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The People Versus the Private Army

Labor conflicts in Pennsylvania’s coal mines and steel mills during the nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries were usually violent. In order to insure that they had the upper hand and to avoid relying on local police (who were sometimes sympathetic to strikers), mine and mill operators set up their own “Coal and Iron Police” as early as the 1870s. Public reaction against these private armies led the Pennsylvania legislature to create a Department of State Police as an ostensibly more neutral and highly-trained law enforcement body. But the cure turned out to be worse than the disease. In the 1910 strike at Bethlehem Steel, the state police proved to be as pro-management as the Coal and Iron Police and even more brutal. The following testimony from workers and labor leaders appearing before the U.S. Commission on Industrial Relations in 1915 underscored the anger and discontent of common laborers with the military mindset of the newly formed Pennsylvania State Police.


Chairman WALSH: Please state your name, your residence, and your occupation.

Mr. MAURER: My name is James H. Maurer, occupation, machinist; at the present time president of the Pennsylvania State Federation of Labor.

Chairman WALSH: Have you made a special study of the Pennsylvania State police, Mr. Maurer?

Mr. MAURER: Yes, sir.

Chairman WALSH: When was that department of the State police of Pennsylvania created?

Mr. MAURER: In 1905.

Chairman WALSH: How many men composed the constabulary, and how are they divided?

Mr. MAURER: The entire force consists of 232 men, four of whom—one the superintendent of police, and deputy superintendent, clerk, and stenographer—the rest are officers and men.

Chairman WALSH: Prior to the institution of the constabulary, what sort of a State police force was there in Pennsylvania?

Mr. MAURER: Why, the police we had prior to that time were known as coal and iron police—deputy sheriffs before the creation of the State police.

Chairman WALSH: Were those police in the employment of private corporations?

Mr. MAURER: Yes.

Chairman WALSH: They were not officers of the State?

Mr. MAURER: Only to the extent that they received their authority—their right to be police—from the governor.

Chairman WALSH: And they were paid by whom?

Mr. MAURER: By the corporations whom they served.

Chairman WALSH: Could you approximate how many State police officers there were on duty at the time of the passage of this State constabulary law?

Mr. MAURER: No. Each corporation of any importance had a great many of these coal and iron police and private detectives.

Chairman WALSH: Well, now, were those laws repealed when the State constabulary was instituted?

Mr. MAURER: They promised—the general agitation in the assembly at the time, at the time they tried to pass or did pass the constabulary law, was that they were to take the place of the coal and iron police, and the bill itself, which I have here, creating the department made that provision, or made no such provision; but it did provide what it was to be used for. I notice here in one part it says, defining their duties, and says they are intended, so far as possible, to take the place of the police now appointed at the behest of various corporations. This is part of the act creating the department of State police in 1905, when Samuel W. Pennypacker was governor, and to answer your question, the law creating the department—the coal and iron department—this is a copy of the act creating that department, and this act was passed in 1865, and was supplemented by an act in 1866. The supplement provides that any corporation can have the same power that railroad corporations have. . . .

Chairman WALSH: Now, as a matter of fact, were the coal and iron police dropped on the institution of the State constabulary?

Mr. MAURER: No, they were not. We still have the coal and iron police as we had before the institution of the State constabulary.

Chairman WALSH: From what forces are the State constabulary recruited—from the police force of the State or -

Mr. MAURER: No. The men are recruited from the ranks of ex-United States soldiers, and again many of them are recruited from the ranks or from the degenerate descendants of the middle classes, young men who are educated, but never amount to anything and no good for anything and generally hunt a job in the State police force.

Chairman WALSH: How many men altogether do you say? What is the total force.

Mr. MAURER: Forty-two.

Chairman WALSH: Have there been any labor disturbances in which the State police were called since the institution of this force?

Mr. MAURER: Oh, yes; a great many.

Chairman WALSH: Could you briefly state what they were, and the use and operation of the State police?

Mr. MAURER: Yes. They are used in various ways. It depends entirely on the nature of the trouble. If the strike is a very large one, say like we had in Westmoreland County, or in a big coal center, then they are used differently than they would be in a local situation, such as a trolley strike where the street car men go on a strike, or perhaps differently from what they would be on a railroad. I will have to recite—I will give you perhaps two illustrations.

