Detroit, Michigan, March 30, 1965. Two men meet at a small press conference before the funeral of a slain civil rights activist. Their meeting seems like an unlikely pairing for us today—one a slick haired, brash, and controversial labor leader and the other a measured, eloquent, and inspirational pastor who had galvanized the civil rights movement. The former was there to present a check for $25,000 for the latter’s work on racial equality. Their stories varied tremendously but, at this moment, they intersected, manifesting all the complicated and contradictory impulses of American life during the middle of the twentieth century. Those two men were Jimmy Hoffa and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Music: “The Things That Keep Us Here” by Monomyth, “Almost A Year Ago” by John Deley and the 41 Players, “Crate Digger” by Gunnar Olsen, “Crimson Fly” by Huma-Huma, “Dreamer” by Hazy, “Eternity” by Lahar, and “I Am OK” by Vishmak
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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].”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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:
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.