophone affair. Of the foreign-born mine workers there, an estimated 97% were from what were then called the “English-speaking races”: Welsh, Scots, Irish, and English, along with some English-speaking Germans.
Within 20 years, barely a generation, the number of English-speaking foreign-born workers in the anthracite fields had dropped to less than half. In their place were primarily slavic immigrants: Serbs, Croats, Slovakians, Poles, Ruthenians, Czechs, and Russians. Several non-slavic nationalities were sometimes counted under this banner too: Hungarians, Lithuanians, even in some cases Italians. Seemingly overnight, new immigration patterns had hit US ports, and many Americans weren’t entirely sure who they were or where they came from. They weren’t Anglo Saxon, or Scandinavian, or French, or Spaniards. So what then?
Today nativism seems so inextricably bound to the right that it can be jarring to recall that 100 years ago eugenics was a major preoccupation of many progressive reformers. The alleged threat posed by inferior races once went by the name of “race suicide,” a term coined by sociologist Edward Alsworth Ross to warn of the Great Dilution of America’s Anglo Saxon character that would result if white protestants failed to outbreed immigrants of other nations.
In many ways Ross was what would be called today a left winger. He favored heavy taxation of corporations, public control of transportation utilities, strengthening of labor unions, and a strong regulatory function for the Federal government. He supported Eugene Debs’ Pullman strike in 1894, and 25 years later he even praised the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia.
But when it came to the mixing of the races, he had concerns. In 1900, he lost his post at Stanford University for calling for an immediate end to Chinese and Japanese immigration on the West coast, telling one audience that “should the worst come to worst, it would be better for us to turn our guns on every vessel bringing Japanese to our shores rather than to let them land.” Within a few years Ross would bring Europeans—the non Anglo-Saxon ones of course—under the same umbrella. In a cruel paraphrase of Emma Lazarus, he would describe recent arrivals to Ellis Island, from Croatia, Sicily and Armenia, as “beaten members of beaten breeds.” In other words, the worst of the worst. Of the Slavs in particular he wrote that the reason they never had any great empires is that their “temper” was “soft and yielding.” Of Italians he wrote:
“Steerage passengers from a Naples boat show a distressing frequency of low foreheads, open mouths, weak chins, poor features, skew faces, small or knobby crania, and backless heads. Such people lack the power to take rational care of themselves.”
Whether or not they embraced Edward Ross’s view of things, for ordinary turn of the century Americans, it couldn’t have been easy to keep track of national identities in Eastern and Central Europe. For all of America’s history up until this point, most of that region was under one kind of imperial occupation or another: Hapsburg, Ottoman, Prussian. Whatever might have amounted to cultural differences between Czechs and Slovaks, Serbs and Croats, or Slovenes and Austrians, didn’t tend to show up on maps or in newspaper headlines. When Slavic immigrants started coming to the US in large numbers in the latter decades of the 19th century, there was no pre-prepared ethnic stereotype waiting for them, as there had been for Italian, Scandinavian, Irish, and Jewish immigrants. As historian John Higham put it back in 1955, “Slavic laborers impressed public opinion at large simply as foreigners par excellence: uncivilized, unruly, and dangerous.”
“Hunky” was the first anti-Slavic word to catch on in the states, perhaps not surprising given how much of Central Europe was controlled by Austria-Hungary up until WW1. It was first heard in the Pennsylvania coal camps in the 1880s, where Slavic and Hungarian peasants had been brought in as scabs to break the early mining unions formed by anglophone miners. Within a decade or two the term had come to denote not just ethnic inferiority, but volatile labor radicalism as well. Then as now, the best way to discredit an organizer was to point out they weren’t from around here.
“Bohunk” shows up a little later, by 1899 at the latest, and for a while served as an effective shorthand for a bad element in the laboring classes: wild, untrustworthy, and intellectually stunted. But by the 1920s “bohunk” had started to become de-ethnicized, the way Welsh—in its verb form, like to welsh on a bet—largely had been a century earlier. A bohunk was beginning to mean, by this time, anyone with bad character, regardless of their family tree.
No slur actually makes any sense. No one’s character is actually connectable to their ethnic or national origin, in part because ethnic or national origin are also concepts that don’t really make a whole lot of sense. None of us “originated” anywhere; we’ve all been in more or less constant motion since early humans first migrated out of East Africa. But even by the standards of everyday bigotry, the bohunk slur goes ordinary slurs one further, nurturing deep in its core a completely empty signifier. Bohemians and Hungarians may have come from neighboring countries, sure, but these countries spoke completely unrelated languages, had different imperial histories, different migratory histories, different national myths, even different religious histories. After the Bohemian Reformation in the 15th century Hungary even invaded Bohemia in an attempt to restore the church of Rome there.
Now I know that you, listener, need no persuading that the bohunk slur is groundless—as we’ve just agreed, all slurs are groundless, that’s what makes them slurs. But sometimes a slur is so preposterous that it doesn’t take a lot of sensitivity or wisdom to see right through it. A slur is supposed to be a gotcha. It tries to say, don’t bother trying to pass yourself off as a regular person, when anyone with eyes can see you’re a so-and-so. This is harder to make good on when that so-and-so-ness may as well be a meaningless noise; when it might just as well be an accusation of harboring loyalties to Freedonia, or to the lost island of Atlantis.
On multiple occasions early in the strike, Lamont Bowers wrote to John D. Rockefeller Jr. to inform him that the reason most miners were out on strike was that the union had stacked their ranks with assassins with orders to shoot anyone in the tent colony who tried to go back to work. In one letter he told Rockefeller that the union had “run in a large number of sluggers and Black Hand foreigners from West Virginia who are in the pay of the United Mine Workers of America.” In another he wrote that “it is safe to say that out of an estimate of 8,000 men who are out on strike, 7,000 of them have quit from fear of the Black Hand and similar organizations, who, through letters or face to face, threaten to kill the men, do violence to their wives and daughters, and practice all of the hellish villainy that these creatures possess.”
As is fairly common with Bowers, he’s confounding a few things here. There was, at this time, a Serbian society colloquially known as the Black Hand, Crna Ruka in Serbian, which served as the paramilitary wing of a pan-Slavic political movement called Narodna Odbrana, The People’s Defense, a movement that sought to liberate the slavs in the Balkan region from Austro-Hungarian rule. They did use assassination as a tactic, and they would ultimately get something resembling their wish after WW1 with the creation of the Kingdom of Yugoslavia. But in 1913, very few people in the US would have ever heard of the Crna Ruka, nor would the Crna Ruka have any reason to pay particular attention to events here. It was getting out from under the Habsburgs that they were interested in.
The Black Hand that was much more well known in early 20th century America was the Mano Nera, a general and, we might say today, seemingly viral practice of extortion in Italian-American circles typified by a fearful black hand symbol prominently displayed in blackmail letters. Black Hand extortion was sometimes conducted by Italian organized crime, sometimes just by small-time con men. Sometimes the threats of violence were real, and sometimes they were just hoaxes, relying on the legend of the Black Hand Society to scare their victims into compliance, typically rich Italians.
A few years after the events of this story there was a Federal investigation of “black hand activities” in Southern Colorado by the Bureau of Investigation, the agency that would later become the FBI. The case files include black hand letters forwarded to the special agent by the sheriffs of Huerfano and Las Animas Counties, such as this one, sent to Joe Castiglia in late 1918:
I ask you to bring with you $2,500, which I need so badly under penalty of your own life, your family’s, your goats and your dogs.
You have 3 days time. Do it at once before your time expires. Don’t make me write again. This is the second and I have seen nothing of it. The third letter, is enough said.
Good bye, Goodbye. “
Maybe enough wasn’t said after all because it was followed up by another letter:
“Man with horns. Are you laughing at me? Come out of it! Deliver the coin at once, upon receipt of these presents. Twenty four hours of time. Otherwise death. Abide by this command. This is the last opportunity we will give you. Peril to your head and end to your dogs. I further tell you to tell no one for you will pay the price. Present yourself at once and nothing more.”
This letter was written to a man named Gio Duto
“We beg to inform you that by February 12th you must pay us $1000. And if you do not do so you will be subject to whatever punishment the committee decides.”
There was a follow up to this letter too.
“Mr. Gio Duto: This is the second notice you have received and we will not send any more, instructing you to leave One Thousand dollars at the place.
This letter was written to Joe and Mario Mattioni, who operated a General store in Walsenburg:
“Dear Friend Joe and Mario.
With this few words I let you know that I want you to bring $2000 that we know that you can spare then, but do not let the law or anybody know. Do as you please. If you want to live long and prosper in business that we bother for this time.
Bring the money day 28 of this month, and take one saddle horse and take the way to Cucchiara, and listen that when you walk you will hear a shot and you drop the money and still go on until you arrive to the depot of Cucchiara, so start from town at 8:00 o’clock at night on the saddle horse and live the money in the sack.”
Incidentally, we encounter a couple names of old friends in these Bureau files. The Undersheriff of Las Animas County at this time was one Jack McQuarrie, one-time labor spy, whose estimation of camp marshal Bob Lee we heard about in Episode 2.
And the Sheriff of Huerfano County was one E.L. Neeley. In 1916 Neeley had run against Sheriff Jefferson Farr, who had been running Huerfano county on behalf of the coal mine operators since he took over the office from his brother Ed Farr in 1899, when Ed was killed in a shootout with the Hole In The Wall Gang.
If you don’t know E.L. Neelley by name, you know him by his deeds. Neelley was in the hardware business in Walsenburg, and as part of that business, he sold a lot of guns in 1913 and 1914, including the box of revolvers purchased by the United Mine Workers in Episode One.
Obviously Neelley won his race in 1916, but Sherrif Farr didn’t actually concede. He continued to illegally collect his salary until the Colorado Supreme Court ordered him and other Republican office holders to vacate the courthouse in 1919. Neeley was acting Sheriff during this time, as evidenced by his relationship with the bureau, but he had to finance his work with seized property from bootlegging raids until Farr was actually physically removed from his office.
The Bureau report I just read from goes on to describe a few of the murder cases that were associated with the delivery of these letters. In some cases, the extortionists made good on their threats. In a few other cases, the blackmail victims seem to have taken matters into their own hands and murdered one or more of the blackmailers.
But there was no singular Black Hand “Society” in the United States; this was just folklore drummed up by the newspapers. And even if such a formal society had existed, it’s not clear what value its members would have provided to the United Mine Workers. Black handers were supposed to be opportunistic extortionists, not mercenaries. The whole racket was based on making quick cash. They would have had better things to do than camp out on the prairie for months at a time making a few dollars a week, waiting for a kill shot.
Still, it’s noteworthy that this line about “Black Hand foreigners” was not a piece of public propaganda. It was private correspondence from a rich industrialist to his much richer boss. Rockefeller was already poorly disposed toward unions, he didn’t need Lamont Bowers to undermine their prestige. The real intent of the accusation—as with the scaremongering about the Molly Maguires in Pennsylvania 40 years earlier—was to build the case for a more vigorous exercise of law and order. If it could be agreed upon that the United Mine Workers of America was a criminal enterprise using coercion and violence to keep honest workers out of the mines, then what was obviously needed was a stronger and more legitimate exercise of coercion and violence, answering to the authority of the governor.
Ironically, when the National Guard was finally called into the strike zone on October 28, they almost instantly disproved Bowers’ theory that 7 out of 8 strikers were only acting under threat of violence by imported enforcers. The Guard was under strict orders from the Governor not to help the mine operators import scabs. But they were authorized to provide protection for anyone out on strike who wanted to come in from the cold. There are no reports of any strikers taking advantage of this opportunity.
About two weeks after Bob Lee’s killing, and about a week before the debut of the Death Special, a man named Louis Tikas moved into the Ludlow tent colony. His birth name was Ilias Anastasios Spantidakis; the name Tikas was meant for American mouths to pronounce, but even this proved to be too much; to those whose remembrances of him have been committed to magnetic tape, he is usually Louis Tyke-as, with a long American “I.” Or sometimes just “Louis The Greek”.
Tikas came to the US from Crete at age 20, in 1906. He would later be remembered in his village in Crete as a natural tamer, skilled at training wild rabbits to play with dogs, and wild birds with cats, in complete safety. John Lawson would later call him “one of the quietest men I’ve ever known.”
