A Turning Point: The Lasting Impact of the 1898 Virden Mine Riot
Markwell, David, Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society
The labor history of American coal mining in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth centuries contains an endless litany of violence, disasters, strikes, and deaths. In order for one particular event to merit study during this era, a contextual understanding of the occurrence is necessary, and the lasting impact of the event needs to be addressed. Narrowing the topic of coal mining to the state of Illinois unveils a different dynamic for investigation. Targeting the event at Virden on 12 October 1898 demonstrates how the impact of this single event in this small community influenced the lives of untold thousands over the course of the twentieth century.
The primary significance of the incident at Virden is that it marks the beginning of the end of the feudalism that characterized the Illinois coalfields and late nineteenth-century industrialism in general. The term "feudalism" hearkens back to the medieval era, yet this phrase was in use at the turn of the twentieth century to describe the operating system under which industrial capitalism operated. The feudal lords in this American scenario were not English kings, but the business owners who ruled their "kingdoms" in often-isolated communities. The "serfs" were those employed by the owners, and by proxy, the miners' wives and children. The power that the owners exercised over the lives of their workers illustrates just why this term was in use. Countless battles by labor over the forty years prior to Virden perhaps raised the level of militancy among the working class and increased the inevitability that the days of this practice were numbered, but in specific terms, these confrontations produced few immediate effects and ended in defeat.
The part the Virden miners play, as well as workers throughout America at this time, serves as the primary catalyst for change. However, the response of government, either in an active, or in the case of Virden, passive way cannot be overlooked as to how the shift occurred and change came. By condoning the existing system, or as at the 1892 Homestead, Pennsylvania strike, actively engaging armed troops against labor efforts, government allowed the status quo to continue until the will of the majority forced a new reality to take hold. It is in the details of the Virden incident and the response of Illinois Governor John R. Tanner that this better understanding of the significance of Virden is realized.
Early efforts toward organization did little to improve the lot of the majority of coal miners, but these attempts did set the theory in motion that only through a united effort could the miners voice their grievances and be heard. The first attempt at organizing the Illinois coalfields came in 1860 when the American Miner's Association emerged from a strike in the Belleville area. Coal operators rescinded a proposed wage cut and the union won a number of small victories before going into sharp decline after the Civil War.1
The bomb that exploded in Haymarket Square in Chicago in 1886 brought the attention of the nation to workers' conditions. The repercussions among the working class led to increased militancy and firmer resolve. The response of government was to hang four of the most vocal members of Chicago's radical labor circle on spurious charges related to the bombing. The events in Chicago had little effect in the lives of the downstate coal miners, but the connection from Haymarket to Virden appears by following the actions of then Governor John Peter Altgeld and his pardoning of three condemned alleged Haymarket conspirators.
The government action involved in the Pullman Strike of 1894 serves as the most striking contrast to what occurred in Virden four years later. This national event again brought attention to labor unrest in the state of Illinois. Railroad car manufacturer George Pullman epitomized industrial feudalism to an almost unmatched degree. He established his privately owned company city on the outskirts of Chicago. …