It’s not easy to walk six miles when you are a five-year old. Walking all the way from Sandford to West Terre Haute was not going to be easy. Especially if you have not had much to eat in the last few weeks. But mom holds your hand and pulls you along. You could take the interurban. But, no. mom does not have money to do that. Dad is home, sick. Dad has looked awful upset lately. Cars drive by and throw dust on your face. The interurban zips by. Boy, you would love to ride on that. Mom just looks ahead and says come on, “We need to get there before the food runs out.”
You wonder what strike means. And why everyone looks so upset when they say the word? Some things are hard to understand when you are just five. But most adults could not fully comprehend market gluts, depressed prices, downturns since the end of the war. They just knew a lot of people were out of work, and struggling.
The coal miners’ strike of 1922 was the largest in history. It began on April Fools’ Day, 1922. Both bituminous and anthracite miners struck under the leadership of John L. Lewis and the United Mine Workers. An army of more than 600,000 miners would walk picket lines, or throw rocks, or carry clubs and guns. They would later be joined by railroad shop men. Things looked rough.
The day before the strike began the Terre Haute Tribune listed the issues involved. The miners were fighting against wage cuts, wanted the current wage scale to hold. They wanted their backbreaking days to be shortened to six hours in a five day week. Wanted time and a half for overtime, and double-time for Sundays and holidays. The union-owners… They wanted wages cut back to 1917 levels. They wanted to be able to compete with the non-union-mines. The fight was on. The biggest was in Herrin, Illinois.
Frustration, fear, hunger and desperation erupted in horrible violence in Herrin in late June, 1922. Herrin was a hardscrabble mining town in deep southern Illinois. A local mine owner had imported strikebreakers to work his mine. They had dug over 60,000 tons of coal. He could make half a million dollars if he could get his coal out. Union strikers were desperate. Gun fire followed rock throwing. In a dark, bloody 24 hours, 23 men, strikers, scabs, and mine guards, were dead. It was a red-tinged feast of violence.
Luckily nothing approaching that occurred in Vigo County. There were threats, shouts and occasional rocks thrown, but things mainly stayed calm. But still there was fear, anger, and hunger.
West Terre Haute and its miners tried to help each other out. On Memorial Day 96 miner families received large baskets of food provided by the miners’ relief committee. The West Terre Haute Miners Relief Committee was not an official part of the United Mine Workers Union. It had been specifically formed to aid striking miners west of the Wabash River. Many familiar West Terre Haute names, Waugh, Silcox, Britton appeared on the committee. It had solicitation, finance and auto committees (to pick up food or provide transport for ill miners or their families). Local citizens cleaned out their fruit cellars. Some harvested their gardens to aid in the effort. Spare can goods, chewing gum, last year’s canned corn or green beans \ were offered up.
The committee set up its efforts in an empty store on National Avenue.
Outside the store signs implored them:
“Commissary Visitors Welcome.”
“Leave Orders One Day in Advance.”
“To Get Your Bread, Line Up and Take Your Turn and Keep Order”
“Bread Hours Three to Five p.m.”
“Bring Buckets for Your Lard”
“Bring Sacks for Your Eggs and Potatoes”
It was a well-organized operation. Miners had to register the day before the food giveaway. This allowed the relief organization to plan out equal shares. They allotted .50 per day for adults and .25 a day for each child. Twice a week miners were given enough food to last them and their families til the next week. Women were only allowed to pick up food if there husband was too ill to come himself. This was checked on to make sure her husband was not one of those lucky few to find another job. They did not wish those who were employed to take food from the mouths of those who were not.
People would line up for hours waiting for their name to be called. Once, a weakened miner fainted in the line. The lines were long. One week nearly 500 people stood more or less patiently. It was tough for a five-year old. But there were other kids to play with. And the crowing Rhode Island Red rooster that had been donated to look at. (The committee had coyly named the rooster Donn Roberts, after the former Terre Haute mayor who had served a term in Leavenworth for corruption.).
