- Historic Sites
Battle At Homestead
The furnaces were cooled, and Carnegie’s great steel plant stood empty—but dawn would bring one of the bloodiest labor-management struggles in U.S. history
April 1965 | Volume 16, Issue 3
After dousing the barges with barrels of Mr. Carnegie’s oil, the workers put the torch to them. Hot, dry as dust, they blazed beautifully, the process being accelerated by light northerly breezes. The crowd cheered the great flames and billows of black smoke, and cheered again when the nearby company pump house also caught fire. With surprising speed the Iron Mountain and the Monongahela burned down to their waterlines, the pump house to the ground.
Temporarily these diversions had distracted the onlookers, but now they turned their hard, collective attention upon the prisoners forlornly awaiting escort to the Homestead railroad depot. They were marched around the western edge of the plant toward deliverance, about half a mile away, fortunate that O’Donnell was an honorable man and that the crowd, at long last, was under control. They were sneered at, laughed at, sworn at, even threatened; but as they started up the long slope not a man had been touched.
Bedlam did not break loose until the first captives were halfway up the hill, when a few were slapped across the face. Next, clubs were used, and children pelted the prisoners with rocks. Then the women started in. One shoved an umbrella into a Pinkerton’s eye and poked it out. When a guard dropped to his knees in tears and begged for mercy he was kicked sprawling; while trying to flee he was clubbed into unconsciousness. Blocked right and left by the mob, the Pinkertons were unable to break through and escape. One striker carefully slugged one captive after another behind the ear with a large stone wrapped in leather, tied to the end of a short rope. An elderly gray-haired Pinkerton man, already streaming blood, was shown no more mercy than the others; and while in general those suffering from bullet wounds were spared, a few received additional whacks for good measure.
Reluctantly, young John Holway started up the embankment, appalled at what was taking place ahead of him. Three strikers knocked him down. “You have killed two men this morning,” said one; “I saw you!” As they shoved Holway up the hill, he was hit in the head by a stone. He decided to make a break for it. He bulled his way through the crowd and began to run, pursued by perhaps a hundred people. In his words: “I ran down a side street and ran through a yard. I ran about half a mile, I suppose, but was rather weak and had had nothing to eat or drink, and my legs gave out, could not run any further, and some man got hold of me by the back of my coat, and about 20 or 30 men came up and kicked me and pounded me with stones. I had no control of myself then. I thought I was about going and commenced to scream, and there were 2 or 3 strikers with rifles rushed up then and kept off the crowd. …” Ironically, Holway does not appear to have fired a shot all day.
Sand was thrown into the eyes of some of the Pinkertons, temporarily blinding them. Most of the Slavs disdained weapons; they simply grabbed men around the neck and punched their faces with bare fists. Over forty victims, severely pounded and unable to move, were dragged toward the skating rink and its adjacent theatre, while the rest staggered on. A few were divested of their money and watches. One striker pumped a bullet into a guard named Connors and then clubbed him; another bashed in the head of a wounded man with the butt end of a musket. Both victims died that evening. One Pinkerton may have lost his mind as a result of his beating, for he killed himself with a pocketknife.
In tiny print two days later the New York Tribune meticulously listed the dead and wounded: “Peter S. Prash, kicked in the back and badly cut back of right ear … J. Emmet, New York, shot in the body in three places with buckshot, and struck on right ear with a club … Edward Milstead, Chicago, mouth terribly bruised and lacerated …”—the list went on for 118 lines. Hardly a man among the Pinkertons avoided injury. Hugh O’Donnell and other Amalgamated members were struck and bruised in attempting to protect the Pinkertons, but they were able to save many of them from further mistreatment.
Without food or water the Pinkertons were shoved into the town theatre, which was surrounded by armed strikers. Their job was to keep the prisoners in and the mob out. The Slavs, by and large, were in favor of murdering all the captives, a solution rejected as too extreme. Meanwhile members of the advisory committee were in earnest conversation with Sheriff McCleary at the county courthouse. It was important to hospitalize the more severe casualties, and the possibility of another violent outbreak still existed. Early in the evening they agreed that the Sheriff and twelve unarmed deputies would be allowed to escort the Pinkertons to the West Penn Hospital in Pittsburgh. McCleary, William Weihe, and Amalgamated attorney W. J. Brennen left for Homestead by train, after the Sheriff had failed to round up a single deputy.