In the late summer of 1900, the United Mine Workers of America launched a strike that grew to impact most of the mining communities in Northeastern Pennsylvania. The mineworkers’ union, led by John Mitchell, attempted to negotiate with the largest coal operators to secure higher wages and recognition of the union by the mining and railroad corporations. The operators flatly refused and so a strike began.
As the strike got underway, a correspondent for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch arrived in Northeastern Pennsylvania to report on the impact of the strike upon mineworkers and their families. Olivia Howard Dunbar worked as a reporter in New York and took on assignments for publications that sent her across the United States. While she would later gain renown for her short stories and ghostly fictional tales, Dunbar’s reporting in 1900 is a fascinating window into how a mine strike impacted the families living in the patch towns and villages of Northeastern Pennsylvania.
On September 27, 1900, ten days after the 1900 Coal Strike began, Dunbar telegraphed this story to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. It tells two stories. First, she interviewed John Mitchell to unearth his views on the importance of women in the labor movement. She sat down with him in Hazleton to probe him about why he viewed miners’ families as crucial to the success of the UMWA. Secondly, she traveled to the outskirts of Hazleton to the tiny patch town of Lattimer to ask those very same women how they felt about the union, Mitchell’s views, and about their lives in a patch town. Lattimer, Dunbar knew, would be remembered by readers as the place where three years earlier, striking mineworkers were gunned down on the outskirts of the village leaving at least 19 dead and dozens more wounded. The interviews paint a searing picture of desperate lives where workers and their families barely eke out survival, indebted to the companies that had ensnared and, ultimately, dehumanized them.
A note on the interviews – while she doesn’t mention it in the article, it is likely the names Dunbar used in the second half of her article are pseudonyms used to protect workers’ families from retribution by the Pardee Company, one of the many mine operators in Northeastern Pennsylvania. A look through the 1900 census in Lattimer and in surrounding Luzerne County communities reveals no one with the names here mentioned. What becomes clear, however, in looking through those same census records and other data points, is that the women interviewed by Dunbar were far from alone in their dire straits in the summer and early fall of 1900.
From the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, September 27, 1900:
Wives of Miners a Potent Element in Winning Strike
President Mitchell Pays High Tribute to the Work Done by Women in the Coal Region
By Olivia Howard Dunbar
Only Women Correspondent in the Anthracite Coal Strike Region
Hazleton, Pa., Sept. 27 –
“I want the women to use every means – every lawful means – in their power to help the men win this strike,” said President John Mitchell to me today.
I had reminded him of what the women are already doing – how they have closed collieries, shamed non-union men and encouraged strikes; how they have resolutely taken up their own burden and helped their husbands support theirs; and how armies of them have gained their points by using such weapons of persuasion as lay at hand.
“Do you approve or discourage the part taken by the wives of the miners in these skirmishes?” I asked him.
Mr. Mitchell thought a moment. It is not his habit to speak impulsively. Then, very deliberately he made the remark quoted above.
From which it is plain that the women who have taken an active part in strengthening the strikers may consider themselves indorsed by the president of the union.
Mr. Mitchell made no qualifications of his statement. He remembered when he made it that many women, frenzied by long, dumb endurance and by terror lest the present fight be lost, have not stopped at violence. But, knowing the hard school in which these wives and mothers have learned their wisdom, he believes that he can trust them. His message is one simply of encouragement.
An Apostle of the Miners
Mr. Mitchell had still more to say about the wives of the anthracite miners. While he said it I watched him.
He is a somber figure, dressed wholly in black, and singularly grave in manner for so young a man. The impression that he makes is composite. His sedate dress, spectacles and squarely trimmed black hair give him somewhat the air of a country clergyman; his face if the student’s – clear cut, with a serious mouth, and high, not full brow, while his voice suggests that this responsibility-weighted young man might have made a good actor had he not chosen the thousand-fold more difficult career of apostle of the miners.
This voice of his is not only exceptionally good as an element of oratory, but remarkably winning as an element of persuasive power that has helped to make John Mitchell a national figure rather than simply one of thousands of miners.
His manner is deferential, which would not distinguish him from the humblest miner, for I find that ignorant Slav or Italian, unable to speak English and with no means of knowing why a strange woman has entered his home, is courtesy itself, but it is also extremely grave, which does distinguish him.
His subordinates in the management of the strike are cheerful on principle. Mr. Mitchell does not appear to rid himself for an instant of the oppressive sense of his responsibility.
The misery and the poverty and the strain of a strike season he realizes as clearly as any of these heartsick women, and he grew very earnest as he spoke of them.
“I know very well,” he said, “that this situation means most to the women. That starvation previous to the strike, or starvation during the strike, affects them first and most deeply.
“They are the child-rearers and the homekeepers. The underpaid miner, who toils for years to find himself worse off than at the beginning has a hard lot, but his wife and children have an infinitely harder one. The miners know that. It is the reason they are striking now.”
They Strike to Aid the Women
“What I expect this strike to do for the women is to relieve them from the necessity of fighting for bread so that they can have a few of the things that ever human being longs for – books to read and pictures to look at.
“First, let them have health and comfort. Then let them have education, and then the innocent pleasures that should be an American birthright.
“All these things should be within their reach today. It’s infamous that they are not.
“Then you know that the bigger pay and the shorter hours a laboring man has, the less he is inclined to drink.
