Sunday, May 27, 2012

Remembering the Fallen

     My earliest recollections of Memorial Day (a.k.a. Decoration Day) were of putting out our four small flags on sticks in the front yard.  The flags would come out again on the Fourth of July, but I can't recall any other day they were displayed.
A soldier places flags on graves at Arlington National Cemetery for Memorial Day.
       Later, in high school,  I associated the day with the community parade that started at the bottom of the hill and wound up at the top on the Catholic side of Homestead Cemetery.  My recollection of those parades evokes rather unpleasant memories: marching uphill in the heavy wool Munhall High School band uniform, tooting my clarinet, and sweating like a racehorse. At the monument, we gathered for what seemed like the same ceremony each year: a Boy Scout reciting the Gettysburg Address, someone reading John McCrae's 1915 poem ("In Flanders fields the poppies blow/ Between the crosses, row on row. . .), a bugler playing "Taps."
     It was appropriate to read Lincoln's famous address at the Gettysburg battlefield on these occasions.  The horrific number of war dead, both Union and Confederate--nearly 700,000, by some estimates--led to the creation of a day to remember them.  Memorial Day was officially proclaimed on 5 May 1868 by General John Logan, national commander of the Grand Army of the Republic.  The day was first observed on 30 May of that year, when flowers were placed on the graves of soldiers from both North and South at Arlington National Cemetery.

     One hundred years later, Memorial Day had morphed from a commemoration of war dead into a more general day of remembering those gone.  As in the 1950s and '60s, today people still visit cemeteries to lay wreaths or plant flowers on the graves of loved ones.  However, in addition to commemorating the dead, Americans use the holiday to mark the beginning of summer--ball games, cookouts, camping, boating, visits to the beach. And for those remaining in the city, there are also those great holiday sales, which bring shoppers flocking to the malls. Times change, and we change with them.
     On Memorial Day my thoughts go out to friends and family members who are no longer with us, especially those who served in the armed forces during WWII:  Uncles Dr. George C. Schein II, Fred Baugher, Joe McGeever (U.S. Army), and Bernie Katilius (U.S. Navy).  And those who witnessed and endured terrible events during their service, my cousin Gilbert Breakwell (U.S.Army, POW in Germany) and my children's grandfather, Dr. C.H.Christensen (Carlson's Raiders, U.S. Navy, Pacific Theater).
Carlson's Raiders on Bougainvillea, one of the battles in which C.H.Christensen served.

     Because of their age during the wars and other circumstances, my father and grandfathers did not serve in the military. However, my paternal great-grandfather, John Paul Busch, served in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War. (He was a fireman on the USS Gunboat Hale at the Battle of  Mobile Bay).  I have often thought it ironic that the skill that saved him from being infantry cannon fodder in the Civil War--the building and tending of fires in industrial boilers)--is what brought him to his death in the Homestead Works nearly 28 years later.
     I also can't help but think of the thousands of others who died in the domestic war that has been going on for centuries, ever since landowners ("nobility") decided that the rest of us should hand over our money and the fruits of our labor to them. After the Industrial Revolution, the combatants became the Company versus the Workers. The Battle of Homestead is the second most bloody clash in a series of many hundreds of violent clashes in the U.S. between the private and public armed forces protecting the interests of company owners and workers demanding fair wages, shorter hours, and/or better working conditions.  Although the official death toll in Homestead was 16, many more died during and after the battle, either by suicide (Pinkertons) or by sabotage (scabs).
     The bloodiest battle came 28 years later in West Virginia at the Battle of Blair Mountain (retold in the 1987 film, "Matewan").  By the end of this battle between striking coal miners and private agents, the sheriff's department, the state police, and the U.S. Army, nearly 15,000 workers and 30,000 police/soldiers were involved. The death toll is estimated between 60 and 120 on both sides, with the workers suffering many more casualties. As in Homestead, the workers ultimately lost.  The result was the setback of miners' rights until the early 1930s when the Federal Government recognized labor unions.
     These were the most bloody confrontations, but there were many others.  To name three: the Lattimer Massacre in Hazelton, PA (1897), when 19 unarmed miners were shot in the back by a sheriff's posse; the Ludlow Massacre (1914)  in Colorado, where the fight between miners and mine guards plus the state militia resulted in 20 or more deaths; the Columbia Mine Massacre, also in Colorado (1927), when mine guards and state police fired a machine gun at striking miners and their wives, killing six and wounding dozens .
Machine gun-equipped armored car, known to the striking miners as the Death Special. The machine gun was turned on the striking Columbia coal miners (mostly immigrants) and used to riddle their tents with bullets. Afterwards, the press whipped public opinion into a frenzy against immigrant workers.
     On this Memorial Day I will remember not only those of my family and of my personal acquaintance who served the country or a cause they believed in, but the many thousands of others, unnamed and often unsung, who served--and sometimes died--trying to make a better life for themselves, their families, and their community.
Poster for "Matewan": "It takes more than guns to kill a man."
 "You think this man is the enemy? Huh? This is a worker! Any union keeps this man out ain't a union, it's a goddam club! They got you fightin' white against colored, native against foreign, hollow against hollow, when you know there ain't but two sides in this world - them that work and them that don't. You work, they don't. That's all you get to know about the enemy." 
--Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper) in "Matewan"

