Sandburg's Hometown

July 29, 2013

John Peter Altgeld

John Peter Altgeld - Part II

By Barbara Schock 

(Last week, in this space, Carl Sandburg’s reaction to the newspaper reports of the Haymarket affair in 1886, was described. Part 2 is about the role of Governor John P. Altgeld in the pardoning of three men who had spent the intervening years in prison.)

After Altgeld was inaugurated governor in 1893, petitions were presented to him asking for the release of the three men in prison for their supposed part in the Haymarket bombing. During the next few months he gathered the transcript of the trial, affidavits from individuals and other evidence about the Haymarket affair. He spent a great deal of time studying the materials.

Judge Joseph E. Gary, who presided at the trial, wrote a lengthy article for the Century Magazine, which appeared in April, 1893. He justified his own behavior during the trial and criticized the efforts of men who had helped the defendants.

Apparently, the article was offensive to Governor Altgeld and his sense of justice. He wrote an 18-thousand-word pardon of the imprisoned men. In it he refuted Judge Gary’s writing and provided evidence to prove the convictions were wrong. The pardons were taken to the penitentiary on June 26, 1893, and the men were released. The newspapers, particularly in Chicago, condemned Altgeld and the pardons

In his autobiography, Always the Young Strangers, Carl Sandburg described reading his way through the entire pardon as it was printed in the newspaper. As a teenager with an eighth grade education, he had to re-read some parts. At the end he felt that Governor Altgeld had made the case for the pardons.

John Peter Altgeld was born in Germany and brought to the United States as an infant by his parents. They settled on a farm near Mansfield, Ohio. As a teenage, Altgeld enlisted in an Ohio Volunteer Regiment and served in the Civil War. While in the military he contracted a fever which nearly killed him. His health was impaired for the rest of his life.

He left Ohio after the war and settled in Missouri for a time. He studied law and became involved in local politics. In 1875, seeking greater opportunities, Altgeld went to Chicago to practice law. He began investing in real estate and became quite wealthy. He also became aware of the inequalities of society. One was the length of the work day, which often could be twelve hours long.

In the last quarter of the 19th century there were tremendous increases in manufacturing, industry and transportation. Those individuals owning the establishments felt they could do business as they wished. Immigrants were the source of cheap labor and they had no rights according to the owners. The tycoons also expected the state or federal government to break up strikes if hiring strike breakers didn’t accomplish their purpose. They had no compunction about laying off workers or cutting their pay during slow times. The campaign for an 8-hour day was a test of strength between capital and labor.

There was no social safety net for the workers and their families in those days. Carl Sandburg’s family was caught in this kind of trap during the Panic of 1893. The Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad Company cut workers’ pay by forty percent. The Sandburg children barely had enough to eat during that time.

John Peter Altgeld was not re-elected governor in 1896. His pardon of the Haymarket three and his support for the eight hour day doomed his efforts. A young boy in Springfield by the name of Vachel Lindsey, who had observed the deeds of Governor Altgeld, later wrote a poem about the governor. He called Altgeld the “eagle forgotten, ” and it was true.

Sandburg's Hometown
Date Title
July 29, 2013 John Peter Algeld - Part II
July 22, 2013 John Peter Altgeld - Part I
July 15, 2013 Tramps, Tramps, Tramps
July 8, 2013 Lady Liberty
July 1, 2013 Galesburg's Fourth
June 24, 2013 John H. Finley
June 17, 2013 The World's Columbian Exhibition
June 10, 2013 Fruit Short-Cake
June 3, 2013 Horatio Alger, Author
May 27, 2013 Memorial Day, 1887
May 20, 2013 Professor Jon W. Grubb
May 13, 2013 Beginnings of Lombard University
May 6, 2013 Young Sandburg’s View of Lombard College
April 29, 2013 Thinking
April 22, 2013 Robert Colville, Master Mechanic
April 15, 2013 The Galesburg Opera House
April 8, 2013 Grocery Stores and Sample Rooms
April 1, 2013  A Hearty  Breakfast 
March 25, 2013  The Lost Wallpaper Legend 
March 18, 2013 Martin G. Sandburg
March 4, 2013 The Edison Talking Machine
February 25, 2013 Joe Elser, Civil War Veteran
February 18, 2013 Remember the Maine...
February 11, 2013 Lincoln's Birthday
February 4, 2013 Curiosity