BEHIND THE SCENES with Gary Covino

How did you hear about the massacre of strike-breakers in Herrin, Illinois, and what about the story intrigued you enough to want to produce a documentary about it

I know a fair amount about American labor history, and, over the years, have produced a decent number of stories about it. But I had never seen even one mention of the Herrin Massacre until sometime in the mid-1990s. It was in the Chicago Reader . One issue featured a long essay by a professor and writer named James Ballowe, in which he told his story of growing up in the town of Herrin, in southern Illinois. Herrin is in Williamson Country, which had such a violent and lawless history for several decades that it came to be known as "Bloody Williamson." Ballowe's essay touched on several aspects of this history, but the one that intrigued me the most was about the killing, in Herrin, of 20 strikebreakers by union miners during a nationwide coal strike in 1922. Following the massacre, there were trials, in which local people perjured themselves to provide alibis for the killers, and so there were never any convictions. And then Ballowe talked about how the whole town seemed to take a collective oath of silence, and the massacre just wasn't mentioned after that. He had grown up in Herrin, and had never heard of it -- until he went to college and read a book that had a chapter about it. Ballowe wrote about trying, over the years, to learn more about the massacre and the role that various people in town had in it -- including, possibly, his own grandfather

Well, I thought the whole story could be the subject of a really interesting radio program. There was the untold story of the massacre itself, of course. But then there were all the other implications and moral complexities that followed from it. A whole town had conspired to keep the killers from being punished, and then everyone lived together in a silent conspiracy to keep the whole episode hidden from the next generations that grew up in the town. It raised a lot of fascinating questions. So, I did what I usually did back then, which was to put the essay in a folder of potential projects, and then forget about it for awhile

A few years later, the Chicago Matters series on WBEZ was about work and issues related to work. I remembered the Herrin Massacre story, and proposed that to the people at WBEZ as one of the documentaries.

How did you meet James Ballowe, the narrator, and why did you choose to tell the story through his eyes

After WBEZ agreed to fund the program, I tracked down Jim Ballowe and called him up. It just seemed logical to me that, if possible, the story should be told through him. After all, he was one of the people who had grown up in Herrin in total ignorance of what had happened there. Also, he was clearly concerned -- even disturbed -- by the moral issues raised by the town's history. He had spent decades trying to piece things together, a bit like a detective would. So, if he was interested in participating, and putting in some time, and going back to Herrin with me a couple of times, and sounded like he might be a good narrator on the radio -- well, as I said, it just seemed logical. It would be the best and most appropriate way to tell the story.

Were there any particular challenges, or obstacles, that you encountered while working on the program

Actually, there were two big ones, and I told the people at WBEZ that if I couldn't overcome them, then I wasn't going to do the documentary at all, and they would have to fill that slot with something else

This was in 1997. The Herrin Massacre had taken place 75 years earlier. It seemed to me that it was going to be nearly impossible to find anyone still alive who had a real memory of that event. Anyone who had been an adult at the time was now dead. Even someone who had been just a child -- say, ten years old in 1922 -- would now be 85. A teenager then would now be over 90. And, since a big part of the story was the fact that families didn't pass on the knowledge of what had happened in Herrin to their children, I wouldn't be able to interview younger people -- in this case, 50- or 60-year-olds -- about what they might have learned from their parents, or aunts and uncles

So, that was the first big challenge. I felt that if I could find even two or three people who had some decent memories, I would be very lucky. In the end, with the help of some people Jim knew in the area, we located about half a dozen. So that worked out well

The second big problem came from the fact that, even though the Herrin Massacre and the subsequent trials were huge national and international stories at the time, everything had taken place before the era of radio and talking newsreels. I have done many, many historically based stories and documentaries, and have always gathered as much original sound material as possible -- newsreels, radio reports, television soundtracks, private recordings, whatever it might be -- in order to recreate the events to such an extent that the listener is really transported back to the time in question

Well, I knew that was going to be impossible with this story. I did locate a huge archive of newspaper stories in the collection of the Chicago Historical Society. That stuff was amazing. At one point, I thought about hiring actors to dramatize some of this material, especially the first reports of the massacre and then the testimony at the trials. But I decided against it. I thought it might sound a bit forced and that it wouldn't fit in with the overall tone of the program

However, I did learn that, back in 1978, two students at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale (which is about 15 miles from Herrin) had done a one-hour radio documentary for the college station, WSIU, about the massacre. They had gone around Herrin and the local area with a tape recorder, and had talked to a lot of people. This was almost 20 years earlier than my project, so they were able to find people with vivid memories and vehement opinions, as well as several people who told them in no uncertain terms to get lost. None of these people would still be alive for me to talk to

Obviously, I really needed to get my hands on this tape. But the copy I first heard had been made on a really bad cassette machine, by someone who placed a cheap microphone near a radio the night the original program was going out over the air. It was almost unintelligible. The radio station, of course, didn't have a copy -- and the people at the station were kind of amazed to hear that a program like that had ever been done at all

Well, finally, I managed to locate one of the students who had produced the original program back in 1978. It took him several weeks to find his dub of the master tape. It finally turned up in a box, in the basement of his ex-wife's house in another state. When he brought it over to my place, we weren't even sure that it could be played. But it turned out to be fine. So I guess we were lucky again.

