U is for an Ugly Business: Ludlow Massacre

Almost at the finish line for this a-z thing. Thank goodness.

(Violent content warning)

Striking Miners

Ludlow Massacre

People put up with a lot from their employers but one thing that really gets them stirred up is when people start getting murdered. In 1913, when a union activist was killed at one of the Rockefeller mines twelve thousand workers walked off the job.

To say working conditions were harsh is an understatement. Fatality rates were double the national average. What little wages the miners earned were paid in scrip, redeemable only at the company store where prices were inflated. The men worked twelve hour shifts and had to supply their own equipment. Workers and their families lived in tiny four room shacks made of cast off lumber. Those shacks housed up to 20 people at a time. There was no garbage or sewage removal so the whole area looked and smelled like a middens. Barbed wire encircled the camp and armed men patrolled the perimeter to keep outsiders from entering the camps. Home sweet home.

The workers’ demands:

An accurate check weight system.
To be paid in money instead of script
An end to discrimination against union members
Strict enforcement of state safety laws

The Rockefeller family must have gaped at the impertinence. But they quickly pulled themselves together and promptly evicted the miners and their families from those quaint cabins even though winter was coming. Assisted by other unions, the workers set up tents and stayed nearby on a leased property to keep their families housed while they continued the strike.

When the Rockefellers heard about this development they hired armed guards to break up the camps. This decision would lead to 66 deaths.

The Death Special

Do you remember Grond from the Lord of the Rings movie?

Some of the children living in the camp

Like the orcs, the hired guards made their own kind of battering ram: the Death Special, an armored car with a mounted machine gun.

The first use of deadly force on the tent camps was on October 17. One miner was killed and two children were seriously maimed.

The miners refused to give up so on October 28th, the Governor called out the National Guard to assist the strike breakers. Union members were kidnapped and beaten. Shots were routinely fired into the camps. Families living in the tent camps dug burrows under their tents to hide from the bullets.

That is how they passed the Colorado winter.

When the body of one of the strike breakers was found on March 10, 1914, The leaders of the National Guard ordered the destruction of the tent colony even though those tents were on private property.

On April 20 the National Guard troops and hired mercenaries including the Pinkerton Agency (a sort of forerunner to the Blackwater/Academi group) moved in and opened fire on the largest camp called Ludlow. They shot at anyone who moved. The miners didn’t see any other way of protecting themselves so they fired back. Fighting lasted for the entire day. Eventually, Louis Tikas, the camp’s main organizer called for a parley. He met with Lieutenant Linderfelt who was the officer in charge of the National Guard. Linderfelt refused to negotiate; instead, he knocked Tikas to the ground with his rifle butt. Linderfelt’s men then shot Tikas in the back as he lay helpless.

When night fell, armed guards entered the camp and set fire to the tents. Two women and eleven children were burned alive. Thirteen men were shot. There probably would have been many more deaths but for the kindness of a passing train operator. That afternoon he stopped his train and provided passage to many families desperate to escape the madness.

Funeral of Louis Tikas

What Does it Mean?

 You should decide for yourself naturally. But one thing troubles me. It has been awhile since I was able to look through the typical textbooks our kids read and hopefully things have changed but in the past whenever I saw this event (or others that were similar) portrayed in textbooks outside of the footnotes the books emphasized the violence of the labor movement and their failure to achieve their goals. Equal emphasis was not placed on the violence of the situation that created their desperation or the long term gains the movement made. The official narrative usually steers students away from following this path by even avoiding words such as capitalism in favor of using terms like the free enterprise system. These books also tend to emphasize the philanthropy of the robber barons rather than the desperate situations of their workers.

Someone reading this might object: But what about the generous philanthropy of the great capitalists that people continue to enjoy? I think those acts of charity were public relations gestures that had a tendency to follow horrific events like the Ludlow Massacre. Capitalism cannot exist for long if people won’t cooperate. The big capitalists gave just enough money to universities and the arts to placate and co-opt the middle class. The middle class is made up of the teachers, doctors and others who act as a buffer between real wealth and those in great need. As Zinn suggested, if you can buy the loyalty of service oriented people you can create an enduring system. I suppose it really is true that history is written by the victors — or by the historians who attended their schools.

If I were to write the concluding paragraph in a textbook I might say something about how people all over the country were outraged that the murders in Ludlow could happen. That this tragedy fed people’s resolve to continue to work toward ensuring better working conditions or that it and other atrocities inspired legislation that we all take for granted today: things like the right to free assembly and collective bargaining, child labor laws, limits to working hours, workers compensation and safe working conditions. Of course all those gains are eroding but there was a time when it looked like they were becoming rock solid rights.

8 thoughts on “U is for an Ugly Business: Ludlow Massacre

  1. Reblogged this on BackChannels and commented:
    Beneath the flights of the New Old Now Old Far Out and Lost Left perhaps a Next New Left takes shape. Old Independents, formerly liberal Democrats, appreciate a little history honestly told and unvarnished. It’s also good to see Howard Zinn pick up mention on a blog now and then. –jso


    1. Same here. In fact, I used to think history was really boring until my son decided to start studying it. Now that I am discovering all the untold stories I have rethought that position.


  2. Not to venture off topic, but the textbook problem is an ongoing issue here in Texas. From what I understand, what passes muster here is often what gets printed and used in multiple other states since Texas represents such a large market share. Textbooks (especially history textbooks) and politics mix predictably poorly.


    1. Texas is the source of almost all the textbooks in the country and there are only a couple of companies that have virtually the entire market share. It is an especially worrisome problem in the case of social studies text books. Even when a school board or state sets the curriculum it is quite often the textbook’s point of view that dominates the story. This is less of a problem at the senior levels where specialists teach history. It becomes a bigger problem at the elementary level where classes are taught by generalists whose time is spread most thinly — like too little butter over too much bread.


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