1900 advertisement in Miners Magazine,
the publication of the Western Federation
of Miners. From the Clarence Darrow
What made the ad so remarkable was not the circumstances that necessitated it, but that the mine owners placed it in local newspapers in Joplin, Missouri, over 1,500 miles away. Why go so far, why Joplin? Located in Jasper County near Missouri’s border with Kansas and Oklahoma, Joplin was the heart of one of the nation’s leading metal mining districts. In the 1890s the district led the nation in zinc production and ranked third in lead. Joplin miners were good miners, used to working in hard ground, and did not belong to a union. This combination had led mine owners in Leadville, Colorado, to Joplin to find strikebreakers to cross WFM picket lines in 1896. It worked. In early 1897, mine owners in Ouray, Colorado, came to Joplin for strikebreakers. It worked again. By 1899, if you needed good, non-union miners willing to take on the
WFM, Joplin was the place to go. Joplin’s miners were the best strikebreakers money could hire.
In 1899 some miners went so far as to dynamite the
works of this Kellogg mine. Joplin strikebreakers
entered a volatile environment.
Joplin strikebreakers left a poisoned legacy. Union miners rightly despised them. In Colorado, union miners coined a new phrase to describe the seeming ignorance and servility of Joplin strikebreakers: “I am from Joplin, you’ll have to show me.” Joplin miners would do anything their employers asked, the story went, but they were so ignorant that they had to be given careful instruction, to be shown. “Show me” began life as a term of opprobrium. In Idaho, “Joplin” and “Missourian” became synonyms for “scab,” or “cut-rate laborer.” Coeur d’Alene union miners even wrote a song, “Strike Breaker’s Lament,” that imagined the last words of dying Missouri strikebreaker:
I wish I was in Joplin, in Joplin down in Mo. . . .
Just then his voice it faltered, he ceased to murmur low,
His soul it went a-scooting to Joplin, Joplin, Mo.
His partner wept above him, and sadly fell his tears,
Then tried to drown his sorrow by drinking many beers;
He boxed the stiff and shipped him, as fast as he could go,
To the land of scabbing miners in Joplin, Joplin, Mo.
The mine owners got their 1,000 miners from Joplin in the end. Many of them stayed in Idaho. If you live there, look at your family tree. Do you have any ancestors from Missouri? If so, there is a good chance that they were scabs.
Jarod Roll teaches American History at the University of Sussex in Brighton, England. He is the author of Spirit of Rebellion: Labor and Religion in the New Cotton South and coauthor of The Gospel of the Working Class: Labor’s Southern Prophets in New Deal America. He earned his BA at Missouri Southern State University in Joplin, Joplin Mo.