End of the century (18-09)


Well, I mopped up 1899 in pretty short order, finishing up by dinnertime Monday, March 26. I’m coming to understand that there were “light years” and “heavy years” for Debs. The year 1897 was a heavy one; 1898 and 1899 are both light. Next week I start with the 20th Century…

Proud possessor of a little free time, I think I’m going to circle back next week for a little series of articles that Debs wrote in 1897 for the Cloud City Miners Union. I found them on the Debs papers microfilm but I figured there was no way that they would make the book so I let them go. Now, after the two “light” years of Not Very Much Debs, it appears that a salvage job may be a worthwhile venture.

I’ve actually been feeling a bit haunted about leaving that series of articles on the cutting room floor ever since I made the call, which is indicagive that it was a bad decision in the first place.

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As I previously mentioned in this blog, beginning with a 20 date tour of Iowa in December 1898, all indications were that Debs had reversed his earlier position that he would not stoop to pocketing filthy lucre in return for speeches he delivered but had instead embarked upon a career as a paid public orator.

The Railroad Trainman

Louis W. Rogers (1859-1953), a former railroad brakeman turned newspapers publisher, split politically with Debs at the time of establishment of the Social Democracy but came back as manager of his paid lectures in December 1898.

This initial observation was confirmed by Debs himself in an interview which I located last week that was given in the middle of that first paid tour, in which the entertaining labor orator declared:

My object? To pay off the debts resultant upon the great strike, which are not legally mine to pay, but morally I mean to pay them. Lawyers, courts, injunctions, and such luxuries cost money, and our brief experience painfully demonstrated the truth of that assertion.

The cost of the ARU’s legal defense during the 1894 strike ran well into five digits, as I recall, and the union was effectively broke and broken in the aftermath. Debs assumed these debts as a personal point of honor and spent years paying off the bills — a fact of which he was later justifiably proud.

Debs made use of professional managers for his paid speaking engagements, the first of which was former ARU Vice President Louis W. Rogers. Rogers went so far as to publish a nearly 1,000 word teaser for the “1899-1900 season” in The Coming Nation, in which  he indicates that there were multiple methods of paying for The Earnest Hoosier’s services:

Various plans for making engagements have been devised so that arrangements can be adapted to almost any locality and circumstances, and thus practically all who earnestly desire a lecture by Mr. Debs will find it in their power to secure him.

FreeDebsPresumably one of these methods of payment involved a percentage of the gate — one sees advertised prices of 25 cents general admission and 35 cents reserved with regularity. Another means of compensation, apparently, was sponsorship by union groups through payment of a fixed-sum as an honorarium — one also sees frequent mention of “free” lectures sponsored under the auspices of some regional trade union assembly or local of an national union, such as the United Mine Workers of America.

So, how much did it cost to rent Debs’s services? The clipping at the right provides a clue, mentioning a total expense, including advertising (and presumably hall rental) of “about $200.” This would imply a payment to Debs in the ballpark of $75, plus or minus $25, it seems to me — from which he would have to pay transportation costs (rail travel was expensive), lodging, food, and the cost of supporting manager Rogers, not to mention the living expenses of his wife at home in Terre Haute.

It’s an arithmetic question and I’m just sketching in the outlines here rather than attempting to provide a final answer. What we really need is an example of a Debs speaking contract or a precise statement of the amount of an honorarium published in the press or preserved in a letter. I’m sure that information is out there somewhere.

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Drawing of Gene Debs, as published in the San Francisco Call, Nov. 1, 1899. The image is adapted from a photograph appearing in the Feb. 1898 issue of The New Time.

During 1899, Gene Debs continued to take his “Labor and Liberty” lecture on the road, playing the opera houses and public auditoriums of small and medium sized towns. His April tour of Inidiana and Ohio was followed with a May swing through the South and Southwest, featuring a set of dates in Texas from May 13-23.

The month of June found Debs back in the industrial midwest, visiting Northern Ohio and Pennsylvania. Then in late June and July it was the Upper Midwest, with a swing through Wisconsin and Minnesota and a brief appearance in South Dakota. Finally, in August, Debs shut down the touring machine and spent a little time at home in Terre Haute. The Chicago Inter Ocean thought the event of Debs going home to rest and recharge newsworthy enough to run a short notice of the fact.

