The history of the Progressive Miners Union in Illinois during the Great Depression reveals collusion by the FBI, Peabody Coal and the UMW to bring down the radical union.
by C.D. Stelzer
first published in Illinois Times, June 20, 2007.
Bill Warner never knew how close he came to dying. After clocking out at the Mount Olive, Ill., waterworks around midnight, he decided to walk home by way of the Union Miners Cemetery. Entering the graveyard, he ambled past the tombstones, pausing to gaze from afar at the silhouette of a shrouded monument. He then strode to within a couple of feet of the cloaked obelisk and again stopped in his tracks. Warner had no idea that every move he made was being watched by eight men, each aiming a shotgun in his direction, finger on the trigger.
Nor would the former coal miner ever learn that his near-death experience would become part of the region’s storied labor history. Decades later, after Warner had died of natural causes, Joseph Ozanic Sr. recounted the incident from the perspective of one of the gunmen lurking in the shadows. Unbeknownst to Warner on that long-ago night in the autumn of 1936, he had walked into a trap set by members of Local 728 of the Progressive Miners of America, the owner of the cemetery.
Mary Harris Jones, aka, Mother Jones.
“The good Lord must have been with him,” recalled Ozanic, former PMA state president. “Had his curiosity got the best of him to the extent that he might have tried to raise the veil up to see that marble, eight shotguns would have hit him from eight directions.”
Warner had likely made his nocturnal pilgrimage to pay an advance tribute to the woman for whom the monument would be publicly dedicated less than a week later. On Oct. 11, 1936, an estimated 50,000 people jammed the cemetery to honor legendary labor organizer Mary Harris Jones, better known as Mother Jones. Ozanic and his comrades had staked out the cemetery for several nights before the ceremony because they had heard rumors that the rival United Mine Workers union, under the autocratic rule of John L. Lewis, planned to blow up the monument.
Their vigilance was warranted.
Bombings, shootings, and other violence were common during the labor strife of the 1930s, when the two unions battled for supremacy in the central-Illinois coalfields. The tale of graveyard guard duty is buried among thousands of pages of transcribed interviews conducted by the Office of Oral History at Sangamon State University (which has since become the University of Illinois at Springfield) in the 1970s and 1980s, now available online. The recollections of the miners and their family members provide an invaluable historical context for understanding the struggles they endured.
This weekend the town of Mount Olive will hold its third annual Mother Jones Festival to honor the area’s labor heritage. The festivities will include a homecoming parade, carnival rides, and an arts-and-crafts show. A memorial service at the Mother Jones monument is also scheduled. Those who attend may also pay their respects to Ozanic, who died in 1978 and is buried nearby.
As evidenced by his anecdote, the Mother Jones monument not only symbolizes labor’s struggles but actually became a part of them. Before her death in 1930, at the age of 100, Jones — an avowed foe of Lewis — had requested that her remains be buried in the Union Miners Cemetery with the martyrs of the Virden massacre, who died in 1898 during an earlier strike against Illinois coal operators. When the PMA decided to rebury Jones’ body in front of the monument, the UMW sued to stop the exhumation of her unmarked grave.
UMW President John L. Lewis
Six years after she died, Mother Jones still commanded the attention and respect of organized labor. Lewis — fearing the labor matriarch’s iconic influence — had UMW attorneys file a restraining order that painted the PMA members more or less as ghouls. “He sought to make it appear that we were going to unearth graves and scatter bones of the dead in our cemetery,” recalled Ozanic. “Of course, we countered in court and proved that he was a damn liar. . . . And then we proceeded. We raised the funds and everything was set up, and oh, Jesus, what a deal it was! It really shook him and rocked old John L. and his corrupt outfit like nothing else.”
