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“I Started Filling Rifles”: A Woman Strike Supporter Remembers the 1914 Ludlow Massacre

The brutal southern Colorado coal strike reached its nadir on Easter night, 1914, with the horrendous deaths by fire of three women and eleven children at the hands of the Colorado state militia. Mary Thomas, whose husband was on strike, was interviewed at age eighty eight by historian Sherna Gluck in 1974 for the Feminist History Research Project. Thomas vividly recalled the horror of the infamous Ludlow Massacre, described her efforts to save the lives of women and children by hiding them in a dry well, and her jailing in the aftermath the massacre. She was the only woman strike supporter to be jailed during the strike.

Listen to Audio:

Mary Thomas: When . . . when after they brought us to this ranch, she said there was nothing in there but hay for us to lay down. And we did, and we warmed the children, put coats over 'em.

Gluck: How many of you were there? Do you recall?

Thomas: Oh, there was about . . .there was about thirty, forty women and children that were got into that camp. I think four women, and the rest were children. So there’s a window, and it was broke. I hadn’t done much praying before that although I was raised religious. But I went to that window and that’s one time I prayed to God for help and the tears just rolled from my eyes because I thought we were done, you know? The poor little children that walked the two miles and when they got this hay they just went to sleep right now. Oh, it was an awful time.

Gluck: Now did the people at the ranch just happen to be sympathetic to the union?

Thomas: Oh, yes, they were. Very sympathetic. And they really told us about this woman taking up their bed, but they couldn’t exactly tell her to get out.

Gluck: So, when you, when you and the other women and children left, was when it first began? You didn’t see them then raid the camp and put kerosene on the tents, or any of that part?

Thomas: No, I didn’t see them put the kerosene on the tent but I saw the blaze. So, you see no one had had any food all day, and not since the day before. So I walked up to a woman that I knew not far from there—it was about two or three miles—but I walked up there. Her husband was a railroad man and I asked if there was anything she could do in giving us some food because women and children were hungry. And I said that I’ve already put the children down in the well. It was a vacant well. It was gone dry, and I put, put all the children—there was about twenty-four or twenty-five children—and I put ‘em down one by one. And the women got their mothers and got them and laid them down. They were safer there from the bullets. So, then when I got up, when I got from there, I went up to see this woman, if she could give us some food. And she says, “I sure can,” she said. So her husband—she filled a lot of stuff, and her husband— her husband came, helped me carry the food down. And he said, “I can’t be seen too far. . . too close,” he said. “ ’cause the railroad will fire me for favoring the union.” And I reached this food down to them, you know.

So, we got along all right with that. Then after, I put all the children down there. I knew that there were some men over on that hill over there, the other side of the train. I knew that they hadn’t had nothing to eat all day, so I took some of the food to give to them and when I went over there with this food, they were so glad. And I saw a sack over a body over there, and I said, “Who? Who is that?”He said, “That’s Charlie, Charlie Koster.” "Oh, my God!" He was my next door neighbor, and his wife was such a lovely person, and my great friend. Oh! I just got sick and I . . .

But he said, “Come back from that spot,” he said. And he said, “Would you help us?” He said, “Fill the rifles for us? We’ve got to protect ourselves.” I said, “I’ve never held a rifle in my hand. I wouldn’t know how.” "I’ll show ya." And they started showin' me how to fill the rifles. I started filling rifles to protect the house and these children.

Why then . . . You see I’m trying to think what came after that. Oh, but the bullets were coming too close and one of these men he was crying. He said, “I’m afraid we’re all going to be killed,”he said. He said that we’ve got no more ammunition and that they must have killed, ah, what’s-his-name?

Gluck: Tikas?

Thomas: Yeah. “They must have killed Tikas or he would have brought that over here. They musta killed him.” And he said, “Mrs. Thomas, you’ve got to take those children out of that well.”He said, “We can’t. We can’t take a chance.”

And oh, had we gone way over. We had gone way over to hide from everything. And that’s when they started shooting towards that, too. So, ah, but I don’t know. I believe they were at first trying to shoot to frighten us out. But I think they must have been drinking, and I don’t know what happened. I don’t believe they could have ordered them to shoot us. And when they woke up, when they got . . . when they, when they went through to see how many was hurt, they found two, two tents burned to death, and the children in them.

Gluck: That was in the tent where they dug that, that . . .a cave underneath the tent?

Thomas: Yes.

Gluck: Is that the one?

Thomas: That’s right.

Gluck: Now, how did you get shot? And how was . . .Who took care of that after?

Thomas: I was takin‘ the children, you know? I was takin’ one in each hand. Well, one was takin' . . . My eldest one was pulling at my skirt, and the little one right by my hand, and I was taking one of the babies. I had one of the babies of the, of one of the women. So I, I was all in, too, but I knew I didn’t let it get me down. So, you see now, I don’t know if I’ve gone ahead of my story.

Gluck: Well, were you shot after you put the children in the well? Or after you . . .

Thomas: No, when we were going . . .

Gluck: When you were going to the well?

Thomas: Yeah. That’s when I was shot.

Gluck: And then how . . . Who took care of your injury?

Thomas: Well, one of the, one of the little women that was there, one of my neighbors. And she, she took off her stocking and wrapped it around my . . . So, there wasn’t . . .It wasn’t very much, but it was enough to make a mark there.

Gluck: But no one else in the group with the other women and children were hit?

Thomas: No. No, it just happened to get me.

Gluck: Um-hum.

Thomas: So anyway, after it was all over, they put me in jail. And I said, “Oh, you can’t leave me here!” I said, “I’ve got two children.” I said, “I’ve got two children!”Ah . . . “We’ll get the children for you.”

Gluck: Who . . .who put you in jail?

Thomas: The jailers.

Gluck: And why did they pick you?

Thomas: I don’t . . .They thought that I was leading them, or something, but I wasn’t.

Gluck: They came to the ranch and arrested you?

Thomas: No. I went . . .Well, I went back to see how, what we had left to live in and that, ah, we didn’t have anything. And that’s when they told me they had to take me .

Gluck: I see. And when you went back you saw everything in ruins then?

Thomas: When I went back, ah, Mother Jones was gonna come into then, and before they had took me to jail, she was hidin' out. And when they were shooting at everybody, the town people started getting together, and put us in a room, and that’s where they . . .from there’s where they took me to jail.

Gluck: I see. And what . . .Did they charge you with anything?

Thomas: Yeah, but they didn’t. No, I was never charged with anything, and we was there for two weeks. I was quite a singer in those days. I was winning lots of prizes when I was in Wales and ah. . . But I did open the window and my children were just children and they thought they were doing something fine. They would throw everything they found inside at the people [laughing] outside. You know? They thought they were helping me.

So I was singing the union song: [Singing]

Union forever!

Hurrah, boys, hurrah!

Down with the bosses

and up with the law.

Oh, we’re coming Colorado.

We’re coming all the way!

Singing the battle cry of Union!

Source: Oral history courtesy of Sherna Gluck, Feminist History Project.