A famous labor organizer of the early 20th Century, killed by deputies during a Pennsylvania coal mine strike.
By Mara Lou Hawse
Coal Research Center
Southern Illinois University
Fannie Sellins was a labor organizer--and from all accounts, she was an exceptional one. But she paid with her life.
According to Russell W. Gibbons, of the Philip Murray Institute of Labor Studies, Sellins was "a heroine of labor who made the ultimate sacrifice for [the] union cause."
"William Z. Foster, leader of the great steel strike of 1919, called Sellins "one of the best of our whole corps of organizers. . . . [She] had an exceptional belief in the workers and she went out and organized them. . . . She took the initiative and in the midst of terror went out to her work."
Sellins was a contemporary of Mary Harris "Mother" Jones, and like Jones, "[Sellins'] work as a female labor organizer was radical,especially for that period of time," said Anthony Slomkoski, III, current president of United Steelworkers Local No. 1196, in Brackenridge, Pennsylvania.
Sellins was born Fannie Mooney in New Orleans in 1872. She married a garment worker, Charles Sellins, in St. Louis; after his death, she took a job in a garment shop to support herself and her four children. Eventually she moved from St. Louis to Chicago and soon was involved with the union movement there. She helped organize the United Garment Workers of America, became secretary of her garment workes' local, and in 1911, participated in a major strike.
Later, because of her outstanding abilities, she became an organizer for the United Mine Workers of America. She was sent to work in the nonunion coalfields of West Virginia; there she was charged with "inciting to riot" and was sent to prison. She served six months of her sentence before she was pardoned by President Woodrow Wilson.
In 1917 Sellins moved to New Kensington, Pennsylvania, to work under labor leader Philip Murray, as an organizer and troubleshooter for UMWA District 5. She quickly became involved in the union's efforts to organize miners in the Allegheny Valley, a notoriously antiunion area. It was known as the Black Valley because of "the vehement, and often violent, opposition that union organizers met at the hands of mine owners. Due largely to Sellins efforts, many thousands of miners and other workers in this district were organized."
Foster describes Sellins as "an able speaker . . . possessed of boundless courage, energy, enthusiasm and idealism. . . . She was the very heart of the local labor movement. . . . [and] earned the undying hatred of the . . . employers in the benighted Black Valley district."
She spread the tenets of Americanism among immigrant miners, and as she changed their expectations, they became disenchanted with their poor living conditions and began to demand more for their labor. Sellins "understood that no labor household could sustain a strike unless they had the backing of the women," according to Pennsylvania State University historian Dr. Carl Meyerhuber.
The United Mine Workers Journal called Sellins an "Angel of Mercy," who went into the miners' homes, talking to their wives, taking care of their sick, and helping them in other ways. "Whenever there was a strike, with its inevitable suffering, Mrs. Sellins was found, caring for the women and children through the dark days of the struggle." Historian George Korson wrote that Sellins was "a legend which inspires the workers' wives and daughters to steadfastness in their unionism."
Sellins was "a thorn in the side of the Allegheny Valley coal operators." A marked woman, she could have "set her own price to move out of the valley, but she refused to betray the miners or desert them." The operators openly threatened to "get her." Their opportunity came on August 26, 1919.
A little while before the night shift began at the Allegheny Steel Company at West Natrona, Pennsylvania, Sellins was murdered. She was 47 years old. Also killed was Joseph Starzeleski. Accounts of what led up to the killings are contradictory.
The miners of the Allegheny Coal and Coke Company were on strike. Some say Sellins was killed while she was on picket duty; others say she was shot while inciting a riot. Foster says that "a dozen drunken deputy sheriffs on strike duty, led by a mine official, suddenly rushed the pickets, shooting as they came. Joseph Strzelecki [sic.] fell, mortally wounded. Mrs. Sellins, standing close by, rushed to get some children out of danger. Then she came back to plead with the deputies, who were still clubbing the prostrate Strzelecki, not to kill him."
An account in the September 20, 1919, New Majority describes the scene:
The mine official snatched a club and felled the woman to the ground.
This was not on company ground, but just outside the fence of a friend of Mrs. Sellins.
She rose and tried to drag herself toward the gate
[The official] shouted: "Kill that --!
Three shots were fired, each taking effect.
She fell to the ground, and [the official] cried: "Give her another!"
One of the deputies, standing over the motionless and silent body, held his gun down and, without averting his face, fired into the body that did not move.
An auto truck . . . hurried to the scene and the body of the old miner thrown in; then Mrs. Sellins was dragged by the heels to the back of the car. Before she was placed in the truck, a deputy took a cudgel and crushed in her skull before the eyes of the throng of men, women and children, who stood in powerless silence before the armed men. [One of the deputies] picked up the woman's hat, placed it on his head, danced a step, and said to the crowd:
"I'm Mrs. Sellins now."
One witness to the shooting was Stanley F. Rafalko, a seven- year-old boy who was out on an errand for his mother. Sixty years later, he described what he saw. He noticed "three or four uniformed deputies parked in a maroon touring car talking to some local steelworkers." He went into a store, and when he came out, "the coal mine police were chasing the fellows with billy clubs."
Rafalko followed the chase, and when he caught up, Sellins was "scolding" the deputies. Says, Rafalko, "They used abusive language and tried to chase her away." The crowd increased, and Sellins "got more aggressive." Rafalko recalled that someone brought rifles to the deputies. When a deputy rushed forward to kick Sellins, according to Rafalko she ran into his uncle's yard. Three deputies then fired at her. Joseph Starzeleski, a local steelworker who came to see what was happening, also was shot and killed.
According to Rafalko, the deputies dispersed, and he approached Sellins "where she lay in the gateway in her wide- rimmed straw hat." The boy went over to her. He "picked her hat up and looked at her face and saw her false teeth lying in blood." He ran away when he heard a car coming up the hill, but he saw deputies pull Starzeleski into the back of the car. Then, "they grabbed [Sellins] by the back of the neck and threw her into the car." Reportedly, the deputies took the two bodies to their office.
No one was ever punished for the crime. Although ten deputies were charged, no one was ever convicted. Foster claims that many witnesses were hidden away, imprisoned, or intimidated, and the whole matter was hushed up. When the case finally came to trial four years after the killings, the case was thrown out.
A coroner's inquest decided the deputies' actions were justified because "Mrs. Sellins, accompanied by women and children, went outside the home of a family she was visiting to stop a fight between steelworkers and some of the deputies." Historian Meyerhuber is not sure the right deputies were even charged. He says, "It was really a farce."
Senseless as Sellins' death may seem, United Steel Workers local union president Slomkoski believes some good came of it. "Her death was an inspiration to workers. She became a martyr around which they could organize." he said..
In 1920, United Mine Workers of America District 5 members erected a memorial at Sellins' grave in Union Cemetery at Arnold, Pennsylvania.
The inscription read:
"In Memory of Fannie Sellins and Joe Starzeleski, killed by the enemies of organized labor, near the Allegheny Steel and Coal Company, at West Natrona, Pa."
Area miners, steelworkers, and other union workers have conducted memorial services, labor day celebrations, and other special events at the memorial site over the years since then.
In 1989, 70 years after her death, Sellins' grave was designated a Pennsylvania state historic landmark and an historic marker was erected which read:
"An organizer for the United Mine Workers, Fannie Sellins, was brutally gunned down in Brackenridge on the eve of a nationwide steel strike on August 26, 1919.
"Her devotion to the workers' cause made her an important symbolic figure. Both she and Joseph Starzelski, a miner who also was killed that day, lie buried here in Union Cemetery, where a monument to the pair was erected."