Clinton, Carl E. Person, and the 1911 Shopmen’s Strike, part 2
On December 30, 1913, Carl Person shot and killed the former police chief of Clinton, Tony Musser. Today’s blog covers the first two years of the 1911 Illinois Central Shopmen’s Strike, and how far Carl went to keep it alive.
“There is one thing that stands out like a mountain above a valley, and that is, that the strike suffered and was eventually lost because of the failure of the International officers to carry out the principles of federation.”
-The Lizard’s Trail, by Carl E. Person. Emphasis present
Among the few hundred railroad maintenance shop workers who walked off the job in Clinton September 30th, 1911, was a short, blonde, young man by the name of Carl E. Person. Carl was born in Sweden, most likely in 1889, to poor parents. The Person family, believing they could find a better life in America, immigrated to the US at some point early in Carl’s life, and likely settled down in or near Joliet, IL. Evidently the Persons did not find the better life they were looking for, so at 9 years-old Carl was compelled to find a job to help his family survive. For 10 hours a day, young Carl worked at a steel wire factory, for only $1.50 a week, or approximately $50 today. As a result, Carl could not attend school, and received only 3 months and 3 days of formal education as a child.
Two years after Carl began working, in 1900, Illinois made it illegal to employ children under the age of 14. The Person family still needed Carl’s income though, so at age 11, Carl found a new job as a machinist with a railroad company by claiming to be 15 years old. Carl seems to have spent the next several years learning his new trade- how to make, repair, and maintain specialized parts for steam engines- until he was old enough to set out on his own. The next location I can definitively place him is Clinton in 1911, but it seems likely he spent some time in Bloomington, IL before arriving in Clinton, as he was a member of the Machinist’s union local there. Carl also seems to have been a card-carrying Socialist party member, as many members of the labor movement at the time were. With the start of the strike, Carl continued to apply himself to labor’s cause by becoming an amateur reporter, writing and sending dispatches on the state of the strike in Clinton to be published in the Machinists’ union’s journal and other labor-friendly publications.
There was certainly plenty to report on in the strike’s early days. As soon as it began, the Illinois Central Railroad (ICRR) and Harriman lines sent trains full of strikebreakers to points affected by the strike to fill open positions and keep trains running. Strikers tried to keep these replacements out of the maintenance shops as best they could, and frequently came into conflict with armed guards hired by the railroads, to the point that riots broke out in a few cities in the strike zone. Clinton itself nearly suffered one as well the night of October 24th, 1911 when two ICRR guards started taunting the strikers. The strikers, however, kept calm and managed to get the police to escort the guards away before things escalated any further. The winter of 1911-1912 would still see some violence in the strike zone, but not on the same scale as the riots at the start of the strike, as an injunction obtained by the ICRR against the strikers forced them to keep their distance from the maintenance shops.
However, the primary reason the strike quieted down was that it was already collapsing. The newly formed Illinois Central Federation and Harriman Federation had no strike funds prepared, nor paid staff to coordinate the strike, so the international trade unions were relied on to meet these needs. Despite this being a “federated” strike, the trade unions never pooled their resources and essentially ran separate strikes. The different trade unions’ staff deployed to the strike zone never seem to have met in a general meeting to establish a common strategy, nor did they ever pool their strike funds. As a result, the poorer trade unions quickly ran out of funds to pay strike benefits to their workers, and evidently some of the other trade unions, seeing their allies seemingly not pulling their weight, reduced or cut off their own strike benefits. By mid-1912, only 2 of the 9 trade unions supporting the strike were still regularly paying strike benefits.
Despite this, Carl Person tells us the strikers remained committed to the principles of the Federations:
The only people who recognized the Federation were the strikers themselves. At each
terminal point they held their Federation meetings and co-operated in the handling of
the strike locally. Working together on the picket lines and in committees, they had
forgotten that they were machinists, carmen, pit fitters or helpers, but jointly assisted
and pressed in service their best efforts and complied with that which make federation
as effective as possible. In financing the strike locally, everybody did the best to assist
those who were most in need, and when possible compensated those who gave the
movement their service and time, regardless of whether they were mechanics, helpers,
As the situation deteriorated through 1912, the desperate strikers forced the trade unions they were members of to hold a vote on whether to call a general strike of all railroad maintenance shop workers west of the Mississippi river, as a gambit to force the ICRR and Harriman railroads to the negotiating table. The vote was held, but narrowly missed the 3/4ths majority necessary to authorize a general strike.
