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Clinton, Carl E. Person, and the 1911 Shopmen’s Strike, part 3

Black & white photograph of Carl Person (Left) & his defense attorney, Frank Comerford (right).
Carl Person and Frank Comerford

In today’s history blog, Carl Person stands trial for murder. Depending on the verdict, he’d walk away a free man, or hang at the gallows.

Carl Person (left) and one of the lawyers on his defense, Frank Comerford (right), standing outside the DeWitt County jail. This version of the photo, published by The Person Defense League of Chicago, omits Sheriff Armstrong, who stands on the other side of Carl in the original.


Clinton, Carl E. Person, and the 1911 Shopmen’s Strike, part 3

This man is the most cold-blooded murderer ever caught in DeWitt County!”

-Louis Williams, State’s Attorney for DeWitt County, at the bail hearing for Carl Person, held May 25, 1914.

“There is little for me to say. Mine has been a small part in this struggle.”

-Carl E. Person

Tony Musser was born on a farm near Oconee, a village in Shelby county, south of Decatur, on July 2, 1872. Tony eventually moved to Clinton where he married Cora Hamlin on April 11, 1902, and the pair had 3 children together. Tony worked several different jobs while in Clinton, with the Clinton Gas and Electric Company, the local Fire and Police Departments, and finally in 1913, at the Illinois Central Railroad’s (ICRR) maintenance shops in Clinton.

1910 seems to have marked a turning point in Tony’s life. When Cora filed for divorce in December 1911, she cited “repeated cruelty, extending over a period of two years,” including repeated threats to kill her as well as to sell their home’s furniture. Cora’s claim the problems in their marriage began two years prior lines up fairly well with the tragic death of Tony’s brother in January 1910, who was killed in Taylorville, IL while at work as a train brakeman. 1910 was also the year Clinton police chief John Struble was murdered while apprehending a burglar. Tony not only saw the murder happen, but was wrestling the suspect to the ground with John when he was fatally shot, and on top of that, Tony failed to apprehend the suspect. Rumors soon swirled that Tony was the actual one who killed John, as he was the only other person besides the suspect (who was never definitively found) with John when he was shot. Whatever the truth of the matter, these events certainly must have weighed heavily on Tony, and following them, the evidence suggests he was much more unstable.

Following Cora and Tony’s separation, Tony moved out to Decatur, before moving back to Clinton in October 1913, having reconciled with Cora, according to the Clinton Register. He arrived just in time for when a convincing suspect in John Struble’s murder was finally arrested in November. However, when the case was brought to trial, the defendant easily proved an iron-clad alibi for the entire period surrounding John’s murder. The entire trial took only two days and delivered a “not guilty” verdict, a humiliating defeat for the new state’s attorney for DeWitt County, Louis Williams, as well as Tony Musser, who had positively identified the defendant as the killer and testified during the trial. To make the humiliation worse for Tony, since he was working for the ICRR’s maintenance shops in Clinton at the time, that made him fair game in Carl Person’s eyes to editorialize about in the Strike Bulletin following the trial:

“Tony Musser, who was on the police force during the time Chief of Police Struble was

killed, put in a very strenuous week during the Struble murder trial here. Musser is now

scabbing at the local bull pen, and he has been trying to help the state convict an

innocent man by the name of Weir. However, from the flimsy statements made by

Musser on the witness stand, it was easy to understand who Struble’s murderer was

and who operated the gun that did the killing. A man who will fall as low socially as to

join the ranks of scabs and traitors will not hesitate to take human life.”

Carl’s accusations against Tony were published December 23, 1913, a week before Carl and Tony’s fatal encounter. The place of their fight, near the interurban train station in Clinton, was filled with people, so while there were plenty of witnesses, the crowd and confusion meant there were practically as many stories of the fight as there were witnesses. The accounts can broadly be divided into those that claimed Carl shot Tony in the back after Tony had been restrained by two bystanders trying to break up the fight, and those that claimed Tony had escaped the two bystanders and was moving to renew his assault on Carl when Carl began shooting. The severity of Carl’s injuries is also unclear, and, thanks to the fact the DeWitt County sheriff’s department refused to let Carl be photographed with his injuries fresh, all there is to go on is the conflicting stories of the pro- and anti-Carl Person camps. All agree he suffered some sort of head wound, with the Clinton Register reporting he suffered only a 1 ½ inch cut on his scalp, while the Strike Bulletin described him somewhat delirious, having bruises across his body, and the head wound being bad enough to expose the bone of his skull. With so many conflicting stories of the events leading to Carl killing Tony, the exact truth of it would have to be sorted out at court, so in the meantime, Carl was arrested and left in the DeWitt County jail until the circuit court reconvened in May 1914.