The PMA and its women’s auxiliary had somehow managed to raise more than $16,000 in the middle of the Great Depression to build the 20-foot-tall granite shaft, which bears a bas-relief of Jones and is flanked by bronze statutes of two coal miners. The outlay represented a lofty sum for the cash-strapped union, most of whose members had been on strike since the PMA had organized itself, in 1932, to oppose Lewis’ despotic control over the UMW. Through the monument, the PMA and its supporters had won a major publicity coup by attaching their democratic labor movement to the memory of Mother Jones.
But the victory was short lived.
Within two months of the monument’s unveiling, a federal grand jury in Springfield charged 41 PMA members with conspiracy to disrupt interstate commerce and impede mail delivery in connection with 23 bombings and six attempted bombings of railroad property between December 1932 and August 1935. The trial, which took place a year later, lasted more than a month and featured 388 witnesses. With each passing day’s testimony, tensions welled higher. The judge, at one point, threatened to clear the courtroom because of outbursts by PMA supporters.
The Progressive Miners of America were targeted by the FBI, UMW and Peabody Coal.
In another instance, a defense attorney tussled with a Springfield police detective in the third-floor corridor of the courthouse. The courtroom drama garnered front-page headlines in both of Springfield’s daily newspapers for weeks. Lengthy accounts detailed legal strategies, summarized testimonies, and noted the many prosecutorial objections sustained by the bench.
Outside the courtroom, however, larger forces played a critical role in the fate of the defendants. Lewis began his career in the Illinois coalfields, but by the 1930s he was vying for national power. With the UMW as his base, he bolted from the American Federation of Labor to head the Congress of Industrial Organizations, which was then organizing millions of American factory workers. To secure future influence in labor matters, the UMW also contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars to the presidential campaign of Franklin D. Roosevelt.
The UMW’s generosity may partly explain the Roosevelt administration’s interest in the case. After a year-long FBI investigation, the Justice Department dispatched U.S. Assistant Attorney General Welly K. Hopkins to Springfield. He used the newly enacted federal anti-racketeering law for the first time to try the case.
Ultimately three defendants received early acquittals from the judge. The court released another individual for lack of evidence and excused yet another because of poor health. Despite the vast amount of evidence and the overall complexity of the case, the jury deliberated for just over three hours before delivering the verdict on the remaining 36 defendants.
All were found guilty as charged and sentenced to federal prison. The guilty verdicts, delivered in December 1937, presaged the gradual decline of the PMA. A few years later, Roosevelt pardoned all of the convicted miners, but not before they had served their prison sentences.
By then the PMA had suffered more setbacks in its efforts to negotiate contracts with coal operators in Illinois and elsewhere. In each case, federal labor rulings always favored the UMW over the PMA. With its membership rolls dwindling, the upstart union no longer could challenge Lewis’ omnipotence.
On its face, justice appeared to have been served.
The violence alleged to have been perpetrated by the PMA had been punished by the rule of law. A photograph in the Illinois State Journal, which appeared the day after the verdict, shows the prosecution team smiling, as they read all about their victory in an extra edition of the same newspaper. In the photo, lead prosecutor Hopkins is resting his arm on the shoulder of George A. Stevens, the FBI agent who investigated the case.
To Springfield labor historian Carl Oblinger, the outcome of the trial was as staged as the photograph. “It was a charade,” he says. “There was nothing connecting the PMA guys to conspiracy.” On the contrary, Oblinger says, a conspiracy was perpetrated against the PMA. The historian bases his opinion on FBI memos sent to the attorney general prior to the grand-jury investigation in the fall of 1936. He discovered the documents recently while conducting research at the National Archives, in College Park, Md.
Oblinger, who headed the oral-history project at Sangamon State 20 years ago, is the author of the 1991 book Divided Kingdom: Work, Community, and the Mining Wars in the Central Illinois Coal Fields During the Great Depression, reissued by the Illinois Historical Society three years ago. Since then Oblinger has continued to sift through historical records to better understand the events that culminated in the trial.
