ONE OF the worst labor clashes in the nation occurred 115 years ago this month just outside of Hazleton.
Today, a marker where the road splits as you enter Lattimer is the only evidence that in the late afternoon of Sept. 10, 1897 as many as 100 deputies under Luzerne County Sheriff James Martin opened fire there on coal miners seeking a pay increase of several pennies a day and a better life for their families. The average miner's wage then was as low as $1.30 a day. That was for a 10-hour day, six days a week.
Miners rented a company home, bought merchandise at inflated prices at the company store, went to the company doctor and even had to buy blasting powder from the company (at up to five times the cost) just to keep tunneling underground to scratch out their meager incomes. To add further insult, if you had not been born in this country, you were subject to an immigrant tax recently imposed by an act of the state Legislature!
A large portion of the testimony regarding that day's incident suggests the miners were unarmed. They carried two American flags, believing they enjoyed First Amendment rights. They were proud of their new lives in America. By day's end, 19 would be dead. Others would die in Hazleton hospitals. The death toll rose to 25.
On Sept. 11, 1897, the miners who survived what already was being called the "Lattimer Massacre" adopted a resolution, asking in a newspaper ad for the residents of Pennsylvania to weigh the facts and judge for themselves. Had the sheriff acted wantonly? Did the miners have the same right to freedom of speech and assembly that native-born Americans enjoyed?
Many people feared the miners' wrath. Nothing happened. They were orderly and clung to the notion that justice would be carried out in a murder trial that was sure to follow.
That trial took place between Feb. 1 and March 9, 1898, in the second-floor courtroom of Judge Stanley Woodward on Public Square, Wilkes-Barre. The courtroom was jammed to overflowing with spectators. Leading national newspapers such as the New York Times and Philadelphia Inquirer attended.
Martin and the deputies were found not guilty of murder. The people were incredulous.
Those same miners who survived Lattimer speak to us today: "We place ourselves before the bar of public opinion and appeal to the good citizens of the state and country, and ask them if there was justification or warrant in such assassination." (Philadelphia Public Ledger, Sept. 13, 1898.)
We are accelerating our lack of knowledge of the event at an astounding rate. From that terrible Sept. 10, 1897, the miners ask us today: Was there justification in such assassination?
The memory of those who died that day demands that we seek the truth.
From that terrible Sept. 10, 1897, the
miners ask us today: Was there
justification in such assassination?
Bill Bachman is a senior instructor in communications at Penn State Wilkes-Barre. His old-time radio program, "The Lattimer Massacre: A Radio Play," premieres on Sept. 16 at the Dietrich Theater in Tunkhannock. All seating is free to the public through a Pennsylvania Humanities Council grant.