Stop 7: O'Neil House

Chicago IL

Virden Mine War Tour/Stop 7: O'Neil House
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.

As soon as she heard that there were casualties, Kate O'Neill opened her boarding house, located here in 1898, to the miners as a temporary morgue. This site was imprinted in a generation of miners' memory as a place of shock and mourning.

"She had not learned the number of men wounded and dead, and when six stalwart miners whose life blood had flown in the struggle for what they thought was right were carried into the little parlor, it was filled. Then came the wounded men, who were taken into the other front room. Here their wounds were dressed and their blood was allowed to flow on the carpeted floor. Mrs. O'Neill bravely assisted the physicians, bringing them water and tearing up any kind of material to be found for bandages. The front of her dress was covered with blood and many a feverish brow was fanned by her." -Illinois State Register October 14, 1898

We commissioned artist Bill Yund to depict the scene inside the O'Neill boarding house as described by several reports and oral histories.

"Three wire cots were leaned against one wall and two against another. On these were the forms of the five dead miners. They had been washed, shaved, and dressed in clean underclothing, but blood had continued to flow from their wounds after being placed on the cots, and it stained the sheets which covered the cots and flowed in little streams to the center of the floor where it formed into a puddle. The oil lamp suspended from the center of the room cast but a fitful and uncertain glow. . . It threw strange shadows across the white and drawn faces of the dead. Each pair of hands was crossed on the breast of the dead and held there by broad bandages." --newspaper reporter

"Miners dropped in at all hours of the night to gaze on the dead. Many of them wept quietly, then passed out. Some of them shook convulsively as they sobbed and moaned for their comrades."

Yund's depiction of the presence of African-American union miners among those who paid their respects is confirmed by reporters who remarked, with surprise, that the day after the battle there was notable camaraderie present between the Black and white union miners on the streets of Virden.

Yund also conveys a sense of uncertainty, a pensive expression. of the African-American unionist. They had come to Virden to make their stand with their union brothers. Would the union countenance the racism that was a framework of the struggle? Or would it fight for their rights to access jobs equally in Illinois coalfields? In the years to come, African-American union miners were written out of the history of the battle of Virden.

"there is a day …coming when the laboring man will be given bread instead of bullets.” --Alexander Bradley

General Bradley took with him the remains of the dead Mount Olive miners. "I think that has been one of the most infernal outrages ever perpetrated on a laboring public,” said he. “Our men were shot down like dogs. Our men had orders to talk the matter over with the mine people when it came to a crisis and not to shoot unless fired upon. Instead of arbitrating the question, I leave for home this morning with a baggage car of dead men. I’m broken-hearted. I do not expect any more trouble in Virden for the present…there is a day …coming when the laboring man will be given bread instead of bullets.”

The expression "bread instead of bullets" goes back to the 1842 general strike in England, and was revived in the 1894 Coxey's army of the unemployed. Later, it was used in the 1930s labor uprisings.

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Virden Mine War Tour

Stop 7: O'Neil House

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