The Italian Chargé to the Secretary of State.

No. 1130.]

Mr. Secretary of State: In fulfillment of the promise made to your excellency last Thuisday, the 14th instant, I have the honor to transmit to you herewith a memorandum concerning the facts which I already briefly stated to you in person regarding the relations between the “Spruce Pine Carolina Company” and the Italian laborers employed in its extensive railroad constructions.

In résumé I have hastened to make known to your excellency by this means the following:

For about three months the Royal embassy has been learning from the verbal accounts of numerous laborers coming from the South that they themselves have been and many others now in the employ of the said company are the victims of abuses and maltreatments of every kind. Being impressed by the concordance and by the details of the declarations made by these laborers, it caused investigations to be made on the spot by three different bureaus. The result of these investigations fully substantiates the complaints. There is a large construction company which, having procured, through recruiters who are mostly unscrupulous, hundreds of laborers in New York and elsewhere, assigns them to the various fields of labor; deprives them of their liberty either by unjust systems of payment of wages or by direct coercive measures; allows its agents to become, through methods and treatments which are certainly not commendable, the excessively rigorous enforcers of their rules; and permits the laborers to be subjected to abuses of every kind.

On the one hand, dissatisfaction calls forth protests from the oppressed laborers who wish to quit the place and demand payment for work performed, and, on the other, the company, through its agents, refuses this request in its determination to safeguard its own interests by every means, even though it be contrary to law. A condition is created which is likely to bring about occurrences of serious consequences. A misunderstanding, a mistake or an error of any kind may furnish the motive. This explains why there occurred on May 14 last at Marion, Va., a bloody row in which, according to the account of the Italian consular agent who investigated the matter, among a group of 60 peaceful Italian citizens 2 were killed and 5 seriously wounded, while 9 more who were unhurt were put in jail, but being afterwards found innocent, were discharged. Mr. Alfred T. Holton, United States district attorney, who proceeded thither at the same time as the Italian official, instituted a thorough investigation regarding the tragic event and the facts leading thereto on his own account and in the interests of justice. He gives assurance that he will report on the matter to the Attorney-General at Washington. Meanwhile the abnormal and dangerous situation continues within the sphere of influence of the Spruce Pine Company.

Recognizing the gravity of the bad state of affairs thus ascertained, as well as the serious aspect of the consequences which have occurred [Page 920] or may occur, and the necessity of applying a prompt remedy and averting the worst that threatens, I have deemed it proper to enter into details in my memorandum. I take the liberty of calling your excellency’s special attention to the contents of the document in order that the Federal Government may be informed of the state of affairs at least at the beginning.

If, as it appears, an official of the American Department of Justice has proceeded to inform himself of the occurrences and taken the first steps toward a preparation of the case for trial, and if (provided he has not already done so) he intends to inform the superior authorities so that he may be given the proper orders, there is no doubt but that every point of the question will be made clear, and that the guilty ones or those responsible, wherever or whoever they may be, will be tried and punished in accordance with the law. If this should not prove to be the case, I trust that the Federal Government, with that spirit of righteousness and equanimity which dictates all its acts will cause measures to be taken commensurate with the case for the purpose above mentioned. In either case it is my earnest hope that the action of the magistrate may be of a general character, and that the apparently casual causes of the lamentable incident of May 14 be investigated to their real sources, and that the responsibility be determined and the violators of the law in regard to the relations between the company and the laborers be punished; and consequently that, with the assistance of the State authorities, the most effective remedies be devised of having the supremacy of right fully and surely reestablished there where it seems to be at present ignored and disregarded.

Meantime I express to your excellency my sincere thanks in advance for whatever may be done in the above-indicated sense, and I take pleasure in availing myself of the opportunity of renewing, etc.

