Chapter Three

We May Not Always Be So Secure


ALL DURING THE LATE SUMMER of 1870, as Chicago’s economy roared on, readers of the city’s dailies had intently followed news of the Franco-Prussian War: first the stunning news of the French army’s defeat at Sedan, and then the capture of Napoleon III and the fall of his empire. Chicagoans pondered these events in the Old World with the assurance that their bloody war was behind them and that peace and prosperity now reigned.

In September all eyes turned to Paris, where citizens rushed to join a democratized National Guard and to defend their city when it fell under siege. When an armistice was signed in January of 1871, Parisians denounced it and crowds marched to the Bastille flying the tricolor and the red flag of the International. Within a month “a mysterious authority made itself felt in Paris” as vigilance committees appeared throughout the city. In March, just as the French army seemed ready to restore order, even more sensational news appeared in the dailies: the people of Paris were refusing to surrender their arms. Indeed, when French generals ordered the Parisian National Guard to disarm, the guardsmen turned their guns on their own army generals. Government forces withdrew to Versailles, now the seat of a new provisional government, and on March 28 the citizens of the former capital created an independent Commune of Paris. Americans were utterly fascinated by this news, and the press fed their hunger for information about the momentous event. As a result, the Commune became an even bigger story than the Franco-Prussian War had been.1

When the French army laid siege to Paris and hostilities began, the Chicago Tribune’s reporters covered the fighting much as they had during the American Civil War. Indeed, many Americans, notably Republican leaders like Senator Charles Sumner, identified with the citizens of Paris who were fighting to create their own republic against the forces of a corrupt regime whose leaders had surrendered abjectly to the Iron Duke and his Prussian forces.

As the crisis deepened, however, American newspapers increasingly portrayed the Parisians as communists who confiscated property and as atheists who closed churches.The brave citizens of Paris, first described as rugged democrats and true republicans, now seemed more akin to the uncivilized elements that threatened America—the “savage tribes” of Indians on the plains and the “dangerous classes” of tramps and criminals in the cities. When the Commune’s defenses broke down on May 21, 1871, the Chicago Tribune hailed the breach of the city walls. Comparing the Communards to the Comanches who raided the Texas frontier, its editors urged the “mowing down” of rebellious Parisians “without compunction or hesitation.”3

La semaine sanglante—the week of blood—had begun as regular army troops took the city street by street, executing citizen soldiers of the Parisian National Guard as soon as they surrendered. In retaliation, the Communards killed scores of hostages and burned large sections of the city to the ground. By the time the killing ended, at least 25,000 Parisians, including many unarmed citizens, had been slaughtered by French army troops.4

These cataclysmic events in France struck Americans as amazing and distressing. The bloody disaster cried out for explanation. In response, a flood of interpretations appeared in the months following the civil war in France. Major illustrated weeklies published lurid drawings of Paris scenes, of buildings gutted by fire, monuments toppled, churches destroyed and citizens executed, including one showing the death of a “petroleuse”—a red-capped, bare-breasted woman accused of incendiary acts. Cartoonist Thomas Nast drew a picture of what the Commune would look like in an American city. Instant histories were produced, along with dime novels, short stories, poems and then, later in the fall, theatricals and artistic representations in the form of panoramas.5

News of the Commune seemed exotic to most Americans, but some commentators wondered if a phenomenon like this could appear in one of their great cities, such as New York or Chicago, where vast hordes of poor immigrants held mysterious views of America and harbored subversive elements in their midst.One of these observers, Henry Ward Beecher, the most influential clergyman in the nation, preached a widely reported sermon in which he reviewed the wantonness of the destruction in Paris and likened it to the terrors of the French Revolution. He trusted that the religious faith of Americans would prevent such a godless outbreak in our cities. The nation would be spared the terror that afflicted Paris as long as America remained without an aristocracy, as long as it maintained a free press and offered free education, as long as it was blessed with cheap land for farming; but Beecher also warned his fellow citizens: “we may not always be so secure.” He feared that an eruption like the one in Paris might someday occur here if the country stratified itself as European nations had, and if the upper classes did not show more concern for the poor.7

