Another Century Turns Two!

I can’t believe this blog is two years old! It really doesn’t seem like it’s been that long, but my first post was published on this day in 2016. I started writing about nine months after I got my Masters degrees in history and library science from the U. of Maryland. Once I had entered the real world and was working a 9 to 5 job, I realized that I missed doing research and writing about history. At the same time, my tenure in graduate school was marked by a hundred books that I never had time to finish and a thousand more ideas that I thought would make a good paper one day. My first post, “Are you a Cowboy or a Colonel?” was actually an extended review of a book I stumbled upon one day in school and never got a chance to read until after I graduated. If you haven’t read that post, it’s a fun one that you can find here.

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Last year I conducted a records inventory in an abandoned patient ward in a Philadelphia mental hospital. There was no power and broken windows made for a dark and drafty job.

When I started this blog, I was a few months out of school, recently married, and just starting my career. At the time I was a lowly contract processing archivist at the Smithsonian National Anthropology Archives. A few months later I got a job offer at the Pennsylvania State Archives and Andra and I moved up to Harrisburg. I’m working in acquisitions section, traveling around to different government offices and institutions to look for their historical records. I’ve gotten to dig documents out of squirrel infested attics and moldy basements that were just as creepy as you might imagine. My job takes me to places like prisons, fish hatcheries and executive offices; anywhere historical records are to be found I go and check them out!

Being at the PA State Archives has also had an impact on this blog. You may have noticed that there are a decent number of posts I’ve done on topics from Pennsylvania history. This seems pretty natural since I sift through the state’s history 8 hours a day. I have also gotten into more posts that touch on my own family history. A lot of genealogists  visit our archives and I guess I got hooked too! It has been fun finding my own family’s connections to interesting historical events, especially in the travel adventures of Frank and Nell Felter and in the tragic death of Albert Sergeant at Dimmock Hill. I’m still working on several more posts like these so check back soon for those.

I started this blog just as a personal exercise in research and writing, and as a way to keep a running list of historical books I’d like to read one day. I’m pretty happy with how it’s turned out so far, and am excited to see what happens in the next two years. Thanks for reading!

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The Freedom Gang

I’d like to tell you a story of a train heist gone wrong, of a tough gang of thieves who didn’t quite pull off the job. And they didn’t get away either. But the men reporters called the Freedom Gang still have a story I think you’ll want to hear.

It was winter, 1901. Jesse James had been dead for nearly 20 years and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid fled to South America earlier that year. More sophisticated law enforcement and secure forms of currency like traveler’s checks were making train robberies harder to pull off and even harder for bandits to get away. But the risks weren’t enough to stop the Freedom Gang from going after a safe full of cash, guarded by a lone engineer at a quiet Pennsylvania station.

The Freedom Gang was led by William O’Brien, a mustachioed Canadian who went by many names. Some called him Wolf or Little Joe or even Ralph Walhopper; he seemed to have a different name for each robbery he had pulled in the past. O’Brien was what the police called a “yegg man,” a burglar specializing in safe cracking. A printer by trade, he had a $100 price on his head for pulling off a string of bank robberies in Michigan. Moving east, he set his sights on the small town banks and unguarded railroad stations near the Pennsylvania-Maryland border.

Freedom Gang Members

The five members of the Freedom Gang, 1901. Pennsylvania State Archives RG 15.66.

O’Brien arrived on the East Coast and didn’t waste any time recruiting a gang of fellow thieves. He found four men who worked for the Northern Central Railroad– they knew the area well and would be less suspicious hanging around NCR stations late at night. The quintet pulled off a few small robberies in Aberdeen, MD and York Haven, PA before they moved on their big target: The NCR Station in New Freedom.

New Freedom was a small town on the Mason Dixon Line, 40 miles north of Baltimore. Its rail station was the junction of the Northern Central and Stewartstown railroads and the gang knew that a large amount of money was usually stashed in the office safe.