G. C. Montagna.


From the middle of the month of March, and for several weeks, there appeared at the consulate attached to this embassy, in groups of three, five, eight, etc., Italian laborer refugees from North Carolina claiming the assistance and protection of the Italian authorities. As shown from the numerous affidavits which I took care to have made out in support of their statments, they agreed in declaring that they had been at different times enlisted in New York by well-known employment agents on account of the Spruce Pine Carolina Company. Being then sent to their destination, they soon found that they had (in most cases) been deceived regarding the locality (which was much farther than indicated), regarding the kind of work (which was harder than announced), regarding the price for the journey, which was charged against them (being higher than had been declared to them), and being sent to the various regions to perform their work, they became discontented at these abuses and were subjected to ill treatment of every kind, being badly fed and at high prices, being lodged in unhealthy dwellings, being obliged to work constantly and by compulsion twelve hours a day, being bound down to the place owing to the system of payments at long intervals, and, if they decided to leave, sacrificing all that was due them, being threatened with retaliation, which actually occurred when, having fled, they were arrested by armed guards of the company and forced to return to work. In short, they were deprived of their liberty and reduced to a state of peonage. The condition in which they appeared was the most pitiful, their bodies being broken down by the hardships of the long journey made in [Page 921] great part on foot and by lack of food, and they being stripped of their goods and demoralized.

At first caution was had in giving credence to such reports, but the details being carefully confirmed the embassy could not help being impressed by the gravity of the facts stated to it, and having taken due measures to afford the unfortunates adequate material assistance it deemed proper, through the offices under it, to institute inquiries and order them at the same time to take measures to prevent the repetition of the abuses on the part of the dishonest recruiters and to devise the most effective means of putting an end to the lamentable state of things at the place of occupation, for if about 200 laborers, sacrificing their goods, had succeeded in escaping by flight 1,500 more of them still remained in the service of the Spruce Pine Carolina Company.

It was thus that, at the instance of the proper Italian office, grave complaints were made to the commissioner of licenses of New York, who, in turn, did not fail to adopt the measures demanded by the case, which were of course restricted in their effectiveness by the limits of the means at his disposal, which are inadequate to furnish the remedy which the circumstances require. And in the same manner three different investigations were begun at the place where the railroad construction company carries on its operations through the Italian consulate general at New York, through the labor information office for Italians of the same city, which is an American protective institution, and finally through the Italian consular agent at Charleston, S. C.

The reports, drawn up by three different persons, and on investigations conducted without limitation as to place, throughout the sphere of influence of the Carolina company, agree in confirming with a wealth of details systematically set forth the serious denunciations made for the last three months to the royal embassy and the consular authorities subordinate thereto. If the length of these reports did not forbid, it would be well to reproduce them in full in order to show still better the enormity of the abuses which are committed in defiance of the laws of liberty of the great American nation and in violation of human rights. A few extracts will serve to give an idea of the result of the inquiries, it being left to the proper ones to judge their scope and consequences and to devise the most appropriate means of putting an end to such an abnormal state of affairs.

After stating that the Carolina Company is engaged in extending the tracks of the South and Western Railway Company S. S. to northwest within the radius of three sections known as the spruce pine section (camps 1–7) in North Carolina, the Marion section, (camps 8–9) near Marion, Va., and the Clinch Port section (camps 1–9) in Virginia, it is proper to note that ever since April 17 last the Italian consular agent at Charleston had been addressing letters to the governor of North Carolina, to the United States district attorney, and to the director of the company, denouncing to them the abuses of which the Italian laborers were the victims and demanding prompt action in order to put a stop to it. In the report addressed to the Royal Embassy the principal points of those communications were repeated, and they may be summed up in the following lines:

“The treatment all these Italians received was practically that of slaves. They were, as I have said, guarded day and night by armed guards, and not allowed to leave the premises. They were compelled to do underground work when they had contracted to work above ground, leveling ground. When they refused to do this work, which under the contract they could not be compelled to do, they were whipped and suffered other abuses.”

“They were compelled to buy all their supplies at the companies’ stores at rates higher than those they could obtain elsewhere in the neighborhood, and which were so high that they took all the earnings of the laborers. In this way the company got their work and then got back all the wages paid these people.”

“The letters from their families were withheld at the pleasure of the employing company.”

“They were unable, on account of the guards, to seek any vindication of their rights or to withdraw when the employing company broke its contracts. The four men making the complaint had to escape secretly and were compelled to leave all their belongings behind them.”