When the Colorado strike started up in the northern field, in 1910, Tikas was in Denver’s Greek Town, running a coffeehouse at 1746 Market Street. Two years later, for reasons unknown, he left to take work in the Frederick coal mine, 30 miles north of Denver. At first, as a scab. But in November 1912, he led a group of 63 Greek strikebreakers from Frederick in a walkout strike, catching the attention of union organizers in the northern field: Adolph Germer, the Wisconsin socialist and former coal miner who would later become National Executive Secretary of the Socialist Party of America, and in later years would help John Lewis try to rein in the UAW sit-down strikes of 1937. Ed Doyle, secretary of United Mine Workers District 15, and John Lawson, who would soon become the strike leader in the southern field.
In April 1913, the union sent Tikas undercover to Pikeview, near Colorado Springs, where he took affidavits from the miners, and may have helped end a wildcat strike the union wasn’t ready to support. In August he was sent to the southern field for the first time, in a party that included Gerald Lippiatti, and two other organizers we know very little about: John Petron and M.V. Hibbs.
In 1913, Greeks were the most recent nationality to arrive in Colorado in significant numbers, and this recency made them the least insulated against xenophobia. “Bloodthirsty” was a common epithet used for the Ludlow Greeks by those living outside the colony. Some of this bloodlust was supposed to have been cultivated by their service in the Balkan Wars of 1912 and 1913, prompting several anti unionists to wonder out loud if the Greek colonists should be treated as combat-hardened paramilitaries rather than civilian workers.
The Greeks lived apart from the main colony in Ludlow, sharing two large tents that resembled barracks more than family homes. As recent arrivals, most of them hadn’t brought their families with them, if they even had families yet. They’d typically come, just as Slavic and Hungarian immigrants had a generation before, and Italian immigrants a generation before that, to make money and send it home, not to settle. This was the American West after all, a place to get your piece and get out. Finding themselves suddenly embedded in a large, multi-ethnic multi-generational community under duress must have taken them by surprise. They hadn’t come to Colorado to be part of something bigger.
If the myth of the Greeks as bloodthirsty renegades didn’t start with Bob Lee’s killing on the Segundo footbridge on September 24, it certainly took inspiration from it. Lee’s death was the first blood of the strike, and while in reality it may have had a heritage and lineage to it, it wasn’t hard to paint a picture of it as savage and unprovoked. The Trinidad Chronicle-News—one of Judge Northcutt’s papers—had no difficulty caricaturing this group of Spartan-living, reasonably well-armed young men with salacious prose. From November 4, 1913:
“A band of warlike Greeks have been carrying on at guerilla warfare in the hills for weeks, and have repeatedly declined to obey the orders of the strike leaders.”
From November 13:
“Louie the Greek, leader of 300 of his countrymen, is perhaps the most conspicuous figure in the industrial war in Southern Colorado. Shrewd and fearless, a veteran of the Balkan war, he controls the Greeks with a spoken word, a lift of the eyebrows, or a gesture of his hand.”
Tikas of course was no Balkan veteran; he left Greece for good 6 years before the war even started. But even many sympathetic chroniclers take for granted that some of the Greeks at Ludlow must have been Balkan War veterans. If there were, there could not have been many. The first Balkan War did not conclude until May 1913. It would have been quite a feat for Greek soldiers serving in that war to get mustered out of the army, emigrate to the United States, and find employment in a Colorado coal mine by the time the strike was called that September.
It’s also worth noting that Serbia and Bulgaria were belligerents in that same Balkan War. Southern Slavs were far more populous than Greeks in Western mining communities during this period, but strangely there seem to have been no rumors that any of them had come fresh off a European battlefield.
But there was a sense in which the characterization of the Greeks in the coalfields as spoiling for a fight was an accurate one. When Louis Tikas first arrived in the Southern Field in the summer of 1913, he toured several coal camps in Las Animas and Huerfano counties, talking to the Greek miners there. They told him of their unique mistreatment. They were harassed and spied upon by company guards and by sheriff’s deputies. They were overcharged at the company store, even above and beyond the standard highway robbery that other miners might expect there. They were underweighed by the Weigh Boss, tonnages mysteriously decreasing over time until they were close to half of what they had been when they arrived in the mines.
Tikas reported back to the United Mine Workers that that the Greeks he met were:
“ready at any time unless conditions improve to engage in industrial war, and to fight, just as their fathers and brothers have fought the Turks. These men are ready even at the sacrifice of their lives to fight until their industrial freedom has been obtained.”
The day after the attack on the Forbes colony, John Lawson assembled the strikers at Ludlow to issue new protocols he hoped would help keep the colonists safe from future attacks. From each of the colony’s 21 ethnic groups he selected one man as his lieutenant. Tikas was appointed as leader and liaison for the Greeks, and a man named Bernardo Verdi for the Italians. The names of the other 19 are not recorded, but they would have represented Poles, Montenegrins, Germans, Mexicans, Croatians, Serbians, Bulgarians, Austrians, and others, not to mention the American-born English and Spanish speakers of both European and African ancestry.
In the mining camps and company towns, ethnic diversity had been intentionally curated by the mine operators since the 1890s on the theory that people who didn’t speak the same language would have a harder time organizing together. When one nationality started to predominate in a mining camp, managers and foremen would begin to hire from other nationalities to purposefully dilute solidarity. Now joined together in a single community at Ludlow, the dynamic was reversed; a single chain of command ran from each cultural and linguistic group up to Lawson, uniting the whole cohort.
The structure Lawson was imposing was martial, but it mingled fairly seamlessly with the ordinary social fabric of the colony. The colony had a head musician, the violinist Tony Gorci, who with his wife Margo planned dances and singing parties. The Gorcis were also long-time UMW organizers; they’d used dances back in the coal camps to covertly bring new miners into the union.
Mary Thomas, a Welsh resident renowned for her singing voice, was named as the official greeter of the colony, or greeter-singer as she called it. Another of her duties, according to her autobiography, was organizing picketing efforts, though this seems to have involved the signs-and-marches type of pickets, rather than the keep-out-the-scabs-by-any-means-necessary variety, which were probably organized separately.
As ordinary life carried on in this way through the month of October, sentry duty and bocce ball games, first aid, and sanitation, laundry, and canning vegetables, rabbit hunts and creek fishing, drinking coffee and writing letters, attending regular union meetings and dances, the question in the back of everyone’s mind was whether—or more realistically when—the governor would send in the National Guard.
Governor Elias Ammons had managed to rebuff the mine operators’ demands to send in the militia for almost a month, but not exactly on principle. Ammons was a ditherer with impressive dedication to the principle that a great crisis might just go away all by itself if you only waited long enough. He justified his inaction to himself and the world with the insistence that he had an important part to play as arbitrator, though if he had the ability to bring the two sides together, he certainly never demonstrated it.
On October 21, under increasing pressure from the mine operators to send in the militia, Ammons decided to make a fact-finding visit to the strike zone. He spent two days meeting with strike leaders and mine operators, and inspecting various sites of interest, then returned to Denver still not entirely convinced that state troops were really necessary.
Immediately after his departure, Sheriffs in Huerfano and Las Animas County went on a spree of deputization, assembling a sort of de facto militia of their own, consisting largely of mine guards.
In Walsenburg, on October 24, at around three in the afternoon, a number of residents noticed a group of deputies making their way down 7th street, the main drag that led west toward the Walsen mine, and beyond that, up the Sangre de Cristos to La Veta pass. Soon the deputies had attracted the attention of a small crowd that would grow to 300 people. School had just let out, and many of the crowd were children.
The deputies were headed to 627 7th street, the home of a scab miner named William Wahlmeir. Wahlmeir had recently moved into the Walsen mine camp to avoid having to face angry pickets on his daily walk to work, while his wife had stayed behind at home. After the picketers turned their attention to her, Mrs. Wahlmier decided she wanted to enjoy the safety of the camp too, so the mine superintendent sent over some mules and wagons to move their furniture. The sheriff’s deputies were to be their escort mission.
After following the deputies to the Wahlmier home, the crowd began to hound the deputies and wagoneers with insults, throwing sticks and tin cans. Some children threw stones. Once the wagons were hastily loaded, the mule teams began heading west toward the mining camp. Once they’d made it about 100 yards from the house, the deputies suddenly turned back toward the crowd, forming a line in the street, and started firing. An Italian miner named Cisto Croci was killed immediately, from a shot to the head. Two other miners, Kris Kokic and Andrew Anwin, would die from their wounds the next day.
There must have been some return fire, because one Deputy, H.C. Wetmore, was grazed by a bullet in the ear and scalp, but all contemporaneous witnesses to the shooting reported that the rifle attack was entirely unprovoked. A neighbor of the Wahlmeirs, Ana Atencio, would later report that the shooter who struck Wetmore from the crowd was actually the first to fire, but Atencio’s timeline doesn’t quite line up with other reports. She claims that the shooter fired when the first wagon was being loaded, immediately prompting the fusillade from the Sheriff’s deputies. But all other eyewitness accounts maintain that no shooting started until the carts were already loaded and progressing down 7th avenue.
Immediately after the massacre, expecting the violence to escalate, Sheriff Jefferson Farr blockaded himself at the Walsenburg court house with a complement of deputies, and called for reinforcements. A block away, union leaders blockaded themselves in their headquarters at the Oxford Hotel. The next day a detachment of deputies from the court house approached the Oxford Hotel, but in the interim Adoph Germer had managed to equip the miners holed up there with new Winchester rifles, and he posted them on the hotel roof, where they were able to persuade the deputies to turn back.
By then word of the 7th street attack had reached Ludlow, where the colonists interpreted it, accurately or not, as the opening of a new offensive against them by mine guards, Baldwin Felts men, and sheriff’s deputies, three groups which by now were pretty indistinguishable from one another. Many of the colony’s women and children were relocated to safer refuge, in nearby towns and colonies, or in one case, in a nearby arroyo, provisioned with a single tent and a wagon of food.
Despite the fact that the governor was still deliberating on whether to send in the militia, one National Guardsman had already been on unofficial duty in the strike zone since mid October. This was Lieutenant Karl Linderfelt, who had been sent in by the Guard commander, Adjutant General John Chase, to act as his eyes and ears. Linderfelt was in Trinidad when Governor Ammons arrived on October 21, spending just enough time there to secure a deputy commission from Las Animas County Sheriff James Grisham. On October 23, he caught a train up to Ludlow, where he was put in command of a unit patrolling the railroad depot, using the Ludlow section house as an encampment.
Linderfelt provides a very useful illustration of just how protean the law enforcement apparatus was in Southern Colorado at this time. Originally sent in by a part time General with no formal authority to post soldiers, he is quickly deputized by the county boss, then shipped up north with his gun and badge to guard mine property and escort strikebreakers. Meanwhile, his expenses of $5 a day were paid directly by CF&I.
On October 25, while the standoff at the Oxford Hotel in Walsenburg was unfolding, Linderfelt was making his way back from Trinidad. A southbound train was pulling into Ludlow, and a group of four deputies rode out from the section house to meet it. Waiting for them, out of sight behind a steel bridge, was a small group of armed strikers, who, along with another group hidden in a nearby arroyo, dispersed the deputies with rifle fire. More deputies came out of the section house, and by the time Linderfelt arrived he had come upon a full blown battle. The shooting went on for about three hours, when a group of about 60 guards and scabs rode in from Berwind Canyon to drive away the strikers.
There was just one casualty. John Nimmo, who had been deputized just two days earlier in Ludlow, was found face down in the snow.
After the skirmish, Linderfelt moved his unit from the Ludlow section house down to Berwind canyon, which would be the site of the next day’s battle. Starting around dawn on the 26th, strikers laid siege to the Berwind and Tabasco mines, taken the high ground in the hillside. This making them very hard to dislodge, and it’s not hard to imagine that maneuvers like this, ordinary laborers pressing their advantage on trained soldiers and gunmen, must have contributed to the impression that their ranks were full of Balkan War veterans and Black Hand desperados.
Linderfelt sent a flurry of breathless telegrams to General Chase for relief, but the General replied that Linderfelt would have to make do with civilian reinforcements for now; he couldn’t send Guardsmen in until the Governor signed the order. Someone, probably one of the officers at CF&I, got word to Albert Felts in Trinidad, who boarded a train north toward Ludlow accompanied by Judge Jesse Northcutt, 30 or 40 deputies, and two machine guns.