A cartoon depicting Carl’s account of he and Tony’s fight, published in Strike Bulletin. Note the gun Tony holds in panel 4; no other account of the event includes Tony threatening Carl with a revolver.

A cartoon depicting Carl’s account of he and Tony’s fight, published in Strike Bulletin. Note the gun Tony holds in panel 4; no other account of the event includes Tony threatening Carl with a revolver.

Carl’s local friends quickly got the services of Arthur Miller, a local attorney, to represent him, as well as gotten Frank Comerford involved, a lawyer from Chicago whose services were being retained by the unions on strike to handle any legal disputes with the ICRR and Harriman lines. Frank was sympathetic to organized labor’s cause, having won election to the state legislature in 1904 as a progressive Democrat, before promptly getting himself ejected from the body after libeling members of the legislature in a speech at the Illinois College of Law. Frank and Carl would become friends over the period of Carl’s arrest and trial, perhaps bonding over their shared inability to comply with libel law.

Carl quickly set up a makeshift office for himself in his cell, from which he continued to edit Strike Bulletin and write editorials. This was necessary not just to keep the strike effort alive, but also because Carl had given everything he possibly could to support the labor movement and the strike, and so had no money to pay his two attorneys with. Carl was going to need quite a bit of money too, as he would need to retain Arthur and Frank’s services not just for his murder trial but also for his Federal trial for criminal libel and for the damages suit opened by Cora Musser against him. Carl and his allies quickly turned his arrest and various legal troubles into a labor issue, and Strike Bulletin’s biggest ongoing story. Through the paper, they solicited donations to Carl’s defense fund, and encouraged readers to establish “Person Defense Leagues,” the largest of which was in Chicago. Some of the earliest responders to Carl’s calls for assistance were the Machinists’ union local in Bloomington, of which Carl was a member, which pledged to donate $1000 (~$27,000 today).

To some degree, Carl’s arrest really was a labor issue. Carl was at that time a fairly prominent voice in the labor movement, and through his paper had at least become enough of a nuisance that someone connected to the ICRR had seen fit to have him beat and threatened in 1913. Losing him could extinguish what faint hope the strikers had left of forcing a settlement with the ICRR. Moreover, Clinton was undoubtedly a company town at that time. The ICRR paid out over $200,000 (about $5.6 million in 2022) in payroll each month to nearly 2,000 employees in a town of only about 5,000 people. Even the mayor at the time, George Edmonson, pulled double-duty as a doctor for the ICRR. Carl and his allies were reasonable in thinking he could not get a fair trial in DeWitt County, as the animosity between the strikebreakers working at the Clinton ICRR shops and Carl would make it difficult to find unbiased jurors. The sentiment against Carl was even shared by Clinton at large, as evidenced by this portion of a Clinton Daily Public editorial published soon after Tony’s death: “Person is one of those labor agitators and the more of them we hang the better off we will be.” Arthur Miller also received a letter claiming to be from the KKK threatening to bomb his home if he continued to work as a defense attorney for Carl. State’s Attorney Williams seemed to be prejudiced against Carl too, as he staunchly and successfully opposed setting any bail for Carl before the circuit court in May 1914. With no other way to secure bail for Carl, Frank and Arthur arranged for a Chicago judge to issue a writ of habeas corpus for Carl and hold his own bail hearing. The Chicago judge ultimately set bail at $12,000 (~$335,000 in 2022), which Frank’s mother Jean posted on June 8, 1914.

