Dynamite Bombings in Northeast PA, 1871-1957 (Part 1 of 4)

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by Robert Schmidt

PART 1: The Anthracite Industry, Class Violence, and Displaced Class Struggle

Anthracite mining was a labor-intensive, dangerous, and environmentally destructive industry that, before World War II, used the most primitive of technology. Wages accounted for roughly seventy percent of operational expenses. Miners mapped underground tunnels and blasted into the earth with dynamite and black powder; laborers loaded coal by hand into cars pulled by mules or small locomotives; and ‘breaker boys’ cleaned and sorted coal before it was shipped to distant markets. A hard substance with a high concentration of carbon, the extraction of anthracite required three times more explosives than what was needed to mine the same tonnage of bituminous coal. In 1913, for example, the anthracite industry consumed more than 44 million pounds of black powder and 16 million pounds of dynamite.[i] Local manufactures satisfied most of this demand. In fact, six of Pennsylvania’s thirty explosives manufactures were in the anthracite region.

Wages, working conditions, and union recognition were the source of worker frustration and discontent. Industrial accidents were inevitable, and combined with exposure to coal dust and toxic fumes, anthracite mining was marked by high fatality and disability rates—from 1916 to 1921, for example, one out of every seven workers sustained a non-fatal injury and one in 270 was killed on the job.[ii] On top of the intensity, danger, and physical stress, mining made for a precarious livelihood. Seasonal fluctuations in demand, cut-throat competition, chronic overproduction, mine flooding, and episodic strikes rendered the industry an insecure source of wages for workers and a volatile source of profit for operators. In an industry that gravitated toward over-capitalization and suffered price instability, mine operators augmented their profits by squeezing labor through wage-theft and weight falsification. To depress wages, break strikes, and combat workers’ attempts to unionize and bargain for a greater share of the fruits of their labor, coal operators recruited and maintained a large ‘reserve army’ of unskilled immigrant labor. By the turn of the century, mine operators formed an oligopoly to limit self-destructive competition. Meanwhile, workers overcame geographical and ethnic differences to form an industry-wide union in the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA).[iii]

Working-class households endured economic insecurity by engaging in alternative sources of employment. Many time-rich, money-poor households found opportunity in illegitimate industries, or “rackets,” providing products and services that were at once illegal and untaxed, but for which there was tacit acceptance and strong demand. Local rackets spanned a range of business ventures, from operating unlicensed saloons, gambling dens, and brothels to manufacturing alcohol and bootlegging coal for sale to distant markets. Meanwhile, tens of thousands of women and children entered the paid work force in textiles and other sweated industries. Combined with rackets, low-wage manufacturing provided diversification to an industrial base otherwise dominated by the economic whim and tumult of anthracite mining. Much like subsistence farming and moonshining that sustained households in the bituminous coal fields of Appalachia, the alternative industries of Northeastern Pennsylvania enabled households to endure long strikes.

As the anthracite industry severed the region of its coal and returned profits to New York and Philadelphia capitalists, it transformed the Northeastern Pennsylvania landscape into a national epicenter for labor conflict and class violence. Unlike manufacturing, extractive industries are inert and unable to escape wage demands and militancy. Of all major industries in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, extractive industries were the most militant and strike-prone, having, according to one estimate, the highest mortality rate during strikes.[iv] For Northeastern Pennsylvania, strikes over wages, working conditions, and union recognition were recurring episodes that often led to violence, particularly between in 1868-1877, 1897-1902, and 1922-1938. Historical inquiry into the region’s labor violence has tended to focus primarily on the Molly Maguire’s, the Great Upheaval of 1877, the Lattimer Massacre of 1897, the industry-wide strike of 1902, and to a far less extent the disintegration of the UMWA after 1922 triggered by the collapse of the anthracite industry. Scholars have been reluctant, however, to examine dynamite bombings carried out largely in secret by a range of individuals and groups drawn from the working-class.[v] In fact, few historians have taken up the topic of dynamite with any seriousness. Studies of the anthracite region have given dynamite little more than a passing mention or a brief footnote.

