Eugene Debs was arrested on 4 August 1894 at the House Briggs by federal soldiers, along with the rest of the Chicago Workers’ council.
Carried out of the city, where sporadic fighting still raged, he was imprisoned at Fort Sheridan, along with his comrades.
It was now the government had to decide what to do with him.
The answer was quite clear to most of respectable society. The San Francisco Examiner
tartly opined that “we shall either have to…hang Debs or make him king.” Harper’s Weekly
imagined “a new pantheon of American traitors, with Davis and Debs at the left and right hands of Arnold.”
In fact, the conviction that Debs ought to swing from the highest tree in the land seemed one of the very few shared by nearly all voices in the political mainstream, Democratic and Republican alike. Certainly, the captains of industry who felt personally threatened by the chaos of what was already coming to be called ‘Red ‘94’, were unanimous in their condemnation of the ‘anarchist Debs’. John Morgan warned that ‘such radicals…threaten to undo the best government on earth.’
It is difficult to overstate the feeling of terror that gripped so many in the wake of those weeks. No educated American was unfamiliar with the horrors of the French Terror, or of the Paris Commune that succeeded it. In the bloodshed and flames of Chicago, San Francisco, or New Orleans, they saw the harbinger of that selfsame anarchy here in their own country. The dissolution of constitutional government and a plunge into mob rule seemed disturbingly plausible.
But Debs had his supporters, too, and they were just as fierce as his foes.
The Appeal to Reason
, a newly formed socialist periodical, making sardonic light of the country’s ongoing obsession with sectional ‘reconciliation’ in the wake of the still-recent civil war, demanded that Debs ‘receive the treatment due to vicious traitors such as the architects of the late southern rebellion—that is, that he be set at liberty immediately, taken for a bold and noble hero, and embraced as a brother.” Speaking more seriously, it went on to denounce Cleveland, Pullman, and the soldiers who had put down the workers as ‘the only men who ought to be on trial for their lives—for they are traitors not only to their countrymen, but to all the decent sentiments of humanity itself.’
The People’s Voice
, mouthpiece of the left-leaning Populist Party took a more guarded line, but asked ‘can Debs in fact shoulder all the blame for the horror? Is the government guiltless? Was it Eugene Debs who turned the great guns of the United States Army on Chicago and New Orleans?’.
For many Americans, those who labored twelve hours daily in the grim mills or soot-drenched factory yards of the great cities, the bloodshed of that summer was a harbinger, not of looming anarchy and devastation, but of a renewed liberty and a world that might be.
Like their more conservative counterparts, these hopeful individuals considered the Paris Commune or the European Spring of Nations as they pertained to the recent carnage; but considered them with a sense of hope and admiration.
It was soon said that a cheaply printed sheet bearing the music and lyrics of the ‘Internationale
’ could be picked up from any gutter in Chicago.
Even as letters poured in to the Executive Mansion demanding Debs and his fellow conspirators be punished ‘to the fullest extent of the law’, the man’s supporters set up ‘Debs clubs’ across the country to proclaim his innocence, and to more generally discuss the obstacles facing American labor, and the vague, but shining dream of socialism.
More than one physical altercation resulted as a result of this terrible division—in Mobile Alabama, a group of drunken young men returning from a ‘Debs club’ meeting assaulted a local shopkeeper known to be unfriendly to organized labor, dragging him from his bed and nearly beating him to death in front of his screaming wife. In Denver, a self-appointed ‘Citizens’ Defense Militia’ panicked and fired into a crowd of miners rallying in support of Debs, severely injuring five men.
Cleveland himself despaired that ‘it seemed half the country was in sympathy with the insurgents’. In fact, his popularity had taken a severe hit in all corners. Even among those who believed that his decision to call in federal forces had been the right one, he was widely denounced for the evident incompetence that had created such a situation in which it was necessary
to employ the US Army thus. In the weeks between July and November, Cleveland and the Democratic Party hemorrhaged support. They found few friends, certainly not among those sympathetic to the strikers, and not even many among those unsympathetic
. By November 1894, Eugene Debs was almost certainly more popular among Americans than President Cleveland.
