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This Day in Labor History: July 23, 1892

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On July 23, 1892, the anarchist Alexander Berkman walked into the office of the capitalist and Carnegie Steel executive Henry Clay Frick with a knife and gun in order to kill him for his actions at the Homestead Strike. Being an anarchist, he failed miserably. More importantly, this moment is a good time to discuss violence in the Gilded Age labor movement.

Let’s start with a basic fact: Henry Clay Frick deserved to be murdered. This was a truly awful human being responsible for the deaths of a whole lot of people. First, there was his culpability in the Johnstown Flood, where the negligence of he and his friends led to over 2200 dead people. Admittedly, he didn’t order their killings, but he also just didn’t care whether they lived or died. Second, there was his actions at Homestead. To review this famous incident, Frick was the second in command to Andrew Carnegie at Carnegie Steel. Frick hated unions. I mean, all Gilded Age capitalists hated unions but Frick truly despised them. He once personally evicted a worker from company housing by picking him up and throwing him in a creek. The world would have been better off without Henry Clay Frick in it. But that doesn’t excuse Berkman’s actions.

Berkman was born in 1870 in Vilinus, in what is today Lithuania, to a wealthy Jewish family. Because of their wealth, the Czar allowed them to move from the Pale of Settlement to St. Petersburg. The young Berkman became attracted to the radical political ideas part of the atmosphere there, which had famously led to the assassination of Alexander II. With his family increasingly ashamed of his radicalism, Berkman immigrated to the United States in 1888. He immediately became involved in the fight to free the remaining Haymarket martyrs and joined the first Jewish anarchist group in New York. He met another young Jewish anarchist, Emma Goldman, in 1889. They became lovers. They also fell under the influence of Johann Most, the anarchist articulating “the propaganda of the deed,” which effectively meant that individual acts of violence were good, even if they killed innocents, because the repressive state response would show its true colors and spark a revolutionary movement.

Berkman and Goldman moved to Worcester and opened an ice cream shop. Then Homestead happened. Although they had no connection to the steel workers, they decided that action was necessary to make Frick pay for what he had done. So they decided to kill him. Goldman attempted to fund it by working as a prostitute, to ridiculous results. But Berkman managed to get his assassination attempt in anyway. He wanted to make a bomb, because that’s how Russian anarchists rolled, but he didn’t know how. So he got the knife and gun. He managed to get into Frick’s office. He fired two bullets at him and missed, because he was an incompetent clod. He was then tackled but managed to stab him three times. But Frick did not suffer serious wounds. An associate of his and Goldman’s named Modest Aronstam arrived in Pittsburgh the next day wtih dynamite to finish the job, but he was already known and when his name appeared in newspapers, he fled.

How do you walk into the office of an unarmed capitalist with a knife and a gun and fail to even seriously wound him? There’s a simple answer. You are completely incompetent. That was Alexander Berkman to a tee.

Let’s step back a moment and look at the ridiculousness of this act. It would be one thing if the Homestead strikers themselves decided to kill Frick. One could almost justify it. It wouldn’t have been the first time Gilded Age strikers used violence to defend their interests. The Molly Maguires, while not really a labor movement per se, had done this. Some anarchist threw the bomb at Haymarket, and while it was certainly not a member of the McCormick workers union who cops had killed the previous day, was at least someone involved in the larger maelstrom of the Chicago 8-hour day strikes. The miners at the Frisco Mill in Idaho had bombed a mine in a pitched battle with Pinkertons. In 1910, two Ironworkers leaders would blow up the Los Angeles Times building because Harrison Gray Otis was so critical to that city’s anti-unionism. The latter ended up a complete disaster and was a bad idea to begin with, but at least in all these cases, it was the affected workers acting. And then at Blair Mountain, West Virginia miners rose up in armed revolt against their oppression, leading to the largest domestic insurrection since the Civil War.

