I recently discovered that my second cousin twice removed was a socialist activist in the West Virginia mines in the early 20th century – Patrick Francis Gatens referred to in the press as P F Gatens. He was involved in major industrial action and spoke at a rally attended by the legendary Mother Jones. But sadly weeks afterwards, he died of Spanish flu – along with two of his children.
Go back to my great great grandfather’s brother Arthur (Art) McMahon (1828-1881) who left Ireland for the United States. He and his sons all become miners in the West Virginia coalfields. A hard life where the mine owners hired brutal private detective agencies to keep order. This in itself led to a huge pitched battle for a week in August/September 1921 referred to as the Battle of Blair Mountain. The largest violent labour dispute in American history and the first armed conflict since the Civil War.
Arthur’s daughter Hannah (1855-1933) married William Gatens (1849-1893) who was mysteriously killed by a coal wagon. One report claimed it “cut him to pieces”. There are claims he was a mine “boss” and was carrying the workers’ wages when he was robbed and his death was disguised as an accident by placing his body on the rail tracks. William also ran a liquor store and so a less appealing conjecture is that he was blind drunk and walked in front of a wagon.
Hannah and William had at least eight children, one of whom was Patrick Francis or “PF” Gatens. He is pictured at the opening of a mine here – second on the right – while his brother Hugh is sitting cross-legged above the mine entrance.
Doing more research I discovered newspaper articles from 1918 about his involvement as an organiser for the United Mine Workers of America. More specifically, he spoke at a Labor Day rally attended by at least ten thousand miners on 2 September 1918. Miners from the Dakota, Rivesville, Robinson and Barnesville mines processed to Traction Park as a massive show of union strength by West Virginia miners.
The headline speaker was Mother Jones (1837-1930) – an Irish-born union activist once described as “the most dangerous woman in America”. She fell into her role as union organiser after losing her family to yellow fever and her dress shop burning down. Her appearance was beguiling as a kindly grandmother. The reality was a fiercely determined warrior for organised labour.
The rally may have been something of an unintended death sentence for P F Gatens. Spanish flu was ripping through Europe and north America in the aftermath of World War One. As we know from our own time, large rallies have been a boon for the Covid virus. And it’s hard to ignore that on 24 October 1918 – just weeks after the rally – P F Gatens died of Spanish flu. Not only did he succumb, but his son Patrick died on 16 October aged six and baby daughter Dorothea on 27 October aged just one. Causes of death for all three: “influenza”.
The name Gatens incidentally was a shortening of the Irish name McGettigan. Contrary to some online claims that this family originated in Scotland and went to Ireland centuries past – the truth I believe is that they were from Donegal and emigrated to Scotland and the United States. The name change was more than likely to avoid anti-Irish discrimination.
They had McMahon cousins working in the mining industry both in West Virginia and Pennsylvania – and they would have known each other. Hannah was the first cousin of my great grandfather Peter McMahon who went to work briefly as a miner in Pennsylvania before returning to Ireland.