For years I’ve had an old friend’s words fixed in my head. He was fond of saying, “I don’t understand all I know about that.” At first I thought the comment a sort of paradox. Later I began to think of it as a way of seeing how things are. Growing up, I learned that people do not always try to understand what they take for granted. Take coal for instance, that black vegetable harvested by miners from deep pits, a source of both life and strife to my grandfathers.
In the 30s and early 40s, before I entered my teens and before I’d even heard about the Herrin massacre, I wondered about the slag heaps down the road just west of Zeigler, a town named like towns all over southern Illinois for a coal company. The locals accepted the fact that those desolate piles had always burned with sulfurous flames, ghastly blue-tinged yellow fires flickering through the ever-present haze of night and gray sodden dawns. Whenever I’d ask, someone would reply, “Spontaneous combustion.” Passing the spot on our way from Herrin to Saint Louis 100 miles to the northwest to get the weekend’s load of beer, my father’s meditative young Italian driver (who later was to lose an arm in the mines) would roll up the window in a vain effort to keep out the stench, even on those unbearably hot late May through early October days. The waste smoldered on far into the age of environmental activism.
I wondered as well about the fact that the walls and ceilings in the miners’ houses in which I and my friends lived were forever shifting and cracking and shedding paper as if molting. On beastly humid summer evenings, waiting for the air to become less oppressive while listening to radio programs like Inner Sanctum, I’d see paper hanging like large handkerchiefs from the ceiling. I was told it was the timbers rotting hundreds of feet below in flooded passages that once were nine-foot veins of coal. My paperhanger uncle never lacked for business.
Coal has always been a part of my consciousness. I knew and feared the pulsating red belly of the coal stove in the living room of the four-room square coal miner’s house my father borrowed $400 from my uncle to buy during the Depression. This was shortly after prohibition, when my out-of-work father had taken a job with his father–a retired miner–selling beer and running the brewery’s tavern outlet. I also knew the coal buckets in the kitchen, their contents smelling to me like rotted produce, and the chunks of coal dumped in the backyard, slack oozing from the base of the pile. Later the coal supply was stored away in a basement dug when times got better during the war. Even to this day, when summer comes I know the feel of hot tar on the bottoms of my feet. That too was coal.
Coming of age in Herrin in the 30s and early 40s wasn’t just living in a town whose look, smell, and even taste were determined by coal. For good and ill, coal gave the town its collective health and its livelihood. Much later I came to realize that coal also decided for all of us what we were supposed to believe about America, God, and the working man.
Thus, I learned slowly that the difference between understanding and knowing was a difference between thinking about how things come into existence and thinking about how they appear. I wasn’t sure of this until I had lived for half a century believing my grandfathers were polar opposites, like good and evil. It was only then that I gathered from facts supplied by my aging mother that though far different in character they each had led lives prescribed by coal. Neither had had the leisure of adolescence. My paternal grandfather entered the mines at 12 in 1893, my maternal grandfather at 12 in 1895. They grew from their preteens to middle age deep under the same ground I would walk on until I was 20, ground I’d leave only for college and return to one last hot summer after graduation to work my father’s beer route. My maternal grandfather died of lung complications seven years before I was born. My paternal grandfather retired and bought a pool hall on Monroe, the principal east-west street leading into the Italian neighborhoods. Then, without difficulty, because the pool hall was where he had bootlegged, he turned it into a tavern that bore the name of Griesedieck, the beer miners liked to ask a waitress for. This was 20 years before some bright marketing guy changed the name to GB and the miners quit drinking it.
Because I knew him, I should have learned something of the past from my paternal grandfather. But all I learned about were the blind mules he took care of as a trapper when he was my age. The few times I saw him sober, he distanced himself from the past with rancid cigars and vacuous obscenities. When I got old enough I had the task of shepherding him and Butch, my pet bulldog, who’d become his sole drinking companion, home from the tavern. As my mother said, he was always pickled.
My mother told the truth about him, but not about her own father. That is, she didn’t talk about her father except to declare that he was the personification of goodness. In spite of my mother’s never wanting me to know (maybe because she’d never let herself believe everything she knew), it turned out to be my maternal grandfather who helped me to understand a few things, some 70 years after the Herrin massacre and the subsequent troubles, which his early death did not let him see through to the end.