“The United Mine Workers, Peabody Coal, and the federal government — through the FBI — had this already taken care of before the trial began,” Oblinger says. “The most obvious collusion was allowing the UMW goons into the grand-jury room. . . . The witnesses were specifically picked by the UMW and brought to the grand-jury room for dramatic but not substantive value. They were actors.”
If the story of the Illinois mining wars ever hit the big screen, the opening scenes might take place in the Taylorville law office of Reese & Reese, where Daniel G. Reese, the firm’s senior partner, shares cramped quarters with son Lindsey.
One afternoon last month, the 79-year-old former mayor of the town sat behind his cluttered desk and reminisced about one of his earliest childhood memories: the repeated bombing of his parents’ home in 1933.
“Oh yeah, I remember all of it,” Reese says. “I was about 5 years old. In fact, I was in the house when they bombed it both times. They bombed the garage and blew up the car. They also bombed the front porch. . . . ” Reese recalls talking to the National Guardsmen who patrolled around his house after the explosions occurred. He also remembers seeing the roadblocks set up by the state militia on the edge of town. He recalls listening to radio broadcasts that reported shootings on the streets of Taylorville related to the labor conflict. Reese remembers the taunts of schoolmates, too.
More than 70 years later, the elderly attorney still isn’t sure whom to blame for the bombings that rocked his childhood residence at 120 N. Madison St., but he is quite clear about who wasn’t responsible.
“Obviously they didn’t represent the Progressive Mine workers,” he says. It’s a reasonable deduction. His father, Leal Reese, also an attorney, represented the PMA in 1933.
Reese downplays the bombings, saying that he believes that they were only meant to send his father a message, not to kill or maim. He tends to blame the violence of the era more on human nature than on anything else. In hindsight, Reese says, the idea of two labor unions’ fighting each other makes no more sense than religious warfare. Besides, it all happened so long ago. The rancor of those bygone days has vanished and been forgotten, Reese says. Those who were involved are all dead. It is as if time has served as an anodyne. And then a name pops into the conservation that jars his memory.
“That’s it — Argust! Everybody has always told me that if it hadn’t had been for Argust we wouldn’t have had this darn fight,” Reese says. “Everybody says he was at fault.” He is referring to the late Ward C. Argust, Peabody Coal’s division superintendent in Taylorville. From 1922 to 1937, Argust oversaw the coal company’s Midland tract, which included four mines in Christian County. The mine superintendent also took part in the contentious contract negotiations with the UMW in 1932. Illinois miners went on strike April 1 of that year over wage and manpower issues. The union wanted a reduction in weekly work hours to stave off job losses resulting from mechanization. The coal operators rejected that proposal and additionally sought to slash wages from $6.10 to $5 a day, though the miners had accepted a substantial wage cut two years earlier.
With the bargaining at an impasse, UMW District 12 leadership reluctantly requested that Lewis intercede. Asking for his help was an extraordinary concession in itself because union miners in Illinois had long valued their autonomy and resented the international president’s heavy-handedness. In July, Lewis pushed for acceptance of the coal operators’ latest proposal, which varied little from the original offer. Illinois miners again turned down the contract.
Lewis immediately called for another vote on what was essentially the same package in early August — but before the ballots could be tallied they were stolen off the street in Springfield. Lewis then declared an emergency and signed the contested contract without the consent of the rank and file.
All hell broke loose.
Union miners rebelled. Mass demonstrations erupted in mining towns throughout central and southern Illinois. In late August, thousands of unarmed miners set out from Gillespie to rally support in Southern Illinois. Their caravan was ambushed near Mulkeytown, in Franklin County. Several miners were wounded by sniper fire.
Rather than quell the dissent, the surprise attack spurred further militancy. On Sept. 1, 1932, 272 delegates — representing more than 30,000 miners in the state — convened at the Colonial Theater in Gillespie and voted to break with the UMW and form the Progressive Miners of America.
