BEFORE I was fifteen, better times began to come back. The hat-factory worked more steadily. I was put at making cardboard hat-boxes, and my wages went up to fifty cents a day. The brother of the superintendent had charge of my box-room, and proved himself one of the best bosses I ever had.
In those days, the relation between employer and worker was different. The owners of industrial establishments, in most cases, worked; and so did their sons. Some of them were managers or office men, others worked at the trade, and nearly all were skilled in their line. They mingled with, and worked among, the men all day long. If an employee wanted to talk with the head of the firm, it was not necessary to gain admittance to an office, or to journey to some big city, because the head either worked with you, or came through the plant on his daily tour of inspection. Every employee knew every member of the firm, and the firm knew every worker.
Our family moved many times, from one house to another, following the curve of income and rents.
Soon after one of our movings, the Y. M. C. A. held temperance revivals in a near-by hall. My step-brother, Frank, and I attended. We decided to sign the pledge for five years.
‘But,’ protested the revivalist, ‘why for five years? Why not for life? '
I explained that in five years we should be men, and that, as boys, we did not wish to impose our boyish ideas upon ourselves as men. He agreed. Then, asking us to lay one hand on the Bible and raise the other, he began: —
‘You swear —’
‘No,’he replied; ‘I am not asking you to confess. I am asking you to take an oath that you will keep your pledge for five years.'
He then spoke the pledge and ended by urging, ‘You do so swear?’
I asked him whether I should now swear. He nodded his head. I rolled out a terrible oath. The evangelist was angry. I told him I was doing just what he told me to do, and Frank backed me up. We finally convinced him that the only swearing we knew about was cussing. Up to this time I had believed that in taking an oath one used a cuss word.
We both swore not to touch, taste, or handle liquors for five years. We both kept our oath.
Then came the strike of the Brotherhood of Railway Enginemen and Firemen. This tied up our Philadelphia and Reading Railroad system. The first act of destructive violence was the burning down of the Lebanon Valley Railroad bridge and the burning of a number of freight cars. Several cars of coal were dumped, and the coal carried away in bags and buckets. Great excitement prevailed in our city. One evening a crowd of curiosityseekers was gathered on the main street. Of course, I was in the crowd. I perched near the top of an awning pole at the corner cigar store, and had an elegant view of all that went on below me. It was a good-natured crowd and gave the policemen nothing to do.
Then, with no warning, shooting began. I saw the railroad cut full of soldiers. Something cracked to the left of me: a bullet went through the plateglass window of the cigar store. The crowd became frantic. The shooting no longer came scattered, but in volleys, at regular intervals. I saw several persons drop.
All this was within a minute or two. I slid down the pole and ran south, toward my home, directly in line with the flying bullets.
I found that every other member of our family had been in the crowd when the shooting began. None was hurt. But other neighborhood families had suffered. Within a radius of two blocks of our house were the homes of six persons who had been shot. The wounded, dying, and dead were carried to their homes on cellar doors, settees, express wagons. The city had no police patrolwagons or ambulances. The victims were innocent citizens. This massacre had its effect on the strike situation. The misery and death took the heart out of the strikers.
The Easton Grays, of Easton, Pennsylvania, were the military company that did the shooting. If they had ordered the crowd to disperse, within fifteen minutes there would not have been a soul left to shoot at. Instead, the officer and his soldiers — the officer and his assassins — sneaked in through the deep railroad cut, and at a distance of one hundred and fifty feet, without reason, and with no warning, fired volley after volley into a law-abiding, unsuspecting human mass of men, women, and children.
On a trip to Philadelphia I saw Excelsior at the old Walnut Street Theatre. I decided that show-acting was a desirable life-work. A friend of mine, Lincoln Wise, and I made ourselves into a vaudeville team, known as ‘Welsh and Mack.’ With Charley Brown and Walter Weber added, we formed a company called ’Tony Weber’s New York Variety Combination.’ The first act was ‘Tony Weber, the Magician.’ This consisted of card tricks, worked by invisible threads. The threads ran through eyelets down under the stage, where they all came together, each properly labeled for its particular trick. I engaged a hall in Reamstown, Lancaster County, for our opening performance. I gave the proprietor free passes to our show.