Then in the fall, a new touring season began. September saw a few spot dates in the Midwest, but in October a really long road trip began, with visits to Winnipeg, Rat Portage (Kenora, Ont.),  Montana, British Columbia, Washington, and California — Northern and Southern. After his dates in California, Debs sped home via a direct route, according to all indications.

It wasn’t until the middle of November that Debs would be back in the Midwest again, attending a full meeting of the National Executive Board of the Social Democratic Party in Chicago on November 12. This seems to have been the only physical meeting of the five member NEB in 1899 — the only one about which I am finding notice, in any event. This indicates that day-to-day operations of the organization were handled with little official oversight by EVD’s brother Theodore, the person who would assume L.W. Rogers’ role as booking agent and tour manager later in life.

The NEB occupied itself with setting up a basis for representation at the forthcoming 1900 National Convention of the SDP, already set by membership referendum vote to begin on the first Tuesday in March in Chicago. The board also spent time discussing the unity appeal of the dissident Volkszeitung-Slobodin-Hillquit faction of the Socialist Labor Party, a group which attempted to depose Daniel DeLeon and his New York City-based leadership group earlier in the year. The result of the attempted overthrow was the brief emergence of two Socialist Labor Parties, each producing their own edition of the official organ, The People. Complete copies of the dissident People were preserved in Debs’s scrapbooks, so we know he was following the intraparty war in the SLP with interest.

DDL & Co. eventually won control of the party name and assets in the courts, and the dissidents ultimately joined forces with the Chicago-based Social Democratic Party to form the Socialist Party of America — but that’s getting ahead of the story.

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There was one more road tour in 1899, with EVD departing Terre Haute on November 18 for Rochester. He spent time in coal country in Pennsylvania and made a few appearances in the SDP hotbed of Massachusetts, cheering the party on to reelection in Haverhill. On the return trip, Debs played some dates in Pennsylvania and Ohio, arriving home in early December and shutting things down for the Christmas holiday.

Debs almost certainly made more than 200 speeches in 1899, most of which were not covered in any depth in the press. He wrote very little. It was a year of public oratory, ephemeral words dispensed to the purchasers of 25 cent admission tickets…

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Here’s a little Charles H. Kerr & Co. trivia. Kerr, who started as a publisher of Unitarian religious literature in the middle 1880s, evolved to a political publisher about a decade later, publishing an array of material on free silver and the tariff, as well as utopian fiction.


Kerr’s “Morals and Socialism” (Dec. 15, 1899). Until about 1907, the Pocket Library of Socialism pamphlets were issued with red glassine wraps, some of the earliest of which had an embossed “snakeskin” pattern. As with the “Little Blue Books” of Haldeman-Julius, these pamphlets were reprinted many times with different publisher addresses in the front and book advertisements in the back. Values range from about $15 to $75+.

In the spring of 1899 Kerr took a clear turn towards Marxism, launching its “Pocket Library of Socialism” in close connection with the Social Democratic Party. The Pocket Library — which ultimately ran for something like 15 years — seems to originally have been conceived as a “daintily printed” 10 pamphlet set, which the SDP pushed enthusiastically through its official organ, Social Democratic Herald.

For the record, here are the first ten titles, all of which were released in 1899:

  1. May Wood Simons, Woman and the Social Problem.
  2. William H. Noyes, The Evolution of the Class Struggle.
  3. Robert Blatchford, Imprudent Marriages.
  4. A.M. Simons, Packingtown.
  5. Clarence S. Darrow, Realism in Literature and Art.
  6. A.M. Simons, Single Tax vs. Socialism.
  7. Karl Marx, Wage-Labor and Capital.
  8. A.M. Simons, The Man Under the Machine.
  9. Charles H. Vail, The Mission of the Working Class.
  10. Charles H. Kerr, Morals and Socialism + E. Belfort Bax, The Odd Trick.

Cover price of these little pamphlets was 5 cents each, or a mix of 40 for a dollar. The Herald also offered sets of 10 as a premium for anyone sending in five annual subscriptions at 50 cents each.

The emergence of Charles H. Kerr & Co. as a prolific and inexpensive Marxist publisher was directly related to Debs leaving the field as a radical pamphlet publisher and bookseller in 1901, I believe.

