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“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
The panic of that same year threw him out of a job, along with thousands of others. Since there was nothing for him in Terre Haute, he rode a freight to Evansville, where he found the prospects as bleak as at home. He moved on to St. Louis, and he was lucky enough to be hired as a fireman. But in St. Louis, for the first time in his life, he encountered large-scale urban misery: unemployed derelicts, homeless, wandering families, others living in shacks by the Mississippi, a world of desolation he had known before only in the pages of Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables . What he as an individual could do about such conditions he did not know, but he burned with unfocused indignation.
Railroading was then a very hazardous trade, with accidents frequent and most of the lines callously indifferent to even elementary safety measures. Late in 1874, after one of Gene’s friends slipped under a locomotive and was killed, his mother begged him to come home. At her insistence he gave up railroading and returned to Terre Haute to become a billing clerk with the wholesale grocers Hulman & Cox, the largest firm in the Midwest. Yet for all its hardships and dangers, railroad life continued to fascinate him. The wholesale grocery business did not. “There are too many things in business that I cannot tolerate,” he wrote. “Business means grabbing for yourself.” Evenings he used to like to walk down the tracks and watch the engines back and switch. Often he would drop in at one of the bars near the station to pass an hour or two with the trainmen. On one such evening he learned that Joshua Leach, the Grand Master of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen, as he was entitled with Masonic grandeur, was coming to Terre Haute to organize a lodge. The idea of fraternal unity in a common cause, a railroad cause, appealed vastly and at once to the young billing clerk. He attended the meeting and at the end pushed forward and asked to join the newly founded Vigo Lodge. Leach—whose organizing efforts over two years had met only scanty success—concealed his surprise and asked the eager young man if he felt he could do his duty on being admitted. With no real idea as to what his duty might be Debs answered, “Yes sir!”
In his enthusiasm Debs soon took over as secretary of Vigo Lodge No. 16. It was a job no one else would take. The brotherhood itself was a weak benevolent organization concerned chiefly with group insurance plans at a time when the real issues for the railroad workers were pay, safety measures, and hours. Membership in the new lodge declined. Sometimes the young secretary would be the only one present at the fortnightly meeting. Undiscouraged, he turned to other town affairs, helping to found the Occidental Literary Club, a weekly debating society to which he invited such well-known speakers as Robert G. Ingersoll, Wendell Phillips, the women’s-rights crusader Susan B. Anthony, and the then almost unknown rhymester James Whitcomb Riley. Everybody in Terre Haute had come to know and like the lanky, friendly Gene Debs by this time. In 1879, as a Democrat, he was elected city clerk. Two years later, in spite of a general Republican comeback, he was re-elected.
In 1880, with the firemen’s brotherhood almost bankrupt, the grand master persuaded the reluctant Debs to become secretary-treasurer of the moribund organization and editor of its paper, The Magazine . To accommodate Debs union headquarters were moved to Terre Haute. The young secretary’s determination and abounding effort soon brought an astonishing reversal in the brotherhood’s fortunes. When he took over, assisted by his younger brother Theodore, he found himself working eighteen hours a day on the firemen’s problems. Suddenly the organization was alive. New members flooded in. The sprightly Magazine circulated far beyond the membership.
This success, however, hardly foreshadowed Debs’s later career. Wrapped up as he was in his benevolent-association union, he did not think of himself as a socialist. The railroad brotherhoods were nonstriking unions, and in those early years Debs found even Samuel Gompers’ American Federation of Labor too radical. The closed shop he considered an infringement on liberty, and he could even refei to the rapacious William H. Vanderbilt as “the great railroad president.” In 1884, thinking he could help his union as a lawmaker, he ran successfully as a Democratic candidate for the state legislature. But after he saw a railroad safety bill that he had sponsored buried in the upper house, he lost faith in the two-party parliamentary system, with its inevitable jobbery; he did not run again.