Andrew Cameron devoted a great deal of attention to the Commune and its meaning in his Workingman’s Advocate.Without comment, he ran in serial form sections of Karl Marx’s Civil War in France, a fervid and favorable portrayal of the Communards.Cameron did not endorse the revolutionary methods Marx espoused; nor did he excuse the incendiary acts of the Parisian street fighters. He did, however, tell his American readers that the people of the Commune “fought and fell for the rights you either enjoy or are striving for, i.e., the right for self-government and the rights of the laborer to the fruits of his toil.” He concluded by quoting Wendell Phillips, the abolitionist-turned-labor-reformer, who had declared: “Scratch the surface . . . in every city on the American continent and you will find the causes which created the Commune.” 10

BY THE TIME summer turned to fall in 1871, discussion of the Commune had disappeared from the press. The talk was all about business, because Chicagoans were enjoying another year of the sort of borrowing and investing, speculating and moneymaking that attracted hordes of newcomers each month. Banks recklessly lent money to entrepreneurs who were seriously depleting the cash reserves they held against liabilities, but business confidence kept rising, and still the city’s economy seemed destined to grow relentlessly and to create enough wealth for all. Despite widening class divisions, Chicago’s people shared a sense of pride in their thriving city. So many of the city’s self-made men had risen from low estate that poor folks could believe that they too would be beneficiaries of Chicago’s rapidly expanding wealth.11

In one night of horror, on October 8, 1871, all these dreams went up in smoke when most of the city burned to the ground in a fierce whirlwind of fire that reduced 17,450 buildings to ashes. The fire started in a miserable slum of wooden shacks around DeKoven Street on the West Side and quickly leapt the Chicago River, devastating the entire downtown business district and most of the North Side up to Lincoln Park. Humble workers’ dwellings and marble mansions on the North Side, factories, lumberyards, banks, even City Hall and the Tribune building—all were incinerated by the holocaust. One hundred twenty corpses were found in the vast burned-over district, and many more bodies of missing persons were never recovered. Chicago, “unequalled before in enterprise and good fortune,” said one newspaper, was now “unapproachable in calamity.”12

An immense body of literature appeared as writers struggled to make sense of the tragedy. Many survivors said the Great Chicago Fire had created a communal sense of shared suffering in which personal suspicions and social distinctions disappeared and in which the virtues of Christianity and democracy prevailed. Few escaped the suffering, and for a few harrowing days the rich and the poor stood on common ground.13

Yet these inspiring stories of people coping together with a great disaster were overshadowed by horror stories of evil demons let loose in the chaos. The Chicago Evening Post said the blaze released “obscene birds of the night” from the city’s worst districts: villainous men, “haggard with debauch . . . shameless white men, negroes with stolid faces” glided through the fleeing masses “like vultures in search of prey.” Poor women with tattered dresses, hollow eyes and brazen faces “moved here and there, stealing . . . and laughing with one another at some particularly ‘splendid’ gush of flame.” There were reports of riffraff actually fanning the flames and spreading the fire, and of aroused citizens lynching looters and arsonists. These accounts—all fabricated—fed nascent fears of the outcasts who dwelled deep in the city’s bowels among the “dangerous classes.”14

While some newspapers spread wild rumors about demon arsonists and avenging vigilantes, one editor turned boldly to the task ahead. The day after the fire, Joseph Medill headlined the Tribune with the words CHICAGO MUST RISE AGAIN. This command thrilled the nation and evoked the ethos that made the city great, a symbol of the age. But the bravado of confident city leaders like Medill masked a fear that their city remained vulnerable to another cataclysm.15 Chicagoans could not bring themselves to believe that the devastating holocaust was simply an act of God or a curse of Satan. They suspected that certain human beings within the city itself were responsible, people who refused to live by the Yankee values and Protestant ethics the city’s leaders espoused. Unless the best men took action and removed the city’s corrupt politicians from the scene, the catastrophe might be followed by thieving, rioting and, something worse, anarchy.16


A drawing from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper in which the artist imagines the chaos and social leveling that followed the Chicago fire