They broke into the New Freedom station late on a Wednesday night. The lone engineer guarding the office was out inspecting the tracks when the burglars crept in and got to work on the safe. O’Brien drilled a hole in it and stuck a short fuse and nitroglycerine inside. The bomb should have blown the door easily but surprisingly failed. Detectives said it was because a wedge stuck in the door joint had broken off and too much air was allowed to get in. There was $5100 cash inside; so close but just out of reach. The gang tried twice but failed each time.

After the second attempt the engineer returned from his patrol and noticed a light in the building. As he walked down the station platform, he neared the door and peered through the window inside. To his surprise, there was no one there and he turned off the light.

A second later a hand reached out from the darkness and grabbed him. The muzzles of four revolvers flashed in his face and a chorus of voices demanded he give up his valuables. He pulled away and started to run but a blow to the head knocked him out cold. He woke up a few minutes later to see the thieves holding his watch and pocket book. The Freedom Gang took him back to the office, threatened him not to tell anyone what happened, and said to go home. And before he knew it, the thieves had disappeared into the night.

New Freedom NCR Station

New Freedom Station still stands today. Steam Into History.

The engineer waited till the coast was clear and ran for the police. Within a few hours railroad detectives were called in. They got to work early the next morning.

There weren’t many clues at the scene of the crime, the thieves wore masks and the engineer couldn’t identify any of them. There were no other clues left behind near the safe or on the office. The Freedom Gang had gotten away clean…or so it seemed.

After making some inquiries in New Freedom, the detectives learned that several men had spent the night in a nearby hotel bar. When they ran out of beer money the men pawned a watch with the barkeep for a few pints of whiskey and left. As luck would have it, this was the engineer’s stolen watch from last night.

The chase was on. After more questioning the detectives learned that an NCR trackwalker had seen several men drinking in an open freight car earlier that morning. They raced over to the railyard, but it was too late. The car was empty, save for two whiskey bottles tossed on the floor. With police assistance, the rest of town and locals interviewed, but there were no more signs of the gang.

The detectives widened their search to a 10 mile circle around New Freedom. A thorough hunt led them to nearby Bentley Springs and by the end of the day to Parkton. Searching the surrounding woods, they found five men asleep by a campfire. It was O’Brien and the Freedom Gang.

Capture of the Yegg Bank Burglars

Still from the 1904 film “Capture of the Yegg Bank Burglars”.

They stole silently into camp and aimed a pistol at each man. The signal was given and the gang was woken up and ordered to surrender. Two men tried to pull their own guns out for a fight but realized they’d been had. The chase was over; the Freedom Gang caught.

They were taken to the police station in Baltimore and searched. O’Brien’s men carried revolvers, a bottle of nitroglycerine, a bar of soap, chisels, $10 in cash, and a ring of keys in many shapes and sizes. For all their planning and preparations, this was all they had to show for their tiny crime spree.

The Freedom Gang’s run on the wrong side of the law was over. A sturdy safe, back luck, and good detective work doomed the thieves to a quick capture. But even if they had gotten away, the gang would have been one of the last great outlaw gangs to threaten America’s trains and banks. Their way of life was almost dead.

Though there would be a few more high profile train and bank robberies after the Freedom Gang was caught, the golden age of the outlaw gangs was over. It was becoming much harder for a gang to burst into town, pull a heist, and get away clean. Changes in technology, forensic science, law enforcement practices, and lots of other factors had changed the criminal landscape forever.

Eastern State Penitentiary

The Freedom Gang served their time in this Philadelphia prison. Eastern State Penitentiary Historic Site.

The story of the Freedom Gang barely registered a blip in the newspapers. It was, after all, a failed crime attempted by a couple of second-rate thieves who were easily captured. But the gang’s story ends better than most of the great train and bank robberies of the day. Many train robbers were killed in shootouts with guards, on the run from the law, or were swiftly sentenced to death by the courts. The Freedom Gang was sentenced to just seven years and nine months in the Eastern State Penitentiary, and they even got out early when a judge commuted their sentence.