The five-year old likely did not pay much attention to the talk around him, which concerned the struggles of the union strikers, or that the government was not as neutral as they said. They always stick up for the bosses, not the working man. Old man Debs was right. Or about all the hardship fighting for their rights brought upon them. How many strikers had lost their homes because they could not pay rent. Why did you hear Pete LeClerc has 17 people living at his house? Or like Uncle Robert Fife standing there in line. 88 years old and a miner since he was nine. Or Mose Morgan, 77 years old. You know, he used to hold Gomer on his knee.
Gomer James was one of the leaders of the relief effort. The son of Welsh immigrants, Gomer had long worked in the mines. He wanted to do something to help his brethren. He worked hard for the committee. He worked hard for his fellow miners and their families. Now he stood long hours passing out food, with a broad smile on his face. Just trying to help.
Finally the five-year old and his mom were at the front of the line. Gomer James leaned over and asked him. “What do you want?” “I want bread,” he said looking up at the man. He got bread. And more. He and his mom took the gift of food. Now they faced that six mile walk back to Sandford. Maybe someone would give their tired legs a ride. Maybe not. But the load of food they toted back made their burden easier.
The strike would end in August. How many in that line saw the strike as a portent of what was to come? The strike was just a bitter taste of what was to become of West Terre Haute. Over the next decade mines would be played out and close. The work that had filled the town with such hope would soon splutter. The mines that brought the Welsh, the Italians, the Bohunks (a word that was still be used when I was young) to the area would soon lie upon their deathbeds, slowly fading away. And with them a town of promise.
In August of 1867 Sister Mary Joseph of St. Mary’s wrote a letter to her friend and former student Sally Rand (and yes I take sublime pleasure in noting her friend had the same name as the later famous fan dancer) telling of a new discovery. “Sally, 20 yards from the depot on our own land they have found a beautiful mine of coal. The hole or pit is 100 feet deep and 10 feet horizontally in the black stuff it burns first rate and is prime quality. When you’ll be cold come to St. Marys.”
It is unclear how quickly or extensively this vein was exploited by the Sisters. After all, they had no experience with owning a coal mine. They turned to Joseph Broadhurst. Broadhurst, a local resident, was part of the Broadhurst family from England who had dug the first coal mine in Sugar Creek Township in 1846. They were the sort of “coal kings” of the area. The Sisters signed a fifteen-year lease with Broadhurst in 1868. The lease terms gave the Sisters a half cent royalty on every bushel of sellable coal and one bushel for their own use of every four bushels dug.
It was first dug by the slope method by burrowing under farm field, but by 1875 the state geologist reported a shaft had been dug to open up more of the vein. At first it was a profitable venture. The main customers were railroads, as the St. Marys depot became a fueling stop. The steam engines would pull into the depot and reload their coal bins as passengers or goods were loaded or unloaded. But due to “intriguing and underselling” by rival mine owners the mine became unprofitable. Most of the coal was then used for the campus.
Four new coal beds were found in 1894 and yet another shaft was drilled. The Sisters once again turned the mine over to a lessee. By doing so they did not have to oversee the mining operations, and hoped to make a profit. This time it was J.A Erwin who was the superintendent of the farm on the campus grounds. He agreed to provide coal to the college for .50 to .65 per ton. This would be used for the campus powerhouse, kitchens, men’s house, etc. He would also provide coal to St. Joseph’s Academy, a parochial school in Terre Haute, at a fixed rate of $1.25 per ton. Erwin also agreed to pay the Sisters a .25 royalty per ton of coal sold to outsiders.
Once again profit was elusive. Erwin asked and was granted a reduction in the royalty to .10, but that was only a stopgap. The Sisters once more took back control of the mine, and kept it. They established the Sisters of Providence Coal Company (arguably the first mining company owned and operated by women.) Their ownership did not go unnoticed. Several trade publications and Popular Mechanics published articles about the unusual St. Marys mine ownership. Mining and Engineering World featured it in a 1913 article. The first shaft had been played out and a new one was dug in 1910. It was sunk 270 feet and featured room and pillar structure. There were six entrances to the coal veins.
