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This work appears in Anarchy Archives with permission of International Publishers Co. 239 W 23rd Street - New York, NY and located on the web at:

Labor agitator: The story of Albert R. Parsons

Alan Calmer

New York, International publishers, 1937.


JULY, 1877. The great depression nosed downward, hit rock bottom. Even employed workers got barely enough for food. They grew sullen, desperate.

The railroads posted a notice of another wage cut. Accumulated resentment rose, brimmed over. Spontaneous protests broke out; a "striking mania" sped along the railway lines of the nation.

A running battle took place in Baltimore. With fixed bayonets, troops marched to the depot. Beleaguered by an indignant crowd, the soldiers fired volleys into the throng, shooting workers straight through the heart.

In Pittsburgh, factory hands turned out to help the railroad men. They took over the switches; the trains couldn't move. Almost the entire city supported the strikers. "Butcher" Hartranft, governor of the state, sent "hussars" from Philadelphia. They attacked the people: scores were killed and wounded. The enraged citizens drove the troops into a roundhouse, seized arms and ammunition and counter-attacked. The besieged soldiers had to shoot their way out of the city.

A regiment in Reading, made up almost wholly of Irishmen, fraternized with the strikers. "The only one we'd like to pour our bullets into is that damned Bloodhound Gowen," they said, referring to the notorious coal and rail magnate, who had smashed the miners' union.

U.S. regulars swept through strike-ridden Pennsylvania. Marines were landed. Troop trains with gatling guns -- mounted on gondola cars in front of locomotives -- pushed through the state. "Give the strikers a rifle diet for a few days and see how they like that kind of bread," were the instructions of "King" Scott, railroad president. The press howled, raved, ranted; the pulpit ran a close second with its abuse. Only after weeks was the strike smashed, the state blockade broken.

The strike wave rolled westward. Huge demonstrations moved through the streets. Men marched at night with torchlight flares to show the rags on their backs and the hunger in their their faces. BREAD OR BULLETS read their banners.

"It is impossible to predict how or when this struggle will end," said the Labor Standand editorially. "End as it may it will accomplish more for the cause of labor than years of mere oratory." "It is life or death with us," said one of the rank-and-file leaders, "and we'll fight it to the end."

Traffic was almost wholly paralyzed from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, from the Canadian border to the Virginia line and the Ohio river. In St. Louis the situation developed into a general strike. It was led by the Workingmen's party. Committees marched into the mill and factory: laborers downed tools. Mass meetings raised the demand for the eight-hour day. Steamers on the Mississippi were halted until the captains agreed to increase wages. Business houses closed down. The city was in the hands of the workers for almost a week. Finally the rich St. Louis merchants, recovering from their panic, raised an army, equipped it with muskets and raided labor centers, putting down the strike by force. The Socialist leaders were seized and charged with conspiracy against the government. "Order" was restored.

Chicago was ignited too. On Sunday morning, July 22, Parsons learned that Pittsburgh was in the hands of the strikers. An emergency conference of the party was called and a mass meeting arranged for the following day. They issued a leaflet which began: "Workingmen of Chicago!...Will you still remain disunited, while your masters rob you of all your rights as well as all the fruits of your labor? A movement is now inaugurated by the Money Lords of America to allow only property-holders to vote! This is the first step toward Monarchy! Was it in vain that our forefathers fought and died for Liberty?.. ."

About twenty thousand spectators gathered at the Workingmen's party demonstration, held on Market square near Madison street. Workers marched from various sections of the city, converging at the meeting place with torchlight processions, carrying slogans reading WE WANT WORK NOT CHARITY, WHY DOES OVER-PRODUCTION CAUSE STARVATION? and LIFE BY WORK OR DEATH BY FIGHT.

George Schilling introduced Parsons, the main speaker of the evening. Parsons was developing into a remarkable agitator, was learning how to speak to the masses, to hold the attention of multitudes.

He looked over the seething square. It was the largest assembly he had ever addressed. The listeners seemed tense, rigid, straining toward him. He mounted to new peaks of oratory; his gestures and his inflexions were flawless. At last the tension snapped, waves of approbation crashing through the crowd.

"Fellow workers, let us remember that in this great republic that has been handed down to us by our forefathers from 1776 -- that while we have the republic, we still have hope. A mighty spirit is animating the hearts of the American people today....When I say the American people I mean the backbone of the country (loud cheers), the men who till the soil, who guide the machine, who weave the fabrics and cover the backs of civilized men. We are part of that people (from the crowd -- "We are!"), and we demand that we be permitted to live, that we shall not be turned upon the earth as vagrants and tramps.

"While we are sad indeed that our distressed and suffering brothers in other states have had to resort to such extreme measures, fellow workers, we recognize the fact that they were driven to do what they have done ("They were!")....We are assembled here tonight to find means by which the great gloom that now hangs over our republic can be lifted, and once more the rays of happiness can be shed on the face of this broad land."

He turned next to an attack upon the press, which he said filled its columns "with cases of bastardy, horseracing and accounts of pools on the Board of Trade." It never saw fit, he said, "to go to the factories and workshops and see how the toiling millions give away their lives to the rich bosses of the country."

At last he wound up: "It rests with you to say whether we shall allow the capitalists to go on or whether we shall organize ourselves. Will you?" he shouted to the crowd, and many answered. "Then enroll your names in the grand army of labor -- and if the capitalists engage in warfare against our rights, we shall resist them with all the means that God has given us."

McAuliffe, who followed, was even more emphatic. "If the nation must go to a monarchy," he roared, "it must go over the dead body of every workingman in the country. I am not in favor of bloodshed. But if the Fort Sumpter of the workingmen is fired upon, I register a vow, by all that is high and holy, that my voice, my thought and my arm shall be raised for bloody, remorseless war....

"Let there be peace if we can, and war (a voice in the crowd- "if necessary") -if necessary."

When he reached home Parsons was drenched in sweat. After a hard day's work in the composing room, mass speaking was no lark. He was sunk in exhaustion; but he couldn't get to sleep. His throat ached, and mental excitement kept him wide awake. He saw the excited faces lifted toward him, the roar of the crowd in his ears, their acclaim rushing through his body, their applause echoing through his brain.


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