On his part the agent of the labor information office for Italians, having proceeded to the spot during the first days of last May, carefully visited many labor camps in which Italian laborers are employed, and ascertained that there [Page 922] did in fact exist there abuses and objectionable conditions, some of a general and permanent nature and others accidental and temporary.

In reference to the former the report says:

“Unjust is the system adopted by the company for the payment of salaries, which are paid at the end of the month on a certain day. It thus happens that a workman who desires to quit the work at the middle of the month is compelled to wait fifteen days before being paid for his work. Some are thus prevented from moving about with freedom and according to their interests and aspirations. Others are obliged to sue, through the consul or lawyers, for the payment of their wages when they have quit work before pay day. Others, finally, resign themselves to the loss of the product of their toil. Some consular agents have affirmed that the sums thus given up and forfeited by the Italian laborers amount annually to a considerable sum.”

“Deplorable is the absence of honest, conscientious, and intelligent persons to serve as interpreters in the labor camps between the workmen and the company. Thence arise many misunderstandings and errors, which generally give rise to ill humor, diffidence, ill treatment, and the flight of laborers as well as the diffusion of alarming reports and complaints to the Italian authorities.”

“Worthy of censure is the circumstance that many workmen are subject to a tax in order to insure themselves compulsorily against accidents during work, but when an accident occurs it is very rare that the person receives the insurance premium, either because the receipt for his premium has been lost or owing to the ignorance of the laborer who sells the receipt for a few cents.”

Among the numerous abuses and objectionable conditions which are accidental and temporary the agent of the above-mentioned American protective institution noted “the fact that in some labor camps brutal and wicked bosses often indulge in ill treatment and violence toward the workmen, thus causing them to complain to the authorities.”

Still more impressive is the report of the person charged with inquiry (made in May) by the Italian consulate-general in New York. The author is an American citizen, a well-known lawyer in that metropolis, and a learned publicist who knows by experience the problems connected with immigration in this country. His report is very sober and has the merit of bringing out clearly the defects ascertained, the recital thereof being accompanied by logical reasoning showing the causes and the consequences.

After having hastily enumerated the objectionable features connected with the insufficiency of the quarters assigned for the lodgings of the workmen, the not always good quality of the food furnished at-a high price by the company or by persons authorized by it to sell it, the deceptions imposed on the immigrants by the unscrupulous recruiters, etc., he presents and sifts his remarks as follows:

“Far more important, because affecting not only the complainants, but many laborers brought to work in the South, are the complaints regarding certain systems pursued by the company in getting and keeping its men.

“These may be divided into three main heads—

“First. The false or fraudulent promises or statements made by laborer agents to laborers to induce them to go to the said camps.

“The agents involved are (———).

“In employment contracts like this to be carried on in distant and isolated places, companies, in their own interest, should insist that their agents be very specific and exact, even though the law may not require it. For the misrepresentation or the silence of the agents in this regard the company may not be liable, although it is morally responsible. But if the company will continue to employ such agents after their methods have been shown it will cease to be entitled to the present opinion that it did not counsel such deception.

“On one item of information furnished the laborers by agents the company ought to make good. The employment contract issued by the agents to the laborer states that ‘transportation is $9 advanced.’ As a matter of fact the transportation charged by the company is $13, and only if men remain three months is the transportation charged reduced to $9. In the fifty-odd cases represented by me in the collection of wages the company deducted $13, although advised that the written contract furnished the men by the company’s agent stated the amount would be $9.

“I think, therefore, that the company, as an evidence of its good intentions to right things, should either pay the difference between $13 and $9 and deduct it from whatever it owes the agent or compel the agent to refund it to the men.

[Page 923]

“Second. A general class of complaints is the system in force at the paymaster’s office. This, briefly, is that wages earned in any given month are paid on the first Friday or Saturday after the 20th of the month following. Thus, if a man begins working on May 25 he will receive nothing until after June 29, and then only the amount due for six days’ work in May.

