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The Conspirators: Eugene V. Debs, Clarence Darrow, and the ARU Trials of 1894-95

Indiana history is replete with trailblazers, those who stood against the norm and fought for what they believed in. One such trailblazer was Eugene Victor Debs, founder of the American Railway Union (ARU) and perennial candidate for president of the United States under the Socialist Party banner. Before his presidential runs, before the “legend” of Debs took hold in the American psyche, a series of events in 1894-95 catapulted Debs’ status from obscure labor leader to “the ideal of the workingmen of America.”

Greencastle Daily Banner Times, December 15, 1894. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Another seminal character in Debs’ rise was Clarence Darrow, the famed litigator and labor supporter who used his considerable legal talents to defend Debs and the ARU. Coincidentally, Darrow’s rise to American consciousness, in some measure, parallels Debs’ own emerging prominence. They both supported and emboldened each other during an era of immense fortunes for those at the top and very little for those at the bottom. This blog details their partnership during one of organized labor’s most trying times and how these two men facilitated each other’s mythos during America’s Gilded Age.

Richmond Palladium, November 13, 1917. Hoosier State Chronicles.

It all began with a labor strike. On May 11, 1894, 2,000 employees walked out of their jobs at the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago. While the press concluded that the exact nature of the walk out was unknown, the strike had been brewing for months. The economic Panic of 1893 left hundreds of thousands unemployed or underpaid. As the New York Evening World wrote in their report on the initial walk out, “Trouble had been brewing for some time, the men demanding the restoration of a 33 1/3 per cent cut in the wages made last year.” Conditions worsened when the majority of Pullman workers, living in a company town established by the eponymous owner, found rent, food, and other goods too expensive for their slashed wages. The Pullman Company refused to lower prices, despite the wage decreases. These, among other factors, led to the walkout.

New York Evening World. May 11, 1894. Chronicling America.
Pullman workers walking off the job, 1894. Wikispaces.

Within days, the American Railway Union became involved. Founded in Chicago on June 20, 1893, the ARU “very quickly became the nation’s largest organized union.” Debs served as the union’s president. When the Pullman strike erupted in May, the ARU fended off accusations of trying “to stop the Pullman car service throughout the country in an effort to win the strike at Pullman.” However, that didn’t stop the ARU from creating “assemblies of A.R.U. at Wilmington, Del[aware], Ludlow, “K[entuck]y, and St. Louis among the Pullman employe[e]s at those points.”

Indianapolis Journal, May 13, 1894. Hoosier State Chronicles.

In May, the ARU were merely facilitators for the workers; by June, they had taken over the strike. On June 26, 1894, the ARU “began to fight against the Pullman Palace Car Company. Orders for the boycott have issued to all local branches of the organization and preparations are not complete for what it is said may be the greatest railway fight in history.” ARU Vice President George W. Howard expressed his intent in the Indianapolis News:

We are going to bankrupt George M. Pullman, and we are going to do it in a short space of time. We have shut up his works at Ludlow and St. Louis and we shall be able to close his last door at Wilmington by next week. He will be rendered completely helpless inside of ten days unless he comes to terms before that time.

Chicago Police Chief Michael Brennan. History of the Chicago Police, Internet Archive.

Despite walkouts, threats, and the boycott, the General Managers Association decided to keep the Pullman cars running, including “twenty-two Chicago terminal lines.” The company wouldn’t budge on its commitment to lower wages. A police presence, led by Chief Michael Brennan, was asked for by Pullman “in case of trouble as a result of the boycott by the American Railway Union.” Strikers in St. Louis spoke with its police chief in an effort to stave off violence that might “throw discredit on them.” Things were heating up.

Indianapolis News, July 6, 1894. Hoosier State Chronicles.

By early July, Chicago erupted in a fury. The Indianapolis News reported that “two strikers were killed outright and others injured in a riot in the Illinois Central yards at Kensington.” Meanwhile, some “five hundred men were rushing up and down the yards, overturning freight cars and blocking the tracks in every possible manner.” Law enforcement descended on the mob, “150 United States Marshalls and Cook County deputies,” using everything at their disposal to quell the melee. This resulted in gunshots rippling through the crowd, a short stammering by the mob, and then a full-on retreat by police forces as the hordes of laborers charged at them. This continued well into the afternoon, with hundreds of freight cards either ripped from the tracks or burned to the ground. In all, six men died and the railways suffered roughly $2,000,000 worth of damage (over $56,000,000 in 2016 dollars).

