Lest We Forget: The Ludlow Massacre One Century Later

One hundred years ago, on the afternoon of April 20, 1914 William Snyder and his children made the mistake of climbing out of the pit they had dug under their tent in Ludlow Colorado. Outside, the Colorado National Guard and striking coal miners were engaged in a war that had raged since morning. For much of the day the pit had been their shelter from the indiscriminate gunfire that had ripped through the tent city that striking coal miners had erected near the town. The immediate reason for the battle has been lost to history, and both sides have claimed that the other started shooting first. Whatever the cause, the fighting seemed to be letting up and the Snyders took the opportunity to escape their pit and return to the relative comfort of the tent itself. Frank Snyder, a young boy of eleven, went to sit in a chair and his sister joined him on the floor between his knees. According to his father, Frank was in the act of leaning forward to kiss or caress his sister when the bullet that killed him ripped through the family tent and struck Frank in the head (Snyder 133). In his affidavit to the Commission on Industrial Relations William reported, “I was standing near the front door of my tent and heard the impact of the bullet striking the boy’s head, and the crack of the bullet as it exploded inside of his head” (133).

Elsewhere in the tent colony a strike leader named Louis Tikas was arrested and confronted by the militia leader, Karl Linderfelt, about who was at fault for the violence. According to Scott Martelle, as the argument escalated “Linderfelt grabbed his rifle by the barrel and swung it hard at Tikas, striking him in the head and breaking the gunstock” (175). Incapacitated by this attack Tikas and two other striking miners were murdered moments later by the mob of militiamen that surrounded them (176). Tikas was killed by three shots in the back. As Tikas was murdered, the tent colony was going up in flames. How the fires started remains a matter of contention. Guard members claimed that they started thanks to sparks caused by stray bullets and fueled by explosives hidden by the miners in the camp. The strikers contended that that attacking militia purposefully set the fires. Whatever the cause, the fire was deadly. In another pit under a tent like the one the Snyders had sheltered in, hid a group of women and children: twenty-seven year old Fedlina Costa her two children, Onafrio age six, and Lucy, age four, Rodgerio Pedregone, age nine, Cloriva Pedregone age four, Frank Petrucci, age six months, Lucy Petrucci, age three, Joe Petrucci, age four, thirty-seven year old Patria Valdez and her children Rudolph, age nine, Eulala, age eight, Mary age seven, and Elvira, age three months (223). In all, two women and eleven children remained hidden as the fires spread through the tents. They suffocated to death as the fires above them ate the oxygen in their supposed safe haven. They were not found until the morning after the gun battle (2).

Collectively these atrocities have come to be known as the Ludlow Massacre. The battle occurred after months of intermittent violence between the striking miners and the mine detectives employed by the J.D. Rockefeller owned Colorado Fuel & Iron Company. The strike that led up to the Ludlow Massacre began on September 23, 1913 when miners in the Southern coal fields in Colorado marched out on strike for a series of demands: recognition of their union by the coal company, improved pay rates, an eight hour work day, pay for dead work, a checkweighman elected by miners, the right to trade in any store they wanted, choose their own homes and doctors, the enforcement of Colorado mining laws, and the abolition of the mine guard system. The miners suffered under what Howard Zinn has described as the “feudal dominion” of the Colorado mining camps (8). Of particular contention were the mine guards who dominated the region and constantly threatened the miners and their families with everything from verbal and physical abuse to sexual harassment. Ludlow and the battles that followed it in Colorado represent one of the most contentious and violent labor uprisings in U.S. History.

Perhaps one of the most controversial aspects of Ludlow is its legacy as a massacre. As Scott Martelle notes the deaths of the women and children in the fires of Ludlow does not fit the definition of “the intentional execution of a large number of people” (5). Instead these deaths are “most likely to have been the result of criminally negligent acts by the Colorado National Guard, private mine guards, and strikebreakers as they torched the camp” (5). Thomas Andrews has argued that the Ludlow-as-massacre interpretation has “assumed a key place in the martyrology of the American labor movement and a striking centrality in the interpretation of the nation’s history developed by several of the most important left-leaning thinkers of the twentieth century” (6). Of these thinkers, Andrews identifies Upton Sinclair, Woody Guthrie, Howard Zinn, and George McGovern. Yet Andrews also identifies a problem with focusing too closely on Ludlow: it plucks “a single day of killing from the stream of time, thus severing Ludlow from the vast and tangled web of events amid which it unfolded” (9). Andrews’s critique is accurate, and even applicable to this brief study of the events at Ludlow. Nevertheless, the power of Ludlow lies in the shock it provides to our sensibilities as a society. Though Ludlow has largely faded from popular consciousness, what strength it retains as a cultural icon resides in the infamy of the events of April 20th. Ludlow, for better or worse, highlights the struggles of working families and the senseless deaths of those men, women, and children stemming from corporate greed, government corruption, and crimes against the ostensible rights of our society: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