Monday, May 21, 2012

Pinkertons: Guards or Blackguards?

I recently was talking to my friend Joyce in Pittsburgh when the topic turned to the Pinkertons.  Joyce's cousin had just finished Darkness Visible, and she had found a jarring contrast between the images of Pinkertons in their family stories and those of the Pinkerton characters in the book.
      The cousin's husband's grandfather had been beaten and dragged through the streets of Braddock and arrested during a strike in the early 1900s, all because he was a worker supporting unionization.  Joyce's grandmother had told the story of an incident during labor unrest in Homestead during the same period: Joyce's grandfather and his friend were walking along the the tracks by the Works when they encountered some Pinkertons.  The friend made a smartass remark to the Pinks; to the horror of Joyce's grandfather, one of them promptly shot the friend dead. (Predictably, the guard was not held accountable for the killing.)
     The history of the Pinkerton Detective Agency is a checkered one, with some very ugly parts. Founded in 1852 by Scottish immigrant Allan Pinkerton, the agency specialized in guarding trains. The agency was hired during the Civil War to protect President Lincoln.  In 1861 the Pinkertons famously foiled an assassination attempt on Lincoln in Baltimore, while he was on his way to his inauguration. (The agency was not successful in preventing John Wilkes Booth from killing Lincoln four years later, after the war.)
Left-right: Allan Pinkerton, Abraham Lincoln, Maj.Gen. John A. McClellan, 1862.
      After the war, the agency became known as the private militia for companies and the goverment to call in to crush uppity workers. Before the 1892 Homestead Strike, Pinkerton guards were employed in putting down coal, iron, and lumber disputes in Illinois, Michigan, New York, and Pennsylvania, as well as during the Great Railroad Strike of 1877.   A subsidiary group, the Coal and Iron Police, were used by Henry Clay Frick and other robber barons to stop union organizing in these industries.  Companies hired the Pinkerton Agency to provide agents to infiltrate unions, to supply guards to keep strikers and union organizers out of factories, and to recruit goon squads to intimidate workers. In the 1870s the Pennsylvania and Reading Railroad hired Pinkerton spies led by agent James McParland to investigate union activities in the company's mines by the Molly Maguires. The agents were successful in facilitating the arrest and eventual execution of organizers for the group.
Pinkerton detectives show off as a trophy the corpse of a Union soldier they had shot as a deserter (1862).

