Friday, September 1, 2017

For Labor Day 2017: Text of Presentation "Our Families in the Battle of Homestead"




The text of a presentation on August 26, 2017 at the Pump House, Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, Homestead, Pennsylvania.
                                                
                                   Our Families in the Battle of Homestead: 
                         Weaving Folklore into the Warp of Historical Fiction


                                                        by Trilby Busch

This afternoon I am here to talk about the crafting of historical fiction, the imaginative recreation of a time and place that sets invented characters in the context of historical events. In the subtitle of this talk, I have used the metaphor of the loom—the weaving together of interwoven threads of various colors and textures to create a whole fabric.  People read historical fiction because it humanizes events that are distant not only in time, but in emotional immediacy. I am also here to talk about the importance of oral history in contextualizing recorded history. The blending of solid historical research with stories handed down by those who lived through that time and place in history can make the dry bones of facts into a living organism.

My book about the Homestead Strike of 1892 was many years in the making. The story of the strike can be told in many ways and from many perspectives—and indeed has been in many books, articles, and documentaries. I chose the format of the historical novel because I wanted to tell the story from the inside, from multiple perspectives—the workers, the townspeople, company management, even the Pinkertons. A fictional narrative concerns little people swept up by big events, not just the stories of the main players like Frick and Carnegie. 

I used to tell my students that good historical fiction is a painless way to learn history.  Take, for example, The Killer Angels, Michael Schara’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning novel about the Battle of Gettysburg. Even though I read accounts of the battle and toured the battlefield, reading the novel allowed me to experience the battle along with the characters. One of the most vivid and memorable narratives in the novel involves Lt. Colonel Joshua Chamberlain’s inspired leadership in holding off repeated Confederate attacks on Little Round Top. The emotion evoked by reading about the brilliant and courageous countercharge of his 20th Maine Regiment is what has burned this battle-changing event into my memory.  History books could not do that for me.

History is not the past, but the recorded past, and the recorded past is what historical novels are built around. When I decided to write the novel some 15 years ago, I began by reading every book or article on the strike that I could find. I read contemporary eyewitness accounts and tried to build their accounts into the narrative, especially the section on the battle itself. Those eyewitnesses are long gone.  All we have are their stories, some written down in interviews or in history books, others handed down via oral history.  The latter is how I came to develop a fascination with the strike.  

We are here today to talk about the 1892 Homestead Strike and Battle, which took place on this very site 125 summers ago.  Descendants of workers who were present at the battle are here to tell their family stories. But before they do, I’d like to tell you some of mine—specifically, how my father’s recounting of the story of his grandfather’s death in the Homestead Works in September 1892 eventually became the impetus for me to write Darkness Visible.

I could not have written the book and we would not be here today if it had not been for my dad’s love of storytelling.  My father, Edward Busch, was born in the house at 1415 Hays Street in Homestead on March 11, 1907, during one of the worst floods in Pittsburgh history. He was the third child and only son of George W. Busch, superintendent of the machine shop at the Homestead Works, and Annie Edwards Busch. One especially memorable story about his early childhood in this house was about hearing the sound of the workers’ boots going down the hill for the morning shift at the mill, in the dark, in silence (over a mile).  And then, twelve hours later, they had to trudge up that same hill, exhausted, to their homes.

Dad was eminently qualified to be keeper of the family tales. For one, he had an excellent memory. He loved the theater, loved acting and directing.  Moreover, he majored in history at Pitt while working night shift at the machine shop. (This in his memoir “Full of Sound and Fury”)  After graduating from Pitt in 1929 and fin.ding that no teaching jobs were available—but librarian positions were—Dad enrolled in the Columbia University College of Library Science, earning his MLS in 1931.  He returned to find a job in the Munhall schools as librarian, science teacher, and drama coach at Woodlawn Avenue School.  He married Frances Katilius in 1940, and started G. Edward Busch Productions, a touring children’s theater company, in order to pay for the house they were building on James Street in Munhall.  

Although Dad didn’t like library work much, preferring action in the classroom, fortunately for me, he put his training as an archivist to work in organizing the family photos. He wrote the” who, what, where, when” on the backs of family photos, something that very few people do.  How many old photos are pretty much worthless because we don’t know the context in which they were taken?  Dad’s annotations ensured that future generations would know the significance of our old family photos.  (Example, City League Champs. See "City League Champs, 1895")

As a child, I loved hearing all Dad’s stories—how he met my mother, his road trips Out West in the 1930s, the time Honus Wagner came to dinner, how he hated being bat boy for the mill baseball teams, how he watched crews hastily bury victims of the 1917 Spanish flu epidemic in the Homestead cemetery at night, the only one of his family in the house on 21st Street who was not sick with the flu.