“He drinks usually because he is desperate. But give him the chance to build up a comfortable home and educate his children and he saves his money for that purpose.”
President Mitchell has plans for the miners’ wives. He spoke eagerly as he unfolded them.
“A great deal of credit will be due the women when this strike is won,” he said. “But when it is settled there will be a new responsibility for them.
“I want them everywhere to form auxiliaries to our union. The experience of organizing will be good for them, but its object will be of real importance. They can bind themselves in this way to patronize nothing but union labor. Women are everywhere purchasers. With better wages and the elimination of the company stores they will be able to buy where they like.
“If they insist on goods of union manufacture, the stores will have to meet their demands. And you see how organized labor everywhere will profit.”
Mitchell Talks of His Wife
“Is Mrs. Mitchell active in promoting these reforms?” I asked finally.
Mr. Mitchell’s face lightened for the first time. He smiled almost boyishly and, taking off his spectacles, looked at me in an extremely pleased way.
“Not yet,” he said; then added, proudly, “but she is extremely interested and in entire accord with me on every point.”
Later I visited some of the women Mr. Mitchell had spoken of, believing that there might be something of encouragement in what he had said. But the things he had spoken of in his enthusiasm – health, comfort, schools, libraries, pictures, seemed so remote as to make the mention of them a mockery.
The hardships of the strike are much more serious than they were a week ago. Just how much more these harassed women know in dollars and cents. Some of them have lived through strikes before, and the memory of it is now creeping back to them so vividly that the courage every one of them is showing is harder and harder to maintain.
“I lived through a six months’ strike,” one of them said to me today, shuddering, “and I pray for my babies’ sake that we may end this one soon. I’ve been an old woman ever since that time.”
In Lattimer I found Mrs. Raphael Nalla, a gaunt, weary looking woman, not yet old or even elderly, but showing the marks of privation in her deeply lined face and of excessive work in her rough, distorted hands.
She told me that her husband earned $1.40 a day as fireman in one of the Pardee collieries, and that she had eight children. Her tiny rooms, for which $4.50 rent per month is charged by the Pardee company, were decently kept, but appallingly bare.
An Enthusiastic Poor Woman
I told her something of what Mr. Mitchell had said in praise of the women and asked her if she would like to help on union labor in the way he suggested. I found I had touched, it happened, on a subject which the poor woman felt very deeply.
“Glad to? She said, “Yes, if we ever get out of the clutches of the company store. But we’ve been in them so long we can’t imagine getting out.”
I had thought that I already knew the extent of the company store evil. Mrs. Nalla made it still plainer, and several of her neighbors who heard her added their testimony.
“The worst of it is not that we pay more for what we get,” she said, “or that we get a poor quality of goods, but it is the way we are treated.”
“Not trade with them? Why, every man would get his walking papers the next day.
“I’m in hard luck now because my man was sick for a time. The people at the Pardee store know that, but they won’t trust me. They will neither give me food there nor let me buy it elsewhere.
“The men in the store treat everyone of us women like dogs, so we are almost afraid to go there. If I go and beg for a peck of potatoes – and they are sure to get their money for it – they shout at me that I can’t have it, even if the place is filled with people, and I have to crawl out too ashamed to speak.”
She Could Not Get Much to Eat
“You can see that we cannot have much to eat, even when we don’t get behind on $1.40 a day. But now that we are in debt to the company we haven’t anything but dry bread.
“It’s a month since we have had a scrap of meat. The company butcher laughed at me when I asked him for it. It’s the same way when I go to get flour or coffee at the store. They make us feel like beggars.
“You cannot imagine how we are watched. The Hazleton cars, you see, stop right opposite the store, and if one of us gets off with a bundle of groceries they make it their business to find out where it came from.
“When my husband was sick the doctor said he must have a warm shirt. Poor man, he would never think of buying one for himself. We were a couple of dollars behind at the store, but told one of my little girls to go and buy a shirt. She told the man she wanted it – that her father was sick.
“They refused her, and she came back to me crying. My man had to do without his shirt.”
I begged Mrs. Nella to buy her eight little ones something to eat elsewhere than at the company store and gave her some money which a warm-hearted New York woman had generously sent for this purpose. She took it with the most touching gratitude.
“A lady so far away has thought of us?” she asked wonderingly. “It’s the first time I ever knew anybody to care where a miner’s family starved.”
Sickness One Terrible Possibility
Sickness is probably after all the most terrible possibility that these families have to face.
“Miners’ asthma” is distressingly frequent, and a man who has contracted it dares no longer to work inside the mines, but must work outside for less wages.
A typical instance is the case of Joseph Finski, a Pole, whom I saw today. He looked weak, bent and hopeless, and his wife was tired with the helpless fatigue of a woman who has to provide for nine little children on what is left after the customary deductions have been taken from earnings of $1.15 a day.
“Often Joseph’s too sick to work,” she said, “and when he does he doesn’t make enough to keep us alive. Oh, the neighbors help us, and then we are hoping for some good from the strike.
“If only everybody would join, so they could win before we all starved to death. If I only could make them join!”
And if Mrs. Finski has the courage to endure a strike, then indeed no man, as she says, should confess himself too timid.
OLIVIA HOWARD DUNBAR
Many of the issues addressed in this article wouldn’t be solved by the 1900 coal strike. That would have to wait two more years for a longer and more brutal strike in 1902.
Featured Image: Miners’ families photographed near Hazleton, circa 1900 – Library of Congress