Indianapolis News, July 7, 1894. Hoosier State Chronicles.

In the middle of all this carnage, both physical and political, was ARU founder and President Eugene V. Debs. During the July 6 riots, Debs released a statement that rankled the capitalists as well as the public, subtly acknowledging the chaos. “If the corporations refuse to yield, and stubbornly maintain that there is ‘nothing to arbitrate,’ the responsibility for what may ensue will be upon their heads and they can not escape the penalties,” Debs declared. However, his tune changed slightly the next day, telling the strikers that “I deem it my duty to caution you against being a party to any violation of law” and “those who engage in force and violence are our real enemies.” Despite his pleas for peace, the ARU’s boycott and ensuing violence animated the United States Court in Chicago to file an injunction against Debs and the ARU. “The injunction was served as Debs was leaving the Sherman House this morning,” the News wrote.

Indianapolis Journal, July 11, 1894. Chronicling America.

The injunction proved fatal to the strike and to Debs’ hopes of representing the workers in their negotiations with the Pullman Company. On July 10, Debs, ARU Vice President Howard, and two other ARU representatives were arrested in Chicago under alleged violation of the US Court’s injunction. “They are charged with conspiracy to commit an unlawful act—that is, to block the progress of the United States mails,” the Indianapolis Journal reported. The men were arraigned in front of a grand jury and ordered to jail unless they posted bond at “$10,000 each.” Debs’ mail and other ARU materials were seized by the government, as potential evidence in the trial. Debs appeared particularly upset about this action. “…I cannot understand under what law the postoffice [sic] authorities are a party to the seizure of my private mail,” Debs barked, “It is an outrage and you call this a free county? It seems to me not to be compatible with the stars and stripes.” Despite his anger, Debs reached out to his fellow laborers and told them to stay vigilant, refrain from violence, and “maintain law and order.”

Clarence Darrow, circa 1900. Library of Congress.

The attorney who defended Debs and the ARU was none other than Clarence S. Darrow. Before his legendary status in American life as one of the country’s greatest litigators, Darrow was a young attorney making a career for himself in Chicago. After leaving a lucrative practice representing the Chicago and North Western Railway Company, Darrow rose to prominence as the public defender of Patrick Eugene Prendergast, the man who murdered Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison during the 1893 World’s Fair. Darrow toiled well over a year to get Prendergast an insanity plea, and when that failed, he diligently worked with state government to stay his client’s execution. Darrow, who sternly against capital punishment, felt it his duty to stand against its use in such a unfortunate case. Sadly, Darrow’s crusade was unsuccessful and the state executed Prendergast by hanging on July 13, 1894, three days after Debs faced arrest in Chicago.

Omaha Daily Bee, July 11, 1894. Chronicling America.

Darrow, disappointed in the state’s decision in the Prendergast case but emboldened in his desire to defend those deemed indefensible, took on the Debs case right away, according to the Indianapolis News and the Omaha Daily Bee. The Bee also reported that a “large number of telegrams sent by Debs from his headquarters” provided “directions which extended the blockade of trains. . . .” Western Union initially withheld the telegrams from the United States Court, but Judge Peter S. Grosscup issued a subpoena and the company relented. To make things worse, the press wrote scurrilous descriptions of Darrow and Debs. The Wichita Daily Eagle called Darrow “an outspoken Anarchist and no party has the courage to nominate him for any position. His political feelings are dangerous.” As for Debs, the Eagle painted him as the “most indignant citizen . . . the dictator of his union and the regulator of the commerce of the country.” Darrow knew as much as Debs that this case could upend their careers – or gain them the public support they craved.

Judge Peter S. Grosscup. Google Books.