Berkman and Goldman were acting out of pure ideology. They didn’t know any Homestead workers and they didn’t consult with any Homestead workers. Moreover, the attempted assassination turned public sympathy away from the strikers, who of course had nothing to do with it. Even Johann Most repudiated Berkman for this, embittering him. All Berkman’s actions accomplished was 14 years in prison. He got out in 1906 and still worked with Goldman, even though their romance was dead. He suffered from crippling depression in his post-prison years. Finally, in 1907, Goldman named him editor of her paper, Mother Earth, and this gave him more purpose. Berkman learned nothing. He was involved in a plot to build bombs after the Ludlow Massacre, again totally disconnected from the mineworkers. But one went off in the apartment where they were being built and most of his co-conspirators died. They were both rounded up and deported to the Soviet Union during the Red Scare. They both became disillusioned as well, but found themselves isolated by the left which had largely turned toward seeing the Soviet experiment as the future. He moved to France in 1925 and lived there until 1936, when he committed suicide because his health was failing badly. He still didn’t know how to use a gun. He missed his heart and instead lingered on, unable to speak, for awhile before slowly dying.

It’s also worth noting that for all their fame, not only did Berkman really accomplish nothing but Goldman didn’t either. They never connected with actual workers movements, nor did they become involved in the IWW, which certainly welcomed leading anarchists as organizers and propagandists. They were independent operators and are massively overrated as historical figures, especially Goldman, who used her fame to give speaking tours that made her a good bit of money and avoided the hard work of organizing.

Frick would go on to be the most publicly hated man of the Gilded Age.

This was hardly the last moment of anti-employer or anti-capitalist violence during the Gilded Age. Most famous was Leon Czolgosz’s assassination of President William McKinley. Czolgosz made Berkman look rational and sane. Eventually, all this violence did lead the government to begin wondering why and discovering that, yes, workers did have it horrible. But none of these acts caused anything close to the revolution that Berkman wanted to spark.

This is the 233rd post in this series. Previous posts are archived here.

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  • I have a young 20-something niece who’s just coming out of an anarchist phase. She thought Goldman was some sort of prophet, and anarchy could actually work to produce good results for society. I think the first crack in her anarchist foundation was when she and her boyfriend had to call the cops to deal with an unruly neighbor. Seems that maybe some sort of state apparatus to impose societal norms isn’t all bad.

    • Steve LaBonne

      Anarchism is the left-wing version of libertarianism. It’s just as self-indulgent even if its motivation is ostensibly less selfish, and just as out of touch with reality.

    • BigHank53

      Anarchism–like libertarianism–is great fun when limited to dorm-room bullshit sessions. In the real world, of course, one tends to run into problems pretty quickly. The question I like to ask people advocating for demolishing the state is “What about contracts we don’t want people to make? For example: how much to have sex with the little one?” (Holds hand three feet off floor.)

      We need police.
      We need them to be impartial.
      Which means they need to be funded by everyone.
      Which means we need taxes and a state to collect them.
      …and we’re back home again.

      • Those are pretty much the rocks her anarchism ran aground on. The guy in the next apartment was threatening them with violence. And suddenly having a state presence in the form of the police was not just a good thing but a necessary thing.

      • LeeEsq

        Or how do you run waste management systems, transportation networks, and electrical power grids without a big powerful organization like a government or corporation?

    • LeeEsq

      George Bernard Shaw made a similar observation about anarchism in the late 19th or early 20th century. Another thing that I never understood about anarchism is how you were going to maintain and run complex technical systems like sewers, electrical grids, and transportation networks without large scale and somewhat coerced organization.

      • I guess those things just sort of happen. Because everyone would be pulling for the common good and not, say, turning into your local warlord who takes by force and rules by fear. Because nothing like that has ever happened in the absence of government.

      • Justin Runia

        It’s that that point that the hardcore Anarchos turn into Anarcho-primitivists, and yes, before you ask, only dudes become Anarcho-primitivists.

  • Frick’s former estate in Pittsburgh is worth seeing if you’re ever there.

    • woodrowfan

      I really can’t visit those huge old Gilded Age homes. they just make me angry.

      • Steve LaBonne

        Make an exception for the Frick Collection if you haven’t already.

