On the morning of April 20, 1914, agents of the Baldwin-Felts detective agency along with Colorado national guardsmen massed on a ridge overlooking a tent city of hundreds of coal miners and their families that occupied the plain below – roughly a half mile from the village of Ludlow, Colorado. They came armed, with some men on horseback but with others setting up machine gun positions able to sweep over the encampment. Inside the thin cotton tents some 1200 men, women and children stirred and began their day as they had throughout the preceding months. during one of the coldest Colorado winters in recent memory.
The miners and their families had been living in the tents since John D. Rockefeller’s Colorado Coal and Fuel company along with 2 other coal operators had thrown them out of company houses in September of the previous fall. The companies had refused the demands of the miners and a strike/lockout had begun. The coal companies had hoped the brutal cold and isolation of the winter would break the striker’s resolve and end the confrontation.
Throughout the cold months, there had been skirmishes, with the Baldwin-Felts agents firing shots into the camp, wounding and on occasion killing strikers. With the arrival of spring, it became apparent that the miners and their families would be able to hold out for much longer, perhaps indefinitely.
The morning had begun with the strike’s organizer, Louis Tikas, being lured out of the camp to a meeting with the militia’s leader on the pretext of negotiating the release of two men who were supposedly wanted by authorities Tikas, who had dealt with the captain many times before, sensed something amiss during the meeting and cut it short, rushing back to his people in the tent city. As he returned, the Baldwin-Felts agents opened fire, sending a terrifying hail of soft-point bullets ripping through the fabric of the tents. So began the bloodiest and deadliest labor battle America has ever seen.
By today’s standards, the striker’s demands seem tame:
1. Recognition of the union as bargaining agent
2. An increase in tonnage rates (equivalent to a 10% wage increase)
3. Enforcement of the eight-hour work day law
4. Payment for “dead work” (laying track, timbering, handling impurities, etc.)
5. Weight-checkmen elected by the workers (to keep company weightmen honest)
6. The right to use any store, and choose their boarding houses and doctors
7. Strict enforcement of Colorado’s laws (such as mine safety rules, abolition of scrip), and an end to the company guard system
The nascent United Mine Workers of America had done their best in preparation for the strike. They leased land for the encampment and built the tents on wood platforms. They provided as much support as they were able, including their most potent asset, Mary Harris Jones.
Before being known as a magazine, Mother Jones was notorious as a fiery organizer and activist – referred to at times as the most dangerous woman in America. She galvanized support and attention on the striker’s plight and during her visits brought together the immigrant women, wives of the miners, bridging divides of culture and language that the coal operators hoped would keep them separate.
The cost of militia patrols were mounting for the state of Colorado and the governor was growing tired of the standoff at Ludlow and other mines. The cost of the private detectives bore heavily on Rockefeller’s coffers as well. The pressure for a quick resolution to the conflict was mounting. It was in this atmosphere that the battle was sparked.
The gunfire continued through the entire day – 14 hours. The strikers had dug pits beneath the tents to protect them from the sniper fire that had plagued them all winter. The militia and detectives picked off some of the men, but most of the camp was able to take shelter beneath the tents. At one point a passing train gave some of the strikers cover and a few fled to the nearby hills. As night approached at 7:00 pm the militiamen descended on horseback into the camp.
Using paraffin and torches, they set fire to the tents. In the ensuing pandemonium numerous of the miners were gunned down. Beneath one of the tents, which functioned as a nursery, nearly a dozen children, many of them infants, and two of the women taking take of them, suffocated and burned to death.
Tikas had stayed on in the camp to the end, and was rounded up along with other union organizers. One of the officers of the militia was seen to break his gunstock over Tikas’ head. Shortly after, Tikas was killed and for the next three days his body lay in the field were he died. Finally, railroad workers recovered the remains, He was found to have been shot in the back.
Estimates differ, but at least twenty-five people were dead by the end of the day.
This is the account of the massacre from the New York Times:
The Ludlow camp is a mass of charred debris, and buried beneath it is a story of horror imparalleled [sic] in the history of industrial warfare. In the holes which had been dug for their protection against the rifles’ fire the women and children died like trapped rats when the flames swept over them. One pit, uncovered [the day after the massacre] disclosed the bodies of 10 children and two women.