Roast Horse- It’s What’s for Dinner

Frank and Nell have arrived in Portland. Though the path north to Alaska may look straightforward on a map, there are many bumps and surprising turns along the way. In this portion of his letter, Frank describes the terrible condition of Portland streets (you might even call the town Pothole Land…does that count as a pun?) The traveling pair also encounter an unscrupulous travel agent who tries to pass them a plugged quarter, and (my personal favorite) are slightly horrified by a visit to a canning factory that slaughters and processes “Roast Horse.” Turns out this was probably the Western Packing Company’s horse canning factory– the first plant of its kind in the world. Though unsavory it turns out Americans have a long history of dining on our steeds. Yikes! And speaking of unsavory- like his earlier observations on Chinese immigrants in San Francisco, Frank also takes the time to describe American Indians in the area as savage and child-like. Many other Americans writing in the early 20th century had the same superior attitudes in their writings.

Were it not for the fact that the bus is crowded we would be thrown from our seats every two minutes. The pavement has once been asphalt but now is full of holes. Portland is without exception the worst paved city I ever saw. If necessary to repair a sewer or water pipe, the asphalt is cut through, in the usual manner, and when repairs have been completed the excavation is filled with loose dirt which soon settles and leaves a deep hole. No attempt is made to repair this, or to fill it up again, and it is left to add one more bump to the thousands which already make life a misery to the Portland worse, and to those individuals who have the temerity to ride through these streets. I have spoken of this, first because it was the first impression made upon us as we were driven at a rapid pace regardless of bumps, -to the hotel, where we got out and were shown our rooms for the night.

Having cleaned off the dust of travel and partaken of a good dinner we walked around a little and then retired. The morrow finds us up early, for some car rides, which, when taken, demonstrate the fact that the upper and the residential parts of Portland are very beautiful.

Imperial Hotel_Portland

Imperial Hotel, Portland, Oregon, circa 1906. Oregon Historical Society.

So we set out to locate ourselves more pleasantly, and further up the hill among the trees, We succeed so well in this that we spend over five weeks in this city of wonderfully green trees, grass and shrubs, and flowers, all seeming to grow so luxuriantly, because they wanted to, and could not help it. June is the best month of the year to see Portland, -having so little rain and such abundance of flowers at that time. The winters here are extremely wet and rainy, as they are also in Tacoma and Seattle, farther North. Some people seem to have the impression that the North Western part of the United States must be extremely cold in winter, because of its high latitude. This is only true of that part of the Northwest that lies in winter, because of its high latitude. This is only true of that part of the Northwest that lies East of the Cascade range of mountains, while in all that part of Washington and Oregon which lies West of these mountains, and continuing nearly half of these States, the climate is mild the year round, having cool summers and warm winters. The lowest average which the thermometer has recorded here for many winters is 10 degrees above Zero, as compared with 15 and 20 below Zero for the same latitude on the Atlantic Coast.

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Willamette River, Portland, Oregon, 1901. Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Portland is situated on the Willamette River a few miles south of its junction with the Columbia. It has a population of perhaps 80,000 and is cut in two by the Willamette, which is perhaps three-fourths of a mile wide at this point, and is crossed by four or five draw-bridges. We are extremely anxious for a steamboat ride on the river, and after a few inquiries learn that the Railroad and Steamship lines are cutting rates, and one can go by rail or water to Astoria, which is about 100 miles down the Columbia river for 25 cents (about one sixth the former price). Surely this would seem cheap enough, four miles for one cent, but when we went down to the wharf at Six o’clock one morning, prepared for the trip, we heard some one inquire of the agent (without a smile and in apparent earnestness) if the twenty-five cent ticket was for the round trip, and did it include a berth and meals? I won’t mention the name of the gentleman in question, but the agent looked at him a moment, turned white, and nearly fainted. So great was the shock that he forgot to give me in change the plugged quarter he had been holding in his hand while waiting for an easy victim to pass it on. At last the boat was off.