As for Debs himself, he languished in Fort Sheridan, awaiting the verdict on his fate. The man fully expected he would be put to death, and so began putting his own affairs in order. He outlined his own version of events, stating emphatically that ‘neither I, nor anyone else, wanted the strike, much less what followed. We were left without choice.’ He denied any role in organizing the Chicago ‘commune’ (as it was coming to be called), insisting that the delegates to the council had been chosen and elected by local factory and workshop committees (as was indeed the case), and that his position as chairman had been almost entirely ceremonial (not quite true). He stated emphatically in a letter to his wife, ‘I am no insurrectionist’. However, he qualified, ‘there is such a thing…as a just insurrection.’
He recommended George Howard, also under arrest, to lead the ARU after his death, though he knew full well the union was in shambles and unlikely to ever recover. He excoriated Samuel Gompers for his ‘treason’ in refusing to support the general strike or even to speak out in favor of the workers ‘butchered’ by federal troops.
Interestingly, even as Debs became the center of a national storm of opprobrium and acclamation, the other significant figure of the rising went strangely unnoticed. That was the man who was still technically governor of Ilinois, John Altgeld. He had been arrested soon after the workers’ council, and now sat in Fort Sheridan alongside Debs.
Perhaps it was that he was foreign-born, and therefore ‘expected’ to side with radicals. Or perhaps it was his pre-existing reputation as a friend of labor, as opposed to Debs who seemed to have exploded from nowhere and caught the eyes of the nation.
Regardless, Altgeld simply did not capture the public imagination the way Debs did.
Eventually, after months of national deliberation, it was decided to bring both men, as well as their less recognizable co-conspirators, up on charges of sedition, insurrection, and treason against the United States of America.
Altgeld was tried first, in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, presided over by Federal Judge Grosscup, the same man who’d enforced the government’s injunction against the strikers months earlier. The trial began on 8 February 1895.
It was a stormy affair, though nowhere near the circus Debs’ trial would become. The prosecution averred his treason lay in summoning state militia to do battle with US troops. He insisted he had acted entirely in his capacity as governor in calling out the militia to protect the ‘demonstrators’ in Haymarket Square, and had no intention they should ever open fire on anyone, much less on federal soldiers.
When asked who the militia might have been protecting the assembled crowd from, if not the troops, he answered, ‘disorder’.
The prosecution fired back that, even if he had
only called out the militia to maintain order in the square, since as far as the government was concerned, the ‘demonstrators’ were by this point already insurrectionists and rebels, he was still
guilty of treason in giving them aid.
The trial lasted two weeks, and the jury deliberated for two hours before returning a verdict of guilty on all counts.
Upon being sentenced to hang, Altgeld stood and bowed.
Debs’ trial commenced a month later, on 10 March.
1,000 troops were called out to defend the courthouse as he was brought back into Chicago, where the walls were still pockmarked with bullets. Several men were detained on various occasions attempting to enter the building with firearms. Some evidently intended to assassinate the defendant; others to free him.
Debs was struck with the same charges as Altgeld: sedition, insurrection, and treason. The Socialist Labor Party, which Debs had joined while imprisoned, and which had eagerly accepted him, helped furnish as counsel country lawyer Clarence Darrow. Darrow had in fact been an attorney for the Northwestern Railway, and for this reason Debs initially mistrusted him. But Darrow soon proved his sincerity, taking the case at severely reduced rates, claiming to have been disgusted by the government and the railroad’s dealings with the strikers.
Finding a jury proved exceedingly difficult, as there was not a man in the country without a strong opinion on Eugene Debs one way or the other. When one was finally selected, it had to be replaced once it was discovered three of the men had received bribes from ‘mysterious interests’ to decide against Debs.
The prosecution charged that Debs had come to Chicago with the express intent of fomenting rebellion and establishing ‘a commune’ in the city. To answer this, Darrow presented evidence of his client’s past conservatism, his previous distaste for striking, and the inability of any investigator to find that ‘he had ever spoken a revolutionary word’. He also shot down many of the more hysterical rumors that had swirled in the aftermath of what was already being called 'Red Summer'. He pointed out that it was not true the Workers' Council had replaced the Stars and Stripes with the red flag, nor that it had ordered a general expropriation of private property.
Debs sometimes did not help his own case when he made it clear that, though he had certainly once been a rather cautious partisan of labor, the savagery of the previous summer had radicalized him further than he had ever imagined possible.
When the prosecution again insisted he was a revolutionist, Debs said once more that he ‘deplored bloodshed’ but imagined ‘it is inevitable one day there will be a great commonwealth of toil over this land, or else the despotism on display in Chicago and New Orleans will become general. There is no other option.’