It was into this mine that my grandfather, his brothers and father stepped on their workdays. It was in these alleys that Gramps herded bank mules hauling coal dug by his father to the surface, pulling from the earth the nuggets of black diamond so needed for power. The daily capacity was estimated to be 60 tons of coal per day, but seldom were more than 50 tons dug, as the Sisters only had them mine what was needed. Much of the coal was hauled by trolley system (see photo below) to the campus powerhouse that held 5 dynamos to provide electricity and power the steam heating system.
The mine continued to operate. Its only “downtime” followed a 1920 fire that stopped operations for a while. The 1930s and 1940s saw the mining operation struggling to deal with labor and safety issues. Though the Sisters’ mine was exempt from some aspects of mining law (like paying an excise tax on coal mined there) due to their non-profit status, they were liable to others. As the coal played out and new safety regulations (some of which were enforced by my grandfather’s brother Hugh, by then a state mine inspector) would have required expensive upkeep, it was thought best to close down operations in 1954.
The mines are all but forgotten by most, remembered by me chiefly through the stories Gramps and others told me. On a sultry, drizzly day last August I walked much the same path from the back gate to the mine my family did. I fancied I could still see coal dust deposited by their blacked boots in the graveled, pitted road and reflections of straining men from below in the lakes that were once mines.
James Leasure was a big man, robust, good looking, with a flowing gunfighter’s moustache. He had been a carpenter, West Terre Haute’s Town Marshal, and had settled into his own business. He owned a garage on South 67h Street. He had married Jennie in 1919.
Perhaps it was because he had married so late in life, after years of living with his mother. Maybe it was because he had married a girl, over thirty years younger than himself. Maybe he just did not understand women at all. Maybe she was just a harlot at heart. But it had come to this. It was August 6, 1923, early evening when he set out.
Dr. R.J. Danner was a small man, prim looking, tidy. He and his wife Dott had lived in West Terre Haute for over a decade. On the surface they had a good life. They were part of the elite social circle in town. They had two sons. He had resumed his practice after the war, even though he was on disability due to a heart condition and TB.
He sat in his office on Paris Avenue with something on his mind.
James Leasure crossed National Avenue, heat of the day still lingering. Anyone seeing him might shy from talking to the usually affable man. He had that look in his eye.
His stride was slow but purposeful. He had much on his mind too. The whole town was gossiping and giggling about them. He knew that. He saw the looks. He heard the snatches of conversation about Jenny and that little cock of the walk Danner. The little hoity-toity doctor. He deserved better from Jennie. He had offered her a life. A good clean life.
He walked up 7th Street, passed Danner’s house. He didn’t seem to be home. No matter, he would find him.
Frank Miller left his drug store, carrying a peach. He decided to stop by Danner’s office a few blocks up Paris Avenue. The office and files were dusty, unkempt, as if Danner had few patients, or no one to clean up after him. Miller noticed a gun setting on a pile of papers on Danner’s rolltop desk. “Wanna trade that gun for this peach.” He joked. Danner did not laugh. Danner started to tell him about Jim Leasure threatening to kill him, but Miller was called back to his store.
Jim Leasure continued up 7th Street, across Miller, then Johnson, til he was only a block from Paris Avenue. And after all that, the bitch had sued him for divorce in June. She wanted $500.00 in alimony and part of the property he had worked so hard for. And she was the one who had taken up with Danner. Earlier in the day Leasure had visited with an old acquaintance, Pearl Conover. Pearl was the Chief of Detectives in Terre Haute. He wanted the Terre Haute detectives to trail Jennie, help him get hard evidence of his wife’s betrayal to use against her in the divorce. Conover told him they could not do that. Leasure said he would have to hire a private detective, he guessed.
Leasure turned east on Paris Avenue. He saw a figure up ahead.
Dr. Danner left his office at 513 Paris Avenue, walking east passing Miller’s Drug Store and the Post Office. He stopped in front of Robinson’s Cut-Rate Grocery. Behind him he heard a voice growl, “I’ve got you where I want you and I am going to kill you.”
