Strikers, Communists, Tramps and Detectives

In this excerpt from Allan Pinkerton's Strikers, Communists, Tramps and Detectives, Pinkerton gives his opinion regarding the origin of America's Great Railway Strike of 1877.


I AM impelled to give this book to the public for what I consider two very good reasons.

The first is, because the history of the Great Strikes of '77 has not previously been produced with either truthfulness or vividness.

The second and more important reason, in my estimation, is that their cause, progress, and final demise should be so effectually grouped and so truthfully painted that their memory, thus freshened and revived, shall ever stand as a warning and preventive of their recurrence.

My aim has been to present merely the truth, so that the public might not only be able to preserve the interesting and exciting pictures and incidents of those terrible days, but also thoroughly understand the peculiar causes responsible for these outbreaks, and look squarely under the mask and in upon the inner workings of the most important of those labor organizations which invariably result in disaster to their members and ruin to themselves.

My extensive and perfected detective system has made this work easy for me, where it would hardly have been possible to other writers; for, ever since the great strikes of '77, my agencies have been busily employed by great railway, manufacturing and other corporations, for the purpose of bringing the leaders and instigators of the dark deeds of those days to the punishment they so richly deserve. Hundreds have been punished. Hundreds more will be punished.

My first purpose was to present the history of the great strikes in such a way that the effective work since done by scores of my men could be seen. But I have found this impossible, as many of the operations, begun during the very intensest excitement of the strikes, are not yet, nor will they for some time be, finished; so that it will be readily seen that their recital would prove injurious to many interests; and I have therefore been obliged to content myself with what I believe will be considered a truthful history of those troubled times, as well as of the causes creating them. Thus, while the work may lack the colloquial interest of my preceding volumes, most of the facts contained have been secured from the very same source, and have permitted the compilation of a work which may be relied upon.

In reciting these facts and considering their lesson, I believe that I of all others have earned the right to say plain things to the countless toilers who were engaged in these strikes. I say I have earned this right. I have been all my lifetime a working man. I know what it is to strive and grope along, with paltry remuneration and no encouragement save that of the hope and ambition implanted in every human heart. I have been a poor lad in Scotland, buffeted and badgered by boorish masters. I have worked weary years through the " 'prentice " period, until, by the hardest application, I conquered a trade. When this much was done, I plodded along under unfeeling bosses at this trade, both through Great Britain and in the United States and Canada. I know what it is, from personal experience, to be the tramp journeyman; to carry the stick and bundle; to seek work and not get it; and to get it, and receive but a pittance for it, or suddenly lose it altogether and be compelled to resume the weary search.

In fact, I know every bitter experience that the most laborious of laboring men have been or ever will be required to undergo, not forgetting frequent participation in "the strike;" and from it all there has come a conviction, as certain as life itself, that the workingman is never the gainer—but always the loser, by resort to the reckless intimidation and brute force which never fail to result from the secret organization of the trades-union to force capital to compensate labor to a point where the use of that capital becomes unprofitable and disastrous.

These trades-unions of every name and nature are but a relic of the old despotic days. The necessities for their creation, if they ever existed, have passed away. In American citizenship there exists all the essentials to make success in the life of every man not only possible, but probable. Every trades-union has for its vital principle, whatever is professed, the concentration of brute force to gain certain ends. Then the deadly spirit of Communism steals in and further embitters the workingman against that from which his very livelihood is secured, and gradually makes him an enemy to all law, order, and good society; whereas, were he free from these demoralizing surroundings, his whole aim would be to improve himself by every means in his power, until he became a better workman, a more faithful employee, and a more loyal and high-minded citizen. And it will be found true, the world over, that in just the proportion that all classes of workingmen refuse to be coerced and embittered by these pernicious societies, in just that proportion do they rise above their previous conditions, and reach a nobler and happier condition of life.





