Across Iowa in Debs’s Red Special (19-17)


Well, I promised that weekly blog posts would be things of the past last week, and wouldn’t you know it, a perfect bit fell into my hands — a clipping from the Debs scrapbooks that won’t make the cut as an appendix piece for Debs Volume 4 but which deserves to be preserved for posterity.

So, without further ado…


Across Iowa in Debs’s Red Special

[September 2, 1908]

by Faith McAllister

Published in the Des Moines News, Sept. 7, 1908

“The Snowball Special — that’s what I call it. Gathering speed and growing bigger every second. And I say to myself when I see it: ‘Bah Jove! You know, somebody’s going to get smashed!”

His honest British face alight with enthusiasm, his [red] necktie, symbol of socialism, flaring defiantly, Charles Lapworth, English “journalist” on board Debs’s Red Special thus describes the flying flag-draped train and the party it represents.


Journalist Faith McAllister of the Des Moines News

Lapworth can’t always see a joke, and he calls newspaper men “journalists.” But he is heart, soul, and body a socialist. It is whispered aboard the Special that the young Britisher left the girl of his heart across the water and postponed his wedding in order to travel on the “Red Special” and spread the socialistic propaganda through British and continental papers. Every day he sends out his little bundle of “stuff” to the foreign press.

And Lapworth is but a sample of the spirit of the “Red Special.” The whole train is bubbling over with enthusiasm, good cheer, and socialism. A ride with Debs across Iowa is a revelation. I looked in vain for the long-whiskered, wild-eyed individuals. Neither could I discover any bombs under the seats. But they all wear the little red flags — the sign of the revolution.

There is Stephen Reynolds, lifelong friend of Debs and the life of the Special. Reynolds even wears a little red flag on his nightshirt.

“Why?” says Reynolds, “Because something might happen in the night and they would find me dead or unconscious. How would they know I wasn’t a Republican?”

It was a typical remark. One can’t be on the train an hour without realizing that underneath the velvet glove of gay badinage and chatter there is the iron hand of stern purpose.

But such a gay, carefree lot as they are — this party whizzing across the country on a mission. I boarded the train in the cold, gray dawn. I wore my plainest clothes that I might not offend by even a suspicion of any unpleasant display of wealth. Soon the socialists began crawling out of their lairs. The unkempt, whiskered visions vanished. They were as well groomed a set of men as one could desire. And immediately the fun began. Everybody was in good spirits. They juggled with jokes continually and verbal skyrockets and pinwheels kept the air snapping.

Debs a Wit

Debs is the biggest wit of the lot, with his friend, Reynolds, a close second. Reynolds is a lawyer and writer of Terre Haute, Indiana, Mr. Debs’s home, and he probably knows and understands Mr. Debs better than any other person.


Theodore and Gene Debs aboard the Red Special in 1908. Theodore was one of EVD’s closest political associates and served as his personal secretary throughout his life. He could also type whereas Gene could not.

At the breakfast table Mr. Reynolds was describing how he and Theodore Debs had folded “Gene” up in the upper berth after they had retired in the lower.

“Oh, well,” said Mr. Debs pleasantly, “ they were only doing what all the rest of the socialists are — trying to get the best of the upper class.”

Mr. Debs declares that he and his brother, Theodore, are really long-haired. “We have three long hairs between us,” he asserts.

Mr. Reynolds and Brother Theodore keep a close watch on the presidential candidate. They won’t let him get loose of a mob for fear he’ll shake his hand off. The won’t even allow him to change his collar without their permission. I asked Mr. Debs what had been the most delightful experience of the trip so far.

“Careful, careful!” warned his two guardians, fixing him with an eagle eye.

“Oh, associating with this brace of despots, I suppose,” said Debs, resignedly, indicating the two across the table. < punch line illegible. >

But though it is a train of laughter and good cheer, back of it all is the Cause. And the flying, flag-draped train is sowing the seed of revolution. “You may jeer at us now,” says Debs to the crowd on the platform, “but your grandchildren will bless us.” And at every station where the train stops it leaves behind it at least a few men with toil-hardened hands and faces grown suddenly grim, who look after the fading plume of smoke and say: “By God, he’s right!”

