Skip to main content

Blood Runs Coal: The Yablonski Murders and the Battle for the United Mine Workers of America


Blood Runs Coal: The Yablonski Murders and the Battle for the United Mine Workers of America

Inspired by a book titled I HEARD YOU PAINT HOUSES, Martin Scorsese’s 2019 film The Irishman told the story of a Teamsters union official and hit man, offering a speculative reconstruction of Teamsters leader Jimmy Hoffa’s murder in 1975. Perhaps Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino will consider signing on when it’s time for a film version of BLOOD RUNS COAL, Mark A. Bradley’s comprehensive but fast-moving account of another spectacular union-related killing from that era.

In a straightforward telling that blends the true-crime genre with a political narrative, Bradley, whose biography includes work as a criminal defense lawyer and a CIA intelligence officer, recounts the events surrounding the assassinations of Joseph “Jock” Yablonski, his wife Margaret and daughter Charlotte, in their Pennsylvania farmhouse on December 31, 1969, and their shocking aftermath. The murders, carried out at the direction of W. A. “Tony” Boyle, the ruthless president of the United Mine Workers of America, sparked the radical transformation of a corruption-riddled union that existed to serve the interests of Boyle and his cronies --- who valued cozy relations with coal companies over protecting the rights and, above all, the safety of the union’s members --- into what Bradley calls “the most democratically run union in the country.”

The Yablonski killings originated in Jock’s failed effort to depose Boyle from the UMWA presidency in 1969 and “restore the mine workers’ union to what it had once been --- a powerful force for social good.” Yablonski, a former Boyle ally, was encouraged to make his run by none other than Ralph Nader, then at the height of his fame as a consumer advocate, but who inexplicably abandoned Yablonski in the middle of the race.

"[A]s much as BLOOD RUNS COAL is the sad story of [Yablonski's] death, it’s also an inspiring account of a moment in American labor history when good eventually triumphed over evil."

Given Boyle’s autocratic rule and the union’s penchant for violence, Yablonski spoke openly about the likelihood that the challenge would lead to his death, but he nevertheless waged a valiant, fearless campaign, aided by his sons Chip and Ken, both labor lawyers. Their attempts to enlist the Nixon administration’s Department of Labor in policing an election everyone knew would be rigged against them proved futile, dooming Yablonski’s slim chance of victory.

Mincing no words, Bradley titles the chapter on the December 1969 election --- conducted in an atmosphere of looming violence and featuring ballot-box stuffing and bribery --- “The Most Dishonest Election in American Labor History.” But merely defeating Yablonski handily wasn’t reward enough for Boyle, and, after his triumph was secured, he ordered one of his lieutenants to consummate the hit on his opponent, a directive he had first issued in June, but that had been suspended in the waning days of the campaign.

Unlike The Irishman, there was an actual house painter at the center of the Yablonski murder plot: Paul Gilly, recruited by his wife Lucy and her father Silous Huddleston, a longtime UMWA enforcer from the often-violent coalfields of Tennessee and Kentucky. To join him, Gilly enlisted his friends Claude Edward Vealey and Aubran Wayne “Buddy” Martin, a pair of violent young career criminals.

The machinations involved in assembling the team of killers and the money-laundering scheme that financed their activities lean toward the baroque, and there are moments when Bradley’s account seems to grow unnecessarily tangled. It took eight trips from a base in Cleveland to execute the hit, as the trio first contemplated murdering Yablonski in Washington, hoping it might be disguised as an ordinary street crime. For all their hesitation and bungling, sadly, it turned out this was a gang that could shoot straight when they finally entered the Yablonski home in the small southwestern Pennsylvania coal mining town of Clarksville during the early morning hours of December 31st. Jock, his wife and daughter --- the women tragic targets of opportunity --- were gunned down in their beds with cold-blooded efficiency.

The murder plot unraveled with shocking speed, with the killers all in custody in three weeks. Recognizing the gravity of the prosecutions, and the inexperience of his staff, the county district attorney hired Richard Sprague, a hard-nosed prosecutor from the Philadelphia County District Attorney’s Office, as special prosecutor. In all, Sprague won six jury trials, including two against Boyle when his original conviction was reversed by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. Bradley’s descriptions of these trials are brief and seem almost anticlimactic, but it’s fascinating to watch Sprague’s methodical approach to bagging his ultimate quarry, as he moved from the killers up the union hierarchy to Boyle.

Reaction to the exposure of the Yablonski murder plot was swift and dramatic, for, it seems, “Jock Yablonski’s blood had washed the union clean of corruption,” Bradley writes. Under the leadership of Arnold Miller, who served as UMWA president from 1972 to 1979, the union enacted substantial reforms to benefit its rank-and-file members and retirees, but by this time the coal industry and, with it, the union were in a state of precipitous decline. Jock Yablonski died a martyr to the cause of reforming a thoroughly corrupt labor organization. But as much as BLOOD RUNS COAL is the sad story of his death, it’s also an inspiring account of a moment in American labor history when good eventually triumphed over evil.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg on December 11, 2020

Blood Runs Coal: The Yablonski Murders and the Battle for the United Mine Workers of America
by Mark A. Bradley

  • Publication Date: October 26, 2021
  • Genres: History, Nonfiction, True Crime
  • Paperback: 368 pages
  • Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company
  • ISBN-10: 0393868397
  • ISBN-13: 9780393868395