Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Sheriff James Martin of Luzerne County in Pennsylvania was vacationing in Atlantic City, New Jersey, when he received an important telegram on Saturday, September 4, 1897, from George Wall, his deputy. The message indicated that Superintendent Lathrop of the Lehigh Valley Coal Company requested the sheriff’s presence at Hazleton to deal with a deteriorating strike situation that was spreading among the anthracite coal operators in the Lehigh region. No one anticipated that events from this strike would cul­minate in a carnage of blood and death – a tragedy known as the “Lattimer Massacre.” It became the most serious act of labor violence in Pennsylvania’s history and nationally one of the most devastating, in which public authorities were responsible for killing nineteen and wounding thirty­-eight striking immigrant coal miners.

Eastern and southern European immigrants, the dominant group among the mine workers in the late 1890’s, were the initiators of the strike starting in mid-August against the Lehigh and Wilkes-Barre Coal Company. The strikers’ griev­ances were real and depicted the plight of the late nine­teenth century mine laborer: low wages, irregular work from frequent lay-offs, exploitation by the coal companies’ dominance over their lives (the company store, butcher, doctor, and housing) and coercion to purchase their blast­ing powder and other mining supplies at higher prices from the collieries where they worked. Other vexing issues in­cluded such discriminatory practices against immigrants as the state law that levied a three-cent tax per day on all alien adult male workers, the miners examination law and its administration by local Anglo-Saxon miners who made it difficult to obtain a miner’s certificate, which was neces­sary in order to work in the mines, and pay that often was lower than Anglo-Saxons doing the same work. Finally, the widespread non-compliance by coal companies to the semi-monthly wage payment law that required employers to pay their employees in lawful money every two weeks. Culmination of these factors produced a wellspring of re­sentment, discontent, and antagonism among immigrant mine workers, causing them to become militant. The immi­grants lacked the support of the Anglo-Saxon workers in this strike. The United Mine Workers of America in its in fancy showed little interest in including the immigrants in its ranks; consequently, the immigrants had only one recourse – assert their own interests by going on strike to seek a redress of their grievances.

Concern grew as each day passed without a settlement. Fearing the possibility of a serious impasse and that events could become volatile, a Hazleton newspaper, Daily Standard, called upon the coal operators to avoid being obstinate and meet their workers halfway. Daily, groups of strikers marched from one colliery to another, seeking to persuade those working to join the strike; some responded willingly and others only after cajoling or intimidation. Anxiety increased among the coal operators as the strikers were having success in disrupting mining operations. It was at this point that Lathrop had sent his urgent appeal for Sheriff Martin to come to Hazleton.

After returning to Wilkes-Barre, the sheriff held a Mon­day morning conference concerning the strike with Lathrop, Superintendent Stearns of Cross Creek Coal Company, and Superintendent Lawall of Lehigh & Wilkes-Barre Coal Company before proceeding to Hazleton. It is important to note that the sheriff went to Hazleton not at the request of any elected or appointed public official such as police offi­cial, justice of peace, or mayor, nor upon his arrival did he confer with any of these public officials concerning the strike. Instead, upon arriving at Hazleton, he conferred with Mr. Zerby, assistant superintendent of the Lehigh Valley Coal Company, and Mr. Platt, superintendent of Calvin Pardee & Company Store. Naturally, these two individuals held views concerning the strike that reflected their companies’ vested interests. By this time, officials of the coal operators had made it abundantly clear to Martin that they would hold him personally responsible if he were unable to prevent the strikers from disrupting mining operations. With this kind of pressure, the sheriff decided not to investigate and review the situation with other people having dif­ferent perspectives in order to ascertain objectively senti­ments and facts related to the strike.