It was in this context John Buckalew, the Machinists’ union official overseeing the strike on the ICRR, arrived in Clinton on June 29th, 1912 to meet with Carl Person and a few officials from the Machinists’ union District #21 (which seems to have covered central Illinois) to formulate a plan to reinvigorate the strike. Carl’s dispatches from Clinton had gained quite a following, especially for his uncompromising support for the general strike idea, and Buckalew saw potential there. For his part, Buckalew would later insist the only plan hatched at this meeting was to turn Carl’s personal dispatches on the strike in Clinton into a newspaper covering the state of the strike in all cities with ICRR maintenance shops. Carl, however, claims that all present at the June 29th meeting agreed to this much more ambitious plan: First, they would begin making appeals to the Machinists’ union’s membership to send donations for the strike fund directly to the officers of District #21, as they believed the leadership of the union was misappropriating these donations. Then, the officers of the district would distribute the funds to the remaining active picketers on the ICRR and recruit more picketers, even if they did not belong to the Machinists’ union, as funds allowed. These picketers paid direct by the district would also double as reporters, sending dispatches to be used for a newspaper covering the state of the strike at all ICRR maintenance shops. This new “Strike Bulletin” newspaper would also sell subscriptions, the proceeds of which would also be used to pay strike benefits. The final step of the plan was to have District #21 essentially secede from the International Association of Machinists and be annexed by the Illinois Central Federation, to be used as the core of a truly federated strike effort. Carl’s place in this was as the “strike secretary,” who would handle much of the correspondence of the district and work as editor of the Strike Bulletin.
For the first few months, the plan was executed mostly without issue. By November 1912, District #21 was receiving hundreds of dollars in direct donations, and Carl Person, despite being new to the newspaper business, had the Strike Bulletin publishing weekly. District #21’s officers were even successful in contacting the Illinois Central Federation, which quickly agreed to adopt the Strike Bulletin as the official newspaper of the organization, accept the funds offered by the district, and install Carl Person as the new secretary of the Federation to begin integrating District #21 into the Federation. Up to this point, District #21 had been testing the patience of the Machinists’ union leadership, but these steps finally brought down the hammer. Within a few weeks the Machinists’ union stripped Carl Person of his position as strike secretary for District #21, and forced the Federation to drop the Strike Bulletin as its official publication, in favor of the Liberator, published out of Sedalia, MO. The reason for doing so, given in a letter signed by several of the presidents of the international trade unions participating in the strike, was that “these bulletins are being issued without being censored in any particular, and as a result many articles have a tendency to compromise us if ever used against us in a court of law.” The criticism was at least a fair one: During his tenure as editor of the Strike Bulletin from 1912-1915, Carl Person seems to have been taken to court 13 times for libel, defamation, and related violations of the law.
Carl may also have been removed as the Illinois Central Federation’s secretary at this time, though he certainly acted as though nothing had changed. As a Christmas present for 1912, Carl mailed all the presidents of the international trade unions involved in the strike a report on the number of pickets posted at each town with an ICRR maintenance shop, as well as the number of pickets he and his remaining allies in District #21 estimated would be necessary to win the strike. This was one of Carl’s most polite letters to the trade union presidents, and it seems to have been successful in getting them to distribute a bit more money in strike benefits to the strikers. Carl also continued printing the Strike Bulletin, despite the ICRR having begun legal proceedings against the paper. In the spring of 1913, Carl got in touch with the American Federation of Labor’s (AFL) Railway Department, which agreed to purchase 1000 copies of one of the Strike Bulletin’s “graveyard editions,” and promised to purchase and distribute more as funds allowed. The “graveyard editions” were special printings of the Strike Bulletin which featured pages of photos and stories of wrecks on the ICRR, showing the danger of using the railroad while poorly-trained strikebreakers worked in the maintenance shops. Carl claimed that one edition of the Strike Bulletin had over 1 million copies circulated, and it was likely one of these “graveyard editions.”
Carl kept his Strike Bulletin running, despite repeated suits from the ICRR, and for his efforts, a seemingly-dying strike seems to have started having an effect again. By August 1913, ICRR stock prices had fallen from $167 at the start of the strike to about $105, and dividends paid out to stockholders for the fell from 7% the previous fiscal year to 5%. The strikers claim sole credit for this downturn in the ICRR’s business, but it should be noted other factors could have been at work. Perhaps the more convincing evidence that the strike was making itself felt again is that things started happening to Carl as the Strike Bulletin became more popular. In April 1913, the same month the AFL purchased and distributed the “graveyard edition,” Person was attacked from behind and under cover of darkness while in Decatur on strike business. After Carl’s attackers brought him to the ground, they threatened him with death if he did not move out of Clinton and quit publishing the Strike Bulletin, then left him with one final kick for good measure. Carl did not heed the warning, published the next edition of Strike Bulletin on time, and for his bravery he was attacked again in Decatur, this time in June 1913. The attackers used the same tactics as the first attack, and issued the same threats. Carl responded the same as he did last time, but he did learn a lesson. In July 1913, Carl purchased a handgun.
