Old Billy Grysdale and the ‘Negro Blood Hounds’

Posted: November 26, 2013 in American History, Indiana
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William R Grisdale was an English-born coal miner who had arrived in Bellville, St Clair County, Illinois before the Civil War, and had then served and fought in three separate Illinois infantry regiments until the Union forces were victorious. He then was part of the Grand Review of the Union armies, which paraded in front of President Andrew Johnson in Washington in May 1865. I’ll tell this story at a later date. Here I’d like to jump forward to 1878, when William was about 52.

Grand Review of the armies, 1865

Grand Review of the armies, 1865

Sometime prior to 1878 miner William had arrived with his wife Anna Lee, whom he had married in Belleville Illinois in 1865, to work in the coal mines in Coal Greek and Stringtown, in Wabash Township, Fountain County, Indiana.

The History of Fountain County published in 1881 describes the area thus:

“String Town” is a mining place close to Snoddy’s mill. It is a collection of cheap houses mostly erected by the coal companies to be used by the miners. It is of mushroom growth, and an immense business is done, especially in liquors, there being about seventeen saloons at this point. It is hoped that the better element will become stronger, and that at some time this intemperance will cease. There are about 600 men employed in the mines, and the demand for coal is far beyond the ability to supply on account of the scarcity of conveyance. There are religious organizations here, but mostly composed of foreigners engaged in mining.

Map of Wabash and Coal Creek

Map of Wabash and Coal Creek

It was a rum old place and life was hard for the mostly ‘foreign’ miners. In the excellent Black Coal Miners in America: Race, Class and Conflict, 1780 – 1980, Ronald Lewis tells us the story of some events in Coal Creek in 1878.

At Coal Creek Indiana… black imports were brought in to break a strike of the Miners’ National Association in 1878. It was not long before violence erupted between local residents and some of the new arrivals. On April 18 a company of militia retired to a local saloon after drilling all day. When an altercation occurred between them and several of the scabs, the militia men grabbed their firearms, shot four blacks to death, and wounded a white blackleg named “Buffalo Bill”. The incident quickly polarized the contending factions in the dispute, and the passions of local white citizens were fanned to a white heat. As a precaution, the operators placed seventy-five rifles in the hands of the black scabs with directions to defend themselves if threatened. From the white unionists’ point of view, importing blacks was a loathsome act, and arming them was dangerous, but when the company began to pay the scabs in the all-white town of Knightsville, they added insult to injury by bringing the pariahs into unavoidable contact with the white miners’ families.

Tensions were heightened to the point of explosion the following month during the trial, when Frank Kelly, the leading witness for the defence of the white militiamen, passed several black miners and, without a word drew a revolver, shot one of them dead, and wounded two others. Pursued by the armed blacks, Kelly then ran up a ravine where he took refuge in a friend’s house. The irate blacks surrounded the building and peppered it with bullets, wounding Kelly and another of the occupants. A major race riot appeared imminent as forty-five blacks from Joliet set out for Coal Creek to help the outnumbered blacks defend themselves, but a large number of deputized citizens intervened and arrested the principals in the affray.

The other ‘occupant’ of the house where Kelly sought refuge was William Grisdale, who, as mentioned, was wounded by the black miners.

Indiana Coal Miner

Indiana Coal Miner

Following the events in April when a company of local militia had ‘shot four blacks to death’, we know that Frank Kelly had been the ‘leading’ witness for the defence of the militiamen. We even know the names of three of the four black miners killed: Philip Cozzens, Thomas Cooper and John Miles. It seems that there were fourteen white militiamen who stood trial for the murders, and one of these was William Grisdale. Reporting on the acquittal of the defendants in Covington, the Rochester Independent wrote on 4 May 1878 that William Grisdale was accused of killing Thomas Cooper but despite the fact that the judge probably believed him to be guilty he was released on bail. So the black miners probably held a grudge against William Grisdale as well as Frank Kelly.

Returning to events in June, The Huntington Democrat reported on 20 June 1878:


The Troubles between the White and Colored Miners in Fountain County Renewed. A Bloody Riot Inaugurated by the Black Blood Hounds. A War of Races.

By Telegraph to Indianapolis Sentinel.  Covington. Ind, June 15.

