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Monongah Revisited: Sources, Body Parts, and Ethnography
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Yarns and Records

Stories serve provincial knowledge in the absence of examined history. Legends, told with the passion of moral drama, little nuance, and words absent etymology, construct history. Story-words, without origins or transformations, cast events in fixed ways: splattered pieces of gristle, tissue, and bone became "body" in moving from mine to surface—but "body," not tissue, forged the history and narrative of the Monongah disaster. Heaps of mixed and charred carnage, formed for bereavement and burial and marked with names, eluded classification and infuriated newly widowed women. Still, their failed protests over the illusion did little to alter the burial of "unidentified"—but named—"bodies." Indeed, the widows' dissents, too, helped forge the body narrative. Those early efforts at administrative and emotional closure fed hysteria, frustrated sorrow, aggravated social divides, and fostered beliefs of multiplied dead. Mixed and unidentified body parts, given names and placed in boxes or left unnamed in a trench, created ghost miners, additional bodies to whom the shattered flesh belonged. Archived files of "unidentified"—but named—remains offered vindication for the protesting widows, not evidence of multiplied dead. The formation of splattered gristle, tissues, and bones into an appropriate mass for burial, and, when graveside rituals were completed, the placement of surplus carnage in a trench, nurtured legend, divided community, and muddled history. This article demonstrates how a narrative on body and body-part removal focused bases of error in legends, misled research, and misinformed events across an ocean.

Error-ridden tales constitute knowledge for the greatest mining disaster in United States history. On the morning of December 6, 1907, explosions within Fairmont Coal Company's interconnected mines six and eight in Monongah, West Virginia, reportedly killed 362 persons, 361 working men and boys, including 171 Italians, and one errant Polish child. The town, not the company, became the signifier of disaster in Italy and the US. Still, stories that echoed in the author's childhood gave some dignity to the modest community, especially tales with empathy for miners and antipathy for coal companies. Over the years, misled lore was affirmed by articles, books, newspapers, memorials, churches, documentaries, ceremonies, dissertations, grants, ballads, plays, road signs, interviews, and internet postings, which reverberated across an ocean into Italy. Elaborations and embellishments were applied to the missing spots in Monongah's history and primary sources were not used—or not used well. Also, the distorting powers of repeated lore, acquiescent listeners, uncritical media, and sways of labor, ethnicity, and religion strengthened weak knowing. This institutionalized and expanding lore, careless with sources and method, continues to abuse the past. This article, through the use of primary sources and the recognition of ethnography's place, offers a counter-narrative to recast this great disaster in United States and West Virginia history.


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Monongah Mines Relief Committee records of two individuals, "Unidentified," but here named; courtesy of the West Virginia and Regional History Collection, WVU Libraries, Monongah Mines Relief Committee collection.

Unexamined, or poorly examined, records were available for decades in West Virginia. Photographs, documents, and legislative hearings represent, enumerate, and describe the disaster, but left uncovered or unqualified by serious inquiry, did not serve knowledge well. Out-of-state collections of primary sources remained, and remain, largely unexamined. Still, records include daunting obstacles that frustrate research; for a major example, Monongah's miners were overwhelmingly foreign born and not US citizens at the time of the 1907 explosions. Their identifications become puzzling in records of Fairmont Coal Company and the Monongah Mines Relief Committee (MMRC), the organization that administered relief for miners' dependents after the explosions. Publication of the West Virginia State legislative hearings is even worse: it was no small task to identify the immigrant miners who survived the explosions and gave testimony, which was achieved only with the aid of other sources. Even Our Lady of Pompeii, the Italian church extant in Monongah at the time of the disaster, offers its share of recorded error. While interpreters were used after the explosions to help company agents canvass miners' homes and MMRC personnel to interview and authenticate dependents, they were not well versed in all dialects or English and contributed to misleading information. Foreign...



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