We go through the immense draw-bridges and soon cut the water at a rapid pace. These river steamers are all stern wheelers, and some are very speedy. A few miles on our journey and we are told to look to the left at the horses grazing. There seem to be 5000 or 10,000 of them, and the building close by is a cannery where these animals are put into tin cans and sold as “Roast Horse.” The greater amount of the product is shipped to Europe, but some is sold and consumed in the United States. A tenderloin of Horse is said to equal the best cut in a beef. These horses are most of them wild or unbroken, and are periodically driven into the railroad towns in vast herds by the Indians, who catch them wild, and sometimes raise them extensively. Their prices run from $1.00 to $3.00 for the “cayuse,” as they call these horses. The buyers, after picking out the best which sometimes bring them $15.00 or $20.00 each, ship the balance to the cannery by the train load, averaging $3.00 or more delivered.

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Blood Indian and Cayuse, Southern Alberta 1882. National Museum of the American Indian.

The Indians usually spend most of their money before leaving town all seeming to have a weakness for fire-water and bright colors.

This post is part of a longer travelogue written by Frank L. Felter of Los Angeles, a distant relative of mine, as he and his wife Nell journeyed up to and around Alaska in 1900. To read the previous part, click here. To read the next part, click here.

Messengers of a Cruel Society: Lewis Hines Photographs of Child Telegraph Messengers

“Is it not a cruel civilization that allows little hearts and little shoulders to strain under these grown-up responsibilities?”

Cosmopolitan Magazine, January 1907

Children have always worked. But the Industrial Revolution turned children’s labor from something positive and good for development into work that left “children being enslaved, separated from their families, exposed to serious hazards and illnesses and/or left to fend for themselves.” Grueling working conditions and unscrupulous business owners robbed young workers of their childhoods, educational opportunities, and their dignity.

Child workers were usually immigrants or from poor families that moved to America’s industrial cities in recent years. In 1870 the U.S. census first started recording child labor statistics and reported about 750,000 child workers not counting those who worked for their family on their farm or business. By 1911 the census reported there were over 2 million children under the age of 15 working long and hard hours for low pay.

Reformers and labor advocates called for an end to cruel child labor practices. They wanted a better lives for child workers who were trapped in lives of poverty and misery with no opportunities to improve their lives. One of the most influential reformers was a New York City photographer named Lewis Hines. Hines worked for the National Child Labor Committee photographing child laborers and writing reports on their working and living conditions that shocked the American public.

Danville messenger

#2183. Postal Telegraph boy, Danville, Va. That night he refused to show me through the Red Light District, said the manager did not permit them to go on such errands. A Western Union boy eagerly took me around and revealed an appalling intimate acquaintance with the district and the inmates. Location: Danville, Virginia.

Hines often had to sneak his photographs and reports, tricking his way into factories and covertly interviewing children while scribbling notes with his hand hidden in his pocket. The results, as you can see below, are powerful depictions of the face of child labor. Congress responded to Hines’ work (and the public’s shocked response) by passing the Keating-Owens Act in 1916 that created minimum working ages and made conditions much more bearable for child laborers. By 1920 there were about half as many child workers as there had been a decade earlier. Continue reading

When the Telegraph Lines Connects Pennsylvania

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Many of the most memorable inventions of the 19th century aided transportation and communication, as seen in this 1876 Currier & Ives print. Library of Congress.

Long distance communication and transportation have historically been struggles in America. Long roads, bad roads, and many times no roads at all have slowed the movement of people, goods, and ideas all over. Fortunately, Americans turned this challenge into an opportunity with new inventions and industries that have improved our lives in many ways.

