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Erik Visits an American Grave, Part 303

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This is the grave of George Pullman.

Born in Brocton, New York in 1831, Pullman’s father was a carpenter who achieved some renown for creating a machine to move buildings to different foundations as he worked on the Erie Canal. Pullman grew up helping his father’s growing business based on his invention and sometimes attending school, though he did not finish high school. In 1857, he moved to Chicago to work as an engineer. He and some other engineers found a firm that built Chicago’s sewer system and, using his father’s invention, to raise existing hotels to build it. In fact, they became famous for raising one hotel and putting in the sewer while the guests were still in the hotel.

Pullman also developed the sleeping car for trains. As train travel grew, people spent more time on them and they wanted a good place to sleep. Pullman provided that. The company put its first trains on the market in 1864 and then got fame when Pullman arranged the train trip of Abraham Lincoln’s corpse back from Washington to Springfield. By 1868, Pullman was providing full luxury train cars with dining service and porters, usually black men, for whom these were the best jobs they could get. Much later, A. Philip Randolph and the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters would organize Pullman’s porters, but into the mid-20th century, being a Pullman porter was a job of prestige within the black community. In fact, Pullman had in mind a plantation household when he created the job and hired what he considered subservient African-American men to serve wealthy whites for that reason. It truly is a wonder that the political will was not there in the North to enforce a real Reconstruction that protected black rights over the long term. By 1870, Pullman was an extremely wealthy man and worked with Andrew Carnegie in 1871 to bail out the Union Pacific Railroad.

Gilded Age capitalists had different strategies for controlling labor. One was building company towns, where the capitalist could watch his workers while claiming he was offering them a better life than they would get on their own. Pullman went that direction in 1880, buying a bunch of land 14 miles south of Chicago to build a factory and a company town. William Carwadine, pastor of the Pullman Methodist Church wrote of the total company domination, “It is a civilized relic of European serfdom” and of Pullman, “He is the King and he demands to the full measure of his capacity all that belongs to the insignia of royalty.” He charged workers high rents for his company housing, would not employ someone if they did not rent from him, and evicted workers if they quit or were fired.

When the Panic of 1893 hit, Pullman lowered wages by 25 percent while refusing to lower the rent. In protest against this, as well as against working days that sometimes reached sixteen hours, Pullman workers attempted to meet with their boss and present their grievances. Pullman refused to talk to them and fired three of the leaders. Outraged, his workers walked off the job on May 11, 1894. Eugene Debs’ American Railway Union did not represent the Pullman strikers. But acting in solidarity with their fellow railroad laborers, the ARU refused to move any Pullman cars. An official boycott began on June 26 and like the 1877 Railroad Strike and the 1886 eight-hour strikes, generated its own momentum as a larger protest against corporate domination. By June 29, 150,000 workers were on strike and the American train system, vital to the nation’s economy, ground to a halt. American labor leaders saw it as a battle not just against Pullman, but all their corporate enemies. The Chicago Federation of Labor president said, “We all feel that in fighting any battle against the Pullman company we are aiming at the very head and front of monopoly and plutocracy.”

Pullman was a complete ass during this entire incident. He refused to negotiate on any issues. Even his fellow industrialists talked of what a fool he was. He left town so he wouldn’t have to see any of this or deal with his angry workers at all. Instead, he relied on his fellow capitalists to clean up his mess. Luckily for him, Attorney General Richard Olney was a former railroad lawyer. Citing the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, Olney ordered federal attorneys to issue injunctions against the ARU to protect his railroad friends. An injunction is a court order that compels a union to stop its action, often through hefty fines that quickly bankrupt the union, the classic state intervention on behalf of employers. The ARU refused to obey the injunction. Cleveland and Olney then called out the military to squash the strike. Commanded by General Nelson Miles, known for his role in crushing the last Native American resistance in the West, 12,000 U.S. troops, aided by U.S. Marshals, cracked down, using the pretense that it interfered with the delivery of the mail. Miles hated Debs, thought the strikers were defying the federal government, and followed through on his orders with relish. The next year, Debs proclaimed in a speech, “The American Railway Union challenged the power of corporations in way that had not previously been done.” This was why the government would not let them win.

The Pullman strike was largely nonviolent until the military intervened. On July 7, soldiers fired into a crowd, killing at least four strikers and wounding around twenty. The same day, the military arrested Debs and other ARU leaders. Facing unbeatable state repression, the strike fell apart. After thirteen strikers were killed and fifty-seven wounded, the Pullman plant reopened on August 2. Eugene Debs served six months in prison for violating the injunction, and spent his time reading Karl Marx. He became a socialist and emerged as the greatest leader for working-class rights the country had ever seen.

Pullman’s personal reputation never recovered. Like so many Gilded Age capitalists, especially that utter fraud Andrew Carnegie, Pullman had an incredibly high opinion of himself and his own morality, even while engaging in completely unethical behavior. So he had a lot of trouble dealing with the hate he now received. His town was called un-American and the state of Illinois eventually filed suit to take the town from him, which it won in 1898, when it was annexed to Chicago. Pullman was dead by this time, but the whole thing devastated him. Couldn’t happen to a nicer multi-millionaire.

George Pullman died in 1897 of a heart attack. His family, worried that workers would dig up and desecrate his body, a fate he deserved, poured 18 inches of reinforced concrete over his coffin, covered that in asphalt and tarpaper, then poured on more concrete, then put reinforced steel on top of it, and then another layer of concrete. LOL. Pullman is buried in Graceland Cemetery, Chicago, Illinois.

If you would like this series to visit more vile capitalists, you can donate to cover the required expenses here. These really are my favorite of all grave posts. Steve Jobs is in Palo Alto (although no one is quite sure of the exact spot) while James Duke is in Durham, North Carolina. Previous posts in this series are archived here.

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