Ludlow Massacre or unhappy incident?

Ludlow Tent Colony 1914
COLORADO COLLEGE- CC is holding a symposium on the 1914 Ludlow Massacre. Actually, it’s only called the Ludlow Symposium. True to Colorado Springs form, several among the audience want to call it an “incidence,” instead of a “massacre.” One of the participants, author Scott Martelle, is willing to oblige, explaining that if the militia hadn’t known that women and children were taking shelter beneath the tents which they were putting to the torch, then the soldiers were guilty only of criminally negligent homicide.

(*Note 4/12/09: this article has been revised in light of helpful comments offered by symposium participants. Also: Differences of opinion aside, I am remiss if I do not praise the scholars who were very generous with their time and encyclopedic memories to enrich this symposium.
1. CC’s own Professor David Mason authored an evocative narrative of lives caught up in the 1914 events, written in verse, entitled Ludlow.
2. Journalist Scott Thomas researched the most recent definitive account to date, the 2007 Blood Passion: the Ludlow Massacre and Class War in the American West.
3. Thomas Andrews, Associate Professor at CU Denver, enlarged the context in 2008 with his award winning Killing For Coal: America’s Deadliest Labor War.
4. Zeese Papanikolas represented his authorative Buried Unsung: Louis Tikas and the Ludlow Massacre, written in 1984.)

Does it matter what it’s called, or with what certainty? The symposium is filled with public school system educators looking for an angle with which to approach Ludlow with their kids. One of them expresses her doubt about teaching about Mother Jones, having just heard from the panelists a probably too-nuanced assessment of the labor hero’s tactics. The political climate of our age can’t find any purchase with moral nuance.

I’m stuck thinking that in recording social history, scholars cannot avoid writing the victor’s narrative. In particular as regards the history of labor, because neither academics nor even middle class hobbyists in the symposium’s audience can look at the events from the perspective of the working class.

Even the scholar’s objectivity is middle class. The opinion was expressed by the panel that the Ludlow aftermath was one of the few occasions when the story was spun to the benefit of labor interests. But this does not account for why authors and educators find themselves having to resurrect the tale of Ludlow these many years later. When it occurred, Americans may have swallowed the hyperbole, but since that time they’ve internalized its internment, effaced by a corporate culture so as to have disappeared from even our school textbooks.

I think this may have been something of the question posed by symposium organizer Jaime Stevensen to the panel, when she asked how the authors insulated themselves from the fictions woven into their own perspectives of history. She didn’t get any takers.

The very concept that history adds up to only so much trivial pursuit, is inherently a view from the ivory tower. BLOOD PASSION by Scott Martelle Do the Ludlow scholars not recognize that common people today face the same foes as did the miners of Ludlow? With the added impediment of a corporate PR system erasing its malevolent deeds. Have not American unions been maligned to the point of extinction? Yet at the same time, capitalists have thoroughly reprised their Machiavellian ways. History can be a tool, not only for statecraft, but for the common American to protect his hard-fought democratic gains.

The United Mine Workers of America having successfully spun the deaths of the striking miner families as a “massacre” may have made an unmerited impact on the public’s sympathies, but likewise, deciding to call Ludlow “not a massacre” will be falsely charged as well. Is there a valuable lesson in unlearning that unbridled corporate greed can be unthinkably inhumane?

OUT OF THE DEPTHS by Barron BeshoarHistorians can fancy themselves objective to ambivalence, but is that a luxury their readers and in particular the schoolchildren can afford? As we witness today the gloves coming off of the globalisation taskmasters?

How I prefer the emotional truth of earlier chroniclers like Barron Beshoar, author of OUT OF THE DEPTHS, a 1942 account of Ludlow, whose preface included this gem:

“If the mine guards and detectives, the mercenaries who served as the Gestapo and the coal districts appear to be scoundrels who sold themselves and their fellowmen for a few corporation dollars, the author will consider them adequately presented.”