Newspapers from communities across the region have documented hundreds of local bombings that destroyed storefronts, porches, and automobiles from the turn of the century through the onset of World War II. In some cases, dynamite bombings leveled entire buildings and took lives, but in most cases, they incurred costly damage while causing little to no injury. Most of these bombings were not intended to kill, but aimed instead to scare, intimidate, and sabotage. In a typical bombing, the medium was the message: the thunderous sound of explosion in the middle of the night heard for miles and broke windows in nearby properties, the damage and rubble left from the explosion (costing tens of thousands to repair), and the sensationalism in local and national newspapers over the days that followed, were in and of themselves enough to outrage and panic the public. Dynamite is an apt metaphor for explosive conflicts that were the hallmark of the industrial era, but more importantly, its pattern of use offers a vantage from which to examine a manifold of conflicts within Northeastern Pennsylvania during the era of King Coal. Bombing campaigns were among the most spectacular and dramatic examples of class violence, but in unique ways they marked not only the fault lines between labor and capital, but revealed also the important fissures within the working-class itself.

Alfred Nobel’s invention of dynamite in 1866 provided a safer, more efficient, and more explosive alternative to blasting powder. In becoming a crucial input to extractive industries, however, it had the unintended consequence of empowering and enabling otherwise weak individuals to perpetrate terror and tremendous damage. “The invention of dynamite had changed the calculus of power,” James Green explained in his study of the Haymarket bombing of 1886: “Now the weakest, most wretched elements of society had a weapon that could inflict incalculable damage.”[vi] “Cheap in price, easy to carry, not hard to obtain,” Paul Avrich said in his study of anarchism in the U.S., dynamite “was the poor man’s natural weapon, a power provided by science against tyranny and oppression.”[vii] Two years before the Haymarket bomb, the anarchist paper Alarm noted, “In giving dynamite to the downtrodden millions of the globe, science has done its best work.”[viii] In contrast, local newspapers, clergy, mine officials, and union leaders condemned and decried bombings as despicable acts of terror. Among the working-class, however, there were pockets of sympathy and support. As Beverly Gage argued, in an age when industrial accidents killed more than thirty thousand workers, and when police and state militia frequently brutalized and fired on strikers, “it was not unusual to hear the use of dynamite praised as a justified reaction to capitalist tyranny.”[ix]

Historical perspective offers a vantage void of sensationalism and dismissive moralizing judgement to examine the complicated circumstances in which patterns of dynamite bombings across Northeastern Pennsylvania had occurred. As a weapon of class war, the working-class used dynamite to sabotage company property, including mines, railroad tracks, bridged, and street-cars, and they used it to bomb the homes and automobiles of strikebreakers, mine operators, and managers. However, most bombings were not motivated by radical, anti-capitalist ideology. The UMWA was a conservative union and its rank-and-file members were by and large ardent opponents of anarchism and communism.[x] Contrary to accusations of anarchist influence, most violence (including bombings) was perpetrated by workers with no affiliation to anarchism or radical ideology. Between 1910 and 1917, the brief period that the International Workers of the World (IWW) attained a foothold in the region, bombings related to labor war were seldom. In fact, IWW members were far more likely to be a target of organized crime than a perpetrator of terror. Anarchist inspired bombings were far fewer than those perpetrated by Black Hand extortionists and organized crime syndicates, and their total paled in comparison to waves of dynamite bombings that were the fallout of labor conflict. A typical dynamite attack in Northeastern Pennsylvania was far and away more likely to be a vengeful attack against an individual or a group of individuals than it was an ideological campaign against an amorphous, omnipresent capitalist system.