Charley Brown took his place under the stage, ready to pull the strings and make the cards do their stunts. The curtain went up to a crowded house. Just then the proprietor and his whole family arrived on their free passes. They were too late for seats, so they went to the door at the rear of the stage, in order to see the show from behind. Brown was under the stage, leaning against this door as it suddenly opened. Like a drowning person grabbing for straws, Brown, feeling himself falling backwards, grabbed for something with both hands. He connected with the labeled threads that worked the tricks. As he fell backward into the room behind the stage, every card trick began to work at the same moment. Cards jumped out of tumblers, other cards changed their spots, others flew from one picture-frame to another.
Weber stood in the centre of the stage, amazed at seeing all his tricks working in one burst without his command. The audience was pleased, believing this was a spectacular opening to the act. We dropped the curtain and rearranged the tricks, and the show went on. We cleared twenty dollars. This success led us to tour the district. We put on shows at Sinking Springs, Wormelsdorf, Robesonia, and Wernersville.
We decided to run a circus. We borrowed a tent that measured thirty by fifty feet. Barnum’s Circus came just then, with a woman shot out of a cannon. This idea struck home to us. To be sure, we could not shoot a woman out of a cannon, like Barnum. Our tent was not big enough. We could not afford such a large cannon; and we did not have a woman who would be willing. But Weber worked out a plan of catching a cannon ball in his teeth. So we proceeded to have the cannon built. We selected for our opening a town named Leesport. Our advertising bills played up the cannon-ball stunt as the star feature of the show. Our troupe included Weber, Brown, Wise, and myself, of our old combination, and a Mr. Savage, who worked our Punch-and-Judy Show.
By six in the evening everything was ready for the rush. A half-hour later, a good-sized crowd had gathered. Someone discovered there were no seats for the audience. I noticed several piles of railroad ties. I persuaded part of the crowd to carry the ties into the tent for seats. Then I asked these volunteer helpers to step outside, buy tickets, and come in again and take one of the seats they had helped to arrange. I told them I would let them buy tickets first, so they could get front seats. Tipped off how to get front seats, they eagerly bought, and this stampeded the crowd. By seven o’clock the tent was packed.
The stage was erected at one end of the tent, and on one side of the stage was Professor Savage, sitting with his Punch-and-Judy cabinet. The cabinet rested on the ground, and the stage was elevated about two feet. He sat there quietly inside his cabinet till his turn should come at the end of the show.
The time came for the big act — Professor Weber catching a cannon-ball in his teeth. Charley Brown explained to the audience that Weber had an iron jaw, and could catch cannon-balls between his teeth as easily as an alligator could snap flies. He then asked for a committee of three men to come from the audience to examine the cannon, powder, and balls, to load the cannon, and to fire it. The committee stepped up and examined the cannon, which was a real one all right, made of cast iron, two feet long, and with a threefourths-inch bore. They pushed in the powder wad, and then marked the bullet for identification. It was a lead bullet of the size of a large grape. They then rolled the bullet into the cannon.
What ought to follow was this: Weber would step on the stage opposite the cannon and hold a plate in front of his face. The committee would touch off the cannon, the plate would break, and between the teeth of Weber would be the cannon-ball. The committee would examine the ball for identification. ‘Yes, it’s the same ball we marked,’ would have to be their answer, because it was the same ball.
The trick lay in the ramrod. The committee was allowed to examine everything except the ramrod, and, of course, no one thought of examining a simple little stick. One end of the ramrod was hollow and, when the ball was dropped into the mouth of the cannon, Brown would push the ball back against the powder wad. The ramrod, being hollow at one end, would catch the ball, and, when the ramrod was withdrawn, the ball would be secretly encased within it. The ramrod was then carelessly tossed on a table, and Wise, tidying up the stage, would carry the table off to Weber behind the scenes. Weber would extract the ball from the ramrod, put it in his mouth, pick up a broken and pasted-together plate, and step out on the stage. When the cannon roared, Weber would break the cracked plate in his hands, and show the cannon-ball between his teeth.