In the near-feudal Colorado coalfields, these rights were roughly nonexistent. Yet even from a limited look at Ludlow we can see a series of important questions regarding some its defining features. The most important of these is how the issues of Ludlow revolve around the rhetoric of family. As the firefight began at Ludlow the male strikers immediately ran away from the colony. As Andrews puts it, the men sought “to draw the guardsmen’s fire away from Ludlow” (272). Instead, the tactic backfired, and “this tragically ill-conceived effort to protect the women and children still remaining in the colony instead left the camp at the National Guard’s mercy” (272). After the deaths at Ludlow this tragedy was combined with a rhetoric of family and tropes of masculinity to fuel the anger of the striking workers and lead to continued struggles with the National Guard and the coal companies. As Andrews notes:

Strike leaders and tent colony captains sought to channel the mood among the rank and file of mourning, anger, and injured masculinity into a concerted military response. The result was a campaign of retributive violence, in which seven months of civil unrest and almost half a century of labor-management tumult at last came to a head. For ten days, the mineworkers of southern Colorado engaged in the fiercest, deadliest labor uprising since the Civil War (276).

The rhetoric of martyrdom and family at Ludlow raises a number of knotty questions regarding gender roles and the way we remember such a tragedy. Much like the rhetoric surrounding the Ludlow as massacre story, it has the potential to relegate those involved into figures acted upon rather than figures imbued with their own agency and capable of influencing the course of their lives. The Ten Days’ War that followed Ludlow proves these points. According to Andrews, the miners gave as good as they got in the battles that followed Ludlow and “upwards of thirty people had lost their lives” (14). Rather than being mere victims, the strikers were clearly quite capable of influencing the direction of their lives.

Given the strong role tropes of masculinity played in these conflicts, it is also important to pay particular attention to the role the women strikers played. The women in the camps and strikes can be seen as merely victims rather than active participants in the strike. This, of course, could not be further from the truth. As with any labor conflict, women played an integral role in the strike and deeply influenced the course of events in Colorado. Perhaps the best example of this can be seen in the actions of Mother Jones at Ludlow. The gender roles at play in the work of Mother Jones present a clear indication of the power that the rhetoric of family had in these sorts of conflicts. In her role as “mother” of the miners, Mother Jones stepped in to highlight the suffering of both the workers and their families in her labor agitation. On January 4, 1914 this agitation took the shape of Mother Jones’s attempt to speak in Trinidad Colorado. She was detained on order of Colorado governor Elias Ammons and General John Chase of the National Guard. As Martelle points out, “neither Ammons nor Chase foresaw the inevitable: Mother Jones in a de facto prison cell was a flag around which the miners and the entire national labor movement could and would rally” (153). The result was a parade of roughly a thousand women protesting Mother Jones’s imprisonment. General Chase led a detachment of mounted troops to bar the women’s march. It is unclear what started the subsequent violence, but Chase’s troops raced “their horses through the crowed” and used rifle butts and flats of their swords against the crowd (154). Martell records that “the riders made three passes, leaving blood and bruises in their wake” (154). The women strikers and their supporters were integral to this incident, both in their agency for protest, but also in the societal reaction that resulted from the attack of the troops. As Martelle notes: “at a time when women nationwide were fighting for the right to vote . . . and society clung to the concept that the ‘fairer sex’ lived on a plane above the baser lives of men, the clash became an emblem of the strike. If the militia was willing to ride down unarmed women and children on a public street, then what else were they capable of?” (155).

Martelle’s comments point to the weight these events still carry to this day. Whatever the time period, the sanctity of family and children remains one of the symbolic cornerstones of our society and the events at Luldow show its power over our sensibilities. Reading the description of the senseless deaths at Ludlow leaves us to question the course of events that led to such a tragedy. It can also lead us to question what led to such a blatant imbalance of social power that flies in the face the themes of self-empowerment and equality inherent in the American Dream – a dream, it must also be noted, that posits the equality of opportunity for all people. For the American Dream to carry this promise it must therefore also be available to all families.