By this point the strikers must have realized they’d pushed their assault about as far as it would go, and they quietly slipped away and returned to the colony. When they arrived, news of Felts’s train north had anxiously preceded them: everyone at Ludlow was convinced Felts was coming up to Ludlow to rub them out for good.
As it happens, they were mistaken; the deputies and guns were on their way to Berwind canyon to reinforce Linderfelt, but even after realizing their error, there must have been a strong cocktail of terror and rage coursing through the strikers’ bloodstream. At dawn on October 28, a force of about 300 returned to Berwind canyon, where they mounted a fresh attack on the Berwind and Hastings mines, cutting phone wires, destroying railroad tracks, and killing 10 mine guards.
A second assault was mounted on the nearby Tabasco mine, but almost as soon as it started, couriers were bringing in messages from John Lawson demanding that they stand down. At 1:30 that morning, as everyone knew he ultimately would, Governor Ammons had finally issued the order to send in the National Guard.
Effigy is written, produced and read to you by Chris Schoen. This episode’s cold open was read by Diana Slickman, and by Jeff Dorchen.
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Episode 3: Steel Battleship
In the early 2nd century A.D., Pliny the Younger, who was serving as governor of the Roman province of Bithynia on the Black Sea, wrote to Emperor Trajan, to report on a destructive fire in the city of Nicomedia. Strong winds had been the main cause of the fire, but also, Pliny complained, the citizens of Nicomedia had made no effort to save any buildings; they just watched it all burn. Maybe, he suggested, the emperor would consider setting up a professional fire brigade of perhaps 150 men, so that the next time a fire broke out the city wouldn’t needlessly lose quite so much real estate?
The Emperor wrote back:
“It comes to your mind, based on examples elsewhere, that a fire company can be established at Nicomedia. But let us remember that the area around Nicomedia is afflicted by political factions. Whatever name we give it, for whatever purpose, before long this fire company will transform into a secret society. A better policy is to provide equipment, and to encourage property holders to use it, and if need be, we can press the crowd into the same service.”
Classical historians can’t say with confidence which factions might have troubled the Emperor so much. The word that is translated here as “secret societies” is a greek loan word, hetairia, which technically just means society or association, but somewhere along the way it had gathered around it so much suspicion and connotation that it essentially meant “people who are up to something.”
They may have been local Greek families jockeying for power in the provincial political structure. Bithynia was on the Roman periphery, so it’s also not impossible that Trajan was concerned about the possibility of outright rebellion. Another plausible answer is that these hetairia weren’t actually political at all, but something closer to sporting clubs, like the Blue and Green chariot racing societies of the Byzantine period, who didn’t stand for any social arrangement more complicated than their own perseverance.
It’s also possible though that these groups could have been professional societies, roughly similar to the guilds that would emerge in Europe in the middle ages. The Latin “Collegium,” from which we get our word “college,” referred to a wide range of societies. There were, for example, religious collegia, like the Quindecimviri sacris faciundis, also known as the college of Sibylline priests because it was their duty to safeguard, and periodically consult the sacred Sibylline scrolls.
It was a sybil herself, the legend tells us, the sybil of Cumae, that transferred the Sibylline scrolls into Roman hands. She had traveled to Rome from her cave in Naples carrying nine scrolls. Arriving in Rome, she paid a visit to Tarquinius, the last of Rome’s kings, and quoted him a price for their sale. Tarquinius tried to haggle down the price, but at his first counter-offer the sybil threw 3 of the scrolls into the fire, and told him the price was the same for the remaining six. Tarquinius balked at this new offer, and the sybil threw three more scrolls into the fire, demanding the same price for the final three. Tarquinius then asked his priests if these remaining three scrolls were actually worth anything. After examining them the priests instructed him to buy them at any price, and gnashed their teeth at the loss of the other 6 scrolls.
Roman leaders would consult the Sybilline books many times over the years, whenever the Senate determined that a prodigium had occurred, an event so strange it could be nothing other than a wrathful communication from the Gods. A plague, perhaps, or great flood, or maybe just an adverse turn in the war against Carthage.
When Rome’s Sybiline books were lost in a fire in 83 BC, a delegation was sent to Cumae to transcribe a copy from the original. But there was no original to be found, so the delegates just wrote down whatever they could glean from the local oral tradition. It was the Quindecimviri’s task to determine which verses were authentic enough to be included in the new volume. Everyone pretended this was just as good as what they had before, and the new Sibylline books survived for another half a millennium.
There were secular collegia as well as religious, though maybe that’s not quite the way to put it, since in premodern times, everything was a little bit religious; in fact that’s what the word religious meant originally, pervading everything, connecting everything. Collegia of various trades—shoe makers, junk dealers, linen-weavers, and dozens of others were established to, it would seem, advance the interests and positions of those trades. They would also, though, hold feasts in honor of the patron goddess of crafts and trades, Minerva, and which activity was primary—the religious or the professional—is hard to confirm. But the fact that they had feasts, and were sometimes suspected of promoting unrest, was enough to create a broad association with the guilds that would arise in medieval Europe a few centuries later.
The earliest meaning of the word guild, in the northern European languages of the early middle ages, is, in fact, a banquet or feast. Banquets make temporary fellowships out of those who attend them, or at least the good ones do. But more than that, a Gild feast in pagan Scandinavia was ceremonial, generating ritual bonds and obligations. Attendance was typically mandatory along family lines, and attendees were expected to help bear the cost of food and drink.
The same term, “gild” was also the word used in early Germanic and Gothic languages when translating the Greek for tribute or tax in biblical passages, and a similar word, gegildan, meant to re-pay, or restore. So in this single word “guild” we find the seeds of solidarity, membership dues, and restitution.
In early England, the first guilds, sometimes called social guilds, were mutual aid societies, often organized around Saint’s feast days. The brethren and sistren of these societies—women were actually pretty well represented in the guild system of this time—took as their primary mission the upkeep of a statue or altar of the name-saint. In return, guild members would be taken care of when sick or injured, and given a proper burial when they died. Many guilds of this time also had a quasi policing function, in an era when professional policing was still several centuries in the future. If a guild member was assaulted or stolen from, it was the duty of the rest to track down the assailant. As the motto went: “If one misdo, let all bear it. let all share the same lot.”
In some areas, these social guilds began to consolidate over time into guilds spanning entire towns and cities, with every free citizen a guild member. The town guild of Berwick upon Tweed, on the Scottish border, wrote in its by-laws “that where many bodies are found side by side in one place, they may become one, and have one will, and, in the dealings of one toward another, have a strong and hearty love. All shall be as members having one head; one in counsel, one body strong and friendly.”
Before we are tempted to draw a neat line, though, from the medieval guild to the modern trade union, we should add that while many of the earlier social guilds had been open to common laborers and even paupers, as long as they weren’t wandering beggars, the town guilds came to be increasingly dominated by the merchant class. The “strong and hearty” love of the Berwick guild members started to become more and more selective, exposing an intrinsic conflict of interest between the artisans and craftspeople who made things—weavers, smiths, brewers, tanners, millers, and stonecutters—and the merchants who bought and sold things.
Using the political leverage of the guild to install trade barriers, the merchant class steadily became richer at the direct expense of the craftsperson. The richer you became, the less manual labor you had to do, while conversely the more manual labor you had to do, the poorer you found yourself. Guild membership became increasingly exclusive, the eligibility rules growing ever more specific and refined, until finally they just explicitly barred membership to anyone who practiced a trade for a living.
But some craftspersons found they were able to restore their standing, somewhat. The first craft guilds, dating back to the late 11th century, were weavers guilds. Most handicrafts at this time operated in a very local economy—a baker or blacksmith were not going to find many customers outside a pretty small radius. But weavers’ goods were in demand at great distances, which gave their profession a unique prestige and influence. They had little trouble persuading town officials to let them formally set the terms of their trade, and thus start to claw back some of the rights and powers that had been taken away from them when they were kicked out of the Merchants Guilds.
This precedent cleared the way for other crafts guilds to follow suit: Butchers, tailors, ropemakers, masons, shearers, cutlers, and brushmakers, and numerous others.
We’re not yet quite at the dawn of the trade union, however. Most guild members in the middle ages were not quite what we would today call employees. Once the guild qualified a member to ply their trade as master, he or she did so, usually he, with no boss or supervisor. Journeymen often worked for wages, it’s true, but journeymen didn’t control the guilds—the masters did, and unlike journeymen, and certainly unlike common laborers outside the guild system, masters didn’t sell their labor; they sold the fruits of their labor, or, increasingly, somebody else’s. In the language of a later era, they “owned the means of their production.”
From here we can trace the two divergent directions that crafts guilds would splinter into as more and more workers entered the crafts and trades. Just as we saw in the ascendency of the merchants in the Town Guilds, as the masters grew richer, largely because they alone were permitted to hire other laborers, they began to join the newly emerging burgher class: the bourgeoisie. Before long they had no need to work at all; they could just hire all the labor they needed. Since there wasn’t much reason anymore to share a fellowship society with the hired help, they eventually kicked the journeymen and apprentices out of the guilds altogether. The clubs and associations the journeymen created in response were the earliest proto trade unions. What was left of the old guilds became, over time, the first industrial employers associations.
It’s also critical to remember that even at their zenith, medieval craft guilds excluded the vast majority of workers. Agricultural workers—serfs and peasants—comprised as much three quarters of the population of Europe during the middle ages. Their bonds were still feudal—most weren’t even allowed to travel to towns and cities for other work even if they had wanted to. After all, how you gonna keep em down on the farm after they’ve seen Par-ee? To get their due, the peasantry would have to wait until the 14th century, when the Black Death cut the labor supply nearly in half. When crops started rotting in the fields because there was no one to harvest them, the peasantry found themselves with a bargaining power that would have been hard to imagine before the plague. Meanwhile, out of the manor houses during this time came a refrain we’ve heard before: “I guess no one wants to work anymore.”
Early journeymen’s unions were illegal, and therefore tended to be secret, so we don’t have anywhere near as much information about them as we do the guilds of the same period. But we do know a little. In early 16th century Lyon, the nascent book printing industry was cloven in the way we have just described, with the master printers generally aligned with the publishers against the journeymen printers, who from their vantage point wanted too big a piece of the pie.
The journeymen printers understandably felt that they were just as innately entitled to wealth and prestige as the masters were, and so they formed a secret union within the larger printers guild called the Compagnie des Griffarins, Company of the Griffarins, the name drawn from an insult hurled their way by the guild masters, based on an old French word for Glutton.
Initiates were assigned 4 godfathers, who would serve as their orienteers, teaching them the rules and obligations of the society, as well as the secret passphrases and handshakes that would demonstrate membership. Here’s how the historian Nancy Zemon Davis describes their secret greeting:
Two right thumbs touch; the left little finger clasps the other’s left little finger; one right foot on the other’s right foot, one journeyman bites the other’s ear and whispers the password: ‘vivre les temps’ — long live the times.
The initiate was sworn in at a banquet, given a new name, usually something profane, and made to swear oaths to loyalty and secrecy. Finally, he would bend over a table, and receive three whacks to the buttocks with a sword, completing the ceremony.
The oaths each initiate swore were these:
1. Never work for a master who pays wages lower than the Griffarins have agreed upon.
2. Never take the place of another journeyman who has been unjustly fired
3. Never act wrongly against another printer, whether journeyman or master
4. Never work in a shop that employs Forfants, which was the word for non-initiates. We might say scabs.
5. Never even associate with Forfants
6. Never take the side of a forfant in a fight against a Griffarin, even if they are a blood relative. Your fellow Griffarins are your new family now.
7. Never reveal the rituals of the initiation ceremony.
If a master printer instituted an unfair practice, the Griffarins would give him three chances to reconsider. If these were all rebuffed, a strike would be called right there on the shop floor. A strike was called a “tric” or trick. The great strike, or Grande Tric of 1539, was called in response to some masters discontinuing the common meal they had traditionally paid for as part of the work day. The strike would last three months, and spread to other printing centers in France, including Paris. By this time the Griffarins had learned to use military tactics to keep the masters from replacing them with Forfants. They formed street militia, and as they were already known as pretty good fighters, the threat of violence was often sufficient to keep the print shops idle.
