Polish American Journal, August 1997
by Thomas Duszak
On Friday, September 10, 1897, the worst tragedy in United States labor history occurred. It happened as a result of a strike started by immigrant coal miners in Lattimer, outside Hazleton, Luzerne County, Pennsylvania. The miners were seeking higher wages and redress of their grievances. Just three months earlier, on June 15, 1897, Pennsylvania Governor Daniel H. Hastings had signed Act No.139 which levied a tax of three cents per day on corporations employing one or more foreign-born unnaturalized male persons over twenty-one years of age for each day these men were employed.
Irregular work schedules and coercion to purchase from the company store at inflated prices were other issues which led to the strike. In an effort to expand the strike, a group of four hundred men marched peacefully from Harwood to Lattimer to prompt their fellow workers to join a work stoppage. On the outskirts of Lattimer they encountered Luzerne County Sheriff James Martin and his eighty-six deputies.
The sheriff approached the marchers and ordered them to halt, disperse, and return to their homes. The marchers, who were unarmed, did not understand English. When the sheriff's directive was not followed, the deputies, without warning, raised their rifles, aimed at the strikers, and fired. The slaughter left nineteen dead. Among the dead and wounded were twenty-six Poles, twenty Slovaks, and five Lithuanians.
The Lattimer slaughter was denounced in newspapers around the country. The Hazleton Daily Standard headline read "Yesterday's Butchery--A Mob of Heartless Deputies Fire Into a Throng of Marchers and Accomplish Deadly Work. "Other headlines read:
"Strikers March to Death," New York Tribune
"Laid Low by Bullets, the Men Fell Like Sheep Before the Murderous Winchesters of the Officials," Detroit Free Press
"Dead in Heaps, Deputies Fire on Miners at Lattimer, Penn., Men Were Huddled Closely and Slaughter Was Terrific," Boston Daily Globe
A headline in the Slovak newspaper, Amerikansko Slovenske Noviny, read "Massacre of Slavs—In the Freest Country Under the Sun People Are Shot Like Dogs—Slavs Are the Victims of American Savagery."
Ed Pinkowski first wrote about the Lattimer Massacre in his book of the same name in 1950. This is the same Ed Pinkowski who recently uncovered the truth about the burial site of General Casimir Pulaski. Michael Novak's The Guns of Lattimer, released in its second edition in 1996, and George L. Turner's chapter 10, in Hard Coal, Hard Times: Ethnicity and Labor in the Anthracite Region also tell the story.
On Friday, September 12, 1997, a new historical marker was dedicated at 2:00 p.m. on Route 924 in Harwood. A commemorative procession through Lattimer at 3:30 p.m. followed.
The most famous native son of the Lattimer area is Jack Palance, who won the Academy Award for best supporting actor for his performance as the ranch hand Curly in the 1991 film "City Slickers." His father worked as a miner for thirty-nine years until he died from black lung disease in 1955. The Palance family lived in a company house and were compelled to shop at the local company store where prices were 30% higher than in regular shops.
It is rumored that Palance, who was born Walter Palahnuik in Lattimer on February 18, 1921, would be at the commemoration. This is not unlikely, since he still maintains his roots in the Luzerne Valley. He owns a large tract of land which he uses as a retreat from the hubbub of Hollywood.
Jack Palance has considered adapting the story of the Lattimer Massacre to the screen. One of the characters who would have to be cast in his screenplay is Father Richard Aust, who vilified the sheriff and his deputies in a fiery sermon at the funerals for the miners held at St. Stanislaus Church in Hazleton.
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