KILLING FOR COAL by Thomas AndrewsAt Colorado College the consensus of contemporary historical synthesis, embodied by CU Denver’s Thomas Andrews‘ excellent book KILLING FOR COAL, seems to conclude about Ludlow, “we may never know exactly what happened.” This may reflect the Factual Truth, but it does so at the expense of unrecorded oral accounts, by depreciating their traditional path to us through of folklore.

Buried UnsungAnother author made pains to debunk the lyrics “Sixteen tons, and what do you get, another day older and deeper in debt,” a cultural indictment of the “company store,” which was one of the grievances of the Ludlow strikers. He postulated that modern readers could be prone to let folklore color a predisposition against the company store. Perhaps a company store was in fact a convenience, derided because it was an arbitrary restriction against which human nature bucked. Trying to be helpful, another panelist suggested: “Imagine if the company store was 7-11, and you were told you could only shop there.” I believe both of these gentlemen are overlooking the much grosser complaint which the miners were protesting, that of insurmountable debt, systematically forced on them by their employers. That’s a phenomena on the rise today, if maybe not among college professors. Around the world, indentured servitude has never abated.

In our ivory tower we can debate which side, the union or the militia, fired the first shots on April 20. Who was at fault, seemed to be what that question would decide. At least panelist Anne Hyde had the presence of mind to lay some of the responsibility on the mine owners, who weren’t there of course, but whose stubborn greed played a not unsubstantial part in what the other panelists were attributing to “macho intransigence.”

That expression was in vogue to describe Cowboy presidencies. What an effete put down of militant activism. Are we to blame the striking miners for holding firm to their demands?

Thank goodness someone in the audience brought up recent efforts to deny the Sand Creek Massacre, which two panelists quickly weighed in to say “that was a real massacre,” discrediting Ludlow, obviously, and failing to grasp her point that indeed some Colorado Springs locals are rewriting Sand Creek as a battle, and not a massacre.

Another isolationist luxury has become to judge every action as it compares to a nonviolent ideal. It was noted that UMWA union leader John Lawson always recused himself from violent tactics. During the symposium’s opening reception, someone performed a song dedicated to the Ludlow martyr Louis Tikas, which lauded him for choosing to fight with words not guns, as if guns would discredit him.

I’ll play devil’s advocate and suggest that the miners fired the first shots. They saw Louis Tikas bludgeoned in the back of the head and then executed as he lay on the ground unconscious, they saw the National Guard move a machine gun into position above their tent city, and they probably began to fire at the soldiers lest a rain of bullets descend on miners’ wives and children before they had a chance to flee the camp.

The miners were asking that their union be recognized, that the Colorado eight hour work day be enforced, that the scales which determined their pay be verified, that their full hours be compensated, etc. The mine owners clung to their profits, and ordered the miners’ tent city, their only shelter and all their worldly possessions burned to the ground. Women and children were hiding in underground pits dug to escape the sniper fire which the mine guards sporadically aimed at the tents. The guards drove an armored car around the perimeter of the union camp, at all hours, for that purpose.

Ultimately this climate erupted into the violent clash on April 20, 1914, in which the miners battled with the far better equipped soldiers. The casualties were 25 to 1. I call that a massacre.

ADDENDUM: Photographs from visit to the Ludlow Memorial.
Site of Ludlow Massacre, photographed 2009
LUDLOW MEMORIAL, COLORADO- Day three of the Colorado College Ludlow Symposium featured a bus ride to the site of the 1914 Ludlow Massacre, then on to Trinidad to the grave of Union leader Louis Tikas. A reporter for Colorado Public Radio interviewed the symposium panelists at the U.M.W.A. memorial grounds.

April 2009 Visit to Ludlow site
David Mason is interviewed by a freelance reporter for Colorado Public Radio.

April 2009 Visit to Ludlow site
Scott Martelle and Thomas Andrews are interviewed above the fatal cellar.

April 2009 Visit to Ludlow site

April 2009 Visit to Ludlow site

TRINIDAD, COLORADO- Masonic Cemetary.
April 2009 Visit to Louis Tikas grave site

April 2009 Visit to Louis Tikas grave site
Zeese Papanikolas spoke about his protagonist’s gravestone and its reference to Tikas as a “Patriot.”

