HERRIN – Nearly a century after literally burying its violent past, a southern Illinois community is belatedly coming to terms with one of the nation's deadliest labor conflicts, an episode in which some victims were paraded down city streets and humiliated before hundreds of cheering onlookers before having their throats slit.
Most of the victims of the Herrin Massacre – three union coal miners on strike and 20 replacement workers and guards – were buried in June 1922 in a cluster of unmarked graves in an old pauper's field at the city cemetery, forgotten by time and a collective desire to, if not ignore history, not call undue attention to it in a town that's still a union stronghold.
"No one really mentioned the massacre. It was a black eye," said retired miner Bill Sizemore, 59, who said he didn't know about it for most of his life. "The people of Herrin weren't proud of it. They all felt like it was going to wash away like the river."
But since 2009, when a local talk radio host's quest to honor a World War I veteran among the massacre victims led to an excavation of the grave site, the city started to change its approach, despite pockets of resistance. On Thursday, the anniversary of the mass burial, Herrin will unveil a monument that names 17 of the victims.
"There has been an awakening," said Sizemore, a Herrin City Council member with deep roots in the coal community who helped persuade his colleagues to endorse the project. "The city of Herrin has embraced its past."
That wasn't always the case. Scott Doody, the former radio host who enlisted geologists, a forensic anthropologist and a retired county sheriff, said he was threatened with arrest by then-Herrin Mayor Vic Ritter. The dispute eventually went to court, with the archaeology team prevailing after the city halted the dig and blocked access to cemetery records.
Ritter, who resigned in November after 15 years at the helm of the town of 12,500 that's about two hours southeast of St. Louis, said he supports the new grave marker but opposed the dig, in part because of the disruption to nearby graves.
"I don't know what they gained by digging them up," said Ritter, whose grandfather was a coal miner. "I don't think anybody tried to hide anything."
So far, the dig has identified the location of eight victims – some of whose remains were beneath more recent burials or beside cemetery plots sold to unsuspecting residents – and more than 100 previously unidentified unmarked graves. Another excavation is planned next month.
The Herrin clash occurred amid a nationwide coal strike by the United Mine Workers of America and followed deadly strikes in West Virginia and southern Colorado.
With the help of armed guards from a Chicago private detective agency, Southern Illinois Coal Co. owner W. J. Lester defied the strike that had idled nearly three dozen other local mines and hired replacement workers – still sometimes called scabs in the Herrin area – for his above-ground strip mine between Herrin and the town of Marion.
On June 21, 1922, three union workers were killed in a shootout between the mine guards and strikers. Strikers surrounded the mine the next day and the local sheriff, himself an ex-miner, ignored calls to summon the Illinois National Guard. He assured the 50 to 60 strikebreakers – badly outnumbered and fearing for their lives – of safe passage out of town once they surrendered.
Instead, the captives were forced on a miles-long march, lined up along a barbed-wire fence and then told to run for their lives as the mob opened fire. Some of those who managed to escape were lynched, others had to crawl on their hands and knees while bound together. Several were killed at the Herrin cemetery where they'd later be unceremoniously buried.
A subsequent coroner's inquest determined that the strikebreakers were killed by "parties unknown" and blamed their death on the coal company. Two trials were held, but no one was convicted.
The victims were from far and wide: Manhattan and Brooklyn, New York; Boston, Chicago, Russia and Slovakia.
Among those named on the new monument is Robert Anderson, a mine guard who was a 25-year-old World War I veteran from Sparta, Michigan. He was shot, hung from a tree and then riddled by bullets, according to Eastern Illinois geologist Steven Di Naso.
"He wasn't a hero," said nephew Chuck Anderson, a retired family doctor in suburban Atlanta. "I don't think he had much of a political sense of what he was doing [as a strikebreaker]. It was a job. ... But he didn't get his life or his contributions acknowledged."
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