Williamson County Massacre of 1922
Mine owners were alarmed by union organization as early as 1865, when the American Miners’ Association boasted 22,000 members, almost half of all miners. Deadly gun battles opposing strikebreakers occurred in 1898 at Virden, near Springfield, with nineteen killed, at Cambria and Carterville in 1899, and at Ziegler in 1904.
The 1922 Williamson County Massacre was one of the most violent labor disputes. While waging a nationwide strike, the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) nevertheless allowed members of a steam shovel union to remove dirt from the top of the coal bed at the Southern Illinois Coal Company, a strip mine between Herrin and Marion. The UMWA allowed the mine to remain open as long as it refrained from shipping coal.
Faced with massive debts and lured by the increasing value of coal as the strike wore on, mine owner W. J. Lester violated his agreement with the union and fired the union workers. He hired mine guards and African American workers from Chicago without telling them that they would be strikebreakers. On June 16, 1922, Lester shipped out sixteen railroad cars loaded with coal.
On June 21, 1922, as the strikebreakers were traveling to the mine, they were engaged in a gun fight that killed one of the strikebreakers and two strikers, mortally wounding a third. Union men from surrounding counties gathered guns and ammunition as they converged on the mine.
Outnumbered, the men inside the mine agreed to stop work in exchange for safe passage out of the county. On the morning of June 22, over fifty workers surrendered. While marching the workers toward Herrin, the mob murdered the elderly, handicapped superintendent in revenge for the deaths of the strikers. They lined up the strikebreakers against a barbed wire fence and told them to run for their lives, then opened fire. Some were shot to death or mortally wounded as they tried to climb over the fence, while those who managed to escape into the woods were hunted down. The mob marched captured men to a cemetery and executed them. Most of the survivors were severely injured.
Since ninety percent of the region belonged to the union, sympathetic jurors acquitted the first of 214 indictments, and the rest were dropped. However, the union failed to achieve a new contract and national condemnation of the massacre led many to leave the union, diminishing its power.