After his conference with Zerby and Platt, Martin decided to organize a posse comitatus. Creation of a posse must be based upon circumstances as defined in law in which a state of disorder exists, consisting of a riot or the threat of a riot in which life and property are in jeopardy. Again Martin’s assessment that these conditions existed rested solely upon information given to him by representatives of coal companies. Adhering to their recommendation, he appointed Thomas Hall, a prominent Hazleton businessman whose occupation involved selling blasting powder to coal companies, as his chief deputy. At the Hazleton Machinery Supply Company Store, a concern in­volved in coal mining, eighty-seven men were sworn in as sheriff’s deputies and members of the posse with nearly all them directly or indirectly earning their living from coal companies. All but one deputy had surnames indicating Irish, English, or German heritage, the majority were members of prominent families and relatives of coal operators, many were young, several had attended college and were engineers or held managerial positions in coal companies. Others were businessmen and a few were laborers. The deputies were supplied with rifles and shotguns from G. B. Markle & Company, a coal operator, at a warehouse owned by A. Pardee & Company, another coal operator, and were dispensed under the direction of Mr. Platt. Since the coal operators were responsible for requesting the sheriff to come to Hazleton and to organize a posse, they also agreed to assume the costs for expenses incurred by the deputies. Another service available to the sheriff and his deputies was a special trolley car provided by Lehigh Traction Company upon orders of Mr. Zerby so they could have unimpeded transportation to move about the coal fields.

Martin then contacted Sheriffs Scott and Stetzer of Schuylkill and Carbon Counties, respectively, since the main source of strike agitation came from men employed at mines south of Hazleton in the area where the three counties had a common boundary. After consulting with each other, the three law officers issued separate proclama­tions admonishing people “… from all tumultuous and un­lawful assembly, and from all acts of disorder or violence, and from all acts interfering with the liberty of other citizens or tending to a breach of the peace.” Included in the proclamation was the state riot act of 1860 describing illegal activities and penalties. Sheriff Martin’s decision to issue the proclamation made it appear that he felt condi­tions were turbulent, disorderly, and warranted the organi­zation of a posse; yet on the same day he chose to spend a leisurely afternoon attending the bicycle races at Hazleton.

The following morning, Tuesday, September 7, Sheriff Martin upon learning that a group of strikers planned to shut down the Crystal Ridge Colliery took a number of deputies to the site and prevented them from accomplishing their goal. News of this intervention by the sheriff either had not spread, or if it had, did not awe other strikers from descending on the New Ebervale Coal Company Colliery and closing it down. The strikers then went to the stripping area of Calvin Pardee & Company at Lattimer hoping to repeat their success earlier in the day. However, some of the deputies were already at Lattimer to prevent any disruption. When they appeared, officers fired warning shots into the air dispersing them.

The remaining days prior to the tragedy at Lattimer found Sheriff Martin and his deputies constantly transvers­ing the coal fields from one colliery to another checking the strikers’ movements. With each passing encounter the level of exasperation and tension between law officers and immigrant workers on strike began to rise. A Hazleton news­paper again reflected a growing concern over lack of a strike settlement and a possible serious confrontation: “The strike can be settled within twenty-four hours, and without bloodshed, if the operators will act fair and honest with their men.” Martin apparently tee ling some frustrations and reservations over his efforts to deal with the strikers told Frank Pardee, head of A. Pardee & Company, ” … that while the strikers simply confine themselves to talking to the men quietly and persuading them to quit, it was none of my business and I had no right to interfere.” Regardless of whatever doubts he may have had, Martin did not forego his efforts to curb the strikers, for if he had, he knew per­fectly well that he would have problems with the coal operators.

Striking employees of Calvin Pardee & Company at Harwood felt that in order to win they had to shut down the company’s operation at Lattimer, which had failed earlier. News came to Harwood strikers that their fellow employees at Lattimer were anxious to join them if only they would come over to the colliery; this appeal stimulated their determination. The Harwood miners’ meeting on Thursday evening to make plans to march to Lattimer the next day heard their leaders caution them to go without guns or any other kind of weapons, to harm no one nor to destroy any property, and to keep the peace. On the next day, Friday, September 10, around noon some 250 strikers, consisting almost exclusively of immigrant workers, started their ill-fated mission to Lattimer. As the march proceeded, some seventy-five to one hundred additional strikers joined their ranks. At the edge of West Hazleton around two o’clock, they were stopped by the town’s chief of police who told them not to march through the community but to take a route on the outskirts to Lattimer to avoid any trouble. It was at this point that Sheriff Martin and a few of his men arrived and sought to stop the marchers from proceeding. A confrontation ensued between peace officers and the strikers; one striker was arrested, another had his arm broken by a deputy, many had guns thrust in their faces, the American flag they were carrying was destroyed, and there was an exchange of blasphemous name calling. Martin read his proclamation containing the riot act and ordered them to cease their march. Disregarding the direc­tive as an unwarranted attempt to prohibit them from using the public highway and undaunted from the encounter, the marchers left for Lattimer. Martin and his deputies outnumbered and exhausted from the episode gave up trying to halt them from going to their destination.

