Tuesday, August 11, 2015

The Red Nurse: Helen Schloss at the Ludlow Massacre

In my 2012 novel, I imagine a very old Helen Schloss telling her story in Moscow in the late 1960s. She meets a young American from Little Falls, New York and describes the great strike she helped to lead in his home town a half century earlier. ( The Red Nurse is available at Amazon Kindle for $2.99 and the paperback is $9.99 at Amazon.)

Additional posts on that strike can be found on this site at:

M. Helen Schloss

After Little Falls, Helen Schloss continued to join the labor battles and in 1918 went to Russia as part of an organized effort to provide medical relief to the millions suffering from war, famine and disease. Her trail ends there, and I have never been able to find any record of Helen Schloss after that time.

Strike supporters at Paterson 

After the Little Falls strike was settled by state mediators in January 1913, Helen evidently went directly to the silk workers strike in Paterson New Jersey, which began in March of that year. Her IWW comrades Big Bill Haywood and Carlo Tresca, who had been at Little Falls, were major organizers at Paterson, as was Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, with whom Helen had been arrested in 1904 in New York. At Paterson, Flynn was arrested for a speech in which she called for uniting workers across racial boundaries, and it is probable that Helen was among the 1800 workers and organizers arrested by the police.

Warren Beatty as John  Reed in "Reds"

A huge mass meeting of supporters was held at Madison Square Garden in nearby New York, featuring a pageant organized by John Reed and Mabel Dodge. The strike, and Reed's role in it, were dramatized in Warren Beatty's 1981 film, Reds. The strike, however, was a failure, and ended in July.

In 1914 Helen Schloss was at the strikers camp in Ludlow, Colorado when the Colorado National Guard attacked the tent colony, massacring two dozen men, women and children. The workers fired back over the next ten days, leading to more deaths on both sides.

The Guardsmen and hired thugs fought on behalf of the Rockefeller-owned Colorado Fuel & Iron Company and two smaller mining firms. Although the miners lost the battle, subsequent federal laws on child labor and the eight hour day were probably due, in part, to the 1915 report on the strike by the House Committee on Mines and Mining.

Mother Jones with strikers' children at Ludlow

We know that Helen was a witness to these tragic events because a letter from her was read at a meeting in New York, hosted by the legendary Mother Jones. 

Excerpt from The Brooklyn Daily Eagle, May 14, 1914:

Helen Schloss Writes Colorado Strike Story

Miss Helen Schloss is a trained nurse who has been active as a suffrage organizer in this borough in behalf of the Woman Suffrage Party. She was sent to Colorado by the Brooklyn Committee for the Relief of Wives and Children of Colorado Strikers to organize a relief station at Trinidad. Mrs. Frank H. Cothren, Mrs. Herbert Warbasse and James P. Warbasse are especially active on this committee. This is the story of conditions as Miss Schloss heard it from the strikers:

by Helen Schloss
    There has been a strike in the State of Colorado, since last September, and if memory serves rightly, there have been strikes ever since the mines began operating.
    Mines are unsafe, and hundreds of men are being killed in them every year. Water is scare in this part of the country, and coal dust is very plentiful. When a sufficient amount of coal dust has gathered in the air there is an explosion and many lives are snuffed out. When the operators are asked why they do not sprinkle the mines, they answered that the country lacks sufficient water.
    The present strike has been in progress, in a peaceful manner, since September. There was no trouble of any moment till April 20. The militiamen were in the field to protect the mines, and incidentally to break the backbone of the strike.
    The militia men had nothing to do, but to have a good time. So for just a little pastime, they started with Ludlow. Ludlow had 1200 inhabitants, with over 100 tents. The Ludlow people were about twelve nationalities in that small colony. They had parties and feasts, the women had plenty of time to go visiting, and to gossip. The men hung around, laughed and sang. There was nothing to do but wait until the strike was settled. The militiamen had work to do, and that was to break the strike.
    Long before April 20, the tents of the strikers were searched. Trunks were ransacked, floors torn up, and there seemed to have been brooding a general feeling of hatred for the militia. While the militia searched the tents, they usually had a machine gun on top of the hill. Be it known that Ludlow is sitting in a valley. The militia were stationed on the hills. This gave them a good chance to watch the doings of the strikers.

