BOOK REVIEW: ‘Blood Runs Coal’

Mark A. Bradley’s book, “Blood Runs Coal: The Yablonski Murders and the Battle for the United Mine Workers of America,” a finalist for the 2021 Edgar Allan Poe Award for Best Fact Crime, covers the 1969 New Year’s Eve murder of United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) rebel Joseph “Jock” Yablonski, his wife and his daughter.

The family was brutally murdered in their Pennsylvania farmhouse seven months after Jock Yablonski began his unsuccessful campaign to defeat the corrupt president of the UMWA, Tony Boyle. According to the book, Boyle embezzled UMWA funds, shut down intra-union dissent, and served the interests of coal companies more than their union members.

The investigation into the Yablonski murders was one the most intensive manhunts in FBI history and led to the first successful rank-and-file takeover of a major labor union in modern U.S. history.

Mr. Bradley, a former CIA officer who has practiced criminal defense law in D.C., also worked on terrorism and counterintelligence cases at the U.S. Justice Department. He is currently the Director of the Information Security Oversight Office, which is housed at the National Archives and Records Administration.

I reached out to Mark Bradley and asked him why he wrote the book.  

“Serendipity,” he replied. “During the spring of 2014, I was in the Library of Congress, fact checking footnotes for my first book, “A Very Principled Boy: The Life of Duncan Lee, Red Spy, Cold Warrior.” As I was waiting for one of the librarians to bring me the boxes of records I requested, I leafed through the Manuscript Division’s list of all its collections. I was immediately drawn to the entry “Joseph A. Yablonski Legal Case Collection.” I remembered that his assassination, and those of his wife and daughter, was the last bloody punctuation mark of a decade that ran red with political murders.”

He reviewed the archival records and interviewed the living witnesses, such as Chip Yablonski, Jock’s surviving son, Paul Gilly, one of the family’s killers, and Richard Sprague, the relentless prosecutor who put all the family’s killers and those who orchestrated their murders behind bars. (Sprague recently died at age 95).

To Mr. Bradley, the murders had the feel of a Greek tragedy.

“Jock Yablonski was 59 years-old when he challenged Tony Boyle in 1969. He had joined the UMWA in 1934 and rapidly had become an important organizer and charismatic leader. By the time he was murdered, he had served as the president of its important District 5, which covered southwestern Pennsylvania, and was a member of its International Executive Board, its “college of cardinals,” which advised the union’s president. Yablonski was as tough as the southwestern Pennsylvania coalfields he sprang from. With his linebacker’s neck, a face furrowed with deep creases, beetle-eyebrows, and a gravelly voice, the barrel-chested Yablonski looked as if he has just stepped out of ‘On the Waterfront,’ Elia Kazan’s 1954 movie about union corruption.

“Tony Boyle, by contrast, always shook hands with them as if he were wearing white gloves. Boyle had Yablonski executed because he believed Yablonski committed treason by running against him. As president of the country’s wealthiest labor union, Boyle could easily have hired battalions of publicists, strategists and lawyers to guarantee his reelection, but merely defeating Yablonski wasn’t enough.”

Mr. Bradley described the three hired guns who murdered the Yablonski family as “Hillbilly hitmen.”  

“Yablonski’s killers were vicious, but extraordinarily incompetent. It took them eight attempts to finally corner him. Sadly, they did that in the family’s farmhouse in Clarksville, Pennsylvania. Their victims included not only Jock Yablonski but Margaret, his playwright wife, and Charlotte, their 25-year-old daughter and a social worker,” Mr. Bradley said. “The three killers were arrested and charged with the triple murders three weeks after they committed them.

I asked him about Richard Sprague, the Philadelphia assistant district attorney who was appointed as a special prosecutor. He said that with Sprague’s convictions of gang members, blackmailers and cop killers, he earned a reputation as the most feared and respected prosecutor in Pennsylvania, if not the nation.

Sprague quickly took charge as special prosecutor and established himself as the boss of the many county and federal prosecutors and local and federal law enforcement officers. He flatly refused to make a deal with one of the killers, which shocked his colleagues, but the killer eventually came around, as Sprague believed he would.

Sprague’s fearsome, focused, detailed and bold approach to the prosecution led to the conviction of the hired killers as well as Tony Boyle and the union underlings who hired them.   

“Blood Runs Coal” is a well-researched and well-written book that reads like a crime thriller.

• Paul Davis’ On Crime column covers true crime, crime fiction and thrillers.

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By Mark A. Bradley

W.W. Norton, $27.95, 252 pages 

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