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Originally published March 3 2008

Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in The American West (Book Review)

by Luke J. Terry

(NaturalNews) In history classrooms the world over, schoolchildren learn about the important American wars, going back to the American Revolution. It seems that an important war, one that occurred on American soil, has been largely left out of the history books. This war took place in southern Colorado in 1913 and 1914. Author Scott Martelle has written a definitive account of this war, with very complete documentation and more than a few photos from a variety of historical archives. The book, Blood Passion: The Ludlow Massacre and Class War in The American West (Rutgers University Press, 2007), is an engaging account of class warfare, a germane subject because it continues in subtle ways today.

Through concise writing and compilation of many accounts of the events of the war, Martelle documents the deaths of how 75 men, women, and children were killed, and dozens of buildings burned or dynamited. This war, a series of intense gun battles, bombings, beatings, assassinations, and outright murder, pitched the early labor unions against the powerful industrial elite, or more accurately, their henchmen, the mine operators and corrupt local law enforcement, and eventually a corrupted Colorado National Guard.

Is the omission of this war from our history, until this book, an unfortunate oversight of a minor historical event, or perhaps a more purposeful excision by the ruling class of business elite? After all, history is written by the conquerors. Martelle, a veteran LA Times journalist, spends little ink editorializing the reasons for the omission of this war from the annals of American history. Rather, he has poured his prodigious storytelling ability into creating a concise and historically accurate chronology of this fight. Using a wide array of research sources, he has painstakingly reconstructed the events of late 1913 and early 1914, attempting to be as unbiased and objective as his journalistic training will allow.

This war could be called the Colorado Coal War. The conflict sprung from a potent brew of suffering, oppression, greed, and the human need for freedom and fair treatment. It began in the abject poverty and stark living conditions of the "mining camps" or corporate-operated hovels owned by Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, a holding of the Rockefeller family.

Though Martelle strained to eliminate any reference to the classical good-guy/bad-guy dichotomy, the protagonists are easily identified as the miners who lived in a modern feudalist state. Thousands of mostly Greek, Italian, and Mexican immigrants, with a smattering of eastern European and Japanese, most of them fresh off the boats, were lured to the coal fields of southern Colorado with promises of good jobs and housing by the mine operators. The antagonists, then, are the industrialists and their managers, the mine managers, guards, corrupt local law enforcement, and eventually, the Colorado National Guard (CNG), whom were supposed to remain impartial while preventing strike violence, but whom quickly sided with the mine operators. It is worth noting in the politics of class warfare that many of the CNG troops and leaders were white and upper middle class, and as such, identified with the mine operators, and not the "south European barbarians," the ethnic profile assumed of the miners.

When the immigrants, many of which spoke little or no English, arrived to claim the "good jobs" they had been promised, they found themselves working for a company that owned or controlled every aspect of life in the mining camps, including medical care, law enforcement, and the only consistent supply of food - the company-owned store. Mine workers were paid not in cash, but in "company script" that was only redeemable at the company store. Because the mine operators controlled everything, they could inflate rent and food prices, and deflate wages so that the miners couldn't make ends meet, and incurred debt just keeping food on the table and a roof over their heads. Such a system was meant to control and subjugate the workforce, which it did, but it also created incendiary resentment and quite appropriate opprobrium for the mine operators.

The whole operation was industrial-strength indentured servitude a term that may not mean much to modern Americans, but one that refers to an illegal and shameful form of slavery, banned by our constitution, and inhumane by any standard.

At the time of these events in American history, rights that we take for granted today, like OSHA regulations and an 8-hour workday were still a far-off dream. The foreign-born laborers toiled for 12 to 16 hours a day, 6 days a week in subterranean mine shafts, engulfed in carcinogenic and highly flammable coal dust riddled with pockets of methane gas that could suffocate miners or explode without warning. Many miners of the day were killed in massive explosions and the resulting cave-ins. The miner's arduous and inherently risky labors were paid not hourly but by the ton of coal each miner extracted, a system easily cheated by mine bosses. The miners lived in squalor, while the mines generated massive profit, creating a pipeline of cash from the bowels of the Rockies to the concrete canyons of New York's financial districts.

The early labor movement was just starting to get organized to fight for safe, humane working conditions. It would be more than 30 years before the labor movement would be recognized. In 1913, labor organizers were underground, literally and figuratively, because if found out, the mine operators would eject them from the coalfields. In some cases, labor activists were taken at gunpoint by train deep into the deserts of the southwest, or far out on the Kansas plains, and left there, stranded.

Such conditions brewed deep unrest and resentment amongst the miners. Miners organized and formed picket lines to protest their inhumane treatment. The mine operators, who owned the local politicians and law enforcement, ruled with an iron fist. The situation was a powder keg, and early in the strike, when a local union activist was assassinated in a brawl in the streets of Trinidad, Colorado, the war was on. The mine operators saw only the loss of their profits, and ardently opposed the strike. To "break the strike," mine operators imported mercenaries from Baldwin-Felts, an East-Coast detective agency. The Baldwin-Felts organization was the Halliburton of its day in many ways. It employed many rough characters, convicted felons, veterans of foreign wars, and mercenaries who were hired to harass and intimidate the strikers. The Baldwin-Felts men, deputized by local sheriffs, attempted to break the strike through beatings, humiliation, and later through outright attacks on the miners. By this time, the striking miners had been evicted from their humble mine-owned houses by mine management for taking part in the strike.

