Biographical note


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George J. Tiller is famous as the man who organized Harlan County, and he has been an outstanding citizen of West Virginia for more than 30 years. After he left the Harlan coal fields, he moved to Charleston where he became Secretary-Treasurer of UMWA District 17, which then covered the entire southern portion of the Mountain State. When District 29 was formed, with headquarters in Beckley, he became its president, a position he held until 1966. During the years since 1941, his colorful per­sonality has become well known throughout the state. His love for a fight did not cease when he left Harlan County. He will take on anyone whom he believes is in opposition to West Virginia's coal miners. This includes politicians of all shades, coal operators and newspapers.

Mr. Titler may be said to have several "native" states. A Pennsylvanian by birth and ancestry, he worked in coal mines in Pennsylvania and Iowa, in both of which states he is still well known. He later adopted Kentucky and Tennessee as home and still visits both of these southern states often on business for the United Mine Workers because of past experience there.

In detail, Mr. Titler served in the United States Army during World War I for two years and was mustered out at Camp Dodge, Iowa, in. 1919, with the rank of sergeant. As the son of a miner and having had previous experience in the mines, he immediately went to work at the coal mine nearest his discharge in Polk County, Iowa, near Des Moines. He worked in that area as a coal miner for 13 years. His first official position with the UMWA was as Board member of Sub-District 3, District 13, a job he held for two years. He then became an International organizer and was assigned to District 19 where he first did field work in the Jellico, Tennessee area, and later around Chattanooga. He was in Chattanooga when his assignment to Harlan County began.

He is now 77 years old and serves his beloved Union with undiminished vigor. His friends do not believe him when he says he is ready for retirement.

By Roy Lee Harmon Poet Laureate of West Virginia

Here is a book by a man who put his life on the line in order to bring coal miners from abject poverty to a better way of living where today they enjoy some of the good things of life, things they richly deserve.

George J. Titler is, first of all, a fighter for justice for laboring men. I have known him for more than thirty years, known him as a two-fisted leader in the United Mine Workers of America. Almost a carbon copy of the late and great John L. Lewis.

He has never pretended to be an author. He is a truly great labor leader who has dedicated a long life to his work. His mighty footprints will linger in the coal dust and the muddy streets of coal camps long after he has passed to his reward. An able speaker and phrase-maker, it is good that in the sunset of his career he decided to set down on paper some of the almost unbelievable but nevertheless true happenings in "Bloody Harlan" county, Ky. This is first-hand stuff, told by a man who in his younger days, when he could have killed a man with his two power­ful fists, had the raw courage to beard the Coal Barons in their den. It was no place for timid souls or less dedicated persons.

The Coal Barons in Kentucky as well as West Virginia, had long ruled with a high hand in the coal fields—and they didn't want their "slaves" to be set free. Yes, the miners were slaves before the coal fields were unionized, slaves who truly "owed their souls to the company store" and worked extremely long hours for a pittance while making the coal barons rich.

George J. Titler faced bullets from ambush, sudden death, eternal harassment and certain jail terms for trying to carry freedom — in the form of the United Mine Workers of America — into the coal fields.

This book is not fiction. It is factual all the way.

At 77, ready as he says "to hang up his cap", this great lion of a man, deserves high praise for setting down the facts in this book and preserving for posterity some outstanding facts which union haters would like us all to forget. If you love freedom and hate despotism this volume is your cup of tea.

This book is the story of four of the most important years of my life, years when organized labor was tested on a blood battleground in the hills of Kentucky. Before 1937, Harlan County had been known locally as "Bloody Harlan", because of its long record of violence. During the years when I was in charge of organizing for the UMWA in Harlan County 1937 to 1941 Bloody Harlan became nationally known. The actions of the Harlan County coal operators became a shame to the entire United States, an object of scorn to all of our citizens, including Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Harlan County is a part of UMWA District 19 which also includes all coal miners in the state of Tennessee. Prior to being assigned to organizing in Harlan, I had worked under District President Wm. Turn-blazer in Jellico, Tennessee and also in the coal fields near Chattanooga. At my personal request, I was transferred into Harlan on New Year's Day of 1937. The main part of this book is about my experiences for the next four years.