With so much of the public already convinced Carl was guilty, Frank and Arthur agreed it was critical that Carl not be tried in DeWitt county if he was to get a fair trial, and this next legal battle was already well underway when Carl was released on bail. On May 26th 1914, circuit court Judge Cochran had given Carl’s defense team until June 15th to collect affidavits affirming Carl could not get a fair trial in DeWitt county, and the prosecution had until June 29th to collect affidavits claiming he could. Unsurprisingly, the need for affidavits in Carl’s defense was publicized in Strike Bulletin, helping Frank and Arthur collect 512 affidavits to State’s Attorney Williams’s 476 and convincing Judge Cochran to grant the venue change, setting the trial to occur in Lincoln, Logan County.

With this change secured, all that was left to do for both the defense and prosecution was prepare for the trial, set to start in late September 1914. Still most pressing to the defense was the need to raise funds to pay Frank and Arthur, so with Carl now out on bail, he began something of a publicity tour to raise funds. Strike Bulletin’s circulation was also kicked into overdrive in order to raise funds and publicity for Carl’s case, with a “Person Murder Trial Special Edition” aiming for, and apparently reaching, over one million copies printed and circulated. State’s Attorney Williams, for his part, used an underhanded method to tilt the scales in the upcoming trial in his favor. He secretly obtained a draft of an article to be published in Lincoln’s newspaper covering the basic details of the case, and made significant changes to it to make Carl appear guilty. Both the defense and prosecution also had brought in additional attorneys to assist with the case by the start of the trial, and when it started on September 22, 1914, Lincoln was abuzz at hosting its own little trial of the century.

DeWitt County State’s Attorney, Louis Williams. Williams led the prosecution against Carl Person in his murder trial.

DeWitt County State’s Attorney, Louis Williams. Williams led the prosecution against Carl Person in his murder trial.

The trial itself was dramatic and bitterly fought. State’s Attorney Williams and Frank Comerford had each quickly come to disdain the other, frequently sniping at each other in prior court appearances leading up to the trial. With the start of the trial, other attorneys started getting dragged into their squabbles. An objection by Farmer City attorney Lot Herrick, assisting the prosecution, quickly devolved into Frank (a Chicago native) and Lot accusing each other of not practicing “real” law where they were from. Louis Williams also insulted Arthur in the prosecution’s closing statement, which Frank condemned the childishness of at length in his own closing statement.

The trial saw 128 witnesses called, forcing both sides to rely on the character and perceived trustworthiness of their witness, as each side told very different stories of Tony and Carl’s fight. The prosecution came out swinging, as their first witness, Joseph Barnett, told a lurid tale of how he saw Tony and Carl brawling with each other before being separated by onlookers. After that, according to Barnett, Carl walked a distance, then turned and shot Tony in cold blood, and finally smeared blood on his face from a small cut to appear more injured. The prosecution followed with many witnesses telling much the same story, and also read into the record Carl’s editorial against Tony from December 23, 1913. The defense started slower, opening with a few witnesses attempting to show an ICRR conspiracy to kill Carl, but their testimony was not very impressive. The defense hit its stride after this though, first showing Carl was tricked into coming to the Interurban station by Tony, then beginning their account of the fight, with crucial testimony provided by John Taylor, one of the men who pulled Tony and Carl apart. Taylor testified that Tony had started the fight, knocked Carl to the ground and beaten him so bad “blood was running down to [Carl’s] shoes,” and, crucially, that Carl had only started shooting after Tony had escaped the grasp of Taylor and others pulling him away from Carl. Finally, in a moment worthy of a Law and Order episode, the defense called Carl Person himself as its last witness. While the prosecution forced Carl to admit in cross-examination that he lied about his birthdate and was younger than he claimed, the defense still won the exchange, as Carl’s testimony on the two beatings he suffered in Decatur by ICRR operatives were critical to the defense’s argument that Tony Musser had also attacked Carl on the ICRR’s orders.