The first trial against Debs and the ARU began in Chicago on July 23, 1894. As biographer John A. Farrell noted, the Feds “launched a two-track legal defense on Debs and his men: the contempt proceeding in which there were accused of violating the federal court’s injunction banning anyone from ‘inciting’ workers to strike, and a criminal case that charged the union with conspiring to stop the mails and to interfere with interstate commerce.” Darrow led a defense team with attorneys William W. Erwin and Stephen S. Gregory. They intended to dismiss the charges against Debs and the alleged conspirators by challenging the legality of the federal injunction. “It will be contended that what the court has done amounts to a usurpation of power not given to the federal judiciary [by] either constitution or law,” the Topeka State Journal wrote. The defendants also denied that Debs and the ARU directed the strikers to leave their posts, but rather its members voted in favor to strike. As for the telegrams, the only approved communication between Debs and the strikers came on July 6, when Debs counseled “every one to stand firm,” not to use violence or to block rail lines. Defense attorney Gregory reiterated this point in a passage from the Indianapolis Journal: “The attorney contended that as long as people obeyed the laws they could not be held responsible for the lawlessness of others.” Each defendant consulted extensively with Darrow and his team before their case was filed.

William W. Erwin. Saint Paul Historical.
Indianapolis Journal, July 24, 1894. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Chicago District Attorney Thomas E. Milchrist, Assistant-District Attorney John P. Hand, and special counsel Edwin Walker represented the prosecution, with attorneys for the Santa Fe Railroad assisting. Walker spoke for the state on the first day and argued that, “All the strike orders which had resulted in the stoppage of commerce and mails came from the office of the union in Chicago, and they were responsible for everything that happened in consequence, even to the loss of life.” Walker, by offering evidence against Debs in the criminal case regarding blocking the U. S. Mail, indirectly affirmed the injunction against ARU. This appeared strong enough in the eyes of presiding Judges William A. Woods and Peter S. Grosscup (he advised Woods), who threw out the defense’s plea to drop the contempt charges on July 25. Two days later, Judge Woods postponed further arguments in the trial until September, so the court could accrue evidence under the assistance of a master of chancery. Debs and the other defendants posted bail and awaited the continuation of their case. The ARU was dealt a serious blow, but the fight was only beginning.

Judge William Allen Woods. Google Books.
Chicago District Attorney Thomas Milchrist. Google Books.

On September 26, 1894, arguments were continued in the Seventh Circuit Court in Chicago under presiding Judge Woods. In his four and a half hours of arguments, Clarence Darrow’s defense of Debs became legendary. The Chicago Tribune published a piece the next day entitled, “Darrow Hurts Debs: Counsel for the Ex-Dictator Flies into a Rage,” where Darrow “was credited with having made an exceedingly able argument.” (The article’s splashy title doesn’t match what is said of Darrow; in that regard, it’s a 1890s version of “clickbait.”) Darrow’s argument was twofold. First, the ARU did direct strikers via telegram after the injunction, “but had a perfect right to do so . . . .” Second, the prosecution’s basis for the injunction, the Sherman Anti-Trust Act of 1890, was legally unfounded. “He argued at length,” the Tribune reported, “to prove the act had no reference to strikes, but was designed exclusively to correct the outrages of the railroad companies. He thought it a shame the railroads should use it against other people.” Darrow also went after prosecuting attorney Milchrist, saying that “I never knew a man who had more abused an office in which chance placed him . . . .” Milchrist was incensed, and fired back with, “I am responsible for my words. I will not take lessons from you in professional ethics.” To which Darrow snapped, “You ought to take lessons from some one [sic].”

Chicago Tribune, September 27, 1894. Chicago Tribune Archives.

Darrow’s strident defense of Deb’s found coverage throughout the nations newspapers, including the Crawfordsville Journal, the Indianapolis Journal, and the San Francisco Morning Call. The Call’s write up was particularly insightful; Darrow’s reasoning on the right of workers to strike found clearer elucidation than had been in the Tribune. “He said the defendants had not committed any wrong and declared that every man had the right to abandon his position either for a good or bad reason. No court could put a citizen into a condition of servitude,” the Call wrote.

San Francisco Morning Call, September 27, 1894. Chronicling America.

