NY Daily News
9.08.2013, 02:00 AM
Justice Story: Women, kids killed in bloody 1913 Ludlow Massacre during coal strike
Library of Congress
A historic photo of one of the strikers recovering he body of a slain miner during the 1913 Ludlow Massacre in southern Colorado.
In September 1913, workers in one of America’s most lucrative industries decided they were getting a raw deal and voted to strike. Fast food wasn’t the issue then, it was coal, and instead of picket signs, these strikers carried pistols.
The work stoppage would turn into the most violent chapter in the bloody history of American labor relations — the Ludlow Massacre.
Within a few days, 11,000 miners and their families were evicted from the dismal shacks in company-run coal towns that they called home. These towns dotted southern Colorado.
They headed for tent cities set up with help of the mining unions, free from the grip of the coal operators. The largest of these was the Colorado Fuel and Iron Co., owned since the early 1900s by the Rockefellers.
Greek immigrant Louis Tikas (ight) was killed during vicious a coal mine strike in Oklahoma that left at least 20 dead in a squalid camp.
Twelve hundred striking miners and their wives and children moved into 200 tents near a tiny foothills town called Ludlow.
One of leaders of this band was a young Greek immigrant, Louis Tikas. Three years earlier, when he was 24, Tikas was part owner of a Denver coffee shop. He left that life behind when he was recruited as a replacement worker, a scab, during one of the many coal strikes plaguing the region.
By 1913, he had switched to the labor side.
The United Mine Workers Association, the union that had been active in Colorado since 1900, made seven demands, aimed at correcting deplorable working and living conditions.
The caption on this historic photo reads: “Burning of miner’s camp at Forbes during strike battle — Colorado.”
Safety standards were barbaric — a miner was twice as likely to die in Colorado as anywhere else in the country. With 12-hour days the norm, a key union demand was a reduction to no more than eight hours.
Still, despite the grueling schedules, the coal diggers could barely scrape by. “Dead work,” the term for those essential tasks that kept the mines from collapsing, such as shoring up walls, was unpaid. Miners got cash for coal, and coal alone.
Even worse, the men who controlled the scales, company employees, frequently cheated the miners.
What little money these workers collected, which came to about $3.50 a day, was whittled down by a third for blasting powder and other supplies, which miners were required to buy on their own. Purchasing power of that hard-earned dollar was further eroded by prices in the company-owned stores, where miners were forced to shop. Company-hired thugs kept watch to make sure the miners followed company rules.
Original caption: “Forbes, Colo. — Slain miner & one of his fighting comrades.”
During the strike, management hired more thugs to oversee the tent cities and brought in strikebreakers who waged a campaign of terror, murder, and visits by a unique automobile known as the Death Special. This was an armored car, outfitted with two machine guns that would randomly spray bullets at the tents in the middle of the night.
A month after the start of the strike, the Colorado National Guard was called in and martial law was declared. The strikers held on through the brutal Colorado winter.
By spring, Colorado, cash-strapped because of the strain of policing the strikers, pulled back most of the troops, leaving just two companies, one led by Karl Linderfelt, known for his brutality.
On April 20, 1914, the day after Greek Orthodox Easter Sunday, violence erupted. A woman had contacted the National Guard, insisting that her husband was being held captive at Ludlow. Linderfelt dispatched soldiers to check it out.
Library of Congress
Original caption: “Forbes, Colo. — Correspondents under flag of truce.”
Tikas, who had been the liaison between company interests and the strikers, said that the missing husband was not there. Linderfelt returned with reinforcements and a machine gun.
It’s unclear who took the first shot. Witnesses later recalled hearing three blasts of explosives and then bullets flying wildly. Women and children fled the camp or took refuge in bunkers that the strikers had dug under their tents.
That strategy turned tragic when fire broke out. No one can say for sure exactly how it started, but some witnesses said they saw soldiers with torches. Soon the entire colony was ablaze. Two women and 11 children who had been hiding underground perished in the flames, dying in what has become known forever as the Death Pit.
Linderfelt and his men stormed into the inferno and captured Tikas. The story Linderfelt told was that he was forced to shoot Tikas because he tried to flee. Witnesses told a different tale, that Linderfelt took his rifle and whacked Tikas over the head with such force it broke the gunstock and left a wound that exposed the victim’s skull. Then he ordered other soldiers to shoot him.
At least 20 people died at Ludlow that night, more perished in violence fueled by revenge in the 10 days that followed.
Still, the strike continued until December, when the exhausted miners gave up.
After it was over, more than 400 strikers were arrested and 332 were indicted for murder, but years of trials led to only one conviction and that was overturned. There were a dozen court martials among the National Guardsmen. Only one man, Linderfelt, was found guilty of assault for the skull bashing-blow he meted out to Tikas.
The Ludlow tragedy is mostly forgotten today, but its impact is felt throughout the world. John D. Rockefeller Jr., was subjected to such condemnation that he turned to Ivy Ledbetter Lee — a newsman turned expert in the infant field of public relations — to improve his image, thus giving birth to the modern era of spin. And, for workers, Ludlow put labor struggles in sharp focus, and is a key reason why Americans now enjoy an eight-hour day.