FROM this date, for one to look back upon the great strikes of '77, their causes and effects, it is possible for a calmer and more candid judgment to prevail. While they continued, the public mind was in a condition of unrest, excitement, and alarm. The spectacle of so vast a country as ours being even for a short time palsied, its local authorities paralyzed, its State governments powerless, and its general government almost defied, was so sudden, so universal, and so appalling, that the best judgment of our best minds were found unequal to cope with so startling and extreme an emergency.

Never before in the history of our country had there come such a swift and far-reaching peril; nor had we record of any other government being obliged to thus suddenly confront so overwhelming a danger. There was something tangible about our great Rebellion. Public expectation was to a certain degree prepared for it. For years the opposing agencies had been adjusting themselves more and more decidedly. Men at the South had become suspicious of men at the North; Northern men became antagonized in feeling and interests to Southern men. For some time previous to the beginning of hostilities the two sections had become more distinct and separate, in all that constitutes mutual respect and consideration, than two contiguous unfriendly nations. All that was needed to complete the isolation of each was the border forts and the border patrol. The public mind of each section had been to a great degree made ready for actual hostilities. They were predetermined facts. When they came, their consequences followed naturally and in consistent order; and though neither section was wholly prepared for the rapid culmination of the numberless startling and dramatic events which crowded into the four years of civil conflict, both were enabled, through this previous certainty of some sort of peril, to cope with the same with an increasing wisdom and judgment.

But how different were we situated when this last great terror came upon us, and how unusual and startling were its phases and conditions!

It was everywhere; it was nowhere. A condition of sedition which can be located, fixed, or given boundaries, may, by any ordinary community or government, be subdued. This uprising, in its far-reaching extent, was so alarmingly sudden that it seemed like the hideous growth of a night. It was as if the surrounding seas had swept in upon the land from every quarter, or some sudden central volcano had upraised its hideous head and belched forth burning rivers that coursed out upon the country in every direction. No general action for safety could be taken. Look where we might, some fresh danger was presented. No one had prophesied it; no one could prevent it; no one was found brave enough or wise enough to stop its pestilential spread. Its birth was spontaneous; its progress like a hurricane; its demise a complete farce.

But, looking over the destruction wrought, the consideration of the now clearly-established fact, that our country has arrived at such an age and condition that it contains the dormant elements which require only a certain measure of turbulent handling to at any moment again bring to the surface even a stronger and more concentrated power of violence and outlawry, becomes not only a most wise policy, but an urgent necessity.

I must confess to a close sympathy with workingmen of all classes. For quite a portion of my life I have been a laborer, while all my life I have been a workingman. I believe I can truly appreciate the struggles and trials of the intelligent laborer, and well understand the rigorous barriers that often hem him in. I also believe it cruelly unjust for any body of men, or portion of society, to hold him and his little world of labor and sacrifice and few pleasures so thoroughly at arm's length, as though it were an unclean thing to touch or to consider. To this miserable and too frequent custom it is most certain that we are indebted for a measure of the turbulent viciousness of what are termed the laboring classes.

But, on the other hand, I would as rigorously hold the workingman to his duty. With the numberless opportunities for the bettering of one's condition, which, in these times, every country, and particularly this country, affords, there is no excuse for other than a straightforward, honest, and honorable course on the part of any man, capitalist or laborer. No man who is able to labor at all, is unable, by persistent honesty and persistent frugality, to, in time, secure a fair competence and a fair measure of life's amenities and pleasures. When, then, the best experience of the years has demonstrated that capital is a necessity to labor, and all the capital of all the Rothschilds is as valueless to its possessors as so much sand when labor is not at hand to give it circulation and use, the laboring man not only does a criminal act to society, but a grievous wrong to himself and those dependent upon him, whenever he allows himself to be led into any association or combination having for its real animus—whatever its assumed objects may be—the enforcement of certain conditions and restrictions upon the use of such capital as may be employed in the extension or use of the labor upon which he may be engaged.