Militia Fires on Camp of Women and Children.

    Monday morning, April 20, at 10 a. m. the Ludlow people heard an explosion, and rushing out to the tent doors, they saw the machine guns in full blast, firing down upon them. Under almost every tent was a large cave. The women and children scrambled into them, while the men grabbed their rifles and ammunition, and went up on the hill to fight.
    The women and children who were in the caves tell horrible stories. The firing from the hills kept up all day, until 3 o'clock the next morning. No one knew whether his companions were alive or not. No one knew whether they would ever see his friends again. The rumbling kept up on the hill. 
    One young woman [Pearl Jolly] who had some training as a nurse, put Red Cross on her breast, and carrying a white flag, went from cave to cave with food, and drink for the women and children. She was fired at from all directions, and it is a great wonder that she lives to tell the tale. The heel was shot off one of her shoes. One time when she ran into one of the tents, to get some food, so many shots followed her through the canvass that she had to lie still on the floor for hours. A dresser in the tent was shot to pieces.
    It is said that the explosive bullets that were used set the tents on fire. The tents began to burn towards evening, and the fires kept up all night. The women and children fled from the caves, to the nearest ranch, and as they were running , shots followed them. The firing became so insistent that the people had to flee from the ranch. The militia looted the house, and left a note on a blank check, saying "this will teach you a lesson not to harbor strikers next time," signed with the initials of the Baldwin gunmen.
   On going through the ruined tent colony, one was struck with the terrible amount f bullets lying everywhere. Everything had been riddled. The stoves that might have been used after going through the fire were full of holes, where the bullets struck. Barns, sheds and everything in sight was destroyed. It was a ghastly sight to walk through the ruined colony, with the frames of the bedsteads standing out like ghosts amid the ruins.
    We stopped near the cave, where eleven children and two women were smothered alive. Big, strong men stood at this cave, in silence, with bowed head. We slid down the gruesome hole, and I gave it a sort of rough measurements and found it 5 feet high, 7 feet wide and 9 feet long. A little high chair and a baby's gocart were still there.
     The Red Cross party that went to Ludlow to recover the dead were arrested and detained for a little while. At first they received permission to pass, but later on General Chase told them he had received word they could not pass. Later this same general became abusive and called the minister choice names. The Red Cross party recovered the eleven children and two women, but it is said that there are a great many bodies still missing, which are not accounted for.