The betrayal of this dream in Ludlow has been memorialized and fictionalized in numerous venues. Upton Sinclair used the conditions in Colorado as the basis for his 1917 novel King Coal. Woody Guthrie immortalized the events of Ludlow in his song “Ludlow Massacre.” One of the most powerful depictions comes more recently in Thomas Pynchon’s 2006 novel Against the Day. In this novel, Pynchon creates a stand-in for Rockefeller named Scarsdale Vibe who, in the midst of the standoff at Ludlow gives a speech extolling the inevitable demise of the memory of the Ludlow strikers. Vibe declares:

When the scars of these battles have long faded, and the tailings are covered in bunchgrass and wildflowers, and the coming of the snows is no longer the year’s curse but its promise, awaited eagerly for its influx of moneyed seekers after wintertime recreation, when the shining strands of telpherage have subdued every mountainside, and all its festival and wholesome sport and eugenically chosen stock, who will be left anymore to remember the jabbering Union scum, the frozen corpses whose names, false in any case, have gone forever unrecorded? who will care that once men fought as if an eight-hour day, a few coins more at the end of the week, were everything, were worth the merciless wind beneath the shabby roof, the tears freezing on a woman’s face worn to dark Indian stupor before its time, the whining of children whose maws were never satisfied . . . ? (1001)

Vibe, clearly the novel’s primary antagonist, is meant to be wrong here. Yet Ludlow’s legacy, while powerful, is not pervasive. Vibe’s speech hints at all the fears that come along with marking the centennial of Ludlow. Will we, as a society, forget? Will narratives fueled by racial and class hatreds such as those depicted in Vibe override the atrocity of a conflict that led to the death of Frank Snyder? What significance is one death much less thirteen or thirty a hundred years ago? Will such battles and sacrifices be lost and overrun in our collective memory by events of seemingly grander national importance?

Ludlow is an intriguing marker for these questions. It occurred at a point when the nation’s attention was focused on international affairs and President Wilson’s near invasion of Mexico in 1914. It was quickly overshadowed by the beginning of World War I. Subsequent decades saw vast changes in labor and industrial practices not to mention the social attitudes towards unions and collective bargaining. And today, in the world overrun with “telpherage” and eager for its moneyed distractions, the question rears its ugly head: what does Ludlow matter now?

An answer to this type of question is never easy coming. Pynchon, despite the fears that he marks in Vibe’s speech, points to a way forward. As Pynchon writes of the battle at Ludlow itself, “Shots kept ripping across the perilous night. Sometimes they connected, and strikers, and children and their mothers, and even troopers and camp guards, took bullets or fought flames, and fell in battle. But it happened, each casualty, one by one, in light that history would be blind to. The only accounts would be the militia’s” (1016). The memory of those who died at Ludlow is not merely a memory of a labor unrest. Nor is it a memory of men and women struggling for a better life in a country whose foundational myth is based on the freedom to seek happiness. It is not even, as Pynchon suggests in this quotation, a singular history written by the victors. Instead it is exactly what Pynchon makes it in this passage: a marker. Paying homage to the victims of Ludlow, whatever the form, serves to call it back to into our collective conscious. It marks our failure as a society to remotely live up to the narrative we ascribe to ourselves. It marks the triumph of capital over empathy and a fair playing field. Remembering events like Ludlow call on us to hold a cold unyielding mirror up to ourselves, to reflect on our past failures, and to be better than we once were. Perhaps this is merely idealism. For the sake of the Frank Snyders of today, may it become a reality.

Works Cited

Andrews, Thomas G. Killing for Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War. Boston: Harvard University Press, 2010. Print.

Martelle, Scott. Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2007. Print.

Pynchon, Thomas. Against the Day. New York: Penguin, 2006. Print.

Snyder, William. “1914 William Snyder, Affidavit Given to the Commission on Industrial Relations.” Violence in the West: the Johnson Count Range War and Ludlow Massacre: A Brief History with Documents. Ed. Marilynn S. Johnson. Boston: Bedford/St. Martins, 2009. Print.

Zinn, Howard. “The Colorado Coal Strike, 1913-1914.” Three Strikes. Boston: Beacon Press, 2001. 5-56. Print.

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3 responses to “Lest We Forget: The Ludlow Massacre One Century Later

  1. sarahsss April 28, 2014 at 6:00 pm

    Finally getting a chance to read this and can only say: Bravo! Mind if I tweet?

    • Nick May 4, 2014 at 10:15 am

      Thanks! Feel free to tweet. (I was pretty distracted this week so I completely missed the notification that you had commented!)

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