The Yablonski Murders

Brian Hogbin

Monday morning, January 5, 1970-- it was Inauguration Day and all over Pennsylvania mayors, judges and other officials were being sworn in. Ken Yablonski's father, long active in Washington County and Pennsylvania politics, was noticeably absent. After attempting to call his family whom he had not seen since Christmas, Ken and his friend William C. Stewart decided to drive to his parent's farmhouse in Clarksville. The following is Ken Yablonski's courtroom account of what he found that eleventh day after Christmas:

When I got to the top of the steps and looked toward the bedrooms on the right, I saw what appeared to be a very large body laying on the bed completely covered by, like, a quilt, a bedspread or something like that. I ran into the room. It looked too large to be my mother. I thought it was my father, or I didn't know really, and the face was covered as though they pulled the cover over their face.

I took the cover and I pulled it back. I couldn't see the face because it was all black or dark. But I could see the long hair and that's when I realized it was my mother. I looked for my father. I didn't see him on the bed. There were some times he snored or that sort of thing; they would sleep in separate bedrooms, so I thought maybe he was in another bedroom.

  • I ran out of that bedroom and ran into what used to be my brother's and my bedroom. I ran in there looking for my father and I saw my sister.

    She was laying face down on the bed right next to the door and there was just blood all over the bed. It was just all around and her body was sort of dark in color, and as I could see her legs, I remember blood all over the bed.

    As I was looking-I was still looking for my father-I remember saying, "Where's my Dad? Where is he? What did they do to him?" I don't know whether I went into the other bedroom or not.

    Then I ran back, this time all the way in my parents' bedroom and down around the bed. And this time I saw my father. He was off on the other side of the bed. My mother was on the near side closest to the door.

    He was off the bed in almost like a kneeling, collapsed sort of positionÖpropped up against, I think, the end table. I'm not sure. I remember seeing a lot of blood, looked like blood. I remember seeing a spotÖHe had an undershirt on, and I just looked. I don't know that I did anything else, and then I ran out of the room and I ran downstairs. (Brown 3)

  • The killings of Joseph "Jock" Yablonski and his family were brutal. He had five shells pumped into him; his wife Margaret had two and their daughter Charlotte also two. The family had been asleep when the killers broke in and surprised them. The lives of Yablonski and his family were snuffed out to eliminate the challenge he represented in the United Mine Workers of America (U.M.W.A.) presidential election and threat to incumbent president Tony Boyle.

    Yablonski was long associated with mining politics, having worked and organized in the Appalachian highlands for nearly forty years. He was born in Pittsburgh on March 3, 1910, and he began working in the mines as a boy. After seeing his father killed in a mining explosion, he had moved up through the business side of the union. In 1934 Yablonski was elected to represent 15,000 miners as a member of District 5's policy-making executive board. He was only twenty-four (Armbrister 40).

    Yablonski's position in the union was significantly increased in 1940 when he ran, and won, the seat for the District 5 member of the IEB--the Union's International Executive Board. In 1958 District 5 President John Bussarello retired and due to the decline in the coal industry UMW president John L. Lewis decided to consolidate the positions of the IEB member and the district president. Yablonski shouldered the additional responsibility. The legendary UMWA president John L. Lewis once declared, "He's my right-hand man. Whenever I have trouble in the coal fields, I need him" (Armbrister 43).

    Yablonski's success in the mining hierarchy was dramatic, and he often contemplated whether he would become one of the elite UMWA presidents. The UMW presidents carried considerable power and a high degree of political recognition. Rarely were incumbents defeated in elections, and typically presidents were succeeded by vice-presidents. Thus Yablonski's hopes were dashed in 1960 when Lewis retired and the presidency automatically passed to UMW Vice President Thomas Kennedy. Kennedy was seventy-three and in failing health. As Kennedy's vice president, Lewis appointed Tony Boyle. Over the course of the next two years Kennedy's health deteriorated further and on January 19, 1963 he died, which promoted Boyle into the presidency.