In Taylorville, Argust watched the unrest escalate, and 12,000 striking miners converged on the city on Aug. 18. To his chagrin, the mass picketing temporarily shut down production in Peabody’s profitable Midland tract, including Mine No. 58.
In his later testimony, Argust identified several of the defendants in the PMA bombing trial as leaders of the protest that continued for days: “They blocked all the roads. I saw the mob that marched in. I saw the picket lines. I saw men in the park, on the public square in Kincaid, and along the highways and roads leading to the mine properties. On many occasions, men were around my house yelling.” Argust’s hired thugs would soon strike back with more than words.
Today the land above the abandoned Mine No. 58, on the outskirts of Taylorville, is the site of Midwest Recycling, a scrap yard that harbors everything from an airplane fuselage to mangled bicycle frames and trashed computer monitors. The tipple is long gone, the mine shaft covered over. Vestiges of the old railroad tracks are barely visible in a path now traveled by salvagers driving pickup trucks and tractors. A junkyard dog eyes visitors warily as they walk by a couple of old brick buildings that were part of the original mining operation.
Inside one of the structures is a tag board that hundreds of coal miners once used to keep track of who was working underground. The boards doubled as places for miners to keep their pistols during working hours. The sidearms that coal miners toted around for self-protection back in those days, however, were peashooters compared to the arsenal that Argust kept in the supervisors’ washhouse at Mine No. 58.
Vernon Vickery worked at the washhouse from November 1932 until April 1935, according to testimony he gave on behalf of the defense in the bombing trial. Under questioning by chief defense counsel A.M. Fitzgerald, Vickery explained that he took orders directly from Argust.
“We used the washhouse to store dynamite, arms, ammunition, and machine guns,” Vickery told the court. The witness said that he and the mine superintendent had exclusive access to the weapons cache and that he was instructed by Argust to distribute the dynamite “only to those that I knew as okay, which consisted of his regular bomb squad.”
Like Vickery, the “bomb squad” members were ex-convicts who had in many cases gained early release from prison through the intervention of Peabody officials. Vickery further testified that Peabody employed out-of-state strikebreakers, paid informants to spy on PMA activities, and bankrolled armed goons, including himself, to beat up striking miners.
Vickery also said that Argust took over the Christian County Sheriff’s Department, hiring and deputizing between 100 to 150 men, who were paid for their services by Peabody Coal. Vickery claimed that Argust ordered the bomb squad to target private residences, a Baptist church, and Tango Joe’s, a Taylorville saloon frequented by strikers.
He cited other instances in which the bomb squad intentionally destroyed company property to give the appearance that the acts of violence were carried out by the PMA. He indicated, for example, that the bombings of the Daily Breeze newspaper office and UMW office in Taylorville on Sept. 18, 1932, were carried out under Argust’s direction to force the Illinois governor to call out the National Guard to help break the strike. Vickery identified the bomber of the newspaper and union headquarters as Merle Cottom.
In prior testimony, Argust had denied many of these same accusations — but he did admit under oath to employing as many as eight “undercover men,” including Cottom.
Two of Argust’s paid informants ended up defendants in the bombing trial. One of them, John “Jack” Stanley, the president of the PMA’s Taylorville local, had his own house bombed twice. Vickery testified that on July 23, 1933, he distributed dynamite to four members of the bomb squad. One bomb exploded later that night at Peabody Mine No. 7, near Kincaid, he said. Another explosion, on the same night, damaged the Stanley residence in Taylorville.
Stanley’s bodyguard sustained gunshot wounds in the attack. Stanley and his bodyguard sued Peabody Coal and two of the bomb-squad thugs. Stanley testified that he and his bodyguard received out-of-court settlements from the company after discussions with Argust.
The defense established that the Christian County state’s attorney and his law partner, who represented Peabody, negotiated the settlement. Outstanding criminal charges against the alleged bombers were then reduced to misdemeanors, and one of the men was later issued a UMW union card and given a job at a Peabody mine in the area.