But he had two favorite stories, two stories that seemed to define Busch family history for him: a story of immigration and the story of John Paul Busch’s death during the Homestead Strike. (Weissenstadt. Civic brewery, Army, Navy, Gunboat Hale Battle of Mobile Bay. Read these stories at "150 Years: Retracing John Paul's Footsteps" and "Damn the Torpedoes!")

And so my grandfather and great-grandfather became minor characters in the book. But I needed to find central characters, characters that would be critical to presenting a vivid and moving narrative of the strike and battle from the workers’ point of view. For this, once again I turned to my father’s stories, this time, the ones about his mother’s father-- John Edwards, a Welsh immigrant. In the 1970s, after my daughter Ceridwen was born on Easter Sunday—exactly 100 years after my grandmother’s birth on Easter Sunday, I embarked on a quest to find my Welsh relatives. There wasn’t much to go on. Dad told the stories about his drunken grandfather Edwards, a grandfather who abandoned his mother and her brother Jesse to the cold care of an “orphan asylum” after their mother’s death.

Dad remembered that his mother used to get letters from her maternal grandmother from Rose Cottage in a village in North Wales called, as he remembered it, “Farenkysilt.”  Thanks to Vivian Jones, a Welsh-speaking Congregational minister, I figured out that this was indeed Froncysyllte, and a trip to the village in 1988 confirmed it. 

I have never found my Welsh relatives, but I did meet many Welsh people during my search, and one family became key to researching the book in Wales—the Morrises of Maenclochog in southwest Wales. I met Emyr Morris through Channel Cymru, a chat room in 1996, during the early days of socializing via the internet. In 2003 Emyr, a native speaker of Welsh, was kind enough to take me around the valleys of South Wales, the places and landscapes I was planning to use as the background for my Welsh characters. When I found that a big mine disaster occurred at the Park Slip mine in August of 1892, I knew that I had to work that into the book. 

Emyr and I went Ton du, the mining village by Park Slip and wandered around park where the slip used to be. We walked all over the park, but couldn’t find the monument to the disaster where the entrance to the slip was.  Finally we gave up and went to a nearby pub.  We found it--the only marker to this disaster that killed over a hundred miners was a small mining car with “Parc Slip 1892” painted on it. As in Homestead, all record of that industrial site had been obliterated. As in Homestead, the industrial site had been converted into something very different—in that case, a public park with walking and biking paths.

I don’t want to give that impression that my father’s stories were the only ones I used in the book. As I mentioned, my cousin’s husband Phil Krepps told me my grandfather’s story of John Paul learning how to fire boilers in the Weissenstadt civic brewery.   

Another important story came through Jack Fix, referred to me through the St. David’s Society of Pittsburgh. Jack’s father taught in the Munhall schools, but more importantly, his grandfather, William Williams, was the superintendent of Open Hearth #2 during the strike. Jack retold Williams’ story of how he and his family were trapped inside their house in the First Ward during the battle, while bullets occasionally whizzed by outside. He also related how Williams, who was working in the steel industry in Wales, was recruited by the Carnegie Company to oversee the building and operation of their new state-of-the-art open hearth. Most importantly, Jack told me how Potter, the mill superintendent, called Williams into his office and tried to bribe him to manage the restarting of the mill boilers after the strike—a bribe that Williams refused, saying, “I have to live in this town.”

This story dovetails perfectly with my family’s story about John Paul being hired to start boilers in the Works when the company was resuming operations during the strike. These stories show how desperate the company was to find skilled workers to fire the many boilers required to run the equipment and machinery of the mill—and how desperate many unemployed workers were to find a job to support themselves and their dependents during these hard times for labor.  

Although my mother’s parents did not come to Homestead until the 19-teens, my mother contributed to my understanding of what the town was like in the smoky days when the area on the western end of the riverfront was still residential, before the First Ward was eradicated by the expansion of the mill in the 1930s. After my dad died, my mother, Frances Katilius Busch, told stories about his family that I had not heard before.

One incident that she was particularly irate about concerned the gold watch my father had inherited from his father. It was presented to Grandpa Busch upon his retirement by the workers of the machine shop.  The men acquired a preowned watch from a local jewelry store (Katilius?) and had it engraved to honor his work in the machine shop. What my mother found upsetting and mean is that while the workers dipped into their pockets to present this retirement gift, the stingy company gave him nothing for his long and faithful service to it.

