Lump of Coal

I’ve been thinking about Santa Claus and the lump of coal threat from folklore. Thinking about it in relationship to this month, which is the anniversary of one of the highest miner death tolls in a single month  in US history, December 1907.


Two of those December 1907 disasters were forever associated with Santa Claus, or at least St. Nicholas when immigrant lives were saved by their refusal to give up their holiday to their corporate masters.  In Monongah, West Virginia, and Jacobs Creek, Pennsylvania, it seemed to some that St. Nicholas had intervened on some workers’ behalf, sparing them.  Catholic

immigrants were still celebrating St Nicholas in the western tradition on December 6 when the Monongah disaster struck. In the eastern tradition, the feast day was on December 19, saving Slavic immigrants celebrating near the Darr mine at Jacobs Creek. It became known as the great intercession, a tale handed down through the years and in the icons of the Church.



Above: At the Darr Mine, in Jacobs Creek, Pennsylvania, women and children waited for news in December 1907, held back not only by a rope line that prevented them from overseeing the rescue, but by armed state constabulary (police), there just in case they turned their grief into rage toward the owners. Some miners were spared by St. Nicholas Day celebration. Pittsburgh Press, December 21, 1907


Mother Jones, who organized in both places, thought workers should skip the pleas for magical or divine intervention. Why do you accept the lump of coal from the bosses? Jesus would want you to rise up, not depend on him or blessings, she argued. You need to take the coal, and  create a new world from the one the heartless and soulless capitalist bosses had created.


She and other radicals in the coal fields rejected the idea that miners willingly sacrificed their life for their jobs, and cultivated a movement that refused to beg for more than the St. Nicholas holiday. They gave the collective “NO!” to the mandate that workers were willingly accepting the risk.  Human sacrifice, she said, was created by class conditions that forced those with only their labor power to sell, to sell it cheap and not hold it dear. Mine owners cared more for their mules, which they had to pay to replace, than for the miners.


Death was always the source of coal’s profitability throughout its history.  There was a reason company lawyers and their political minions argued that the only right workers had was the right-to-quit, and that when they took a job they contracted knowingly for the risk. When companies didn’t owe anything for loss of life (much less the destruction of communities and the environment), profit could be extracted. Without that equation, profit was marginal.


Well over 150,000 miners lost their lives in the late 19th and early 20th century, more than in most wars in US history.


From Jones’ autobiography:


The story of coal is always the same. It is a dark story. For a second’s more sunlight, men must fight like tigers. For the privilege of seeing the color of their children’s eyes by the light of the sun, fathers must fight as beasts in the jungle. That life may have something of decency, something of beauty-a picture, a new dress, a bit of cheap lace fluttering in the window-for this, men who work down in the mines must struggle and lose, struggle and win.


It was only with the Cherry, Illinois mine disaster of 1910 that compensation for death