Coal and Iron and the Badge

There’s an old adage that says a frog dropped in boiling water will hop right out, but he’ll stay there till he’s cooked if the water’s heated slowly enough.  We humans can be that way about threats to our freedom, and Pennsylvanians are no exception.  We proudly shed our blood in the War to End Slavery, yet just six weeks before we won, our legislature authorized the next great threat to freedom – and almost no one objected.

Not many realized it was a threat at the time.  The need seemed genuine, and the solution obvious: train-bandits were better armed and organized than law enforcement in many Pennsylvania counties, so railroads asked for the right to create their own police units.  It seemed like a practical idea, so Act 228, An Act Empowering Railroad Companies to Employ Police Force, was passed in April 1865.

coal and iron police act

Rail police were to “possess and exercise all the powers of policemen in the city of Philadelphia.”  Their authority extended not only to company property but throughout the county(s) in which they were commissioned.  A year later, the Act was amended to include two other giants of the Industrial Age: “all corporations, firms or individuals . . . in possession of any colliery, furnace or rolling mill within this Commonwealth.”  Badges were now to read “Coal and Iron Police” and show the company name.  And just what did it take to become a Coal and Iron Police officer?  The governor’s signature on a single-page application from the company, an oath and a badge.  No training, no background check, no security bond . . . and no accountability.  Answering only to his employer, each man was essentially a law unto himself.

Almost from the start, coalfield “C&Is” were used primarily as strikebreakers, economic enforcers and agents of social control in company towns.  They performed evictions and collected debts, kept up surveillance and shut down public gatherings, and above all prevented infiltration by union organizers.  They were not without legitimate functions;  many a murderer and thief was brought to justice by Coal and Iron Police, and the very lack of accountability that made C&Is such a threat to freedom gave would-be criminals reason to reconsider.  Though the Act stipulated that anyone arrested be “dealt with according to law,” in practice they were as likely to be beaten as brought to trial.

Accidents of geology and geography spared Indiana County some of the worst abuses.  We sit on the edge of three high, medium and low-volatile bituminous deposits; since coal companies tended to concentrate on a single type, no monopoly like those in Allegheny and Schuylkill counties controlled our land and people.  Lucky, too, that our miners weren’t recruited from the counties in Ireland where Molly Maguires were found.  In the 1870s, that underground society reacted to coal company abuses in eastern Pennsylvania with arson and murder, and the Coal and Iron Police responded in kind.

The relative peace here was reflected in our newspapers.  Coal and Iron Police were mentioned just three times in their first twenty years, and even then it was for their actions elsewhere in the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.  But in 1894 the lid came off.

It happened as part of the biggest coal strike America had seen to date.  When Glen Campbell strikers threatened their non-union replacements, our County Recorder swore in sixty new Coal and Iron Police officers for the Berwind-White coal company.  “Foreigners” (as newspapers called immigrant miners) and “Cossacks” (as miners called C&Is) seemed eager to trade shots, and the latter had shoot-to-kill orders should gunfire erupt.  Why didn’t it?  Curiously, that credit goes to Jefferson County’s strikers.  They’d already become violent, so Governor Pattison sent in the National Guard.  One thousand uniformed men marched through Glen Campbell on their way to Walston, and trigger-fingers suddenly stopped itching . . . a close call.

Coal consumption was breaking records every year as the 20th century approached, and mine employment rose to meet it.  So did labor activism and the C&Is’ increasingly brutal response.  That the creation of the Coal and Iron Police had been a mistake was by now obvious to almost everyone – even other states’ producers!  An 1898 edition of The Coal and Trade Journal noted that “Pennsylvania has an institution peculiar to itself . . . a private standing army of irresponsible myrmidons apparently authorized by the laws of that state.

The first small changes to that army were set in motion by the Anthracite Strike of 1902.  When both sides refused even federally-mediated settlement for almost six months, America ran out of home heating coal; with winter approaching, President Theodore Roosevelt threatened to nationalize the mines and replace strikers with soldiers.  The UMWA and Operators’ Association immediately split the difference and resumed production.  As part of the deal, a presidential commission investigated the strike’s root causes.  Among their recommendations was “discontinuance of the system of Coal and Iron Police . . . and resort to regularly constituted peace authorities in cases of necessity.

Though the first part of that recommendation would not soon be acted upon, Governor Pennypacker agreed to limit previously open-ended commissions to three years, and in 1905 signed a bill creating Pennsylvania’s State Police.  Troop D’s location in the heart of our medium-volatile bituminous region was no accident.  The writing was on the wall.

coal and iron police bage

Still, assaults kept increasing as coal production peaked.  More than 170 stories about C&Is appeared in Indiana County papers from 1910 to 1930 compared to those three in the first twenty years.  Yet even in places like Ernest and Creekside where “Cossacks” were ubiquitous, this county continued to see less labor violence than most.

During his first term in office, Governor Gifford Pinchot asked State Police to review all existing C&I commissions.  Their 1923 probe found cause to recommend that some 4,000 of them – the majority – be revoked, and the governor obliged.  He further announced that each future applicant must prove US citizenship and Pennsylvania residence, provide character references and employment history, and post a $2,000 bond.  Problem solved, right?  Well . . . not quite.

A 1928 US Senate Report on events here in the bituminous field was not well received in Harrisburg.  Its 3,400 pages detailing Coal and Iron Police beatings, warrantless searches and property seizures “endangered the peace of the Commonwealth,” said Governor John S. Fisher.  He claimed to mistrust the C&Is but thought that to eliminate them altogether was folly.  A single death the following year made it all academic.

In 1929, officers of the Pittsburgh Coal Company’s police force responded to a miner’s drunken rampage by beating and torturing and finally killing him.  All three were acquitted of John Borkovski’s murder; when retried, two of the three C&Is were convicted of involuntary manslaughter, but not before public outrage had spawned two bills further restricting the Coal and Iron Police.  Governor Fisher’s choice to sign the weaker Mansfield Bill and veto the stronger Musmanno Bill contributed to his defeat in the next election.  Gifford Pinchot was returned to office in 1931.

Making good on his campaign promise to abolish the Coal and Iron Police (announced at Indiana County Courthouse!), Pinchot turned Act 228 against itself.  Its 1866 amendment said “the governor shall have the power to decline to make any such appointment . . . and at any time to revoke the commission of any policeman appointed hereunder.”  He did just that, to all of them.  At midnight on June 30, 1931, Pennsylvania’s Coal and Iron Police ceased to exist.

Some C&Is found employment as “real” police.  Jack Stroble of the Keystone Coal unit served briefly as Indiana’s Police Chief in the 1930s.  And in a final irony, Homer City’s policemen are nowadays represented by United Mine Workers of America!