I’d like to tell you about two documents that I found only recently—documents that contribute to my understanding of the stories my father told about his grandfathers. The first I got on a tip from an historian in Frostburg, Maryland, where John Edwards moved when he married his second wife, Harriet. According to affidavits in official records of the case in the Circuit Court of Allegany County, Maryland, this is what happened:

John B. and Harriet Edwards were living as subtenants in the Varnum House, a 55-room hotel and office building owned by Union Mining in Mount Savage, Maryland.  While John was at work as a blacksmith for the mining company, one Daniel Houck, a former sheriff and then-agent for Union, busted into the Edwards's quarters and demanded that Harriet vacate the premises. When she refused, he threatened to arrest her and throw her in jail. He badgered her until her resistance crumbled, and she fled, leaving supper on the table and all of their belongings behind. Houck then locked up their rooms and refused to let them in to retrieve any of their possessions. 

They were locked out for a couple of weeks with only the clothes on their backs. During that time they were forced to find somewhere else to live. When they finally were allowed to take back their belongings, they found that some had been stolen or damaged. Their suit asked for $500 in damages from Union for the expense of having to find new lodgings and replacing household goods and clothing.

The court documents end with a page declaring "case dismissed," meaning that the case never went to trial and Union settled out of court. This outcome is amazing to me. Mining companies in the Appalachian coalfields at this time had extraordinary power and resources, controlling the lives of their workers in so many appalling ways—like company-owned houses and stores, and undue influence over local law enforcement.

Discovery of this lawsuit gave me new respect for the ancestor that I hitherto had thought of largely as a pathetic drunk.  I visited his grave in Mount Savage Cemetery outside of Frostburg and sang to him the hymn my dad said was his favorite, “Oh, How I Love Jesus!”

The other document is even more relevant to the book and the story of John Paul’s death in the Works. It’s the coroner’s report on his death on September 14th, 1892, which consists of three parts: The testimony of mill doctor E.E. Stribler (obviously not a native speaker of English), my grandfather's brother, John Paul Busch, Jr., and "Wm. H. McBroom, Chief of Police for Steel Wrks."

Dr. Stribler says that he was called to attend to John Paul Bush [sic] after he suffered burns in a gas explosion on the afternoon of Sunday, September 4th. Stribler sent John to West Penn Hospital for treatment. Six days later, the family moved John to their home in East Liberty, where he died four days later. John's son simply states that John was burned in the Homestead Works and that on the Saturday following the incident,  he was brought home from the hospital to 625 Achilles Street (no longer in existence), where he died on Sept. 14th.

The sworn statements of Stribler and John, Jr. are pretty much in line with the family story. However, McBroom's testimony is where the story gets interesting: "deceased told me that he was injured by the gas exploding near the boilers. . . Another man was present but I did not know his name. Dr Wible [the 'Stribler' of the first part?] examined Deceased and sent him to the West Penn Hosp. Gas was turned on and he [John] threw a piece of lighted waste, causing the explosion." End of statement.

I had to read McBroom's statement several times before the full force of his allegations sunk in. McBroom is claiming that the gas was turned on (although we don't know where or by whom) and that John threw a piece of burning trash (although we don't know what it was, why it was on fire, nor why he threw it), and that therefore, John was responsible for his own death. Instead of the result of industrial sabotage, his death was an accident, and one mostly his own fault.

A look at the coroner’s report on the deaths of two workers killed during the battle shows a similar victim’s culpability for their own demise. Silas Wain and Thomas Weldon were in “unlawful assembly” on company property and therefore bore responsibility for being killed---Wain by others in “unlawful assembly” and Weldon by Pinkertons who were only doing the righteous business of protecting company property.

A 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision declared the personhood of corporations in which political spending is equated with an individual’s First Amendment protected speech. This is nothing new. Money talks, and it always has.

Even though I was born and raised in the Steel Valley, I can’t recall ever studying the strike in school or discussing it with classmates or other local residents. People simply didn’t talk about it.  The descendants of those who replaced the strikers--myself included--understandably did not dwell on what happened to those who were blacklisted after the strike.  Everyone, unionist or scab, got the message of the strike's outcome:  Don't mess with H.C Frick and Carnegie Steel, for you will lose.  

In those days, as now, property rights were held sacred in the United States.  Those who own property can rely on the government at all levels-- local, state, and federal-- to send in troops to "restore order" in labor disputes, as they have countless times before and after the 1892 strike.

Over and over again in labor history we see the upholding of corporate rights over individual rights, and Homestead was no exception. It’s an indication of the deep trauma of the events that took place here in the summer of 1892 that this is the first time these stories will be told publicly in the intervening 125 years. 


Thanks to my daughters Ceridwen and Morwenna for help with editing. TB


Thursday, August 31, 2017

Report on Event: "Our Families in the Battle of Homestead"

Over 100 people turned out on Saturday, August 26th, to hear about "Our Families in the Battle of Homestead", a presentation sponsored by the Battle of Homestead Foundation. The event took place at the Pump House in Rivers of Steel National Historical Area in Homestead, the site of the battle between striking workers and company-hired Pinkerton guards on July 6, 1892.
Waiting for the program to begin at the Pump House.


