- Historic Sites
“...As Warm A Heart As Ever Beat”
Gene Debs was America’s leading socialist, but just about everyone agreed he had
August 1975 | Volume 26, Issue 5
When Eugene Victor Debs was born in Terre Haute in 1855, that roistering frontier town on the Wabash River had a population of six thousand. His bookish father, Daniel, an Alsatian millowner’s son, had named his own son after his two literary heroes, Eugène Sue and Victor Hugo. Daniel had left Alsace in 1848 for what he considered the freer life of America, but bad luck had dogged him from the outset. On the seventy-one-day voyage over he was fleeced of all his money by an American con man and arrived in New York penniless. Supporting himself by odd jobs, he nevertheless managed to save enough to send for his fiancee, Daisy Bettrich, one of his father’s mill hands, whom he would have married in Alsace if his classconscious family had not been so opposed. Marriage in New York did not change his luck. He found no permanent work, and Daisy’s first child, a daughter, died a few days after birth. In their sadness and isolation the young couple struck out for the West, ending up in Terre Haute, where they heard there was a French colony. All their small possessions were accidentally shipped down the river to New Orleans and lost for good.
In Terre Haute, Daniel worked fourteen hours a day in the fetid dampness of a packinghouse until his health gave out. Then he drifted from one casual job to another. Daisy gave birth to a second daughter, who did not live long enough to be named. But when life seemed at its lowest ebb for the Debses, the tide slowly shifted. Two more daughters were born, and both lived. The determined and practical-minded Daisy took forty dollars that she had somehow managed to save, bought a stock of groceries, and opened a store in the front room of their little frame house. The Debses were well liked, and against Daniel’s’ gloomy predictions the store soon brought them a modest living.
The two Debs daughters had been baptized, but by the time Eugene Victor was born, the Protestant Daniel and the Catholic Daisy had drifted away from the church. Daniel became a freethinker. Whenever he could save a little money, he ordered books, filling his shelves with the French and German classics and even buying small busts of Rousseau and Voltaire for the mantel. At home the parents spoke French and German, and the children picked up a smattering of both languages.
Eugene was five when the Civil War broke out. Almost his first memories were of marching men, of troop trains moving slowly through the town. More garish were his memories of the frontier town itself on a Saturday night, the flaring lights of Wabash Street just west of the canal, with its saloons and gambling joints and sporting houses. But he found the most permanent fascination of his boyhood in the railroads: trains and the men who ran them.
School with its prosaic, didactic curriculum bored the growing boy. High school bored him still more. In 1870, when he was fourteen, thin, angular, and six feet tall, he quit. Gravitating to the railroad, he found his first job with the Vandalia line, cleaning grease from the trucks of freight engines at fifty cents a day. At the end of the long workday his hands would be raw and his knuckles bleeding from the potash he used to loosen the grease. The youngest and least in the roundhouse, he had to take orders from everyone. Railroading soon lost much of its glamour for the weary boy. Yet he stayed on, proud at least to bring home his pay on a Saturday night. The grocery business continued to prosper. Daniel moved to a larger house. There were five children in the family now.
Gene’s shop torment ended when he was sent with a crew to paint switches on the seventy-mile stretch of track between Terre Haute and Indianapolis. He soon showed himself deft at painting. Later he was assigned to paint stripes on car bodies, then to lettering locomotives. In his spare time he made signs for his friends. Always he showed a friendly readiness to do small favors for anyone, without any thought of ulterior reward. Children loved him. He made kites for them and brought them pocketfuls of candy from his father’s store.
In December, 1871, when a drunken fireman failed to show up for work, the gangling boy was pressed into service as a night fireman. There he remained, on the run between Terre Haute and Indianapolis. “As a locomotive fireman,” Debs wrote in reminiscent bitterness, “I learned of the hardships of the rail in snow, sleet and hail, of the ceaseless danger that lurks along the iron highway, the uncertainty of employment, scant wages and altogether trying lot of the workingman, so that from my very boyhood I was made to feel the wrongs of labor. …” That feeling actually came later. For the present he was contentedly earning more than a dollar a night. With the extra money he went to business college every afternoon but found himself too drugged from lack of sleep to learn much. The scantiness of his education now began to trouble him, and he tried with only modest success to study at home. On the day his former high-school class graduated in 1873, he crept to his attic bed and cried.