Coal mining in the 19th and through much of the 20th centuries was dangerous as coal operators were interested in keeping costs down with little concern for miners’ safety, resulting in many disasters, such as mine collapses. A second major danger awaited union activist coal miners as they sought better working conditions and fairer wages. The operators often considered them a threat to mining profits and many activists were murdered.
Author John J. Wilson, a justice of the peace in Herminie, PA, discovered a forgotten crime against miners in Allegheny County, known as the Armstrong Massacre, while researching his book, “The History of Sewickley Township.” Wilson did an excellent job copying the 12-page record of the grand jury investigation into the massacre. Typewritten and single spaced, the grand jury’s probe provides a clear view into the murders that occurred, and that record is offered here for the historian, librarian or student of union history.
In 1874, Armstrong Mine owner Charles Armstrong recruited replacements for 100 striking miners in Westmoreland County. Armstrong went to New York and met a ship arriving from Europe with a group of Italian immigrants. Eager to work, they followed him back to Pennsylvania. A major gun battle occurred when the replacement workers shot it out with striking coal miners and other citizens directly across the river in Buena Vista, Elizabeth Township, Allegheny County.
The battle continued from October 25th, 1874 until November 29th. While several Italian immigrants were found guilty of “aggravated riot” and three striking miners lost their lives, no one served any jail time. Until the early 1960s, bullet holes from the gun battle were still visible in Buena Vista houses between the two rivers. Remodeling repaired most of the holes.
The incident is clearly detailed in the grand jury minutes. The grand jury record reflects a sincere effort to serve justice.
“...Some twenty- or twenty-five of the Italians crossed the Youghiogheny River with said arms with the avowed purpose of cleaning out the village...Some difficulty occurred on the Buena Vista side when firing commenced simultaneously by parties...unknown...The Italians remained on the Westmoreland side...The firing was kept up on both sides during the day.
“In the evening about eighty persons crossed the river below Buena Vista (during the day a large number having collected on the Buena Vista side) and to positions on the hill immediately back of Armstrong Coal Works and opened fire on the Italians.
“From this firing and gun battle three Italian coal miners were killed. There was a coroner’s inquest at Armstrong but they could arrive at no verdict.
“After Governor J. H. Hartranft made remarks about this incident in his annual message to the General Assembly in January 1875, Judge James A. Logan brought it to the attention of the February Grand Jury.”
“The Grand Jury indicted several men, among them Charles E. Armstrong, owner of the mine, and Frederick Gussetti, for aggravated riot. After a long trial, they were found guilty...”
The minutes illustrate the granular thinking of those in charge of the investigation. “...If, therefore, you find that this body of eighty men from whom the fatal shots came, were acting together in the pursuit of a common criminal purpose, to wit: discharging loaded arms against the persons of the Italians aggressively, then they were all guilty of these deaths. And when you found any of them you have found the criminal, although you may not be able to fix definitely the individuals who fired the identical shots which carried with them the message of death to the unfortunate three who fell.
“Again, if on the part of the Italians, the assault appeared to be unwarrantedly begun...all those taken part therein, as well as their aiders and abettors, would be guilty of such assault or riot...”
Overall a fascinating examination into a massacre that resembled many others before and after aimed at quelling striking coal miners who were seeking safe working conditions and a fair wage.
The lot includes his original typewritten copy with his corrections and copies.
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