(Photo from the 1934 Minneapolis Truckers’ Strike)
Writing the Bootleg Coal Rebellion involved reading roughly 5,000 unique sources: oral histories, newspaper clippings, government records, etc. Many of them tell stories so bold, creative, or absurd that I had verify them before they could be believed. One document was more shocking than the rest, though: the Report on Industrial Munitions. It showed how far some coal companies would go to stop the bootleggers: chemical warfare.
First, some context. Industrial warfare broke out in 1930s America, much of it centered in the Midwest. It’s no hyperbole. Take the “Battle of Toledo” in 1934. Workers at a spark plug factory went on strike and were joined on their picket lines by the Toledo Unemployed League. Only about 25% of the workers walked out, but company police brutally beat an elderly man in plain view of the crowd, their numbers swelled to 10,000 and surrounded the factory. Management and their deputies barricaded themselves (and their strikebreakers) inside the building. From the upper stories rained tear gas, bolts, and iron bars down on the crowd. The crowd responded with stones and bricks. The company used up so much tear gas that a munitions manufacturer resupplied them via airplane. The Ohio national guard, called in on behalf of the employers the next day, led a bayonet charge into the crowd. All this was accompanied by pistol and rifle fire from company guards. Ultimately the union won, but not without many dead and injured.[i]
The Battle of Toledo was not a typical strike, but it wasn’t exceptional either.
In response the next year, pro-labor forces in the federal government launched an investigation into “industrial espionage.” Dubbed the LaFollette Committee for its most prominent member, the investigation, hearings, and reports spanned through 1941. They began by investigating private police and strike-breaking services—uncovering nearly 4,000 private detectives infiltrating nearly every union in the country (over 1,000 of whom were Pinkerton employees alone). From there, the committee branched into investigating repressive business alliances and, most relevant to the bootleg miners, “munitions in industrial warfare.”
After digging through munitions company records, the committee went before congress in 1936 (and issued a 233-page report in 1939).[ii] They uncovered receipts for large sales of machine and submachine guns, ammunition, clubs, and gases to US employers. Munitions executives admitted that they relied on strikes to sell product. The committee also found that executives and salesmen alike pushed the idea that strikers were all “reds.” When questioned on the ethics of selling gas to coal companies, Mr. Ailes of the Lake Erie Chemical Company said, “The whole theory of the use of gas is that it makes it unnecessary to use bullets. I am sorry we have to have strikes. I am sorry we have Communists in the country.”
Despite the depth of their probe, even investigators were shocked by what they found in the Anthracite Region. All other employers buying gas ordered either tear gas (chloracetophenone) or “sickening” gas (diphenylaminechlorarsine, which causes intense vomiting). Not the Anthracite Institute (the cartel of supposedly-competing coal companies). According to the report,
“The committee, however, discovered one case in which a much more deadly gas than CN or DM was purchased by a group of employers. This was the order of $17,457 worth of gas bought by the anthracite coal operators of eastern Pennsylvania for use to keep so-called bootleg miners out of the mines.
They bought 7,500 ampules of chloropicrin from the Lake Erie Company (some under the brand name “Repello-Gas”). Chloropicrin was used in World War I. Not as deadly as chlorine gas, it would penetrate gas masks causing soldiers to vomit and choke, requiring them to remove their masks. Chloropicrin causes rapid bronchitis and pulmonary edema (the lungs fill with fluid). Today it is used as a “broad spectrum” pesticide because it kills insects, plants, microbes, and fungi.
The operators’ plan was to combine their Coal & Iron Police and hire many more, enough to fill every coal hole in the Southern Coal Region in one night, posting warning signs outside of them. According to the New York Times,
It was hoped that the gas would linger in the holes for ten ·days or two weeks in sufficient concentration to keep the “bootleggers” from working them, and that the treatment could be repeated often enough to discourage the “bootleggers.”‘[iii]
According to Mr. Ailes, the vice president of the chemical company,
“The only hitch in the proceedings was the fear on the part of Mr. Sharp (general manager of the Philadelphia and Reading Coal and Iron Company) that fatalities might occur, due to the toxicity of the gas; and it was necessary, in order to secure the order, to assure him that the gas we intend using is considered non-toxic in that it is unbearable at much less than a toxic or lethal concentration and that any person entering the gas would be driven out before permanent injury would be sustained.”
Reading between the lines, Ailes was saying it would only kill bootleggers if they only inhaled a small amount. That’s not exactly the definition of “non-toxic.” According to Ailes, at least one operator could care less:
“The other gentlemen present, particularly Mr. Wagner (vice president and general manager of the Lehigh Valley Coal Company), stated that they did not care what the gas did to the bootleggers, inasmuch as the bootleggers were trespassing and stealing their property and would not be subjected to any gas unless they went into the coal holes for the purpose of stealing coal.”
Shamed by the public revelations and restrained by a fear of lawsuits, the Anthracite Institute never gassed the mines. It is unclear what became of the stockpiled gas.
[i] See Bernstein, The Lean Years, 218-229.
[ii] United States Congress Senate Committee on Education and Labor, Violations of Free Speech and Rights of Labor: Report of the Committee on Education and Labor Pursuant to S. Res. 266 (74th Congress) (U.S. Government Printing Office, 1939).
[iii] “Planned Gas War on Bootleg Miners,” NY Times, Sep. 25, 1936.