Brow Beat

The Lattimer Massacre Happened More Than a Century Ago. The Sheriff’s Account of the Killing Could Have Been Written Yesterday.

A 19th century newspaper illustration of a row of men with rifles firing into a fleeing crowd.
Deputies fire into the backs of fleeing, unarmed strikers.
Philadelphia Inquirer

Tuesday marks the 122nd anniversary of the Lattimer Massacre, an 1897 labor clash in which armed deputies under the command of Luzerne County Sheriff James Martin opened fire on a crowd of unarmed Slavic workers on strike in Pennsylvania, killing at least 19 of them, most of whom were shot in the back. It’d be a pretty run-of-the-mill story of haves murdering have-nots, forever and ever amen, except for one thing about the initial press coverage: In the immediate aftermath of the massacre, Sheriff Martin gave the press two separate accounts of the killings, one in which he ordered his deputies to open fire, and another in which he did not. Many newspapers ran both contradictory accounts, neither bylined, giving readers a chance to watch the official story congeal in real time. Martin and his deputies were eventually acquitted of murder—the New York Times editorial board supported him—but what’s most striking today is how little his account—or at least the one he gave after talking to a lawyer—differs from our modern-day stories of helpless police officers in mortal terror of rampaging, superhuman minorities. Here are both early stories about the killing, as published in the Lancaster Morning News on Sept. 11, 1897. Read on and watch that same old dark magic rob the dead of their humanity while turning the men with the guns and the money into victims. 

SHERIFF’S HASTE CONDEMNED

He Bore No Evidence of Having Been Assaulted by Strikers

Wilkes-Barre, Sept. 10.—Sheriff Martin was very nervous and scared when seen to-night and was at once taken to a hotel. In an interview he said he first met the striking miners at West Hazelton. He asked them where they were going and they replied “We are going to Lattimer to get the men out there.”

Then the sheriff and seventy deputies armed with Winchesters and revolvers boarded a trolley car for Lattimer and marching down the public road headed off the marching column of Poles and Huns. According to Martin’s story when the strikers reached the line of deputies he ordered them to halt and disperse. One of the Hungarians said in broken English: “Go to Hell, you — —.” Martin then attempted to arrest the man who made the remark, and as he claims was fiercely assaulted by the man’s friends, then the firing began. Mr. Martin was asked during an interview: “When you met the men were they on company property or on the public road?” He replied: “No they were on the public road.”

“Were they marching towards Lattimer?”

“Yes.”

“Had they up to that time committed any overt act or acted otherwise than peaceably?”

“No.”

“Why, then, did you order the deputies to fire?”

“I did not order the deputies to fire; someone else did that. First came a single shot and then a volley. I gave no order.”

“How many men were killed?”

“There were twelve dead when I left and about thirty wounded.”

“Were any of your men hurt?”

“One of my deputies was shot through the arm.”

Sheriff Martin when he reached Wilkes-Barre was badly scared. Though he claims to have been brutally assaulted when seen by our correspondent he did not have a mark on his person to show that he had been roughly handled. All classes of citizens in this county unite in condemning Sheriff Martin’s hasty action.

THE SHERIFF’S STORY

He Only Gave the Order to Fire After Being Beaten by the Strikers

Wilkes Barre, Sept. 10.—Sheriff Martin arrived home on the 7 o’clock train from Hazelton. He was cool and collected. He was met at the depot by his legal adviser. The two got into a cab and drove to the court house, where they were closeted together for some time. At first the sheriff refused to say anything but finally consented. The sheriff was at first reluctant to say whether he had given the command to fire but afterwards admitted that he had. The sheriff’s detailed statement is as follows:

“I heard early this morning that the strikers were going to march to the breaker at Lattimore and compel the men there to quit work. I resolved to intercept them and if possible prevent them from reaching the breaker. One of my deputies told me that the striking deputies would probably be heavily armed. I got my deputies, seventy in number, to meet at a certain place. They were all armed. I told them to keep cool under all circumstances.

“The trouble began at 3 o’clock. I met the marching column. I halted them and read the proclamation. They refused to pay attention and started to resume their march. Then I called to the leader to stop. He ignored my order. I then attempted to arrest him. The strikers closed in on me. They acted very viciously, riling and kicking me, knocking me down and trampling upon me. I called upon my deputies to aid me and they did so, but they were unable to accomplish much.

“I realized that something had to be done at once or I would be killed. I called to the deputies to discharge their firearms over the heads of the strikers, as it might probably frighten them. It was done at once, but it had no effect whatever on the infuriated foreigners, who used me so much the rougher and became fiercer and fiercer, more like wild beasts than human beings. The strikers then made a still bolder move and endeavored to surround my entire force of deputies.

“I finally realized that the foreigners were a desperate lot and valued life at a very small figure. I also saw that parleying with such a gang of infuriated men was entirely out of the question, as they were too excited to listen to reason, and that myself and my deputies would be killed if we were not rescued, or if we did not defend ourselves. I then called upon deputies to defend themselves and shoot if they must to protect their lives or to protect the property that they had been sent to guard from being demolished. The next second there were a few scattered shots fired into the infuriated foreigners and a moment later the entire force of deputies discharged a large volley into the crowd. I hated to give the command to shoot and was awful sorry that I was compelled to do so, but I was there to do my duty, and I did it as best as I knew how, and as my conscience dictated, as the strikers were violating the laws of the Commonwealth and flatly refused to obey the proclamation that I read to them. They instead insisted on doing violence and disobeying the laws.

“The scene after the shooting was simply terrible and I would have willingly not have had it occur, but as a public official, I was there to see that the law was obeyed and lived up to, and I merely did my duty. Some of the foreigners fell over dead and others badly wounded; some were rushing about hither and thither seeking a place where they would be shielded from any more shots; others were aiding their wounded companions to a place of safety, while here and there could be seen men tugging away someone that was either badly wounded or else was dead. The entire crowd of foreigners as soon as the volley had been fired by my deputies, turned and started to retreat. They started off in all directions as they could run, taking as many of their dead and wounded with them as they were able to carry during their hurried retreat. The excitement at the time was simply terrible and I would not care to ever go through an ordeal of the same kind for a fortune.”