It’s easy today to take long distance calling, good highways, and next day delivery for granted, but these were all distant dreams in the 19th century. As new inventions were created and became available for use, they had dramatic impacts on the every day lives of ordinary Americans- sometimes in ways you might not expect.

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Conestoga wagons were also known as covered wagons or prairie schooners to settlers moving to the American West. Landis Valley Farm Museum.

Maybe it was just pure luck, but Pennsylvania happened to be at the heart of many 19th century technological advances that made transportation and communication possible over long distances. Conestoga wagons, invented by Pennsylvania Dutch settlers, made travel easier on the region’s rocky, rutted, and muddy roads (and also where there were no roads at all). No surprise that generations of settlers moving out west made Conestoga wagons the vehicle of choice to move their families and possessions westward across the continent. Pennsylvania’s Delaware and Hudson Railway was one of the first American railroad companies and was the first to operate a locomotive on rails in the United States in 1829. The Pennsylvania Railroad, chartered in 1846, became the largest railroad in America and helped move freight and good all over the country.

One story from Pennsylvania’s innovative past you may not have heard of comes to us from Lancaster County. In the late 1840s, both the curious and the suspicious were introduced to a rudimentary new technology: the telegraph. We all know that the telegraph was the basis for our modern electronic communication networks, but the first people to see a telegraph had mixed feelings about the new machine. Continue reading

Creating the Right Narrative: Tom Randall’s Slavery Story

Sometimes as a historian I’m caught between my desire to interpret/contextualize a historical source, and the importance of letting individuals from history have their own, unmediated voice. Some posts in my blog contain lots of extra explanation and analysis that can shape how you read the quotes and copied passages , and others I’ve simply copied and left the reading and understanding up to you readers. It’s always a struggle for me and I’m hoping that I can get at finding the right balance as I keep on writing.

Especially when I was in graduate school, the pressure was always on not just to find important historical sources, but to fit them in larger narratives and use them to build up some sort of argument or larger point. And though (I think) I’m pretty good at finding those great sources, there’s always been a nagging voice in my head that wonders what the original authors/speakers would think of how I’m using their words. Did I get it right? Am I using their material in ways that they had never considered? What would they think? These are just a few of the questions I ask myself as I write and especially as I got back and look at pieces I’ve written in the past.

Every situation is different. Some historical sources are made even more powerful or can lend themselves to discussions that the original authors might not have thought about but nonetheless might have engaged in given the opportunity.

Other sources don’t need as much assistance from the historian and are more effective when you let the original author’s voice speak as loudly as possible. I think this is especially the case when you’re dealing with authors from communities that have traditionally been silenced or misinterpreted by the dominant voices in our society.

These sources are more compelling on their own and as a historian I feel it’s just my job to give the proper introductions and step to the side. I’ll leave my readers with a few short thoughts on why I’m interested in the source and what I was thinking about as I read it.

In the past few weeks I’ve been debating on how best to write about a 1930s ex-slave narrative and have finally decided that this is another good candidate for a brief introduction only.  This is a story by Tom Randall about life as a slave in Ellicott City, Maryland. Randall was interviewed towards the end of his life by the Federal Writers’ Project in 1937, part of a larger project to collect oral histories from former slaves before they passed away. Randall hadn’t moved very far from his boyhood home in Ellicott City- he was living in Oella (just a mile away) at the time of the interview. I grew up in this area and was really happy to learn more about the experience of slavery in Civil War-era Maryland. Continue reading

The Industrial Home for Women at Muncy, Pennsylvania

Muncy_Kitchen

Inmates training in the kitchen at Muncy. Lycoming College.

In 1913, the Pennsylvania State Legislature passed an act establishing the Industrial Home for Women at Muncy, about 20 miles east of Williamsport, PA. The first woman was admitted in 1920 and Muncy’s population grew steadily in the following years. Many new buildings were built in the 1930s, some of which are still in use today. Originally, the institution was built to house first-time female offenders between the ages of 16 and 30, but the maximum age limit was removed when Muncy was transferred from the Department of Welfare to the Department of Justice (now Corrections) in 1953.