Despite Darrow’s passionate and astute defense of his clients, Judge Woods ruled against Debs and the ARU. On December 15, 1894, Eugene V. Debs was sentenced to six months in prison for violating the federal injunction against the ARU. Seven others, including ARU Vice President Howard, received 3 month sentences. In his ruling, Judge Woods declared: “I think there is no doubt these defendants had power to make the men who looked up to them do as they pleased and that they continued to violate this injunction.” As Darrow feared, Judge Woods sentenced them under his reading of the Sherman Anti-Trust Act. The act was created to protect the laboring classes, instead Woods applied the law as a weapon against them. “The decision is bad law,” Darrow said, “but the sentence is remarkably lenient.” As for Debs, he was quoted in the Greencastle Daily Banner Times, saying:

I am a law abiding man and I will abide by the law as construed by the judges. But if Judge Woods’ decision is law, all labor organizations may as well disband. According to him, every strike is a conspiracy and unlawful. . . . In the strike of last summer every effort was made by the leaders to prevent violence. Judge Woods intimates that this advice was given to the effect it would have on the public and that the strikers were not expected to heed it. What right has he to draw such an inference? There is nothing in the evidence to support it.

Greencastle Daily Banner Times, December 15, 1894. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Judge Woods gave Darrow and the ARU ten days to develop a strategy to keep them out of jail. Darrow’s plan consisted of the defendants calling for a writ of habeas corpus in front of the US Supreme Court, bypassing the appeals court process altogether. However, Darrow had to be admitted to the Supreme Court bar and meet with the necessary people to begin the process. This delayed Debs’ and the others’ chances of staying out of prison, and while Darrow did all he could to get them freed, Debs and the others began serving their prison terms.

Iron County Register, December 20, 1894. Chronicling America.

And this was only the contempt trial. The criminal trial charging the ARU with blocking the passage of U. S. Mail also plagued Debs, and its decision would be made by a jury rather than a judge. It began on January 27, 1895, with Judge Grosscup, who assisted Woods in the injunction trial, presiding. Edwin Walker, continuing his work for the prosecution, asked the ARU to produce its meeting minutes from the previous summer. This plan backfired, according to Darrow biographer John A. Farrell, because the ARU made its proceedings public months before and had nothing to hide. Darrow, sensing a good strategy, asked for the prosecution to produce the minutes of the General Managers Association. This proved fatal to the prosecution, for it necessitated railway owner George Pullman to testify. He evaded a subpoena and, ironically, faced possible contempt charges. Once Debs, released on bail just days before, took the stand and testified against the charges, the trial fell apart. What happened next can only be described as serendipitous. One of the jurors, a man named “Coe,” fell ill and the jury was discharged. The trial lingered on a continuance but was eventually dropped. Debs, Darrow, and the defense felt certain that if the trial continued, and Pullman was asked to testify, they would’ve won. As one juror said to Debs on his way out, “when this trial opened I was in favor of giving you a 5-year sentence, but now I am anxious to see you free.”

Indianapolis News, February 12, 1895. Hoosier State Chronicles.

One trial down, one to go. Debs, Darrow, and the ARU were off to Washington. Darrow presented his petitions for a writ of error and a writ of habeas corpus to the Supreme Court; Chief Justice Melville Fuller asked for the legality of each petition to be considered. The justices agreed to hear the case and oral arguments were scheduled for March. The first day of arguments began at 12:40pm on March 25, with Darrow, Gregory, and Lyman Trumbull representing Debs. Walker, Attorney General Richard Olney, and Assistant-Attorney General Edward B. Whitney represented the government. As the Indianapolis Journal reported, Darrow and his team sought to reaffirm their position that the Sherman Anti-Trust Act did not grant courts the authority to issue an injunction against the ARU. Furthermore, Trumbull argued that if the lower court had only used the newspaper as a means of disseminating the injunction, “it was in defiance of Congress, and it was not to be supposed that everybody was to be compelled to read the newspapers.” He further “urged . . . that Debs and his associated were illegally imprisoned, and asked for their release.”

Indianapolis News, May 27, 1895. Hoosier State Chronicles.