Two of those presenting oral histories, Luke Dowker (second from left) and John Asmonga (front, second from right) before the program began.
John Haer, President of the Battle of Homestead Foundation, introduced the program. To begin, student Julia Resciniti presented her display,"John McLuckie's Stand in the Homestead Strike of 1892," which won third place in the National History Day contest in Pittsburgh.

The main speaker was Trilby Busch, who gave a talk with accompanying slides about how she used the stories told by her father, Edward Busch, about his father and grandfather, as an inspiration for  her historical novel Darkness Visible: A Novel of the 1892 Homestead Strike.

Trilby wore her Grandfather Busch's nickle Elgin pocket watch, which he wore to work daily in the Homestead Works machine shop.

As an interlude, Carson Sestili sang, "Father Was Killed by the Pinkerton Men," a pro-worker song popular nationally in the fall of 1892.

Six descendants of strikers who were at the battle then told their family stories: John Asmonga, Bill Begley, George Debolt, Luke Dowker, Grace Jack Krepps, and Haydn Thomas. Without planning or consulting beforehand, all seven speakers touched on similar themes:

--The prioritizing of property rights over human rights at all levels of government during and after the strike. 
--The inaccuracy of documents of the time. Written accounts from newspapers to coroner's reports were often twisted or inaccurate--everything from misspellings to the deliberate suppression of vital information. Trilby discussed the coroner's report on her great-grandfather (See "Who Killed John Paul Busch?"), and George DeBolt told about how his great-grandfather was accused of murdering both a Pinkerton and striker. Bill Begley noted that the news reports of the time said that Thomas Weldon shot himself while taking or breaking a Pinkerton Winchester rifle. The report to the Allegheny Coroner by contrast states that Thomas Weldon was shot by an "unknown" person with a Pinkerton Winchester rifle.
  
Trilby introduces Bill Begley.

George DeBolt tells the story of his great-grandfather at the battle. George brought along the pitchfork his ancestor took to the riverbank to fight the Pinkertons.
--The conspiracy of silence about the battle and strike that has been in place since 1892. Grace Krepps said that when her mother (descendant of a replacement worker) married the descendant of a striker decades after the event, her mother was puzzled when her future mother-in-law made a snarky comment about the strike.  Her mother had no idea what she was talking about and had to ask her parents to explain the allusion. It's mindboggling that this event was the first time in 125 years that these stories about workers' experiences in 1892 Homestead were related publicly.


Grace Jack Krepps tells the stories of her grandfathers, one a striker, the other a replacement worker.
Haydn Thomas relates the ghost story surrounding the assassination attempt on Henry Clay Frick.

Eight descendants of George W. Busch were at the event, including all four surviving cousins. Back row, L-R: Trilby Busch (Edward), Grace Krepps (Estella), Phil Krepps (Grace's husband), Mark Simmers (Frances), George Schein and Britta Schein McNemar (Irene). Front row: Astrid Mueller (Trilby's granddaughter), Ceridwen Christensen and Morwenna Claire (Trilby's daughters).s

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Presentation on Workers in the 1892 Homestead Strike, August 26th, 2-5 pm

The Advisory Board for the 1892 Homestead Strike

As part of the commemoration of the 125th anniversary of the 1892 Battle and Strike, the Battle of Homestead foundation is hosting a presentation: "Our Families in the Battle of Homestead: Weaving Folklore into the Warp of Historical Fiction." Trilby Busch's historical novel, Darkness Visible: A Novel of the 1892 Homestead Strike, recreates the experiences of the workers and townspeople who witnessed the strike and battle firsthand. The author’s great-grandfather was killed in the Homestead Works in the immediate aftermath of the strike. A Steel Valley native, Trilby Busch will show how the novel weaves oral history and research into a insider’s view of the dramatic events unfolding in 1892. Carson Sestile will sing "Father Was Killed by the Pinkerton Men" composed by William Delaney in late 1892. Seven descendants of members of the strike committee and of strikers will also share their family stories. A reception afterwards will allow everyone to mingle and meet the presenters.

                Saturday, August 26th. 2-5 p.m. 
                            The Pump House, Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area
                                     880 E. Waterfront Drive, Munhall, PA

                                                  Free and open to the public.
 


Thursday, July 6, 2017

July 6, 1892 Excerpt "The Battle Begins"

125 years ago. In the middle of the night, the pickets downriver have alerted the workers in Homestead that two covered barges are coming up the river from Pittsburgh, and that could mean only one thing--the company was bringing in scabs or guards, or both. Townspeople rush down to the riverbank, carrying whatever they had that could be used as a weapon. A little after 4 a.m. the barges arrive in Homestead and make for the landing inside the works, now enclosed by a high fence. The workers break through the fence and run to the landing.