After closing arguments were had, the jury was dismissed on October 3rd, 1914, to deliberate. It is hard to tell now what the mood in the air was at that moment. The Clinton Register reported that Lincoln locals had lost interest in the trial by the end of the prosecution’s witness’ testimony, while Strike Bulletin reports a crowd was gathered near the courthouse throughout deliberation, backed up by The Farmer City Journal which reported the city was “wrought up” over the trial, especially the women in the city, who “as a rule favored the defendant.” After just under 24 hours, a juror shouted out of a courthouse window “we win,” and the gathered pro-Carl crowd started to celebrate. A few minutes later, the judge called the jury back into the court room, where the official “not guilty” verdict was delivered. Carl Person had been spared the gallows.

But Carl was not out of the woods yet, nor was the strike he devoted so much of himself over yet. For the next nine months, Carl’s other legal troubles were slowly sorted out, while Carl himself kept busy exhorting the Federation strikers to hold firm, even as the trade unions that supported the Federations agreed in late October to end all strike benefits. By June 1915, Carl was finally clear of all legal trouble, and a month before, the 1911 Federation strike was declared officially over by the American Federation of Labor (AFL). At this point, Carl, as well as all those involved with the strike, now had to figure out where to go from here.

Many former-strikers remained bitter after the strike was called off in May 1915, and it wasn’t until January 1916 that even a single one of the strikers who walked off on September 30, 1911 returned to the Clinton ICRR shops, despite assurances they would be rehired immediately. The Red Scare following World War I saw suppression of radical elements in the labor movement, and as wages shrank after the war years, the pressures on these railroad men exploded back out in the massive 1922 railroad strike, which sadly was another costly and bitter defeat.

None of these developments stopped Carl, though, who soon departed Clinton for Chicago, looking for new ways to contribute to the labor movement. His trials and friendship with Frank Comerford had sparked an interest in becoming an attorney, and, presumably thanks to introductions Frank made for him, Carl enrolled in law school, graduating in 1919. During this time, Carl attended a conference of the Railway Department of the AFL in 1916 as a witness for Jim Kline, president of the Blacksmith’s union, who was on trial for claiming the other presidents of the trade unions had sabotaged the 1911 strike. The budding lawyer Carl took full advantage of this opportunity to voice his frustrations with the handling of the strike and testified for two full days. By Carl’s own account, his testimony definitively proved Kline’s accusations. In any case, Carl’s actions at the conference infuriated the leadership of the Machinists’ union, who had not forgotten his attempt to steal an entire district of the union from them back in 1913, and at this latest provocation, they stripped Carl of membership in the union. Still, Carl would not be silenced, and he turned the case he presented at the AFL convention into a book, The Lizard’s Trail. He also helped support a wildcat strike in 1920 by railroad switchmen, which earned him attention by the Federal government as a dangerous radical.

Despite moving to Chicago and being kicked out of the trade union he got his start in, Carl never forgot his comrades from the 1911 strike, returning to Clinton in 1925 for a Labor Day celebration with his friends who still lived here. He even kept many of the documents and correspondence from his days as strike secretary and from his murder trial all the way until May 1967, when he deposited them with the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University, where they are still accessible today. Carl Person passed on July 23, 1969, and was buried in Joliet, IL, sharing a gravestone with his mother, father, and a still-born relative.

Next month, it’s time for a new topic! We’ll be enlisting in the Union Army and marching south into Dixie with Colonel Vespasian Warner, as we begin to trace the course of the Civil War from his perspective.

Suggestions for further reading:

The Lizard’s Trail, by Carl E. Person. Well, after all this time researching the 1911 strike and the colorful character of Carl Person, I can’t not recommend his own account of the strike. If you really want further reading on this strike or Carl Person himself, there’s simply no better place, but you should also be warned that Carl was writing for an audience of 1910’s union workers, so he expects the reader to be at least basically familiar with the events of the strike and the state of the labor movement at the time, which can make reading it confusing. It is not available through the library, but the full text is available for free by clicking on this Google Books link:


“Atty. Comerford Brings Out Chain of Evidence in Person Case.” Strike Bulletin (Clinton, IL), Oct. 7, 1914.

“Brakeman Killed.” Clinton Register (Clinton, IL), Jan. 28, 1910.

“Carl Person is Out of Jail.” Clinton Register (Clinton, IL), Jun. 12, 1914.

