‘Fannie Sellins’ by Lillian Henry from Woman Today. Vol. 1 No. 7. September, 1936.

A heroic martyr of our class, Fannie Sellins was labor organizer on the staff of the United Mine Workers sent to direct picketing of Pennsylvania strikers in 1919. She intervened to stop the police beating of striker, Joseph Starzeleski, to death and was laid low by four cop bullets, her body desecrated. Her murderers were acquitted in 1923.

‘Fannie Sellins’ by Lillian Henry from Woman Today. Vol. 1 No. 7. September, 1936.

Gold flows down the Alleghany and Monongahela Rivers and up the Ohio river to coffers in tall buildings in downtown Pittsburgh. There is a steady stream from the coal mines and steel mills-from the coal mines and the steel mills-from the plants of Jones and Laughlin, Bethlehem Steel, Carnegie, U. S. Steel, Alleghany Steel, Alleghany Valley Coal. These and many other sources fill the banks and strong boxes in Pittsburgh.

Blood has flowed along these rivers-shed at the command of the owners of the strong boxes in tall buildings, and one of their victims was Fannie Sellins, mother of four children.

Fannie Sellins’ grave stands in New Kensington on the Alleghany River. The tombstone, erected by the United Mine Workers of District No. 5, stands as a monument to those “killed by the enemies of organized labor”.

In a West Virginia jail.

We went to see Fannie Sellins’ daughter and son-in-law, Mr. and Mrs. Fred Broad, to learn about the life of this heroic woman.

“My father died when I was two years old, Said the former Dorothy Sellins, “and mother went to work in a garment factory in St. Louis to support her four children. We all come from the South.

“Grandfather was a painter-had a regular job painting Mississippi River boats. He used to take mother and the children around to union meetings. I’ve heard union talk ever since I was a baby.

“Mother worked hard to organize, not only the men, but also their women. She used to go around to the women to tell them how important it was for them to organize. She was jailed for six months in West Virginia for doing that.”

The year 1919 found Fannie in the Alleghany Valley near Pittsburgh. The little family had moved to New Kensington. Dorothy had married Fred Broad, who later secured relief for 212 miners of Russelton, and prevented their eviction by the Republic Iron and Steel Company for non-payment of rent. Fannie was continuing her work as organizer for the United Mine Workers of America.


The workers of the Alleghany Valley Coal Company, were out on strike. Fannie was tireless in encouraging the workers, advising, and assisting in relief work. She did much to keep up the good spirits of the miners and their families and to rally the men to the union banner.

The coal company became desperate. Special guards were deputized-the “coal and iron police”-and equipped with guns, clubs and other weapons, they set about to institute a reign of terror.

August 26, 1919, is well remembered by the workers of the Alleghany Valley. On the morning of that day, Fannie Sellins rode into Pittsburgh to buy a birthday present for her grandson, the son of Dorothy and Fred Broad. The gift, a toy pony, is one of the most cherished possessions of the family today, Dorothy told us.

Fannie returned to New Kensington on the afternoon of that day, and left almost at once to answer a call across the river at West Natrona. There she found the armed guards of the coal company clubbing and shooting Joe Starzeleski, a miner. Fannie rushed in to get some children out of the way, and was herself clubbed and felled. Not content, the deputy fired a few shots into her body as she lay there, and then crushed her skull with a club.

A long legal fight ensued to bring the murderer to trial, but the attitude of the coal and steel dominated court may be gauged from the report of Samuel C. Jamison, then coroner of Alleghany County, and “six good and lawful men of the county aforesaid” who were “sworn and charged to inquire…when, where and how the said Fannie Sellins came to her death.”

Fannie Sellins Memorial

They found that death was due to “gun shot wound in left temple from gun in the hands of person or persons unknown to the jury….

“And…the jury find death…was justifiable and in self-defense and also recommend that Sheriff Haddock be commended in his prompt and successful action in protecting property and persons in that vicinity and the judgment exercised in the selection of his deputies. We also criticize and deplore the action of alien and foreign agitators who instill anarchy and bolshevism doctrines into the minds of un-Americans and uneducated aliens.”

Fannie Sellins still lives in the hearts of the workers of the Alleghany Valley. This year a huge memorial will have taken place by the time this story appears in print. The workers from Andrew Mellon’s Aluminum Company of America, the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company, the coal miners and the steel mills of the Alleghany Valley will meet, thousands strong, at Tarentum on August 26, to pay respect to Fannie’s memory and to pledge that they will organize so strongly that such murders will not happen again.

The Working Woman, ‘A Paper for Working Women, Farm Women, and Working-Class Housewives,’ was first published monthly by the Communist Party USA Central Committee Women’s Department from 1929 to 1935, continuing until 1937. It was the first official English-language paper of a Socialist or Communist Party specifically for women (there had been many independent such papers). At first a newspaper and very much an exponent of ‘Third Period’ politics, it played particular attention to Black women, long invisible in the left press. In addition, the magazine covered home-life, women’s health and women’s history, trade union and unemployment struggles, Party activities, as well poems and short stories. The newspaper became a magazine in 1933, and in late 1935 it was folded into The Woman Today which sought to compete with bourgeois women’s magazines in the Popular Front era. The Woman today published until 1937. During its run editors included Isobel Walker Soule, Elinor Curtis, and Margaret Cowl among others.

PDF of full issue: https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/wt/v1n07-sep-1936-women-today.pdf

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