But what really happened on this night of our try-out was different. The committee loaded the cannon and waited for Weber to appear to be shot at. But Weber behind the scenes had just discovered that the ball was not in the ramrod, and this of course meant that it was in the cannon. Wise and I were with him. But Brown was on the stage, while Savage was sitting in his Punch-and-Judy cabinet, and neither knew anything of our troubles. We heard Brown announce to the audience: ‘The Professor will now step forward and catch the ball you saw your committee load in the cannon.’
But the Professor had no idea of stepping forward at that moment. The audience commenced to clap their hands in impatience.
‘What will we do?’ asked Weber.
There was only one thing to do, and that was to get the ball out of the cannon, and the easiest way to get it out was t.o shoot it out. So I stepped out on the stage, waved my hands for order, and said: —
‘My friends, it is indeed to be regretted that there should be some people here to-night who suspect that something crooked has been pulled over on them. I have just heard someone say that the ball is not in the cannon. And this, remember, after a committee of your own townsmen themselves put the ball in. Therefore, to remove any suspicion that anyone may have that the cannon is not loaded now with the ball, I shall fire off the cannon and prove that it is. After that, we will again load it and then the Professor will catch the ball between his teeth.'
I then placed a small block of wood, about two inches thick and six inches square, — which we used in one of the other tricks, — in front of the mouth of the cannon, believing it would stop the ball. We lighted the fuse and fired the cannon. There was a roar, the block of wood disappeared into splinters, and from Professor Savage’s cabinet came a yell. We had forgotten about him. The bullet-hole through his Punch-and-Judy show proved we had nearly got him. Everybody was satisfied it was a real cannon and that it had been loaded with ball.
The committee then loaded it again, and this time the ramrod did its work. Weber received the ball all right, put it in his mouth, picked up the cracked plate and was ready to go ahead with the act. This time Brown asked: ' Is the Professor ready to prove to the world that the jaw of man is quicker and more powerful than a steel rat-trap?’
Weber then stepped forward and said: ‘He is.’
The audience cheered. The mouth of the cannon was elevated, and Brown made great business of taking good aim.
‘Are you ready?’ he finally asked.
Weber answered: ‘I am, and goodbye to all if I fail to catch it.’
Then the match was applied as Weber faced the cannon, with the cracked plate covering his face.
The cannon roared. There stood Weber, with the ball stuck between his teeth, The audience was dumbfounded. The committee looked the ball over, and informed the crowd it was the same one they had marked and loaded. Just then, a man rose and said he would like to ask a question.
‘What I wish someone would explain,’ he said, ‘is how that ball got round the plate without breaking it.’
Then we discovered that in the excitement Weber had forgotten to twist the cracked plate into bits and drop it. There he still stood with the plate in his hands, and, so far as the audience could see, it was a perfectly solid plate. Then a member of the committee wanted something else explained.
‘Tell me,’he said, ‘where is the other bullet?’
‘What other bullet?’ I asked.
‘I want you to know,’ he explained, ‘that we put two bullets in the cannon. The Professor caught one, all right, but what became of the other one?’
Later, I became a machinist’s apprentice. This paid twenty-five cents a day for the first year. Working beside me in the machine-shop was a journeyman by the name of Thomas King, one of the original organizers of the Knights of Labor. He talked to me about Labor’s rights and the necessity for the workers to organize. These were subjects about which I knew absolutely nothing, and I did not care to know anything about them. He might just as well have talked to me about the nebular hypothesis. One day he handed me a small pamphlet and said: —
‘Read that and tell me what you think of it.’
It was the first time in my life that anyone had ever given me anything to read, with the request that I express an opinion. That night, after supper, I tried to read the pamphlet, but found the task beyond me. I could spell the words, but knew how to pronounce very few of them. For more than an hour I wrestled with the little pamphlet, determined to find out what it had to say; but no use — the little pamphlet on which I had promised to give an opinion, next day, defied me and, reluctantly, I was compelled to acknowledge defeat.
Before me lay a newspaper. I tried to read it, but found it as big a task as the pamphlet. A book lay on the table. It was mother’s prayer-book. I hurriedly opened it and tried to read, but could not. Nearly sixteen years of my life had passed, yet, up to that very hour, I had no idea why people should learn to read. Why spell words, when I could speak them more easily and quickly, and, besides, knew what the words meant. My vocabulary consisted of a few hundred simple words, fully half of which I pronounced improperly, or with a Pennsylvania Dutch accent. In that hour, I had an awakening. I now understood for the first time why children were sent to school. Schools, after all, were not juvenile penal institutions.
