Stop 3: The battle begins

199 N Masterson St Virden

Virden Mine War Tour/Stop 3: The battle begins
Mother Jones Heritage Project
Written By Mother Jones Heritage Project

Mother Jones fearlessly questioned corporate rule and earned the title “the grandmother of all agitators.” She is a figure who lives on because the issues she raised are still of concern to us, still relevant in the twenty-first century.

The crowd at the depot heard gunfire around 12:30, when Milwood Turner, a union sentinel from Girard, fired a few signal shots at the old Virden coal company shaft where he was stationed, south of the depot. Then suddenly shots began to ring out from many directions. The train shot past the depot at a fast speed without stopping, and the war was on. Sheriff Davenport left the train platform, and fled, injuring himself on an embankment. His brother, a deputy, was the only the legal authority at the scene of the stockade.

Ed Cahill: “The (armed guards) on the train seemed to be frightened to death as soon as they heard the first guns, and they commenced pumping into the crowd as soon as they reached the depot. It was plain that the guards had come here for bloody business and had been instructed to shoot to kill, for the marks of their bullets tell the tale.”
One Thiel guard confirmed this theory: "Some of the train guards said they did not think the miners would shoot if they made a strong demonstration and show of force." Almost all the others Thiel agents categorically denied that they fired before being fired upon

Map of opening shots

There was a constant whistling of bullets over the heads of the miners and over the depot. Some said the guards in the stockade were firing from the towers, but these shots "misjudged the range and were firing with sights elevated too high." Witnesses were amazed that there weren't more people killed in this part of the battle, but attributed it to the high speed of the train. One miner at the depot area showed a hole in his hat, and others reported that bullets were whistling over their heads, and they were sure it was coming from the stockade shaft. Lukins and all the guards in the shaft strenuously denied that there was any firing from the stockade. Since it was a half mile away, accuracy at the time was unlikely. Virden citizens showed a journalist the Springfield rifle bullets that were found at the site of the first gunfire from Turner, south of the depot (see map) three-fourths of a mile from the stockade. Only the stockade had these kind of military-issue bullets and weaponry that could fire such a distance.

D.H. Kiley, 38 year old C & A railroad detective from Chicago guarding the company’s property, stepped on the track which the train had just passed. He was suddenly shot through the back of the head, the bullet passing out of his left eye. He fell in the middle of the track. Some journalists hinted that strikers may have targeted him, because they knew Kiley’s identity for a day or more before the shooting and were watching him closely. Some observers noted that the miners seemed to suddenly produce rifles and that they were returning fire to the train. But others insisted that the smoke of a shot was seen at the tower window of the mine just before Kiley fell over. The company shot one of their own guards, they insisted. Still others believed Kiley was shot by a Thiel agent firing from the rear platform of the train.

Wm Talkington: "I saw a man working a Winchester from the rear platform of the train after it passed."
Perry S. Bronaugh, a grain speculator, from an old Virden family, watched the events from a nearby elevator. He testified that he "saw the train as it passed to the south shaft. The first shot came from a car on the side track, near the elevator. The next shot came from the train north of the station." While he was looking out of the top window of the elevator a bullet came through the roof, "I could see the smoke of the firing coming from the cars and the ground as the train passed us to the stockade. I didn’t see any one shoot from the rear platform."

Shots that were lodged in the elevator where Bronaugh observed had the appearance of having been fired from a Springfield, the military issue rifle that would have been from the stockade.

Fr. John Clancy, standing in front of his church on main street a block away from the tracks when firing began, also later testified the fire that hit Kiley came from the stockade tower.

Many believed at first that Kiley had just dived for cover. Most directed their attention to the shots ringing out at the stockade. Meanwhile blood was oozing from his head. He was alive, unconscious, clinging to life. No one acted to get him off the tracks as the battle continued. Police advised to leave him for the coroner to view his position, even as his heart was beating convulsively. He was at last taken to a livery barn with no medical attention, and died a couple of hours later.

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Virden Mine War Tour

Stop 3: The battle begins

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