April 2009 Visit to Louis Tikas grave site

April 2009 Visit to Louis Tikas grave site

13 thoughts on “Ludlow Massacre or unhappy incident?

  1. I’d say bludgeoning the man and the positioning of the machine gun qualifies as “firing the first shot” and the fact of sniper fire being directed into the camp previously, would place the “First Shot” even further back, and again, squarely in the culpable hands of the mercenaries hired by the company.

    Strange how every time Class Warfare breaks out in America it’s the Over-privileged Parasite Class directing the fire toward the “lower” classes.

    Not strange actually, it’s so usual that some consider it Normal.

    Back to the “first shot”, the cops will cheerfully shoot somebody down if there’s even a thought in their minds that he has a gun, even without actually displaying it.

    Cops in Louisiana yesterday did a street execution of an elderly black man using that paradigm.

    And once more the Klan and their fellow travelers are going to find the Kops innocent of any wrongdoing.

    Just like the ones who call the Massacres “incidents” or “battles”.

    I bet they’ve each one published something referencing the Battle of the Little Bighorn as a “massacre” even though Custer was staging an armed incursion onto the encampment, and had a history (like at The Little Ouachita) for riding into Indian camps with superior firepower and just killing everybody.

    Interestingly, that involved miners too, in this case the unlawful mining of the Black Hills for gold.

    The big difference between what happened at Little Bighorn and what happened at Little Ouachita was that the Custer Death Squad was outgunned and didn’t take anybody by pre-dawn surprise.

    I noticed when I first got here that Local Hysterical Societies tend to “white” wash every such incident.

    That blasphemous Idol of Palmer on his horse in the middle of the intersection of Platte and Nevada is just one clue.

    It’s as offensive to Jonah as placing a statue of Heinrich Himmler in the middle of the Champs Elysée would be to any Frenchman…

    Or the same thing at the Western Wall…

    Some people, even Indian people like the new tribal chairman of the Northern Cheyenne, probably wouldn’t be offended.

    Or if they are they’re willing to subjugate their outrage and their people for cold hard Yankee Money, in his case selling out to the coal industry.

    Jonah considers such to be the Indian equivalent of “Sorry sell out uncle tom-ass white man’s house nigger”

    See, Eric, you were right.

    This particular “white” wash IS in favor of the Coal industry.

    Same as always.

  2. I’m afraid the author of this article got a lot of facts wrong. For example, it was not me who made the remark about the 7-11 store. And Scott Martelle said that the Ludlow battle resulted in criminally negligent homicide, which is a pretty good legal description of what happened if (and the if cannot be proven) the troops did not know there were women and children hiding under the tents. There is in fact a lot of good evidence in the books by the authors represented at the symposium, and I suggest readers go to those books for some serious appraisals of the issues involved.

  3. Dave, thank you for clarifying my errors. Checking my notes, you are correct, the reference was to “convenience store.” I am sorry that my summarization was inadequate, it certainly did not reflect my admiration for everyone’s thorough scholarship.

  4. Hi, Eric. I enjoyed meeting over the past few days, and chatting for a bit, but I’m afraid I have to raise an objection to what you took away from the symposium. Facts above are wrong — it was me, and not Dave, who made the convenience store allusion, and it was within the context that we have full freedom to shop anywhere we want and occasionally choose to shop at overpriced convenience stores. In the mine camps, the miners had little choice, and I used that comparison to try to get people to put themselves in the miners’ shoes.

    The timeline is also wrong. Tikas, and two others, were summarily executed (that’s my view; the evidence is inconsistent) by the militia at the end of the day on April 20, 1914, around the same time the tents were burning and the women and children were dying, unnoticed, in the deep hole dug beneath one of the tents (they suffocated as the fire stole the oxygen from the air). The machine guns had been moved into place that morning, one of many acts — which we discussed at length during the symposium — that together created the situation in which the shooting began. Again, the evidence is inconsistent on who fired the first shot.

    Yes, there were specific issues that the miners were demanding, but the key issue was recognition fo the union. THAT is what the strike was about (the record is clear the strike would have been settled had either side budged on that point). I recommend you read our accounts to get clear sense of what the record is.

