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Rebel In A Wing Collar
Marching on Washington is an old custom. When “General” Jacob Coxey and his Commonweal Army approached in 1894, the city trembled. But “the most dangerous man since the Civil War” meekly surrendered when nabbed for walking on the grass
December 1966 | Volume 18, Issue 1
In the meantime, Coxey’s own army was struggling through Maryland in the midst of a fight for power between two of his lieutenants. The discontent that bred mutiny may have erupted for any of a number of reasons, possibly because Coxey himself was off on a side trip, perhaps because Carl Browne was riding while the others were walking, and was staying in the best hotels while his men were sleeping in tents or on the floors of jails. On April 14, the man called The Great Unknown staged an uprising, and might have wrested the leadership from Browne, had Coxey not returned just in time to restore the peace. He ordered the Unknown and his lady friend out of camp. Even Coxey’s son, Jesse, was purged and banished for associating with the mutineers; later he was reinstated “on condition that he not sulk anymore.” After this melodrama, many correspondents who had been reporting Coxey’s march in an objective manner began to do what they had wanted to do from the start—that is, burlesque it. This was hotly resented by Coxey and Browne, who attacked the writers as “argus-eyed demons of hell.”
Long exasperated with the press, Coxey devised a plan to get ricl of them. Hiring two Chesapeake and Ohio canalboats at Cumberland, he piled the army aboard and announced that they would travel in that way for the next hundred miles. Previously, the newspapermen had followed the army by horseback and carriage, and had taken turns tagging along on foot. Now they could not bear to let the army sail away from them, so they rented a third canalboat for pursuit. A cook and ample supplies of food and drink were rounded up, and the vessel was christened the Flying Demon, after Browne’s hot words. From her deck, reporters sent back entertaining descriptions of the newly amphibious army. “It was like a floating picture of Victor Hugo,” one correspondent wrote, “… the ragged forms swarming like rats over every foot of the craft, and rough … faces … peering through the cabin windows like the victims of the old French galleys.”
The cruise of the Flying Demon came to an end at Williamsport, Maryland, where Coxey and his army took to the road again. Just outside of Washington they paused to await the arrival of a contingent from Philadelphia under the leadership of “Marshal” Christopher Columbus Jones—a force which amounted to eighteen men, an American Hag, and a bulldog. On the day Jones arrived, April 23, the District of Columbia commissioners issued a manifesto directed at the Coxeyites, forbidding the soliciting of funds in the capital and warning them against assembling on the grounds of the Capitol building or obstructing public roads or highways. Chief of Police William G. Moore announced that he intended to arrest Coxey it he moved into the city, citing an 1830 law that made it a penal offense to bring any person into Washington who was likely to become a public charge. Then the Commonweal Army and the constabulary paused, each waiting for the other to make the first move.
Unfortunately for Coxey, this was the moment when first blood was spilled in what until then had been a remarkably peaceful movement. Some portions of the western contingents had been appropriating boxcars as a means of transportation; and when a group of “Coxeyites” started to make off with a Northern Pacific Railway car at Butte, Montana, a pitched battle ensued, with each side suffering one casualty. President Cleveland quickly sent federal troops to Butte, with orders to arrest the leaders of “the mob” and bring them to trial. Public sentiment for Coxey, whatever there was of it, quickly dissipated. Nevertheless, he chose to carry on. “I dare the police to arrest my men!” he replied to the suggestion that there might be violent action; and to the suggestion that there might be complete inaction, “If they starve in the streets of Washington, the stench from their ashes will force Congressional relief.”
On May 1, 1894, thousands of spectators gathered along Pennsylvania Avenue to witness the arrival of Coxey’s army in downtown Washington. “Such a fantastic aggregration never paraded itself in seriousness before the public,” the Baltimore Herald reported: There were 500 in line. Mrs. Annie L. Diggs, the Populist agitator of Kansas [was first] … then Coxey’s seventeen-year-old daughter in white on a cream-colored steed, representing the goddess of peace; Carl Browne on a great gray Percheron stallion; General Jacob Sechler Coxey, his wife, and infant son … together in another carriage; Virginia La Valette, said to be an actress, on horseback, draped in an American flag as the Philadelphia Commune’s goddess of peace; [then] the unemployed carrying white flags of peace on staves and the nondescript banners setting forth the doctrines of reincarnation, good roads, and enmity to plutocrats sprinkled through the caravan.