Convict Number 9653 was a model prisoner at the federal penitentiary in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1920. Hardened criminals and prison officials alike were touched by his friendliness and concern for all. The son of immigrant parents, he dropped out of high school at age fourteen to work as a painter in the Terre Haute railroad yards for fifty cents a day. In spite of this humble background, and his incarceration in a prison cell, Convict 9653 would receive nearly one million votes as the Socialist party's presidential candidate in 1920.
The prisoner was Hoosier union organizer, writer, lecturer, and five-time presidential hopeful Eugene V. Debs. Although during his life his beliefs were frequently out of step with those of his Terre Haute neighbors and the country, many of Debs's "radical" reforms--an eight-hour workday, pensions, workman's compensation, sick leave, and social security--are commonplace in today's workplace. His philosophy was contained in the short statement:
While there is a lower class, I am in it;
While there is a criminal element, I am of it;
While there is a soul in prison, I am not free!
Born on Nov. 5, 1855, Debs was the eldest son of parents who came to Indiana in 1851 from Alsace. Leaving school to help his financially strapped family, Debs found a job scraping paint off railroad cars. Shortly after, he moved up to become a locomotive fireman. Concerned about their son's safety, Debs's family urged him to quit and in 1874 Debs moved on to a clerking job at the Hulman & Cox wholesale grocery firm.
Even with his new job, Debs retained his interest in the railroad workers' plight. On Feb. 27, 1875, he became a charter member and the secretary of the Vigo Lodge, Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen. By 1880, Debs had become grand secretary of the national Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and editor of the Locomotive Fireman's Magazine. Also during this time, Debs became active in Democratic politics, serving two terms as Terre Haute city clerk and one frustrating term in the Indiana legislature as state representative. During his service in the General Assembly, Debs supported or drafted bills for women's suffrage, the abolishment of racial distinctions, and compensation for railroad workers; all met with defeat. He refused to run for reelection.
In June 1893 Debs helped found the first industrial union in the United States, the American Railway Union, which was open to all railroad employees. During its first full year in operation, the union won a major and peaceful victory in its strike against the Great Northern Railway. The union next became involved in a sympathy strike in support of employees of the George Pullman company, maker of Pullman railroad cars. Approximately 100,000 workers went on strike, halting all railroad traffic in and out of Chicago except trains carrying U.S. mail.
The bitter Pullman strike, often known as the "Debs Rebellion," ended when President Grover Cleveland sent in federal troops. For his refusal of a court order to end the strike, Debs and seven other American Railway Union officials, dubbed the "Woodstock Eight," were convicted (despite being represented by Clarence Darrow) for contempt of court. During his six-month stay in the Woodstock, Illinois, jail, Debs became a convert to the socialist cause.
In 1900 in Indianapolis, the Social Democrat Party held its first national convention and nominated Debs to run as its candidate for president -- a role he would also fill in the 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920 presidential elections. In his first run for the White House, Debs captured 86,935 votes. That total rose to 402,489 four years later.
For the 1908 election, Debs took his campaign on the road, traveling coast to coast in his "Red Special" train, which consisted of a locomotive with a coach, sleeper, and a baggage car packed with campaign literature. Debs spoke to some 500,000 people on his journey, many of whom paid to be able to hear his speeches--a far cry from today's campaigns. Despite his whirlwind efforts, however, Debs was able to capture only 17,891 more votes than his 1904 total.
The 1912 election was the highwater mark for the Socialist party as 900,369 people, approximately six percent of the total vote, marked their ballots for Debs. Four years later, seeing war fever building in the country, Debs declined to run for president and instead tried unsuccessfully for a post in Congress. His congressional campaign saw Debs speaking forcefully against the war then raging in Europe--a stance he maintained as America entered the war on the Allied side in 1917.
On June 16, 1918, Debs spoke out against the war in a speech in Canton, Ohio. Federal authorities were quick to react, arresting Debs later that month in Cleveland and charging him with violating the Espionage Act. During the trial, the prosecution argued that Debs, in his Canton speech, had tried to discourage enlistment in the armed forces and promoted insubordination in the ranks. Speaking in his own defense, Debs admitted making the speech, but denied the prosecution's allegations and challenged the validity of the Espionage Act, claiming it violated the constitutional right to free speech.
In two hours of testimony before the jury, Debs had this to say about his Canton speech and beliefs:
>"In what I had to say there my purpose was to have the people understand something about the social system in which we live and to prepare them to change this system by perfectly peaceable and orderly means into what I, as a Socialist, conceive to be a real democracy. . . . I am doing what little I can, and have been for many years, to bring about a change that shall do away with the rule of the great body of the people by a relatively small class and establish in this country an industrial and social democracy."
"I would no more teach children military training than I would teach them arson, robbery, or assassination."
— Eugene Debs
On Sept. 14, 1918, Judge D. C. Westenhauer issued his sentence, sending Debs to prison for ten years. An appeal by Debs to the U.S. Supreme Court failed and in April 1919 he entered the Moundsville, West Virginia, state prison (which housed some federal detainees) to begin serving his jail term. Two months later, he was transferred to the Atlanta federal prison from which he ran his fifth and final presidential campaign. In the 1920 election, Debs captured his highest vote total ever (913,664), but the Socialist party's total vote percentage dropped to three percent.
On Christmas Day in 1921, the man who defeated Debs for president, Warren G. Harding, commuted his sentence to time served and Debs returned home to Terre Haute. Debs continued to speak and write for the socialist cause during the next few years, but was in poor health due to his prison experience and the effects of his grueling work schedule throughout his adult life. He died in Lindlahr sanitarium just outside of Chicago on Oct. 20, 1926. In his history of Indiana, Hoosier historian John Bartlow Martin noted that Debs "was in the main stream of Indiana protest, the ceaseless quest for the better life begun by Robert Owen, the uprising against authority begun in William Henry Harrison's time. . . .They left an impress and a heritage,--Debs most of all. He was the greatest of the Indiana protestants, the most effective."