ShareThis Page

1969 Yablonski murders spurred union reforms

| Sunday, Dec. 27, 2009

It was the last major political murder of the 1960s -- a tumultuous decade scarred by the assassinations of President John Kennedy, Sen. Robert Kennedy, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., American Muslim leader Malcolm X and civil rights activist Medgar Evers.

Forty years ago, on New Year's Eve 1969, Joseph "Jock" Yablonski, 59; his wife, Margaret, 59; and their daughter, Charlotte, 25, were shot to death in their Washington County home by three assassins hired by the United Mine Workers of America.

The hit men's target was Jock Yablonski, a labor leader and reform candidate for the UMW presidency.

The triple murders stunned the quiet Clarksville community of coal miners and farmers where the Yablonskis lived in a 200-year-old stone farmhouse.

The motive for the murders stunned the nation: Yablonski's assassination was ordered by the president of the UMW, Tony Boyle.

"It was a cold, cruel thing," said George Riecks, a neighbor who liked the Yablonskis. "It's something you don't get over."

For weeks, Yablonski had been trailed by the gunmen from Cleveland who were hired with $20,000 in union money. The plan, launched by Boyle three weeks after Yablonski announced his candidacy, was to kill the labor leader in Washington, D.C. The gunmen drove from Ohio to Clarksville, then to Washington, D.C., to Scranton and back to Clarksville in three futile attempts to corner Yablonski.

Close to midnight on Dec. 31,1969, the killers drove to the Yablonski home, entered by a side door and crept to the second floor.

They shot Charlotte twice in the head. Margaret also was shot twice; one bullet punctured her pulmonary artery. Both died in their beds. Jock was shot three times in the initial volley from an M-1 rifle but was still alive when one assassin stepped to the foot of his bed, aimed a .38-caliber revolver and pumped out two final rounds. One bullet hit the back of his head.

Paul Gilly, the only triggerman who is still alive, claimed in an interview earlier this month that he did not fire a weapon that night, just as he claimed at his trial. But gunman Claude Vealey told prosecutors Gilly carried a rifle and fired it once and was as guilty as he and Aubran "Buddy" Martin, the third gunman.

Serving a life sentence at Albion state prison in Erie County, Gilly, 76, said he was "naive" to believe the union would spend $1 million on his defense, as he was promised, in the event he was caught.

"I was stupid ever to get involved," he said.


On Dec. 8, Yablonski lost the election to Boyle by a nearly 2-1 margin. He immediately gave notice that he would challenge the results in court. Three weeks later, he was dead.

UMW President Cecil Roberts was a 23-year-old coal miner in West Virginia at the time. "Like almost everyone, I didn't make the connection between the murders and the union. I thought it was a horrendous tragedy, but I didn't know of anyone who made that connection. It seemed almost impossible."

Richard Sprague, a former Philadelphia assistant district attorney who prosecuted the Yablonski defendants as a special state prosecutor, recalled hearing news of the murders. "I thought to myself, 'What is this country coming to?'"

Sprague, 84, related the Yablonski killings not only to the 1960s political assassinations but to other sensational murders of the era: "Boston Strangler" Albert DeSalvo's 13 victims, the 14 people shot by University of Texas sniper Charles Whitman and the seven victims of the Charles Manson "family."

"We really did seem to be coming apart as a country," he said.

Six trials stretched over the next four years in three jurisdictions -- Washington, Erie and Delaware counties -- because of changes of venue due to the notoriety of the murders. Eight people -- the three gunmen and five co-conspirators -- were charged with the murders. Boyle was the last to stand trial and was convicted in 1974 on three counts of first-degree murder. He died in prison in 1984.

The murders have faded from headlines, but the Yablonski name is part of union culture, symbolizing a sacrifice for workers' rights and reformation of the UMW.

Two best-selling books about the murders were published, including a riveting account by Pittsburgh television reporter Stuart Brown. The 1976 documentary "Harlan County USA" included a segment on Yablonski's murder and its aftermath as well as the bluegrass song "The Yablonski Murder." HBO made a movie about the killings in 1986, with Charles Bronson, a former coal miner from Cambria County, starring as Yablonski.


Boyle was a corrupt official who, as the 1969 election for UMW president unfolded, was scheming to divert $239,993 in union funds to his campaign. He later was found guilty in federal court on charges stemming from the scheme. Former West Virginia congressman Ken Hechler and other critics said Boyle struck "sweetheart deals" with some coal companies and turned a blind eye to unsafe conditions in some mines.

Boyle aided and abetted his deeds with his authoritarian style of leadership, which included hand-picking all union officials, critics contend.

Yablonski called for local and district leaders to be elected by members -- the democratization of the union from top to bottom -- and tougher health and safety standards for miners.

Urged on by people like Ralph Nader and labor attorney and Democratic Party power broker Joseph Rauh Jr., Yablonski transformed himself from a union insider who at one time publicly praised Boyle to a reformer who challenged his vise-like grip on power.

The deaths of 78 miners trapped by a mine explosion in Farmington, W.Va., in November 1968, were a catalyst for Yablonski.

Chip Yablonski, 68, said it "sickened" his father when Boyle visited the still-smoking mine portal, where hundreds of family members were keeping vigil, and made comments that sounded callous.

"I share the grief," Boyle said. "But as long as we mine coal, there is always the inherent danger of explosions."