While the fire’s embers still smoldered, several downtown businessmen hired an ambitious Scottish immigrant named Allan Pinkerton to post armed men as guards around their property. Already well known for his Civil War activity protecting President Lincoln and sending spies behind enemy lines, Pinkerton ordered his guards to shoot any person stealing or attempting to steal. Two days after the event, a larger group of large property owners convinced the Republican mayor to place the city under martial law. The Civil War hero and Indian fighter General Philip Sheridan quickly took charge of militia and regular regiments. The elected police commissioner, an Irish Catholic with a labor constituency, protested this usurpation of his authority, as did the governor of Illinois, who said the mayor’s order violated the state’s rights, but to no avail. Chicago’s ruling elites meant to demonstrate their power and extend their control over the city in this critical period.17

As prominent Chicagoans acted to discourage any kind of disorder, they speculated endlessly on what caused the fire. The most popular story blamed a poor Irish woman, Mrs. O’Leary, for allowing her cow to kick over a lantern in her barn—a legendary account that placed responsibility on the shoulders of the lower-class immigrants. A. C. Cameron objected to these attempts to blame the main victims of the fire—the working people who were the largest element of the 64,000 people left homeless. Unlike well-connected merchant and professional families, these poor people usually had no friends or relatives to shelter them in the outlying neighborhoods and nearby. The dispossessed stood hunched over in soup lines and gathered around campfires where they boiled fetid water hoping to escape cholera and typhoid. At night they tried to sleep in tents on the charred prairie grounds as packs of dogs and rats hovered around them in the dark.18

Other commentators looked outside Chicago to find the cause of the disaster, which reminded them of the horrible blazes set by the desperate Communards in their last days; they wondered aloud if there was a connection. One imaginative writer suggested that a “firebird” had risen out of the Paris ashes and flown over the ocean to deliver a “scourge upon the queen city of the West.” The Chicago Times even printed a “confession” of a “Communist incendiary” who had been sent from Paris by the Communist International to stir up strife between the mechanics of the city and their employers.19

Tribune editor Medill conceded that many people believed communists were “a secret power” working to undermine society, but he dismissed this confession as a phony. Furthermore, he explained, Marx’s International had been nearly destroyed after the fall of the Commune. In any case, he added, he knew American members of the body, and they included more reformers than incendiaries. “The crowning evil of all times of tumult and disaster is suspicion,” Medill opined. The Communist International had become the “great bugbear of modern times,” but only timid men relied upon simple explanations for every calamity. Bold men assessed the real causes and set about eliminating them.20

Like other business leaders, the Tribune editor found more mundane but nonetheless troublesome explanations for the Great Fire. The much-despised ward politicians, the “bummers” who controlled the city’s council of aldermen and its zoning practices, had allowed poor working people to occupy a forest of pine dwellings that provided ample fuel to feed the holocaust.21 Thus, even while he dismissed the rumor that a communist set the fire, Medill indicated that the irresponsible immigrants were to blame for the blaze having leapt across the river from a shantytown and laid waste to the business district.22


Joseph Medill

LESS THAN A MONTH after the fire Joseph Medill mounted a reform campaign for mayor, declaring he was “unalterably opposed from this time forward to the erection of a single wooden building within the limits of Chicago.” 23 In November of 1871 he won an easy victory on the Union Fireproof Reform ticket. The new mayor promised that the poor would be fed and that the city would be rebuilt safely with fireproof construction.24 Medill’s plans to protect the city soon backfired, however. His attack on irresponsible home builders smacked of class prejudice in the minds of middle-class and working-class residents who said they could not afford to build brick homes that cost twice as much as wooden dwellings. As a result, they would be compelled to sell their land to “greedy land speculators” at “ruinous prices.”25 Their rhetorical response was soon followed, suddenly and unexpectedly, by mass action when a huge crowd composed largely of law-abiding Germans from the North and West sides stormed the Common Council chamber to protest the mayor’s reform. The protesters were especially angry because they had worked hard and saved enough money to achieve the highest level of home ownership in the city, higher, in fact, than that of native-born Americans. Appealing to their immigrant aldermen, the foreign-born home owners easily created enough opposition in the Common Council to prevent Medill from banning all low-cost wooden housing.26