The European guild system endured for some time, adapting to numerous cultural changes as the middle ages flowed into the early modern period, but the one thing it could not contend with was the industrial revolution. By the 18th century, it was becoming clearer to the owners of capital that combining mechanization and open markets would yield an explosion of productivity, and profit. In many trades, this meant the craft shop would soon be replaced by the factory and mill.
The reigning enlightenment philosophy of the day, with all its glorification of individual human freedom, was enlisted to justify this new way of doing business. Guilds were simply too unfree, in this view, because they infringed on the rights of both buyers and sellers to settle on a suitable price for labor and goods. And so they were outlawed, to clear the way for the industrial order, first in France with the revolution of 1789, then England and Prussia.
Even Karl Marx would have to agree, a half century later, that the guilds needed to go, not just because they were based on the oppression of labor-selling journeymen by the master craftsmen, but also because if society was ever going to be able to adopt a socialist mode of production, it would have to do so reliant on the abundance made possible by the new capitalist mode of production.
But most social theorists of the late 1700s weren’t looking quite that far ahead, and many of them embraced the simple view that still dominates much of Western political thinking two centuries later: If we can just commit to truly free markets, they will make poverty and class stratification a thing of the past. If poverty and inequality persist, it must mean our markets still aren’t free enough.
And so it wasn’t just the guilds that were abolished, but any so-called “combination” that thought it was better at setting prices than the Invisible Hand, and that included the journeymen’s unions. In France, the loi le Chapalier, passed in 1791, made labor strikes illegal. In England, the Combination Acts of 1799 banned collective bargaining altogether, both of these occurring at a time when the average European laborer was about to be plunged into the greatest privation Europe had seen since the 1200s.
The sentiments behind the Combination Acts would be embraced by industrialists for decades to come. You may recall Lamont Bowers’ crocodile tears, in Episode One, over the threat of “labor monopoly.” That was a popular boogeyman during the Gilded Age, and it had a long pedigree. In 1777, for example, the town of Newberryport, Massachusetts passed a law called the “Act to Prevent Oppression and Monopoly” that reads as though it were written by Grover Norquist or Sam Alito, establishing the maximum wages that could be set for various jobs, but of course, stipulating no minimum. The oppressors here, naturally, were the workers, and the poor victims, the employers who paid their wages.
Before there was a strike in Southern Colorado in 1913, there was the campaign to organize the field. This came with challenges that had not been quite as pronounced in the Northern field, where the United Mine workers had found more success in 1908.
One important difference between north and south in Colorado was in the degree of political control the coal companies in the south had managed to secure. For all intents and purposes, the mine operators controlled the courts, they controlled the juries, they controlled the bigger newspapers, and they controlled the police. The elected sheriffs of both Huerfano and Las Animas counties—Jefferson Farr and James Grisham—understood their positions as vassals of the coal companies, and made sure their deputies—many of whom were recommended to them by the operators themselves—did likewise. Whatever state law might say on paper, in practice a union organizer would find no quarter in Huerfano and Las Animas counties.
The United Mine Workers had tried to organize the southern fields a decade earlier, in 1903, and were crushed by the combined forces of the captive political machinery at the county level, the National Guard, and the private guards and spies on the coal companies’ payroll. Espionage was a particularly nasty problem for the union, which found itself so thoroughly infiltrated by Pinkertons that individual spies sometimes unwittingly informed on each other.
If you’ve seen the 1970 Herb Ritts film The Molly Maguires you might recall its depiction of the famed Pinkerton operative James McParland, played by Richard Harris, who in 1873 went undercover as a miner in the anthracite fields in Schuylkill County Pennsylvania, infiltrating a labor union called the Workingman’s Benevolent Association, or WBA, and exposing a branch of an Irish secret society called the Molly Maguires operating within its ranks.
The Molly Maguires emerged in 18th century Ireland to resist the enclosure of public pasture land, and other encroachments on the self-sufficiency of tenant farmers. Whether or not any actual Molly Macguires ever operated in Pennsylvania, or anywhere in the US, a century later is still a matter of debate, but real or imaginary, they made a welcome scapegoat at a time when pro-labor sentiment ran pretty high in working communities, at the apex of the Gilded Age. McParland was able to secure several convictions, a job made easier by the fact that the man who hired him, one Franklin Gower, owner of Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron, happened also to be the Schuylkill County District Attorney. In the end, 20 men were hanged for their alleged crimes. The WBA did not survive McParland’s testimony; it was completely disbanded.
In 1891, James McParland was sent to Denver to open up the first Pinkerton office there, where, as superintendent, he was again tasked with infiltrating local mining unions. His most famous efforts involved penetrating the Western Federation of Miners, or WFM, a union of mostly hard-rock miners, who dug copper, silver, lead and gold—during conflicts in 1894, 1896, and 1903.
But some Pinkertons were also hired by CF&I to help suppress the efforts of the United Mine Workers to organize soft rock miners—coal miners— in Las Animas and Fremont counties in 1903. To Fremont County, McParland sent a spy named J. Frank Strong, and to Las Animas County he sent Robert M. Smith. Both men took jobs in the mines while they surveilled their assigned targets. Frank Strong, Operative 28, was assigned to John Gehr, a member of the UMW’s Executive Committee. Robert Smith, Operative 36, was assigned the President and Secretary of District 15, William Howells and John Simpson. Each operative knew the other man by number, but not by name or by face.
In February 1903, when Robert Smith, operative 36, learned that John Gehr—who, recall, was Operative 28’s target, not his own—was coming to Las Animas county to lead an organizing campaign in Trinidad, he decided to freelance a bit, and see what he could find out by meeting with Gehr when he arrived.
Smith wrote in his report of the meeting that when he went to meet John Gehr at his hotel, Gehr insisted that Smith meet his “best friend,” introducing him to… J. Frank Strong. As far as Smith knew, he was the only Pinkerton man in the room, and Strong probably had the same conception. While to John Gehr, of course, it was merely a meeting of three loyal and dedicated union men.
Under such conditions, an enormous amount of privileged information about strategy and tactics, places, dates and names was easily transmitted back to the officers of CF&I, which was instrumental in their being able to put down the strike of 1903 and 1904.
Ten years later, in 1913, when the United Mine Workers again set their sights on organizing the Southern Fields, union leaders were determined not to let their guard down as they had before, especially after their embarrassment at discovering the defection of union President Tom Lewis to the cause of the operators.
To ensure the organizers could evade the attention of informants, UMW leaders devised an inside-outside scheme consisting of 21 pairs of organizers. Recent immigrants were chosen preferentially, because men who spoke little English were much less likely to have been recruited as spies by the mine operators. Each pair consisted of an active organizer playing his role straight and out in the open, and a passive organizer, who masqueraded as an anti-unionist, ingratiating himself to the guards and managers, and whenever possible, getting himself hired as a spotter whose role, as far as his employer was concerned, was rooting out union agitators.
Once the passive organizer was thus installed, the active organizer would go to work bringing mine workers into the union. Successful recruits were kept secret, their ID cards sent up to Denver for safekeeping. Workers who resisted membership would get their names passed on to the passive organizer, who would tell his new friends at the mine that such and such a worker had just joined the union. This worker invariably found himself being sent down the canyon. The active organizer would then send in one of his recruits to fill the newly open role, carefully coaching him not to betray his union affiliation. The passive organizers drew their pay through a shell company, to elude the scrutiny of any informants at the post office. Both active and passive organizers were sworn in as game wardens, so they could legally carry a sidearm.
Part of the brilliance of this plan was that it predicted the eventual discovery of the organizing campaign by the mine operator’s espionage units, at which point the company spies would end up doing most of the heavy lifting in purging the coalfields of thousands of anti-union mine workers, who they believed were dangerous labor agitators. The strategy also reinforced the coal mine operators’ impression that they remained one step ahead of the union. When the strike call came, many mine operators expressed their confidence very publicly that union activity in their mines was restricted to just a few stray rabble rousers. They appear to have been sincerely surprised when upwards of 90% of workers in the southern fields walked out on September 23rd.
On October 17, 1913, a little over 3 weeks into the strike, 48 strikers were arrested for picketing at the McLaughlin mine, south of Trinidad. They were marched on foot to the county jailhouse by a handful of deputized mine guards, and picking up the rear, rolling slowly, was a vehicle not seen before on any public street. The Rocky Mountain News dubbed it the “Steel Battleship” — a high-walled steel-plated touring car which the newspaper noted was “so arranged that deputies on the inside may shoot their rifles in perfect safety.” To help prevail where mere rifles might not suffice, the car was also equipped with a mounted Colt-Browning M1895 machine gun, which fired 450 rounds per minute. The car, which the strikers would come to call the “Death Special,” was modified personally by A.C Felts of the Baldwin Felts Detective agency, using steel plates from CF&I’s Pueblo steel plant. A private vehicle, with a privately owned machine gun in it, which at this moment was pointed to the rear of the procession, at the 300 or so picketers who had not been arrested, to keep them from following behind while their comrades were marched off.
Later in the day, the car made a fateful appearance at the Forbes tent colony, about halfway between Trinidad and Ludlow. The accounts of that day are jumbled, featuring many of the same events, but unfolding in different ways, and in different sequences. The colony was on edge; there had been some sniper fire at Forbes the night before, or perhaps it had been that morning. The residents were in the process of moving the women and children to safer ground, when some guards arrived from the nearby Forbes mine on horseback. Or possibly they approached the colony from the death special itself, after it had swung by the mine to pick them up.
One of the guards may have said that they had come to disarm the colony. He had approached under truce with a white handkerchief tied to his rifle. Or that may have been a second guard. The strikers might have shot at the guard with the white handkerchief as he approached, more likely though that was a story he made up; from what would soon happen it seems unlikely he’d have risked advancing through rifle fire.
Someone, maybe the first or second guard, assuming they weren’t the same person, passed a bottle of whiskey to the miners at the camp gates, to get their guard down. Or maybe no one did this. Additional cars of sheriffs deputies may have arrived up from Trinidad while all this was taking place, coordinated in advance, or maybe just responding to unclear events in real time.
Then the man with the handkerchief threw it to the ground and hit the dirt as a signal for the guards and deputies to start shooting. Or maybe the shooting started another way, but there was definitely shooting, by rifle and by machine gun, the Death Special having taken position about 100 yards from the tents.
Before the strikers could take cover, a miner named Luka Vahernick was killed by a shot to the head. Another named Marco Zamboni, just 18 years old, had just returned from hunting rabbits when the shooting started. He was hit 5 times in one leg, and 4 times in the other. He survived, but would be crippled for life. One guard was also injured, by a bullet fired from a nearby hillside.
A strong rainstorm seems to have ended the heavy shooting after that, but not before over 600 shots were fired into the tents, most of them from the death special’s Colt-Browning M1895.
That gun was already known to many coal miners by reputation from its service the year before in West Virginia, where it was one of two such guns mounted to the Bull Moose Special, a locomotive clad in 3mm-thick boiler steel. From this perch, around midnight, February 7, 1913, it was fired into the tents of striking miners and their families in Holly Grove, while they slept. One miner, Cesco Estep, was killed that night, and several others were injured. Many of these same tents from the colony at Holly Grove now stood pitched at Forbes and Ludlow. It would have been hard not to feel a very palpable connection between these events, separated in time by a mere 8 months, and connected by a mounted machine gun.
Upton Sinclair included the shooting at Holly Grove in his 1919 book “The Brass Check,” which criticized the media of Sinclair’s day in almost Chomskyian terms that will ring very familiar to those today who rue the way police murders are depicted in the passive voice as “officer-involved shootings.”
Sinclair cited the Associated Press’s report that Cesko Estep was “killed last night during the rioting at Mucklow.” There had in fact been an assault on the nearby town of Mucklow earlier that day, but no reporting put Estep there. At the time of his killing that night, he was at home, unarmed, and trying to usher his pregnant wife to safety.
Another dispatch Sinclair calls upon refers to the Bull Moose Special as a “Chesapeake and Ohio train”—as though it were an ordinary passenger train, and not armor-plated and full of rifle-toting Baldwin Felts men—adding that it ”ran for a half a mile under fire, but no one was injured.” Even setting aside the bleak tactic of neglecting the deaths and injuries of those who took fire from this very train, this claim was a complete lie; the Bull Moose was not fired upon. A Baldwin Felts agent later testified that there had been no fire from the tent colony whatsoever, and Estep’s widow testified that no one in camp had even heard the train approach until its guns started firing on them.