The comment hardly reassured his detractors and irked Darrow. Later, the lawyer claimed that, though he did not believe Debs wanted to die, at times it seemed as if he did not care if he did. Eventually, during his final presidential run, Darrow would opine that Debs had suffered from an extreme guilt, feeling himself responsible for what the strike had become.
Samuel Gompers (who had himself been briefly arrested in the aftermath of the rising, though he was quickly released when it was made clear he was no revolutionist), though Debs had already disavowed him as a traitor, testified for the defense, affirming that, though Debs had favored the general strike, it had only been with extreme reluctance, and that he had certainly displayed no inclination towards or desire for violence.
At a certain point, a spectator called Gompers a ‘filthy Yid’, upon which the old trade unionist leapt from the dock and struck the man in the face.
When asked why he had remained in Chicago after the rising had broken, if he was not its director, or at least one of them, Debs answered that he felt duty bound to stick by the workers until the end. This was certainly not what his counsel wanted to hear, with Darrow hoping to argue that he had simply feared to attempt any flight in the midst of such savage fighting.
On 25 March, two weeks into the trial, the proceedings were interrupted when a group of four railwaymen, armed with knives and two pistols, managed to gain entry into the courthouse, hoping to liberate Debs. They were seized quickly, but not before managing to squeeze off a few shots. No one was injured, and Darrow joked wryly that the men had ‘sought—rather poorly—to make my case for me.’
In the end, Darrow failed to make his case that Debs had been largely carried along by events beyond his control and was not the revolutionary mastermind depicted in the papers. He had
chaired the workers’ council after all, and he stubbornly refused to disavow the rising.
The jury went into recess on 30 March and deliberated for ten hours. By a single vote, it returned a verdict of guilty on all counts.
Eugene V. Debs was sentenced to death—Darrow’s one great victory was swaying the court to allow his client to escape the noose in favor of his preferred method of the firing squad.
When the heterogenous crowd outside was made aware of the sentence, it imploded as those who cheered attacked those who hooted and vice versa. The soldiers dispersed the crowd by force with two deaths.
1894’s congressional elections hit the Democrats hard. The waffle, unsatisfying nature of Cleveland’s administration certainly played some role in this—he had alienated western silverites with his repeal of the Silver Act and angered many industrialists and urban workers with his repeal of long-existing tariffs, but it is unlikely the walloping the Democratic Party received that year would have been nearly so crushing were it not for the bloody events of that summer.
At the polls, the Democrats found themselves roundly rejected in just about every region.
Certainly, the Republicans benefited from the collapse of their old nemeses. In the House, the Democrats lost an astonishing 182 seats, leaving them with a devastating 62 congressmen. The Republicans received a handsome spoil of 83 new seats, bringing their total to 210. This was not bad for a party that only eight years before had seemed on the brink of death.
But the real winners were the Populists, the silver-minded, western-oriented farmer’s party that proudly proclaimed itself the sworn enemy of eastern business interests and elite corruption in both of the great parties.
In the weeks following the risings, Populist candidates had taken a decisively condemnatory stance on Cleveland’s administration. While few went so far as to say that the rebel workers had been in the right, or that Debs ought to be set free, it was consensus in the party that the brutal suppression of the ‘communes’ had been unforgivable cruelty on part of the government.
The Populists more than quadrupled their portion of the vote in 1890 and ‘92 and swept into the house with 50 seats. This was attributed then, probably accurately, almost entirely to the effects of the risings. Whatever support Cleveland might have picked up from Republicans or other conservative elements who admired a policy that was ‘tough on radicals’ was more than wiped out by the massive defection from their working class and immigrant constituencies.
As a Populist mayoral candidate in Colorado put it, “the Democrats have hung the workingman out to dry…so now the workingman will hang the Democrats out to dry.”
They swept the Midwest, taking majorities in Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, and made significant gains in other states such as California and Minnesota.
They had even cracked the Democratic south, picking up a majority of the 5 seats in Alabama, 3 in Louisiana, 5 more in Georgia, and taking every seat in North Carolina, save one, which went to Richmond Pearson, a Republican.
They also picked up three new senators in Alabama, North Carolina, and Kansas, respectively, bringing their total to 8.
It was certainly cause for celebration, and celebrated it was in Populist strongholds across the country.