Before the furor over the housing ban died down, immigrant Chicago rose again, almost as one body, to stop another ill-fated reform. In 1873 a Committee of Seventy composed of leading citizens and clergymen convinced Mayor Medill to order the city’s thousands of saloons to close on Sunday afternoon, a time when foreign-born workingmen loved to congregate in their favorite public drinking houses.27 As a result, immigrant Chicago was thoroughly aroused. “Great, suffocating, mass meetings were held in every ward, every precinct,” wrote one reporter, “and the Medill administration was everywhere denounced, lampooned, ridiculed, excoriated” by leaders of a new polyglot People’s Party formed entirely for the purpose of removing the haughty Yankee mayor from City Hall.28

In the November 1873 city elections the new People’s Party swept Joseph Medill from office, pulling thousands of new working-class voters to the polls.29 The city’s socialists, who emerged from the underground during the protests against City Hall, were suddenly encouraged, believing that they could form a labor party that might win an election in the future. A Swedish socialist said that the election had been a rude awakening for Medill and other people who came to Chicago from New England and had no idea that there was a “working class among them.”30

Yet, after gaining office, People’s Party officials refused to rock the boat. The Common Council not only refrained from raising taxes; the new populist mayor neglected to collect back taxes from delinquent property owners. In a city where property ruled, large landowners, bankers, speculators, merchants and manufacturers effectively blocked any civic measures they regarded as too costly.31

Even though they lost control of City Hall in 1873, Chicago’s top businessmen remained confident that the laissez-faire policies they favored would prevail and would restore the city’s economic power. Their confidence was rewarded when commercial and industrial activity rebounded, and businesses turned greater profits than they had before the Great Fire. Chicago had conquered disaster in a way that expressed to the London Times the “concentrated essence of Americanism.”32

In this heady atmosphere the specter of the fire-breathing Communards faded. No commune could appear in this gifted city, opined the Tribune, because American workers had no inclination to turn against the rich and powerful. All the typical wage earner wanted or needed was a comfortable home and a larger wage; because these desires could be easily met, it would be impossible for a commune to arise in Chicago.33

THE CONFIDENCE OF Chicago’s leading men held firm even after a financial panic struck in the East during the fall of 1873; and it prevailed when city bankers called in loans they had recklessly made to speculators and entrepreneurs. There was no way of escaping panic, however, when twenty big banks failed, along with nearly all of the city’s savings institutions, sweeping away large fortunes and small accounts alike. The business palsy spread further when railroads and factories dismissed employees and slashed wages. New construction, which had raced ahead in the postfire years, slowed to a crawl. And it was clear that the city’s miraculous reconstruction period had ended.34

As conditions worsened during the fall, Chicago’s working people looked for food where they could find it, begging for it on the streets or crowding saloons for free lunches. When Thanksgiving arrived, the streets were crowded with tramps, and police station basements were filled every night with homeless wanderers. Still, not a ripple of unrest appeared in this river of dispossessed humanity.

Then, on December 21, 1873, an unexpected event disturbed the calm. On that cold evening more than 5,000 workers squeezed into Vorwärts Turner Hall on the West Side for a meeting to demand aid for the unemployed and their hungry families. Organized by German socialists who had formed a workers’ association, the meeting featured speakers in English, German, Norwegian, French and Polish; all of them demanded that the city find work for those who were willing and able to labor. Furthermore, the protesters insisted that aid should be provided for the rest from the municipal treasury and that such aid should be distributed by a committee appointed by workers, not by the agents of businessmen who controlled the Chicago Relief and Aid Society, the private charitable association assigned to the task by the mayor when millions of dollars in aid money had poured into the city after the fire.

The society carefully investigated the lives of job applicants to make sure they were not pretending to be needy. The principle was that benevolence toward the poor should not derive from sympathy or pity, but from a well-considered strategy for reforming the indigent through work. The relief society abided by a simple rule: “He who does not work does not eat.”35 When the depression hit two years after the fire, the society, which still retained large sums of fire relief money, became a target of protest.

Those attending the Turner Hall protest meeting on December 21, 1873, demanded that the city recover funds still held by the Relief and Aid Society, whose directors they criticized for allowing rings of speculators to use the money for corrupt purposes while denying it to the distressed and impoverished. The protesters appointed a committee to deliver their demands to City Hall; and, to make a bigger impression, they called for a delegation of unemployed workingmen to accompany their spokesmen. The response to this plea startled all Chicago.