     The most famous (or infamous) of the numerous violent clashes between the Pinks (their derogatory nickname) and workers is the '92 Homestead Strike.  It is the only time that workers, during a daylong gun battle, defeated the Pinkertons. But of course, it was a Pyrrhic victory for the strikers, who were trumped by Frick's convincing the Pennsylvania governor to call in the State Militia to "restore order." However, after the Homestead battle, the Pinkertons were banned from employment by the government. The controversy swirling around the role of the militia in the violence spurred the passage in 1893 of the federal Anti-Pinkerton Act, which states that an "individual employed by the Pinkerton Detective Agency, or similar organization, may not be employed by the Government of the United States or the government of the District of Columbia."
     From this time and into the 20th century, the Pinkertons frequently appear wherever and whenever a dispute arises between workers and companies.  For many, the name "Pinkerton" became synonymous with union busting, not only in the overt use of guards, but through the use of infiltrators and goon squads.  Joyce's relatives apparently experienced the Pinkertons in these roles.  How many other people can tell similar stories of  guards literally getting away with murder?
     In 1912, the dark side of the agency came to public view in Charlie Siringo's book titled  A cowboy detective: a true story of twenty-two years with a world-famous detective agency; giving the inside facts of the bloody Cœur d'Alene labor riots, and the many ups and downs of the author throughout the United States, Alaska, British Columbia and Old Mexico, also exciting scenes among the moonshiners of Kentucky and Virginia (available as a Google e-book). The long title suggests the skullduggery involved in the agency work of union busting. In the book Siringo, who had worked for more than twenty years under James McParland in the Pinkerton's western division based in Denver, claims that the agency was guilty of  "jury tampering, fabricated confessions, false witnesses, bribery, intimidation, and hiring killers for its clients," assertions confirmed over time by documents and testimony.
     Another incident in the summer of 1917 suggests Pinkerton involvement. A man named Frank Little was helping organize workers in the metal mines of Montana, including leading a strike of miners working for the Anaconda Company, which had hired the agency to protect its interests. In the early hours of August first, six masked men broke into Little's hotel room in Butte. He was beaten up, tied by a rope to a car, and dragged out of town, where he was lynched. A note, "First and last warning," was pinned to his chest. No serious attempt was made by the police to catch Little's murderers. It's not clear if he was killed for his anti-war views or his union activities; either way, the result was the same.
Cartoon in Solidarity magazine, August 1917--'Copper Trust to Press: "It's all right, pal; just tell them he was a traitor."'
      In 1937, forty years after the Little incident, the agency dropped out of labor spying following revelations publicized by the LaFollette Committee hearings. The agency's criminal detection work also was diminished by the police modernization movement, which saw the rise of the F.B.I. and the bolstering of detective branches and resources of public police forces.
      In July of 2003, the agency was acquired by Securitas AB to create Securitas Security Services USA, Inc., one of the largest security companies in the world. (Ironically, Securitas employees are currently trying to form a union through the Services Employees International Union).
      In Darkness Visible my goal was to show the events of 1892 from multiple viewpoints.  As I read eyewitness accounts of the experiences of the guards,  I could not help feeling sympathy for the new recruits who were brought into the battle unprepared, victims of the company's phony enticements as much as of the workers' fury.
     But the Pinkerton rank-and-file and their leaders knew exactly what they were getting into. The words of A.F. Heinde to Hugh O'Donnell at the landing before the Pinkertons' first attempt to disembark were blatantly inflammatory. However, it must have come as a great surprise to Heinde to have the strikers defy him and the company by holding their ground and firing back.
     I can't help wondering, what was Heinde thinking?  Didn't he see the couple of thousand armed and angry workers blocking their way? It suggests arrogance and unwarranted confidence in acheiving the usual outcome for the agency, that is, crushing the workers. In any case, after the initial barrage of gunfire, in which Heinde was shot in the leg, he and company superintendent Potter high-tailed it to safety on the tug, leaving the rest of the Pinkertons to their fate, trapped on the barges.
     So, were the Pinkertons just guards or blackguards? Both, it appears. At my Munhall High School class reunion last summer, I talked to several classmates about the Strike and Battle.  They all held the same view, namely that the Pinkertons deserved what they got after the battle. Maybe so, maybe not. Whatever your views, it's a fact that the Pinkertons' arrival on the river bank changed not only Homestead, but the course of the American history.
A Hollywood view of the Pinkertons from the 2001 film, "American Outlaws." In the movie Timothy Dalton (no relative of the outlaw Daltons), center, plays Allan Pinkerton, who is called in to stop the James gang.  In the words of one reviewer, "What ensues is a stultifyingly bland, bloodless and clichéd bunch of nonsense." Again, the myth of the Old West triumphs over Clio, the muse of history.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Real Characters

