Hissing Snakes (18-16)


While I was searching the digitized papers of Newspapers.com for Debs speeches of 1901 I came across an absolutely fantastic direct quote in the pages of the Chicago Inter Ocean — one of the windy city’s major dailies. It’s a statement taken down during debate on the convention floor of the “snap convention” of the Chicago SDP held in January 1901. The issue at hand involved a pointed communication from the Springfield SDP to the Chicago gathering challenging the convention’s motives should be politely answered or ignored.

The Chicago leadership clique was testy over having been called out over the purpose of the convention, which the Springfield organization saw as having separatist, factional intent rather than being called in the kind-hearted spirit of future unity. According to the news report, Debs went off against Springfield in an bitter and sectarian manner.

Here are Debs’s reported words:

If the “kangaroos” desire harmony, as they profess to do, why do they insult us in this manner? I am in favor of having the committee on resolutions give this letter the most considerate attention, but in their reply, let it be made manifest who is seeking to disrupt the socialistic movement in this country.

Last summer I accepted the nomination for the office of President at their hands in the interests of harmony, because I felt it my duty to accept it. My experiences after that time were most humiliating. Instead of the expected harmony we took into our midst a lot of hissing snakes. However, for the sake of our principles I propose that every effort shall be made to conciliate the factions now at variance.

This acerbic epithet, that the Springfield SDP were “a lot of hissing snakes,” was duly reproduced in the pages of The People (William Street Version), the official organ of the Springfield SDP.

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Who Were the “Hissing Snakes”?

The Free Thought Magazine

Beginning as a publisher of Unitarian literature in 1885, before turning to Populism a decade later and socialism in 1899, Charles H. Kerr (1860-1944) would become the leading publisher of Marxist literature in the United States during the Debsian era.

Although the surviving Debs correspondence and articles on the unity question are more akin to tea leaves than a diary, it is nevertheless clear that Debs (1) did not like certain individuals in the Springfield camp; (2) would have far preferred that the Chicago organization continue down its own independent path and let everyone else come to that organization rather than make nice and compromise with other organizations in a unity convention; (3) distrusted anyone having had anything to do with the Socialist Labor Party, even those who had broken personally and politically with Daniel DeLeon; and (4) harbored grudges about certain things he had read in Springfield SDP-affiliated newspapers during the fall campaign, including especially a couple letters to the editors about the Chicago organization being composed of [Debs] “hero worshippers.”

In other words, the quote above attributed to Debs calling the Springfielders “a lot of hissing snakes” is completely within the range of what he might have been expected to say in an unguarded moment.

So who exactly were these notorious ex-DeLeonist disruptionist “hissing snakes” of the Springfield SDP? I’ve made a very, very partial list:

  • Robert Bandlow, Ohio
  • J. Mahlon Barnes, Philiadelphia, future Executive Secretary, 1908 campaign head
  • G.B. Benham, San Francisco, newspaper publisher
  • William Butscher, Brooklyn, National Secretary of the Springfield organization
  • Julius Gerber, New York City, top leader of the New York SPA organization
  • Benjamin Feigenbaum, New York City, writer
  • Julius Halpern, New York
  • Ben Hanford, New York, writer
  • Job Harriman, attorney and writer, Debs’s 1900 running mate
  • Max S. Hayes, Ohio, newspaper publisher and trade union activist
  • George Herron, Christian Socialist professor
  • Morris Hillquit, NYC, future member of the NEC and party chairman
  • Charles H. Kerr, Chicago, publisher
  • Antoinette Konikow, Boston
  • Algernon Lee, Minneapolis, future head of the Rand School
  • Caleb Lipscomb, Kansas
  • Tommy Morgan, Chicago, top leader of Marxist movement in the city
  • Frank P. O’Hare, Missouri
  • Frank A. Sieverman, New York
  • A.M. Simons, Chicago, editor of International Socialist Review
  • May Wood Simons, Chicago, writer
  • Henry Slobodin, New York City, lawyer and writer
  • John Spargo, Vermont, author, future Marx biographer and member of the NEC
  • Hermon Titus, Washington, newspaper publisher
  • Ernest Untermann, future translator of Marx’s Capital
  • Gaylord Wilshire, Los Angeles magazine publisher

If that sounds like the essential core of the Socialist Party during the first decade of the 20th century, you are getting the point, with apologies to Victor Berger and his Wisconsin associates…

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If it seems too good to be true, it probably isn’t…


Alfred S. Edwards. In 1901 Edwards moved to Milwaukee to continue editing the Herald, eventually winding up editor of an IWW newspaper, in what must have been a stunning ideological flip.