The trouble between the white and colored miners broke out afresh this morning at Coal Creek, 10 miles from here. At 11 o’clock the people living In the vicinity of McVey’s saloon were alarmed by shots being fired from guns in the hands of the negroes who came running down the street whooping and hallooing “kill every damned white son of a bitch there is”. The first person who they met in their road was one Frank Kelly whom was a very important witness for the white miners in the trial for the killing of Phil Cozzens last April. Kelly was standing in front of Russell’s store when he was charged upon by ten or twelve negroes armed with Springfield and Henry rifles, who opened fire upon him, and were soon joined by 20 – 30 or more, all fully armed and equipped.

SO ENTIRELY SUDDEN AND UNEXPECTED was the attack that no time was given to effect an escape; but heroic as a martyr he stood his ground, and only fled after emptying the contents of his revolver at the infuriated mob. Three of his shots took effect in as many different negroes. Tom Mims received a wound in the left side, passing through his bowels, from the effects of which he has since died. The other two were only slightly wounded. Immediately after Kelly had emptied his revolver he, with old Billy Grysdale, attempted to seek shelter and safety in the house of Charles Habberton, but with no degree of success, for after gaining an entrance and locking the doors and windows he went up stairs where Grysdale received a wound in the left leg, but not of a serious character.

THE NEGROES SURROUNDED THE HOUSE and completely riddled it with bullets breaking almost every window glass, one end presenting the appearance of a nutmeg-grater. One of the villains more daring than the rest forced an entrance through a window, carrying a bundle of straw saturated with kerosene, which he placed against a door and set on fire, remarking that he would scorch the son of a bitch out and get a fair shot at him, but before he could accomplish his diabolical scheme they were frightened away by the rumour that the sheriff, with a large posse from Covington, were on the road to quell the disturbance. Billy Grysdale succeeded in extinguishing the .fire before any serious damage was done and then fainted from weakness and loss of blood.

THE SHERIFF INTERFERES. At about 2 o’clock in the afternoon Deputy Sheriff Potts, with an efficient posse of twenty men, arrived on the battle field, and without more trouble, succeeded in dispersing the mob, only two or three making any attempt at resistance, but through the coolness and candour of T. M. Rinn and Peter C. McMahon all were disarmed and arrested. Up to the present forty have been arrested, mostly negroes; also Henry Phelps, bookkeeper, and John Barrowman, pit boss of the Fountain coal company, who are now having a hearing in the courthouse.

THE TROUBLE BEGAN more than a year 1 ago, but nothing of a serious nature transpired until last August, when the negro miners made a raid on Stringtown, but did not do any damage beyond frightening the women and children. The trouble last April culminated in a riot, in which three negroes were killed and one wounded, for which fourteen of the white miners were indicted, but upon trial were not convicted. Since then the more desperate of the blood hounds have made repeated threats upon the lives of those who were discharged, saying that if they wanted to live many more days they had better get out of town. Only last week two boxes of arms were shipped to S. W. Phelps, superintendent of the Fountain coal company and marked “DIAMOND DRILL.” This morning 45 negro miners from Brad wood, Illinois, were received by Phelps, most of whom were armed before they had been in the town 20 minutes, and a number have been identified as participating in the shooting. The people of Covington and the surrounding country are on the tiptoe of excitement, but should any further attempt at lawlessness be made there is a sufficient number ready and willing to squelch it. At 10 o’clock everything is quiet. The town is being patrolled by the Wabash guards, under their leader, Captain James Tipton. They are armed with the improved Springfield rifles. The sheriff and assistants have returned with seven or more prisoners, all negroes.

Black Coal Miners

Black Coal Miners

Here we hear again about ‘Old Billy Grysdale’ who had sought ‘shelter and safety in the house of Charles Habberton’, only to ‘receive a wound in the left leg, but not of a serious character’. ‘Billy Grysdale succeeded in extinguishing the fire before any serious damage was done and then fainted from weakness and loss of blood.’

According to this report Frank Kelly was ‘standing in front of Russell’s store when he was charged upon by ten or twelve negroes armed with Springfield and Henry rifles, who opened fire upon him’. This reporter portrayed Kelly as being ‘heroic as a martyr’ because ‘he stood his ground, and only fled after emptying the contents of his revolver at the infuriated mob’.

