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Saturday, September 12, 2009

The Herrin Massacre

The Herrin massacre has been immortalized in the words to a song by Jerry Swan (I think that's his name), a folk artist currently living in Missouri. If you don't know the story, you can pretty much figure it out by listening to the song here, which I highly recommend either way. (Via the Illinois History Blog.)

The Herrin massacre stemmed from a long strike by mine workers in Southern Illinois. The riots lasted from June 21 to 22, 1922. The short version of the story can be found in the wiki article. The details of the aftermath were heavily covered by the New York Times. (And, probably a lot of other papers, but the NYT's are all online and easily searchable.) I've included just a few here.

SEEKS PRIVATE FUND FOR HERRIN INQUIRY; Illinois Commerce Chamber Asks for $25,400 to Aid Attorney General Brundage.SAYS STATE IS ON TRIAL Steps for Prosecution Hampered byGovernor Small's Cut inan Appropriation.

Special to The New York Times.
CHICAGO, Aug. 15.--An appeal for funds to enable Attorney General Brundage to continue and extend his investigation of the Herrin massacre was issued today by the Illinois Chamber of Commerce. It was sent to the 102 city organizations that constitute the State chamber, to each of which was assigned the quota that it was requested to raise.
The chamber set $25,000 as the minimum to be raised, but its officers hope that as much as $100,000 will be made available if needed.
Attorney General Brundage has been conducting his investigation quietly for several weeks, but has been hampered by lack of funds for the employment of detectives and attorneys. Governor Small's veto of a large part of his appropriation left him barely enough for the routine duties of his office, which do not include criminal investigations and prosecutions.
The letter sent out by John H. Camlin of Rockford, President of the Chamber of Commerce, reads in part as follows:
"On June 22, 1922, in Williamson County, Ill., a score of men, unarmed and with their hands high above their heads were slain in cold blood, their only offense being that they dared make an honest living by working in the strip coal mines situated between the towns of Marion and Herrin. According to the best evidence obtainable, they were set upon by a well armed mob of more than 1,000 person, to whom they unconditionally surrendered, and were tied together, insulted and subjected to physical torture before being shot.
"Notwithstanding the heinousness of the offense in itself and the disrepute into which it has brought the State of Illinois, there is the additional circumstance that, although hundreds of persons were witnesses to the slaughter, not one single arrest has been made and, so far as the rest of the world has been able to find, no effort of any character has been made by the authorities of Williamson County to bring any recognized formula of justice to bear on the situation."
The letter then states that as it is customary for chambers of commerce to take the lead in situations involving the welfare and good name of their respective States, it is desired to pave the way for a real inquiry into the massacre.
"In this emergency," the letter continues, "the State of Illinois is on trial. Our citizens visiting elsewhere have been compelled to hang their heads in shame. The world is asking us, 'What are you going to do about it?' We belive the only possible answer is that the business men of this State will contribute of their funds to the utmost in order to prove to the world that justice still reigns and that human life is safe in Illinois."

About a week later, President Warren G. Harding sent the following letter to Mr. Camlin, as reprinted in the New York Times:

My Dear Mr. Camlin: I have your telegram of Aug. 19, and note with genuine interest the activities of your association to see that justice is done in Williamson County.
I was not aware of the activities which are under way to establish justice in that community. I had only the public view of a horrible crime which has thus far been ignored. It is a gratifying thing to know that there is a determination that justice shall be done. It was extremely necessary to refer to the affair in my address to Congress because the general public did not seem to know that the Federal Government was powerless to act in the matter, and it was unbearable to have a widespread impression that the Federal Government was willing or purposely ignoring that inexcusable crime.
There is, of course, a conscience in Illinois which will not tolerate such a disgraceful thing. It will be very pleasing to me and reassuring to the whole country to know that this conscience is finding expressing.
Very truly yours, WARREN G. HARDING.

MILLIONS FOR BAIL IN HERRIN MASSACRE; Eighty-six Business Men Tender Fortunes--Court Takes $421,000, Releases 36 Men.EIGHT HELD WITHOUT BAIL These Are Charged as Ringleaders in Murder--Trials Are Likely to Begin in October.

Special to The New York Times.
MARION, Ill., Sept. 25.--A demonstration of the power of the miners' union in Williamson County and the sympathy with men accused of murder in the Herrin massacre felt by a responsible community was staged in the Court House this afternoon, when thirty-five defendants were arraigned and their bonds guaranteed by the offer of sureties worth in the aggregate $10,000,000.
Eighty-six men, including most of Herrin's business community, stepped forward. They offered bonds to the extent of $3,000,000. Some of the sureties are worth little, others are millionaires. An agreement was reached between attorneys, ratified by the court, in which eight men were held unbailable. Six obtained freedom on $20,000 bonds, twenty more were bonded at $10,000 and eighteen at $5,000 each. In addition, eleven men are out on bonds at $1,000 on rioting charges, making a total bail of $421,000.
The eight men held without bail are Otis Clark, Bert Grace, James Brown, Lova Mann, Philip Fontanetta, Peter Hiller, Oscar Howard and Jess Childers. These were the men found by the Grand Jury to be the leaders in the riots. They were in court today, with the exception of Howard and Childers, who have not been apprehended.
Clark is a serious-looking, middle-aged miner who wears glasses. He was building a new home when he was arrested. Since then carpenters have donated their services. Brown is a negro who might lead in psalm singing. Fontanetta is a badly freightened young Italian. Hiller is a rough-looking youth with a bullet-shaped head. Mann is a clean-looking intellectual chap. Grace is a prosperous looking citizen who held a cigar in his mouth during the proceedings.

One more time: The song.

Posted by Marie at September 12, 2009 8:37 PM


A friend who grew up in Williamson County (a place known once as "Bloody Williamson") loaned me an excellent book on the massacre and other events down there: "War in Illinois," by Paul Angle.

Posted by: Dan at September 14, 2009 12:02 AM

Thanks, Dan. I will check that out.

Posted by: Marie at September 14, 2009 2:18 AM

Also instructive: A visit down to the Union Miners Cemetery in Mount Olive -- just a hoot and a holler down the road from you. Interesting to see the list of union miners killed in clashes with the operators.

Posted by: Dan at September 14, 2009 10:55 AM

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