Sinclair would have a lot to say in The Brass Key about the way the press twisted and distorted the events of the Colorado strike as well, including what I guess it’s now not too early to reveal is commonly known as the Ludlow Massacre. But these events still lay ahead in our story, so I will leave you with this bit of foreshadowing.
10 days before the Death Special made its appearance, On October 8, 17 mine guards assaulted the Ludlow colony on horseback, part of a broad effort to escalate the violence so that pressure could be put on the Governor to send in the National Guard.
No one was killed in this skirmishing, but in response to the attack, two types of pits were dug at Ludlow. To the north of the colony, rifle pits were dug into the arroyo, to harden the colony’s defenses, and draw fire away from the tents.
The second kind of pits were dug under the tents themselves, just crude trenches at first, to provide shelter from sniper attacks. But over time many of these pits were made more comfortable. The largest of them was accessible by a set of stairs, and appointed with a bed. One colony resident described it as “timbered up and finished nice.”
After the appearance of the Death Special, these underground rooms started to be used as birthing centers. I’m not able to identify any specific, individual births that took place in any of the tent colonies during this period, but the national birth rate in 1913 was 3 percent a year. With a population of around 1,200 at Ludlow, there must have been a handful of births, even in those first few months. And so you’ll be relieved to know that there is no record of any newborn babies being killed in the violence at Ludlow in the months that followed.
But for now that’s the extent of the assurance I can give you. No newborns would be killed.
Effigy is written, produced and read to you by Chris Schoen. This episode’s cold open was read by Jeff Dorchen.
New episodes come out every two weeks, give or take. I’m actually finding that three weeks may be the shortest turnaround time for most of these episodes. But I may take inspiration from Mike Duncan of the Revolutions podcast, and start adding in occasional supplemental episodes, slightly shorter than main episodes, and minus the sound design, just to keep the feed active.
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Thank you for listening.
Till next time, Bella Ciao!
Episode 2: When the Roof Falls
In our modern ears, the word “damp” brings with it an inseparable association with moisture, but the word’s older, earlier meaning can still be heard in the verb dampen, which in addition to “make a little bit wet” can also mean to weaken or extinguish, something you might do to a sound, or to someone’s expectations. A damp in this sense is a thing that muffles or chokes. And so, while a coal mine was an often dank place to spend your day, the series of “damps” that miners have identified over the years are not emanations of humidity, but of various kinds of suffocation.
In 1686, the British naturalist Robert Plot, known to his contemporaries as the “Learned Doctor Plot,” partially on the strength of his conclusion that a dinosaur femur bone he studied must have belonged to a giant human being from a bygone age, itemized five subterranean damps that haunted the coal fields of Staffordshire [sta·Frd· shr]. The first four he called “positive damps,” and these were: smoke damp, peas-blossom damp, globe damp, and fulminating damp.
Smoke damp turns out to be, anticlimactically, just smoke, usually from fires the miners would light to soften the coal and rock for easier digging. Of the mysterious peas-blossom damp, little is said about it but that it would extinguish the miners lamps, and that its aroma of pea blossoms warned underground workers to flee to fresher air before they too were extinguished.
Globe damp, also called “pestilential” damp, meant—somewhat improbably—literal globe-shaped constellations of smog made up from a mixture of candle smoke and vapor from the miners’ exhalations and sweat, wrapped in a thin skin resembling a cobweb. When these globes grew to the size of a soccer ball, Dr. Plot tells us, they were prone to burst open, asphyxiating everyone in breathing distance. Saving the best for last, fulminating damps were literally explosive, combusting on contact with spark or fire, with great violence.
To this list of positive damps Plot adds one so called privative damp, “want of air,” by which he means not quite a vacuum but something more like “air without any air in it.” The human need for oxygen would not be discovered for another century, but Dr. Plot had the gist of it.
By the time the industrial age was underway, the chemical composition of the terrestrial gasses—oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide and so on—had been mapped out pretty thoroughly, but to most miners the respiratory hazards of the mine were still apprehended as a catalog of damps, by this time known as: black damp, white damp, stink damp, and fire damp. Black damp, also called choke damp, was carbon dioxide, a common by-product of coal being newly exposed to air. In sufficient concentration it could—and often would—suffocate you, corresponding to Dr. Plot’s “want of air.”
White damp, sometimes called “after damp” because of its tendency to emerge after a mine fire, was carbon monoxide, a deadly combustion product.
Today we consider carbon monoxide to be odorless, but many older accounts describe white damp as smelling of sweet flowers—like a pea blossom—possibly because it was accompanied by some other product of combustion. Its lack of odor was reliable enough, though, that over the centuries miners learned to bring several types of harbinger animals into the mines with them to warn that white damp was lurking. By the early 1900s, canaries were agreed to be the best detectors, because of their high sensitivity to carbon monoxide, but also because—somewhat miraculously—they could often be revived after being brought to fresher air, seemingly no worse for wear. A pigeon, mouse, or rabbit that succumbed to the gas was much less likely to be made whole.
No one seems to know just what Dr. Plot’s Globe Damp was supposed to be, but industrial miners replaced it with a new one: Stink damp, or hydrogen sulfide, released by the decomposition of iron pyrite, or fool’s gold. It stinks of rotten eggs, thanks to the sulfur content, but at high concentrations it also deadens the sense of smell. At such concentrations, it can make itself first known in the form of convulsions, coma, and death.
Finally, fire damp, which Dr. Plot had called “fulminating damp,” is methane, a by-product of coal formation itself. The coalification process is essentially a hundreds-of-millions of years transformation of plant matter—made up of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, and a little sulfur—into increasingly pure grades of carbon. In earlier phases, when peat is transforming into lignite, simple dehydration accounts for a lot of this purification, as hydrogen and oxygen escape as water, under persistent heat and pressure.
Around the time lignite starts to turn into bituminous coal, at temperatures just sufficient to bake a casserole, methane is created. Trapped under tons of rock and soil, with no place to go, it fills the pores of the coal seam until the day someone or something comes along and decides to expose it to the open air.
Methane is explosively flammable, and the deeper you go underground, the more of it there is. Fire damp was an existential terror to miners up into the 20th century, since the only source of light available to a coal miner til that time was an open flame. Safety lamps, first developed in the 1810s, gave some protection, but early models were pretty fragile for a rocky, underlit environ such as a coal mine, and more than one mine explosion was sparked by a safety lamp that didn’t do its job right. Even after the introduction of electric lamps in the 1890s, fire-damp explosions were still all too common. Open flame was still necessary to light the charges that loosened coal from the coal face, and if the seam had any hard minerals in it, pickwork could also easily set off sparks.
Firedamp only really emerged as a hazard in the 1600s. Before then the coalworks weren’t deep enough for methane to accumulate. The original way of dealing with firedamp, dating to the 1670s, was to send a man in the mine, covered in wet rags, and equipped with a long pole with a lit candle at the end of it. The man would crawl forward on his belly, holding his fire stick out in front of him, until whatever gas was there ignited. The job was worse on Mondays, given the opportunity for more gas to accumulate on the Lord’s Day when the mine was vacant. Eventually it was discovered that the process could be made a little safer by sending the lit candle down into the depths using strings and pulleys.
The more durable cure for fire damp, as for all damps, was fairly simple: ventilation. Even Dr. Plot knew in 1683 that damps accumulated in stagnant air. As he put it, there was no commerce between the air in the mine and the air above ground.
Starting in the Victorian era, the entry level job in a coal mine, usually given to boys too young and too small to dig or haul coal, was the trapper, who opened and closed wooden trap doors to various sections of the mine so that fresh air could circulate. Air currents were controlled with a furnace, which generated a chimney effect. Later, steam-powered, and then diesel-powered blowers and fans would be added. These reduced, but did not eliminate, methane explosions, which continued to occur throughout the 20th century, and which still occur even to this day.
Just one month before I sat down to write the first draft of this episode, and 8 months before I now speak it to you, on October 14, 2022, a coal mine in Amasra, Turkey exploded, killing 41 miners and sending 10 more to the hospital. The mine operators reported that their ventilation system was working perfectly, but the head of the union retorted that inspections had been recently reduced because of staff and budget cuts. [6:50]
[Livoda reading strike demands]
On September 14th, 1913, United Mine Workers District 15 held a strike vote meeting at Castle Hall in Trinidad. The vote to ratify the strike demands was unanimous.
Many of these demands were already enshrined in Colorado law, though the young state, just 37 years old at the time, had neither the budget nor the political apparatus to enforce them. A couple of these demands, such as the 8-hour day, had already been implemented by some of the coal companies in the area to help pre-empt union momentum, but the union wanted them observed in every mine.
Recognition of the union was the first demand on the list for good reason. In negotiation after negotiation, and in numerous statements to the press, the operators insisted they were prepared to negotiate on every single one of the material demands issued by the miners. But both sides knew that none of these demands were actually enforceable without formal union recognition. Without a contract, and the leverage of the strike, all the mine workers had was the bosses’ promise they’d do better, and it was amply clear from past experience what that was worth.
So what were some of these material demands?
To start with the obvious, there was the matter of pay. Though many workers in and around the mines were paid a daily wage, the workers formally called miners—the ones who extracted coal from the coal face and loaded it into rail cars—were paid by the ton. Anyone who has done piecework already knows this invariably raises the question, a ton of what?
For example, coal in the seam was often interlaced with stone, soil, or clay, which would have to be separated out before the usable coal could be loaded into the cars. This waste material was called gob, or boney, and the piles of it that accumulated in each room would often serve as gathering places at lunch time.
The mine operators maintained that despite the physical evidence of these ubiquitous piles and heaps, so much gob and boney was making it into the cars that only as little as two thirds of the coal coming out of their mines could be sent to market. The amount of purported waste per car was determined by random sampling of cars conducted by someone called a “dock boss,” who in non union mines was employed by the coal company.
The American ton, then as now, was 2,000 pounds, but by convention mine operators inflated the weight of a ton to account for waste. A 3,000-pound ton of coal was typical. 3,300 pounds to the ton was not unknown. In areas where Mine Workers had already won union recognition—for example in Southern Illinois—they had been able to bargain a ton of coal down to a compromise weight of 2,200 pounds, but that was about as good as it got, and of course in Southern Colorado, most mines had yet to recognize the union.
How could miners be sure the weighing of their coal was even accurate in the first place? After all, they stayed below when their cars were hauled, by mule train, up to the tipple to be weighed. Someone called a check weighman was employed by miners to validate the weight reported by the weigh boss, who like the dock boss was notorious for fudging numbers. But without a union contract, it could be difficult to get a check weighman into the mines, or in a closed camp, even through the camp gates.
To add insult to injury, not even all pure, unadulterated coal was included in each ton weighed. It was common for smaller pieces called slack coal to be removed before weighing, on the grounds that no one wanted to buy it. That wasn’t quite the case; there was a secondary market for slack coal, but nonetheless it didn’t count toward the miners weight.
Lump coal, in chunks no smaller than a chicken egg, got the best price. The slightly smaller-sized nut coal was also prized. To incentivize collection in these dimensions, coal would be conveyed over a screen or grate on its way to the scales. As the coal passed over the screens, the smaller pieces would fall away. Whatever made it to the scale was what the miner was paid for.
The proper weight of a ton aside, getting paid by weight also meant that miners were only directly paid for digging and loading coal, which comprised a much smaller portion of their time underground than you might expect.
A room in a mine often needed to be timbered, for example, to keep the roof from falling in. When carefully installed, vertical props and horizontal crossbars significantly decreased the likelihood of a cave in, and this work was unpaid. Sometimes there was no timber to stand up, and a miner would have to wander the mine looking for spare props, and this work was unpaid. Mules needed to be taken to and from the stables, and this work was unpaid. Track needed to be laid to run the coal cars on, and this work was unpaid. Sometimes there were no empty cars, and a miner would have to wait around for one to arrive, and this time was unpaid. In some years, car shortages accounted for twice as much idle time in the mines as did strikes, cave-ins, or explosions.
Collectively, these unpaid tasks were known as “dead work.”