“Did you take one of those things?” said a woman at Corning, laughing derisively at a man in overalls who stood clasping a book of socialistic doctrine.

The man nodded, a little shame-faced, but defiant.

On the Special they tell of an incident at a town along the line where a tattered fellow hauled out his little ARU card and said with tears streaming down his cheeks: “I’d rather have that than a king’s ransom!”

“And Gene put his hand on the man’s shoulder and the tears were running down his cheeks, too,” said a member of the party.


The Red Special started it’s second day of travel in the Mississippi River city of Davenport, Iowa, and proceeded with speaking stops in Muscatine, Iowa City, Grinnell, and Newton, before ending with an evening meeting in Des Moines. On the third day it departed south through Creston, Corning, and Clarinda, en route to Kansas City, Missouri. (Path shown approximate, not exact path of railway lines).

Railroad Men With Him

While the Special was in the yards at Des Moines, Debs walked down the track a little way by himself. He was followed by two grizzled engineers. They followed him silently for a while and when he turned around to come back they put out two big, scarred hands.

“You don’t know us, but we know you, and we want to tell you we’re with you,” they said.

Women, too, are watching the course of the “Red Special.”


Union depot, Grinnell, Iowa

“He’s the real Christ man; don’t I just love him? I’m one of the women that lives in those huts he tells about,” said a woman whose face was seamed with care and toil, at one of the stops along the way.

Debs is a keen speaker. Here is a typical scene along the path of the Red Special: With band playing and the colors flying the train comes to a stop. Most of the crowd is there from curiosity. And he begins to speak.

“You’ve heard of these monkey dinners the swell sets give. You help furnish the money for those dinners. And those people wouldn’t even give you an introduction to one of the monkeys. When society gets in such a state that it cares more for the rich woman’s poodle dog than it does for the poor man’s child, it’s time some of you were taking a tumble.”

Sounds a little like anarchy? Maybe, but the seed has been sown and men out of the group follow the fast fading special with thoughtful eyes after Debs has waved them a hearty farewell.


Burlington depot, Creston, Iowa

On board the Special, Debs is “Gene” or “Debs” or “Comrade” to everybody. There’s no airs or red tape about Comrade Gene. He comes in among them in his shirt sleeves. Hands reach out on all sides to clasp his. It’s “Hello, Comrade,” here, and “How are you, Bill?” there. Then he sits down on the arm of the nearest seat and talks about the country, asks how they passed the night, and inevitably the talk veers round to the “Cause.” And whenever Debs talks on this, no matter how often they’ve heard him talk before, everyone grows quiet and leans forward, listening. For Debs always has something to say. Or at least he can clothe the same arguments in ever fascinating, changing modes of speech.

Speak the name of Jack London on board the Special and a look almost of reverence comes into their eyes. They can’t say enough of him. He is their comrade.

This is how I got my first interview with Debs. It was before breakfast. Debs sat on the arm of the car seat, in his shirt sleeves, minus a collar.

“Yes, the trip has been a grand success. The enthusiasm is growing all the time,” he said. “I’ve enjoyed the ride across Iowa. I think there’s no prettier country in the world than that between Cedar Rapids and Omaha.”

“And what about socialism, Mr. Debs?”

It was like the bugle call to the cavalry horse, which leaned forward. His words came out crisp and clear. And around us the others stopped laughing and chatting. They, too, leaned forward, eagerly listening. There is no mistaking the sincerity of the man. His kindliness and gentle charm of manner get a hold on you after half an hour in his company. People aboard the Special say Eugene V. Debs hasn’t a personal enemy in the world. Sometimes he is biting and fiery in his arguments. But most always he is gentle, seeking to convince more by logic than by ranting.