It is a well-known axiom that everything eventually finds its proper level. It is certainly as true that both capital and labor, in the aggregate, receive their true rewards. In exceptional cases both capital and labor are overpaid; in certain other instances they are both underpaid. But these are only exceptions; and no combination of capital on the one side, or combination of labor on the other side, to force unjust extortion from the one or the other, can ever be maintained, and is always doomed to a termination so disastrous that the eventual loss has far exceeded the immediate profits.

The mystery of all these labor troubles is that the laboring men who permit themselves to become members of trades unions do not see the danger with which they surround themselves when they assist in forming associations for compelling from their employers what their employers cannot afford to yield. They have then assumed a position of open antagonism to the existence of the very interests upon which they are utterly dependent for their own sustenance. They immediately close avenues for their own assistance, restrict the operation of those commercial forces whose untrammeled and unrestricted working are absolutely essential to the existence of all safely-conducted business and trade, and, instead of deriving any benefit from their warfare upon their employers, are invariably obliged to sustain great losses and withstand severe privation, while plunging other classes of workingmen into want and penury; for it is an invariable law, that when one great business interest is assailed by the labor it employs, capital quickly feels the approach of danger and swiftly retreats into mysterious hiding-places, leaving other business interests unable to sustain themselves. Thus thousands of other laborers are grievously wronged through the criminally unjust action of a comparatively small body of men, whose rights are in no way superior to those who have been thus injured.

It is a well-established fact that the business failures throughout the United States were more numerous for a stated period subsequent to the great July strikes of '77 than for any other like period during the four years of unprecedented business depression which preceded that time. No one will deny that they were the direct result of the strikes. Hundreds of firms, unable to withstand the additional complications which the disaster imposed, were ruined, and thousands of workmen were thrown out of employment. The strikers got nothing but idleness and its vicious results. But, even had they been benefited by a forced increase of wages, who is to compensate those thousands of workingmen that were deprived of their means of gaining a livelihood for themselves and families through the suicidal acts of those who insolently deranged the entire business of a great country?

The motto of many of these turbulent associations is "Liberty, Fraternity, Equality." What is that kind of "liberty" which is the result of a rule of force upon one class of people and interests by any other class or interest?

What manner of a "fraternity" is that where one body of workingmen combine to bring about a condition of turbulence which banishes from all classes of citizens every sentiment of fraternity and humanity in a common greed, a common suspicion, and a common desperation for self-preservation?

And what should be said of an "equality" the effect of which has invariably been ruin and dismay to employers and workingmen, when one body of workingmen appeal to the brute force and terrorism of the long strike to compel their own selfish demands?

Whatever temporary gain may be secured, the history of all strikes is one of disaster to those who participate in them. They ever have resulted, they ever will result, in not only injury to the striker, but injury to the employer, which, in time, is certain to react upon the employee; and it may be laid down as a fixed principle that no strike can ever permanently succeed. There can be no reasonable success of a riotous strike in any civilized country.

For this reason the strike of '77 was a complete failure. Although in many instances riotous excesses were not committed, the attempt of which they were all guilty—to prevent the movement of trains—made their strike as truly a riotous proceeding as the pillage, arson, and murder of Pittsburgh could have made it. By this act the strikers placed themselves in an attitude of defiance to all law and to society, and as surely arrayed law, order, and society against them. Had they won, it would have been a triumph of anarchy; and anarchy is a something impossible to exist. No community can exist save under law and order; and no riotous strike is possible of success short of revolution; while revolution itself is a failure, unless it brings to a people a still purer law and a more secure order. If workingmen who become rioters through these strikes would bear in mind that a complete success for them in these lawless ventures necessitated an utter overthrow of the government to which they owe allegiance, it is due to their intelligence to say that they would forever abandon that mode of redressing real or assumed grievances.

