George Pullman (1833 – 1897): Review of The Edge of Anarchy

George PullmanThe Edge of Anarchy by Jack Kelly, St Martin’s Press 2019.

When George Pullman,  creator of the Pullman Porter Railway Car died in 1897, his family, worried that his enemies might do the body some mischief, had him buried under an elaborate monument involving several tons of steel and concrete.  Ambrose Bierce, always ready with a verbal stiletto, suggested that “It is clear the family in their bereavement was making sure the sonofabitch wasn’t going to get up and come back.”

What did the man have to do to warrant that level of hate?

Money, of course. Money and power. This was the gilded age, large fortunes made and a reasonable balance of power between capital and labor was still being worked out.

Pullman was born in 1833, the son of an engineer from whom he inherited some engineering talent.  As a young man, George was involved in a number of technical ventures, including the installation of drainage to the city of Chicago.  He hit the big time just after the Civil War.  After spending a grim night on a badly appointed train, he had the bright idea of creating what were essentially small hotels on wheels. As the continent was opening up to long distance rail traffic, he thrived.

Always inventive and looking for ways to improve the business, Pullman bought five thousand acres south of Chicago and erected Pullman, a planned community for his employees.  Houses, schools, theater, park,  library, hotel – all of it on Pullman’s terms.  He wanted a his workers untainted by “intemperance, labor strikes, and dissatisfaction which generally result from poverty and uncongenial home surroundings.” Twelve thousand residents lived in this utopia south of Chicago, which Pullman treated an ancillary income stream.

Business runs in cycles and his and the rest of the worlds hit a downward slide in early 1890s. In response, Pullman cut wages.  He did not cut rents.  Had he done so, this book might have had a very different ending.

Instead, he held his ground, until Pullman workers, encouraged by Eugene Debs, leader of the American Railway Union, walked off the job.  Rather than talk, Pullman used political muscle to bring in strike breakers armed with deputy marshal badges and guns.  Violence broke out, company property was torched, and over forty men were killed.  By now an anxious president Cleveland sent in the US Army to restore order, using as justification the fact that these cars carried U.S. mail.

(Shocking to us now, but bear in mind that maintain federal authority, a U.S. president had ordered the Army to march on southern states just three decades earlier.  It is also worth noting,for the irony, that while the Union refused to admit African Americans, Pullman, a staunch Republican, went out of his way to hire them.)

In the end, the strike ended and both sides licked their wounds and considered the future.  Debs was indicted, tried, jailed (his lawyer, Clarence Darrow, was unable to win an acquittal) for six months, during which time he read socialist literature, decided that real power came from politics. On his release, he founded the American Socialist Party.

There’s more to the story, and the author John Kelly unwinds the events, the missed chances, the arrogance, the short-sightedness, the back room deals, with a fine narrative flow.  And although the greater excesses of the old gilded age plutocrats are largely missing from modern America, there are enough points of similarity to make this an unnerving but worthwhile read.

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