After two days of intense oral arguments, the Supreme Court unanimously ruled against Debs and the ARU’s application for a writ of habeas corpus. In the court’s opinion, Justice David Brewer wrote: “The strong arm of the national Government may be put forth to brush away all obstructions to the freedom of interstate commerce or the transportation of the mails. If the emergency arises, the army of the Nation, and all its militia, are at the service of the Nation to compel obedience to its laws.” Debs was devastated by the decision and shared his disgust with a local reporter:

I think it [Supreme Court] is one of the worst demoralized organizations in the country. When the law in the Debs case was made it was intended to apply to check the greed of corporations. No one ever thought it would be twisted to apply to labor organizations. The decision will be a great blow to railroad labor organization. Railroad men will hardly dare to act, under this interpretation.

Darrow and Trumbull also lambasted the decision, calling it “a sort of double barreled shotgun justice—punishing a man for a crime for which he had been indicted but before he was tried.” Not able to accrue time served, Debs began his six-month jail sentence for contempt of the federal injunction; he served out his time in Woodstock, Illinois.

Indianapolis News, November 14, 1895. Hoosier State Chronicles.

While Debs served out his sentence, Darrow, Trumbull, and scores of labor organizers worked on a big reception for the ARU leader upon his release. They rented out Battery D in Chicago, a venue of 6,000 seats. In a subtle bit of goading, they even invited Judge Woods to attend. On November 22, 1895, Eugene V. Debs was released from jail. A throng of supporters rushed from the train depot to pick up their embattled leader and escort him to the reception awaiting in Chicago. The Greencastle Democrat reported that nearly 4,000 attendees crowded into Battery D to hear Debs speak “for about two hours on topics which have become familiar to all labor advocates.” “I have had time for meditation and reflection,” Debs said among his supporters, “and I have no hesitancy in declaring that under the same circumstances I would pursue precisely the same policy. So for as my acts are concerned I have neither apology nor regret.” That night, Debs evolved from regional labor leader into emerging legend in radical politics.

Greencastle Democrat, November 30, 1895. Hoosier State Chronicles.

Eugene V. Debs and Clarence Darrow used the Pullman strike a means for empowering the working man and precipitating their influence in American life. Debs went on to become one of America’s most successful third-party politicians, running for president under the Socialist Party banner five times (1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, 1920). In his final presidential run, he won nearly a million votes while in a jail cell for violating the Sedition Act. He also co-founded one of America’s most influential unions, the International Workers of the World—known colloquially as the “Wobblies.” He died in 1926.

Debs at Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, circa 1920. California Literary Review.

As for Darrow, he became one of America’s celebrated, as well as infamous, lawyers. He set up a law practice (with aspiring poet Edgar Lee Masters) that helped the poor, immigrants, labor activists. In particular, he represented the McNamara brothers in the Llewellyn Iron Works explosion trial and saved Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb from execution in their 1924 trial for murder. However, the trial he is best remember for is the Scopes “Monkey Trial” of 1925. Darrow defended schoolteacher John T. Scopes, on trial for the teaching of evolution. This led to his legendary court battles with William Jennings Bryan, who led the prosecution. Despite Scopes’ conviction, which was later overturned on a technicality, Darrow’s defense of science, secularism, and freedom of thought still resonates today. Darrow died in 1936, at the age of 80.

Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan during the Scopes Trial, 1925. Chicago Tribune.

Both of these men forged indispensable paths during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The eight-hour work day, child labor laws, and workplace protections; all these rights were defended, and often won, as a result of their efforts. The ARU trials of 1894-95 propelled their lives into the national conversation and supplied them a platform for their crusades. So while Debs didn’t win the battle in the courts, he often won in the war of ideas. As a result, Debs’ fight became Darrow’s. Reflecting in his memoir years later, Darrow wrote:

Eugene V. Debs has always been one of my heroes . . . . There may have lived some time, some where, a kindlier, gentler, more generous man than Eugene V. Debs, but I have never known him. Nor have I ever read or heard of another. Mr. Debs at once became the head of the Socialist party of America. I never followed him politically. I never could believe that man was so constructed as to make Socialism possible; but I watched him and his cause with great interest. He was not only all that I have said, but he was the bravest man I ever knew. He never felt fear. He had the courage of the babe who has no conception of the word or its meaning.

Debs and Darrow used their Midwestern smarts, guff, and gumption to take on the biggest powers of their time, from the railroad barons to the Supreme Court. In doing so, their battles changed each other—and changed America.

