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Immigrant Miner Massacre Holds Lessons, Archaeologist Says

Stripping coal at Hazleton, Pa.

By digging into facts about a massacre of immigrant coal miners more than a century ago in Lattimer, archaeologist Paul Shackel uncovered a perspective on immigration in the Hazleton area today.

Shackel and his students from the University of Maryland, where he is an anthropology professor, have spent the last eight summers on archaeological digs in Lattimer and the villages of Pardeesville and Eckley.

Archaeology, he hopes, will help people with roots in Hazleton recognize that what their ancestors endured after arriving from Eastern Europe to mine coal compares with today's Hispanic immigrants, who work in distribution centers and meat packing.

"The silence surrounding these historic tensions related to class, poverty and racism is quite deafening, especially considering the region is facing may of those same issues today with a new immigrant population," Shackel writes in a new book, "Remembering Lattimer."

His book recounts the Lattimer Massacre of Sept. 10, 1897.

Then, the coalfields were awash with immigrants, mostly from Italy and Eastern Europe. For two decades, the immigrants had been enticed by the coal companies until their ranks neared or exceeded those of English-speakers in parts of the Hazleton area. They worked in dangerous conditions, earned less than English-speakers doing the same jobs, were underemployed, smeared by prejudice and still paying a state immigrant tax that a federal court declared unconstitutional.

Similarly today, non-English speakers in Hazleton are increasing once again after a federal court struck down the city's Illegal Immigration Relief Act. Often hired through temporary job agencies, Hazleton's Hispanic immigrants "have the lowest-paying jobs and worst access to health care and are demonized as criminals and accused of not wanting to assimilate into American culture," Shackel writes.


In the coal mines during the summer of 1897, issues such as low pay and health care were festering when a boss at the Honeybrook Colliery touched off a strike by requiring his mule handlers to work two extra hours per day for the same pay.

Seeking a 15 percent raise, the right to choose their doctor and an end to company stores, 400 miners marched from Harwood to Lattimer, hoping workers there would join the strike. Most were Slovak, Polish or Hungarian.

In Lattimer, they met a posse of approximately 150 men, led by the Luzerne County sheriff but armed by mine owner Calvin Pardee, who kept deducting the immigrant tax from miners' wages because the Supreme Court hadn't ruled yet.

Sheriff James Martin tried to stop the march. A scuffle broke out. Then deputies shot 19 of the marchers to death. Most were miners. One was a delivery boy. Thirty-eight others were wounded.

Racist theories put forth by so-called scientists of the day and political pressure from groups like the Immigrant Restriction League painted the new immigrants as lesser human beings, perhaps egging on deputies who shot several men in the back after the march crumbled.

"They had no weapons of any kind and were simply shot down like so many worthless objects, each of the licensed life takers trying to outdo the other in the butchery," the Hazleton Daily Standard wrote a day after the massacre, a line now inscribed in the memorial.

Historian Edward Pinkowski suggested that the deputies took an opportunity to do some ethnic cleaning.

At trial, the jury acquitted the sheriff and the deputies. In one newspaper account, Martin said he gave the order to fire, but then changed his story after talking to an attorney. Defense attorney Henry Palmer compared the strikers to Huns who overran Europe even though, instead of guns or clubs, they carried only the American flag, all the protection they thought they would need in a country that guaranteed the right to assembly.

History obscured

Afterward, the memory of the Lattimer Massacre was suppressed in various ways to the advantage of the mine owners.

Witnesses who testified against the deputies were blackballed from the coal industry. Transcripts of the trial have disappeared from the Luzerne County Courthouse. No monument to the victims was installed until 75 years after the massacre, even though $10,000 — more than enough to cover expenses — was donated by the 10th anniversary.

Only in 1972 was a memorial carved into a coal slab and placed at the entrance to Lattimer.

A smaller stone was placed at St. Stanislaus Cemetery by the 100th anniversary to commemorate 14 of the marchers who are buried there. But five years ago, the stone was removed when the cemetery's wall was repaired, and now it can be read only from inside the cemetery, Shackel noticed.

A grave of Father Aust, a priest at St. Stanislaus who raised money to prosecute the posse, has been covered with mud over the years.

Uncovering truth beneath the mud is Shackel's specialty.

Deciding to dig

Just doing archaeology commemorates a place and helps others to see its value, so Shackel chose Lattimer, which he said has been overlooked.

Lattimer never received as much attention from the national media or scholars as labor clashes like the Homestead strike in Pittsburgh, yet it turned momentum in favor of the United Mine Workers of America, who gained members, national sympathy and concessions under new leader John Mitchell in their next two strikes, in 1900 and 1902.

Shackel and other historians such as the late Harold Aurand, who taught at Penn State Hazleton, say Lattimer is a story about both miners and immigrants.

Starting with the first anniversary after the massacre, however, memorial services emphasized the value of unionizing against coal companies, but downplayed that most of the marchers were neither citizens nor union members. Immigrants, not union leader John Fahy, set demands for the strike, and the Austro-Hungarian Empire protested over the death of its citizens and later pleaded, unsuccessfully, for the United States to make humanitarian payments to their families.

After the massacre, the union pulled together miners of various nationalities who had been at odds.

When ethnicity divided miners, they were easier for coal barons to dominate, a point made by Dayton University sociologist Jamie Longazel, who grew up in Hazleton. Like coal barons of the 1890s, Hazleton has powerbrokers today: corporations that built distribution centers in Hazleton's industrial parks and CAN DO, which helped the corporations land state tax incentives. White workers in the distribution centers are encouraged to ally with the powerbrokers but really have more in common with their Latino colleagues, according to Longazel, whom Shackel cites in "Remembering Lattimer."

While digging at Lattimer, Shackel and his team deduced where marchers entered the village and where deputies lined up to fire. Items that they found include a metal cup riddled by shotgun pellets and four bullets. One bullet turned up near the firing line rather than where marchers stood.

Maybe a deputy shot into the ground, Shackel writes in the book.

Asked if, instead, one of the marchers might have shot at the deputies, Shackel said in an email that he can't be 100 percent certain either way. But when the march began, the union leader pleaded with men not to carry weapons. Plus, newspaper accounts of the trial say the marchers weren't armed, Shackel said.


After finishing the dig in Lattimer, Shackel and his students moved on to Pardeesville and Eckley, where they looked for everyday objects.

Bones and seeds informed them about what miners ate and how little protein they could afford. Even families sharing a double house had different standards of living. A miner's family ate better and had better housewares than the family of a widow who took in boarders and lived in the other side of the house, the archaeologists determined by uncovering objects that they left behind.

Shackel has given talks to children about archaeology and mining at the Hazleton One Community Center, whose founder Joe Maddon and leaders Bob and Elaine Curry he compliments for helping bring Hispanics and whites together.

In the past two years, Shackel also invited students from Hazleton Area High School to join his team. Those who took part included three students of Eastern European heritage and three students whose families recently arrived from Latin America.

They all learned basic archaeology: how to excavate, take notes and curate items such as bits of plates and children's marbles. Seeing those items helped the students imagine what life was like for the miners.

Other artifacts — pieces of a crucifix and a medal of Pope Pius IX — resonated with students from both Eastern European and Hispanic families, as they share the Catholic faith.

Shackel will emphasize connections like that between Hazleton's old and new neighbors as he continues doing archaeology here.

"There are universal values that we all want and desire," he writes, "such as peace, good health, education, and the ability to sustain oneself."

(Photo credit: Boston Public Library/Flickr)