When I was a sophomore in high school I encountered Sinclair Lewis’s Main Street and the town of Gopher Prairie. Johnny Tremaine and Tom Sawyer hadn’t prepared me for the pleasure I could find in reading when a book echoed my questions about the life into which I had been born. For years afterward I thought that having read Main Street was the best thing I had done academically in high school. Lewis focused my attention on something called culture and made me think I was destined to be more mature and sophisticated than, I realize now, I ever came close to being. Thankfully. But never once during my schooling, even though Herrin had a historical pageant in 1950 commemorating the 50th anniversary of the town’s founding, was a word said about what went on there during the mid-20s with the massacre and its successive spawn: the rise and fall of the Klan and the prohibition gang wars. These three events had played out on that small stage like a three-act tragedy, but without the intermissions.
Then as a sophomore in college I read Paul Angle’s Bloody Williamson: A Chapter in American Lawlessness (1952), a title using the derogatory but popular nickname given the county in which Herrin is located. Angle, then the state historian and later the director of the Chicago Historical Society, describes a half century of regional unrest beginning with a bloody vendetta in the 1870s in Carterville, the neighboring town where my paternal great grandfather settled and where my father was born, and concluding in the 1920s with the three interrelated events of massacre, Klan ascendancy, and gang wars. In a footnote to his chapter on the Klan, Angle makes brief mention of my maternal grandfather: “Ten charges of assault with intent to murder hung over Otis [sic: should be Otice] Maynard, member of the county board of supervisors and uncompromising enemy of [Williamson County sheriff George] Galligan.” It was an isolated and jarring bit of information, mitigated only by the knowledge that the list of those indicted includes dozens of people on both sides of the disputes and that the indictments were all later dropped. Still, I couldn’t dissociate him from the massacre and the Klan activities.
Much later I came upon a photograph of the funeral service for S. Glenn Young, the militant brought in by Methodists and Baptists and the Ku Klux Klan to cleanse the county of bootleggers and undesirables after the massacre. Hiring Young was Herrin’s way of asserting that it would commit unreservedly to the most God-fearing and America-first of organizations to make itself more God-fearing and American than anywhere else in the country. In their collective hubris, the citizens of the region saw the Klan as the most expedient route to expiation and respectability following a postmassacre period when Herrin was held up internationally as a community that had forfeited its claim to civilization. Before burial, Young had been laid out in full Klan regalia in front of the font where, 16 years later, I was to be baptized at the age of nine, the Southern Baptists saying nine was the age of rationality. He had been shot dead by a Herrin deputy, who at that instant suffered the same fate, purportedly at Young’s hands. (There were many such double deaths in those days, with tales of the friends of one dead gunman or the other standing by with smoking pistols.)
That photograph not only ended what might have been left of my regard for sanctuaries. It also coincided with my reading of The Herrin Massacre, a book of dubious objectivity that was self-published in 1923 by Chatland (or Cortland) Parker, a sensationalist journalist from Chicago who wanted to make his reputation by writing the first book-length account of the trials that resulted in dismissal of the murder indictments against those who allegedly had participated in the killings. There I heard my maternal grandfather, that long-silenced creation of his daughter, speak to me directly. The printed words suggest the inflection I knew the voice would have were I to hear it: “Don’t say anything to these men,” my grandfather warned the owner of the woods in which four killings had just taken place, “for I have talked to them and they have told me to stand aside.”
So it was at last from my maternal grandfather that I began to understand what led the miners to massacre. Those words in his priestly cadence were shaped by an absolutism gained from years of contemplating the darkness deep in the bowels of the earth. He became for me one of those who could commit incomprehensible deeds to preserve their painfully acquired humanity. For three decades union coal miners in southern Illinois had made a place for themselves and their families against the odds of early death and employer oppression. Since its beginnings, Herrin had been a coal town, but it was not owned by the company. By the 1920s, 30,000 of 60,000 Illinois miners worked the pits and strips in Williamson and adjoining Franklin County. Like my maternal grandfather, many had grown into manhood during the birth and adolescence of the United Mine Workers of America. Following a nationwide strike in 1897 (when my grandfather at 15 was already a three-year veteran of the pits), the UMW in Illinois grew from 226 members to over 30,000 in one year. Two UMW presidents, John Mitchell and John L. Lewis, had worked in Illinois mines. One of Lewis’s first actions as president was to call the strike of 1922.