When you did go to Herrin, and interview those people who were in their 80s and 90s, did you have the sense that you were capturing history just in time

It didn't seem that dramatic to me then. I was just happy to be talking to them. And, of course, their memories and emotions were fascinating. What I hadn't expected was the extent to which, after all those decades, many of these people were still haunted by what they had witnessed

In the program, you'll hear four women who lived together in a small boarding house. Two of them, Josephine Downs and Jean Brusati, had gone after school to the building where the dead bodies of the strikers had been laid out on the floor for people to look at. I remember that these two ladies were sitting together on the edge of a bed while they told us about that day and what they saw, and they grabbed each other and held on tightly the whole time they talked about it. And then there was Wyatt Norton, who as a teenager had watched while several of the strikebreakers who had been shot begged for water and then slowly died. At the age of 89, he still had nightmares about it

But, to more directly answer your question, I did get the sense of having been "just in time" after we finished all the interviews and I was producing the program. Rose McCall, one of the women from the boarding house, died a couple of weeks before the documentary was first broadcast. Another, Lena Meadows, passed away a few months after that. Unfortunately, I haven't kept in touch with everyone who was in the program, but it wouldn't be at all surprising if none of them are alive today

You know, to change what I just said a bit, I guess what I felt was not so much like I had been "just in time" but more a sense of regret that I hadn't known about the Herrin Massacre years earlier, so that I could have talked to more people and been racing against the clock a little less

The production of The Herrin Massacre is very careful, with music and sound effects kept to a bare minimum. It feels as if the narrator is telling me a story while we sit on his front porch on a peaceful night. Is that the feeling you intended

I don't know about the front porch, but yeah, that was all very deliberate. Over the years, most of the historical documentaries I had produced had a pretty dense sound, a lot of drama, and often some deliberately jarring transitions and flashbacks. The Herrin Massacre does have, I think, a lot of drama -- but it isn't "dramatic.

Usually, when I'm working on a program, I can hear what it will sound like in my mind, even before anything is on tape. Sometimes, this is just a really strong sense of the overall tone of the program. With this one, I knew from the start that it would (and should) have a quiet and thoughtful and contemplative sound. The program is full of violence and bloodshed and actual industrial warfare, but all of that is, somehow, very far away in time and isn't treated in a lurid way

Also, the program dwells at great length on the meaning of what happened, why it happened, on how people acted afterwards, and on what all of it might add up to now. In fact, there is still a bit of mystery lingering throughout the program. All the facts will never be known -- and now it's too late to really find out. For instance, what about Jim Ballowe's grandfather? The program begins with Jim looking at his picture, and it ends with Jim looking at the same picture with a deeper understanding. But did his grandfather commit murder during the massacre? We'll probably never know. And there are judgments expressed, but there isn't one final moral judgment, really

Anyway, a quiet tone and a deliberate pace. People talking for as long as they need to talk, no matter how many seconds or minutes it adds up to. A sense of the tragedy of two groups of workers pitted against each other. That's the way I always heard this coming out of the radio.

Do you know if there's been more dialogue in Herrin about the massacre in the five years since you produced this documentary

I don't know all the specifics, but I really doubt it. The people with direct memories are pretty much all gone. There are no markers or memorials in town that refer to the massacre. The connection to the event was broken long ago, when people went silent about it. So there's nothing to compel people to face it -- and, in fact, there is still some resistance to doing that. One scene that was in the original version of the documentary -- which had to be cut for time reasons -- took place in a high school history class. Once a year, one of the teachers has the students read and talk about the Herrin Massacre, and we visited the class on that day. The teacher still gets occasional complaints from some of the parents, who don't think he should be going into the subject.

What was the response to the documentary? Did you hear from union workers, from citizens of Herrin

On the national level, I was always a little disappointed that there wasn't more of a reaction to this program. When it ran on All Things Considered , it happened to be the day after Princess Diana had died. The entire show was about her, except for The Herrin Massacre . So people were pretty distracted

But the response in the area around Herrin was very gratifying. The local public station, WSIU, ran the program several times and told people how to get in touch with me. I was sending cassettes to people in southern Illinois for months afterwards. Some of the people who contacted me were ones I wish I had known about when we were doing the interviews. I remember one old guy saying that he wanted a cassette of the show to play for his children and grandchildren, since they had never believed him when he told them there had once been a massacre in Herrin.

There's a small footnote that you wanted me to ask about. Okay, what is it

Well, since you asked... In the program, you'll hear, from the documentary that was made in 1978, the opinions of a local writer and magazine editor. He was a very respected figure in the area, named Dan Malkovich. Well, his son is John Malkovich, the actor. So, as they say in the radio biz, now you know the rest of the story.