Union War, Part OnePosted: November 26, 2013
West Terre Haute was a union town. The clay workers, railroaders and miners all had unions. The United Mine Workers of America was the largest and, many thought, the strongest of the unions. My grandfather, and his father and brothers, were members of UMW local 414 in West Terre Haute. So was a man named Joseph Claypool.
Founded in 1890 The UMW had led the fight for better wages and working conditions for miners across the country (though it could do little in the universally anti-union South). Figures like Mother Jones and the bushy-browed, stentorian John L. Lewis pushed for worker’s rights and humane conditions in the mines.
The union’s greatest successes came during good times when work was steady and demand for coal was great. Then, the threat of a strike was a weapon feared by mine owners who knew a prolonged work stoppage would siphon their profits. But by the late 1920s the good times were long gone. They had ended with the armistice that ended WWI. UMW membership had dropped from a half million miners to just over 100,000 by 1930. Worse yet for miners, their wages had dropped by 23% since the war as the industry was buffeted by competition from cheaper fuels and non-union mines.
Those numbers left the UMW and its leader John L. Lewis in a perilous state. Some members began to feel Lewis, once respected and feared as their firebrand leader, was making too many concessions and becoming too close to mine owners. Additionally, Lewis had spent the decade trying to cement his own power by consolidating control of the union in his central office. This was contrary to much of the union’s past when the locals had a strong voice in their own areas.
Lewis was also a paranoid, a man who saw enemies and conspiracies lurking everywhere. He had purged (the Stalinist image seems apt) many union officials, particularly those he saw as standing on the left. So by 1930, Lewis’s enemies were real and present. And some wanted to wrest control of miners’ union from him.
That is where the lives of John L. Lewis and Joseph Claypool intersected. One district that Lewis did not control was District 12 in Illinois. The district was home to many of Lewis’ most potent adversaries. Feeling that Lewis had sold union members down the river, the leaders of District 12 formed what became known as the Reorganized United Mine Workers, hoping that it would become the “official” miners union. They appointed about a dozen organizers to seek support for the new union. The organizers were to go into the coal fields of the Midwest and East and explain what the new union was attempting and gain their support (and union dues). The organizers were well aware that they must be careful, for the pro-Lewis forces were well known for their penchant to use violence, intimidation and bribery in their cause.
Joseph Claypool was one of those organizers. Claypool was born in my “other hometown,” Marshall, Illinois. Born in 1896, he worked as a farm laborer and was described as tall with brown eyes and dark brown hair. He appears to have lied about his age to join the Army in 1911. Perhaps he found the army more than he bargained for because he was arrested for desertion in 1912 and placed in the stockade at Columbus Barracks in Ohio. He served his time and remained in the Army, becoming a printer. He was invalided out with a honorable discharge in 1916 and seems to have received a pension for a damaged index finger on his right hand.
He returned to Clark County and by 1920 was married and working as a pumper in the oil fields that were scattered around the area. By 1925 he had moved to West Terre Haute and was working in the mines. He and his family (he and wife Stella had had a son and two daughters) lived in several rented houses around town. At one point the family lived only a few blocks over from my grandparents.
Claypool became disenchanted with what he saw as John L. Lewis’ lack of leadership. He was one of the “renegade” miners who attended an alternate miner’s union “rump convention” in Springfield, Illinois in 1930. For this he was kicked out of Local 414 in West Terre Haute. Soon after the convention he began work as an organizer for the Reorganized United Mine Workers (RUMR). It was dangerous work and the organizers were warned to keep their heads down, lest they excite the wrath of the Lewis organization.
Claypool was committed to the work. He visited several mining camps and locals around the area trying to gauge the feelings of other miners about Lewis. He claimed to find many dissident miners who were interested in joining the RUMW, but were fearful of what might happen to them.
One of the areas he thought showed promise were the coal fields in Sullivan County, Indiana. He temporarily moved to Shelburn to recruit others. His activities were noticed. Claypool increasingly looked over his shoulder. On July 29th, he wrote to the RUMW Secretary-Treasurer that he had learned that two of Lewis’s strongest supporters in the area, Frank Barnhart and Dale Stapleton had been issued gun permits. Fearful, Claypool went to see Sullivan Sheriff Williams. Williams advised him to seek a grand jury investigation.
Claypool was walking near Shelburn on the night of July 30, 1930. He was grabbed and forced into a car by several men (later reports indicated the number was five). They grilled him about his efforts on behalf of the RUMW. They accused him of meeting with powerful mine owner John Templeton in order to negotiate a contact with the new union. When Claypool denied meeting with Templeton, his abductors menacingly discussed what they might do with him.
Finally, they started the car and headed west toward Illinois. When they reached Clark County they pulled the car over in a deserted area. Tar and feathers were produced from the trunk. Holding Claypool down, they poured tar over his head and chest. Then the feathers came floating down with their grim laughter and a piece of advice. They warned Claypool to never return to Indiana.
Claypool made it to the Miller farm and Clark County Sheriff Henry Colbrim was called and took Claypool to Marshall, where he checked into the National Dixie Hotel, frightened but alive.
Many others would have ceased their union activities then and there. But not Joseph Claypool.
In Part Two I will discuss the aftermath of the story, and what happened next.
Image courtesy Illinois History and Lincoln Collection, University of Illinois Library