Here is John D. Rockefeller Jr’s account of events:
There was no Ludlow massacre. The engagement started as a desperate fight for life by two small squads of militia against the entire tent colony … There were no women or children shot by the authorities of the State or representatives of the operators … While this loss of life is profoundly to be regretted, it is unjust in the extreme to lay it at the door of the defenders of law and property, who were in no slightest way responsible for it.
And here, at some length because of the eloquence and power of her words, is what Mother Jones had to say in her autobiography
No one listened. No one cared. The tickers in the offices of 26 Broadway sounded louder than the sobs of women and children. Men in the steam heated luxury of Broadway offices could not feel the stinging cold of Colorado hill-sides where families lived in tents.
Then came Ludlow and the nation heard. Little children roasted alive make a front page story. Dying by inches of starvation and exposure does not.
On the 19th of April, 1914, machine guns, used on the strikers in the Paint Creek strike, were placed in position above the tent colony of Ludlow. Major Pat Hamrock and Lieutenant K. E. Linderfelt were in charge of the militia, the majority of whom were, company gun-men sworn in as soldiers.
Early in the morning soldiers approached the colony with a demand from headquarters that Louis Tikas, leader of the Greeks, surrender two Italians. Tikas demanded a warrant for their arrest. They had none. Tikas refused to surrender them. The soldiers returned to quarters. A signal bomb was fired. Then another. Immediately the machine guns began spraying the flimsy tent colony, the only home the wretched families of the miners had, riddling it with bullets. Like iron rain, bullets’ upon men, women and children.
The women and children fled to the hills. Others tarried. The men defended their home with their guns. All day long the firing continued. Men fell dead, their faces to the ground. Women dropped. The little Snyder boy was shot through the head, trying to save his kitten. A child carrying water to his dying mother was killed.
By five o’clock in the afternoon, the miners had no more food, nor water, nor ammunition. They had to retreat with their wives and little ones into the hills. Louis Tikas was riddled with shots while he tried to lead women and children to safety. They perished with him.
Night came. A raw wind blew down the canyons where men, women and children shivered and wept. Then a blaze lighted the sky. The soldiers, drunk with blood and with the liquor they had looted from the saloon, set fire to the tents of Ludlow with oil-soaked torches. The tents, all the poor furnishings, the clothes and bedding of the miners’ families burned. Coils of barbed wire were stuffed into the well, the miners’ only water supply.
After it was over, the wretched people crept back to bury their dead. In a dugout under a burned tent, the charred bodies of eleven little children and two women were found-unrecognizable. Everything lay in ruins. The wires of bed springs writhed on the ground as if they, too, had tried to flee the horror. Oil and fire and guns had robbed men and women and children of their homes and slaughtered tiny babies and defenseless women.
What is the aftermath of Ludlow? In the days that followed, news of the murder of women and children touched off violent confrontation throughout the neighboring mines, in what became known as the Colorado Coalfield War. More than fifty people lost their lives.
A congressional commission was empaneled to investigate the incident, and from that reforms like the eight-hour work day and the end of the use of company scrip as payment followed.
Twenty-two national guardsman were court-marshaled, but all but one were acquitted. Lt. Karl Linderfelt, the officer who struck Louis Tikas over the head, was found guilty of assault, but was given only a light reprimand.
With their belongings and temporary homes destroyed, the miners tried to hold on, but the strike ended after some weeks.
The United Mineworkers bought the land at the site of the massacre, close by the town of Trinity Colorado, and erected a small monument. In the field where the tent city stood, even after one hundred years, you can still dig up what is left of the strikers belongings, rotting in the dirt.
Rockefeller formed a “company union” in the hopes of quelling unrest. He also hired a well-known reporter, Ivy Lee who, assisted by the Edward Bernays, began the practice of public relations and damaged image control. Judging by the lack of knowledge of the Ludlow massacre, this effort was spectacularly successful.
And so it is important, no vital, to honor the dead and to remember. To recall that time, not so long ago, when the words “class warfare” were more than a Fox News talking point. To know that once class warfare involved actual gunfire, instigated largely by men in the employ of companies to defend merely their profits.
It is vital also to understand that the current crop of billionaires is no less desperate and craven. Make no mistake – they care no more in 2014 than they did in 1914 about the lives of people they are eager to exploit. Just ask the workers at the Upper Big Branch mine or the crop pickers in Immokalee, Florida.
Mary Harris Jones said it best, as she so often did:
Pray for the dead – and fight like hell for the living.