 
JULY 6, 1892  4:15 a.m. At the river landing below the Pump House for the mill.
EXCERPT from Darkness Visible. Note: The actions and words of O'Donnell and the other historical figures are taken directly from eyewitness reports.

     The crack of rifle shots came at random intervals. People on the bank cursed and hurled threats at the men arriving on the barges. More shots were fired.

     In the half-light Emlyn made out the shapes of two enormous covered barges being towed into position at the landing by a tugboat. Union leader Hugh O'Donnell was moving along the landing, speaking to the crowd, urging restraint. His words, however, seemed to have little effect on the incensed mob. More people, many carrying guns, were spreading out along the bank and taking up positions on the Pemikey railroad bridge overlooking the landing. It was apparent the situation was far beyond anyone's control.

     "Duw, there must be thousands of people on the bank," said Gwyn. "Whoever they are, how could they dare come ashore?"

     "We'll soon see," said Smith.

     The first light of dawn was glinting on the eastern horizon as the tug with Little Bill painted on its bow grounded the barge Iron Mountain on the bank. The men who had led the charge into the mill rushed up. As a man in a slouch hat came onto the deck, someone threw a stone at the barge. From the landing people were yelling, warning those on the barges not to land. As the minutes tickets away, the threats escalated.

     Tensions were reaching a fever pitch as Hugh O'Donnell made his way to the front of the crowd. He was shouting something...but Emlyn couldn't hear what he was saying. To Emlyn's surprise, the crowd quieted.

     O'Donnell came to the water and called out to the men on the barges. "On behalf of five thousand men, I beg you to leave here at once. I don't know who you are or where you came from, but I do know that you have no business here." He went on, entreating them not to risk violence by trying to come ashore. "Don't attempt to enter these works by force."

     At that, a man in a blue military coat with brass buttons stepped on the deck of the Iron Mountain. "We were sent to take possession of this property and guard it for this company," he said.

     "Damned if it ain't Pinkertons," said Duncan. "Look at them blue uniforms."

     "Ssh!" said Smith.

     "If you don't withdraw," continued the man on the barge, "we will mow every one of you down and enter in spite of you."

     "They will, will they? I don't think so," growled Duncan.

     "Hush, dammit," said Smith.

     O'Donnell was talking. "What you do here is at the risk of many lives. Before you enter those mills, you will trample over the dead bodies of three thousand honest workmen."

     For a moment, the crowd on the bank watched in silence.

     A group of men on the Iron Mountain brought out a gangplank and pushed it into the landing. The man who had spoken came to the top of the plank. Simultaneously, the leader of the militant strikers took a stand at the other end of the plank, the others behind him.

     "Who's the striker at the bottom of the plank?" whispered Gwyn.

     "It looks like Billy Foy, the feller from the Salvation Army," said Smith." And behind him, Martin Murray, the heater--he's Welsh," he added as an aside to Emlyn. "And next to him is Sotak, leader of them Slovaks."

        Emlyn watched in disbelief at the scene unfolding below. Men on the bank shouted warnings to the men in the barges. The Pinkertons hesitated. The officer at the front shouted out, "There are three hundred men behind me, and you can't stop us." Foy yelled something in reply.

     Emlyn strained forward to see what was going on, but fog blurred the details. It looked like the officer came forward and tried to hit Foy with something.

     In rapid succession, two gunshots rang out. The officer and Foy went down. Hugh O'Donnell threw up his hands and shouted something at the strikers.

     From the barge, someone shouted, "Fire!" and a volley of gunfire roared from the portholes. As if in slow motion, Emlyn saw several men on the riverbank crumple to the ground.

     Women started screaming. The people around Emlyn began jostling each other, shifting away from the exposed position on the bank. From the riverbank came more shots.

     "Take cover," Duncan yelled. Return fire from the strikers thudded into the sides of the barges as the Pinkertons continued firing.

     His heart in his throat, Emlyn sprinted toward the mill building behind them. He caught sight of a dinky engine and ran behind it. Gwyn, running behind him, tripped and went sprawling onto the tracks thirty feet away. His rifle flew out of his hands and clattered onto the tracks.

     Emlyn stood at the front of the engine, trying to decided if he should run out to help Gwyn. A bullet pinged sharply against metal, and a chip flew out of a pile of bricks beside the locomotive.

     "Ricochets!" yelled Gwyn, lowering his head. "Stay where you are."

     The firing continued unabated, punctuated by screams and shouts.

     "Are you hurt?" yelled Emlyn over the racket.

     "I don't think so. I'm going to make a run for it."

     "Stay there!" Emlyn shouted. "It's not safe."