“City and County.” Clinton Register (Clinton, IL), Apr. 18, 1902.

“City and County.” Clinton Register (Clinton, IL), Jun. 19, 1914.

“Clinton.” Strike Bulletin (Clinton, IL), Dec. 23, 1913.

Comerford, Frank. Plea of Frank Comerford in Defense of Carl Person’s Life. Chicago: 1915.

Comerford, Frank. “State’s Attorney L.O. Williams of DeWitt County is Caught Trying to Poison Minds of Logan County Citizens Against Person.” Strike Bulletin (Clinton, IL), Sep. 23, 1914.

“Court Convened on Monday.” Clinton Register (Clinton, IL), May 29, 1914.

“Edits Paper in Jail.” Clinton Register (Clinton, IL), Jan. 9, 1914.

“First Striker to Come Back.” Clinton Daily Public (Clinton, IL), Jan. 8, 1916.

“Former Clinton Labor Leader in Bad Again.” Clinton Daily Public (Clinton, IL), Apr. 15, 1920.

Gibbons, Floyd. “Carl Person is Found Not Guilty by Logan County Jury at Lincoln, Illinois, on Sunday, October 4th, 1914.” Strike Bulletin (Clinton, IL), Oct. 7, 1914.

Gibbons, Floyd. “Comerford and Meagher Handling Big Publicity Campaign.” Strike Bulletin (Clinton, IL), Aug. 19, 1914.

Gibbons, Floyd. “Legal Fight For Person’s Life Starts At Clinton.” Strike Bulletin (Clinton, IL), Jun. 2, 1914.

“Have They Got The Right Man?” Gazette Herald (Kenney, IL), Nov. 14, 1913.

“Judge Cochran Grants Change.” Clinton Register (Clinton, IL), Jul. 17, 1914.

Laminated clipping from page 4 of Clinton Daily Public newspaper. June 1915? “Clinton-Government” folder. “Clinton” drawer. Vespasian Warner Public Library standing files, Clinton, Illinois, United States.

“Local News.” Farmer City Journal (Farmer City, IL), Oct. 9, 1914.

“Many Witnesses to the Musser Tragedy.” Clinton Register (Clinton, IL), Oct. 2, 1914.

Meagher, James J. “The Fight for a Life.” Strike Bulletin (Clinton, IL), Feb. 17, 1914.

“Miller is Not Scared.” Clinton Register (Clinton, IL), Jan. 16, 1914.

“Moving Day at Court House.” Clinton Register (Clinton, IL), Nov. 29, 1912.

“Murder Trial Edition.” Strike Bulletin (Clinton, IL), Sep. 23, 1914.

“Murderer of Clinton Chief of Police Not Yet Found.” Kenney Gazette (Kenney, IL), Jul. 22, 1910.

“Oakwood Cemetery Memorials.” Accessed February 4, 2022.

Person, Carl E. The Lizard’s Trail. Chicago: The Lake Publishing Company, 1918.

Person, Carl. Papers. Manuscript and Records Collection, Walter P. Reuther Library, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI.

“Person on Trial for Killing Musser” Clinton Register (Clinton, IL), Sep. 25, 1914.

“Sneak Thief Kills Chief John Struble.” Clinton Register (Clinton, IL), Jul. 15, 1910.

“Suit for Divorce.” Clinton Register (Clinton, IL), Dec. 1, 1911.

“The Person Case Called.” Gazette-Herald (Kenney, IL), May 28, 1914.

“To Help Defend Person.” Clinton Register (Clinton, IL), Jan 16, 1914.

“To Raise Defense Fund.” Clinton Register (Clinton, IL), Feb. 20, 1914.

“Tony Musser Killed by ‘Blondy’ Person.” Clinton Register (Clinton, IL), Jan. 2, 1914.

“Urges Labor to Save the Flag.” The Clinton Daily Public (Clinton, IL), Sept. 15, 1915.

“Usually It Doesn’t Pay.” Clinton Register (Clinton, IL), Jun. 19, 1914.

“Who Killed Chief Struble?” Clinton Register (Clinton, IL), Nov. 14, 1913.

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