Although men like Otice Maynard might have belonged to a church and a political party, their first allegiance was to the union that had given them a sense of security and identity in an industry that was a natural enemy of both. In a snapshot taken at the time of the First World War, Maynard wears his work clothes like battle gear. A heavy jacket covers a black-ribbed turtleneck, and on his head is a miner’s cap with gas lamp neatly attached. Upon his left forearm, poised like a weapon, rests a large round dinner bucket. He looks determined and proud, his eyes flint, his thin lips unsmiling, like an aviator focused on his target. He has the look of a survivor. As a young boy before the UMW, he had survived ten-hour days lit by a flickering kerosene lamp and marked only by the opening and closing of a door for a blinded mule. Ten years later, at the age of 22, having worked his way up to coal loader, he took a 15-year-old wife who would teach him to read and write. She also bore him the daughter who was to become my mother, and then four sons. His last job in the mines was inspector, carrying canaries into the fouled air of the pits.
Away from the mines he had earned respect for his union and political activities. After the massacre he became a county supervisor, in spite of having been indicted in 1922 on ten counts of murder, conspiracy to commit murder, and assault with intent to kill–charges that were to be repeated in 15 indictments in 1924. For want of evidence and witnesses, due largely to a conspiracy of silence, none of the indictments of my grandfather or the others involved in the deaths of over 40 people during the massacre and four years of Klan activity led to convictions.
But my grandfather had been there that summer solstice in the woods, where one of the scabs was found hanging from a tree and three others lay dead at his feet, each shot through the head. And after the massacre he, like thousands of others, embraced the Klan as a means of helping to save the community from the ignominy visited upon it by outraged public opinion from across the nation. The objective was to make the county a cynosure of purity by eliminating all signs of evil, of which bootlegging was the most notorious. My grandfather, by nature a reticent and humorless man, began carrying pearl-handled revolvers and a concealed derringer, in the manner of S. Glenn Young. Within two years, under the leadership of Young and the ministers of the Methodist and Baptist churches, 15,000 Williamson County citizens joined the Klan.
One ironic consequence was that the Italian Catholic miners who had worked side by side with their Protestant brothers for years were increasingly the subjects of Klan suspicion and harassment. Because of their ethnic origins, they were collectively associated with illegal bootlegging activities. Young’s death at the hands of bootleggers in a double shoot-out in 1926 abruptly ended the attempt to cleanse the county. But it left ethnic and religious dissension that remained for years. My grandfather died of black-lung disease a year later at age 44, a month after the death of his eldest son from lung complications at 18. My grandmother lived on another 18 years, a matriarch of home and church, until her death from stomach cancer at 55. Fifteen years my mother’s senior, she had been like a sister to her. I accompanied my grandmother to Saint Louis Browns and Cardinals games. She never spoke of her dead husband to me.
One experience from my own preadolescence, illuminated by a comment in Angle’s book, remains fixed in memory. During World War II a shabby, wood-framed building on the corner of my block served as the grocery store for the neighborhood. Its proprietor, an affable Swede by the name of Carl Neilson, always offered me candy for which I didn’t have to exchange war-ration stamps. Like my grandfathers, he had been a miner. In Bloody Williamson, Angle identifies him as the cyclops of the Williamson County Klan, one of Glenn Young’s most ardent supporters. He remained a stalwart in the First Baptist Church, whence he helped carry Young to his grave beneath a whitewashed mausoleum that to this day stands like a monument in the Herrin cemetery. I sometimes think of myself as a child in that grocery store’s cavelike darkness, the cyclops lurking behind the counter, expectant, waiting to wreak destruction.
The June 1922 massacre of those who were hired to break the strike at the Southern Illinois Coal Company strip mine, owned by William J. Lester, an Ohio entrepreneur in his first mining venture, left woods, fields, and the town cemetery littered with the bodies of 19 men, most of whom had been conscripted by agencies in Chicago from among the jobless. Their killers were miners and sympathizers from Herrin and the surrounding area, motivated in part by a sense of the righteousness of the UMW strike that was called by John L. Lewis on April 1, 1922, to preserve the union wages paid during World War I. But the killers had been deceived by false promises made by the mine’s absentee owner, and were especially incensed by the brutal tactics of his armed guards. They believed their livelihood and their lives were threatened. In their collective memory was the exemplary fate of miners and families in Ludlow, Colorado, on April 1, 1914, when strikebreaking guards and the state militia massacred women and children at a John D. Rockefeller-owned mine.