To refute Vickery’s testimony, the prosecution called on his parents, who described their son as delusional and untrustworthy. Nonetheless, the prosecution never charged him with perjury.
As for Argust, he fell ill shortly after appearing as a prosecution witness, which prevented the defense from recalling him. He died in a Chicago hospital on the last day of the trial.
In the final weeks of the trial, one defendant after another took the stand and denied the charges.
One of the accused, Edris Mabie, couldn’t speak for himself because he had been shot and killed in front of the PMA union hall in downtown Springfield on Easter Sunday 1935. Springfield police arrested UMW district president Ray Edmundson and Fred Thomasson, a former member of Charlie Birger’s gang, for the murder — but the case was dropped for unknown reasons.
Throughout the trial, Fitzgerald, the chief defense attorney, charged that his clients were the victims of a frame-up. In his closing arguments, he questioned at length the relationship among Stevens, the FBI’s lead investigator, and members of the UMW in putting together the case that led to the indictments. The questions he raised are the same as those asked now by Oblinger, the labor historian.
“If you put all of this together, including court transcriptions and the depositions, the FBI reports . . . the archive materials that are connected to this stuff — this [becomes] a larger conspiracy,” Oblinger says. “It’s not a conspiracy, really, of backroom secret deals. This is pretty public stuff. A lot of people knew this. They’re all dead now.”
One of those people, says Oblinger, was his father, Walter L. Oblinger, who served as an FBI agent in Springfield in the 1940s. Shortly before he died, the former G-man made a confession to his son. The labor historian says his father told him this:
“There was collusion in this case, beginning in 1933, between the owners, John L. [Lewis] and the federal government. The mine owners and the UMW were fighting an economic battle with the PMA in Illinois to determine who would control the pace of mechanization, the means of production, and representation of the miners. That’s where we [the FBI] came in. In 1935, ’36, and ’37, we sabotaged the PMA with UMW money and muscle, a fixed jury, and a trial based on perjured testimony, stool pigeons, and intimidation. They [the PMA] didn’t have a chance. . . . ”
On two flanks of the Mother Jones monument in Mount Olive are bronze plaques listing the names of 21 PMA members who died during the mining wars. PMA attorney Fitzgerald asked that those names be read into the court record on the first day of defense testimony.
Among the martyrs was Fred D. Gramlich, who was shot with a high-powered rifle through the window of his Springfield tavern on the night of May 27, 1936. His son Arthur “Art” Gramlich, who was wounded a year earlier in the Easter Sunday shooting, was named lead defendant in the bombing trial.
Art Gramlich (courtesy of the Sangamon County Historical Society.
In 1972, the younger Gramlich, by then 68 years old, agreed to be interviewed as a part of the oral-history project at Sangamon State. The interview took place at his daughter’s dining-room table. Kitchen clatter can be heard in the background. Gramlich displayed tattoos on both arms and on the knuckles of his gnarled hands. He had only partial use of his left forearm as a result of a gunshot wound he sustained decades earlier.
According to the handwritten notes of the interviewer, Gramlich wanted immediate assurance from him that he wasn’t an FBI agent. After being convinced, Gramlich chained-smoked for nearly two hours as he recounted his life. Toward the end of the interview, Gramlich said that in late 1936 — only months after his father’s violent death — an FBI agent offered him a $10,000 bribe to implicate his fellow PMA members in the bombing campaign.
“I couldn’t have hated him any worse right then,” said Gramlich. “I said, ‘You goddamn son of a bitch, why don’t you go look and try to find who blowed my old man’s heart out? He’s dead, but your goddamn stinking railroads and your mail ain’t dead. I don’t know nothing about it and you ain’t going to find anything about it.”
According to Gramlich, the agent replied: “‘Well, just the same, we’ll have your ass before it’s over.’ ”