Beginning January 1, 1937, when I left Chattanooga for Middlesboro and Harlan, Kentucky, I compiled a diary and scrap book of newspaper clippings and whatever authentic history I could salvage, and these records grew to be quite voluminous. This personal record ended in 1941 when I left Kentucky to reside in West Virginia. For more than 20 years these records have been gathering dust. My friends are insisting that before I turn in my lamp, I compile the record in the form of a brief history of the blood, sweat and sacrifice of human life expended in the coal miner's pursuit of freedom from tyranny in Kentucky.

This book is the result. Its content is based on personal recollection which I have checked wherever possible with others. Much of the material was recorded by the LaFollette Civil Liberties Committee which thoroughly investigated the blood war in Harlan. For earlier history, I am indebted to an unpublished history of the County written by the staff of the LaFollette Committee. Some of the material herein will shock the reader. It should be remembered, however, that this is an unvarnished but somewhat understated version of four years of hell.

It is impossible to credit here all of the men who worked hard to bring American freedom into Southeastern Kentucky, I would like, however, to single out Senators Robert F. LaFollette, Jr., and Elbert D. Thomas, who exposed to the nation the atrocities committed by Harlan County coal operators. Outstanding, too, was the work of Brian McMahon and Welly K. Hopkins who were the Federal government's prosecutors during the conspiracy trial of the Harlan operators. Last but not least is John L. Lewis, the master craftsman who directed the union's successful organizing drive in Harlan County.
One of the major reasons I felt I had to write this book was the hope that it would be read by many younger workers who take the trade unions in our country for granted, those who pay their dues and think their duty of their union has ended there.

Organized labor's enemies are still active in this country. Union benefits now enjoyed were won by sacrifices such as these recorded here. Unless union members remain militant and united, battles such as the four year struggle in Harlan County may again take place in our country.

Therefore, I give you four years of the history of HELL IN HARLAN”.

George J. Titler

Hell in Harlan


Harlan County, Kentucky, one of the major coal producing sections of the country, is located in a section of the Appalachian Mountain Range, in the extreme southeastern corner of the state. It is bounded on the east and south by Wise and Lee Counties, Virginia, and on the west and north by Bell, Leslie, Perry and Letcher Counties, Kentucky. Its shape is that of a narrow shovel about 50 miles in length and 20 miles at its widest point. Several streams traverse the County and flow into the Cumberland River. The general appearance of the valleys through which these rivers flow is one of narrow, steep defiles. The four roads that enter the County wind along the streambeds. None of the roads is a main highway and for this reason the County is relatively isolated from the rest of the country. The only railroads in the County are spur lines for the transportation of coal.

Harlan County's neighbor to the southeast, Bell County, is the site of the Cumberland Gap which was discovered by Daniel Boone in 1799 and which led to the settlement of Kentucky by a wave of pioneers that followed him west. It was through the Cumberland Gap that Abraham Lincoln's father walked on his way to settle in Kentucky where his famous son was born.

The people who settled in Bell and Harlan Counties were almost all of English origin. Because of isolation the population today is virtually all descended from those original Anglo-Saxon settlers. Much of their folklore is based on 17th and 18th Century English folklore. And their customs today are like those of a hundred years ago. When Kentucky was first settled, men carried firearms, both to protect themselves from savages and wild animals and to provide meat for the family table. A rifle, a shotgun or pistol today is as much a part of an eastern Kentuckian's customary dress as are his pants and shirt. The first possession a Harlan County boy yearns for and saves his money for is not a bike or a car but a pistol or a rifle. He is trained in their use the moment he is sensible enough to aim and pull a trigger.

