Solved mystery of Herrin Massacre yields remembrance, reconciliation

Caked in mud, Steven Di Naso and Grant Woods crouched in the cemetery trench they were clearing with trowels and gloved hands. They were searching for evidence of bodies — many from Chicago — that had been deliberately forgotten after one of the grisliest atrocities in labor history. It was 85 degrees. Sweat bees hovered around the two men.

Di Naso, Woods, local historian Scott Doody and their team had spent four years overcoming local resistance, reviewing thousands of documents, building databases and producing more than 500 maps, charts and graphs that tracked interments since the Herrin City Cemetery was established in 1905.

So far, digs in November and last week have yielded traces of eight graves in a pauper's field in the 25-acre cemetery. The crew is planning to return in September, which gives Herrin some time to absorb these excavations of reconciliation and remembrance, and work on how to deal with them.

"Now, 92 years later," Di Naso said a couple of days after emerging from the trenches, "it's time to recognize it actually happened and who these men were and just rewrite the history on it. A lot of good came out of this."

What actually happened is the slaughter of 23 men in a wooded area near the city on June 22, 1922. It's known as the Herrin Massacre.

Amid a nationwide coal miners strike that had started in April, a Williamson County mine owner hired nonunion labor and armed guards from Chicago to reopen the business. Angry locals in the heavily unionized region were joined by supporters from several states, and they exchanged gunfire with guards for several days.

By the night of June 21, two union miners had been killed. The next morning several hundred union supporters descended on the mine, and the nonunion workers surrendered.

They were told to leave the county and promised safe escort by locals. Instead, union supporters walked the estimated 60 strikebreakers to a wooded area about 2 miles from the mine, lined them against a barbed-wire fence and opened fire.

In the chaotic scramble to escape, many fled through the woods, only to be tracked by locals, roped and shot. Some of their throats were slit.

No one was convicted of wrongdoing in the deaths of the 23. It remains unclear whether the victims were aware they had enlisted to work as strikebreakers. The shock and outrage that erupted across the country led Herrin to try to forget.

"People just didn't talk about that," said Bill Sizemore, 58, a city councilman, lifelong Herrin resident and supporter of Di Naso's effort. "No one ever brought it up. I think people were just hoping it would go away."

And, for the most part, it did. Herrin, a town of about 12,000 in deep southern Illinois, lost track of the graves of the 16 men whose bodies initially went unclaimed.

That was the case until spring 2009, when Doody, then a talk radio host in the area, got a call on his show. A listener told him to check out the massacre victims' graves.

"The joke was on me," recalled Doody, 51. "No one knew where they were."

Doody researched the massacre victims and found references to the city cemetery. He also determined that one victim, Antonio Mulkavich, had been a decorated World War I veteran, serving in the Second Battle of the Somme and the St. Mihiel and Argonne offensives. Later, Doody determined that four other killed men also were veterans.

He was upset that a decorated veteran had no marker and became engrossed by the mystery of where all the victims were buried. After enlisting the help of a Southern Illinois University professor, Doody hired crews to run ground-penetrating radar and coordinated two excavations. They yielded nothing.

On the second dig, in March 2010, the SIU professor brought a friend, Di Naso, a geographer, geologist and geospatial scientist from Eastern Illinois University. In the days after the fruitless dig, Doody stewed, feeling he had failed, he said.

Then Di Naso surprised Doody with a phone call a few days later. The scientist asked the talk show host what his next plan was. That sparked their collaboration.

Over the months, they assembled a team of volunteers that included retired Washington County sheriff and former coal miner John Foster, EIU geography professor emeritus Vincent Gutowski, forensic anthropologist and SIU professor emeritus Robert Corruccini and Woods, an EIU graduate student in geography.

By reviewing all the records they could find on the massacre, its victims and the cemetery — Doody once drove six hours to the Chicago History Museum to pore over archives — they were able to discern precise details about the men's burial vaults and coffin design and construction, among other information.