    Boyle was dramatically different than the gritty, straightforward miners like Yablonski. Boyle was short, balding, cautious, spoke often with averted eyes, produced affidavits to back up his statements, and was the consummate organization man (Brown 18). Boyle's leadership in the 1960's reflected an ideology not to disturb the labor peace. During the whole labor movement, the UMWA maintained a low profile. Ironically the US Department of Interior, long the voice of mineral interests, became more militant than the union over the issue of safety in the coalmines.

    On taking office, Boyle consolidated his power by making the union's twenty-four districts trusteeships, meaning the members wouldn't be allowed to vote for their district officers. The men he appointed to these districts provided legal authority for his policies, since they were the union's policy-making international executive board. Boyle also consolidated his position with the union through the strength of its retired members. The pensioners were full voting members within the union, and thus easily manipulated by Boyle through a pension increase (which is exactly the tactic used in the campaign against Yablonski in 1969). These Machiavellian practices created a division in the union that pitted those loyal to Boyle against the miners, like Yablonski, who objected to his unfair policies.

    The tension between Yablonski and Boyle developed early in the first mining convention under Boyle's term. Prior to Boyle's presidency, the UMWA had always held its conventions in or near the coalfields so miners could attend without losing too much time or pay. But Boyle upset this precedent in 1964 when he switched the location to Bal Harbour, Florida. Boyle also extended its length to three days; thus only the delegates whose expenses were paid by union headquarters could afford to come. Ironically, this meant that only those delegates who were loyal to Boyle would have their expenses paid. Then to give the proceedings the proper atmosphere, Boyle imported five bands from the coal field communities--at a cost of nearly $400,000--and put them in the ballroom of the Americana Hotel.

    At the convention were a group of miners from Kentucky and Tennessee (District 19) who wore white helmets emblazoned with the words "Loyal to Boyle" on one side and "District 19" (Armbrister 45). Also at the convention were several miners not a part of Boyle's troupe. John Stoffa, a delegate from the Maple Creek mine in District 5 and upset with Boyle's policies, noticed a foreman from a mine owned by U.S. Steel. A union convention was restricted to union members; he wanted to protest the presence of the company man. As he approached the microphone, three white-helmeted miners from District 19 knocked him to the floor and punched and kicked him mercilessly. As Stoffa was being dragged to an exit, District 5 delegate Lou Antal tried to protest but his microphone was cut off. The helmeted District 19 miners proceeded to carry him off the floor. The violence at the convention greatly upset Yablonski, and he threatened to pull his District 5 delegation out of the convention unless the violence stopped. Although the violence stopped, the seeds of discord were developed between the two men.

    The differences between Yablonski and Boyle were increased in the fall of 1965 as the Pennsylvania legislature was considering an amendment that would make more workers who suffered from occupational diseases eligible for payments of $75 a month (Armbrister 46). During this period thousands of Pennsylvanians had contracted coal miners' pneumoconiosis--the dreaded black lung disease. Those in the western part of the state who labored in the soft coal or bituminous fields suffered the disease worst. However, the measure under consideration by the legislature only covered workers in the hard-coal-or anthracite-fields. Boyle and the sponsors of the measure said it would cost too much to extend the coverage and the legislation would never pass. Yablonski disagreed and without Boyle's permission, approached three powerful state senators and won their support for the broadened amendment. He then persuaded Pennsylvania Governor William Scranton to back it. On October 8 the legislature passed the bill, with the amendment, and Scranton signed it into law (Armbrister 46). Boyle was furious at this "insubordination," and he later forced Yablonski to resign the presidency of District 5.