     Another bullet slammed into the locomotive steam chamber with a reverberating thonk. Gwyn raised his head and glanced at Emlyn, measuring the distance. Swiftly, Gwyn pushed himself into a crouching position and dashed toward Emlyn. Ten feet short of his goal, Gwyn tucked his head down and rolled the rest of the way, coming to a rest against the wheels of the engine.

   "Bloody hell!" said Gwyn, taking in great gulps of air. "I thought I was going to get hit for sure."



Tuesday, July 4, 2017

July 5, 1892 Excerpt "Waiting"

125 years ago. The idled steelworkers continue to be on high alert, on the lookout for the arrival of police or scabs. The town is rife with tension as the national and international press gathers at the Bost Building, strike headquarters for the union. The steelworks, surrounded by a high white fence, is dark and quiet.

TUESDAY, JULY 5, 1892
EXCERPT from Darkness Visible

Dr. Oesterling sat at the table, his toast and poached egg growing cold as he pored over the Pittsburgh paper for any news about the situation in Homestead. It seemed that he already knew everything the reporters knew. He had decided it wasn't worthwhile holding office hours today, and he had posted a notice to call in case of emergency.

     The strike was dramatically affecting the entire town. Those who weren't on alert were keeping out of the way of the pickets. Everyone from striker to company management was on tenterhooks, waiting for something to happen.

     The telephone rang twice, the signal for their number on the party line. Oesterling pushed away from the table and went into the hallway to answer it. Expecting it to be a call from a patient, he was surprised to hear Carrie's voice on the other end.

     "Papa?"

     His heart contracted. "Yes? Is anything wrong? What's going on?"

     "Papa, you need to leave Homestead right away. You can come over here to Point Breeze for a few days."

     "For heaven's sake, why?"

     "Oliver just left for the office. He says that Philander Knox, the head corporate attorney, gave Sheriff McCleary the go-ahead to come to Homestead and post orders for the strikers to cease their occupation of company property."

     "That's ridiculous," said Osterling. "The workers are not even on company property."

     "Yes, but they're stopping others from entering it."

     "I don't understand why this situation calls for us to leave town."

     "Don't you see?" Carrie said. "There's going to be a confrontation soon. Oliver says it may get nasty."

     "Posting handbillls can get nasty?" Oesterling asked. "I doubt it."

     There was a pause.

     "Please, Papa, you must leave." Carrie's voice broke. "The Sheriff isn't the only one who will be coming."

     "What? Even if he brings a few deputies, it doesn't. . ."

     "I don't mean deputies."

     Oesterling was trying to figure out what Carrie meant by this, when a loud click came through the receiver, signaling that another on his party line had picked up.

     "I must go," said Carrie. "Think about what I've said." She hung up.

     Oesterling placed the receiver back on the hook, and walked out to the front porch. What did she mean, not deputies? Who was coming? His gaze moved over the mill and town, downriver toward Pittsburgh.

     Abruptly, it came to him: Pinkertons. He shuddered. Now it was more necessary than ever that he stay in town.

    He looked down at Cerberus. The dog cocked his head at Oesterling and wagged his tail.





Monday, July 3, 2017

July 4, 1892: Excerpt "When This World Comes to an End"

125 years ago on the evening of the Fourth of July, idled workers from Carnegie Steel's Homestead Works were patrolling the Monongahela River and roads into Homestead, on the lookout for strikebreakers or company-hired militia.
FROM Darkness Visible. . . .

TUESDAY, JULY 4TH
    
     At McClure Street, a block before the whitewashed fence of Fort Frick, Emlyn turned toward the river landing. He heard the voices of the pickets before he saw them. As he walked down the grade to the river, Emlyn made out forms of men clustered together on the muddy shore. As he reached the open bank, several men on the landing turned to face him. One of them held a rifle; another, a lantern.
   
     "Who goes there?" shouted one of them.
   
     "A citizen of the town," said Emlyn.
     
     "Come over here and let us see you," said the one holding the lantern.
  
      As Emlyn got closer, one of the men drawled, "Well, if it ain't Em-Lyn, formerly of O.H.2."
    
     "The same," said Emlyn. "How is patrol going, Virgil?"
   
     "So far, so good," Virgil replied. "Ain't seen hide nor hair of any black sheep or police trying to come ashore--not that they won't try sooner or later." He spat in the mud, then added, "How are things up there in Fort Frick?"
    
     "I wouldn't know," said Emlyn. "They sent the office workers away last week. We have no idea what's going on with management. Your guess is as good as mine."
   
     "I'd guess," said the man with the rifle, "that right now Frick is scheming to bring in sheriff's deputies or Pinkertons to man the Fort. We aim to stop them." He shot the bolt on the rifle to emphasize his point. "The company broke the contract, and we're going to make damn sure they comply with the law. We ain't going to be whipped into submission by any hirelings sent by Frick."
   