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Old business.

In the March 3 Debs Project blog I told this “weird little story”:

In the middle of September [1898] Debs made a quick trip to Toronto, where the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen were holding their annual convention. There was no SDP-related reason for him to go there, nor any big strike with organizers seeking his presence, nor was he up on charges for alleged financial malfeasance from his time as Secretary-Treasurer and needing to appear to make an answer, so far as I’m aware. After some bitterness and whispering about nepotism, Debs’s administration of affairs had already been certified clean by the brotherhood.

There was simply no reason for Debs to have been in Toronto at all in September 1898.

Then a few days later there appeared a wire story — apparently a leak to the press, unattributed information. Debs had wanted his old editorial job back or some other paid post with the B of LF, it was intimated. He had not been successful. No soup for you. His old railway brothers and their still prosperous organization had told him to get bent.

Was this news snippet true? Was it a case of imaginative reporting by a newspaper scrawler in need of a juicy story?

Again: there is not enough information to answer this question just now.

I have subsequently found a couple lines in an obscure interview that Debs gave to one of the Terre Haute newspapers that more or less satisfactorily explains the situation. Debs is directly quoted as follows:

“Somebody started a story that I went to Toronto to get an office in the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. I went there because I was near at hand and at the invitation of some individual members of the organization. While I do not believe in the theory of the Firemen’s order, its principles in my opinion being narrow and not on broad or liberal lines, I have never lost interest in the members, as I grew up in the order, one might say, and the welcome I received in Toronto was of the warmest possible character and very gratifying to me.”  (Terre Haute Gazette, Sept. 29, 1898)

Not a very spicy story — Debs went to the B of LF convention in Toronto because he simply felt like going…

We can now mark this mini mystery closed.



The deadline for Eugene V. Debs Selected Works: Volume 3 is October 15, 2018. I’m setting a soft deadline of August 1 to finish the document compilation phase of the project. This means there are now 17 more Saturdays after today to get the core content section of the book assembled, with a limit for publication of approximately 260,000 words.

  • “The Cooperative Commonwealth” — June 1, 1897 — 490 words
  • “Women in the Movement: Interview with Dorothy Richardson in the Milwaukee Sentinel” — circa July 8, 1897 — 1,613 words
  • “Proclamation Needed to End Coal Strike” — Aug. 24, 1897 — 340 words
  • “St. Louis Convention Rejects Government by Injunction” — Aug. 31, 1897 — 502 words
  • “Social Democracy” — February 1898 — 1,872 words
  • “Signs of Social Revolution” — Sept. 2, 1899 — 613 words
  • “I Will Not Be a Candidate for President: Interview in LaPorte, Indiana” [excerpt] — Nov. 13, 1899 — 179 words
  • “Statement about Reestablishing the American Railway Union” — circa Nov. 17, 1899 — 223 words
  • “The Haverhill Municipal Campaign: Speech in Haverhill, MA” [excerpt] — Nov. 27, 1899 — 1,067 words
  • “Competition vs. Cooperation: Speech at Central Music Hall, Chicago” — Sept. 29, 1900 — 4,832 words

Word count: 94,980 in the can +  11,746 this week = 106,726 words total

I also typed up a 929 promotional piece by Debs’s fellow ARU official and Woodstock Jail inmate, L.W. Rogers — the manager of Debs’s paid speaking activity that started in December 1898 with the 20 date “Labor and Liberty” tour of Iowa. Rogers announces the start of a new tour for 1899-1900, featuring the Bellamyesque title “Looking Forward.” Also typed up was a 1,000 word criticism of Victor Berger and the political actionists who split the SDA in June 1898 by Laurence Gronlund; two Chicago Chronicle articles totaling 1,150 words on the two party conventions springing from the 1898 split of the Social Democracy; and a 925 word defense of the colonizationist wing from their detractors by James Hogan, a former Woodstock prisoner with Debs who became chair of the SDA after the split of the political actionists.


THE BIGGEST REPOSITORY OF DEBS MATERIAL ON THE INTERNET is located at Marxists Internet Archive, curated by David Walters. Here’s the link if you want to track down an article or explore the Debs body of work…


About carrite

Independent scholar from Corvallis, Oregon with a strong interest in early 20th century political history.
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