Grocery Store Looted by the Militiamen

     About one mile away there is a grocery store, which is run in opposition to the company store. A visit to this store convinces one that destructive demons had been there. Flour and cereals were spilt all over the floor. The cash register was broken open, canned stuff opened and spilled, fixtures destroyed and windows broken. hundreds of dollars worth of damage was done.
    Upstairs there was a rooming house, and the woman who ran this has lost everything. Never in my life have I witnessed such a state of affairs. The floor was strewn with papers, drawers were ransacked, bureaus, tables and chairs broken, mattresses destroyed, glasses broken. All the good things had been taken away. The poor people did not even have a chair to sit on. Unmentionable outrages were committed in this house. The poor woman sits on the floor on the torn mattress, with her hands up to her head in a state of terror. The reason this house was destroyed was because one leader, who was the strikers' best fighter, used to room there at one time.
    Louis the Greek was killed. He fought at the front all day. When the moaning of the women and children became too terrible, this big strong man went on the hill through the storm of bullets to beg them to stop firing. He was hit with a gun over the head, and knocked senseless, and then shot through the head with an explosive bullet. He was found at the foot of the hill with an old pair of shoes on. Before he was shot he had new shoes. His gold watch and chain were gone. One of the militia boasted that he traded shoes with dead Louie.
    After the terrible Ludlow massacre, the fighting began. Women and children were brought to Trinidad by the wagon load, the children fairly naked. For five nights and days the work kept up. The men went to the firing line, and the women stayed up all night cooking and sending shifts of men into battle. What a bloody war it was for five days! Those Greek men fought wonderfully. They fought against hundreds of machine guns. The strikers had a small force. They had little ammunition, but they fought bravely. A great many are soldiers from the old countries. The mixture of nationalities proved a great help in time of war, for it seemed that each nationality had something to offer and suggest against the "Tin Wollies," as they called them.
    A few days later there was another battle. The strikers fought at Walsenburg. Fire was set to some houses, men were killed, and there was a bloody war; but the women and children were protected.
   Peace has been restored in the community, the strikers are looking forward to a settlement. All strikers have been disarmed, and all mines guards are supposed to be disarmed.
    The only solution of this problem is to close the mines, and as long as there will be strikebreakers in the mines there will be hatred, and hence more bloodshed.
     Conditions among the miners are very pitiful, indeed, especially the Ludlow survivors. They are being fitted out as fast as possible, but there is still a great need. The strike benefits are $3 a week. One dollar extra is allowed for the wife, and 50 cents for the children. Babies are coming very fast, too. Since I started the work we have had two newcomers, and a dozen more are expected.
     The strikers ask for their own check man. They wanted someone representing the workers to act a a check man to weigh the coal and offered to pay him. This was denied. If they became too persistent they were kicked out and blacklisted.
     Miners say that the scales of the owners differ from the standard scales of the United States.
    When the strike was declared, the company wagons came, went into homes and hauled out all furniture, leaving the people in the streets. They then sought shelter in tents with what results I have described above.
The Ludlow massacre shows the intention of the mine owners. It shows that Colorado does not belong to the free United States, and it show that because there are thousands and thousands of miles of empty space, that because life is crude and uncivilized in the great canyons, the greedy are taking advantage of this, and using every method to gain their end.

Strikers' children at Ludlow - possibly with Helen Schloss

Colorado National Guard en route to massacre

Armed Strikers

I can find no record of Helen's activities over the next three years. Perhaps, she was radicalized even further by what she saw at Ludlow. Or perhaps she was sickened by the violence, and turned toward pacifism. What is known is that the Socialist Party and the IWW, with whom she had fought at Little Falls and elsewhere, was targeted for destruction by the Wilson administration. The US declaration of war against Germany served as a cover for a nationwide crackdown on labor organizers. The 1917 Espionage Act (which has been employed so heavily by the Obama administration against whistle blowers) was the legal justification for the arrest of socialist leader Eugene V. Debs, Bill Haywood and many others.

Whatever her political views after Ludlow, Helen joined with the Quakers in a mission to Russia while war still raged in Europe. The last record I can find of her is in the Friends Intelligencer of June, 1918:

"Robert R. Tatlock, leader of the Friends Mission in Russia, will sail July 5 for Yokohoma on his way back to Russia. He is taking back with him two nurses who are native born Russians naturalized in this country. Their names are Helen Schloss and Ruth Hoffman, both of New York City. Their speaking knowledge of Russian and their training and experience will make them a very valuable addition to our staff of workers."

I am hopeful that readers may be able to provide more information on Helen Schloss after she left the United States. Perhaps she lost her life to disease or violence in Russia. Perhaps she returned to the U.S. and gave up her early radicalism. Or perhaps, as I imagine in The Red Nurse, she fell in love with Leon Trotsky and managed to survive the purges of Stalin, and the Nazi holocaust. I can be contacted at wildernesshill@gmail.com.

Although Joe Hill is said to have written this song for Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, it could as easily apply to the brave Helen Schloss. Here's a link to Hazel Dickens' version of the The Rebel Girl

and don't miss Woody Guthrie's "Ludlow Massacre"

Thanks to the researcher who posts as JayeRaye, who called my attention to the account of Helen Schloss in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. His ongoing series on labor history, Hellraisers Journal, can be found at Daily Kos.

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