“King Debs,” Harper’s Weekly, July 14, 1894. Library of Congress.

Indiana’s Pearl and Button Boom

Today, we drive over rivers and creeks in a few seconds and barely know their names.  But before modern transportation severed so much of our connection to waterways, human contact with rivers practically defined life in water-rich Indiana.

One lost industry that had a brief “boom and bust” over most of the eastern U.S. a century ago was closely tied to the life of the rivers. If you’re keeping a list of industries (like steel and auto manufacturing) that have declined and even vanished from the Midwest, add one more:  pearl button making.

Consumers today rarely give a thought to where buttons come from.  How synthetic goods are made (i.e., the zippers, plastic buttons, and Velcro that partly replaced shell around 1950) may seem less “romantic” than the work of pearl fishermen hauling shiny treasures out of Midwestern streams in johnboats.  Yet in spite of its nostalgic appeal, the pearl button industry also wreaked havoc on the environment and on workers in factories.


wabash river pearl hunter vincennes indiana circa 1905
(This photo taken on the Wabash River at Vincennes, Indiana, around 1905 shows a pearl fisherman in his boathouse. He kept a “cooker” on hand to steam the mussel shells open. “The meat was fed to hogs or used as bait.” Shells were sent off to button factories.)

rock river clamming near Beloit WI ca 1911 Lloyd Ballard
(Man on a johnboat on the Rock River outside Beloit, Wisconsin, circa 1911. Mussels would clamp down on hooks and not let go until they were cooked off. The rods were often made out of cast-off gas pipes. Photo by Lloyd Ballard. Beloit College Archives.)

At the time of European settlement, midwestern rivers abounded in mussels.  As many as 400 species probably lived in the Ohio Valley in 1800. The Mound Builder cultures that once occupied the American heartland found many ways to use mussels and left behind enormous refuse piles — what archaeologists call “middens” — in their towns, which almost always sat beside creeks and rivers.  They were large towns, too.  In the year 1200, Cahokia, across the Mississippi River from the future site of St. Louis, was bigger than medieval London.

Excavations in southwestern Indiana have turned up so many freshwater mussel shells that archaeologists dubbed one early group the “Shell Mound People.”  Often a fertility symbol, shells may have had a deep spiritual meaning for the Mound Builders and played a role in their rituals of life and death.  Pearls — hardened secretions meant to neutralize invading irritants and parasites — were undoubtedly used by Native Americans to decorate their bodies.


CahokiaMound72diskBeads72sm
(Shell disks from a burial mound at Cahokia, Illinois. St. Louis Community College.)

 


Among Indiana’s early settlers, “diving” for pearls hidden in freshwater mussels dates back to at least 1846, when farmers at Winamac founded a small stockholders association to try to market shells taken from the Tippecanoe River.  They sent a man to St. Louis and Cincinnati to ask about the value of freshwater pearls.  Prices were low at the time and the “Pulaski County Pearl Diver Association” went bust.

Though a few button factories existed in Indiana before the Civil War — relying on shell, horn, and bone — the American freshwater pearl boom didn’t really gain momentum until 1900.  In that year, a pearl frenzy erupted along the Black and White Rivers near Newport, Arkansas.  Arkansas’ pearl boom had all the hallmarks of an old-time gold rush.  A writer for the Indianapolis Journal reported in 1903:

Within the past three years more than $3,000,000 worth of pearls have been taken from the Mississippi Valley. . .  The excitement spread from the land to the river steamboats.  Their crews deserted them, and sometimes their captains, and the Black River was the scene of the wildest excitement.  New towns were built and old ones were increased to the size of cities.  Streets were laid out, banks and mercantile establishments were started, mortgages were lifted, money was plenty and times were prosperous. . . New York pearl dealers flocked there in great numbers.

The writer tells a story, perhaps exaggerated like much of his account, that an African American family who had lived in poverty made enough money pearling to build a large house and hire white servants.  He also mentions that New York dealers were often ripped off by sellers masquerading Arkansas pearls as Asian.

