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King Debs: 1894 | by Washington Area Spark
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King Debs: 1894

A caricature of American Railway Union leader Eugene Debs that appeared in Harper’s Weekly July 14, 1894 showing him halting trade across the United States during the Pullman strike that was ultimately lost when federal troops intervened.


Debs gained nationwide fame (or notoriety depending on your point of view) when he organized the American Railway Union (ARU) in 1894—one of the first industrial unions that accepted members across craft and skill lines. He led a successful strike against the Great Northern Railway in April 1894.


When workers at the Pullman Palace Company that produced railroad cars staged a wildcat strike, Debs first opposed his members’ boycott of trains composed of Pullman cars, citing the weakness of the newly formed union. However as large sections of the ARU began refusing the cars, Debs relented and called a nationwide boycott.


The strike paralyzed the railroads, particularly in the Mid-West and U.S. President Grover Cleveland responded by using U.S. troops to break the strike. Thirteen workers died and thousands were blacklisted from the railroad industry. Debs was jailed for six months where he read extensively and embraced socialism, becoming its greatest U.S. leader.


He was again sentenced to prison—this time for 10 years--in 1918 following a speech in Canton, Ohio where he opposed U.S. entry into World War I and the forced draft of soldiers.


President Woodrow Wilson refused to commute his sentence calling Debs, “a traitor to his country,” despite a million signatures on a clemency petition.


Following President Warren Harding’s election in 1920, Harding ordered a review of Debs status. He granted Debs clemency on Christmas Day 1921.


Debs, who ran five times for U.S president—the last time receiving nearly a million votes from his prison cell, left Atlanta penitentiary and headed to Washington, D.C. to call on Attorney General Harry M. Dougherty and President Warren Harding who had commuted his sentence.


Debs joked that “I’ve started for here four or five times (to the White House), but this is the first time I ever landed,” (referring to his five times running for President).


After a day and a half in the nation’s capital, Debs headed home to his wife in Terre Haute, Indiana. Debs never recovered his health from his time in prison where he had refused any special privileges and died in 1926.


For more information and related images, see


For a blog post on Debs visit to Washington, DC following his release from prison, see


Illustration by William Allen Rogers. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress, reproduction Number: LC-USZ62-106100 (b&w film copy neg.)

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Taken on July 14, 1894