I rushed into the front room where mother was, fairly shouting, ‘ Why can’t I read?’
‘Why, Jimmie,’ she said, ‘what are you talking about?’
I then explained my troubles: how I had tried to read and discovered that I could not.
‘Well,’ she said, ‘you see, Jimmie, we were always very poor, and instead of you going to school, you had to go to work; and besides, what little schooling you did get never seemed to do you any good.’
The following morning King asked me if I had read the pamphlet. I frankly admitted that I had not, and explained why.
‘A boy your age, and can’t read! Why, boy, where have you been all these sixteen years? If you expect to go through life like this, you will find it mighty rough going.’
I made no attempt to explain other than to say, ‘ I would give a thousand dollars, if I had it, to be able to read.’
For the next ten minutes, neither of us spoke a word. King was evidently doing some serious thinking. Finally, he came over to my machine. Laying his hand on my shoulder, in a sort of fatherly fashion, he said, ‘Jimmie, I have made up my mind to give you a chance, and it won’t cost you a thousand dollars, either.'
And Tom King, the Labor leader, opened a school, with me as his only pupil. Our schoolroom, during the day, was the machine-shop. Our desks were machines. Two and three nights a week he labored with me at home, and thus began the task which, in time, started me on a journey which I should have started ten years before. For more than a year, King labored with me. I read everything I could lay my hands on and developed my knowledge of mathematics by measuring up and figuring out the square or cube of most everything in and around t he machineshop. It was the little pamphlet, issued by the Knights of Labor, that switched me off from illiteracy.
In the meantime, King kept talking the labor problems over with me, and finally suggested that I join the Knights of Labor. So, on the 15th of April, 1880, my sixteenth birthday, in company with King, I went to Fisher’s Hall, and there, on the top floor, entered what was, in those early days, the secret chamber of the Knights of Labor, Washington Assembly, No. 72. All the members present seemed to be old men. I doubt if there was one among them, besides myself, who was not more than thirty-five years of age. The Master Workman (President) was a Mr. Tyson, a gray-haired old man. Little did I dream, as 1 sat there that night and listened to speeches and the humdrum of routine business, that this meant for me the beginning of a line of work which I would follow through life. Less than three months after I joined, an election of officers took place and, to my great surprise, I was elected Worthy Foreman (Vice-President).
One day, King saw me reading a trashy novel. He asked me to let him look the thing over. I handed it to him, and he promptly tore it to pieces. I protested, because the novel did not belong to me. He glared at me as he said, ‘Do you think that I have given you a year to have you waste your time on such trash?’ Right then and there, there was a show-down between us, and King won out. For at least a year after that, I read what King gave me to read. I read books and pamphlets on the money question, banking, gold standard, double standard, paper money (greenbacks), inflated currency, contracted currency, free coinage, the crime of 1873. Before I was seventeen years of age, I believed that I knew more about the subject of banking and the manipulations of our currency than most Congressmen did; and now, knowing how little the average Congressman does know, I am inclined to believe I was right.
One morning King told me of his experiences of the night before. He had been to Adamstown, trying to convince the employees of a hat factory there, that they should join the Knights of Labor, and vote the ‘ Greenback’ ticket, as well. A few village bullies broke up his meeting and orderd him out of town. Of course, he was angry, and vowed he was going back again as soon as he could find someone to go with him. I volunteered.
‘Jimmie,’ he said, ‘you won’t do. I need a few husky fellows who know how to fight, and who are not afraid.’
I then offered to get a gang who knew how, and who were not afraid. For the next few nights, I was busy looking up old friends and ex-enemies. From my large acquaintance, I picked four whom I considered the cream. I explained, in detail, what the trouble was about, and what would be expected of them. The men I picked were Harry Pyle, a one-time enemy, Bully Goodman, Ed Price, and Plugger Roland.
