Stop 9: Public Square

149 E Jackson St Virden

Virden Mine War Tour/Stop 9: Public Square
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 militia occupied the public square and kept peace until the company conceded defeat. Two Gatling guns were stationed in town square and near the stockade.

It was the first use of a machine gun to assist the union.

Gatling guns were commonly used to defeat labor strikes, and were a kind of shock and awe weapon to subdue workers in labor disputes. The most remarkable use of troops in U.S. history--to subdue a company unwilling to concede to the union--made headline news across the country.

"The men at Virden had as much right to protect their interests against a band of foreign cut-throats (armed mercenaries) as the army under George Washington had to protect the country from the invasion of King George’s army. The battle of Virden marked the turning point in trade unionism, so far as the miners’ organization was concerned. Since that time the operators have shown an inclination to treat us with respect, and to cater to our wishes to a certain extent along humanitarian lines." James Ryan, Secretary-Treasurer, Illinois UMWA

Despite the uneven losses, the fact that the mining community of this small mining town had stood up for their rights against an armed invasion of hired guns, the kind that had led to many union defeats, made this significant.

General Bradley: ”These Pinkertons and deputies were sent here to murder us men and they have done it, but for the lives of the men we lost we took those of two deputies and two Pinkerton pugs.”

Lukins & Loucks & Thiel guards were charged with manslaughter and riot conspiracy

The fact that the agents and deputies were from Chicago and St. Louis, the site of numerous defeats, most notably the Haymarket Riot, shaped the unionists' perspective. The workers in Homestead in 1892 had been defeated by state troops. Here the governor was supporting workers rights against armed agents.

Lukins and Loucks were charged with manslaughter and other criminal offenses, and the Thiel guards were charged with riot and murder. In the immediate period of the events, this term was associated with the legal charges and with the Haymarket reference. It seemed to many a turning of the tide, a remarkable stance that harkened to a possibility that the state might develop a neutral playing field. About 20 of the miners were also charged with riot and assault against Eyster. Most of them left town, and only one miner could be found in the end. These charges were dropped in the aftermath of settlement.

John Hunter, President of Illinois UMWA: "This is certainly the greatest triumph that organized labor has ever achieved."

Lukins did not give up the anti-union crusade. The UMWA local in Virden spent 9 months on strike in 1899, after Lukins once again refused the scale. He and his wife and family moved back to Virden for a time. He then took up with an anti-union company in Southern Illinois, then left for Oklahoma. His official biography suggests he reconciled himself to the union, but there is room to doubt it. He died in Missouri in 1926, but he directed that his body be brought back to Virden, where he had made his stand in 1898.

Fate of the Black Alabamans

Only one African-American recruit, Ervin Ryan, was wounded in the battle, when he attempted to get off the train into the stockade. He went back to the train and went on to Springfield. Some left for Chicago, some were taken to St. Louis. Lukins tried to hold them there in St. Louis, in order to bring them back to Virden at a later date if he could line up legal support--but they refused. Their refusal foiled Lukins plan to make legal claims for their right to work as strikebreakers. African-Americans in Illinois continued to struggle to gain access to jobs in mining. Most mine owners in central Illinois continued to prefer to hire immigrants and the other battles, particularly in Pana, brought out more racism than solidarity. In 1900 there were still 6 African-American mining families living and most owning their homes in Virden; by 1910 most were gone. But overall, their percentages in mining jobs in Illinois increased.

"I am indeed sorry to see the state of affairs that exists there [in and around Virden] and yet it teaches us that one lesson seemingly so hard to learn by a great many of us, vix., to organize. I do not mean to organize against the black man, as they are now doing, for that will do no good nor will any good results accrue from it, and fight it as you may the result will be the same. I have watched it in the past and have never known it to fail. I would advise that we organize against corporate greed, organize against the fellow who, through trickery and corrupt legislation, seeks to live and grow fat from the sweat and blood of his fellow man. It is these human parasites that we shall strive to exterminate, not by blood or bullets, but by the ballot, and try as you may it is the only way." Richard Davis, UMWA African-American union organizer


David Seagraves depiction of the events in the section below captures the struggle and pathos of the 1898 events. For union miners in this era, the victory at Virden led to hope. Many of them associated it with the reduction of child labor in the mines. This bloodletting built that aspiration.

Seagraves also placed an African American unionist as part of the battle. It's also fitting that in Seagraves' depiction, the African American miner seems to be assisting and looking over his shoulder, but not the center of the struggle for justice. In the end, the commemorations made African-Americans into victims and strikebreakers, not protagonists of the story.

While guns and blood might be thought of as a particular male legacy, women in the Illinois coalfields also felt they were part of the legacy of the Virden mine war. By the 1930s, women's auxiliaries formed the heart of a militant struggle for democracy in the coal fields of Illinois.

John Schuette: After the strike we got an 8 hour day instead of a 12 hour day."

But by 1900, the UMWA made October 12 a miners' holiday and hosted commemorations in many communities. Virden had annual commemorations for over 30 years of this event. While markers went up at all the grave sites of the men who died, the Virden local believed they should instead give the money for a fund to provide for the widows and children of the miners who were lost. The miners provided for the families for many years. Virden miners, and Illinois UMWA officials, vowed that the area where miners died would be consecrated forever. But the decision to not put a memorial up there affected memories, or erased them. Further, the decision to exclude African-American miners from the memorials as speakers distorted the record. Soon some even believed that the shoot-out had been a race riot. In 1998, 1000 people came to a new commemoration of the event, where we put their story at the center, with Black actors who portrayed a union miner and an Alabama recruit, telling the story of racial injustice as part of the union story. After that event, the drive to get this memorial installed began.

Union Miners Cemetery Mt. Olive

Memories of the event were perhaps most powerfully told in Mt. Olive, the center of a union movement in the coalfields in the late 19th century. The only union-owned cemetery in the U.S. was established in September 1899 after prominent Mt. Olive people refused to allow a large gathering to honor the Virden martyrs from Mt. Olive. So the local union bought a plot of ground, and the men were reburied there . In the early part of the century thousands gathered yearly at the cemetery, where General Bradley and many other poor miners would also be buried. It kept their memory alive more fully. It promoted the story that ordinary miners made history. Mother Jones, who was the most beloved labor organizer in the early 20th century, believed that the miners' sacrifice had helped to make the Illinois coal fields a bastion of militant unionism in the country. She honored them by asking to be buried in Union Miners' Cemetery in Mt. Olive.

“When the last call comes for me to take my final rest, will the miners see that I get a resting place in the same clay that shelters the miners who gave up their lives on the hills of Virden, Illinois on the morning of October 12th, 189[8], for their heroic sacrifice of their fellow men. They are responsible for Illinois being the best organized labor state in America. I hope it will be my consolation when I pass away to feel I sleep under the clay with those brave boys.”

Mother Jones did not know the story of Virden in detail. There are no hills in Virden. Jones sought to unify across racial and ethnic boundaries. But she knew that the Mt. Olive Union Miners Cemetery had been built with the purpose of honoring the sacrifices of the rank-and-file who were willing to lay down their lives for the union, and she was focused on distinguishing those who gave their lives, in contrast to union leaders who dined with corporate presidents and argued for stability over justice.

Above: Local 728 UMWA special badge that commemorated the Virden Martyrs and the monument that kept alive the message that rank-and-file miners could made history. Only Mother Jones, the chief messenger of that sentiment in the early 20th century, could prove more resonant at this site, in Mt. Olive's Union Miners Cemetery.

Memorials other outside of Mt. Olive

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