On August 26, 1919, Fannie Sellins, organizer for the mine workers’ union was brutally murdered by Coal and Iron Police outside a mine entry in Natrona Heights when she attempted to intervene in the beating of a picketer. Born Fannie Mooney, Sellins was a garment worker and a widowed mother of four children who became union leader and negotiator for 400 women locked out of a garment factory in St. Louis. In 1913, she came to Pittsburgh and joined a United Mine Worker drive to organize miners in West Virginia. She described her work as the distribution of “clothing and food to starving women and babies, to assist poverty stricken mothers and bring children into the world, and to minister to the sick and close the eyes of the dying.”
Arrested for defying an anti-union injunction in Colliers, West Virginia, Fannie spoke out: “I am free and I have a right to walk or talk any place in this country as long as I obey the law. I have done nothing wrong. The only wrong they can say I‘ve done is to take shoes to the little children in Colliers who needed shoes. And when I think of their bare little feet, blue with the cruel blasts of winter, it makes me determined that if it be wrong to put shoes upon those little feet, then I will continue to do wrong as long as I have hands and feet to crawl to Colliers.”
Freed through the intervention of President Wilson, she returned to Pittsburgh and was hired by Phil Murray onto the staff of United Mine Workers. In the summer of 1919, Sellins was assigned to the Allegheny Valley to direct picketing for striking miners at Allegheny Coal and Coke. She came upon guards beating a picketing miner, Joseph Starzelski. When Sellins remonstrated, the guards turned on her. The autopsy describes two bullets to the head, one apparently from behind and the other from the front, as well as a depressed fracture running from her left eye to above her right ear. Fannie Sellins’ funeral was held in St. Peter’s Church, New Kensington, on August 29, 1919. The funeral cortege that accompanied the bodies of Sellins and Starzelski was said to be the largest in the town’s history and mineworkers erected a beautiful memorial at her grave in Arnold.
Excerpts from The Point of Pittsburgh, by Charles McCollester
The Battle of Homestead will be commemorating Fannie Sellins and other happenings in labor of 100 years ago with programs and events – details coming soon!