“This system is, I believe, in force in most ‘camps’ in the South. The officers of the Carolina company say that such a system is necessary on account of the many men employed and their being scattered in different places. I fail to see the necessity of such a system. I belive, instead, the real reason of its use is as a means of holding the men, for no matter how responsible an employer is no employee likes to leave without getting all the money that is due him. But there is what may be called an ‘ugly’ side of the system. It extends the time during which the laborer is technically in debt to the company for trans-portatoin and maintenance. In the example given above the company owes the man on June 20 (if he works at $1.50 a day) six days for May, or $9. But he owes the company a sum much in excess of this for transportation, shanty, doctor, and supplies, although he has worked twenty days additional in June. The ‘ugly’ side to this is that while there is such a ‘debt’ the laborer may be arrested under the ‘boarding-house act’ if he attempts to leave. And here we find the first evidence of that unexpressed but generally present tendency to forced labor, which I fear is common in southern camps, and which is the third general complaint.

“Third. It is constantly said that the South needs men for its farms. I think it needs them still more urgently for its construction work, for developing its timber and coal lands. The tremendous efforts to get men and the evident lack of the supply speak for themselves. With a constant market for the laborers in the North, the South can only get the ‘second best,’ and by paying the transportation of the men. By advancing the transportation instead of paying it, it opens wide the door for abuse.

“When a company advances $10 apiece to transport 100 men from New York to North Carolina, it has invested $1,000. It is just and reasonable that it should endeavor to protect such investment. It is natural that the company should dislike (to use a phrase in vogue with the officers of the company) to see $1,000 walk out of the camp. But so impressed is the company with the necessity of protecting its investment that it overlooks the fact that it can not prevent the violation of a civil contract by enforcing it through its unlawful act. If I am hired to go to work and my transportation is paid me, and when I reach the camp I quit, I am civilly liable for the breach of my contract, but I am nevertheless a free man. And if in the exercise of that right of personal liberty I am in any way restrained, then whoever restrains me commits a crime. It matters not whether that restraint is by physical force, or by the threat of the use of the physical force, or by creating in me the fear of physical force; it matters nothing whether I am threatened with a pistol (and I believe such threats were made to laborers), or whether I am followed by a man who stops me when I attempt to move (and I believe such attempts were proven), or whether I am put in a shanty with a guard outside (and this has been admitted), or whether I am given the choice of going back or being arrested; in any case my right to freedom is invaded.

“I find upon all the evidence (including what officers and employees of the corporation have admitted) that the Carolina company did prevent divers Italian laborers from exercising their clear right of personal liberty by some or all of the above methods, and I charge that in such cases it did it without even the color of law, there having been no warrant of arrest issued. While the Carolina company might invoke the aid of the law to keep some of the men under the guise of a debt contract, under the boarding-house act there is no provision of the law granting the right of arrest for failure to pay railroad transportation advanced. Hence, where the company attempted to hold men on arrival when they wished to go and before they had become indebted for board, the violation of the law was especially serious.

“It will be said by the company that these laborers try to ‘beat’ the company out of its transportation, and they have no sense of contractual responsibility. The answer to this is that if the object of the men who run away was to get free passage and to go to work elsewhere in the neighborhood, 90 per cent of them would not, at their own expense, have returned immediately to New York, and some of them have undergone the hardship of walking a long part of the distance. Nor need much be said on the point of contractual responsibility [Page 924] in view of the fact that evidence produced before the commissioner of licenses at New York against the labor agent who sent the men to the company shows clearly that they were deceived in at least one important particular.

“We can well understand the position of the company and its desire not to lose money, and we certainly must regret any loss it may sustain, but you, sir, or any officer charged with the duty of enforcing the law or seeing to it that it is enforced, can not allow that any ‘business necessity’ or ‘business expediency’ justifies the violation of a personal right. If the protection of an investment of a thousand dollars advanced for transportation justifies false imprisonment, where shall we draw the line between right and wrong, law and lawlessness, in the presence of ‘business necessity?’

“The depositions of the laborers are, therefore, fully confirmed and are in unison with the results of the three investigations, the agreement of which also precludes the possibility of the facts related being exaggerated. Under such conditions, so favorable to discontentment, disagreements, protests, and repressions, it was no wonder that unpleasant occurrences should take place. In reality the fear was fully justified by an incident at once serious and deplorable, and which it becomes opportune to set forth, both for the purpose of still better depicting the situation and in order that serious measures may be adopted in order to prevent a repetition of similar events.

