Title: Chicago To-Day: The Labour War in America by William T. Stead
Location: Internet Archive Date: 1894
In this often forgotten book by English social activist, William T. Stead, best known for If Christ Came to Chicago, the tragic fire at the First Regiment Armory in April, 1893, is used as a metaphor for the issues broiling between Chicago workers and its industrialists, such as George Pullman. 1893 had seen an economic recession in the United States. When profits of Pullman’s company declined, he drastically cut the wages of his workers but stubbornly refused to lower the rent on the workers’ homes. In fact, he refused to even discuss it. The result was The Pullman Strike of 1894 that expanded to become a national railway strike.
The First Armoury in Chicago was last year the scene of a fatal fire. It is a massive fortress of brown stone, standing in Michigan Avenue within gunshot of the Millionaire’s Row, a grim and burly warder behind whose shadow Messrs. Pullman, Armour, and Field can sleep in peace. When I was in Chicago it was an empty ruin. The interior was heaped with ashes and debris. The fire-scarred ruins which were still standing testified to the fierceness of the flames which had raged as in a furnace within the four walls of the Armoury. When the fire broke out it was at night, after the massive sallyport had been securely locked, and the inmates — two or three coloured men employed as janitors — had gone to sleep. No sooner had the alarm been given than the fire-engines were on the spot, only to discover that all access to the massive Armoury was impossible. The lofty walls, erected of a strength sufficient to defy all attacks by hostile mobs or by an army unprovided with artillery, offered no point of ingress for the fireman with his hose. The narrow loopholed windows, which were a safe protection against bullets, were not less efficacious against water. The only means of obtaining access to the building so as to fight the flames, which were every moment gaining ground, was by the door. But the door was locked. The key could not be found; and from the interior of the great building flames mingled with smoke climbed up into the midnight air.
The firemen were baffled. While they were anxiously deliberating what should be done, their attention was suddenly arrested by a terrible sound. Inside the building, fast becoming a flaming fiery furnace, were heard sounds that told only too plainly that human beings were within, frantic with dread of being burned alive. The firemen tried in vain to burst open the massive door. It defied their utmost efforts. A howitzer would not have burst open the portal of the Armoury. Huge sledge-hammers pounding upon the ironclad gate only served as signals of unavailing hope to the doomed inside. Then remembering the tremendous pressure of water, they turned jets from all available hose upon the stubborn door. But all these tons of steady pressure failed even to strain the door on its hinges. The knocking; within grew fainter and fainter. The cries of agonised despair became weaker and weaker. Eager and stalwart men, with all the resources of the great city at their back, were straining every effort that ingenuity could suggest or human energy could carry out to rescue the doomed prisoners on the other side of the door. All was in vain. The door was locked. The key was lost. And so it came to pass that the feeble knocking ceased. No more cries were heard, and when the fire had burnt itself out three or four calcined corpses were found on the other side of the bolted door.
It was a grim and horrible experience, not to be thought of without a shudder ; but it resembles only too closely the miserable tragedy at which civilisation is now assisting in the city of Chicago. The edifice of our competitive commercialism built four-square to all the winds that blow, massive, imposing, impregnable, has taken fire. But the door is locked, and neither is there any key forthcoming to unlock the wards of the great gate through which the inmates might go free. The world watches and sickens with horror ; but the fire burns, the flames mount higher and higher, and there seems to be no escape. It is the tragedy of the Armoury fire rehearsed on a thousandfold greater scale.
Chicago has become for the moment only too authentic a reproduction of the Bull of Phalarus, nor can any way of escape be suggested for the victims. The denunciations of the press, and the invectives which are freely showered on all concerned from one side to the other, are as impotent as the hammers and the water-jets with which the firemen endeavoured to force open the door of the Armoury. Day by day as the Old World and the New keep watching the progress of the blaze, the more hopeless seem to be the efforts to extinguish the conflagration. It all results from one thing. The door is locked, and the key is not to be found. The key in the present instance was at first in the keeping of Mr. Pullman, to whose dogged refusal to permit any reference whatever of the dispute to arbitration is due the whole of the catastrophe ; but its real root lies deeper. It is to be found in the rooted distrust which is the canker of American civilisation. In business, men have forgotten God, they have lost faith in man, and they are reaping the penalty. From of old was it not written, ” If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat of the fat of the land, but, if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured by the sword, for the mouth of the Lord hath spoken it.”
This is not merely true of the immediate dispute and of the refusal of Mr. Pullman to accept any form of reference to arbitration. In every direction, wherever we turn, we are confronted with the same phenomenon. In place of the co-operation of confidence, there is everywhere the fiercest rivalry of cut-throat competition, eating confidence out of the heart of man. If, as Aristotle said long ago, civilisation can be measured by the extent to which suspicion has been replaced by confidence, then, in the headlong rush after the Almighty Dollar, the attainment of which has almost become the chief end of man, we are face to face with a very real retrogression towards barbarism.
It would seem as if we were witnessing the breakup of the old commercialism, which seems as if it were about to expire amid convulsions possibly as violent as those which marked the disappearance of feudalism from Europe at the close of last century. But he would 1)C a bold man who would assert that even now the labour pains of the new era have begun, they may be but false pains, and the new birth of time may still be many years distant. Mankind is slow to change, and as long as an old system can be made to do, it lasts, only when things are quite intolerable do the children of men, more frequently in black despair than in gladsome hope, venture to abandon the old for the untried new.
Even the old Feudalism, which was supposed to have expired in earthquake and crack of doom, contrived to creep back again with indispensable modifications after millions had died in order that it might not die, and modern Commercialism seems to have no less firm a grip upon the world which it has ruled so long. For one reason, its heirs are not ready for the heritage, and we must, therefore, regard the industrial convulsion which has just taken place in America as rather a warning than a judgment. But of the significance of the warning there can be no doubt. As usual, it is the economic crisis which shakes the old system to the ground. At the end of last century, it was the deficit which forced on the Eevolution, and never was a truer word spoken than that it was a deficit which saved the Republic. But for the deficit, the old regime might have continued secure in all the panoply of its power. So now, at the end of the 19th century, the unemployed are our industrial deficit which yawns wider and wider, and refuses to be choked.
All the trouble in Chicago’s at this moment has arisen from the presence of the unemployed. As John Bright long ago remarked, whenever there are two men trying to get one man’s job, wages go down ; and it is the presence of a mass of unemployed men in and about Chicago which has at once provoked the struggle, and led to the outburst of violence which has attracted the attention of an amazed and indignant world.