United only as Europe’s dispossessed and most wretched, the region’s labor force was a culturally and ideologically diverse lot. At the industry’s founding in the early nineteenth century, this workforce was made up primarily of natives and skilled miners from England and Wales. As the industry took off after the Civil War, demand for unskilled labor led to a dramatic increase of Irish, Italian, and Slavic immigrants by century’s end. What swept so many among this destitute working-class, despite their divergent ethnic backgrounds, into the labor movement and unto the path of violence? Many have argued that European migrants transplanted old world conflicts on New World’s hard-coal landscape: the Irish were said to have brought with them a tradition of violent resistance against English Protestants; immigrants from Southern Italy brought their mafia; and Slavic immigrants brought with them an alleged proclivity toward violence. If the region’s workforce was predisposed to violence by their respective European tradition at all, it was the day-to-day constraints, precariousness, and exploitation of Northeastern Pennsylvania’s bottom economic stratum that conditioned and prefigured a pattern of conflict and violence over such a sustained period.

Playing no small role in the industrialization of the U.S., the anthracite industry structured the asymmetrical power relationship between labor and capital and antagonized conflicts between them. Yet, if structural economic forces were a necessary and motivating catalyst of conflict, they were not unto themselves a sufficient explanation for the circumstances that led to violence and midnight dynamiting. Like other forms of violence, dynamite was not the inevitable outcome of grievances, but a reluctant one: bombings occurred primarily in situations where union bargaining was truncated, where face-to-face confrontations were not possible, or where the working-class had become set against itself. Philip Taft, in his work on U.S. labor violence, provides insight: “The most virulent forms of violence occurred in situations in which efforts were made to destroy a functioning union or to deny a union recognition.” Louis Adamic, in his Dynamite: Class Violence in America, wrote that “violence and the fear of violence were sometimes the only methods that save some unions from passing out.”[xi] Even still, if dynamite could shift the balance of power in labor’s favor at all, it was certainly not the great equalizer against the power of capital that anarchists imagined. Dynamite was most often unleashed by individuals or groups drawn from the working-class against others of the same class: militant miners used dynamite against strikebreakers; dissenters and wildcat strikers used it against the leaders of their own union.

The abundance and accessibility of explosives throughout Northeastern Pennsylvania exacerbated its labor wars and further empowered organized crime. After a Scranton area grocery store was leveled in 1929 (see Figures 1 and 2 below), one local paper said succinctly, “With plenty of dynamite comparatively accessible at the mines and stores in the Scranton region, persons who hold grudges against individuals or organizations find in the explosive a very effective weapon of revenge.”[xii] The year before, Scranton’s City Council enacted a law prohibiting the unauthorized possession of dynamite, but it proved powerless without statewide enforcement. As a center of mining and explosives manufacturing, it was inevitable that dynamite could be stolen, if not purchased outright, and used for nefarious purposes. Compounding the problem, the working-class was trained in using dynamite and other explosives. After all, a successful bombing required planning and the ability to prepare the explosive, secure it on a structure, and detonate it properly to maximize damage and escape the blast safely. Absent skilled handling, bombings attempts were ill-timed, poorly set, and otherwise botched. “Dynamite is a trade which obviously calls for special training,” said Edwin Balmer in 1930, and “there is a definite art in stripping an entire front from a flat building or demolishing the side wall of a garage with one properly placed and carefully wired ‘shot.’”[xiii]

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Figure 1. The Sterling Market in Dickson City before it was leveled by dynamite on June 3, 1929. Credit: Scranton Republican

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Figure 2. The Sterling Market in Dickson City after it was leveled by dynamite. The blast injured 18 people and caused damage to adjacent properties. According to police, the bombing stemmed from a feud between the store owner and organized crime. This was the 22nd dynamiting in Lackawanna County over a two-and a half year period. Credit: Scranton Republican