The operators considered dead work a non-issue, since payment for the miner’s time was supposed to be built into the tonnage rates. But this arrangement created incentives for workers to take short cuts, since the miner who timbered his room to the highest specifications made no more money per ton of coal than the one who timbered shoddily, or even neglected it altogether, and who, as a consequence, might be able to load an extra car or two of coal that day. Given the tonnage rate at the time, that extra car or two could make an enormous difference. As one miner put it: “I need nine cars a day: one for me, one for the old woman, and one for each of the kids.”
The mine operators also knew they could use the penalty of dead work to punish labor activity. As a Welsh miner named T.X. Evans related in 1913, “If a boss takes an exception to a man, don’t want him, he’ll put him up against deficient places, and it will cripple him probably a dollar or two dollars a day, and he has no way in the world to get out if it, only to quit and get out.”
Evans means “cripple” here metaphorically, in the economic sense, but of course the alternative to performing dead work like timbering was literal crippling, or worse. The prevalence of rock falls during this period illustrates this incentive in action. In the decade spanning 1913 to 1923, 11% of deaths in the mines nationwide were caused by explosion or fire. 50% were caused by cave ins and collapses. Some examples from the Annual Report of the Colorado Inspector of Coal Mines paint the picture.
PHILEP CARDELLA: Italian; miner; age, 22 years: single: employed by the Rocky Mountain Fuel Company, at the Gorham Mine, Boulder County; was killed by a fall of coal. Deceased and his partner, Sam Perriconi, were shoveling coal into a car on the east side of room 3, off entry 75. The place had been visited just prior by the Mine Foreman, and he found that shots had been fired [this refers to controlled detonations, not gunfire] which had shattered the coal and knocked some of it down, and it had also loosened the coal next to the roof. Had the men taken the time to ascertain this fact, and either taken it down, or secured it by setting props, the accident, no doubt, would have been avoided.
GREGORY ANASTASSOPOULAS; Greek; miner; age, 38 years; married; two children; employed by the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company, at the Starkville Mine, Las Animas County; was killed by fall of bony coal and rock. Deceased and his partner, Tom Vlahos, were working in room 62, off the C-2 entry. The coal and rock, 4 by 3 feet dimension and 14 inches thick, suddenly fell from the roof on the deceased, causing instant death. Had another crossbar been set up, as provided for in the timber agreement adopted at this mine, the accident might have been avoided.
TONY RIZZO; Italian; miner; age, 38 years; single; employed by the Temple Fuel Company, at the Kenneth Mine, Las Animas County, with his brother, John, in the 1st entry off the slope. The roof at the point where they were working was good, but there occurred a draw rock over the bony coal, and John Rizzo asked deceased to take it down. He tried to take it down, but failed, and he started to work again under it without putting up props to secure it. The result was that in a few minutes the rock fell on deceased, causing such injuries that he died a short time after. The accident may be charged to the carelessness of deceased.
GUERINO VILOTTI; Austrian; miner; age, 26 years; single; employed by the Cedar Hill Coal & Coke Company, at the Toller Mine, Las Animas County; was killed by a fall of rock in room No. 3, off the 3rd cross, off the 7th south entry. The roof is soft slate, and is dangerous and requires careful propping. Had the deceased timbered his working place according to the method of timbering agreed upon at this mine, and in addition had the roadway been timbered with cross-bars every four feet, it would probably have held the rock in place. There were plenty of timbers close at hand. The responsibility of the accident rests with the dead man.
NICK DELDUCA; Italian; miner; age 56 years; married; four children; employed by the Victor American Fuel Company, at the Chandler Mine, Fremont County; was killed by a fall of rock. Deceased had taken down some coal on the face directly in front of the roadway. While in the act of loading a car, a rock fell, knocking him down and a chunk of coal struck him on the forehead, causing instant death. It seems evident that the deceased had not examined his working place before starting to work. Had he done so, the accident might have been avoided.
Abel Silva; Mexican; miner; age 48 years; married; seven children; employed by the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company at the Frederick Mine, Las Animas County; was killed by a fall of rock in pillar of room No. 17 off East entry. The rails were turned into the pillar and the distance between the props was 6 feet to allow room on each side of the car. Along the props on the gob side ran a clay slip in the roof, and while deceased was loading the car at the front end, a rock had fallen from the clay slip on the gob side breaking off along the props near the coal face and caught deceased, crushing him to death. Timbers should have been set under this rock when the way slip became visible. The deceased had five years’ experience in mining.
Luis Esposito; Spaniard; miner; age, 23 years; single; employed by the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company at the Frederick mine, Las Animas County; was killed by a fall of rock in room No. 13 off the thirteenth W. entry, off the main drift. Deceased was in front of the roadway taking away the coal when a piece of rock 10 feet long, 8 feet wide and 14 inches thick fell on him, causing instant death. His partner states they did not know this rock was loose, although there was a slip, however, had they taken the precaution of setting up two props inside of this slip the accident would have been avoided.
Ambroggio Minoggio; Italian; miner ; age, 26 years; single; employed by the Calumet Fuel Company at the Perin’s Peak Mine, La Plata County; was killed by a fall of rock. He was working in pillar 18 off the back main entry. The Mine Foreman was in the place about an hour before the accident occurred and he found that the pillar was practically taken out to the crosscut, only a small stump remaining. He ordered Minoggio to stop work on the stump and to start the pillar from the next crosscut outby. The deceased went to work instead on the small stump of pillar 19, which was pretty well crushed, and started to take the coal out, when it caved suddenly and caught him, causing death . The deceased disregarded orders by the Mine Foreman, for work was clear of the fall. Had the deceased obeyed the Foreman’s instructions, the accident would not have occurred.
Asper Amato; Italian; miner; age, 27 years; single; employed by the Colorado Fuel & Iron Company at the Tabasco mine, Las Animas County; was killed by a fall of rock in room 4 of the third plane of the second S. entry. The rope runner on the third plane stated that he was waiting on a trip and that he went in the above stated room to get another loaded car and in doing so the rear end of the car knocked out a prop from under a rock along the rails near the coal face. Deceased failed to reset the prop and started to load the next car; while thus engaged the rock fell on deceased and killed him almost instantly. Deceased should have reset the prop before continuing his work.
Nick Pappas; Greek; miner; age, 38 years; single; employed by the Fox Coal Mining Company at the Fox Mine, Boulder County; was killed by a fall of top coal in room No. 4 off room 24. Pappas’ death was caused by his own negligence in not timbering the loose coal under which he was working. He had worked in mines for ten years, and at this mine the last three winters.
Above ground the dangers were of another type. Closed camps offered mine operators near-complete control over the lives of mine workers and their families. Armed guards sentried the gates, inside of which everything was owned by the company. You could—if you cared to—shop at a store in a nearby town, outside the camp, but you’d usually be fired for it, and because you lived in a company home, that meant you’d be evicted too.
Mine workers were paid monthly, a frequency designed to force workers into asking for advances on the next month’s wages. These advances were typically paid in scrip, which was private money redeemable only at the company store at around 80 cents on the dollar. Scrip had been outlawed in Colorado in 1899, but it was still in regular use by CF&I and other mining companies in 1913.
Without fear of being underbid by competitors, many company stores took on the aspect of an extortion racket. The Colorado Supply Company, which was the general goods store in most CF&I camps, reported a 20% profit throughout the 1910s.
The coal companies didn’t just have a monopoly on commerce, they had a monopoly on politics too. Inside the camp, there was no mayor, no town council, no magistrate. On election day, the companies oversaw the polling places— located on company property—and prepared and counted the ballots, often filling in votes on behalf of their employees, whether they were naturalized or not.
The camp marshal represented the authority of the coal company, overseeing a dozen or more armed company guards. Technically the marshal served two masters: he was officially deputized by the county sheriff, but he reported to the mine superintendent, who was the executive who oversaw the affairs of the mine. Given that even the sheriffs in Southern Colorado were essentially vassals of the mine companies, this seeming conflict of interest resolved itself far above the marshal’s pay grade.
Camp Marshals were often given a long leash, as long as they understood correctly that their main job was to keep mine workers and their families as docile and pliant as possible. In the Segundo mining camp, 15 miles west of Trinidad, a marshal named Bob Lee was notorious—particularly among the Greeks in the camp—for terrorizing the miners’ wives and daughters while all the men were underground.
If you infer from this that Bob Lee was a serial rapist then you share an appreciation of his wickedness with the residents of the camp, and several other witnesses. Jack McQuarrie, a railroad agent and coal company spy who later came around to the union cause would testify that Bob Lee “terrified certain miners’ wives into submitting to him by authority of his star, and threatening the loss of their men’s jobs. If a woman saw him coming, she’d get up and hike over to a neighbor’s house to keep out of the way.” McQuarrie, whose job as undersheriff put him into frequent contact with Lee, also added, “I’ve heard him brag as some young Italian wife went by, ‘She’s a Peach. I’m going to get her.’”
George McGovern and Leonard Guttridge describe Lee, in their history “The Great Coalfield War,” as “a freebooter from the state’s lawless yesterday.” In fact Lee built his reputation as a thug not in Colorado, but just to the south in New Mexico. Some accounts link him to the Frank and Jesse James gang, though this is probably just folklore. Robert Lee was a pretty common name for shitheads from the South in the decades after the Civil War. Either way, Bob Lee came into Colorado in 1903, just in time to help put down the failed 1903-1904 strike in the Southern fields. By 1913 he was a trusted and reliable henchman for Colorado Fuel and Iron.
On September 24, 1913, on the second day of the strike, Bob Lee went out to investigate reports that a group of Greek strikers were sabotaging a company-owned footbridge connecting the old town of Segundo, which was open, to the new part of town, which comprised the closed camp that contained the Segundo mine. The footbridge provided the only direct way for strikebreakers to enter the camp from the town.
The Greeks had come directly from the Namino saloon, where they may have met to discuss their treatment the day before, when they and other strikers had sent wagons back to camp to collect their belongings, only to have those wagons repeatedly turned back empty by company guards.
Lee came upon the bridge on horseback and found four Greek miners there, as advertised, and began herding them back to the other side. After being pressed back a couple hundred yards, one of the men, Tom Larius, took advantage of a moment of inattention by Lee, who was repositioning his horse, to raise the barrel of a shotgun he’d hidden under his coat. Larius fired at close range, blasting away most of Lee’s neck with buckshot. Lee fell dead from his horse, and the Greeks scrambled for the hills. Larius was never caught, and none of the others were ever identified.
Bob Lee was little-mourned. Even people whose sympathies were with the coal companies tended to think he had it coming. In the words of Jack McQuarrie, “Bob was a brute. He put the people down on him to such an extent that his killing was not a surprise to any of his friends.”
Nevertheless, this was the first bloodshed of the strike, and the operators made hay of it in the press. From the start of the conflict, it had always been their plan to use the National Guard to neutralize the strike threat, a strategy which had been very effective in breaking the strike of 1903 and 1904, not to mention numerous other strikes in the preceding decades. In Colorado’s first 50 years of statehood, the National Guard was called out 20 times. 15 of those occasions were to quell strikes. And the same story had been duplicated across the United States: The steelworkers strike at Homestead, in 1892. The hard-rock miners’ strike in Coeur d’Alene Idaho, 1892, the Birmingham, Alabama Coal Strike of 1908, and numerous others.
The killing of Lee, who the coal barons portrayed as a fine gentleman with a Virginian pedigree, provided just the pretext they were waiting for. Clearly, they argued, the unions were either unable or or unwilling to dissuade their rank and file members from resorting to riot and murder.
The operators had already been running a PR campaign that cast the majority of the striking miners as criminals and gangsters, just as the Anthracite mine operators in Pennsylvania 40 years earlier had helped bring down the local union there by associating them with an old Irish secret society called the Molly Maguires. This time around they claimed their foes were racketeers and killers from the Black Hand society, which at the time was the preferred term for Italian gangsterism.
Greek coal miners, who in 1913 were the most recent to arrive in Colorado were almost invariably presented by the mine operators as hardened veterans of the Balkan Wars, which was supposed to have awakened in them a latent and unslakable blood lust. When CF&I Chairman Lamont Bowers warned about the nefarious outside agitators bringing ferment into the mining camps, he used no shortage of epithets, but as a specific nationality he name-checked only the Greeks, who he reflexively described as “bloodthirsty” almost as if it went without saying.
