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Eyewitness to Murder: Recounting the Ludlow Massacre

The labor struggles of the early 20th century, many of which ended in violence and death, engendered deep concern at all levels of society and led to a series of governmental investigations. The most important—the Commission on Industrial Relations—was appointed by newly elected Democratic president Woodrow Wilson early in 1913. The commission was in the midst of taking testimony from owners, workers, and reformers in dozens of industrial communities around the country when a coal strike erupted in southern Colorado. On Easter night, 1914, three women and eleven children were killed at a mining encampment in Ludlow, Colorado. One of the most famous accounts of what came to be called the “Ludlow massacre” was the statement of a young electrical engineer, Godfrey Irwin, who was traveling through southern Colorado and provided an eyewitness account to a New York World reporter, reproduced here.

On the day of the Ludlow battle a chum and myself left the house of the Rev. J. O. Ferris, the Episcopal minister with whom I boarded in Trinidad, for a long tramp through the hills. We walked fourteen miles, intending to take the Colorado & Southern Railway back to Trinidad from Ludlow station.

We were going down a trail on the mountain side above the tent city at Ludlow when my chum pulled my sleeve and at the same instant we heard shooting. The militia were coming out of Hastings Canyon and firing as they came. We lay flat behind a rock and after a few minutes I raised my hat aloft on a stick. Instantly bullets came in our direction. One penetrated my hat. The militiamen must have been watching the hillside through glasses and thought my old hat betrayed the whereabouts of a sharpshooter of the miners.

Saw Tikas Murdered.

Then came the killing of Louis Tikas, the Greek leader of the strikers. We saw the militiamen parley outside the tent city, and, a few minutes later, Tikas came out to meet them. We watched them talking. Suddenly an officer raised his rifle, gripping the barrel, and felled Tikas with the butt.

Tikas fell face downward. As he lay there we saw the militiamen fall back. Then they aimed their rifles and deliberately fired them into the unconscious man’s body. It was the first murder I had ever seen, for it was a murder and nothing less. Then the miners ran about in the tent colony and women and children scuttled for safety in the pits which afterward trapped them.

We watched from our rock shelter while the militia dragged up their machine guns and poured a murderous fire into the arroyo from a height by Water Tank Hill above the Ludlow depot. Then came the firing of the tents.

I am positive that by no possible chance could they have been set ablaze accidentally. The militiamen were thick about the northwest corner of the colony where the fire started and we could see distinctly from our lofty observation place what looked like a blazing torch waved in the midst of militia a few seconds before the general conflagration swept through the place. What followed everybody knows.

Sickened by what we had seen, we took a freight back into Trinidad. The town buzzed with indignation. To explain in large part the sympathies of even the best people in the section with the miners, it must be said that there is good evidence that many of the so-called ‘militiamen’ are only gunmen and thugs wearing the uniform to give them a show of authority. They are the toughest lot I ever saw.

No one can legally enlist in the Colorado state militia till he has been a year in the state, and many of the ‘militiamen’ admitted to me they had been drafted in by a Denver detective agency. Lieutenant Linderfelt boasted that he was ‘going to lick the miners or wipe them off the earth.’ In Trinidad the miners never gave any trouble. It was not till the militia came into town that the trouble began.

Source: New York World. Reprinted in Walter H. Fink, The Ludlow Massacre (1914), 7–21. Reprinted in Leon Stein and Philip Taft, eds., Massacre at Ludlow: Four Reports (New York: Arno and The New York Times, 1971), 22–23.