Those comments and Boyle's quick forgiveness of the mine owners pointed Yablonski's life in a new direction, because they indicated that Boyle was impervious to the suffering of miners he had been elected to represent, Chip Yablonski said.

Chip Yablonski said he never fully "appreciated" his father's courage while he lived.

One incident that stands out in his memory was a trip father and son made to Welsh, W.Va., for a post-election rally. Union "thugs" loyal to Boyle were taking down the license plate numbers of those who attended, Chip Yablonski said.

"I have no doubt they were packing heat," he said. "It was frigging scary."

Former congressman Hechler called Yablonski "a very courageous man."

"He was well aware of the tactics Boyle used against people who dared to raise a finger against him," Hechler said. "I think he truly believed he was targeted for death."

Sprague believes Yablonski sensed "he might be signing his own death warrant" by challenging Boyle for the presidency.

"I think Jock's real legacy is the courage he displayed in the last months of his life," Sprague said. "It's not easy for anyone to admit past errors, but Yablonski did that when he turned against Boyle."


Roberts said the 1972 reforms that followed the Yablonski murders, especially the election of district leaders and the members' vote on contracts, transformed the union. Miners had a real voice in contract negotiations and could submit proposals and contract planks, an unprecedented level of involvement, he said.

"It opened the union to new voices, new leaders," Roberts said. Local district leadership became a spawning ground for national leaders. "I'm a product of that; so was (former UMW President) Rich Trumka." Trumka, of Greene County, mined coal to pay his way through college and law school and now heads the AFL-CIO.

Roberts said neither he nor Trumka would have risen to the top in Boyle's tightly controlled organization.

"Jock was no saint," said Michael Trbovich of East Bethlehem Township, whose father, Mike Trbovich, ran Yablonski's campaign against Boyle, referring to Yablonski's one-time support of Boyle. "But he came out for the men."

Hechler said Yablonski kept the miners' welfare at heart. As a union lobbyist on Capitol Hill, Yablonski was instrumental in passage of the 1969 Coal Mine Health and Safety Act, the forerunner of the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Hechler said.

Roberts said Yablonski deserves credit for getting victims of black lung -- a potentially fatal disease caused by exposure to coal dust -- compensated under federal law.

To Yablonski's grandson, Joseph M. Yablonski, a lawyer in Washington, Pa., Jock's legacy is best expressed at Centerville Clinic, which he helped to establish as a district leader, for miners and those unable to afford health care.


As the sole hit man still living, Paul Gilly has spent 40 years in prison, plenty of time to ponder the legacy of the man he helped to kill.

A former house painter, Gilly said he was drawn into the plot by his wife, Annette "Lucy" Gilly, whose father was union official Silous Huddleston of Tennessee. It was Huddleston, prompted by higher-ups, who hired the hit men.

Gilly said he tries to block memories of the murders. Most of the time, he can. But "it gets to me toward the end of the year," he said.

"I'd have to be an animal not to know the pain I've caused people," Gilly said. He said he's given "a lot of thought" to the legacy and meaning of that night.

Convinced at the time that Yablonski would ruin the union, Gilly now says he was wrong.

While in prison, Gilly has read that legendary union chief John L. Lewis intended to endorse Yablonski for the presidency. Gilly was a great admirer of Lewis, who died in the summer of 1969 without making the one announcement that might have stayed a murderer's hand.

In the end, Gilly said, "I came to the conclusion (Yablonski) might have been a better man than Tony Boyle. Tony Boyle wasn't the man I thought he was."

The plotters

Seven men and one woman were charged with three counts of murder for the slayings of United Mine Workers of America dissident Joseph "Jock" Yablonski, his wife, Margaret, and their daughter, Charlotte. All defendants were either convicted or pleaded guilty. Two were released from state custody for providing evidence that convicted higher-ups. Five of the six who served life sentences in Pennsylvania prisons died behind bars.

1. W.A. "Tony" Boyle, of Bald Butte, Mont., UMWA president in 1969. Ordered Yablonski "killed or done away with." Died in prison in May 1984 at age 83.

2. Albert Pass, of Middlesboro, Ky., secretary-treasurer of UMWA District 19. On orders from Boyle, he saw that the murder scheme was carried out. Died in prison in April 2002, age 82.

3. William Prater, of LaFollette, Tenn., field representative in UMWA District 19. Helped Pass plan the murders and arranged for "hush money." Died in prison in August 1989, age 70.

4. Silous Huddleston, of LaFollette, Tenn., president of a UMWA pensioners' local. Recruited gunmen and helped to launder payoff money. Released from state custody in 1974, entered the witness protection program. Status unknown.

5. Annette Gilly, Cleveland housewife, the daughter of Silous Huddleston and wife of Paul Gilly. Drew her husband into the plot and helped to recruit the other two gunmen. Released from state custody in 1974, entered the witness protection program. Status unknown.

6. Claude Vealey, drifter from Cleveland. Yablonski triggerman. Died in prison in February 1999, age 55.

7. Aubran "Buddy" Martin, drifter from Cleveland. Yablonski triggerman. Died in prison in March 1991, age 42.

8. Paul Gilly, Cleveland house painter and slum district restaurant owner. Yablonski triggerman. Inmate in the State Correctional Institution at Albion, age 76.

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.

click me