Arkansas’ rivers were quickly “pearled out,” but the pearl boom spread and reached its peak around 1905-1910. Southwestern Indiana is almost as close to Arkansas as it is to Cincinnati.  When the Southern boom died down,  the hunt for pearls came north.  The Jasper Weekly Courier reported in October 1903 that pearls had been found in the Wabash River at Maunie, Illinois, just south of New Harmony.  “The river is a veritable bee hive and scores are at work securing mussel shells.  The price of shells has risen from $4 to $15 a ton and an experienced man can secure a ton in a day.  Farmers find it difficult to get farm hands.”

“Musselers” found an estimated $7000 worth of pearls in the Wabash in the first week of June 1909.  Charles Williams, a “poor musseler,” found a “perfect specimen of the lustrous black pearl and has sold it for $1250.  Black pearls are seldom found in freshwater shells.”


black pearl


city of idaho at vincennes - mussel shells
(The steamboat City of Idaho docked at Vincennes, Indiana, around 1907. For a few years, a small button factory on Willow Street produced as many as 3,000 buttons a week from mussel shells harvested along the Wabash. When the factory closed, mussel fishermen sent shells by steamboat and train to the large button manufacturers in Muscatine, Iowa.)

Vincennes experienced an explosion of musseling in 1905, as pearl hunters converged on the Wabash River’s shell banks.  Eastern buyers came out to Indiana and frequently offered $500-$1000 for a pearl, which they polished into jewelry in cities like New York.  A thousand dollars was a lot amount of money at a time when factory workers typically made about $8.00 a week.  But with several hundred people eagerly scouring the riverbanks, the best pearls were quickly snatched up.  For about a decade afterwards, “mussel men” and their families focused on providing shells for button manufacturers.

Interestingly, the shell craze caused a squatters’ village to spring up in Vincennes.  A shanty town called Pearl City, made up of shacks and houseboats, sat along the river from 1907 to 1936, when as part of a WPA deal, its residents were resettled in Sunset Court, Vincennes’ first public housing.

At Logansport on the Wabash, patients from the Northern Indiana Insane Hospital spent part of the summer of 1908 hunting for pearl-bearing mussels.  “One old man has been lucky, finding several pearls valued at $200 each.  Local jewelers have tried to buy them but the old man hoards them like a miser does his gold.  He keeps them in a bottle, and his chief delight is to hold the bottle so that he can see his prizes as the sun strikes the gems.” In and around Indianapolis, hunters discovered pearls in Fall Creek and the White River, especially around Waverly, southwest of the city.

Though every fisherman sought to find a high-value pearl and make a tiny fortune, the boom’s more prosaic side — button-making — eventually won out. From the 1890s to the 1940s, hundreds of small factories across the Midwest turned out glossy “mother-of-pearl” buttons.  The industry especially flourished along a stretch of the Mississippi near Muscatine, Iowa, called the “button capital of the world.”  Muscatine’s button industry was founded by John Boepple, a master craftsman from Hamburg, Germany, who immigrated to Iowa around 1887.  Muscatine’s factories turned out a staggering 1.5 billion buttons in 1905 alone.  About 10,000 workers were employed by button factories in the Midwestern states.

John Boepple lived to see the industry’s impact on rivers like the Mississippi.  In 1910, the industrialist turned conservationist began work at a biological station established by Congress at Fairport, Iowa, to help repopulate mussels by reseeding riverbeds.  Congress’ role was simply to preserve the industry, not to save decimated species.   In 1912, the embattled mussels had their revenge:  Boepple cut his foot on a shell and died of a resulting infection.

Although Iowa dominated the American button industry, numerous tiny factories popped up in small Indiana towns, including Mishawaka, Lawrenceburg, Leavenworth, Madison, and Shoals. (Shoals was named for its founder, Frederick Shulz, not for the mussel shoals on the White River.) Taylor Z. Richey, writing from Cannelton, Indiana, described how the work was done along the Ohio River in 1904.  Many factories did not create the actual buttons, merely the “blanks” that were shipped out to Iowa.


Button_cut_shell


leavenworth button works
(In 1910, three buttonworks in Leavenworth, Indiana, employed twenty-four families — most of the population of the town. This two-story Greek Revival building had once been City Hall. Long chutes connected upper windows to wheelbarrows below. Discarded shells were burned to produce lime. “Old” Leavenworth was permanently wiped out by the 1937 Ohio River Flood.)

button factory at st. mary's west virginia
(Workers at a button factory along the Ohio River at St. Mary’s, West Virginia, circa 1910.)