First edition cover
When Sinclair Lewis published his immensely popular novel Main Street in 1920, it was no secret that the setting of Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, and the characters that populated it were derived from his hometown of Sauk Centre.  The people upon which Lewis based his characters were understandably none too pleased with Lewis's rendering of them: blowhards, boosters, back-stabbers, hypocrites, and culture-vultures.
     However, only five years after the book came out, Sauk Centre High School's teams changed their name to "Mainstreeters," a name they still use today.  I suppose you can't argue with success.
     Because Darkness Visible is an historical novel, I had no choice but to use characters based on real people--Hugh O'Donnell, for example.  My portrait of him was derived from reading contemporary accounts of his role in the Strike and the trial afterward for murder (in which he was acquitted).  He seems one of the more tragic figures in a story that has many tragedies.  He was stuck in a damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don't situation that offered no happy ending.  He tried valiantly to stop the battle before it started, and he was the one who negotiated the release of the Pinkertons from the barges.  But the strikers thought he was too soft in his dealings with the company, and the company vilified him as the leader of the strikers. In the end he was blacklisted and ostracized, wandering about trying to pick up work as a journalist.  That's history.
Hugh O'Donnell, c. 1892
     Another kind of history is family folklore, stories handed down from generation to generation.  I knew my Grandfather Busch, but as an old man, a retiree who loved listening to the Pirates' game on the big old radio console. After my grandmother died, he came to our house on James Street for dinner each day.  I can't recall him ever appearing not wearing a white shirt and tie.  For my father I relied on the stories of his father as a youth, the eldest of 11 sons and 2 daughters. Apparently the boys were hellions, rampaging through the neighborhood, knocking over outhouses on Halloween. I also knew his sister Kate as an old woman in a nursing home, a huge stone Romanesque edifice in Braddock, straight out of the Addams Family series.  She seemed to me kind, yet tough, a woman who had survived the literal knocks from her beer-swilling, tuba-playing husband. I  imagined that her mother, whom she resembled, had a similar personality.
Kate Busch Wieland (2nd from left) and Susanna Busch (3rd from right), early 1900s.
     For impressions of John Paul, I had to rely on secondhand stories told by my father.  Because my father's editing so blurred the lines on his portrait of his grandfather, I had to come up with an imaginative rendering of this ancestor who eschewed the war-torn land of his fathers to come to America.  I can only guess how desperate he must have been to come to Homestead to take that fateful job starting furnaces for Carnegie Steel.
     Only one of the fictional characters is based on someone I knew. Virgil of the open hearth resembles a classmate at William and Mary, a Tidewater Virginian.  Although my friend had a more patrician background than Virgil (from a farm in the Shenandoah Valley), his personality is much like the character's.
Kip races ahead with the ball as Nant looks on at the dog park.
    The only fictional figure that is based on family members contemporary to me is the doctor's dog Cerberus.  He is a composite of my two border collies, Kip and Nant.  He has Nant's face (blue and brown eyes) and intense sheepdog "eye", but Kip's easygoing personality and large frame. Kip would always stay by my side and come when called. We traveled thousands of miles together, even crossing the border into Canada several times. I imagine Cerberus having the same loyalty to the the doctor, the family member he could always rely on.  Kip and Nant are gone now, she in November 2010, he in April 2012, but both live on in the book as Cerberus, the gatekeeper of Homestead.
Kip drinks from Lake Superior, while Nant takes her usual "polar bear" dip.