Being urged by the insistent complaints made to him by the Italian laborers employed by the Spruce Pine Carolina Company, and having learned of a shocking occurrence of bloodshed which took place at Marion, Va., in which some of his countrymen had lost their lives and others had been seriously wounded, and being authorized by his superior Italian authority, the Italian consular agent at Charleston, S. C., repaired about the first of the present month to the spot mentioned, and having met by previous agreement Mr. Alfred T. Holton, United States district attorney, he began an investigation, of which he gave a detailed report to the Royal embassy. In short, this Italian official, after having ascertained that almost all of the officiate of McDowell County are employed by the Carolina company, in whose interest they naturally act, reported that on May 34 last a group of Italian laborers in the employ of the company, numbering about 60, being tired and demoralized by the abuses of the company’s agents, and also because they had been without bread for a week, decided to quit work and in a proper manner and by gestures asked to be paid (for they did not speak English). A certain Mr. Cross, the walking boss to whom they addressed their demand, becoming irritated, replied that he had asked instructions by telephone of the central office of the Spruce Pine Company, and would inform them accordingly. Shortly afterwards he assured them that about 7 o’clock in the evening he would go personally to their shanties and pay them all. Having thus reassured the Italians, Cross went to a deputy sheriff (who also appears to have been employed by the company) and told him that about 60 of these laborers had asked for their wages, and, with one Vincenzo Martone at the head, had given him to understand by signs and threats that if they were not paid by evening of that same day they would certainly kill him, and that the central office of the Spruce Pine Company had instructed him that no laborer should be paid his money before June 20.

Mr. Cross, because of the risk he was running (in his own imagination), requested the deputy sheriff to gather a sufficient number of citizens (most being in the employ of the company), all armed with rifles and revolvers, and at the head of them he appeared about 7 o’clock at the shanties where the peaceful laborers were engaged in cooking something to eat. Having walked up to the place with revolver in hand, he called “Jim” (Giuseppe Marzone) by name, took hold of him by the arm and threatened to fire, when the assaulted man succeeded in wresting himself away and in fleeing. At that same moment the group of persons who had accompanied Mr. Cross, among them being the deputy sheriff, fired a volley of shots at the unfortunate laborers, who were guilty only of having demanded their pay and expressed their desire to go elsewhere. Meanwhile, Giuseppe Testa, 49 years of age, fell dead, and 4 or 5 others were wounded, one dying two days afterwards, while a third is still in a serious condition. Nine of the unhurt, having sought refuge in the woods, were arrested, put in jail, and charged by the justice of the peace (also employed by the company) with “assault, battery, and conspiracy.” Both the United States district attorney and the Italian consular agent learned of various irregularities in the procedure against these prisoners, against whom no valid proof could be adduced to justify the charge and the proceedings begun. The fact is that, upon the formal demand [Page 925] of these two officials and on the formal declaration of the arrested men that the signs made by some of them to Cross were not threats of death, but made merely to explain their pitiful situation of being unable to either obtain food or recuperate themselves without their pay, the order to release them from jail was issued and soon carried out.

This is the essential part of the report of the Italian consular agent, who terminates it by informing the Royal embassy that the district attorney has assured him that he will make a detailed report on all he has learned to his excellency the Attorney-General at Washington, in order that, according to the orders and instructions which he shall receive from the latter, he may fulfill his duty of proceeding rigorously against the persons guilty of the abuses complained of and of the bloodshed which occurred.

Finally, this very day, two Italian laborers who were witnesses of the deplorable event of May 14 last appeared at the royal consulate in Washington. They also confirmed the particulars noted, making appropriate depositions, in which are repeated the complaints of ill treatment of which the laborers employed by the Spruce Pine Carolina Company are victims, both regarding individual freedom and the absolutely inequitable systems of payment employed.

The situation within the sphere of influence of the Spruce Pine Carolina Company still remains unchanged, and there is reason to fear that unless energetic measures are adopted by the authorities in order to restore there the supremacy of the law and the guaranty of personal rights, not to speak of the condition in which these unfortunate laborers ought not to be left, more painful incidents will inevitably occur.