It is my belief that eastern Kentuckians are no more violent than any other group of Americans except for this custom of bearing arms. In other sections of our country, a violent dispute might be settled by a fistfight or a lawsuit. In Harlan County, permanent settlement has usually been arranged only with the help of Doctor Colt.

There was bloodshed in Harlan before an ounce of coal was mined. There has been blood shed - much of it - in purely personal disputes having no connection with coal mining, unions or company thugs. The native of Harlan County is a frontiersman, proud and de­fensive of his freedom and his right, under Kentucky law, to bear arms if displayed openly. A man with a gun will not, when angered, bite, hit or kick another man. He will shoot. A little boy in Harlan today is still taught that he should not be carrying a gun unless he means to use it if necessity arises.

In 1910, Harlan County was sparsely inhabited by a farming popula­tion of 10,566 persons. Following the development of the coalfields, the population steadily increased until in 1930 the census recorded a total population of 64,557 persons. Nine percent of the population were Negroes and only one percent were foreign born. The larger part of the population depended for its livelihood on coal mining.

Five seams of workable coal lie on top of each other from below the riverbed to the top of the mountain, i.e., Mason, Harlan, Darby, Low Splint and High Splint. Coal from the High Splint, Low Splint and Darby seams had to be hauled down inclines off the mountain to the railroad.

Until recently there was no strip mining in Harlan County. In 1937, all of the mines were driven underground into the sides of mountains. Slopes, not elevator shafts, entered most of them. The seams varied in thickness but many of them were what we call thin, meaning that the men were not able to stand erect when they worked but crawled or stooped from one place to another.

The miners and their families for the most part lived in houses that were clustered around the entrances to the mines. In 1937, these shacks were built and owned by the coal operators and these clusters were always referred to as coal camps. Some of them had names, some of them did not. The picture of a typical coal town in Kentucky described by the United States Coal Commission in 1923 applied to the physical appearance of Harlan County in 1937.

"Each mine, or group of mines, became a social center with no privately owned property except the mine, and no public places or public highways except the bed of the creek which flowed between the mountain walls. These groups of villages dot the mountain sides down the river valleys and need only castles, draw-bridges, and donjon-keeps to repro­duce to the physical eye a view of feudal days."

Housing in Harlan County still looks the same as it did in 1923. The only difference today is that most of the homes are privately owned and some of the owners have added electricity and indoor plumbing.

The bituminous coal fields in Harlan County are among the richest in the world. Howard N. Eavenson, of the firm of Eavenson, Alford & Hicks, consulting engineers of Pittsburgh, president of the Clover Splint Coal Co., operating in Harlan County, and formerly consulting engineer for the United States Coal & Coke Company, a subsidiary of the United States Steel Corporation, described the rapid development of the Harlan County coal fields to the high quality of the coal produced there. In testimony during the 1920's before a sub-committee of the U. S. Senate Committee on Manufacturers, he said:

"Harlan County was the last of the large coal fields opened and on account of the excellence of its product, its growth has been unusually rapid. The coal is largely used for special purposes where a low-ash and low-sulphur coal is needed. Much of it is used in by-product coke ovens and the rapid growth of the field was helped by the great demand during the war for coal yielding large quantities of bensol and tuluol, as this does, needed for explosives. Even though coal production in Harlan County did not begin until 1911, it mounted steadily from 2.5 million tons in 1916 to 15 million tons in 1928, which the total bituminous coal production for the United States in 1916 and 1928 was about 500 million net tons."

Although Harlan County did not begin to produce on a commercial scale until 1911, the coalfields of adjacent counties in eastern Kentucky and those of northeastern Tennessee rose to a position of importance during the closing decade of the nineteenth century. Actually, first commercial production in eastern Kentucky started in Laurel County immediately after the Civil War. Although this County still contains large areas of unmined coal, there is little or no coal produced there now.