Another party gained as well, and one that loomed far more ominously in the minds of many than the populists; in 1894, the Socialist Labor Party entered congress for the first time, with an impressive showing of 7 seats in the House, including Daniel de Leon at the beginning of his stormy congressional career. Partisans supposed their returns may have been even higher had not New Orleans, Chicago, and San Francisco, still under martial law in November of 1894, been barred from voting.
Unlike the populists, the Socialists did not shy away from apology for the ‘risings’. Their speeches and sloganeering were replete with demands that justice be done for the ‘martyrs of Chicago and New Orleans’, and denunciations of ‘gory Grover’, the ‘hireling of the great lords of mine, rail, and steel’. The SLP proudly advertised itself as ‘the party of Debs’, who had officially joined from his cell in Fort Sheridan. It demanded his release and acquittal, along with the releases and acquittals of all those arrested for some part in the summer’s chaos, which numbered nearly 6,000 across the nation. It was the appeal of this uncompromising sentiment among many workers and angry dissidents, more than any reasoned attachment to socialist ideals, that seems to have been behind their astounding gains that fall. The fact that they were the only party affirming, without qualification, that the rebels of the Red Summer had been in the right, gave them a significant leg up over any opposition in certain quarters.
In many places, especially the south, the populists and socialists (and occasionally even the Republicans) ran on joint-tickets—though they were not necessarily in perfect accord. The growing base of the SLP was industrial laborers in the cities of the north and miners in the west, many of these men recent immigrants who often spoke little English. That of the populists was farmers in the south and Midwest, most of them old-stock Americans with a deep-rooted attachment to the land and soil. But for the moment, they stuck by each other and tempered any simmering criticisms, more than aware there remained two goliaths to be struck down.
The shift in the Senate was less dramatic, but still eye-catching; the Republicans picked up 4 seats, all formerly Democrat.
The short of it was that the elections of 1894 had all but destroyed the Democratic Party, mollified the long-suffering Republicans, and catapulted two former nonentities to a prominence many found portentous, and unnervingly so.
8 April, 1895
It was a cold morning, and Eugene Debs demanded a thicker jacket. It was on the same grounds on which King Charles asked for a coat, centuries before—so that the trembling induced by the stiff winter breeze would not be taken for fear.
The request was granted, Debs, slipped into the heavy woolen article, and trudged out of the prison house into the gravelly courtyard. Two bluecoated soldiers flanked him on either side. Their bayonets glinted in the early sunlight. The condemned towered over them both.
An attendant officer stepped forward, holding a length of black crepe. Debs compliantly turned and allowed the cloth to be pulled tight around his eyes and fastened at the base of his skull. Held gently by the bindings around his wrists, he was led to the far wall. The very same officer affixed the crisp little patch of white paper to Debs’ lapel, just over his heart.
If that heart began to beat faster, none noticed, and the man himself certainly did not acknowledge it. The soldiers took up positions, performing last minute inspections of their weapons, setting their booted feet at proper angles for a solid, unwavering shot.
The little gang of reporters gathered in the corner watched, enraptured. The crowd was small. Only a small coterie of prison officials, and a number of federal representatives had shown to watch the proceedings. The public was not permitted entry, as it had been to the hanging of ex-governor Altgeld two weeks prior.
Debs reached the far wall and was briskly turned. He was offered a cigarette and declined it. He had been offered the services of a priest or a reverend that morning and declined them. The officer offered them once more.
“I’ll thank you not to ask me, again,” Debs said, curtly.
The officer said nothing and backed off.
“Anything more to say, sir?” he asked.
The reporters crowded in, though Debs could not see them, now. The wind bit at the exposed skin of his face and neck. He shivered, though thankfully not to the point it was noticeable through the thick coat.
Debs swallowed, nodded, and then raised his head and spoke. With his vision obscured, it was if he was already staring—and speaking—into the void.
He spoke with enough measurement that it was clear he had prepared in mind at least the essence of the final address beforehand in his cell, but there was enough tremor in the voice it was just as clear that to continue in the face of the guns took considerable fortitude.
“John Brown went to Harpers Ferry knowing he might very well lose his life in the action. I can’t claim the same kind of conviction—I didn’t go to Chicago meaning to die for it. But like John Brown, I’ve come to see that 'the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but with blood'.” He paused briefly. “Go on and fire.”
The crack of the rifles split the cool morning air.