     Emlyn looked out at the swiftly flowing river, where the outline of the strikers' steam launch was visible through the fog.
   
     "It looks like you have the river well covered," said Emlyn.
   
     "We do, and damn any mercenary who tries to come ashore," said the man with the gun. He lowered the rifle, and the group turned their attention back to the river.
  
     "Good night," Emlyn said, starting back toward town.
   
     "Hey, Em-Lyn," said Virgil. "I'd advise against any further nocturnal ramblings around these parts. In this soup, someone might take a pot shot at you, thinking you're a scab or Pinkerton."
   
     "I'll be careful," Emlyn said. He walked slowly up the ramp and onto McClure Street. As he passed by a tenement building, he thought he heard someone singing. He stopped and listened. A man's low baritone voice came from the yard of the building.
  
     I believe in being ready,
     I believe in being ready

     I believe in being ready,
     when this world comes to an end   
   
     Oh sinners do get ready,
     oh sinners do get ready
     Oh sinners do get ready,
     for the time is drawing near
 

     Oh there'll be signs and wonders,
     oh there'll be signs and wonders
     Oh there'll be signs and wonders,
     when this world comes to an end


      Emlyn crept closer to get a better view into the yard. In the shelter of a porch overhang, a black man was sitting on the stoop, singing, while another accompanied him on guitar.

      Oh the sun she will be darkened,
      oh the sun she will be darkened

      Oh the sun he will be darkened,
      when this world is at its end


      Oh the moon it will be bleeding,

      oh the moon it will be bleeding
      Oh the moon it will be bleeding,
      when this world comes to its end.

    

     Oh the stars they will be falling,
     oh the stars they will be falling
      Oh the stars they will be falling,
      when this world comes to its end


     Emlyn moved closer, stopping beside a tree on the edge of the yard.

     Brothers, sisters, do get ready,
     brothers, sisters, do get ready

     Mothers, fathers, do get ready,
     for the time is drawing near.


     Oh there'll be signs and wonders,
     oh there'll be signs and wonders
     Oh there'll be signs and wonders,
     when this world comes to an end


     "A-men, Brother," said the guitarist to the singer as they finished, raising his right hand. The other man slapped it, and they both stood up and went inside.

     As Emlyn walked the remaining blocks to the house, emotion roiled in him. He had never heard a song, or hymn, or whatever it was, like that before.

     Back in his room, he started to get into bed, but stopped. Instead, he lowered himself to his knees beside the bed, as he had done every night until the quarrel with his father.

      Head lowered, hands folded, he knelt there, but could not formulate his thoughts into prayer. Instead, the song kept running through his mind, over and over.

      Oh there'll be signs and wonders,
      when this world comes to an end 



 Listen
 Tim O'Brien - When This World Comes To An End

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Who Killed John Paul Busch?

The family story that spurred me to research and write Darkness Visible is a story of industrial sabotage--of radical unionists intentionally causing an explosion around an industrial boiler, an explosion that killed my great-grandfather and two other men. One of the questions I've been asked most often about my research is whether I found any reports of sabotage within the Homestead Works during the strike, that is, during the period from July to November 1892. With the exception of the poisoning case (more about that later), I found nothing about sabotage within the walls of Fort Frick.

Idled workers watching the Works before the Battle, July 1892. Photo: Library of Congress

At the suggestion of researchers with the Battle of Homestead Foundation, I decided to look up the coroner's report on my great-grandfather's death. I have his death certificate, showing his death from burn injuries on September 14, 1892. Would the coroner's report make any mention of sabotage? I had to find out.

The report turned out to be fascinating reading. It consists of three parts: The testimony of mill doctor E.E. Stribler (obviously not a native speaker of English), my grandfather's brother, John Paul Busch, Jr., and "Wm. H. McBroom, Chief of Police for Steel Wrks."

Dr. Stribler says that he was called to attend to John Paul Bush [sic] after he suffered burns in a gas explosion on the afternoon of Sunday, September 4th. Stribler sent John to West Penn Hospital for treatment. For some unknown reason, the family moved John to their home in East Liberty. Stribler concludes, "This was not right, he should have staid [sic] in hospital as moving him in air was bad as skin surface might be exposed." We can only conjecture why the doctor reached this conclusion. Was air quality THAT bad? Or was this an attempt to suggest that John would not have died had the family not taken him home?
Smoke belching from mill stacks.

John's son simply states that John was burned in the Homestead Works and that on the Saturday following the incident,  he was brought home from the hospital to 625 Achilles Street (no longer in existence). John died at 4 p.m. on September 14th, ten days after he sustained the burns.