Union spirit in eastern Kentucky began almost simultaneously with the beginnings of coal mining. During the 1890's, Laurel County employed about 850 miners. The average production was about two tons per man per day, the day at that time being 12 hours long. Many of these men belonged to the Knights of Labor before 1890 and were UMWA members from it’s founding. UMWA District 19 held its 12th; annual convention in 1901, and according to James W. Ridings, now International Executive Board members from that District, the convention was attended by delegates from 53 local unions, two of which were located in Laurel County. The union spirit probably had its beginning among the miners descended from parents who had migrated from the British Isles who had been members of labor unions before coming to the United States.

During the great organizing campaign conducted by John Mitchell in 1898, just before he became president of the UMWA, union organizers entered the Southern Appalachian region in strength. By 1907 the union was strong enough to negotiate a general wage contract in the area. However, when the agreement expired in 1910, many of the operators refused to agree to a new general contract. The union, however, succeeded in negotiating and maintaining contracts with a small number of operators in the district until 1914.

After 1910, the union's position weakened throughout the Southern Appalachian area. The large companies that developed the Harlan County coalfields were traditionally anti-union. As a result, when the Harlan field was open, it operated for many years on a non-union basis. This non-union competition weakened the union throughout southeastern Kentucky and Tennessee until at the end of 1916; the UMWA had only 48 members in eastern Kentucky and Tennessee. The decline in District 19 membership is shown statistically in the following tabulation:

Year Membership

1910 _____________________ 685

1912 __________________________ 1,216

1914 _______________________ 64

1916 ___________________________ 48

Year Membership
1900 ________________ 3,551

1902 ________ 5,008

1904 _________________ 3,063

1906 _________ 2,651

1908 ____________________ 1,483

A fresh impetus to the union movement in Kentucky and Tennessee was supplied when the United States entered World War I. The war created an enormous increase in demand for coal. This, coupled with an acute labor shortage, materially strengthened the position of the UMWA. In the late spring of 1917, the bare skeleton organization that had been maintained in District 19 was reinforced by the arrival of David Robb of Indiana and Van A. Bittner of Pittsburgh, International organizers for the UMWA. A vigorous organizing campaign was launched. The efforts of the organizers were first centered in Bell County, and on June 3 a mass meeting was held in the Straight Creek district that was attended by approximately 2,000 miners. As a result of this meeting, local unions were established at Mingo, Chenoa, Straight Creek, Elys, Four Mile and Cumberland Road. Preparations were also made at this meeting for organizing Harlan County.

A few days later, UMWA organizers William Turnblazer and George Edmunds were added to the District 19 staff and the drive to organize the workers of Harlan County began. On June 10, a mass meeting was held at the courthouse square in Harlan Town. Approxi­mately 2,500 miners attended this meeting and three local unions with a reported membership of about 1,500 were established. With this opening wedge, it was believed that the backbone of non-unionism in Harlan County would be broken.

First efforts, however, to deal with the Harlan County operators were fruitless. They refused to meet with representatives of the UMWA in July and a strike was authorized by the Union. Organizers in District 19 were told that they could sign separate contracts with operators who were willing to recognize the union and granting a wage increase to offset rapidly rising living costs. After several attempts to persuade the operators to sign a wage agreement, a general strike was called in Harlan County beginning August 11, 1917. The only contracts signed had been with small mines in Bell County, Kentucky, and in Tennessee.

The strike was effective. Nearly all of the coal miners in Harlan County stayed away from work on August 11. As in subsequent labor disturbances in Harlan County, there is abundant evidence that at least some of the operating companies resorted to violence in their efforts to break the 1919 strike. At the mining property of the Wisconsin Steel Com­pany at Benham, armed guards were employed and strikebreakers were imported. A typical act of violence in 1917 was the shooting of Luther Shipman, one of the leaders of the striking miners. In the October 4 issue of the United Mine Workers Journal (p. 10), this incident was reported as follows:


Pineville, Ky., October 1917 — On the pretense of serving a warrant on Luther Shipman, a leader among the miners on strike in this district, a posse headed by County Judge Ward of Harlan County called at the home of Mr. Shipman.