    You also misstate Jaimie’s question, which was about how we dealt with our own prejudices in our work. And I did respond to that: Professional discipline. I’ve been a journalist for some 30 years, most recently for the LA Times. The other panelists are all practiced scholars in distancing themselves from their material, and using analysis to reach conclusions, rather than approaching a subject with a conclusion and back-filling with hand-selected evidence. To that end, Beshoar’s book does have a lot of emotional punch, but that is the purpose of polemics. My purpose, and I presume the purpose of Zeese and Thomas, who also wrote histories, is to discern what actually happened, and to put it into context (Thomas, the broader sweep; myself, the chronology of the strike and violence; Zeese, through the prism of one key participant and his immigrant experience). To that end, defining what happened is crucial. We perceive of a massacre as the willful killing of a large number of (usually) unarmed people. As appalling and shameful Ludlow was, it was not a massacre, and our understanding of those events — and the broader social/economic contexts that we all delve into in our books — are done a disservice by obscuring the reality. I’ll grant that my answer to Jaimie’s panel question might not be satisfactory to some, but it is what I believe.

    There are other points you raise that merit some response, such as the idea that we denigrate oral and social history by trying to tell an accurate story. Oral histories are important to record how people remember their own experiences, and how they engaged with those experience. But they are notoriously unreliable in discerning the facts of an event

    Finally, you take some swipes at the “ivory tower” and “middle class hobbyists,” the latter presumably aimed at me, since I’m not an academic. As a veteran of the Detroit Newspaper Strike — 18 months on a violent picket line, editor of the picket line newsletter, eventually fired for my picketing activities — and as someone who was recently laid off from the LA Times, I think my working-class credentials are solid.

  5. recognition of the union is central to any progress.

    Since neither the company nor the Government will ever take a stand for workers rights, it falls on the Union to do so.

    Perhaps a great tragedy is that the apologists for the company and the Army (militia, yeah, whatever) actions comes at a time when the Corporate State is attempting to dismantle ALL Union activity.

    One party is leading the charge on that, and we know who they R.

    My own contention, whether Eric shares it completely or not, is the Corporate State and the State Corporations are pushing America into the same kind of Company Store, Company Doctor, Company Town slavery that exists in places like Guatemala and Indonesia.

    Turning all of America into a Banana Republic with only such rights as the Corporations allow us to keep.

    Or keep the illusion of having them.

    Ludlow is just one of many.

    If the women and children hadn’t been slaughtered, but only strikers, would it have been any less murder?

    Without the Union representation the Company would have all the advantages in any negotiation,

    And the workers who made the money for the Big Pigs would still be only slaves.

    A worker who quit his job to seek work elsewhere would have to first pay the mine owner what he “owes” in inflated rents and inflated prices at the company store.

    Or be thrown in jail and forced to work for free in a Chain Gang.

    That’s another nasty little bit of corporate slavery that’s increased with the decline of Union Representation,

    Privately owned publicly funded Slave Plantation prisons.

    Add in the threat of being imprisoned for attempting to organize a Union, and the all too ready Police Support for the company against the Real Workers.

    It hasn’t much changed since Ludlow.

    The National Guard still guns down strikers, just the Unions are better armed and better prepared to defend themselves.

    The kids who were gunned down by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State, according to the National Guard it was a “mistake” another Unfortunate Incident.

    The Guardsmen only had live ammunition in the Submachine Guns they used to mow down students because they were deployed earlier in the day to break a strike.

    By the Guards own admission.

    The Pigs setting up a machine gun pointed at the workers is a very clear provocation, but I guess the workers were supposed to just Surrender and go back to licking the boots of their Mine Company Masters.

    Like good little obedient slaves.

  6. JONAH- I share precisely that concern. Walmart our company store, Visa our scrip, ICE our camp guards, and no union left to build us a tent colony when our mortgages are foreclosed.

    We need dispassionate journalist/chroniclers like we need a hole in the head, carved from behind, by a National Guardsman’s rubber-coated bullet.