The sworn statements of  Stribler and John, Jr. are pretty much in line with the family story. However, McBroom's testimony is where the story gets interesting: "deceased told me that he was injured by the gas exploding near the boilers. . . Another man was present but I did not know his name. Dr Wible [the 'Stribler' of the first part?] examined Deceased and sent him to the West Penn Hosp. Gas was turned on and he [John] threw a piece of lighted waste, causing the explosion." End of statement.

I had to read McBroom's statement several times before the full force of his allegations sunk in. McBroom is claiming that the gas was turned on (although we don't know where or by whom) and that John threw a piece of burning trash (although we don't know what it was, why it was on fire, nor why he threw it), and that therefore, John was responsible for his own death.

John Paul Busch, late 1880s
Whoa. Next liar stand up. Would a man who had fired boilers on Union gunboats in the heat of battle be so careless? Would a man who had worked in dangerous conditions all his adult life be so foolish? Why didn't the police get the name of the witness and interview him? Why didn't they investigate why the gas was turned on and escaping into the air around the boiler? This statement clearly consists of "alternative facts," designed to blame the victim. Company man McBroom, Chief of Police for Carnegie Steel, is throwing his own metaphorical piece of waste at the coroner.
McBroom's statement

Let's return now to the only documented incident of sabotage during the strike: the poisoning of non-union workers in the Works. As contemporary chronicler Arthur Gordon Burgoyne reports, the months of September and October 1892, saw an "alarming increase" in deaths of non-union workers  from acute diarrhea and gastric distress inside the mill. "It was not until December that the first intimation of a criminal cause for the species of epidemic which struck down man after man and baffled expert physicians and chemists reached the public. The Carnegie Company concealed the truth as far as possible, endeavoring from the first to counteract the statements sent abroad by the Amalgamated Association to the effect that bad food, bad water, and bad sanitary arrangements were killing off the 'blacksheep.'" (Chapter 19, The Homestead Strike of 1892)

As it turned out, the workers had been indeed been poisoned with croton oil. Robert Beatty, a cook who had been arrested, pointed the finger at "master workman" Hugh Dempsey of the Knights of Labor as the leader of the conspiracy. To make a long and complicated story short, Beatty and Dempsey were indicted, and their separate trials were held in January and February 1893. After days of testimony from poison victims, doctors, company employees, Pinkerton agents, friends of the accused, and the exchange of mutual recriminations by union and company, the trials ended with a swift guilty verdict for both defendants. Dempsey's attorneys fought the verdict all the way to the Supreme Court--and lost. The other two men who had confessed and become witnesses for the prosecution, were sentenced to shorter terms.


The family story blames the explosion on radical Irish unionists. Tales of Irish unionists condoning violence--like the Molly Maguires--are legion. I introduced Irish characters into Darkness Visible to show their perspective on the injustices perpetrated by the company. It struck me that the surnames of the defendants in the poisoning case were all Irish. Who knows that whether this is because they actually belonged to radicalized groups, or if they were targeted as a "problem" faction.
The structural mill at Homestead Works. This photo by Benjamin Lomax Horsley Dabbs was taken shortly after the structural mill was completed in 1893.
So, was John Paul's death the work of union saboteurs, as the family story claims? We'll never know for sure. However, I'd like to note these facts:

--The explosion that killed John-Paul Busch took place in early September, about the time non-union workers began to get sick and die from poisoning.
--Carnegie Steel covered up the poisoning deaths, later claiming that they had checked the water supply and found it pure, and therefore had no need to report them. The deaths were not reported until December, after the Pinkerton investigation and after the cook was arrested. One of  the others arrested turned witness for the prosecution and was allowed to walk free until February 1893--a fact that the defense attorneys brought up during the trial.
--The union tried to spin the reports of sickness inside the Works their way, claiming that the company was serving tainted food and water.
--After the strike, Carnegie Steel bought the local newspaper. So much for a free press.

 Now, 125 years later, as during the turbulent days during and after the Strike, it's been difficult to sort through the testimony of the dissonant voices giving conflicting versions of events. But from what evidence we do have, I must conclude that the official version by the company Chief of Police is ridiculous. The other pieces of the story of what was going on inside the mill in the fall of 1892 fit well into the version told by my grandfather and his brothers.

Who killed John Paul Busch? Did he kill himself in an incredibly stupid move, or was he killed by saboteurs? I know not what course others may take, but as for me, I'm sticking to the family story.

Homestead steel workers, 1890. Photo: Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania.  According to Captain Jones of the Edgar Thomson Works, "Germans, Irish, Swedes, and ‘buckwheats,' [young American country boys] judiciously mixed, make the most effective, tractable force you can find. Scotsmen do very well, are honest and faithful, Welsh can be used in limited quantities. But Englishmen have been the worst class of men–sticklers for high wages, small production and strikes." I love that the Welsh can be used in limited quantities. Too many Welsh spoil the workforce apparently.