Muncy Cottage

Pennsylvania State Archives, RG 9.1

By 1955, 11 cottages were built on the grounds. According to one report,

“The cottages are homelike in atmosphere with pianos, radios, and record players in the living rooms where each evening, except Sunday, the girls may congregate, play the piano, listen to the radio, sing, play cards, crochet, embroider, and on Saturday nights dance until 8:00 o’clock…the beautiful campus and well-kept, mountain stone buildings compare most favorably with those of the best of our modern American colleges. It is hard to believe that such beauty and freedom could ever be associated with a penal institution.” At Muncy, “each girl is encouraged to use nail polish, rouge, and lipstick, and to arrange her hair attractively. Every individual girl is issued three print dresses which she wears to religious services and movies, as well as at all other appropriate times.”

Inmates were kept busy working on Muncy’s 828-acre farm and in the power sewing shop throughout the year. Inmates were paid two cents an hour for their work. In the 1950s, Muncy also offered vocational and business classes in the winter months to help women find employment after they were paroled. If an inmate was paroled, she was given ten dollars, a suitcase with several outfits, a “very stylish hair-do,” and a ride to the train or bus station.

Muncy Group

Pennsylvania State Archives, RG 9.1

Muncy still only holds female inmates, and is known today as SCI Muncy. The Pennsylvania State Archives has a variety of documents, photographs, and other interesting stuff related to the facility. To learn more about Muncy’s long history and the women who were detained there, see the Department of Correction’s history of Muncy, or this Muncy scrapbook that’s been digitized by Lycoming College Archives. Lots of interesting stories here!

History of a Wandering Yankee: Train to Portland

Frank and Nell are finally finished with San Francisco, and are now headed north to Alaska via Portland, Oregon. Never one to leave out a stray detail, Frank describes every bit of this 600 mile train ride (I think they were riding on the Southern Pacific Railroad). My favorite parts of this are a short stop at Shasta Springs and a ride on a huge ferry boat called the “Solano” (the largest ferry ever built- it could carry an entire train on it). Frank and Nell try in vain to get some reading done on the train but the scenery is just too interesting to ignore. But who can blame them for enjoying the view?

SPR Shasta Route

Southern Pacific Railroad Shasta Route, Milepost 324.99. 1997. Library of Congress.

We leave on June 2nd in the morning, and board the ferry boat which is the largest and finest I have ever seen (its capacity being 4000 people,) the whole upper deck being entirely enclosed in glass protects the passenger from the wind while offering every advantage to see around. It takes 30 minutes to cross the bay, and, arriving at Oakland (which is principally a residential city for San Francisco business men), we take the train for Portland Oregon, and nothing of interest occurs until we reach Porta Costa where our whole train (broken up into sections) is run on the ferry boat “Solano” and carried across an arm of the bay. Here one can get a good breakfast on the boat and have time to reach his seat on the cars before the train pushes off on dry land again. The Solano is 425 feet long, over a hundred feet wide, and will carry as many as 48 freight cars.

We now settle ourselves down comfortably for the day with pillows at our backs, and books to read, as this part of the ride is the least interesting. Continue reading

New Article Posted in New York History Blog

Good news! I got an article published by the New York History Blog. If you’re ever in search of interesting stories from the Empire state’s history, or news from historical organizations in the state then look no further.

Port Jervis Union_08291888My article tells the story of an 1888 presidential campaign rally for Benjamin Harrison that went horribly wrong. When local Republicans thought it would be a good idea to accompany their parade and liberty pole raising with a live cannon demonstration. The only problem was that their cannon was way too old to be used and ended exploding and killing three bystanders, including a distant relative of mine named Albert Sergeant.

http://newyorkhistoryblog.org/2017/12/18/a-cannon-explodes-19th-electioneering-in-otsego-county/

Though I like writing here on “Another Century” best, it’s nice to get my work out there with a wider audience too. I’m hoping to get a few more short pieces like this one published next year. Enjoy!