Always eager to do whatever he could to sink organic unity with Springfield (and to thereby incidentally preserve his job as editor of the Chicago official organ), Social Democratic Herald editor Alfred S. Edwards took aim at The People in a post-convention editorial, claiming that neither Debs nor anyone else had made the “hissing snakes” comment and intimating that the editor of The People had made up the quotation from whole cloth.

Debs himself never denied having made the remark, mind you, but the vehemence of Edwards’s assertion that the statement had never been made certainly calls the authenticity of the remark into question.

Pity, that’s a really good quote. I will be including it, with a big asterisk, in volume 3.

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A Note about Newspapers.

As I have previously lamented, almost no letters of the Debs brothers have survived from the 1898 to 1901 period. This also stands true for the other major figure of the socialist movement of the era for whom a systematic effort has been made to assemble a microfilm collection of papers, Morris Hillquit, whose papers effectively start in 1903.

The limited number of party pamphlets and leaflets issued by the two Social Democratic Parties are also poorly preserved or vanished, with the exception of the material produced by Charles H. Kerr & Co., which was distributed by both organizations and which has survived well.

Newspapers have fortunately been very adequately preserved on microfilm, even if availability of said film can be spotty.

Chicago SDP weekly newspapers

  • cover - Newspapers.com

    Although not formally a factional organ, the editorial line of the Appeal to Reason, the largest circulation paper of the American left, was close to the perspective of the Chicago SDP. Wayland hated DeLeon and vice versa.

    Social Democratic Herald — Chicago — Est. July 9, 1898. Official organ. Complete, although issues from April to Nov. 1901 inadequately filmed and partially illegible. Paper moved to Milwaukee after the Joint Unity Convention and lost its status as official organ, becoming a privately-owned arm of Victor Berger’s publishing empire. Forerunner of Milwaukee Leader. Master negative held by State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

  • Appeal to Reason — Girard, Kansas — Est. August 1895. Privately owned Predates formation of the Social Democratic Party. Not formally factional but definitely closer in spirit to the Populist-rooted Chicago SDP than the Marxist-rooted Springfield SDP. Filmed multiple times, including by State Historical Society of Wisconsin and Kansas State Historical Society. Digitized as part of Newspapers.com. Later iterations as The New Appeal, Haldeman-Julius Weekly, and The American Freeman, terminating in the 1940s.
  • Vorwärts [Forward] — Milwaukee — Est. Aug. 21, 1898. Beginning as a special Sunday edition of a German-language socialist daily published in Milwaukee from 1887, this became a separate entity (the organ of the Milwaukee AF of L) in August 1898. Edited by Victor Berger, with a full run preserved on film, master negative held by the State Historical Society of Wisconsin. This paper continued to be published until 1932.
  • Die Wahrheit [The Truth] — Est. Aug. 21, 1898. Beginning in 1889 as the weekly summary edition of a German-language Milwaukee socialist daily, this became a separate entity in August 1898. Edited by Victor Berger, this was apparently his main German party publication, as opposed to the trade unionist Vorwärts. Broken run on film from the State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
  • Spravedlnost [Justice] — Chicago — Est. March 10, 1900. Czech-language weekly edited by F. Hlaváček, regarded as one of the key figures of Czech-American socialism. Only a few scattered issues of this paper, the circulation of which hit 6,000 in 1903, have survived. Terminated in 1914.
  • The Toiler — Terre Haute, Indiana — Establishment and termination date uncertain. Some articles are preserved in the Debs scrapbooks. Wisconsin Historical Society has a nice run of issues filmed for 1903-1904, but only a single issue before those dates.
  • Forverts [Forward, aka “Jewish Daily Forward” — New York — Yiddish-language daily.

