Archive for Thursday, January 12, 2006

Remembering the mine mutiny

January 12, 2006

The news of the town in West Virginia's coal mine disaster last week made me recall the stories I heard about the Lansing prison coal mine mutiny of March 17, 1901. Those stories were recorded in an article in The Master Detective Magazine in 1932, where I got most of my information.

That morning, 356 of the toughest inmates assigned to hard, sunless labor because of their fierceness and incorrigible past were lowered into the 710-foot shaft. The news spread quickly through the streets of Lansing about the mutiny and the 17 guards who were overpowered and locked up in the mule stable. The inmates' demands were for less work, shorter hours and better food. They had a riot in the dining room the previous day about the food.

Tom Young, my grandfather, was the first person to realize a mutiny was in progress because the inmates had blocked the cage at the bottom with a 12-by-12 beam. The 17 guards in the mine were beaten and locked up without food or water in the mule stable. The only communication with the inmates in the mine was a gong system. There was not a talk tube to communicate with the inmates, who thought that the warden would immediately send a message down the shaft. But that did not happen.

Three days passed, and the only food was for one lunch.

The wives and children of the guards waited at the prison, not knowing what was happening in the mine. Mine experts from all over the country offered their help to Warden J.B. Tomlinson, and the prison staff racked their minds for a solution to the mutiny.

At 10 p.m. on the third day, a person hardly recognizable as a human being came out of the dark shaft, for he had climbed the 710 feet in total darkness to bring word of the conditions in the mine. That inmate was Floyd Graham. Graham said the inmates had formed a staff with a warden, deputy warden and several lieutenants, and when the word did not reach them from the warden, they brought out gum opium from a secret hiding place, and everybody got on a crazy high.

Graham told Warden Tomlinson that if the inmates' demands were not met, they would send up five dead guards. If they did not get the right answer, 12 more would be sent up dead. The warden wrote a note that said, "To the leaders of the mutiny: You have a cage at the bottom. Come up and tell us what you want. We are ready to give you a hearing. (signed) Warden Tomlinson."

The inmates gave the signal to raise the cage. Eight guard volunteers, armed with three guns each and pockets of bullets were in the cage to go down, knowing that the inmates had dynamite charges at the bottom with short fuses. Grandpa Young shot the cage at full speed to the bottom, surprising the inmates that didn't have time to light the dynamite. The inmates rushed the guards with pick handles and shovels. After the fight was over, 30 inmates high on gum opium laid dead or wounded. The eight guards then ran for 30 minutes to save the guards in the mule stable, before the inmates had a chance to kill them.

No guards were killed in the mutiny. Gov. W. E. Stanley pardoned Floyd Graham. The prison officers took up a collection for Graham and bought him a bus ticket to his mother's home in Alabama.

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