With these kinds of defamations already ringing in the air, through whisper campaigns and private correspondence, not to mention the salacious news items CF&I attorney Jesse Northcutt was able to run in the Trinidad newspapers he owned, the operators immediately began to petition the governor to send in the militia, so that the proper monopoly of violence could be restored, and more to the point, so that strikebreakers could be escorted directly into the mines no worse for wear, and the mines could begin running at full capacity again.
Episode One: Gluck Auf!
In a 1918 article published in the Ottawa Naturalist called “Eskimo Food: How it Tastes to the White Man,” the zoologist Rudolph Martin Anderson goes to great lengths to convey that the Inuit diet is not actually as unpalatable as the reader has imagined. For example, given sufficient boiling time to break down the meat, an aged white snowy owl can make “a suitable tea or supper dish,” Anderson notes, adding “I never knew anyone to complain of any ill flavor.” Even the food an Inuit might eat only during a famine, such as a caribou robe, for example, is “really not so bad as it sounds” when “boiled soft and tender.” As for caribou back fat, Anderson deems it preferable to bacon. But everyone has their breaking point. In the course of cataloging how little of the caribou is wasted by the Inuit, Anderson confesses that “in my opinion the conservation efforts are carried a trifle too far when they pick out the large grubs of the warble fly from the skin of the caribou in the spring and eat them like cherries. The grubs are very watery and absolutely tasteless, but for some reason, the Eskimo seems to cherish them.” The English explorer Samuel Hearne wrote of the Dene he traveled with in Northern Canada in the 1700s: “They could never persuade me to eat the warbles, of which they were remarkably fond, particularly the children. They are eaten raw and alive out of the skin, and said by those who like them to be as fine as gooseberries.” Danish explorer Knud Rasmussen recounted that he was teased by the Inuit shaman Igjugarjuk for not wanting to partake of the “fat maggoty things” when they were served for dessert after a feast. “No one will be offended if you don’t understand our food,” said Igjugarjuk condescendingly; “we all have our different customs.” The Russian anthropologist Vladimir Bogoraz wrote of the Siberian Chuckchi herdsmen he studied that they “very dexterously pick out these maggots, when they are big enough, from the reindeer’s back, and eat them with great relish.” The exploration of these cultural culinary customs demonstrates the wide
We would appear to have pretty solid attestation that one of the best things about a successful caribou hunt was that it meant being able to snack on warble fly larva. Perhaps this helps explain why one of the earliest known carvings in jet, dating back to the Magdalenian culture of the Upper Paleolithic period, around 15,000 years ago, discovered alongside a number of so-called Venus figurines, is a pendant in the shape of a larva of the reindeer warble fly, sometimes known as the bot fly.
Jet, of course, is the name given to a type of mineral that would otherwise be called lignite, when one is interested in its desirability as a gemstone. The name derives from a Greek town near Rhodes called Gagai. Lapis Gagates, it was called, “the stone from Gagai.”
Pliny the Elder, dictating from his bathtub in the early 70s AD, described the stone from Gagai in his Natural History. It is said that at Cyprus the sea expels Gagate onto the shore. It is black, smooth, light, and porous, similar to wood in appearance. It is brittle, and emits a disagreeable odor when rubbed. Marks made upon pottery with it cannot be scrubbed away. When burned, its sulfurous fumes repel serpents, and ease contractions of the uterus. A solution in wine cures a toothache. Mixed with wax, it cures scrofula. Magicians make use of it in their auguries: when the outlook is good, it will refuse to burn.
Notwithstanding the caprices of divination, though, the stone from Gagai does indeed burn. Mineralogists describe lignite as the “lowest form of coal,” because it has more impurities than higher grades, and gives off less heat. But most people in the classical era weren’t really interested in it as a fuel in the first place. Burning coal was too stinky, and gathering up more of it than could be foraged on beaches and other outcroppings was really not worth the trouble.
What was enduring about jet was that—for a stone—it was light, easily carved, and could be polished to a mirror finish.
Jet is abundant in Yorkshire County, England, home of the famous Whitby jet. When the Romans occupied this part of Britain, they built workshops in and around York, fabricating jet pins, jet brooches, jet beads, and jet buttons. In the graves of Roman infants who died young, archeologists have found small bears carved from jet. Medusas and other gorgons were a popular decoration, appearing on cameos and amulets. A common theme is found in the burial sites of young Roman women: the jet gorgon faces forward, 4 to 6 snakes visible under her winged helmet, a vacant stare into the middle distance sparing the innocent viewer from petrification.
Tradition has it that jet carvings became popular in the Roman Empire after a visit to Britain by the empress Julia Domna in 208 A.D. Julia was from a priestly family in Emesa, Syria, that worshipped Ilāh al-Jabal, the God of the Mountain. Ilāh al-Jabal, who the Romans called Elagabalus, was represented only by a conical black stone, giving Julia her nickname, Domna, which is old Arabic for black.
This black conical stone was what is called a betyl, a religious object predating the use of statuary or iconography to represent a deity. It was more than a mere likeness: Touching or rubbing the betyl made direct contact with a god. The religious historian George Moore described the betyl as temple, idol, and altar, all in one. Indeed, the name betyl comes from the Phoenician word for temple: a cognate of the Hebrew Beth-el, house of god, but in this usage it’s much more literal. The ancient Phoenician writer Sanchuniathon called betyls “ensouled stones.” Some were small enough to put in your pocket when traveling or herding livestock. They were often reputed to be literally heavenly in origin, formed from meteorites.
In a story told by the 6th century neoplatonist Damascius, a healer named Eusebius set out one night from, as coincidence would have it, the city of Emesa, in Syria, to visit a temple to Athena, when he saw a fiery orb fall from the sky, accompanied by a guardian lion. When the orb had cooled, Eusebius noticed it displayed letters on its surface in deep red, a telltale sign that it was a betyl. He asked the betyl what god he belonged to, and the stone answered in a shrill, hissing voice that it belonged to Gennaeus, possibly an avatar of Jupiter. The betyl had its own clothing, much like the stone Rhea tricked Kronos into swallowing, when he meant to be swallowing his infant son Zeus. In fact, this stone, too, may have been a betyl. Zeus later got ahold of this stone somehow, and placed it at Delphi to mark the site of his oracle.
Damascius speculated that Eusebius’s betyl was divine, but his master, Isidore, corrected him: Not a god, just an ordinary spirit, the kind that’s neither good nor evil.
Another story, from the 3rd century, written in the form of a soliloquy by Orpheus imparting secret mysteries to his son, the biblical Moses, tells of Helenus, prince of ancient Troy, twin brother of Cassandra, who—like his sister—was oracular, and whose powers came directly from an iron stone given to him by his lover, Apollo; a stone which was “rough, hard, black, and heavy, graven everywhere with veins like wrinkles.” The stone talked to Helenus in “the sublime voice of a child.” Helenus ritually bathed the stone, “cherished it as a babe in soft clothing,” and “fondled it in his hands, bearing it about as a mother bears her infant.” In reward for this reverent treatment, the stone told Helenus of Troy’s imminent doom, which, of course, no one took seriously.
The Roman historian Tacitus describes a journey by the Emperor Titus to Paphos, on the island of Cyprus, where he visited the Temple of Astarte, which is to say Aphrodite, which is to say Venus, who was not represented there in human form, but by, in Tacitus’s own words, “a circular mass that is broader at the base and which rises like a turning-post to a small circumference at the top.” Tacitus’s first beryl.
In one of the many meandering plotlines of Thomas Pynchon’s 2007 novel Against The Day, a team of scientists collectively known as the Vormance Expedition, bankrolled by a Rockefeller-esque arch-capitalist named Scarsdale Vibe, is sent to the arctic to find, dig up, and bring home what the team believes to be a meteorite, but which turns out, upon the expedition’s arrival, to instead be a type of sentient mountain called a nunatak, that may also be a kind of demon. The party is able to scan the object through the deep snows, revealing that it is covered in inscriptions of some kind. The faithful scientists manage to load it into their cargo hold, then begin the slow journey home. Scarsdale Vibe’s son, Fleetwood Vibe, a member of the expedition, records what happens next in his journal:
Those who claim to have heard it speak as it made its escape [Fleetwood writes] are now safely away in the upstate security of Matteawan, receiving the most modern care. “Nothing voiced, all hisses, a serpent, vengeful, relentless,” they raved. Others attested to languages long dead to the world, though of course known to their reporters. “The man-shaped light shall not deliver you,” it allegedly declared, and “Flames were always your destiny, my children.”
By the time the expedition reached New York City, they found that the object, which Pynchon also variously describes as “The Figure,” and “The Visitor,” had already consumed the city in fire. They were called to account for their carelessness before the Board of Inquiry. “It deceived us into classifying it as a meteor,” they protested, to which the Board replied, “Your whole expedition got hypnotized by a rock, is that what you’re asking us to believe?”
There is a black stone set into the Kaaba, in the Grand Mosque in Mecca. Tradition records this stone as also having meteoric origin. Some stories credit the black stone as having once had the power of speech, addressing itself at various times to Adam, Abraham, and Muhammad. It is reportedly the same stone Jacob used as a pillow when he dreamt his dream of a ladder to heaven. Some legends describe the stone as having once been white, but corrupted into blackness by the sin of mankind after completing its journey here from the heavens.
When vegetation falls to earth in a tropical wetland forest, say of the science-fictiony kind that predominated in North America about 300 million years ago, populated by the scaly lepidodendron, the bamboo-like calamite, and the fern-like pteridosperm, instead of decaying, it stays preserved in the swampy forest floor, where oxygen can’t reach it, and where high acidity keeps bacteria in check. Over time, counted in the thousands of years this undecayed plant matter compacts itself into carbon-rich peat, dense, black and fibrous. Already in this form, if you dry it out, it will burn. Peat was an important fuel source for early humans, and even today, in modern countries without coal or gas reserves, like Ireland and Estonia, it’s still burned to generate electricity. Seamus Heaney describes peat in his poem “Bogland” as kind black butter/Melting and opening underfoot.
Most of the time peat is the end of the line, but if a peat bog should get covered by a river or lake, and that river or lake should form a bed of sedimentary rock over it, the resulting pressure and dehydration will transform it, given tens of millions of years more, into various grades of coal, ranging from lignite, to bituminous coal, to anthracite, each grade containing more pure carbon than the last.
That coal was a kind of stone that could be set on fire has been known for as long as people have been writing about it, which is at least two millenia give or take—though it’s hard to be precise. The greek anthrakes means something like a burning coal, but the same word could refer to a gem like garnet which glows red in the light, like a burning coal. Anthrakes could also refer to a boil, which is why bacterial anthrax, which covers the skin with red lesions, has its name. The same associations appear in Latin: carbunculus, carbuncle, little carbon, little coal.
But Pliny knew you could burn it; the Romans occupying Britain knew you could burn it; even Theophrastus, pupil of Aristotle and the author of one of the earliest lapidaries, knew you could burn it. The question was why would you? The forests were full of fragrant hardwoods—linden and poplar, oak and walnut, beech and alder—that didn’t stink of sulfur when you burned them. We get a good sense of how disagreeable coal fumes were in pre-industrial times from the fact that many people were apparently content to completely forget that one could, if they wanted to, burn coal for fuel. When Marco Polo came back from his travels with news that the Chinese had a black stone that generated intense heat when burned, the people of Venice—just 300 miles from Rome, where Pliny had written his Natural History 1200 years earlier—assumed he was making it up. Who had ever heard of such a thing as burning stones?
Even in coal-rich Britain, already feeling the pinch of deforestation in the early Middle Ages, coal as a fuel source was a tough sell. In 1257, when Henry the third was visiting Nottingham, where surface coal was abundant, his wife, Queen Eleanor, famously fled the castle and took up residence in Tutbury, 30 miles to the west, complaining that the smoke from coal fires at Nottingham was “unendurable.”
Now, Eleanor was no fool; she had been given a hygienic treatise by the famous Italian physician Aldobrandino of Sienna, called “The regimen of the body,” which stressed the critical importance of avoiding smoke and fumes. The best medicine of the day, still under the strong influence of Galen, embraced miasma theory, according to which bad-smelling air, once inhaled, or even taken in through the pores, had a corrupting effect on the vital pneuma, which was a kind of froth in the body made up of blood and breath. Without a concept of pathogens, corrupted air was the best explanation available for the spread of epidemics and plagues, and coal smoke corrupted the air like nothing else.
