Virden Martyrs Monument

22152- 22160 Old Reservoir Rd

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.

Mother Jones asked to be buried facing the Virden martyrs who had sacrificed their lives for the union cause. Honoring the martyrs started the tradition of celebrating the role of the rank-and-file worker in changing history.

Above: The October 12, 1898 headline of a Chicago paper. This was a battle between paid company mercenaries and unionists. As it turned out, 13 died; 8 of them were miners, and the rest were guards. Half of the casualties and many of the wounded were from Mt. Olive, which was already the among the strongest of the UMWA locals at the time of the Virden battle. So Mt. Olive volunteers played a central role in the defense of union rights.

Joe Gitterle of Mt. Olive was 30 years old, and wounded 4 times. He was from an immigrant Austrian mining family, and was due to be married in a few days. He was on the battlefield with his soon-to-be father-in-law Gus Wevelseip, who was a stalwart union activists arrested in the 1894 strike. Ernst Long, was the youngest miner killed in the battle, just 19 years old. He endured 6 wounds, but commanded the respect of his fellow miners by enduring them without flinching. For a short time, there was hope that he might survive. Long was born and raised in Edwardsville, where he was buried, and had only moved to Mt. Olive in 1897. But he became one of the honored numbers listed as the Mt. Olive, Virden martyrs. His father was a widower, and he had four sisters and two brothers. Ellis Smith was 28 years old when he was shot in the right breast and killed instantly. He was a barber by trade, but had also followed mining and was "an active advocate of union principles" proud to "be at the front attempting to sustain justice for his cause." Ernst Kaemmerer of Mt. Olive was a killed instantly, a bullet piercing his heart. He and his brother, his only living relative, lived in Mt. Olive and were "constant companions." He was deeply committed to the union project, which he called simply an effort for "fair wages for a fair day's work." The button above was created by a local man, who felt moved by the courage of these miners and thought they deserved a button that usually was reserved for well known figures.

At the funeral in 1898, plans for a monument to the men was already underway:

October 15, 1898: "The funeral was the largest ever witnessed in this part of the state. There was a procession of 2,000 miners, 1000 citizens and 500 school children. The Mt. Olive Silver Band led, followed by the state officials of the miners’ union, municipal authorities of Mt. Olive and neighboring cities. Then delegations of miners from Staunton, Gillespie, Honnsby, Litchfield, Sorento, Girard, Virden, Worden, followed by the funeral cars and the home miners’ union, civic societies and citizens, all making a column two miles in length."

Above: 1930: The stones decorate the graves of 3 of the 4 Mt. Olive men whose monument was dedicated in 1899. Long was buried in Edwardsville, Illinois, near his family. The men were originally buried in Mt. Olive cemetery in one grave.

In the year after the bloodshed at Virden, the violence in other towns such as Pana and Carterville, due to the ongoing mine wars in Illinois, led some prominent people in Mt. Olive to object to commemorating the Virden martyrs. Prominent among those objecting was the local Lutheran minister. So the local miners union, determined to honor their martyrs, bought this land to ensure that their memory would not fade, and that the rank-and-file miners would be honored. In the mid-20th century a myth spread that Mt. Olive had not allowed the men to be buried in the town, and that had made purchase of the cemetery necessary. But the reason the cemetery was purchased was to ensure that there was no city interference with the commemorations of the men.

Above: Remember Virden was emblazoned on every union charter of the UMWA in the early 20th century.

Below: Socialist Frank Hayes' poem to the Virden martyrs, delivered at this site in 1903. Hayes was known as the miner bard. He was from the mining town of Breese, Illinois, and later became President of the United Mine Workers of America (1917-1919).

The Sleep of Honest Men by Prof. J. W. Uzzell, principle of Mt Olive School, whose uncle Frank Bilyeu, of Springfield, IL, was killed in the Virden battle: Unveil the shaft with loving hands, In honor of your dead; They sleep the sleep of honest men, Who earned their daily bread In labor’s name they freely died— These boys you loved so well: And toiling men all o’er this world Were tearful when they fell The lives they gave that you and I Might have our honest due Were given for their fellow-men ‘ By Noble hearts and true. Then strew their graves with gentle hands. Their mounds with flowers spread; They sleep the sleep of honest men, Who earned their daily bread.

Below: Adolph Germer was one of the Mt. Olive miners most responsible for organizing the commemorations for the Virden martyrs. Germer moved to Belleville, where Mother Jones visited him and that is where he convinced Mother Jones she should be buried at the site. He was a German immigrant, a miner originally from Staunton, a child laborer, and a socialist like Mother Jones. She was not close to him, but she loved the cemetery and the idea of being buried with those who gave their lives for the union cause.

The determination of the Mt. Olive UMWA local to lionize and commemorate the miners who had given their lives for the union was a first in U.S. history, and emphasized the ordinary miner and rank-and-file role in changing the course of history. Soon the miners had achieved October 12, the day the martyrs died, as a union holiday. The Mt. Olive local built the monument to ensure this lesson was passed on. And that memory of their role deeply affected the perspectives of miners.

In 1936, the Virden martyrs were moved to the new Mother Jones monument. It was their 3rd burial.

In 1923, Mother Jones, after speaking at the Virden martyrs commemoration, wrote a letter below that stated: “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 [for] 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.”
Decades later union activist Battuello listed memories of Virden as one the “cruel experiences of the past” that explained Illinois’ workers extraordinary solidarity and militance. The “radical element of Illinois miners . . . were always great activists . . . affecting minds and human welfare . . . And that form of education left its seed; it germinated a little in Illinois, I think.”

Above, Jack Battuello, from nearby Gillespie, was an immigrant miner who led a sit-down in Wilsonville, Illinois, for union rights. He credited the memories of Virden for his own activism.

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