The homeless miners set up in encampments of canvas tents, paid for by the unions, in meadows and fields near the mines, where they could set up picket lines. The miners and their families continued to suffer beatings and attacks at the hands of the mine guards and Baldwin-Felts thugs.

The Greek & Italian miners, some of whom were veterans of the Balkan wars of the late 1800's, armed themselves and struck back. The union bought guns, lots of them, and ammunition, and imported more miners and ruffians from other strike zones and other unions. With so many armed, angry men in southern Colorado on both sides, violence was inescapable, and the bullets began to fly with the murder of a union organizer in August 1913.

The war went on and on, from the fall of 1913 well into 1914 in the classic style of mob violence caricatured in mafia movies: "You send one of our guys to the hospital, we send one of your guys to the morgue." The violence escalated, tit for tat, throughout the winter, until the miners were dynamiting mines, railroad stations, and mine buildings, while the mine operators, who had by this time co-opted the Colorado National Guard, had begun strafing the miner's tent colonies with machine guns mounted on armored cars. The war pitched back and forth until April 20, 1914, the Colorado National Guard attacked and set fire to one of the tent colonies, killing 8 men, and 13 innocent women and children, the latter who were hiding in bunkers dug out under the tent's wooden floors. This historical mass-murder became known as the Ludlow massacre, named for the tiny village nearest to the meadow where the murders took place.

The murders created martyrs, and the miners struck back with vengeance. Fueled by rage, "Remember Ludlow" became a rallying cry for the miners, who rose up and rained down a punishing fusillade of bullets, dynamite and violence on the mine operators and mines all across Colorado, in a zone of destruction 225 miles long, from Longmont and Boulder, near Denver in the Northern Rockies, all the way to Trinidad, on the southern border, and deep into the mountains, as far west as Crested Butte.
The inspired fighting went on for 10 days, during which many mines and their adjacent processing centers and rail access points were destroyed, causing millions of dollars of destruction, at a time when a rifle could be purchased for a couple of dollars, and a cup of coffee was a nickel.

The inflamed miners were pushing back hard against the Colorado National Guard. The CNG had their hats handed to them, and were in the process of being routed and expelled from the strike zone, when the federal government finally stepped in. The situation was grave enough for President Woodrow Wilson to call in the regular Army, and call back the part-timers and corrupt weekend warriors of the CNG out of the strike zone. The US Army disarmed both the miners and the strikebreakers and local law enforcement, effectively ending the war after 9 long months and the deaths of at least 75 people from both sides.

Martelle weaves the narrative with precision and accuracy, gleaning details from historical archives of local and national news, personal diaries, court proceedings and the Congressional hearings that would follow in the months after the war.

The miners won the battle, even won the war, by any body-count method of war calculus, because fewer miners died than their persecutors. Yet in the most important analysis, the industrial political machine quashed the miners. The miners were left bereft, without homes or jobs, and the unions went unrecognized.

Yet the dead and wounded did not go down in vain, though this book doesn't cover the long-lasting reverberations of the war, instead offering a play-by-play recounting of the war itself. The industrial giants, led by the Rockefeller oil mob, absorbed the loss on the backs of its former workers, and trudged forward, continuing to trample the civil rights of the workers and their families. It would be decades before the United Mine Workers of America would be fully recognized, and the system of feudal servitude known as "the company town" would last until the 1950's in southern Colorado.

The story is a compelling look at class warfare, one that has great importance for readers today.
Reading between the lines, we can see this tale as an allegory, an epic that follows the money trail, indicting the industrialists who enslaved the people with a corporate system of industrial capitalist feudalism. It is far more than a cautionary tale. Willful readers with their eyes wide open, recalling Halliburton and the evils of corporate industrialism will see this book as a call to arms.
Martelle's tale of the immigrant miners who had the spine to stand up to the industrial tycoons should be an inspiration to us all. The miners had the backbone to go toe-to-toe with an exploitive and inhumane industrial system. They didn't break the industrial feudalist system, but we aren't working 16 hours and sucking down coal fumes, either, thanks in part to them. Readers who are interested in the politics of class war will find his book fascinating and compelling, as will readers who desire a modern story of an uprising against capitalistic greed and inhumanity.

It's also a great local interest story for those who have connections to, or have visited the magnificently beautiful vistas of southern Colorado, and are interested in the landscape that is still today dotted with historic buildings and hundreds, if not thousands of abandoned mines and the relics of the mining era.

About the author

Luke practices acupuncture, Oriental & natural medicine, and conducts wellness retreats in the mountain resort community of Breckenridge, Colorado.
He sees clients at Sacred Tree, an integrative healthcare & wellness spa, located at the base of Peak 8 at Blue Sky.
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