Working in the button industry was far from quaint and actually proved a hazardous job.  Exposure to hydrochloric acid and poor ventilation took a big toll on workers.  Author Jeffrey Copeland notes that there were more cases of pneumonia, typhus and gangrene among button factory laborers than in any other industry.  Children as young as eight worked sixty-hour weeks carrying buckets of shells and acid to soften the material up.  Eye injuries and loss of fingers often occurred as workers “stamped” the buttons out of shells or operated lathes.  Even before the industry reached its turn-of-the-century heyday, gory accidents (such as this one, reported in the Jasper Weekly Courier in 1874) made it into the newspapers:

A French girl, sixteen years old, was caught by her long hair in a revolving shaft at a button factory in Kankakee, Ill., the other day, and the left side of her head was completely scalped.  A severe concussion of the brain was also sustained.  Her condition was considered critical.

Complaints about filth and dust drove Mishawaka’s factory to relocate to St. Joseph, Michigan, in 1917.

Partly under the leadership of a young activist named Pearl McGill, labor unions in Iowa battled it out with factory owners, culminating in Muscatine’s “Button War” of 1911, a fight that involved arson and the killing of police.  (Steve Cable tells the interesting story of labor leader McGill, who was murdered in 1924 at age 29.)

In Vincennes in 1903, however, the usual pattern of Progressive-era labor politics seemed to go the other way around.  The Indianapolis Journal reported that Eugene Aubrey, owner of a pearl-button factory at Vincennes and allegedly a member of the Socialist Party, fired worker Charles Higginbottom for serving in the militia during Evansville’s bloody July 1903 race riot, when many African Americans were gunned down.  The Journal went on to accuse Aubrey of being a secret anarchist.

In his semi-fictional Tales of Leavenworth, Rush Warren Carter described a small-town Indiana button factory in those years.  A boy named Palmer Dotson quits school at 16 and gets a job working under superintendent “Badeye” Williams.  (Factory workers often lost eyes.)  “Cutting buttons was not a business that developed one’s mind or elevated his thoughts,” Carter wrote.  “The cutting process was a dull routine to a background of everything but enlightened conversation.  Talk about your ladies’ sewing circles.  When it came to gossip, [women] were not in the same league with the men in the button factory, who chewed and rechewed every real or imagined bit of gossip until it had been ground to a fine pulp.”  Dotson died of tuberculosis at 21.  A co-worker decided that opening a saloon would be preferable to stamping buttons.

In 1917, a silent movie based on Virginia Brooks’ popular novel “Little Lost Sister” was playing at The Auditorium in South Bend.  The plot begins in a sordid rural button factory in “Millville” (probably in Iowa), where the heroine, Elsie Welcome, has big dreams about getting out and going to Chicago.  A classic stand-off with the foreman ensues:

little lost sister


Although Iowa’s factories were still running in 1946 (the year actor Ronald Reagan chose Muscatine’s Pearl Queen), exhaustion of shell banks all over the Midwest was killing the industry fast.  Japanese innovations increased competition after World War II.  Synthetic plastics — which were cheap and could withstand washing machines better than shell — were pioneered in the 1920s and eventually took over the industry in the mid-1950s.  Instead of smelly buckets of shells, workers handled tubs of polyester syrup.  Then, two snazzy new inventions, zippers and Velcro, even cut into the demand for buttons outright.

Indiana’s factories, which had been shipping blanks to Iowa for years, had all gone out of business by the end of World War II.  The last independent buttonworks in the U.S., the Wilbur E. Boyd Factory at Meredosia  on the Illinois River, closed in 1948.  Iowa’s button industry hung on until the mid-1990s, when Chinese innovations in pearl cultivation finally caused it to collapse.

Wabash Valley Visions & Voices has uploaded a rich oral history interview with Arlow Brazeal of Newport, Indiana.  Brazeal, who died in 2000, recalled the last days of commercial musseling on the Wabash and Vermillion Rivers after he began fishing there in the 1930s.


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