Commissioner O’CONNELL: Could you give the Bethlehem Steel Co., for instance; they were in that?

Mr. MAURER: I will give that; I can touch on that, too, but there is another witness here whom I believe will go into that more in detail. Take the Westmoreland coal strike as an example of a large strike. Then in a situation of that kind the deputy sheriffs provide thugs imported there from wherever they can get them, usually from the slums of the great cities, not natives; in very few cases they are natives. These men are clothed with the power and authority of deputies, and are therefore armed, with the right to arrest. Now, the coal and iron police are a little different. He is really more like a detective. He is a gum-shoe man, as it were, in the situation. And word may come to picket men saying that a train is bringing a carload of strike breakers in, to meet at a certain time at the station, and the thugs will gather, and when the train unloads its passengers, these pickets call out to them and say, “There is a strike on.” "Don’t go out, don’t take our jobs." And sometimes they reach them—sometimes they get in close communication with them and sometimes not. That is when the imported thug comes in. He starts something. The coal and iron police, most of the time, are on the scene, and when they start something it is because the thugs and the coal and iron police are armed and the strikers are not armed, and are not permitted to be armed; and they are beaten up by the thugs, and that is about the time the constabulary appear on the scene, and they come around, mounted like cavalry, and they come around and see the disturbance, and they always take good care to arrest only the strikers. That is the part they play in that, and when they had this Westmoreland strike, which extended over a very considerable time in Westmoreland County, and not in one instance did we get any aid from the constabulary. We had men who wished to go home, and tried to go home, and the thugs would waylay them and would beat them up, and the constabulary—we telephoned and asked for protection and never got it.

I have a letter here from one man which was just received day before yesterday, and if you will pardon me I will read it, as it will enlighten you on the various subjects I am speaking about. He says:

"In 1906 I had occasion to visit Sagamore. While walking on the township road with others, two Italians came from the shanty, erected for the convenience of the coal company near the mines, in Sagamore, and came over to the road, pointed their guns at me, and ordered me off of the township road. I refused to go, and those Italians turned and went to the shanty, which was about 100 feet from the township road, and two members of the State constabulary came along. I stopped them, told them what those fellows had done, and requested them to arrest them. They refused and said they would take it up with the superintendent.

"I am not sure whether those men were disarmed or not, but I was never called to appear against them in court.

James Purcell."

This Mr. Purcell is president of District 2 of the United Mine Workers, and I merely mention that to illustrate the method by which they protect; they protect the company and not the strikers. They are strictly partial in their conduct, and never yet have I had one case reported to me or come to my knowledge where they protected the striker. I can cite you other cases in the trolley or small strikes where no private gunmen were employed; then they played the dual role of secret-service men, as it were, or thugs, and mingling with crowds in citizens' clothes and trying to create disorder or incite the men to violence, and then after the men beat up others, had them arrested, and the press came out in glaring headlines and said what an efficient force it was.


Chairman WALSH: Please state your name.

Mr. WILLIAMS: David Williams.

Chairman WALSH: What is your business?

Mr. WILLIAMS: I am now editor and manager of the Allentown Labor Herald.

Chairman WALSH: Where do you reside?

Mr. WILLIAMS: At Allentown, Pa.

Chairman WALSH: What was your business prior to going into the publishing business?

Mr. WILLIAMS: I was a machinist in the steel works from the fall of 1907, until the strike started, February 4, 1910. I am a machinist by trade.

Chairman WALSH: You have some matter, I believe, on the question of the department of the State Police of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yes. They were used against us in the strike. . . . The most brutal act committed by the State police which was witnessed by myself occurred on March 17 (St. Patrick’s Day.) The Allentown Democrat of March 18 gives the details as follows:

"One of the most brutal scenes since the memorable bloody Saturday was enacted last evening at 5 o’clock at Third and Elm Streets, when James Gallagher, of Fifth and Locust Streets, a 70-year-old man, who refused to move on, was beaten into insensibility while the blood streamed from his head to the pavement.

"According to bystanders Gallagher was standing on the corner, when one of the troopers, whose name is known, ordered the old man to move on. He refused, saying: ‘I am an American citizen and a taxpayer and a citizen here for over 50 years, and I don’t see why I should move on. I’m not doing anything.’

