Union War, Part Two


The attack on Claypool did not go unnoticed.  Articles appeared in papers throughout the Midwest.  RUMW officials immediately offered a $1,000.00 reward (later upped to $2,000.00) for information about the kidnappers.  Officials also met with Indiana Governor Harry Leslie in the vain hope he would do something about the incident.

Claypool did not take long recovering from his wounds.  Within a week or two he was back on the road visiting mining camps in the area trying to gauge the levels of discontent with Lewis.  He was as committed as ever to making life better for his “brother” miners.  And “brother” was a meaningful word to Claypool.  That is not to say, I think, that he was a full-blown Socialist or Communist.  I doubt that he would knowingly carry that red banner, but his use of the term in most of his letters and some of his feelings would definitely place him on the Left.  And the Left (that bogeyman then as now) was something John L. Lewis despised.  Again then as now, to paint your opponents as socialists or commies was a patented scare tactic often and effectively used.  Granted there were certainly Marxist and Socialistselements involved in the movement, but not to the extent that Lewis and others screeched about. 

Anyway, Claypool continued on and within seven weeks there was yet again another vicious episode, this time in West Terre Haute on September 24, 1930, but I will let him tell about it:

Terre Haute Ind

Sept.    1930

Mr. John Walker

Springfield,   Ill

Friend Jno_

 Just a line to let you know I am still in the fight.

Was walking down Paris Ave in West Terre Haute yesterday eve about eight oclock when two men came up behind me and stuck a gun in my back and ordered me in a car that drove up behind us.  I had a gun on me but felt it would be suicide to draw it at that time.  There was just three of them and they drove out the National Road and as we neared the bridge I made up my mind to unload.  I had a small gun on me that they failed to find.  I was sitting in the center of back seat one on each side.  I jerked my hands free from them and dived for the window which was partly down one stuck a gun to my side and I knocked it to one side and dived thru door the shot passed thru my arm just above elbow.  I began shooting when I hit but they never stopped.

I hid my gun and called Sheriff Dreher of Vigo  Co who came out and took me to hospital then I called my fatherinlaw and he took me home.

The only thing they said to me was that I had a ride coming to me and was going to get it.  My pocketbook which I carried in hip pocket was lost with between 45 and 50 dollars in it, I don’t know whether they took it or it was lost as I dived out window.  But anyway I could not find it when went back but I guess I was lucky to get away.  So can afford the loss.

I paid hospital bill and will send you account.

Will be up in day or two and want to talk to you personally.

There’s just a little to darn much fighting to suit me here at present.

Other things want to tell you but can do that when I see you.

Yours in service as ever.

Joseph Claypool

Martinsville, ILL



Following the attack, Claypool went into seclusion at his in-law’s farm in Martinsville, Illinois to rest and recover.  The attack was just the sort of thing the RUMW feared, as evidenced by the letter below from RUMW Secretary-Treasurer John Walker to Claypool.

Walker to Claypool, September 26, 1930

There is just one thing I want to say to you however and that is that the Lewis crowd have a man on their payroll as a lawyer.  He used to be a policeman—ran a detective agency in Terre Haute.  I think he is listed as a lawyer because the Lewis organization feel that the membership would not stand for a detective agency being employed by their organization if they knew it.  As you know detectives are always in touch with the police forces, and with the underworld, with criminal characters and their methods.  This gentleman is a very capable man.  He knows the whole situation from the point of view in Terre Haute and surrounding community.  I am quite sure that he is the fellow that has organized Terre Haute, and that it is from there that most of these things have emanated not only in Indiana, but in Illinois, because there has not been a strong-arm raid by the Lewis crowd in this state that I can recall, without one noticing from two to seven automobiles with Indiana license plates on them; and of course being a policeman himself he is able to get acquainted with policemen and police characters in every community, and that enables him to get the kind that are willing to do that sort of work for pay to work for them anywhere.

You will have to use a little more precaution perhaps than you have in the past if you want to escape the machinations of this character.  My honest opinion about it is that they would not hesitate to hill a person and I am not sure it would be the first time if they did.

The man Walker was referring to was Earl Houck, someone I had encountered before.