“Socialism means just more kindness, more humanity to each other,” he said, his face alight. “Kindness is what all the world is hungering for. Under the present system people are forced to develop tigerish instincts.”

Gives Capital a Decade

Screen Shot 2019-06-30 at 7.30.29 AM

Headline from the Des Moines Daily Tribune covering EVD’s speech to 2,000 people in that city the night of Sept. 1. Not sure what “Refers Hungrey (sic.) Workers to Heaven for Bread” is supposed to mean.

When asked how soon he believed the Socialists would be in power, Mr. Debs said: “In ten years they will at least be crowding the capitalists.”

The train carries 26 people, including the band. They have their own sleeper, dining car, and colored cook servants.† A baggage car, chair car, and engine make up the rest of the “Red Special.” Among those on board the trip across Iowa were: Cecil K. Eastman, of the Kansas City Star, who boarded the train at Des Moines [6 am, Sept. 2] and went with them to Kansas City [3:30 pm]; A.M. Simons, editor of the Chicago Socialist; Otto McFeeley, press representative; Charles Lapworth, the English writer; A.H. Floaten, who was run out of Telluride, Colorado in 1905 for giving credit to the striking miners; J.C. Chase, first socialist mayor of America at Haverhill, Mass., and others.

Making one-night stops at the principal cities, the “Red Special” will make its way to the coast, stopping at Los Angeles, San Francisco, and other points, then up the coast to Portland, Seattle, Spokane, and back to Chicago by way of Montana, South Dakota, and Minnesota. The tour will end in Chicago, September 25.



† – The sleeper and the dining car — dirty little secret for those of you who know the Debs-ARU story — were leased from the Pullman company; the “colored servants” were Pullman employees. I am not 100% sure they used the same configuration for the eastern leg of the tour, they did not roll out the same night of the evening speeches the way they did in the West and it remains at least theoretically possible that they disembarked and stayed in hotels. I’ve also somewhere heard that the “Red Special” cars were coupled to ordinary trains for part of the route. So take this description as being accurate for the first half of the Red Special’s run but not necessarily the eastern leg. —t.d.

•     •     •     •     •

A very productive week this week, now wrapping up 1908, but given the pace of work and the amount remaining to be done for Volume 4 (the full years 1909 and 1910), it’s safe to say that I’ll be done with the transcription phase more like the first of September than the first of August. So it goes…

Deadline for the manuscript remains October 15, so I do have the time I need without needing to beg an extension. There should be right around 300,000 words to cut down to the 260,000 word hole when the smoke clears…



The official deadline for Eugene V. Debs Selected Works: Volume 4 is October 15, 2019. I’m setting a soft deadline of August 4 to finish the document compilation phase of the project. This means there are now 5 more Sundays after today to get the core content section of the book assembled, with a limit for publication of approximately 260,000 words.

  • “Independence and Liberty” (July 3, 1908) — 1,288 words
  • “Women Needed in the Campaign” (August 1908) — 359 words
  • “Organized Labor’s New Turn to Politics” (August 9, 1908) — 970 words
  • “Railroad Employees and Socialism” (October 1908) — 3,135 words
  • “The Socialist Party’s Appeal for 1908” (Oct. 15, 1908) — 2,785 words
  • “Throwing Away Their Votes” (Oct. 26, 1908) — 2,073 words

Word count: 228,630 in the can + 10,610 this week +/- amendments = 239,518 words total.

David Walters will be running all of this material up on Marxists Internet Archive in coming days.

To find it, please visit the Eugene V. Debs Internet Archive



Here’s the microfilm that I’ve scanned this week, available for free download. Bear in mind that there is generally a short delay between completion of the scanning and its appearance on MIA. Thanks are due to David Walters for getting this material into an accessible format.

The National Rip-Saw — 1908, 1909.

The New York Call — 1909 (March-June)

About carrite

Independent scholar from Corvallis, Oregon with a strong interest in early 20th century political history.
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s