Angle recounts the events leading up to the day of the massacre. Lester had been given unusual permission by the union to fix his shovels and uncover his coal with union workers so that he could ship as soon as the strike ended. The plan had mutual benefits. But Lester was tempted by the ready cash the uncovered coal represented. On June 13 he fired the last of the union workers. On the 15th, 25 mine guards under the leadership of C.K. McDowell, a peg-legged nationally known menace of union strikers, arrived from Chicago on the Illinois Central Railroad, stopping in Carbondale about 14 miles away. With them were another two dozen strikebreakers: shovel operators (members of the Steam Shovelmen’s Union), locomotive operators, and commissary workers. The next day a shipment of coal went out on the Burlington Railroad. The rest was ineluctable. Under McDowell’s orders, the mine guards acted arrogantly, intimidating neighboring landowners and their families. The shooting deaths of two young men were attributed to the guards. Local and state politicians and peace officers talked without acting. By the afternoon of June 20 it was too late.
Hundreds of miners met at the Herrin cemetery to hear John L. Lewis’s words in a telegram stating that the miners would treat the Steam Shovelmen’s Union workers at the mine as members of “an outlaw organization” and view them “in the same light as they do any other common strikebreakers.” That evening and the next day strikers armed themselves, many by raiding hardware stores in the name of the union. (My mother was to tell me in 1989 that she missed all this, because on the 20th her father sent her and his youngest son to a relative some 25 miles away. He understood what could be in store.) By mid-afternoon of the 21st, the mine, located five miles southeast of town, was surrounded by hundreds of strikers (one account says as many as 3,000). Firing began. A last-minute truce led to a union promise that the remaining strikebreakers would be given safe passage out of the county. Night fell. In the early morning, the strikebreakers emerged behind a makeshift white flag–a cook’s apron. After marching their captives a short way down the road, the miners acted swiftly and ruthlessly, with some goading their comrades on by declaring this would set an example for others who would try to break the union. Afterward, the town of over 10,000 provided airtight alibis for those indicted for the brutal murders, most of which had been witnessed at close quarters at the cemetery and along the road by dozens of citizens.
I have followed that route ritualistically, driving, walking, or jogging it when I visit my people there: the east-west road that leads to the mine, now renamed College and intersecting the scarred red earth growing only pampas grass and dense shrubs on the south where the mine lay and the denuded, seemingly endless stretch of mounded clay that is the city dump on the north; Taylor Crossing a mile away toward town, where the peg-legged foreman of the strikebreakers was the first to be killed; Harrison’s woods, where my grandfather spoke his warning and I later smoked catalpa leaves and dug for sassafras roots without understanding where I was, and which today has been encroached upon by a housing development; 13th Street, where the Southern Baptist congregation has built a new and imposing edifice and where as boys my uncles watched a motley parade of beaten and doomed men from the porch of the house where my grandmother and mother raised them and where much later I was to spend much of my own young life; the school yard, little changed even today, where six remaining prisoners were forced to crawl across cinders before being prodded their final half mile to the cemetery where they were beaten and shot and their throats were cut; and finally the makeshift morgue in a gray cement-block building where the bodies of the strikebreakers were laid out for two days in the late June heat, allowing miners and their wives and children to wreak indignities on the corpses of those who would have taken their jobs.
There is no memorial in Herrin, no suggestion to those who live or visit there that the massacre ever took place. Even the paupers’ graves in which most of the 19 scabs were buried have been obscured. Evidence that anything happened lies only in the memories of octogenarians and, for the intellectually curious, in the account of Angle and a few others less readable. Only one somewhat well-known visual memory exists: a painting by Paul Cadmus, whom Life had commissioned to paint his Herrin Massacre in 1940, some 18 years after the event. But the editors found his interpretation to be too brutal for their readers. Cadmus, whose canvases evoke comparison with Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs, chose to show the deaths in the cemetery from pistol, tire iron, pitchfork, knife, and rope as a priapic orgy, the miners with lascivious Flemish countenances, eyes and lips reflecting the relish they are taking in their work, the dead and dying resembling victims of rape. A miner’s wife off to the side is about to stomp on the organs of one of the dying scabs.
The painting makes no room for the fear and frustration that motivated the union miners to become bestial in their vengeance and to show those who threatened their livelihood the justice they could expect in southern Illinois.