Springfield SDP weekly newspapers

  • The People — New York City — Est. July 16, 1899. Official organ. Confusingly uses same volume and issue numbers and banner ornament as the regular SLP The People edited by Daniel DeLeon. Apparently exists in a full run, although I have only managed to locate the first year with master negative held by the New York Public Library. Forerunner of The Worker (est. April 28, 1901 using same numbering system), which later became the New York Call, finishing as the the New York Leader — which provided the name inspiration for the separate-but-similar The New Leader.
  • The Class Struggle — San Francisco — Establishment date uncertain, definitely earlier than 1899. Privately owned and edited by G.B. Benham. Publication became The Advance after formation of the Socialist Party and seems to have died in 1902. Master negative for 1900-1902 in three reels is held by Harvard University. I am in the process of obtaining a service copy of this otherwise unique print of film and will assess content when in hand.
  • The Workers’ Call — Chicago — Est. March 11, 1899. Edited by A.M. Simons, this newspaper started as a local Socialist Labor Party publication, becoming a voice of the Springfield SDP after the split of the anti-DeLeon faction in July. Continued through the end of 1901, when it was replaced by the Chicago Socialist in March 1902, going daily as the Chicago Daily Socialist c. 1907 and running until termination in 1912. The short-lived terminal name of the publication was the Chicago Evening World.
  • The Haverhill Social Democrat — Haverhill, Massachusetts — Est. Oct. 7, 1899. Privately published by the Social Democratic Publishing Association. Local coverage of the booming SDP of Massachusetts and a reliable source for pronouncements of the Springfield National Office. Renamed as The Clarion after the formation of the Socialist Party of America in the summer of 1901. Complete run filmed by New York University’s Tamiment Library and was extremely rare film until recently digitized by Marty Goodman of the Riazanov Digital Library Project.
  • The Socialist — Seattle, Washington — Est. August 12, 1900. Editor was the radical Hermon Titus, who started the paper in connection with the Debs campaign of 1900 and kept it rolling until 1910, moving at one point to Toledo, Ohio and back home again. Filmed by University of Washington (complete for early issues) and State Historical Society of Wisconsin (complete for later issues) — complete run when the filmings are considered together. First several years have been digitized, later years have not. After formation of the SPA, became the more or less official organ of the left wing.
  • The Missouri Socialist — St. Louis — Est. Jan. 5, 1901. Organ of the potent Social Democratic Party of St. Louis and that city’s labor movement, which had a strong socialist component from the German-dominated Brewers’ Union. Became St. Louis Labor. Long running paper issued into the 1920s. Two filmings, either individually complete but complete when taken together, by State Historical Society of Missouri and State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
  • International Socialist Review, the first theoretical magazine of the American socialist movement, should also be mentioned. This monthly launched in Chicago on July 1, 1900, with a strongly pro-unity orientation. Its hardcover books bore the logo of the Springfield SDP (the arm-and-torch). The publication was made into a glossy illustrated magazine at the end of 1907, when publisher Charles H. Kerr and his close associate Mary Marcy took control of the magazine from the academically-oriented A.M. Simons, who had been drifting to the right. Became an organ of the Left Wing. Suppressed during World War I, with Simons on the other side of the barricades by then.
  • Arbeiter Zeitung — St. Louis — Est. ???. German-language socialist weekly.
  • New Yorker Volkszeitung — New York — German-language daily.

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A Kind Word for Leon Greenbaum.


Leon Greenbaum (1866-19XX)

There is tendency for historians to treat Leon Greenbaum, the first National Executive Secretary of the Socialist Party, as a non-entity — a more or less random party member from the designated headquarters city, St. Louis, who was chosen for little reason more than his inoffensiveness, being free of factionalist taint by having avoided engaging in the bitter sectarian fisticuffs of 1899 and 1900.

This misses the rationale of the choice completely.

Actually, Greenbaum was the outstanding English-speaking member of Local St. Louis (a substantial organization with ties to the local trade union movement and affiliated with the Springfield SDP). Greenbaum had been the SDP’s candidate for Lt. Governor of Missouri in 1900 and headed the ticket as its candidate for Mayor of St. Louis in the city election of April 1901.

Greenbaum was a frequent contributor to the pages of the Missouri Socialist (the future St. Louis Labor) from its launch in January 1901. He was a logical choice and did a competent job getting the underfunded and greatly decentralized Socialist Party of America off the ground.

Greenbaum was not in the Executive Secretary’s chair for long, but his selection was fully understandable and his performance fully adequate.



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 10 more Saturdays after today to get the core content section of the book assembled, with a limit for publication of approximately 260,000 words.

  • “Progress of the Social Revolution” — Nov. 26, 1900 — 1,195 words
  • “A Word About the ‘Independent’” — Dec. 8, 1900 — 537 words
  • “The Approaching Convention” — Jan. 12, 1901 — 746 words
  • “Fraud and Imposture at Modern Funerals” — March 30, 1901 — 1,430 words
  • “Twilight and Dawn” — Dec. 7, 1901 — 1,488 words
  • “Peace, Peace, There Is No Peace!” — Jan. 24, 1902 — 1,484 words
  • “No Compromise With Slavery: Speech in St. Louis” [excerpt] — May 1, 1902 — 746 words
  • “‘No Masters, No Slaves’ : Keynote Speech to the Joint Convention of the Western Federation of Miners and the Western Labor Union” — May 26, 1902 — 2,034 words
  • “The Western Labor Movement” — July 1902 — 4,025 words

Word count: 169,966 in the can + 14,560 this week = 184,526 words total.

I also typed up for background the 500 word official call for the January 1901 Special Convention of the Chicago SDP; a 2,400 word report of the National Executive Board to the January 1901 Special Convention; a 315 word call for the 1st meeting of the National Committee of the SPA, held in January 1902 in Chicago; a 2,100 word news account of the January Special Convention as well as an additional 1,300 word set of “Convention Notes” by A.S. Edwards.

About carrite

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