When the eventful night came for my first battle for free speech, King furnished his little army with a transport consisting of a one-horse, covered spring wagon. He rode ahead of his army, in a buggy, and arrived first. On our way to Adamstown, which was a distance of ten miles, we five planned our defense, attack, slaughter, and retreat.
To make sure that King’s constitutional rights would not be violated, we took a few good-sized clubs with us, with the understanding that they were to be used only in an emergency. As we were driving into the town, King had begun, as previously arranged, to speak. This gave me an excuse to stop my team on the opposite side of the street and pretend to listen to the speaker, as I sat in the wagon. The audience had every reason to believe that King was alone.
King spoke for about twenty minutes, and our army was getting restless. We feared there would be nothing doing. Finally, I commenced to applaud the speaker, saying, ‘That’s the stuff. You’re right. Go to it, old boy, give it to them.’
I noticed that there were some in the crowd who seemed friendly, because they, too, began to applaud. But through the crowd, from out of the darkness, came a husky fellow, who might have been thirty-five or forty years of age. Walking up to King, he said, ‘Shut up, you liar, and get out of this as quick as the devil will let you.’
King answered by giving the signal agreed upon.
‘Is there no one here who will protect me in my constitutional rights against this ruffian?’
Pyle had already slipped out of the back of the wagon and, stepping forward, cried out, ‘I will.’
The next instant the bully was lying sprawling in the street. It took but a few seconds for his friends to come to his rescue, and then the real fight started.
Quite a few of the natives fought on our side, and this is what saved us from complete annihilation, and turned victory in our favor.
When the battle was over, and I had time to survey the field of honor, I learned that, while no one was killed, some of us came dangerously close to it. Price and Plugger Roland got away with nothing more serious than blue eyes, bloody noses, and the loss of a few teeth. I suffered from a fractured jaw, a few cuts about the head and face, a broken bone in my right hand, and a blow on the chest. So serious was the blow on my chest, caused by a large stone, that I felt the effects of it, from time to time, for twenty years. Pyle suffered from two broken ribs, a. battered-up face, and loss of a tooth. As soon as the victims were dragged off the field of battle, King started to speak again and spoke for ten minutes, just to show that we had won and that constitutional rights were still held sacred in Adamstown.
After we closed the meeting, we decided to celebrate our victory. We entered the hotel barroom, and the six of us lined up in front, of the bar and gave three cheers for free speech. I doubt if there was a good fight left in the whole bunch of us combined; yet, propping ourselves against each other, we rubbed in our victory with a vengeance. Later, I learned that the bullies responsible for all the trouble were not natives of Adamstown, but strangers imported there.
When we returned to the wagon to go home, we discovered our clubs. Not one of us had thought of them after we left the wagon and the fracas started. A few hours later we arrived in Reading and separated for our homes, never to get together again.
After serving less than two years at my trade, I believed I could hold my own as a full-fledged mechanic. I went to Pottstown, and became a machinist with Sotter Brothers, boilermakers, at a wage of two dollars for a workday of ten hours. While working in the shop, I was ordered to make a two-inch boiler-tube expander. We were not equipped to make tools of this kind, but I went ahead to make one anyhow. In boring the first hole in the body of the expander, in which the rollers were to work, I got the job clamped crooked, and, of course, the hole got crooked or, perhaps I should say, the hole I drilled was not in line with the body, but, slanted. So, in order that the boss would not suspect that I ‘bulled’ the job, I bored all three holes crooked, or on a slant. After the job was finished, I was anxious to know if an expander like that, would work. I discovered that it not only worked, but fed itself besides. To work the other expanders, it was necessary to hit a tapered pin every few revolutions with a mallet, in order to force the rollers out against the tube. The hitting of the pin not. only consumed time, but had a tendency to knock off the end cap of the expander. When I discovered my find, I showed it to Mr. Sot.ter, the head of the firm, who tried it out on at least a dozen tubes before he felt satisfied that we really had a self-feeding tube-expander. Of course, I got credit, for the wonderful discovery. If there were any self-feeding expanders on the market before this, no one in Pottstown ever heard of it. Less than a year later, however, there were offered for sale two different kinds of self-feeding expanders, one of them an almost identical imitation of the one I had made.