The voices of the participants and witnesses of the massacre are nearly stilled. Yet when those voices spoke out they seldom wavered. They were heard in unison as late as 1978, when Herrinites were interviewed for a radio program produced by the Southern Illinois University Broadcasting Service. Appropriately titled A Time We Forgot, the hour-long program juxtaposed innocence and arrogance, understanding and ignorance, righteousness and self-righteousness, and it demonstrated how those antitheses often are indistinguishable on matters such as this. The two interviewers found that “many . . . refused to talk” because “they didn’t want to open up old wounds.” But the words of the men and women who did talk are revelatory. They spoke as survivors who understood that the few hours of massacre determined much of the rest of their lives. They were a Greek chorus invoking the cliches of social and economic justice to assuage their collective guilt.
The interviews took place throughout the town. One of the few who allowed his name to be used (as if once on the air their distinctive voices could not be recognized by their neighbors) was Joe Walker, a local businessman who knew pragmatically that the community’s economy depended on the mines for 70 percent of its base. Walker’s reminiscence of the massacre droned on to the accompaniment of a spring robin singing nearby:
“In the 20s coal was everything because our farming didn’t amount to much. We developed and got our growth from the coal industry, and it developed when World War I started. . . . But after World War I when the coal business dropped off . . . why, of course . . . as far as I can remember it was always a union field and the United Mine Workers has been a strong organization.
“I was right here and right in the middle of [the massacre] and knew all about it. [Lester’s Southern Illinois Coal Company] was anxious to get in the coal business and didn’t know anything about the coal business. They got permission to lay track in there . . . why, they decided they’d bring in some armed guards.
“The union fellow here called up a representative of theirs in Chicago to investigate it. And the wire came back . . . that they were ordinary scabs. Well, what does this mean? They’d lied about some sort of union in Chicago, see?”
Walker, who had the instincts of a historian, was precise about the facts. But his perspective was that of the singular culture to which he owed his well-being. Massacre, we heard him say, is something that occurs when owners underestimate the resolve of union workers to protect their jobs. Owners, then, were responsible for the killings, not the coal miners who were motivated by a morality based on their sense of family, community, and religion. Walker explained:
“You find lots of character in coal miners. During World War I they led the parade of all the industries in the country to take a check-off to buy bonds. And you’ll find a coal miner, the high-grade people who came in here, the early settlers were those Scotch families, Templetons, Tregonings, they were high-grade people with good moral background. And they paid their debts. They realized that when the mine wasn’t workin’ and they was out of a job they wouldn’t be hardly expected to but they’d expect to make it up.”
Noticeably lacking was an acknowledgment of the miners of Italian Catholic descent, who were staunch backers of the union. Likely this was due to the fact that within months of the massacre the Protestants and Catholics became divided on the larger issues of prohibition and Americanism exacerbated by the Klan. Nevertheless, Walker’s words carried the certitude of an expert in public relations.
The rhetoric of the practical miners, their descendants, and then current union officials, at least one of whom had held elective office in Herrin, was more direct. Some were interviewed in a poolroom of one of the local clubs or halls that are still common in Herrin, perhaps the Eagles or Elks. In the recording, the clicks of the cue balls blend with the ritualistic intonations:
First Voice: “In 1922 it was hardscrabble and it was havin’ to fight for your life.”
Second Voice: “There was no relief like food stamps and all that crap like there is today.”
Third Voice: “The fellows who came in here to break that strike didn’t know what they were gettin’ into.”
Fourth Voice: “Hell, it was a matter of life and death. . . . You let one scab move in it’s just like a cancer. They was trying to nip it in the bud, you might say.”
First Voice: “They wasn’t acquainted with the union territory. The people in the community was dedicated. I’m a strong union man myself. Fact of the business is I believe in unions. If we didn’t have unions, why we’d be in slavery.”
Second Voice: “People was shocked to think people was killed. But they were upset to think that a man would come in here to take another man’s job and rob his family.”
First Voice: “I used to hobo around and went to Metropolis for the girls. [click] And comin’ back one time I saw the same guys layin’ over here dead that I come back on the caboose with from Metropolis and told ’em what they was gettin’ into. Couldn’t even talk. Hell, big Lithuanians, and Polacks, and Hungarians. Big guys! “We gotta work. We gotta work.’ I told ’em, hell, you’ll get killed, goddam it.”
click click click
Second Voice: “The way they did it in the 20s . . . what happened out here at Lester strip. If people think coal miners is such bad people maybe they should read their history a little bit and check on that Ludlow massacre out in Colorado–the coal company was owned by the Rockefellers–and find out how many coal miners and women and children were killed by these damn strikebreakers. Maybe that’d open their eyes.