Bombings were common, but they were not random, unexplained events. They occurred with their greatest intensity over the decade between 1926 and 1936, in the context of a precipitous drop in anthracite output, deep depression, and internecine conflict within the UWMA. For twenty years after the strike of 1902, the anthracite industry was relatively stable and expansive and the UMWA was effective in resolving many grievances quickly and without violence. Strikes between 1903 and 1925 did not prompt violence, in large measure, because they were region-wide and disabled mine operations completely, making it difficult to import strikebreakers. Moreover, if bombings did not occur at a consistent pace, neither were they spread evenly across the regional landscape. They occurred primarily within the urban centers of the northern field. In contrast to the southern parts of the region, where equalization efforts found modest success during the depression, and where coal bootlegging became a major industry, the larger and more industrially diverse cities and towns of the northern field, including Pittston, Scranton, and Wilkes-Barre, were ground zero of violent conflict within UWMA’s District 1 and centers of organized crime activity linked to Philadelphia and New York.

After 1900, the propensity of dynamite bombings across the region increased tremendously. Until the mid-1920s, however, most bombings occurred in a variety of contexts unrelated to labor war. A bank robber might use it to enter a safe, a jilter lover might use it to seek revenge, and an extortionist might use it to shake down a victim. Along with gun violence, dynamite was a foremost weapon in the underworld of organized crime. Between 1890 and 1920, the Black Hand mafia used dynamite to terrorize and extort fellow immigrants in Italian communities across the region. They sent letters demanding cash and threatened to destroy their home with dynamite, and often followed through on their treat spectacularly. When the Catholic Church stood up to organized crime activities, Black Handers bombed parishes and parsonages. Newspaper publishers critical of the Black Hand suffered the same fate.

By the early 1920s, the focus of organized crime pivoted from extortion to the growing profitable ventures offered by legitimate industry and commercialized vice. If the insecurity of anthracite mining during its peak years of output left working-class communities vulnerable to rackets, the early onset of depression after 1922 created a deep economic void that allowed alcohol bootlegging and proprietorship of bawdyhouses, gambling dens, and speakeasies to become leading industries until the onset of World War II. Organized crime had meanwhile infiltrated many legitimate industries, including building and trades, garment contracting, and the anthracite industry. As anthracite output dropped precipitously after 1922, organized crime figures became union racketeers, mining subcontractors, and leaseholders of coalfields. They used extra-legal measures (e.g. pillar robbing) to make the dying industry profitable, and used coercion and bribes to corrupt union leadership and violate labor contracts. Whether settling conflict in the underworld of commercialized vice or using muscle to infiltrate legitimate industry, they used dynamite (and guns) to target business rivals, militant union leaders, and law enforcement officials.

For Northeastern Pennsylvania, the growth of racketeering signaled the decline of the labor movement. Adamic and Walter Lippmann, from their respective vantage in the 1930s, argued that racket industries were not an aberration, but tied intimately to working-class life of industrial America. Lippmann called racketeering a perversion “of the search for economic security, a diseased compensation in the lower reaches of capitalism for the instability of proletarian life… and subjected to the daily hazards of the open market.”[xiv] Adamic described racketeering ‘a phase of class conflict’ and “an essential manifestation of the dynamic drive for economic betterment so characteristic of the country.”[xv]  In an era of upheaval and insecurity, racketeering provided “the American underdog,” the exploited and destitute working-class of industrial America, a way to achieve class mobility through unconventional means. The growth of racketeering “is inextricably bound up with the chaotic and brutalizing conditions in industry and with the great inner urge of the American people, constantly stimulated by social and economic forces.”[xvi] Indeed, for the working-class of the anthracite region, these forces were particularly acute.

Protracted underemployment, insecurity, and poverty among the working class had eventually turned workers away from “the radical movement, which might give them social vision and class-conscious hope for a better future,” and “into the underworld, into bootlegging, into mobs and rackets.”[xvii] Racketeering is inextricably tied to class struggle, according to Adamic, and to understand it “one must know something of the American labor movement.”[xviii] Examined from this perspective, the growth of racketeering was the displacement of class struggle: the ‘underworld’ of racketeering developed as a parallel universe to anthracite mining and absorbed the radicalized impulses of a frustrated, and ultimately truncated, labor movement. The conspicuous absence of anarchism, the growth of organized crime as the anthracite industry collapsed, and the fact that most bombings were perpetrated by the working-class against others of the same class, provide testimony to the bastardization of class struggle. To that end, the working-class pressed not to overthrow the capitalist system, but to attain a greater place in it through unconventional means: illegitimate industries delivered class mobility in a more practical way than radical ideology and anarchism could in the face of insurmountable economic forces.