    SCOTT- Thank you for unimpeachable insight on the facts, I will make revisions with your points in mind, because obviously I need to speak with more clarity. For example, I intended the “middle class hobbyists” to mean the audience, including me. Because you teach journalism, I included you in academia.

    I did not intend for my words to be slights, but I am glad you infer from “ivory tower” not just isolation, but potential indifference. And that’s a charge I tried to arrive at softly, because someone delving into the subject of Ludlow is not likely to be unsympathetic to the common American experience, even more someone who mentions “class war” in their title.

    The time-line I used was within the not-knowable margins, but I wish now I had chosen the least union-friendly version of events, because my point would be the same. The outcome was brutal repression by authoritarian means.

    I counted myself very fortunate to have learned your findings, and I do not doubt them. I took exception, and I expressed as much, to the imperceptibly cavalier conclusion that we can never know exactly what happened.

    In legal parlance, that’s a hung jury.

    Which side shot first, by implication, who’s to blame, is a “fact” which serves only to acquit the accused. I am not opposed to hunting down the facts, as long as we do not lose sight of the human picture.

    Scott, you reveal this blind side when you positioned “social history” against “accurate story.”

    The perpetuity of corporations is supported by facts and file cabinets, versus mortal man who has only friends and shirt pockets. In the courtroom, we well know, he who has the most money (for fact-gatherers) wins, regardless of guilt. I believe the writing of history must draw from broader sources of evidence.

    In a room full of teachers trying to decide how to teach Ludlow, in a curriculum that has studiously avoided every bit of labor history, I could see the symposium’s studied objectivity rising to dissuade those who had been interested in the notion. It’s hard enough to tell children about authority figures who shoot and burn innocent people. But if the strikers had it coming, perhaps let’s not bother.

    History is a tool. But what kind of tool offers this lesson? Don’t know what to say, I can go either way.

    It’s a tool alright, the same one that says: Nothing to see here folks, keep moving, move along.

  7. Well, again, Eric, I think you miss some of the crucial elements of the story of Ludlow, and the coal war in general. The working class won that war, though it lost the strike. The strikers took more lives than they lost. They controlled militarily 275 miles of the Front Range and did not let it go until their enemy — at that point, the National Guard — had returned to their home bases and been replaced by the U.S. Army. More broadly, the strikers’ actions helped erode, if not upturn, corrupted regional political and economic systems. As I mention in the introduction to my book, I view the people involved on the labor side in the coal war as freedom fighters of a sort, and I believe that in general they acted heroically. They were not the feckless victims of corporate oppression that the legends would have us believe. They stood up and fought — and fought hard. But in a war, a lot of not so heroic acts get committed, and we have a moral duty to chronicle those as well — and chronicle them accurately.

    And acknowledging that, after much study by several of us, there is no clear evidence of who fired the first shot is not a cavalier position but an admission of failure of a sort. We seek to know, and that has proven to be something we can’t know with the available evidence. Stepping back a bit, I’m not sure it matters who actually fired the first shot that morning, since it came within a continuum of violence. The ultimate responsibility belongs to the forces that brought those two sides to that violent pass. I believe it was the coal operators, led by Rockefeller, whose policies set the tone for intransigence by his people in Colorado. But there were many moving parts. A pacifist could argue the strikers bore some blame because they turned to violence instead of resisting passively (what would Gandhi have done?). A free-marketer might blame the workers for not responding within an economic model — if you don’t like the conditions, move on to another job rather than use illegal acts to impede the rights of capital to work freely. I don’t subscrube to either of those assessments, but that doesn’t invalidate them.

    And we gave the teachers in the crowd ample tools to use in the classroom – including Mother Jones as way to draw the interest of middle-school girls. You got the context of our discussion of Mother Jones wrong. She was a problematic historical figure, but for the reasons we discussed in the symposium, she is just the kind of independent, strong-willed character with whom teenage girls might be able to identify, and then find their way to a broader interest in history.

    Finally, I didn’t hear anyone imply that “perhaps the strikers had it coming.” History is a tool, yes, and like a tool how it gets used depends on the artisan. And, of course, what the craftsman is trying to build.