    The event that ignited Yablonski to break with union tradition and challenge the incumbent president was the Farmington Disaster. At 6:00 the morning of November 20, 1968, an explosion erupted inside the Consolidation Coal Company's number-nine mine near Farmington, West Virginia. Inside were ninety-nine miners. Thirteen miners managed to escape immediately and eight more were brought to safety. Seventy-eight men were left underground. The disaster was no surprise. Company officials had long been aware of the increased risk of explosion when the weather became cold. The change in temperature dried the atmosphere underground, and that low barometric pressure allowed methane to escape from coal seams in larger quantities. Although new snow had fallen the evening before, no special warnings were issued to the miners nor was any effort to adhere to federal safety regulations made.

    Tony Boyle appeared in Farmington fifty-four hours after the accident and gave the following speech: "This is an unfortunate accident," he said. "I share the grief. I know what it's like to be in an explosion. I've gone through several of them. But as long as we mine coal, there is always this inherent danger." Seemingly unaware that the company had violated federal safety regulations, Boyle praised Consolidation as "one of the better companies to work with as far as cooperation and safety are concerned. (Armbrister 36). He then promptly returned to Washington D.C. During the next nine days fifteen more explosions rocked the mine. Fires raged underground. The only way to extinguish the fires was to shut off the supply of air. On November 29 company officials decided the trapped miners could not be rescued, and they sealed the entrances to the mine.

    Boyle's actions at Farmington angered Yablonski. He contrasted Boyle's behavior with that of former UMWA President John L. Lewis who appeared after an explosion in West Frankfort, Illinois. Boyle at Farmington dressed perfectly with a rose in his lapel and did not want to speak with the victim's families. Lewis at West Frankfort had donned a miner's helmet and emerged from underground hour later with his cheeks blackened. A photographer had captured his grief. "That picture just had to make coal miners feel so proud," Yablonski told his son. "But that sonovabitch Boyle. With those people dead in the mine, how could that bastard stand up and praise the company's safety record the way he did?" (Armbrister 39).

    The Farmington disaster also angered many in the American populace. Mining accidents had long been the norm, but opinions were changing and two important figures took notice: Congressman Ken Helcher (WV) and consumer advocate Ralph Nader. Under the encouragement of Nader, Yablonski announced his candidacy for the presidency of the United Mine Workers of America on May 29, 1969.

    The candidacy of Yablonski was a serious threat to Boyle. Although utilizing the pension plan to secure votes, Boyle began plotting a more serious solution to take care of his challenger as early as June 23. "We are in a fight," he mentioned to Albert Pass and William J. Turnblazer, the president of District 19. "Yablonski ought to be killed or done away with." Pass peered intently at Boyle. "If no one else will do it," he replied, "District 19 will. District 19 will kill him" (Armbrister 77). It would be these two individuals who would set up the hit.

    The passion and loyalty of Jock Yablonski had for the UMWA and its members were characteristics that made him successful within its ranks. Ironically, this same success and passion ultimately cost both his life and the lives of his family. As Tony Boyle began to institutionalize himself within the union at the miner's expense, Yablonski could not accept it. His announcement for his candidacy of the UMWA presidency Boyle viewed as a major attack and the ultimate form of insubordination. It was these motivating factors that led to the contracting of a hit on Jock Yablonski. The three trigger men in Yablonski's murder--Aubran "Buddy" Martin, Paul Gilly, and Claude Vealey--were all convicted shortly after the gruesome murder.

    The connection to Boyle took decidedly longer to unravel. Nearly five years elapsed between Yablonski's murder and Boyle's conviction in April of 1974. However, justice was finally served: Tony Boyle was convicted of the first degree murder of Jock Yablonski, Margaret Yablonski, and Charlotte Yablonski and sentenced to life in prison.

    Works Cited

    Armbrister, Trevor. Act of Vengeance: The Yablonski Murders and Their Solution. New York: Saturday Review Press, 1975.

    Brown, Stuart. A Man Named Tony: The True Story of the Yablonski Murders. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1976.

    Lewis, Arthur H. Murder By Contract: The People v. "Tough Tony" Boyle. New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1975.