The Ludlow Massacre

The tent city after the Ludlow Massacre. By Bain News Service - This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs divisionunder the digital ID ggbain.15859.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing., Public Domain,
Ruins of the Ludlow Colony in the aftermath of the massacre

On April 20, 1914 the Colorado National Guard and private security guards opened fire on a mining camp in the Ludlow Massacre, in Ludlow, Colorado, killing 21 people, including women, and at least twelve children. By the end of the strike, they had killed more than 75 people (over 200 from 1913-1914). Colorado Fuel and Iron Company (CF&I), owner of the mine, had recently testified before Congress for its role in strike-breaking. The investigations that followed placed the blame for the massacre on CF&I, which was run by John D. Rockefeller Jr., the richest man in U.S. history, (worth $410 billion in 2022 dollars.)

The Colorado Coalfield War

Three women, wives of striking coal miners, and their children stand outside of a tent at the Ludlow colony. By Unknown author -, Public Domain,
Three women, wives of striking coal miners, and their children stand outside of a tent at the Ludlow colony.

The massacre was part of the 1913–1914 Colorado Coalfield War. The United Mine Workers of America led this strike against the deplorable working conditions. Mining was (and still is) a dangerous job. At the time, Colorado miners were dying on the job at a rate of more than 7 deaths per 1,000 employees, double the national average. The working conditions were not only unsafe, but terribly unfair, too. Workers were paid by the ton for coal that they extracted. But they weren’t paid for so-called “dead work” like shoring up unstable roofs and tunnels. This system encouraged miners to risk their lives by ignoring safety precautions and preparations so that they would have more time to extract and deliver coal.

Miners also lived in “company towns” where the boss not only owned their housing, and the stores that supplied their food and clothing, but charged inflated prices for these services. Furthermore, the workers were paid in “scrip,” a currency that was valid only in the company towns. So, even if workers had a way to get to another store, they had no money to purchase anything. Therefore, much of what the miners earned went back into the pockets of their bosses. The bosses hired armed thugs to police their company towns with machine guns. The thugs imposed strict curfews and punished any suspicious behavior with eviction. And the Baldwin-Felts thugs also drove around the miners’ camps in an armored car, mounted with a machine gun, randomly firing into tents, sometimes maiming or killing miners, women and children. They called this vehicle the “Death Special.”

Baldwin–Felts armored car known as the "Death Special" with mounted M1895 machine gun. PD-US,
Baldwin–Felts armored car known as the “Death Special” with mounted M1895 machine gun.

10,000 miners participated in the Ludlow strike. 1,200 miners and their family members had been living in the Ludlow tent colony. Many of the “Guards” were actually goons and vigilantes hired by Rockefeller to intimidate the miners. And the private cops were from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, same company that later participated in the Matewan Massacre, and the Battle of Blair Mountain, in West Virginia. During the assault on the Ludlow camp, they opened fire on strikers and their families with machine guns, and set fire to the camp.

The Ludlow Massacre Was Part of the Deadliest Strike in U.S. History

Mother Earth Vol 7 No. 4, cover dated June 1912. PD-US,
Mother Earth Vol 7 No. 4, cover

Historian Thomas G. Andrews called the 1913-1914 Colorado Coalfield war the “deadliest strike in the history of the United States.” Howard Zinn described it as “the culminating act of perhaps the most violent struggle between corporate power and laboring men in American history.” And with 200 strikers, and family members, killed in that period, it certainly had the highest body count. However, there were ongoing strikes and massacres in the Colorado mining industry going back to before the UMWA even existed. Big Bill Haywood, a founding member of the IWW, cut his teeth there in the late 1800s, as an organizer for the Western Federation of Miners. There were the Colorado Labor Wars of 1903-1904, in which authorities slaughtered, imprisoned, and deported scores of union miners. And in 1921, police and company thugs slaughter six IWW organizers in the original Columbine Massacre.

Julia May Courtney, writing for Emma Goldman’s anarchist paper, “Mother Earth,” reported that 55 women and children died in the Ludlow Massacre. According to her account, the militia went from “tent to tent, poured oil on the flimsy structures, setting fire to them. From the blazing tents rushed the women and children, only to be beaten back into the fire by the rain of bullets from the militia.” She also wrote that “One man counted the bodies of nine little children, taken from one ashy pit, their tiny fingers burned away as they held to the edge in their struggle to escape … thugs in State uniform hacked at the lifeless forms, in some instances nearly cutting off heads and limbs to show their contempt for the strikers.” 


Berkman's attempt to assassinate Frick, as illustrated by W. P. Snyder for Harper's Weekly in 1892. By Drawn by W. P. Snyder - Harper's Weekly, August 6, 1892, available at the Internet Archive, p. 749, Public Domain,
Berkman’s attempt to assassinate Frick

In the wake of the Ludlow Massacre, bands of armed miners attacked mine guards and anti-union establishments. In nearby Trinidad, they openly distributed arms from the UMWA headquarters. Over the next ten days, miners attacked mines, killing or driving off guards and scabs, and setting building on fire. They also fought sporadic skirmishes with the Colorado National Guard. President Woodrow Wilson sent in federal troops, which ultimately quashed the uprising.

In June of 1914, a number of anarchists decided to seek revenge on Rockefeller. Alexander Berkman (a former lover, and friend, of Emma Goldman) helped plan the assassination at the New York Ferrer Center. This was also the home to the anarchist Modern School, which Berkman helped create.  However, the bomb exploded prematurely, killing three anarchists. These events led to infiltration of the school and center by undercover cops. Visitors and families stopped coming to the school. Organizers decided to move the school to rural Stelton, in 1915, where it operated into the 1940s. (Berkman had previously served 14 years in prison for attempting to assassinate Henry Clay Frick. Frick was responsible for the massacre of seven striking steelworkers during the Homestead Strike, in 1892.)

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