“Without waiting for anything further the trooper spurred his horse forward and, seizing Gallagher, beat him so badly with a long riot stick that he had to be taken to a doctor. A large crowd witnessed this act, and they snarled and ground their teeth in rage at the action.”

I was 30 years of age when this occurred, and never before had a thought enter my brain to desire to kill anyone, but when I saw this brutal beating up of Gallagher I want to say the only thing that stopped the killing of a State policeman was that we were not prepared.

There is a breaking point between conservatism and radicalism.

If the State of Pennsylvania continues to send men out to club citizens, and old men at that, there will finally have to come the preparation for defense by the working class. When we held our next meeting after the clubbing of this man we advised all men who had guns to strap them on their backs, a right guaranteed them under the Constitution of both the United States and also the State of Pennsylvania.

In fact, in Pennsylvania we have come to the conclusion that since this organization known as the State police are housed, wined, dined, and controlled by the corporations, we must prepare to protect ourselves from their brutality in times of labor troubles.


Chairman WALSH: State your name.

Mr. SEBALD: John G. Sebald.

Chairman WALSH: Where is your residence?

Mr. SEBALD: Nine forty-five West Sixteenth Street, Erie, Pa.

Chairman WALSH: What is your occupation?

Mr. SEBALD: Cement worker and contractor.

Chairman WALSH: Were you in Erie during the molder’s strike in 1912?

Mr. SEBALD: Yes, sir.

Chairman WALSH: Why was the strike called?

Mr. SEBALD: The strike was called for better conditions, more wages, and shorter hours.

Chairman WALSH: Now, Mr. Sebald, were the State constabulary called into that strike?

Mr. SEBALD: They were called in there. They were called in by the sheriff at request of the mayor.

Chairman WALSH: Now, had there been violence before they were called in?

Mr. SEBALD: No, sir.

Chairman WALSH: Had there been fights or rock throwing or anything of that sort?

Mr. SEBALD: No, sir.

Chairman WALSH: Well, were there charges for such—were men arrested for that?

Mr. SEBALD: Well, one charge was over in the Polish settlement. They upturned a van with the strike breakers in it. The strike breakers caused the trouble. They called one of the men—I don’t want to use the words in the presence of the women here, and it was the men that started it, but the women folks in the neighborhood got so mad they went to work and helped turn up the van.

Chairman WALSH: Now, did you have criticism as to the way the constabulary acted after their arrival?

Mr. SEBALD: Did I?

Chairman WALSH: Yes. How did the constabulary act, Mr. Sebald?

Mr. SEBALD: Well, I had my own experiences. I had no time, as I said before, to write this out, but I will state my case as to the State constabulary. They arrived—they were all—the first day they arrived they were all gentlemen, they were nice. Every one of them that met me addressed me as “Good morning, Baldy.” I never met the men before, never saw them before, but it had been tipped off to them by the manufacturers' association, “That is the big guy. That is the guy you want to get.” So we didn’t pay any more attention to it, and I answered the men until about—well, the second—or that night. They came in the morning, I judge about 5 o’clock, over the Bessemer Road. That night they went to work and went over in this Polish settlement, and one of the Cossacks—which I was not over there, but by the experience of the men that told me—the Cossack insulted a woman and a child; and some old man about 60 years old was coming along home with a shovel—a long-handled shovel—and he heard the remarks, and he told the Cossack, “If I was as young as you are, I would smash your head,” and the Cossack said, “It is not up to you to say anything, and if you do I will knock your block off.” And the old fellow forgot himself and he landed with the shovel on the Cossack. And Mr. Cossack, we called them Cossacks. He was a member of the State constabulary, and he went to charge and ride at the old man, and the old man got into a saloon, and he takes his horse and rides into the saloon and gets off his mount and strikes the man and knocks him down, and his horse walks out back to the curb. Now, that is the first trouble we had in Erie. It was the first night the Cossacks arrived there. There wasn’t any bloodshed at all outside of that. There was no trouble at all when I was there. . . .

Source: Testimony, May 6, 1915, U.S.. Congress, Senate, Final Report and Testimony Submitted to Congress by the Commission on Industrial Relations, 64th Cong., 1st sess., S. Doc. 415, vol. 11 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1916), 10932ff.

See Also:Just Doing Our Job, Ma'am: Defending the State Police