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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
With his customary drive and enthusiasm he now went on to organize the neglected brakemen, a task he iound challenging but physically and financially exhausting. Coming back to Ferre Haute from week-long travels for the new Brotherhood of Railroad Brakemen, often with scanty results, he turned for consolation and encouragement to his sister’s solemnly handsome friend Kate Metzel, stepdaughter of the town’s most prominent druggist. Debs’s social life had been confined more to saloons than to the dances and polite evenings of the increasingly prim upper-class Terre Haute, and until he met Kate, he had paid little attention to women. But she, drawn to him from the beginning, listened to him gravely, as women do when they are in love, her interest in him masking her basic lack of interest in his concerns. What she herself cared about most deeply was material success: elegance, a large house, membership in Terre Haute’s emergent society. Why she chose him she probably later wondered herself. They were married a few months before his thirtieth birthday in a formal wedding at Saint Stephen’s Episcopal Church, of which Kate was a devout member. After a brief honeymoon they returned to housekeeping rooms. Kate found herself much alone in her rented quarters while her husband travelled from state to state drumming up membership for his union. Whatever his salary might be, money had a way of slipping through his fingers. Railroad men in their need habitually turned to him. Once when he learned that a fireman could not be promoted for lack of a good watch, he gave the man his own. At least once he gave away his overcoat. His wife never suffered actual want, but such casualness, such a hit-or-miss life, was not what she had dreamed of in her girlhood. She loved her husband and would continue to love him; she could not give her heart to his activities. On the death of an aunt she inherited enough money to build her dream house, a towered and gabled affair of her own design on an upper-class street.
The panic year 1893 marked Debs’s break with his conservative past. Up until then he could still write that “we indulge in none of the current vagaries about a conflict between capital and labor.” But after Chicago’s 1886 Haymarket bombing he edged toward a more militant stance. The bombing was basic for him. There, in Haymarket Square during a prolonged strike for an eight-hour day, a police captain advanced with a squad of bluecoats as a local anarchist was addressing a small but orderly crowd and ordered the meeting dispersed. When the police closed in, some unknown person threw a bomb. Seven policemen died. In the aftermath eight anarchists and union leaders were arrested and tried, and four of them were hanged for the crime—although only two of the convicted men had even been near the square. The outraged Debs, like many other labor leaders, came to regard the executed men as martyrs to the cause of industrial freedom. Following Haymarket, after Henry Frick of the Carnegie Steel Company had brutally broken the Homestead steelworkers’ strike in 1892 and after federal troops had at about the same time put down a silver miners’ strike in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, Debs turned permanently to the radical left. During the depression of 1893 he denounced capitalists furiously in his Magazine , comparing them to tentacled devilfish dragging the workers down to degradation.
Such grim times, with over three million unemployed walking the streets, made Debs increasingly unhappy with the self-centered unionism of the railroad brotherhoods, who could not even be counted on to support one another in a strike. Engineers and conductors, the aristocrats of labor, held themselves aloof. Carmen, firemen, switchmen, raided each other’s membership at will. Debs now set out to organize an American railway union that would take in all railroad employees from engineer to engine wiper.