Mighty Carl Browne: Hero of Coxey’s Army

In 1894, a young reporter named Ray Stannard Baker was sent on the road to cover an exciting news story. The Panic of 1893 was wreaking havoc on the American economy and unemployment was crippling millions of families all across the country. Desperate Americans were looking to more desperate and radical solutions to the country’s woes. Baker’s editor had gotten a tip that an Ohio businessman named Jacob Coxey planned to raise an army of the unemployed and march on Washington D.C. On the Capitol steps, Coxey planned to propose new legislation to the federal government to “cure the ills of the nation” and put the unemployed to work building roads. It was a call for federal unemployment aid decades before the New Deal or the Great Society. It was a grand march into the heart of D.C. a generation before the 1932 Bonus March and or the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

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Coxey’s Army Marching Through Massillon, Ohio. 1894. Massillon Museum.

Baker took an overnight train from Chicago to Massillon, Ohio. With a hundred dollars expense money in his pocket, he made his way to Coxey’s farm where a few dozen unemployed men and their families were gathering for the march.

Sitting in the dining room reading from a pile of letters and telegrams, Baker found an impressive specimen of a man who looked “too good to be true:”

“He was strongly built with a heavy mustache, and a beard with two spirals. He wore a leather coat fringed around the shoulders and sleeves. A row of buttons down the front were shining silver dollars. Calvary boots, tight-fitting, well polished, came to his knees…He handed me a card with his written signature, at the end of which was a grand flourish and the words, ‘The pen is mightier than the sword.’” (7)

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Carl Browne, circa 1894. Massillon Museum.

But to Baker’s surprise, the embellished card did not have Jacob Coxey’s name on it. This colorfully dressed and gregarious man was actually Carl Browne, Coxey’s friend and chief lieutenant. Realizing that this was a case of mistaken identity, the journalist then noticed a small, mild-mannered gentleman who was sitting next to Browne. Coxey was “mild-looking and of medium size, with rounding shoulders, an oily face, a straw-colored mustache, and gold-bowed spectacles. “He did not impress me as a great leader of a revolutionary movement,” (7) Baker wrote dissapointedly.

Coxey was indeed the leader of this growing army. He was a forward thinking supporter of labor rights and earnestly wanted to help the unemployed find relief. The Panic of 1893 had ravaged the US, putting ten percent of Americans out of work. There were few government or charitable support systems in place for workers back then, and going even a day without work meant that you and your family went hungry.

Coxey felt that the best way to help was with support from the federal government. His proposed legislation would have the government spend $500 million on public road construction. Carl Browne shared Coxey’s concern for affected Americans and was instrumental in bringing Coxey’s plan to life. A consummate showman, he convinced Coxey to go on an epic march to Washington D.C. where he could personally present his ideas to Congress. With an army of job seeking men that Browne promised would number in the thousands, Coxey was sure to get the attention of law makers.

Coxey March_2

Browne designed many of the Commonweal’s signs personally. Massillon Museum.

Coxey and his army’s march on D.C. are pretty well known, but I think his charismatic second-in-command deserves more attention. Carl Browne was a complicated man who had a huge impact on the march and can teach us a lot about politics and culture in the late 1800s. Though most reporters at the time focused on Coxey and his activities, Roy Baker became enamored with Browne, who “reminded me immediately of some of the soap-box orators and vendors of Kickapoo Indian remedies I had seen on the lake front in Chicago.” (7) Baker embedded himself in Coxey’s Army got to know Browne intimately during the long journey. Fifty years later in his autobiography, Baker remembered Browne vividly and wrote about him in detail. Continue reading