Adding to the tension and bitterness were the ominous threats attributed to the peace officers against the strikers. Bitter and blasphemous exchanges occurred between the opposing factions.

Sheriff Martin, realizing the futility of his efforts, re­turned to Hazleton, summoned his entire force of depu­ties, and told them to take their arms and board the trolley to Lattimer so they could prevent the strikers from stop­ping the Pardee mining operations. Arriving a few minutes after three o’clock, the posse stationed themselves on the road as it entered Lattimer from the south. Before the marchers appeared, the deputies ordered a woman to go into her house on the likelihood that some shooting might occur. Shortly after the deputies were in place, the marchers came up the public highway in an orderly array. There was every reason to suspect that the deputies were fully aware that the miners were unarmed. As they approached the law offi­cers who were standing parallel to the road, the sheriff stepped out and walked toward the marchers with the intention of learning what they planned to do. Martin indicated that ” … if they are not going to do anything, I may let them go on, and we will go along with them.” He ordered them to halt about forty or fifty yards from the armed deputies. The front of the column slowed as the sheriff approached and asked them what they intended to do. The sheriff reported they said, “We stop Lattimer Mines.” He then proceeded to read his proclamation in English, which many of them could not understand, while at the same time the rear of the column kept pushing forward. Within a few minutes a fracas broke out between the sheriff and some twenty strikers at the side of the road when he attempted to seize and arrest one of the men. At this point the deputies aimed and fired directly into the ranks of the strikers. The exploding crescendo of Win­chesters created a bloody massacre with the sound of shrieks and moaning of the dying and wounded lying in agony. One newspaper described the scene: “It was a human slaughter in which men were mowed down like grain stalks before a scythe, by the deadly bullets which stormed for fully two minutes. The blood of the dead and dying soaked the dusty road and flowed in streams through the ditch.” The murderous volley created a human carnage taking the lives of nineteen immigrants and leaving thirty­-eight wounded; eleven men died at Lattimer with the re­maining eight dying at the Hazleton Hospital. Dr. Keller, a physician at the hospital, stated that many of the victims were shot in the back and this was also confirmed by one of the morticians.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, peace officers and strikers gave contradictory versions as to what actually hap­pened. The sheriff and his deputies maintained that the strikers were a vicious and desperate mob bent on doing violence to them and the private property of coal operators. The strikers rejected this idea and gave a different ac­count of what transpired which was also supported by many bystanders who witnessed the shooting. They maintained that the sheriff did not read his proclamation, had threatened different marchers by pointing his revolver at them, was not assaulted, and ordered his deputies to fire their weapons. Furthermore, none of the marchers carried any firearms and they were not on the private property of the coal operators but on a public thoroughfare. Henry Hoyt, United States Assistant Attorney, concluded in his investigative report on the Lattimer shooting that the marchers were peaceful and not riotous in their behavior.

The Lattimer shooting quickly became a major national news story for several days. Newspapers made the announcement to their readers in bold headlines: “Yesterday’s Butchery, A Mob of Heartless Deputies Fire Into a Throng of Miners and Accomplish Deadly Work”; “Strikers Shot in Cold Blood”; “Homestead Battle Thrown in the Shade”; and “Laid Low By Bullets, The Men Fell Like Sheep Before the Murderous Winchesters of the Officials.” The issue also became the subject of numerous editorials in newspapers throughout the country either condemning or exonerating the actions of the sheriff and his deputies. In the Wilkes-Barre Leader the editorial writer declared: “The affair at Hazleton yesterday is one of those terrible catastrophes the news of which simply stuns the community and paralyses for a moment the power of thought.”

Community pressure and outrage mounted to the point that the law officers were finally arrested ten days after the shooting and charged with murder. the Luzerne County grand jury in October indicted Sheriff Martin and eighty-three deputies for murdering those killed at Lattimer and they came to trial on February 1, 1898. A major point in the case was whether the strike had evolved into such a threatening situation as to be riotous, warranting the law officers to fire upon the strikers to insure and maintain law and order. After hearing testimony for five weeks from nearly two hundred witnesses, the jury handed down a verdict absolving Sheriff Martin and his deputies of any crimi­nal conduct in the Lattimer massacre.


George A. Turner is Associate Professor of History at Bloomsburg State College.