They ordered him to dress and accompany them. As he turned to get his hat, one of the gang shot him in the back of the head, instantly killing him. Then they opened a general fusillade on the other occupants of the miner's cabin and mortally wounded Frank Shipman, a relative of the other murdered man.

Press dispatches, inspired by the influential men who headed this murder raid, state that there was a battle. There was no battle; the gang of gunmen had made the boast that they would shoot down the leaders and drive the other miners back to work on the company's terms.

Luther Shipman was a quiet, religious man, well liked and trusted by the miners. The men are very bitter, but the leaders hope to prevent reprisals in kind. This brutal murder was merely one of many acts of violence com­mitted by the operators during the 1917 strike and in many ways typifies the history of Harlan County. It should be noted that the murderers in this case included County officials. Down through the years, Harlan County's Government has more often than not been administered by coal operators and relatives, and their hirelings.

In spite of violence and coercion, the miners refused to break ranks. The records of U. S. Geological Survey, which then kept such statistics, indicate that 416,370 men days were lost in eastern Kentucky in 1917 because of work stoppages. Virtually all of this lost time was reported out of Harlan County.

The wartime economy needed all the coal that could be mined so it was not long before the Federal Government intervened in Harlan County's coal strike. Fuel Administrator Harry A. Garfield summoned the operators and representatives of the miners to Washington and insisted on a settle­ment. After several days of negotiations, the operators agreed to (1) a general wage increase; (2) shorter workday; (3) check-weighmen on all tipples; (4) recognition of the UMWA; and (5) establishment of mine committees to handle grievances with management. Pending details re­garding actual wage scale and length of working day, Harlan County miners went back to work on October 8. Final agreement was reached November 1, 1917, with the understanding that the terms of the contract were for the duration of the war.

The UMW Journal on October 11, 1917, reported that a special convention of representatives of the coal miners of eastern Kentucky and Tennessee, meeting in Knoxville, had approved the wage agreement wrung from the stubborn coal operators. UMWA Vice President Frank J. Hayes, and several International organizers including Van Bittner, William Feeney and Jack Ramsey addressed the convention.

Incidentally, it is interesting to note that this convention adopted by unanimous vote resolutions condemning activities of the Industrial Workers of the World. This anti-American organization, known variously as the "IWW", "The Wobblies", or "I Won't Work", was a militant, radical organi­zation, many members of which later formed the nucleus of the Communist Party in the U.S.A. All members of the UMWA are proud of the fact that the coal miners' union was the first in the nation to prohibit member­ship to Communist Party members. This was put in the UMWA Constitu­tion in 1926, long before most Americans had even heard of Communism, much less recognized its dangers to our way of life.


During the following two years the UMWA was largely preoccupied with building up membership and otherwise solidifying its position in Harlan County. Organizer Thomas N. Gann was assigned to the field and by July 1918 he reported that the field was solidly organized except for the operations of the Wisconsin Steel Company (International Harvester Company) at Benham, and those of the United States Coal & Coke Company (United States Steel Corporation) at Lynch. Because of this almost complete success, the UMWA's International Executive Board decided in January 1919 that District 19 was strong enough to govern itself and the union's representatives were instructed to arrange for the restoration of district autonomy. This decision was premature but a convention was held in March to elect district officers. Frank Keller, a six-foot, six-inch mountain preacher, who had been a member of the union six months, was called on to open the convention with prayer. He electrified the convention with his magnetic personality and they elected him President of the District. Mr. Keller had a golden tongue but he lacked one important ingredient - experience. Due to this weakness, plus a general lack of leadership from other district officers, a $100,000 treasury was dissipated in less than one year. The district headquarters building was lost and, as a matter of fact, the district itself no longer existed in any real sense. By the end of 1920 the district was in debt and the experiment in autonomy was a complete failure.

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