  8. I don’t hear any discussion of the anti-immigrant character of this massacre in the ‘story of Ludlow’? Yet, I previously brought up the Deportation in Bisbee, Arizona at the top of the discussion here, and I will now also mention the Palmer Raids, another anti-immigrant pogrom, this time run directly by the Federal government itself just a couple of years after the events in Ludlow.

    Fact is that this anti Labor slaughter in Colorado was intimately connected and interwoven in with War Fever of that time, and ‘pseudo- patriotic’ hatred of immigrants, too. A conservatized current academic and myopic look at the happenings in Ludlow that doesn’t examine any of the broader historical and political contexts of that era is of little use to any serious student of those times.

  9. Scott, well put. And you are opening the can of worms that is the militant-activist versus pacifist divide. And Tony wants to address the xenophobia, which admittedly we did not discuss in relation to the sanctioning of violence.

    On the Mother Jones detail, I offer only my perspective from the audience, but it provides the context which I believe colored the symposium.

    After the panelists had taken their turns with remarks, a teacher raised her hand. Introducing herself, she explained that in order to interest her girl students, she needed some female personages to populate the story of Ludlow. She added, and I paraphrase: “I was going to teach Mother Jones, but in light of what you have been saying, I decided I better not.”

    To which the panel reacted rather stunned, I think, that their words would have been judged so literally. The panelists immediately pack-pedaled on those “problematic” aspects, to rehabilitate Mother Jones’ character enough that the audience would understand she was an ideal figure for young girls to study.

    Thus, we have to be thankful that one teacher brought it up, because I believe it’s an indication of what many others were thinking. And without that canary in a coal mine warning, the poisoned impression given about Mother Jones would have gone un-rehabilitated.

    Which mirrors my contention of the entire symposium. If the audience subscribed to the only-pacifist-need apply value system, without any challenges made to it, and if the unions were portrayed as the possible aggressors at Ludlow, the teachers could have taken away a terminally fractured message.

    Frankly, I think the teachers are better off introducing Ludlow with Tikas, Lawson, and the miners’ wives, sooner than with Mother Jones. I love MoJo, but our schools are far from ready to accept a socialist heroine in their midst. I have to think there might have been some mischievous glee among you panelists, imagining that the teachers were unlikely to know that Mother Jones has a magazine named after her, which the students will see the very instant they Google her name. A great magazine, but probably not sufficiently centrist to quell the concerns of those students’ parents. I dare say those teachers will be in for some sharp questions coming from parents and school administrators.

    Although it would be high time.

  10. Just one last comment. Only someone who has not worked in a college can think of it as an “ivory tower.” It is nothing of the sort. People who work in colleges have complicated lives just like everyone else, especially in these times of budget tightening, etc. If Colorado College were indifferent to the trials of immigrants and to the Ludlow Massacre, would we have held the symposium? Would we have gone to so much trouble to invite people from all parts of the community? If not for Colorado College and UCCS, quite a bit of the diversity of Colorado Springs would be silenced. I encourage you to check out more of the programs we offer–usually free and open to the public because some of us are working hard to find the money to make them happen. And if I, for one, felt any indifference to the lives of immigrants, would I have written Ludlow? Would Zeese have written Buried Unsung?

    Over and out.


  11. I personally didn’t go to this symposium, Dave and Scott, so I am glad to hear from you both and certainly have not meant any of my comments to be taken as a judgemental or critical voice against any participant at this forum about Ludlow’s historical events. I will try to get a hold of both your books in the future (if I can?), to read them.

    When I wrote previously that…

    ‘a conservatized current academic and myopic look at the happenings in Ludlow that doesn’t examine any of the broader historical and political contexts of that era is of little use to any serious student of those times’

    … I was speaking in general and did not mean to come across as attacking your own works that are studies that I currently know nothing about. Sorry if I have offended either one of you unintentionally?

  12. I’m just doing research upon years later hearing the story from my grandfather, John Edgar Perry, who was a 12 year old striking miner at Ludlow who survived. Anyone with further info, especially from survivors, please contact me at


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