Leasure’s fury and angered were perfectly focused now. The purveyor of his personal woes was in his sights. He pulled a leather-covered metal sap from his pocket. Using his height to full advantage he bludgeoned slammed the weapon downward on Danner’s, bludgeoning him a half dozen times or more. During one of the blows the leather cover split open revealing to solid metal underneath.
Danner, staggered, try to get away and retreated back west toward his office. Leasure pursued him, determined not to let his prey get away. Breathing heavily, he caught Danner once again in front of Miller’s drugs. Slamming him again, his blows finally drove the doctor to the ground. He kicked him as he lay there.
Those stunned to see a death battle taking place on their main street finally reacted. Louis Robinson and his clerk ran out of the store and just managed to pull the still raging Leasure off of Danner.
Stunned, wiping his own blood from his face, Danner managed to inch his way onto his feet, legs limp, so much pain that even as a doctor he could not localize it to one spot. He retreated the two block to his office. Pushing past the pain, animated by a vengeful strength, he reached over the partly eaten peach for the 6.35 Mauser he had brought back from the war. Leaning over the rolltop desk he fought hard for breathe, willing his eyes to clear, even if just for a few moments. He stumbled back on to Paris Avenue, his sole goal two blocks east.
When Danner had escaped tohis office, Harry Ensminger who had been holding Leasure relaxed his grip. Danner appeared and fired his first shot. Leasure quickly took cover behind a parked car. Danner chased after him.
Hoping to overpower the smaller man, inflictor of his pain, Leasure leaped at him and tried to wrestle away the gun. Danner fired twice. Then three times more. The once bull-strong Leasure staggered and dropped to the ground in front of the post office. Danner, claiming his revenge, bent over him and clubbed Leasure with his gun.
Bystanders pulled the now spent Danner away. Others brought water and attempted to cleanse some of Leasure’s wounds. J.S Hunt, who had doctored West Terre Haute for decades, came from his home a few blocks away. He tried his best to give first aid, but his practiced eye told him there was little to be done until Leasure made it to a hospital. If he made it.
A Ryan ambulance dispatched from Terre Haute arrived. It took several men to load Leasure’s big body into its back. Meanwhile, Joe Cruse, who had pulled Danner away from Leasure, loaded the little doctor into his own car and drove him to Union Hospital in Terre Haute.
Leasure was taken to St. Anthony’s Hospital in Terre Haute. He was still alive, barely. He regained consciousness in the middle of the night, at least long enough to make a deathbed change in his will. Everything was to go to his mother. He died soon afterwards.
Danner survived to see the dawn light that Leasure did not.
After being released from the hospital, Danner was charged with first-degree murder. The grand jury eventually decided that it was in self-defense, even though Danner had left the scene only to return. The crucial point in the case was that Leasure had tried to grab Danner again after the first shot.
After stories appeared that Danner would give up his practice in West Terre Haute, he returned for a while. But the notoriety was such that re moved his practice to Terre Haute.
Jennie Leasure filed several suits against the James Leasure’s estate, claiming she had been coerced into signing an early quit deed for their property. She also sought to have the deathbed will overturned. After several postponements and appeals she appears to have lost.
Dott Danner filed for divorce in 1924, noting that her husband continually associated with lowlifes, lewd persons and whores. She continued to live in West Terre Haute with her sons, sometimes taking in boarders to make ends meet.
Dr. Danner denied any involvement with Jennie Leasure other than that of doctor-patient.
The Duel on Paris led to yet another divorce in 1924. Jennie had been staying with her sister Beatrice Shuster in Terre Haute.. Norman Shuster sued Beatrice for divorce, among other reasons saying she had brought scandal into their house by allowing Dr. Danner to visit with Jennie in their home.
R.J. Danner and Jennie Leasure married soon after.
In 1928 Dr. R.J. Danner was charged with taking stolen goods from a “bandit gang” in exchange for agreeing to treat gang members should they be wounded during robberies. There is no indication he was convicted.
Danner died in August, 1939.