We get a somewhat different, and perhaps fairer, version of events that day from a report in The Republican which also appeared on 20 June:

Another miners’ outbreak occurred at Coal Creek, Fountain county, last Saturday, in which one colored man, named Thomas Mims, was killed, and two colored men and two white men slightly wounded. There are many conflicting statements in regard to the origins of the affray. The negroes say that Frank Kelley, the man who gave the testimony that resulted in the acquittal of the rioters who were arraigned for the murder of Philip Cozzens, last April, commenced the firing without any provocation, and mortally wounded Mms, and slightly wounded two others, after which they ran to their houses, got their guns and pursued him to Habberton’s house, where he took refuge, and they continued firing until he and a man named Grysdale were slightly wounded. Kelley says that he had been threatened with death if he passed between two rows of houses, where he has been in the habit of passing, that he was met by several negroes, who ordered him back and threatened to kill him, he drew his revolver, but before he could use it, was shot in the left arm, that he then fired, mortally wounding Mims. Twenty-nine negroes and eight white men are under arrest. The real cause of the trouble seems to be a determination to drive out the negroes who are working at less wages than the old miners were willing to take.

Also on the 20th June, the Logansport Pharos reported that ‘a warrant was issued against over 30 people for the shooting of William Grysdale’. It referred to 6 other white men being arrested for the killing of John Miles and Thomas Cooper and noted that they were 6 of the 14 who were acquitted last quarter of the killing of Phillip Cozzens.

Things did start to get better in Coal Creek. Ronald Lewis writes: ‘By the following year, however, circumstances in the Coal Creek district had improved dramatically. A union official wrote in the National Labor Tribune that he and a fellow organizer had stopped at Coal Creek, he was proud that:

Organization is progressing there even beyond our most sanguine expectations among both white and colored, for now the two colors meet on the most fraternal terms, and all express their firm determination to pull together and work in harmony for the future, without any distinction of color. This is as it should be, for our interests are identical. We must meet the colored men on fraternal terms, for we must not elevate ourselves by trying to keep them down. We must try to bring them up to our level, and it will not take so great an effort as many might imagine, for to our shame be it said, the colored men (according to their chances) are ahead of our white men in the principles of organization, and they do not seem to be so much afraid of it.

Walnut Hill Cemetery, Belleville

Walnut Hill Cemetery, Belleville

And this is more or less the last we hear of Old Billy Grysdale; almost but not quite. William continued to work as a miner in Indiana despite his wound, but by November 1883, aged about 56, his hard life had caught up with him, and from Indiana he applied for a US Civil War Pension, writing his name William R Grysdale. All his Civil War service is listed on his application. When and where William died isn’t known, it was probably a little before 1890, because on 13 October of that year his wife widow Anna, now back in her home town of Belleville, Illinois applied for a Civil War widow’s pension. Anna died in Belleville on 4 Dec 1895 and is buried in Belleville’s Walnut Hill cemetery.

I’ll return to William’s mining life in Belleville and his Civil War at a later date. There is in fact a link with the first US coal miners’ trade union:

Belleville Illinois around 1865

Belleville Illinois around 1865

‘In 1861, a group of miners met at Belleville, Illinois, and established the American Miners’ Association. This organization was the first nationwide union for miners in the United States. During this period, mineworkers faced numerous difficulties. During the late 1800s, industries were in great need of coal, iron ore, and other raw materials. Many mine owners saw an opportunity to garner great wealth by paying their miners low wages, while supplying other industries with raw materials. Mineworkers commonly earned less than one dollar per day for a twelve to fourteen hour workday. Workers also routinely received no health insurance, workers’ compensation, or vacation time.

To protest the poor conditions, workers formed unions, such as the American Miners’ Association. Before this point, numerous miners belonged to local unions, where the workers of a single mine or for a single company might have formed a collective bargaining organization. The American Miners’ Association hoped to unite miners across the United States together to bring more pressure on mine owners to improve conditions. In 1864, the American Miners’ Association published the following song to publicize its views:

Step by step, the longest march
Can be won, can be won;
Single stones will form an arch
One by one, one by one
And, by Union what we will
Can be accomplished still
Drops of water turn a mill,
Singly none, singly none.

Despite its lofty goals, the American Miners’ Association had limited success…  As a result of its poor membership, the American Miners’ Association ceased operation in 1868. Over the next several decades…, organizations, such as the Ohio Miners’ Amalgamated Association and the United Mine Workers, experienced greater success in uniting miners together.’

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