Bombings slowed almost to a halt by the late 1930s as the country mobilized for World War II and the region transitioned to manufacturing. The region’s last bombing was in 1954, when union goons dynamited a non-union job site in Scranton. Though it paled in comparison to bombings of twenty years prior, it garnered national attention as it prompted the McClellan Committee on labor racketeering to probe Scranton in 1957.

Over the three segments that follow, this essay will survey labor violence and dynamite bombings across Northeastern Pennsylvania from the first documented labor war bombing in 1871 through the McClellan Committee’s probe of Scranton area dynamiting in 1957. Part 2 will examine patterns of labor violence and bombings during the rapid industrialization between 1870 and 1917. Part 3 will examine the role of dynamite in labor conflict and organized crime between 1918 and 1938—a twenty-year period of rapid industrial decline, deep depression, and conflict within the UMWA. The fourth and final part will overview the McClellan Committee’s probe of Scranton, discusses the drastic decline of bombings after 1938, and offers insight and commentary on what labor violence in the anthracite region can teach us about social conflict.

 

Robert Schmidt is an independent scholar and critical geographer. He is currently preparing a manuscript tentatively titled, “Revitalization and its Discontents: Economic Development and Corruption in Northeastern Pennsylvania.” This essay and the sections that follow are part of a working paper on labor violence in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Critical feedback is welcome at Rschmid1@binghamton.edu

 

 

[i] Department of the Interior, Coal Mine Fatalities in the United States, 1870-1914, 79.

[ii] Thomas Kenney, “Wages, Hours and Working Conditions in the Anthracite Industry,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, vol. 111 (1924): 50.

[iii] See, for example, Perry K. Blatz, Democratic Miners: Work and Labor Relations in the Anthracite Coal Industry, 1875-1925 (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1994).

[iv] See, for example, Chris Tilly and Charles Tilly, Work Under Capitalism, (Boulder, CO: Westview, 1998), 50. For mortality rates during strikes, see Price V. Fishback, “An Alternative View of Violence in Labor Disputes in the Early 1900s: The Bituminous Coal Industry, 1890-1930,” Labor History, vol.36, no.3 (1995): 429.

[v] Beverly Gage, “Why Violence Matters: Radicalism, Politics, and Class War in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era,” Journal for the Study of Radicalism, vol. 1, no. 1, (2007): 100.

[vi] James Green, Death in the Haymarket: A Story of Chicago, the First Labor Movement, and the Bombing that Divided Gilded Age America (New York: Pantheon Books, 2006), 10.

[vii] Paul Avrich, The Haymarket Tragedy (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), 166.

[viii] “Dynamite,” Alarm, February 21, 1885.

[ix] Beverly Gage, The Day Wall Street Exploded: A Story of America in its First Age of Terror (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 5.

[x] See, for example, Walter T. Howard, Forgotten Radicals: Communists in the Pennsylvania Anthracite, 1919-1950 (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 2005).

[xi] Louis Adamic, Dynamite: The Story of Class Violence in America (New York: Viking Press, 1931), 331.

[xii] United Press, “Dickson City Blasts Puzzles Police Officers,” The Evening News, 4 July 1929.

[xiii] Edwin Balmer, “Strange Occupations of Some Chicagoans,” The Lincoln Evening Journal, 21 June 1930.

[xiv] Walter Lippmann, “The Underworld, Our Secret Servant,” The Forum, January 1931.

[xv] Adamic, Dynamite, 361.

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Ibid, 366.

[xviii] Ibid., viii.

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