- Historic Sites
The Passion Of Henry Clay Frick
His reputation obscures a complex man haunted by tragedy
April 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 2
A doctor cleaned and dressed the wound, but aseptic procedures were in their infancy then, and the infection festered for another two years. Martha slowly and inexorably went from bad to worse. She was in nearly constant pain, her hair fell out, and she lost weight. Finally, in the summer of 1891, the wound opened again, and pus poured out. The nurse, named Annie, called for Frick. He took one look and said in desperation, “Annie, what shall I do? What shall I do?”
Only years later did Frick tell someone what had happened as he stared death in the face.
But there was nothing to be done, given the medical science of the day. A few hours later the child died, leaving a hole in Frick’s heart that would never be filled. In his personal conduct a typical Victorian male, Frick rarely spoke of her afterward, except that on her birthday he would say at the dinner table that Martha would have been so many years old that day. But when a Pittsburgh bank that catered to children’s accounts failed, Frick sent checks to each of the young depositors to make up their lost money. Each check had Martha’s image engraved on it.
Although intimate biographies are never definitive ones, especially when written by family members, who necessarily carry family baggage, the private person they illuminate often illuminates the public person as well. Frick, for instance, is probably best remembered today, thanks to the muckrakers, as the man who ruthlessly broke the Homestead strike of 1892, almost exactly a year after Martha’s death.
When it came to running the Carnegie Steel Company, of which the H. C. Frick Coke Company was a subsidiary, Frick could be ruthless indeed, if never dishonest or extralegal. The early 1890s were a time of great labor unrest in this country as workingmen sought, by organizing, to gain an increased share of the wealth being created in industry. The owners, naturally enough, resisted. Andrew Carnegie wanted the union at the Homestead steel plant broken but, being personally very sensitive to public opinion, did not want to be seen as breaking it. He retreated to Scotland and left Frick, who didn’t give a damn about public opinion, in complete charge. “Am with you to the end,” Carnegie wrote him.
Frick, intent on a lockout, built a twelve-foot-high fence around the entire plant and hired three hundred Pinkerton detectives to man what was instantly dubbed Fort Frick. The workers, learning of the imminent arrival of the Pinkertons, set up bulwarks outside the fence surrounding Fort Frick and prepared to hold it. When the Pinkertons arrived, they were attacked with everything from rifles to dynamite, and when the dust had settled, three Pinkertons were dead and the workers were in possession of the plant. But if they had won the battle, they had lost the war. The governor of Pennsylvania dispatched eighty-five hundred militia to restore order, and under their protection Frick began hiring nonunion workers.
It was, of course, a public relations disaster for Frick and the Carnegie company until a deranged anarchist, operating on his own, tried to assassinate Frick. Alexander Berkman, a Lithuanian immigrant, barged into Frick’s office on Saturday, July 23, 1892. Frick, instinctively realizing what was happening, attempted to leap from his chair while Berkman pulled a revolver and fired at nearly point-blank range. The bullet hit Frick in the left earlobe, penetrated his neck near the base of the skull, and lodged in his back. The impact also hurled Frick off his feet, and another bullet struck him, again in the neck. An employee who happened to be in Frick’s office grabbed Berkman’s arm and deflected a third shot.
Although seriously wounded twice, Frick rose and tackled his assailant. All three men crashed to the floor, where Berkman managed to stab Frick four times with a knife before finally being subdued by other employees, who had rushed into the office. For more than two hours doctors probed for the bullets, while Frick refused anesthesia so he could help guide them. Finally he telegraphed his mother and Carnegie that he had been “shot twice, but not dangerously,” and went home.
Only years later did Frick tell someone what had happened as he stared death in the face: Martha had appeared at his side, “as clearly and as real as if she had been physically present.” Those not spiritually inclined—and I am one of that number—might well ascribe this merely to the unfathomable workings of the human mind. But there is a curious confirmatory bit of evidence. Berkman, who could not have known of Frick’s vision, claimed that he had missed Frick’s head on the first shot only because he had been dazzled by the sunlight shining brightly through the window of Frick’s office. But Frick’s window in that Pittsburgh office building faced due north.