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Governor of Illinois during one of the most violent labor strikes in U.S. history
John Porter Altgeld was born in the German village of Nieder Selters on December 30, 1847. His parents immigrated to America when he was three months old and subsequently settled in Mansfield, Ohio. He volunteered for service in the Union Army upon outbreak of the Civil War, but his service was cut short by illness. Upon his release from the Army he returned to Mansfield, finished his education, and became a teacher in Woodville. In Woodville, Altgeld fell in love with Emma Ford, the daughter of a successful merchant, but her father didn't think Altgeld had enough money and refused to consent to their marriage. Determined to make himself worthy of marriage, Altgeld left Woodville and moved to Missouri, where he studied law. Admitted to the bar in 1872, he quickly established a reputation for protecting the rights of the poor.
Altgeld's reputation as a lawyer carried him into the political arena. In 1874, he was elected Andrew County Prosecutor. He resigned after a year and moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he again established a reputation as a lawyer, as well as a very successful real estate investor. In 1875, he published Our Penal Machinery and Its Victims, in which he argued that the U.S. criminal system favored the rich over the poor. By 1877 he felt comfortable enough to return to Ohio and again ask for Emma Ford's hand in marriage; this time her father consented.
Altgeld's political star began to rise in 1884, when he vigorously campaigned for the Democratic ticket, including Grover Cleveland. His efforts were rewarded in 1886, when both the Democratic and Labor parties backed his election to the Cook County Superior Court. He resigned from the court in 1891 in order to concentrate on his real estate and construction ventures.
Altgeld returned to politics in 1892, when the Democratic Party nominated him for the governorship of Illinois, which he won by nearly 25,000 votes. Upon taking office he undertook an ambitious program of social reform, including attempts to prohibit child labor and to require state inspection of factories; he also introduced a law prohibiting discrimination against trade union members. On June 26, 1893, he pardoned three men who had been convicted of murder as a result of the Haymarket Riot on the grounds that they had not been given a fair and impartial trial as required by the U.S. Constitution. Although his action was applauded by labor, it was overwhelmingly condemned by almost everyone else.
As bad as his pardon of the Haymarket murderers was, however, it would prove to be mild compared to his actions during the Pullman Strike of 1894. On May 11, 1894, workers of the Pullman Corporation went on strike in protest of wage cuts. The strike remained a fairly local event until the American Railway Union launched a sympathy strike, which in turn led U.S. Attorney General Richard Olney to issue an injunction against the strikers. When the strike leaders refused to back down, Olney ordered U.S. Army troops into Chicago on the grounds that the strike was interfering with the movement of the U.S. mail. When Altgeld learned that the U.S. military was being sent into Illinois without the state's approval, he sent two separate telegrams to President Cleveland demanding their removal; Cleveland refused to rescind the order, and Altgeld was berated for taking the strikers' side. After violence broke out in Chicago on July 6, the city's mayor sent a telegram to Altgeld requesting assistance from the Illinois State Militia; Altgeld reluctantly agreed. Unfortunately, the milita's arrival spurred even more violence; seven rioters were killed in the resulting melee, all of them by the militia. Altgeld was once again slammed by the press, this time for taking actions against labor.
By 1896, Altgeld had become a very vocal opponent of Grover Cleveland and campaigned as vigorously against his re-election as he had for his election. Although his actions during the Pullman Strike had earned him many enemies, he remained powerful enough within the Democratic Party to exert influence in the drafting of the party's platform. Thanks to his efforts, the Democratic platform included planks in favor of free silver, labor, income tax, and personal and civil liberties. Originally a supporter of former U.S. Senator Richard P. Bland of Missouri, he was swayed in favor of William Jennings Bryan following Bryan's infamous "Cross of Gold" speech. Bryan ultimately won the Democratic nomination, but lost the general election. That same year, Altgeld lost his bid for another term as Governor.
Altgeld made his last bid for political office in 1899, when he lost his bid for Mayor of Chicago by a sizable margin. In 1900 he again campaigned in favor of Bryan's bid for the presidency, after which he retired from politics and returned to his law practice.
John Porter Altgeld died of a cerebral hemorrhage on March 11, 1902.
This page was last updated on March 11, 2017.