The legacy of Homestead

Posted by Matt Kuhns on Nov 25, 2012

This is fairly tangential to exploration of the great detectives, but I couldn’t help being reminded of a couple of them in reading this recent post by Matthew Yglesias. Prompted by recent walmart employee protests, Yglesias notes how things have changed compared with the world described in a biography of Franklin Roosevelt (presumably this one). Confronting a strike at a General Motors factory in Flint, Roosevelt sees no options for intervention other than armed force, which he is reluctant to deploy; the state’s governor has much the same reaction:

“I’m not going down in history as Bloody Murphy,” he told a friend. “If I send soldiers in on the [strikers] there’d be no telling how many would be killed.”

I couldn’t help immediately wondering if Governor Murphy had a particular event in mind as he envisioned his legacy being indelibly spattered in blood. Possibly not; Murphy was apparently two years old when an armed intervention into the strike at Homestead ended in violence and bloodshed. And Homestead was by no means unique, anyway; one of the reasons why it’s still worth study 120 years later is because in most ways it was emblematic of the era’s labor battles, rather than an outlier.

The attempt at breaking up the strike—initially through private means rather than state or federal forces—was nonetheless particularly injurious to people on both sides and to the reputations of the men held responsible. The dismal events at Homestead were relatively minor elements in the lives and careers of Carnegie, Frick and the Pinkerton brothers. Yet more than a century afterward, it remains difficult to read much about any of them without a reminder of how responding to a strike with force turned out for them. It seems at least possible, then, that their example was on the mind of Frank Murphy 75 years ago, as well.

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