By Scott Fisher
The Zeigler Coal company in Franklin County purchased the latest machinery to mine coal in 1901-02. The owner, Joseph Leiter, inherited the mine after his father passed away and hoped to run an efficient and profitable mining operation. Since the mine was highly mechanized for its time, the owner refused to recognize the Coal Miners’ Union scale for wages which were based on tons of coal mined by hand. As soon as coal was hoisted to the surface, coal miners went on strike and trouble began. Leiter brought in strikebreakers to work his mines and violence ensued for several years.
When the United States entered into World War I, the federal government looked to the agricultural states to increase food production. Despite a shortage of farm workers, Illinois did its part to support the war effort, including the farmers in Southern Illinois. Virgil Marks of Murphysboro, a soldier in the “Great War,” described the combat action in France some 75 years later, “They killed them all around me – it looked like just for the fun of it. Out of 245 men, there was only 28 of us walked off. The rest were shot.” As soon as the War ended, a surplus of airplanes were converted into mail carriers or were purchased by daring young pilots, called barnstormers. Many Illinoisans saw their first airplane while standing in near a farmer’s barn watching daredevils fly overhead. While the post World War I years were prosperous for many, they were troubled times for Southern Illinois coal miners. When Union miners all over the nation went on strike in 1922, Williamson County mine owner William Lester was given permission by the miner’s Union to continue uncovering coal in his strip mine but was not allowed to dig it up or ship it to market during the strike. Refusing to listen to warnings of trouble, Lester dismissed his Union miners and brought in strikebreakers and guards to load and ship his unearthed coal. Union miners attacked the railroad cars hauling coal and soon surrounded the Lester Mine while its guards and strikebreakers were there. The mine supervisor called the local sheriff and reported that over 500 shots had been fired by both sides, but help never arrived. Following an all night siege, the mine’s guards and strikebreakers surrendered to the Union miners the next morning and were marched toward the town of Herrin in Williamson County where they were told they would be released. Vengeance overwhelmed the angry crowd, however, as they chased and shot unarmed “prisoners” before reaching Herrin. Twenty people died and some of the bodies were mutilated. Although several miners were indicted, no one was successfully convicted of these crimes. After this massacre, Williamson County was to be known as “Bloody Williamson.” The 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which was ratified in 1919, prohibited the manufacture and sale of alcohol. This caused a strong reaction including the rise of bootleggers and gangsters even in Southern Illinois. Some bootleggers in Southern Illinois were foreigners or Catholic. Clansmen in Williamson County first appeared in 1923. They appointed themselves defenders of the public morals and raided many bootleg operations. Later the Clansmen were deputized by a former government agent turned local lawman, S. Glen Young, and raided suspected operations, shooting up their places and engaging in gun fights with bootleggers. Glen Young’s career came to an end when he and three other men were killed in a shoot out in a drugstore in Herrin, Illinois.
The Shelton and Birger gangs operated in Southern Illinois in the 1920s. Shoot-outs between these and other rival gangsters and between law enforcement officers were common. After being convicted of ordering the murder of the mayor of West City, the leader of the Birger gang, Charlie Birger, was condemned to be hanged in 1928. The killings continued, however, as nearly 50 members of the Shelton clan were murdered or died under mysterious circumstances over the next 20 years.
