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Lindsay Hand's Art Brings Fannie Sellins Spirit to Life

We are thrilled to reveal the new painting of Fannie Mooney Sellins, created by Lindsay Hand. We commissioned this with funding from the Government of Ireland. Fannie was gunned down and bludgeoned in 1919 by the Coal and Iron Police in a coal mining area near Pittsburgh, Alle-kiska, known as the Black Valley for its association with coal. The coal company officials in the area hated Fannie Sellins, and the miners felt she was taken out because of her effectiveness in organizing. She was known for her commitment to crossing the boundaries of race and ethnic division. “Kill the B____!” the gunmen reportedly shouted as Fannie came to the aid of Joseph Strzelecki, an old miner, who the gunmen were beating with their pistols. Her body was dragged by her heels to a touring car used by the mine guard deputies which toured the region in a menacing fashion, then according to a witness, dumped on the floor of the morgue alongside Strzelecki's.

The dominant image of Fannie that crossed the years was that of her grisly death, such as the one here published in a pro-union Butte Montana newspaper. After they bludgeoned her, according to one report, the deputies took her hat and danced with it, mocking, “I’m Mrs. Sellins now!” This image was later also used in the 1936-1937 organizing by the Steel Workers union to show what the steel trust (who controlled the coal) would do to prevent unionism and to inspire solidarity. In 1920 the United Mine Workers erected a monument to her at her gravesite. John Walker, the head of the Illinois United Mine Workers, was the main speaker, giving a hint of her connection to Illinois miners.

None of the men who killed her were brought to justice. In a time when the red scare was igniting, she was called the base of foreign influence, accused of instigating a riot, who deserved her fate.

There are just a few other images of Sellins that indicate her living spirit, and that’s why we commissioned Lindsay Hand to bring her full spirit to life. She’s done it!

Lindsay commented, “ I had not painted a more classic styled portrait in several years and the decision to return to this approach came while researching and ruminating on how to approach this piece. I’ve often seen the portrait of Elsie Palmer by John Singer Sargent in the Colorado Arts Center and stood in awe of it. I considered the time it was painted and the contrast of the “elite” at the turn of the century who were hiring Sargent to do their portraits and the factory and mine workers toiling away from dawn to dusk just to put food on the table and wake up the next day to do it again. I decided to take the portrait photos of Sellins, overlap the two of contrasting ages and take a more traditional approach. I imagined holding her in as high of esteem as any rich daughter or wife at the time who never had to work a day in their life. I believed she deserved as much consideration of beauty and representation as those women.”

At the end of this blog you can see my conversation with Lindsay in separate segments, and some images that connect her to this vibrant history, which should not be forgotten. We also remind folks of the two previous major works that Lindsay has done for us.

Fannie was often compared to Mother Jones in her lifetime, and was inspired by Jones. Like Mother Jones, she organized the miners’ wives and children, braved the company thugs, and organized across the color line that so divided the working class in this era. Fannie had started with the United Mine Workers in West Virginia and was arrested for defying an injunction against going near the mining camps in order to support strikers in Colliers West Virginia coal strike. The judge admonished her “not to emulate Mother Jones.” After her death, Mother Jones commented that every time she remembered Fannie, she thought about how that bludgeoned body might have been hers, too.

But Lindsay’s art recalls Fannie’s spirit where she began her journey as a union organizer, in St. Louis. She has been mostly forgotten there, and our project will bring her back to attention and put her at the center of a story that recreates the fight for a living wage for the women of the garment industry there. A thoroughly Irish woman from the Kerry Patch area of St. Louis, she was a widow at a young age with four children, working at Marx and Haas, where the men were organized in the United Garment Workers local. That was a union mostly attentive to the skilled male workers, but beginning in 1906, women sought to make it over into a union for them as well.

They were taking on not just a garment sweatshops, but the center of power base of anti-unionism in St. Louis. Marx and Haas was at the leader of the Citizens Industrial Association, the anti-union employers association that used the law of injunction and the police as their tools. Marx and Haas decided to become the base of confronting the union movement.

Workers in the garment industry were burdened with tuberculosis and many had to go to work even when they were deathly ill. Fannie took the leadership role of the women after another Irish-American woman, Hannah Hennessey, died from tuberculosis. Workers took direct action in 1909 against the company’s refusal to allow a man with tuberculosis the use of an elevator, and forced him to walk six flights of stairs. They demanded use of the elevators for all workers. Marx and Haas locked the union out and declared it would remain and open shop (refuse to recognize the union as the bargaining agent).

Marx & Haas announced the injunction in multiple languages

Fannie sought to unite men and women, and the many ethnic groups--11 nationalities--and their meetings were conducted in five languages. Fannie was served with an injunction that banned her and the unionists from coming near Marx & Haas for 99 years; the police were used as a strikebreaking agency. Fannie appealed to Illinois unionists first, going with Socialist Party members to Livingston, Illinois where she succeeded in getting the United Mine Workers local there to assess every member in order to sustain the Marx & Haas strike. This started her off on a tour through Illinois, then Iowa, and eventually across the country to ask for boycott support and assistance. She and fellow garment worker Kate Hurley were dubbed “fiery” speakers who convinced many trade unionists to stop buying the work cloths Marx and Haas produced. They won a contract after a 25 month lockout. It was a roaring success to bring down the leader of the CIA.

Fannie joined the Socialist Party, and that association affected her views of the connection between unionism and the possibilities that workers could transform all of society. This was also the path that Mother Jones has taken, where her trade union organizing was connected to radical visions.

It was this experience in St. Louis that brought her into the United Mine Workers orbit, and sometime in 1913 when she was traveling in the Pittsburgh area to promote support for another strike against the garment industry in St. Louis, she visited a mining family on strike in nearby Colliers, West Virginia, and was so compelled by the awful conditions, that she started organizing.

We are working to produce an exhibit at the St. Louis Public Library, a historical marker at 13th & Washington in St. Louis, (which is a National Historic Landmark) and a mural. (More on the mural in a future post). COVID-19 has delayed the rollout for this, but we wanted to debut Lindsay’s art as a way of introducing the project.

And we need to ask you to consider a contribution. While the Government of Ireland funded Lindsay’s art, we need to raise over $3000 to cover other costs not funded. Donate Page

The images above include some newspaper articles and an image of Fannie Sellins in prison in West Virginia. She was in prison there while Mother Jones was imprisoned in Colorado , in 1914. Others show how industrialists charged that investigation of Sellins' murder was part of a red menace influenced by foreign ideas. They suggested that the murder was justified because she was rioting..

Research assistance for the project was provided by Northern Illinois University student Emma Barton-Norris, who was funded through an NIU Engaged Learning opportunity.

Here are segments of a conversation with Lindsay Hall, talking about the art. We are proud to work with her as a collaborator for our project.

And below, I give a little bit of Sellins background. Please note that I meant Alle-kiska, not Alliquippa as the area where she was killed.

This is the third major piece that Lindsay has commissioned for us. This magnificent piece is in the Irish American Heritage Center's permanent exhibit

The first piece she created, below, was commissioned for the Mother Jones Museum in Mt. Olive, but was relocated to St. Louis after our exhibits were removed from Mt. Olive's museum. We will be placing this in the St. Louis Library Exhibit soon.


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