        • reattmore

          Say what you will about Frick–he had good taste in art:

          http://collections.frick.org/collections/124/painting/objects

          • Gregor Sansa

            Or he could afford to buy good taste in art.

            • wjts

              No, he had a genuine personal interest in art.

              • Steve LaBonne

                The Religion of Art is as big a pile of crap as other religions. Plenty of truly horrible people have been great artists or great connoisseurs of the arts.

        • Karen

          Exactly. And enjoy the fact that HCF would have had a fit if he knew ordinary people were looking at his paintings.

      • wjts

        His Pittsburgh home is actually pretty modest, so far as robber baronial manses go.

        • Unemployed_Northeastern

          His summer home in Beverly, Massachusetts, was pretty not modest. It was torn down decades ago, as a lot of the Gilded Age *summer cottages* outside of Newport have been. Descendants either couldn’t / wouldn’t take care of them or they were built too close to the water and flooded in every hurricane, blizzard, etc. That being said, there are a few Gilded Age palaces that have survived in private hands in Beverly / Manchester-by-the-Sea, Gloucester, etc., others are now part of the grounds of Endicott College, and Crane Hill in Ipswich has long been part of the Trustees of Reservations system.

      • Murc

        they just make me angry.

        They actually make me puzzled.

        I’m always like “this is luxurious? all of this furniture looks extraordinarily uncomfortable, the beds look very small, and despite the house itself being enormous many of the rooms in this house seem very small and very cluttered.”

        Some of the libraries and studies have impressed the hell out of me, tho. They always seem a lot more lived-in than the rest of the house, you look at them and go “I can see spending hours reading and working in there.” But only some of them.

        • Deborah Bender

          I’m a big fan of the Arts and Crafts movement, which arrived in the US late in the nineteenth century. The proportions of the public rooms are closer to current taste. The Gamble House in Pasadena, which was a seasonal home of the Gamble family of Proctor & Gamble, is considered the epitome of American A & C domestic architecture. I’ve toured it. It’s a big house but not an enormous one for a family. I would be very happy to live in it in the winter when Pasadena isn’t smoggy, or in another architect-designed house of that style and quality of execution, with most of the furnishings. I own a few decorative objects from the period (a painting, pottery and metalwork) and I love them.

    • wjts

      It’s OK. The fawning obsequiousness towards Frick and his legacy is a little much.

    • Mart

      When I was a grade school kid we spent many days in Frick Park. Awesome hills for bike riding, could go all the way to the steel mill fly ash fields by the river. Great sledding in the winter. We used to bang on cars in lover’s lane. Then run onto the paths in the woods that our pursuers could not find. And then throw rocks at them. Used to like to watch the old men play Bocce. School field trips to the Frick Museum were a drag, Nobody ever told us he was a monster.

  • Abigail Nussbaum

    There really needs to be (and, in fairness, probably already has been, in academia) a conversation about the different sorts of political violence, their sources and effectiveness. My gut reaction has always been that there are violent actors who are little more than looky-loos, and those who are in the thick of things, and that the former tend to botch things terribly and get their fellow travelers killed and discredited. But I don’t know if it’s fair to class Goldman or Berkman in that group. And, of course, that doesn’t account for political violence that is plainly psychopathic, like the murders of the Fogel family in 2011, or the Solomon family just this weekend.

    It’s also worth talking about the effectiveness of political violence of any stripe, and how limited it is. In my life, I’ve seen the population at large go from “we must do anything to stop this terrible violence, even negotiate for peace” to “this violence proves that there is no one we can make peace with, therefore we must continue with our repressive policies”. This happened in the space of a few years, and once the second stage is achieved it seems impossible to move people from it.

    • Steve LaBonne

      My off the top of the head position is that violence in defense of oppressed people can be justifiable, even if its effectiveness is questionable because the oppressors usually have the big guns. But violence committed in cold blood out of ideological convictions is simply a crime. But I’m sure plenty of holes can be poked in that formulation.