The strike of '77 failed as a strike, as thousands of others have failed as strikes. When it became a general riot, its failure was doubly assured. When it took on that feature, every employer, every workingman, and every law abiding citizen, whether employer or laborer, was compelled, from the simple law of self-preservation, to raise his hands against it. It has never yet occurred that the mutinous elements of a country were more powerful than the law-abiding elements. Even wild beasts show a certain regard for brute regulation and authority, and instances are given by naturalists where apparent sedition and turbulence on the part of unmanageable members of these brute families have met with complete extermination as punishment.

The great strike has left everybody poorer. Who has been bettered? who can point to a single instance where a body of workingmen has been benefited by their participation?

Who shall pay for the enforced idleness of millions; the ruin to vast business interests; the misery brought upon innocent working men and women; and for the hundreds of lives sacrificed upon this altar of human ignorance, blindness, and frenzy?

Looking at the matter from any point of consideration, no good thing can be seen in it, unless it may be judged a good thing to know that we have among us a pernicious communistic spirit which is demoralizing workingmen, continually creating a deeper and more intense antagonism between labor and capital, and so embittering naturally restless elements against the better elements of society, that it must be crushed out completely, or we shall be compelled to submit to greater excesses and more overwhelming disasters in the near future.

The "strike" is essentially an institution of continental Europe, and, like all other good and bad emanations from that part of the world, gradually but surely found its way into England, Scotland, and Ireland, and from thence was transplanted to this country. Riot, which has always existed, has become the constant companion of the strike everywhere. Through my Scotch and English experiences I have become well acquainted with the characteristics of strikes in those countries. One marked difference in them there is in the fact that women, in almost every instance after the strike is inaugurated, seem the most savage in preventing the breaking of the strike by the employment of "nobs," as the "scabs" are called there, and in both inciting and participating in riots.

Resort to strikes was first had in England and Scotland among the cotton-spinners and the "tenters." The latter are the operatives in cotton-mills who attend to the proper stretching of the webs and have a general supervision of a certain number of looms. The necessity for their constant service to their employers made their unions and strikes peculiarly disastrous to the cotton-spinning and cotton-weaving interests. From this class, unions and their consequent strikes rapidly spread among all classes of workingmen and artisans. Carpenters, coopers, and cabinet-makers; moulders, puddlers, boiler-makers, engine-builders, and blacksmiths; shipwrights, and the numberless classes which subsist upon the shipping interests; butchers, bakers, and confectioners—in fact, every known trade or class of labor soon had its union or guild; and as a natural result, must sooner or later have a strike. Nothing, however, of so vast proportions as our great strike of '77 came out of this union fever, for each organization, as a rule, attended to its own troubles, and at that time communism had not gained its deadly foothold.

The tactics of the strikers, in conjunction with this disposition of women to create disorder and encourage the men in holding out, before referred to, are worthy of mention. At the mill, factory, or yards where the strike might be in progress, the strikers and their wives would congregate in large force, morning, noon, and night. As a rule they would never collect in great numbers at any one point, for this would not be permitted by the authorities; but, with great caution and very remarkable generalship, they would divide into numberless small squads, which would be stationed at different points of approach to the workshop. These small squads would invariably be supported by nearly an equal number of women armed and equipped for the fray—many of them carrying babes in their arms. When the "nobs" would arrive at the workshop in the morning, when they would leave for and return from luncheon, or when they departed for their homes for the night, they would first be set upon by the strikers and badly handled. Then, if the strikers happened to be getting the worst of it, or if the "bobbies" (the police) bore down upon them heavily, at a given signal up came heavy reinforcements in the shape of these women who had been waiting out of sight, and who, with clubs, stones, bits of iron and other hastily improvised weapons, would pounce upon the " bobbies " and the " nobs " with such fury that they were quite often temporarily driven from the field in confusion and disgrace. On these occasions of victory the poor "nobs" get terribly treated, for the women seemed by far the more merciless. If the police were victorious, as was of course the rule, still another reserve force would be signaled for, and with loud lamentations, thrilling yells and wailings, there would rush forth from mysterious hiding-places scores of women with babes in their arms, who, with provoking persistency, pushed in among the police, dealing out sly blows to the "nobs" and shrewdly hindering the operations of the officers, who could not club women under these circumstances, until most of the strikers had escaped. These were the ordinary tactics observed in all portions of England and Scotland.