So things continued through the end of 1913. In the pages of the Strike Bulletin and in his personal letters, Carl remained a constant annoyance for the ICRR, the leadership of the trade unions, and anyone with a more solid grasp of American libel laws than Carl. Carl even found time to run alongside some of his comrades in Clinton’s local elections on the Socialist party ticket (though neither Carl nor any of his friends came close to winning their races). Then, on December 30th, 1913, as he was at work on the next edition of his paper, Carl received a telephone call at his office from Fred Kirk, a picketer and Strike Bulletin correspondent from Decatur, who asked to meet Carl at the interurban station before Fred had to leave for his next train. Carl hurried down to the station to meet him, but failing to find Fred, turned around to head back to the office. On his way back, Carl would shoot the former police chief of Clinton, Tony Musser, 9 times, killing him.
January’s history blog, the final in this series, will go into detail on the days leading up to December 30th, 1913 in Clinton, Carl Person’s murder trial, the final two years of the shopmen’s strike, and the aftermath of it all.
Suggestions for further reading:
Bloomington’s C&A Shops: Our Lives Remembered, edited by Michael G. Matejka and Greg Koos, is an edited volume of oral histories from shopmen who worked in the Chicago and Alton Railroad maintenance shops in Bloomington, IL, from 1900-1972. The recollections of the workers compiled here provided an excellent view of life in a railroad town in the twentieth century, and many of those interviewed were participants in the massive 1922 railroad strike. The book can be found in the library’s nonfiction section under Transportation->Railroads->History->BLO
Railroads and the American People, by H. Roger Grant is a social history of railroads in America from 1830-1930. As a social history, rather than a grand narrative of the growth of the industry, the book explores how railroads changed American social, political, and economic life, as well as the lasting cultural legacy railroads left on the nation. The book can be found in the library’s nonfiction section under Transportation->Railroads->History->GRA.
Illinois Central Railroad, by Tom Murray is another photo history of the ICRR, similar to Illinois Central: Main Line of Mid-America, which I recommended in the last blog. Compared to that, Illinois Central Railroad is more evenly balanced between photos and text, and the photos in it focus less on the train engines themselves and more on life near or on the railroad. Another excellent resource for visualizing the glory days of American railroads. It can be found in the library’s nonfiction section under Transportation->Railroads->History->MUR.
Bibliography (Correction to Part 1)
Note: This citation is for a source used in part 1 of this series. The citation on the original blog included a link which did not lead to the source, and has been corrected here:
Final Report and Testimony Submitted to Congress by the Commission on Industrial Relations, Created by the Act of August 23, 1912 vol. 10. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1916. https://books.google.com/books?id=pTULpzh12DgC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
“Clintonia Township Election, April 1st, 1913.” Clinton Register (Clinton, IL), Apr 4, 1913. https://vwarner.newspapers.com/image/643499947/
“Clinton’s Share in the Strike.” Farmer City Journal (Farmer City, IL), Oct. 6, 1911. https://vwarner.newspapers.com/image/643353964
Comerford, Frank. Plea of Frank Comerford in Defense of Carl Person’s Life. Chicago: 1915. https://books.google.com/books?id=oWY_AAAAYAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
Lindenmeyer, Kriste. “Children and the Law.” Encyclopedia of Chicago. Accessed December 29, 2021. http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/279.html
“Prevented a Riot.” Clinton Register (Clinton, IL), Oct. 27, 1911. https://vwarner.newspapers.com/image/643321932
“Orders Out Troops.” Clinton Register (Clinton, IL), Oct. 6, 1911. https://vwarner.newspapers.com/image/643321760
Person, Carl E. The Lizard’s Trail. Chicago: The Lake Publishing Company, 1918. https://books.google.com/books?id=9lE3AAAAMAAJ&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ge_summary_r&cad=0#v=onepage&q&f=false
“Sample Official Ballot.” Clinton Register (Clinton, IL), Mar. 28, 1913. https://vwarner.newspapers.com/image/643499757/
Strike Bulletin (Clinton, IL), Apr. 9, 1913. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn90054490/1913-04-09/ed-1/seq-3/
Strike Bulletin (Clinton, IL), Nov. 4, 1913. https://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn90054490/1913-11-04/ed-1/seq-1/
“Strike Hits Clinton.” Clinton Register (Clinton, IL), Oct. 6, 1911. https://vwarner.newspapers.com/image/643321807