Ninety-One years ago this week, this article was printed in the Philadelphia Inquirer. It describes a horrifying situation with giant rats climbing out of the mines and preying on the gardens, animals and pets of Lattimer (Nos’ 1 and 2). It describes them as “unusually large and fierce, and will attack a small dog or cat.”!!!
I read this and thought a few things. First of all, the description of the gardens of Pardeesville and Lattimer seem apt: chickens, ducks, geese, (white mice?) and garden produce. Well, maybe the “white mice” don’t quite make sense….
But then I read the statement explaining why the rats were there in the first place: “For some time after the Miners quit work April 1st….” This article is from July 22, almost four months later! I dug a little deeper to figure out why the men hadn’t been working since April 1st. In fact, a massive strike organized by the UMWA froze the industry for a total of 163 days starting on April 1st. Historian Harold Kanarack describes the causes of the strike here:
Low wages earned under harsh conditions resulted in a frustrating picture of poverty and despair. The average anthracite worker earned from $1,400 to $1,600 annually, about $200 to $400 short of what the United Mine Workers of America (U.M.W.) estimated to be the minimum required to maintain a family of five.
(The entire article on the 1922 Strike can be downloaded here)
In many ways, the strike situation was a tense situation for all. Miners and their families depended on their gardens and animals to last through these lean times. That was the only way to make the strike work. It was a kind of siege situation, with food as the only weapon. The pressure was likely to be very heavy on wives and other family members to stretch household resources to feed their families.
Not to stretch the meaning of this article too far, but there is kind of a psychological game at hand in this article. Connecting the unleashing of the starving rats to the strike, it seemed to suggest: “even nature is not on the side of the miners…” or even worse: “they themselves unleashed this plague from the mines…”. It also implied that the dwindling resources, for both people and rats, would cause the strike to not succeed in the end.
In the end, the conclusion of the strike had a mixed outcome, though lauded by the unions and industry. A tremendous government effort to examine the coal mining industry was unleashed, resulting in the formation of the United States Coal Commission. An intended cut in wages for laborers, connected to the dropping market value of anthracite coal, was rejected, for the meantime…
Kanarack suggests that by 1922, disruptions in the coal supply from strikes accelerated the adoption of oil, gas and electricity for heating in American households.
That’s a lot of history in one small newspaper article, all that AND humongous rats!