In graduate school I ran across the case of Prof. John J. Schlicher, a professor at Indian State Normal (now ISU) who was fired for making the “seditious” remark during WWI that not all Germans were bad (The research led to my first major scholarly publication.  See the March 1992 Indiana Magazine of History if the story interests you).  One of those who called for Schlicher’s ouster was a government investigator named Earl Houck, an interesting fellow.

Houck was an auto-racing enthusiast who was well-embedded in the Terre Haute power structure before the first world war.  He began working for Ball Funeral Home.  Somehow he became a special investigator for the government during the war, probably in the organization that became the FBI.  His job was to ferret out foreign agents and slackers. He once swept through the shanty town of Taylorville just across the river from Terre Haute arresting over 200 “loafers” to force them to take up meaningful war work. 

After Prohibition he turned his keen eye toward bootleggers, traveling across the Midwest in fevered pursuit of a generation made felons by the government’s misguided attempt to regulate morality.  Once, while in Michigan, a thirsty crew broke into his garage where he storing confiscated illegal booze and made off with the stash.  What it was doing being stored in his garage instead of the jail or courthouse was never explained.

By 1921 he was working as a special agent for the UMW, at the indeed then princely sum of $12,000.00 a year.  Why did the UMW need “special investigators?”  Perhaps to guard itself against men like Joseph Claypool.  It may have been Houck who whispered in Vigo County Sheriff Dreher’s ear (or his deputy)  that the Claypool kidnapping had nothing to with union issues.  Again, I will let Claypool speak for himself:

Terre Haute Ind

October 2nd 1930

Mr. Jno. Walker

Springfield Ill

Friend Jno.

          On returning home my wife informed me that there was a statement in the Tribune by Jno. Cannon deputy sheriff of Vigo co that he doubted I was kidnapped  am sending clipping.

          Now Jno. I have been in speakeasies as he claims but not in the frame of mind he suspects.  I meet my friend Earl Denham in West Terre Haute in a speakeasy as it is only place can talk to him.  But as to my throwing money away I can inform you that he is nuts.  And will invite any one of the official board to coma down an investigate.  Cannon is a loafer at Carnie Shaffer’s in West Terre Haute a place I haven’t been in in 3 months and is a Lewis hangout.

          It makes my blood boil and if they are going to peddle such stories I think it is high time we call their hand- so will submit statement to press.

          If they are going to besmirch a mans character as they are doing I think its a big load to carry.  So am asking the board to try and compensate me for what I lost on that night.

          Furthermore I will never go in another damn joint of that kind regardless.

          I don’t care whether I do any more or not as it seems the miner is willing to resort to anything so long as he gets the short end.

          Am going home from here and await answer from you.

Joseph Claypool

Martinsville, Ill

RR7 C/o Jos. Thompson

Still Claypool did not give up.  He continued trying to organize until early 1931.  This time he was more circumspect.  Most of his efforts were in southern Indiana.  But it was not to be, either for  him or the RUMW.  They could not attract enough followers.  With the Depression ongoing, the lot of miners got worse.  By 1932 the RUMW was dead and John L. Lewis was in control again.


Earl Houck went on to head the legal department of the UMW, moving first to Indianapolis, then to the main headquarters in Washington, DC.  He appears to have been something of a fixer for Lewis.  I have yet to find evidence that he went to law school or passed the bar.

Frank Barnhart, one of the men issued a gun permit in Sullivan, went on to become the President of UMW District 11 in Terre Haute.

Dale Stapleton, Barnhart’s henchman, also moved up within the UMW organization. By 1940 he was serving as a UMW International representative.

As for Joseph Claypool…  He disappeared from the spotlight.  According to his WWII draft registration he was working for a junkyard in Mattoon, Illinois.  He died in Decatur, Illinois in 1955.  Initially, it appears, his grave went unmarked.  Two years later, the Veterans Administration paid for a “flat bronze marker” for his grave.  It was the least they could do.

(Letters from the Illinois History and Lincoln Archive, University of Illinois)

For an excellent overview of the RUMW, see Carey, “The Reorganized United Mine Workers of America, 1930-1931” (Journal of the Illinois Historical Society, vol.66, no. 3)

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