      • Karen

        I see merit in this. Violence designed to stop or slow something bad from happening can be defended and is often useful — say, destroying the railroad tracks to a concentration camp or disabling the bulldozers set to clear a forest. Such actions should take every precaution against injuring any people, and if that isn’t possible make sure the humans are directly culpable. (See, killing Reinardt Heidrich.).

      • LeeEsq

        The question is who are an oppressed people gets tricky though.

        • Steve LaBonne

          Hard cases make bad law. 90+% of the time the identities of screwer and screwee are pretty clear to anyone who isn’t paid to excuse the former.

    • LeeEsq

      This book on the use of terrorism by Jewish nationalists during the British Mandate period deals with the effectiveness of political violence.

      https://www.amazon.com/Soldiers-Struggle-Israel-1917-1947-ebook/dp/B00N6PER5A/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1500817031&sr=8-1&keywords=anonymous+soldiers

      • Latverian Diplomat

        Terrorism against colonial rulers is plausibly effective in that at some point, it’s cheaper for them to just go home.

        Terrorism against a domestic oppressive regime or economic system is, I think, a more difficult proposition. To some extent, the cold war change over from colonialism to US-friendly dictators in many former colonies is a result of this difference.

  • Gregor Sansa

    Henry Clay Frick deserved to be murdered.

    I don’t think that’s a good thing to ever say. He deserved to be tried for his atrocities and held to account. But even after a trial, the death penalty is barbaric; and “murdered” implies a lack of a trial.

    However, I would accept “Henry Clay Frick deserved no sympathy, even if murdered.” The quality of mercy is not strained, so anyone is free to give a hypothetical murder victim whatever sympathy they want, but he certainly didn’t deserve any.

    • Karen

      And since you mentioned the death penalty, let me recommend this article by a good friend of mine about his grandfather and the Texas death penalty.

    • Jordan

      ehh, I think a fair number of people may well “deserve” to be killed. If your actions pretty directly lead to a fair bit of death and suffering for lots of people for personal profit, ya, you deserve to die.

      What shouldn’t happen is the state doing it, or the mob doing it, or anyone doing it, really. They may well *deserve* it, but that doesn’t mean it should ever actually happen (except in the most extreme situations).

      • MarekKulak

        “We all got it coming, kid.”

        • Gregor Sansa

          All got death coming? Yes, we all do. And if we hasten death for others, we may deserve that it’s coming to us.

          But nobody deserves to be murdered. Or executed. There is no certainty of guilt (not just historical but ongoing) that equals the certainty of death.

  • Anonymous Troll

    I think you meant Vilnius, not Vilinus. I think it was a center of labor activism, and the Bund was very active there, roughly about that time.

  • LeeEsq

    If I remember correctly, the anarchists believed that random acts of spectacular violence would inspire the masses to rise up against capitalism. This never happened and was a very stupid theory in the first place.

  • N__B

    How do you walk into the office of an unarmed capitalist with a knife and a gun and fail to even seriously wound him? There’s a simple answer.

    The power of capitalism is so awesome that it can stop a murderous anarchist!

  • fishieman

    I picture Berkman finally breaking down after the latest in a long string of well-earned haranguings from Goldman for DROPPING ANOTHER GOD DAMN ICE CREAM CONE on the floor. Following that, Berkman storming into Frick’s office, in full turn of the century ice cream man regalia, for a Yakety Sax worthy fight scene.

  • sigaba

    The unionists who bombed the LA Times were acting primarily against Harry Chandler, who barely escaped with his life. Otis was not present at the Times building and a separate anarchist bombing, a dud, was placed at Otis’s house under his bed (Otis was out of the country at the time in any event). This unexploded bomb was used as evidence to trace the source to the McNamara’s, who had built the bomb in San Francisco. 21 or 22 people died– the uncertainty in the number perhaps indicating the amount of regard Otis and Chandler had towards their employees.

    At the time in Los Angeles picketing was illegal as was “speaking in the street in a loud or unusual tone.”

  • Bruce Vail

    Czolgosz remains a mystery. He was tried in executed in record time and refused to speak about his rationale for the murder.