Although the English authorities have invariably treated riotous strikers with great severity, some instances of Scottish justice, which many years ago came under my personal notice, would indicate that in that country these matters are still more rigidly treated.

In 1840, what was then known as the Airdrie and Glasgow Railroad (now called the Edinburgh and Glasgow Railroad, as the line was long since continued from Airdrie to Edinburgh) was in process of construction between Glasgow and Airdrie. The construction hands, which were principally Irish, struck in a body for higher wages, and publicly swore that they would take the life of any "nob" who should attempt to take their places. Other men were supplied, and as the strikers had well-filled the section with their friends and sympathizers, many savage encounters took place. Finally a "nob" was waylaid and most brutally murdered by two strikers named Doolan and Redden. These men were immediately arrested, tried, convicted, and executed. Nor was it an ordinary execution. It was ordered to take place as near as possible upon the very spot where the murder was committed, and the condemned men were compelled to sit upon their own coffins while being driven to the place, which was a wide meadow. Thousands of people witnessed the execution of the criminals, which had the good effect of putting a quietus upon the striking fever in that section for a long time.

Previous to this, in 1837, the cotton-spinners of Glasgow and vicinity struck, and by their incendiary and turbulent acts created a wonderful excitement throughout Scotland and England. At last the authorities took the matter in hand, and large numbers of those who had participated in the outrages were obliged to escape to America and other countries, in order to avoid arrest and punishment. Determined, however, to take severe measures in the matter, the government ordered the arrest and indictment of the "Secret Select Committee," consisting of Thomas Hunter, Peter Hackett, Richard McNeill, James Gibb, and William McLean. They were accordingly apprehended and indicted for a "conspiracy to intimidate, assault, and murder non-unionists and their masters or managers," and removed to Edinburgh for trial. From the vast sums of money expended both by the government and the union leagues of Scotland, the eminent counsel engaged on either side, and the intense interest awakened, this was probably the most remarkable criminal trial on record in Edinburgh, if not in all Scotland. The extreme sentence on conviction in this case was: "Seven years' transportation beyond the seas!"

A good deal has been written and said regarding the causes of our great strike of '77. To my mind they seem clear and distinct. For years, and without any particular attention on the part of the press or the public, animated by the vicious dictation of the International Society, all manner of labor unions and leagues have been forming. No manufacturing town, nor any city, has escaped this baleful influence. Though many of these organizations have professed opposition to communistic principles, their pernicious influence has unconsciously become powerful among them. Other organizations have openly avowed them. They have become an element in politics. The intelligent workingmen, not being altogether ready for the acceptance of these extreme doctrines, have given them no political support, and their violent propagators have been obliged to fall back upon agitation of subjects which would antagonize labor and capital. For years we have been recovering from the extravagances of the war period. Labor has gradually, but surely, been becoming cheaper, and its demand less. Workingmen have not economized in the proportion that economy became necessary. Want and penury followed. Workingmen consequently have become discontented and embittered. They have been taught steadily, as their needs increased, that they were being enslaved and robbed, and that all that was necessary for bettering their condition was a general uprising against capital. So that when, under the leadership of designing men, that great class of railroad employees—than whom no body of workingmen in America were ever better compensated—began their strike, nearly every other class caught the infection, and by these dangerous communistic leaders were made to believe that the proper time for action had come. I have therefore given considerable space in the following pages to an account of those classes and organizations most extensively represented in the great strike of '77, before proceeding with a detailed account of the history of the strike itself.

About this Document

  • Source: Strikers, Communists, Tramps and Detectives
  • Author: Allan Pinkerton
  • Publisher: G.W. Carleton
  • Published: New York
  • Date: 1878