The Birger Gang
Tornadoes and violent thunderstorms have always plagued this region. The worst tornado devastated the town of Murphysboro in 1925. It cut a 219-mile swath across Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana. The official death toll was 689, with 210 killed in Murphysboro alone, but scores more never were accounted for. Other notable tornadoes occurred in 1957, again in Murphysboro, and in 1981 in Marion. The stock market crash of 1929 and the Great Depression of the 1930s caused coal miners to lose their jobs when mine after mine closed. Farmers could not sell their crops and lost their land, families defaulted on their home mortgage loans, and young people from the region began leaving for the cities to find work and a better life. Many of the banks in the area went bankrupt and people paid their bills with post office money orders and postage stamps, or traded and bartered for goods. Occasional welfare orders provided some relief for poor families and President Roosevelt’s “New Deal” WPA program provided intermittent jobs. But many people in the region were too proud to accept much help or accept help for too long. The people in Southern Illinois did whatever they could to get by, such as using candles instead of electricity for light, stopping newspaper and magazine subscriptions, and conserving water or even digging a well to get water free. People saved and reused all sorts of small items including buttons, old clothes, used paper, lumber and bricks, and sundry other items. When the U.S. entered World War II in 1941, it was supported in Southern Illinois, as elsewhere, with people working in military production and with their “Victory Gardens.” An ordnance plant in the Crab Orchard Wildlife Refuse in Southern Illinois was built and worked around the clock to supply the military with ammunition and other ordnances. The plant is still in use today making ammunition for commercial sale. Because the crops farmers grew were going directly to the government for the War effort, everyone used every spare space in their yards or nearby fields to grow food. These gardens were called “Victory Gardens.” The region’s economy was better after World War II. Miners found work in the coal fields and new industry and jobs seemed to spring up nearly everywhere. In 1951, the second worst mine disaster in the state’s history took place at the New Orient Coal Mine near West Frankfort in Southern Illinois. Sparks from electrical equipment touched off a pocket of methane gas, killing 119 miners. This resulted in the federal Coal Mine Safety Act of 1952 updated mine safety laws and provided for more stringent inspections of mines. Many public schools consolidated after the War. The days of the one-room school houses and small, rural schools was rapidly coming to an end. More emphasis was given to secondary and higher education. Southern Illinois University Carbondale grew rapidly in size from 3,500 to over 23,000 students between 1950 to 1980. Junior Colleges, the forerunner of today’s Community Colleges, were initially viewed by some as extensions of local high schools. The enacted of the Junior College Act of 1965 gave them better funding and allowed for the building of campuses and extended curricula. Shawnee, Southeastern Illinois, Rend Lake, and John A. Logan Community Colleges are all located in Southern Illinois. There were demonstrations in Southern Illinois to support the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. Some disturbances were reported, particularly after the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King in 1968. During the Vietnam War in the late 1960s, the antiwar movement spread to Southern Illinois University Carbondale. After the shootings at Kent State University in 1970, riots in Carbondale closed down the campus and ended the University’s school year prematurely. In the 1970s and 1980s, Halloween was celebrated by large crowds, estimated to be as large as 20,000 people. These large crowds took to the streets in downtown Carbondale in Halloween costumes. The celebration was peaceful and entertaining for many years but turned more violent with property damage, looting, and arson in the 1980s. Officials of the City and Southern Illinois University took measures to end the “party” by closing the campus and its dormitories and preventing bars and liquor establishments from selling alcohol for several days around Halloween. These measures have effectively stopped the gathering of large crowds and ended the “Halloween tradition” in Carbondale. Surrounded by rivers, floods have plagued the region for decades. The Great Flood of 1993 on the Mississippi River, a smaller flood on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers and their tributaries in 1995, and flash flooding along the Ohio River in 1997 cause a great deal of property damage but no reported loss of life in Southern Illinois. The Fayville Levee near Miller City in Alexander County was breeched in the flood of 1993 which allowed thousands of acres of farmland and many homes in the area to be flooded. Subsequent rains and high water in the Spring of 1994 continued the problem. High water and storms in 1995 caused damage in Perry County and flooding along the Ohio River basin in Saline and Gallatin counties and caused property damage to some homes and farmland. Many older people were evacuated during these periods of natural disaster. Unemployment generally higher in the southern region of the state with many of its counties exhibiting the highest unemployment rates in the state. Only Jackson County, where Southern Illinois University is located, has had an unemployment rate consistently lower than that of the U.S. or state. Due to its high employment rate, communities in Southern Illinois have become more aggressive in seeking economic opportunities. Jobs associated with the building and operation of prison facilities have been sought for the region. There are currently 2 federal and 8 state Correctional facilities located in the southern-most 13 countries of Illinois. Most of the inmates in these facilities are from the other regions of the state.