    I guess Czolgosz is another of example of Eirk’s theory that all anarchists are incompetent. McKinley actually looked likely to survive the initial attack, but incompetent medical care was responsible for his death from a secondary infection.

    • sigaba

      McKinley actually looked likely to survive the initial attack, but incompetent medical care was responsible for his death from a secondary infection.

      I think you’re thinking of James Garfield.

      • Bruce Vail

        Well, Garfield too.

        McKinley died eight days after Leon shot him twice in the stomach. Cause of death: Gangrene.

        • sigaba

          By definition gangrene isn’t acquired from the environment. I’m not sure McKinley’s final septicemia was iatrogenic, they just didn’t have the means of examining him.

          • Bruce Vail

            I’m going by Morris’ bio of TR. Morris makes the assertion that McKinley was recovering nicely at first, and the President was expected to live. He could have been saved by better treatment, according to Morris.

  • Bruce Vail

    “It wouldn’t have been the first time Gilded Age strikers used violence to defend their interests.”

    Don’t forget the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.

  • one of the blue

    Ironically Eric did not mention the violence of the Homestead strikers themselves, in which they staged a pitched battle against 300 Pinkertons sent by Frick on a barge to take over the mill property. About a dozen people were killed on both sides. At one point the workers filled a separate barge with flammable materials and attempted to float it into the Pinkertons’ barge. It would’ve killed most of them if the attempt had been successful, which fortunately it was not. The barge ran aground but the workers won the day after the Pinkertons surrendered. About a week later state militia occupied Homestead and the resistance collapsed.

    A good account of these events and more surrounding Carnegie, Frick, and their business and personal relations is in Meet You in Hell by Les Standiford. Carnegie really was the villain in chief in the Homestead matter. Frick was just his fall guy.

    • Bruce Vail

      Standiford’s book is great.

      • one of the blue

        One little grace note from a book that has a loft of them. Frick had his people assemble the PInkertons in Ashtabula, Ohio, and then had them sent by train to a little railway station just at the Pittsburgh city limits, where they were transferred from the train to the two barges that were waiting to take them to Homestead. The location is about a half-mile from my house. The railway station is long gone, but the barge put-in still is there.

  • Yosemite Semite

    “Henry Clay Frick deserved to be murdered.” Right at the tippy-top of the slippery slope, aren’t we there, Erik?

    • Bruce Vail

      I wonder who the modern-day analog to Frick is who deserves to be murdered because he/she is a rapacious capitalist?

      Jeff Immelt? Tim Cook? Robert Murray? The list might be quite long….

      • Yosemite Semite

        I was thinking of the slippery slope into barbarism, not into a list of appealing candidates.

  • Mike Schilling

    Alexander II was the closest thing there ever was to a liberal, reformist Czar. His assassination ended all that, ensuring that his son and grandson would be complete reactionaries and the only end to absolute rule would be violent revolution. So there’s an argument for blaming the assassins for the horror of Soviet Communism.

    • Erik Loomis

      Yeah, the assassination of Alexander II says more or less all you need to know about how savvy anarchists are.

      • LeeEsq

        He was planning to create a national consultive assembly for the Russian Empire at the time of his assassination. It wasn’t a parliament but it was a big step in the right direction.

      • Matyas_L

        Except Alexander II wasn’t assassinated by the anarchists, it was Peoples Will an agrarian populist movement without any real analogues in Western Europe or the US. Despite derailing the domestic reforms in the Russian Empire, some anarchists mistakenly thought that Peoples Will had been successful and copied their tactics.

  • Matyas_L

    There is a great book by John Merriman, The Dynamite Club, (Yale 2009) about the anarchist terrorism and the Cafe Terminus bombing in February 1894. He does a nice job of situating the anarchists terrorists in the French and European social and political contexts. They were malcontents, but not incompetents. Erik Loomis won’t read it because he is a US Historian and doesn’t have time for anything that isn’t in his direct line of vision, but other people might find it interesting. (The paperback has a new preface that sets up a decent comparison between anarchist terrorism and twenty first century terrorists like ISIS.)

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