“They had a strong belief back then that if you wasn’t a union man you wasn’t nothin’. It’s legend, it’s happened, it’s history.”
If the men were defensive of the massacre because they believed it helped to strengthen the union and their jobs, the women tended to see it as an extension of the inevitable bad luck that beset the community, bringing with it a condemnation from the rest of the country that was not deserved:
First Woman: “Back in the 20s the miners worked in the wintertime but they didn’t work in the summertime. And the wages weren’t too good and they had a hard time. . . . The miners had to make gardens to help raise their families.”
Second Woman: “The scab miners worked when the miners didn’t, and that’s the cause of the killings is because the nonunion workers from up north came down here and worked in open pits and that was the trouble.”
First Woman: “Well, [the massacre] wasn’t from Herrin. It wasn’t too much from Herrin goin’ on. It was other towns. Yeah. Surrounding towns. No. There wasn’t too many from Herrin that was into that. I don’t think.”
Second Woman: “That was a disgrace. That was a shame. But they killed ’em. I remember it well. I don’t like to see killing, but you can’t get me to say anything about unions.”
First Woman: “It was terrible at the time. Everybody was really tore up. But you couldn’t blame the union miners for it, takin’ their jobs. You couldn’t blame them. No.”
Second Woman: “Money is the root of all evil. It can buy anything off.”
First Woman: “I think the devil was at the bottom of all of it. Don’t you, really?”
Second Woman: (laughing nervously) “Well . . . times are really tired now. You don’t know what to say or think anymore.”
First Woman: “It’s almost better to keep your mouth shut.”
The strategy of silence has worked for Herrin. There is no legacy of guilt in this town of some 10,000. Its proximity to Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and its industry have immensely diversified its population, introducing over the last 70 years three generations of people who have had essentially no stake in the coal mines or their history.
No doubt the most startling change for those who knew Herrin before mid-century is that today there are a few blacks on the streets at night as well as by day. Blacks had been brought into the area as scabs in the strike of 1897. At first loathed and even killed, they gained the respect of the local miners for their mining skills and endurance. But association (D.H. Lawrence’s blood brotherhood) stopped at the pit exit, and black men often were made to take on a caricature of themselves in the clear light of day. (Paul Angle tells of a black miner who, egged on by racial slurs, was driven to frenzied attacks on the helpless scabs.) It wasn’t until 1951, the year I left for college, that blacks could attend the local high school. Even then, the citizens assumed they would be out of town by dark, unless they were on an athletic team. Before this I knew no blacks except for those at Ma Hatchett’s house of prostitution at Colp (or No. 9, the number of the local mine). Colp was two miles from the city limits. It could have been a hundred. On weekends when I was in high school, I would help deliver beer to Ma Hatchett’s and was often asked in for breakfast with the young mulattoes, who I thought were the most beautiful, sophisticated, and exciting women I would ever know. They told me they were on the “circuit” from Washington, D.C., to Detroit (where most seemed to be from) to Colp. I couldn’t understand why they let themselves be used by the white men who arrived at Ma Hatchett’s by pickup and Cadillac.
Herrin has long had a diversified economy, which though still enriched by the now environmentally alien soft-coal industry is no longer totally dependent upon it. Only 7,000 miners are at work in southern Illinois today. Herrin is included in that territory at the tit of Illinois some have dubbed “the land between the rivers” and others “Little Egypt,” a name given for the sustenance the region once provided the distant northern settlers of the state. Not far away on the Ohio River are those towns to which Illinois’ first settlers came. For those who travel I-57 south from Chicago, Herrin and Marion, the county seat, are the northern gateways to the Shawnee National Forest, which some refer to as the Illinois Ozarks and which encompasses the “Trail of Tears” the Shawnees took to Oklahoma. The towns now border man-made fishing meccas; and the nearby national forest, an almost subtropical wilderness, is peculiarly well suited to sustaining a thousand-year-old cypress swamp as well as to providing an isolated environment for the Marion maximum security federal prison, the institution that housed a few of the area’s most notorious prohibition gangsters of the late 20s. Yet modern accoutrements and institutions and the easy access to nature–juxtapositions that are common throughout the United States in the 1990s–have not been satisfactory guides to the darker side of humanity’s potential that the Herrin massacre and its consequences revealed.