At this time in my life, seven or eight dollars was my limit for a suit., a dollar for a hat, at the most a dollar and fifty cents for a pair of shoes, fifty cents for a shirt.; and it was paper collars when I wore them, which was seldom. I never wore underwear, winter or summer, nor owned an overcoat until I was nearly twenty-one years of age. I looked upon well-dressed people with suspicion and believed that people who wore underwear were dirty.
Then came a long let ter from my old friend, Tom King, expressing the hope I was not. neglecting my studies, and saying that he was planning to have me appointed local organizer for the Knights of Labor. In due time, my commission as organizer arrived, and two weeks later Iron Workers Assembly No. 7975, was organized. Within a short time we had a t housand members enrolled, more than we could handle, and we organized another assembly. My promotion was rapid. First, delegate to the District Assembly, then Master Workman of the Iron Workers; and before I was twenty years of age, I was elected District Master Workman.
I read the Progress and Poverty of Henry George, and a little later joined the Single-Tax Club. Most of my evenings were now occupied in studying and in attending meetings. And yet, the old life seemed to hold a chattel mortgage on me, because I would try to satisfy my desire for excitement, and think I was having a good time. Gradually I turned my life into labor channels, in the practice of my trade, and also in the job of helping to organize a coherent labor movement.
For forty-two years now I have played my part in the labor movement. I have been doing public speaking ever since I knew much of anything, delivering speeches in every state of the Union. Eighteen years ago I counted up that I had then made a thousand speeches. Probably it is over two thousand now. My life has been lived in Reading, and it was Reading that, in 1010, elected me to the General Assembly of the State Legislature — the first and only Socialist that ever represented the city. In 1014 and in 1916 I was reelected. In 1911 I introduced bills in the Legislature on Mothers’ Pensions, Child Labor, Workers’ Compensation, Semimonthly Payment, and twenty-five other labor measures. These bills were considered a joke by many assemblymen. A prominent State Senator said to me: ‘Do you expect to live long enough to see any of them become law?’ Four years later, most of them were on the statutebooks.
In 1917, I introduced an Old-AgePension Bill. It is not yet law, but the state created a commission to investigate the subject and gave me the chairmanship. I hope to sec Old-Age Pensions become law at the coming session.
In 1912 I was elected President of the Pennsylvania State Federation of Labor, and have been reelected ever since. The State Federation of Labor had 267 affiliations ten years ago. To-day it has 1300 affiliations, and numbers 400,000 members. It is the greatest, factor for good in the state. It is feared by the party machine, and was influential in bringing about the nomination of Gifford Pinchot.
During the war, an effort was made to repeal the labor laws and standards, under the pretense of winning the w ar. We opposed surrendering one inch of what organized labor had secured. We wrere branded as Pro-Germans for our activities against the mutilation of the labor charter. We succeeded in keeping every law on the statute-books. Is one was repealed, or even suspended. And the war was won, anyhow.
While the spirit of intolerance and reaction was at its height, an attempt was made to saddle a vicious sedition law on the state. Our Federation opposed it by bringing five hundred men and women to the State Capitol, and for six hours we told the Joint Committee of the Legislature of labor’s opposition. The bill was passed to save the governor’s face and reputation; but the Federation of Labor compelled the administration to strike out three dangerous paragraphs and nine dangerous words, thus making the bill a harmless document. One word was still left in (‘tends’) that might have made trouble. And by our persistency we removed that word, two years later.
The trades-union movement in the past has had to light, blindly, sometimes winning, sometimes losing. Battering its way along, it has now better wages, shorter hours, the protection of organization. Its longer aspirations are still unrealized. It needs the wisdom that will prevent it from going up blind alleys. It needs a technique. The Socialist movement talked for a generation of public ownership and control of industry. And yet there was not administrative ability enough in many places to run even a local.
So the need of labor is workers’ education. It is here I am putting the strength of my remaining days as chairman of the Workers’ Education Bureau of America. In Pennsylvania we have workers’ classes in a number of industrial centres. We teach history, literature, economics. Step by step with workers’ education go a labor press and labor research. Knowledge is what is needed, not violence. Labor of the future will be broad, based on tradesunionism, cooperation, and solidarity at the ballot-box. The instruments of its increasing power w ill be a labor press, labor research, workers’ education.