At this point, no one in England was yet burning coal to heat their homes, but it was becoming popular among brewers, blacksmiths, and in other trades which relied on a hot, steady fire that wood fuel could not provide.
It took another three centuries for England to adopt coal for home use. By the time of Elizabeth’s reign, chimneys had replaced open hearths, making it possible for the first time to exhaust smoke and fumes from a building in real time. A nd just in time too; by now there wasn’t much wood left in the forest.
One of the earliest coal fields to be regularly mined was not in Britain but in the Erzgebirge region of Saxony, in the town of Zwickau, named for the Slavic blacksmith god, Svarog. Before the industrial revolution, the seams of coal in the region were used by local peasants much in the way forests were used for gathering wood. Small shafts would be dug, and villagers were allowed to take what they needed for their homes and farms—usually on rainy days when there was no work to do in the fields. Selling coal was prohibited, though some villagers figured out that they could set up dummy stoves, keep the fire burning as low as possible, and take the coal that was supposed to be fueling them and sell it furtively on the side.
Industrial coal production began in Saxony—as in England, as in the US—in the mid 19th century. In 1868, 2,000 coal miners from Lugau, about 10 miles to the East of Zwickau, wrote to the First International, detailing their exploitation at the hands of the mine operators and asking for admission as members. Karl Marx, who sat on the General Council, asked Friedrich Engels to prepare a report for him to read to the Council, in an early instance of what would later be called a “Workers Inquiry,” one of the first attempts to empirically document and quantify working conditions from the point of view of the workers themselves, as subjects rather than objects.
After presenting Engels’ report to the Council, Marx wrote him a letter of thanks, and told him of his plans to get the report published. “The poor devils of Lugau will have the great satisfaction of being mentioned in the English press,” Marx wrote. But the English papers rejected publication. Whatever satisfaction the devils of Lugau might have hoped for would have to wait.
The mines of the Zwickau and neighboring coal fields closed for good in the 1970s, but in parts of southern Saxony today, the standard greeting is not Good Day, but Good Luck! The German phrase is Glück Auf, which is not directly translatable, but is essentially shorthand for, I hope you aren’t killed in the mineshaft today!
On September 23, 1913, coal miners in the coalfields of Southern Colorado went out on strike. The great majority of them had been living and working in closed work camps, private gated villages on mining company land that were wholly owned by the coal companies: the houses, the general stores, the schools, the bathhouses, the barber shops, the saloons, even the YMCA clubhouse. The second the miners in these camps laid down their picks and shovels, they were as good as evicted from their company-owned homes, so they and their families dragged their mattresses and clothes and pots and pans down the canyon to the prairie below, where the United Mine Workers of America had leased parcels of land and erected tents to house them, each equipped with timbered floors, a wood cookstove and a barrel of drinking water. In these tents, some miners would spend as much as the next 15 months, though in the timeline we’ll be exploring, life in the tent colonies would come to an abrupt stop much sooner than that.
There were between 10 to 12 tent colonies in all—sources don’t agree on the exact number or their names. They traced a 50-mile stretch between Walsenburg and Trinidad where the canyons of the Sangre de Cristo mountains spill out onto the plains. At a minimum, there were tent colonies located at or near, from north to south: Walsenburg, Rugby, Aguilar, Ludlow, Forbes, Suffield, Cokedale, Sopris, and Starkville.
Of all these locations, only Walsenburg and Aguilar were proper towns. The others comprised maybe a railroad depot, perhaps a post office and a saloon. But the placement of colonies in these locations was strategic. Behind the colonies, up the canyon in the foothills, were the mines, now running below capacity for want of men to dig out the coal. In front of the colonies were the depots and railroad spurs that any strikebreakers shipped in by the mine operators would have to emerge from. In between were the striking miners.
Because it was the largest, and because it controlled access to Berwind and Delagua canyons, where the productive Berwind, Tabasco, Hastings and Delagua mines were located, the colony at Ludlow was made the unofficial strike headquarters, complete with a command tent, which doubled as a dancehall and meeting place. The colony just to the south of Ludlow, at Forbes, was situated similarly at the entrance to the Forbes and Majestic mines.
The Berwind Canyon mines were operated by CF&I—Colorado Fuel and Iron— the largest coal mining concern in the state, and in fact Colorado’s largest private employer. The Delagua Canyon mines were operated by Victor-American, Colorado’s second largest coal company. So Ludlow was of particular interest to the mine operators right from the start.
At stake for the United Mine Workers was the entire state of Colorado. They had won a contract in the northern fields in 1908, but when it expired two years later, the mine operators rejected the UMW’s new terms, under pressure from the owners of the mines in the Southern fields, particularly Colorado Fuel and Iron, whose majority owner was none other than John D. Rockefeller, the most economically powerful man in the country. By the time of his death, Rockefeller would go on to accumulate a fortune that has still not been surpassed in all of modern history.
The Southern coal operators reasoned that it would be more cost effective in the long run to subsidize the Northern coal companies during the strike, than to risk the hit to their profits if the union was to win a new contract, and then turn its attention southward. So they put up large sums, tens of millions in today’s money, to keep the Northern coal companies in the black while they fought a war of attrition against the more modestly financed, and much more thinly spread United Mine Workers of America.
At the 1911 annual convention, then-president Thomas Lewis told the delegates that in Colorado the miners on strike in the Northern fields were “fighting against a conspiracy to exterminate the United Mine Workers.” The statement was accurate, but unfortunately for the miners, it turned out that President Lewis was an important member of that conspiracy. The extent of his collaboration with the mine operators while president has not been recorded, but we find a hint of it later in the same address I just cited, his last as President. Apparently going off script in his closing remarks, Lewis described to the assembled delegates the vast knowledge he had acquired while serving as a member, officer, and ultimately president of the union over the previous several years. He then told them, without any prompting or provocation:
“Whether I shall succeed myself as President of this organization or not, you can rest assured of one thing, the knowledge, the information, the training and experience I have acquired will not be sold to the operators … at a fixed salary per month, and it will not be sold to them in any other manner, because I am not too old to earn a living mining coal and I haven’t too much pride in my makeup to swing the pick.”
This was on the second day of the convention. On the 8th day, elections were held, and Lewis was succeeded not by himself but by John Phillip White, who would serve for the next six years. The defeat was occasion for another little speech, in which he reiterated his humble intention to take up work as a rank and file miner, telling the delegates, “When I come back to our International convention in 1912, there will be no contest against the credential of T. L. Lewis, because he will come as a member of this organization direct from the picks.” He seems to have really liked ending his speeches with the word picks.
Instead, Lewis immediately took work consulting for the Coal lobby, and started up a pro-mining company paper called the Coal Mining Review. When John Phillip White took office in April of that year, he found that Lewis had absconded with the union’s official records. Lewis did not, as promised, return to the international convention in 1912.
By then, the strike in the Northern fields had completely stalled out. The only way for the union to gain leverage was to—finally—go on a counter-offensive in the Southern field. When President White addressed the next annual convention in January 1912, he told the delegates that:
“It is my candid opinion that the fight in the Northern coalfields has been financed and prosecuted by the Colorado Fuel & Iron company. There is a growing uneasiness among the miners of the Southern coal field, and little or no effort would be required now to organize that field.”
Already, as he delivered this address, a United Mine Workers field office had been opened in Trinidad, Colorado on the first of the year. After a year of planning and training, an organizing campaign was kicked off in May 1913, led by John Lawson, who had been in the field since 1903, and who had helped to win the contract in the North in 1908.
The organizing campaign was an impressive success. A decade earlier, a bitter fight in the southern fields ended in a complete rout of the United Mine Workers, largely because the operators had managed to populate their ranks with spies and informants. Their attempts to repeat history in 1913 were foiled by an ingenious strategy that we’ll talk more about in an upcoming episode. But while the organizers managed to keep a tight lid on who they were and weren’t bringing aboard, they did not go entirely undetected. CF&I had an intelligence unit on the payroll—a spy network, run by former cop, railroad agent and private detective William H. Reno, who was tasked with bringing in those private gangs called in the parlance of the time “Industrial Engineers,” or more familiarly to us, “Detective Agencies.” There were Pinkertons in the state, and men from the Thiel Detective Agency, but the primary agency employed in the southern coalfields was the Baldwin-Felts agency, an outfit known well to mine workers everywhere for their role in helping to violently put down the strike in Paint and Cabin Creek West Virginia the year before.
By the summer of 1913, Baldwin-Felts gunmen were openly patrolling the streets of Trinidad, enjoying the immunity and impunity of their official—though illegally bestowed—status as sheriff’s deputies. On August 16, exactly one month before the strike vote would be held, two of these gunmen, Walter Belk and George Belcher, shot and killed United Mine Workers organizer George Lippiatti outside the Toltec hotel, after a long harassment campaign that ultimately goaded him into making the first move. Lippiatti was first to draw, and first to fall, with 6 bullets in him. Belcher was hit in the leg, and Belk was left unscathed. They had no difficulties arguing self defense.
Just two months earlier, Walter Belk had been a witness before a Senate Commission in Charleston, West Virginia, where he was questioned for his role in the Battle of Mucklow during the Paint and Cabin Creek strike of 1912. In that conflict, in familiar fashion, thousands of coal mine workers went out on strike, moving out of their homes into tent villages in the hillside. Belk was hired by the Paint Creek Coal Operators Association to—officially—guard mine property, and to—unofficially—harass, spy upon, and if necessary wound or kill anyone who caused a problem, or just happened to be sitting or standing at the wrong place at the wrong time.
By coincidence, the chief counsel for the union who cross examined Belk during the hearing was also a man named Belcher—Albert Belcher to be exact. No direct relation to George Belcher the gunman as far as I’m able to tell; it’s just one of those capricious little patterns woven into the fabric of history by the gremlins who run the universe, for their own amusement, or who knows, perhaps for ours.
A strike in the Southern Colorado coalfields had already seemed imminent by August 1913. Lippiatti’s death now made it seem inevitable. At the Convention of the Colorado State Federation of Labor—the meeting Lippiatti was in town to attend when he was killed—the mood was grim. An empty chair decorated in black crepe was reserved for his ghost, should it care to make a Banquo-like appearance.
Union leaders had been holding out for a negotiated settlement, but by now multiple overtures to the mine operators brokered by the Governor, the Deputy Labor Commissioner, and even by the Federal Secretary of Labor William B. Wilson, had all been rebuffed. The operators knew that recognition of the union was an irreducible demand for the United Mine Workers, and it was one they were determined not to grant.
Jesse Welbourn, the president of CF&I, summed up the mindset of the other operators when he described the union as a “Labor Monopoly,” which, in cahoots with the government and other supposed “men in high places,” was waging “organized and deliberate war,” in the interest of nothing less than “tyranny and despotism.” CF&I Chairman Lamont Bowers warned that if captains of industry did not take the threat of unionism seriously, they would find themselves under literal military dictatorship.
I’m tempted to think the hysteria displayed in these sentiments was pretty sincere. But even if Wellborn and Bowers were just gilding the lily in an effort to build support and morale among their backers, their dismay at the prospect of being even partially dislodged from their positions of wealth and power was no less existential. The Gilded Age was still in full flower in Southern Colorado. It would be no exaggeration to call the officers of CF&I and the other coal companies feudal lords; there was very little of political or economic life in Southern Colorado that they did not directly control.
The operators might be willing to bend here or there on an individual issue of pay or working conditions as an act of largesse, but only on their terms. Allowing their workers to collectively bargain on the broad terms of their employment was simply unthinkable, and they were prepared to pay significant sums of money if necessary to put down the strike.
Union officers in Kansas City set aside $600,000 for a strike fund, and added a levy of $1 to annual membership dues to raise another $400,000. Land for tent colonies was leased, tents were secured. On September 12, John White announced that a strike vote would be held in Trinidad the following Monday. On the same day, a box of Colt revolvers was sent from a hardware store in Pueblo to a hardware store in Walsenberg. The revolvers had been hand-selected by Adolph Germer, international organizer for the United Mine Workers of America.