Over the years there have been those who tried to put the massacre in perspective. Chief among them, perhaps, was the late Dan Malkovich, a newspaper and magazine publisher from Benton who was known to Illinoisans as the editor of the now-defunct Illinois Magazine. (If he were alive today, he might be better known as the father of actor John Malkovich.) Malkovich was also interviewed for A Time We Forgot. But his remarks stood in stark contrast to those of the people in Herrin, some 20 miles to Benton’s south. His was the perspective of an “outsider,” but even so, Malkovich–with a name that signifies his people came from a European country that knew coal–had the credentials to speak of the massacre. “My father,” he said in the 1978 broadcast, “was a coal miner. He had a pair of brass knucks and a .45 pistol. They’d get a call in the night to come. And I never could understand that. He would say, “It’s none of your business.”‘
Malkovich spoke knowledgeably about the denial of understanding to those outside the circle of whatever business is being done. The fact, of course, was that Malkovich did understand, but what he understood was painful for others to hear, for he was unrelentingly judgmental. His sense of history was antithetical to Joe Walker’s patriotic fervor. He spoke of World War I as having “turned on a lot of hatred” that “the government sponsored.” He explained, “The trouble is when the war was over you can’t just turn that off. Here in southern Illinois there was a lot of hate kind of built in. Ethnic hatred between various groups, immigrants, old settlers, and, for lack of a better name, redneck hillbilly types who come up from the south to work in the mines.” That hatred, said Malkovich, sparked the revival of the Ku Klux Klan and the Red Scare, “violence that has to do with religion.” Malkovich observed deliberately, “These kinds of things wash over into labor situations where there’s some real just causes.”
There was for Malkovich no good or evil in the issue. The issue was the propensity for human nature to trust in its own absolutisms and deny that others also may be right:
“The primary problem there was ignorance. . . . The fault was the guy who didn’t believe in unions; the fault was people who did believe in unions. . . . The thing to me is that when the members of the union gave their word that if strikebreakers laid down their guns and came out they’d be given safe conduct. And they weren’t given safe conduct. They were massacred. And I thought that was a disgraceful incident in southern Illinois history. I thought the people who perpetrated it were not very decent people. And I think that the incidents that happened . . . in that cemetery were just unbelievable. They were animal, and they were unforgivable.”
In response, one of the anonymous men in the poolroom seemed inadvertently to affirm Malkovich’s conclusion while hotly denying it:
“I don’t know whether he’s a businessman or not. But he’s probably an antiunion man. . . . If you are an antiunion man, which we have plenty of them around here, then they are going to do anything to make the union look bad. To me a guy like that is a son of a bitch. . . . When someone’s trying to take your living away from you you’re going to fight. Even a wild animal will do that.”
Although appalled by the treachery that led to the senseless killings, Malkovich remained ironically philosophical about the ease with which succeeding generations lost consciousness of the event. “In the 40s and 50s,” he said, there was a “cast of fear that prevailed after the short incident.” For the second generation, such an event is “a loose cloud that flits across the sky briefly.” For the third generation “it is folklore, ancient history.” Such is the state of things in Herrin and in the larger society.
But Malkovich knew the danger of letting such a tragedy pass so easily from society’s collective memory. He warned, “If you want to live in a civilized society, there are certain things you have to do. If you don’t, then, friend, look for things to come around the corner at you, because they’ll be out there.”
Those who now worship in the proud new First Baptist Church and live in the contemporary houses on the land where a half century ago I smoked catalpa and 20 years earlier there was a killing field may not have done those things Malkovich said they must. The past troubles them not at all, for they have no relationship with it. They remain blissfully unaware or uncaring of the blood shed on their children’s school yard, in their cemetery, and on the soil in which they now plant their gardens. They may have a sense of the sinister, for it is pervasive on television. They also know from television the indecencies of which humanity is capable. But such experience is derived. Few would suspect that the cyclops could be working at the local mall or that they themselves might be vulnerable.
The government long ago extinguished the sulfurous flames that once burned along the roadway, and owners of newly built houses insure themselves against subsidence in case their residences begin to sink into the warrens carved by union miners almost a century ago. Like the reclaimed coalscape itself, those who live upon its surface are comely and give the impression that it was always thus. There is no link, no relationship to the time that has been forgotten. For now there is a knowing without the need to understand. The work of our fathers is planted over.