The next evening 20,000 workingmen of various nationalities assembled and then formed up behind the committee of eight, ready to march downtown. “The whole working-class population seemed magically to have drawn together,” wrote the journalist Floyd Dell. “There appeared to be no leaders, but the men fell into orderly lines; and they marched, sometimes hand in hand, as a funeral procession to city hall.” Many carried banners that read BREAD OR WORK. To astonished observers the solemn procession looked more like a well-drilled and disciplined military body than a crowd of protesters. This unprecedented march of the unemployed made a huge impression on the city councilmen, composed mostly of immigrant aldermen, and on the mayor, who had been elected as a candidate of the People’s Party.36

The city was “entirely unprepared for anything of the kind,” declared Horace White, the liberal Republican who succeeded Medill as editor of the Tribune. “The fraternization of immigrants of different nativities is not often observed in America,” the editor explained. If they ever united, it would not be “for love of one another” but in “opposition to some common enemy” and in favor of some attainment that they all want “but which, divided, they are powerless to obtain.”37 Even more amazing was the protesters’ demand for “bread or work,” which struck the city “like lightning from a clear, blue sky.” As far as White knew, nothing like this had ever been proposed by Americans. The new coalition of foreign nationalities obviously had some alien, un-American objective in mind, for it was led by men with ideas “wild and subversive of society itself.”38

The unemployed movement’s leaders pressed their case for days thereafter, and newspaper editors, previously unaware of the socialists’ presence in the city, felt compelled to answer the demands and arguments of the so-called internationals. The Tribune called attention to a particularly dangerous new idea the socialists introduced—“the right to work.” If the government provided work for the unemployed, these workingmen would lose any “inducement to take care of themselves.” The socialists had been fooled by reading Karl Marx, whose writings had persuaded them to reject what the paper called the “immutable laws of our political economy.” In so doing, they were acting like the Mohammedans who rejected Christianity.39

The city’s businessmen refused to debate with the socialists; they were men of action, not men of words, and they were determined to prevent any more intimidating marches of the unemployed, or any repeat of the frightening general strike they experienced in May of 1867. With these concerns in mind, a group of important entrepreneurs gathered the following April to make plans to create their own militia company. These activists included many of the city’s top hundred merchants, manufacturers, bankers and lawyers who had earlier formed a Citizens’ Association; its leaders now began to raise the first funds needed to arm and outfit a businessmen’s militia unit, called the First Regiment of the Illinois National Guard.

The new association’s leaders also prepared to move against the incumbent People’s Party, whose officials, including the city’s Irish police commissioner, seemed far too sympathetic to the socialist-led demonstrators. The president, a wholesale merchant, declared that an excess of democracy had put “political power in the hands of the baser part of the community” and disenfranchised “the best part.” The Citizens’ Association would provide the organization these “best men” needed to take their city back from the bummers of the People’s Party, who were branded by the Chicago Times as a bunch of “pimps, grogshop loafers, communist lazzaroni and other political deadbeats.”40

The socialists nursed their own grievances against People’s Party officials whose sympathy for the unemployed was not matched with any action. Therefore, socialist leaders decided to create an organization to sustain the movement for public relief and public works. In February of 1874 they founded the Workingmen’s Party of Illinois, composed of ten German clubs as well as individual Bohemian, Polish, Irish and Scandinavian clubs. The party then established a German weekly newspaper, Der Vorbote, and put up socialist candidates to challenge the Republican machine in North Town during the spring elections.41

Chicago’s German socialists maintained links with the International Workingmen’s Association, which Karl Marx had directed from London until he and Friedrich Engels decided to move its headquarters to New York in 1872. The International’s original stronghold in Paris had been destroyed along with the Commune, and in the aftermath Marx and Engels feared a takeover by anarchists loyal to their rival, the charismatic Russian insurrectionist Mikhail Bakunin.42

Ideological disputes among European Marxists and anarchists meant little in Chicago, however. Local socialists ignored commands from Marx’s lieutenants in New York and charted their own course, plunging into electoral politics, opening their ranks to lawyers, saloonkeepers and tradesmen, and welcoming women who had been discouraged by the expulsion of the feminists Victoria Woodhull and Tennessee Claflin from the New York section. When a group of Chicagoans formed an English-speaking section of the International in the spring of 1874, they took on a new name, the International Working People’s Association (IWPA), because there were plenty of women who wanted to join.43

The Internationals canvassed the city’s immigrant wards in the spring elections of 1874, but Workingmen’s Party candidates failed to loosen the grip the Republicans and Democrats held over different tribes of working-class voters. After the campaign, the German socialists in the party turned away from electoral competition and adopted Karl Marx’s strategy of organizing workers: mobilizing the unemployed and building class-conscious trade unions as a basis for future political action.44

Marx’s German followers in Chicago could hardly have chosen a worse time to implement such a grand strategy. As the panic deepened, employers laid off thousands of workers and locked out union members when they resisted wage cuts. For instance, the union iron molders at McCormick’s Reaper Works struck to protest a drastic reduction in pay and held out for two months, but when the owners refused to negotiate, the strikers gave in and returned to work. The McCormicks, having demonstrated that resistance was futile, promptly slashed wages for workers in the rest of the plant. In the same year the Knights of St. Crispin, the only union to have organized factory workers, suffered a crushing defeat when shoe manufacturers locked them out and replaced them with “green hands.” Even well-paid union craftsmen who enjoyed good relations with employers suddenly felt defensive. “No sooner does a depression in the trade set in than all expressions of friendship with the toiler are forgotten,” remarked the conservative head of the iron puddlers ’ union, the Sons of Vulcan. Meanwhile, the editor of the industry journal Iron Age bluntly explained the situation as he saw it: if employers refused all concessions to unions and forced wages down to the lowest rates, simple workingmen would realize that they had been misled by demagogues and agitators who defied the “beneficent natural laws of progress and development.”45

Newspaper editors also defended wage cuts, not just as economic necessities, but as moral instructions to misguided union workers. Employers could now take back everything they had conceded to union employees, said the New York Times, and then “bring wages down for all time.” If workers resisted with some “insane imitations of the miserable class warfare” afflicting Europe, they should be replaced by men who understood the law of supply and demand. The results of the depression were not all evil, according to the Chicago Evening Journal. It would be good if the crisis taught workers “the folly and danger of trade organizations, strikes and combinations against . . . capital.”46

Stern editorial prescriptions combined with the harsh medicine of layoffs and wage cuts were expected to cure workingmen of the delusions they acquired from socialists and trade unionists. If these remedies failed, more forceful measures should be taken. When the Workingmen’s Party organized another march on the Relief and Aid Society, its organizers were intimidated by the appearance of a large armed force of policemen reinforced by the new First Regiment, a unit comprised of militiamen who were largely clerks, bookkeepers and managers of Chicago firms. Frightened by this show of force, unemployed workers stayed off the streets.47 The call to arms issued by the Citizens’ Association reassured Chicago’s commercial and industrial leaders that the city would soon be back in the firm control of its “best men.”

DURING THE SPRING of 1874, Chicagoans could look back on five years of terrible trouble when they had endured more fear and anxiety than other urban dwellers experienced in a lifetime. During that time social tensions had been ratcheted up again and again, creating class antipathies among fellow citizens, common enough in “miserable” European cities, but previously unknown to Americans. The middle and upper classes had been frightened by the most violent general strike the nation had experienced, one that led to the worst riots a city had endured after the Civil War. Three years later Chicagoans survived the most catastrophic fire an American city had ever suffered—a disaster that leveled social distinctions and threatened the city with anarchy. After an exhilarating period of recovery and reconstruction, wealthy Chicagoans had been surprised when immigrants stormed City Hall in 1872 to protest the ban on wooden housing and public drinking on Sunday; this riotous behavior was followed late in 1873 by even more disturbing events, when the foreigners in the People’s Party won control of city government and when the socialists appeared out of nowhere to mobilize the unemployed and to make unimaginable demands for work and relief. In May of 1874 it appeared the troubles might end: the socialists had been vanquished at the polls, strikers had been put back to work and the unemployed marchers had disappeared from the streets. The police and the militia seemed to be in firm control of the city, and yet, as they faced a second year of depression, few Chicago businessmen felt relaxed.

If you find an error please notify us in the comments. Thank you!