Title Reviewed:
1877: Year of Violence

Author Reviewed:
Robert V. Bruce

Richard H. Gemmecke


Indiana Magazine of History, Volume 56, Issue 2, pp 184-185

Article Type:
Book Review

Download Source:

1877: Year of Violence. By Robert V. Bruce. (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Co., Inc., 1959. Pp. 321. Notes, bibliography, index. $5.00.)

Times were hard in 1877. Railroad workers, already underpaid, were faced with new wage cuts. Summer came, and with it a tragic episode in American labor history.

In great detail, the author describes the strike of the Trainmen's Union against the Baltimore and Ohio, the Pennsylvania, the Reading, the Erie, the New York Central, and closely allied lines. The contempt of management for labor leaders; its disregard for the unemployed, the aged, the poorly paid; its stubborn insistence on big dividends alongside pay cuts—these are discussed at length.

Management techniques in handling union members—the black list, prompt dismissal of workers after participation in union activities, employment of Pinkerton detectives, and refusal to bargain—are all illustrated with vigor. Almost without exception, the executive heads of American railroads in 1877 are portrayed as enemies of the working-man, as reactionaries, and as patronizing, yet firm, masters of certain mayors, governors, congressmen, and, by inference, some officials on still higher levels.

Interestingly and effectively the author presents an hour-by-hour account of vicious attacks on private property by maddened men, women, and youths. With especial care he describes the horrors of mob action at Pittsburgh, Altoona, Philadelphia, Reading, and Baltimore. In each case, we are assured, the real damage was done by tramps and young hoodlums. The author places little or no responsibility on bona fide railroad workers, but his argument is not completely convincing.

A major contribution of the book is its description of the pathetic efforts of third-party agitators, especially those of the Workingmen's party, to unite the laboring class. Anyone whose interpretation of American labor movements has been influenced by Selig Perlman's analysis is sure to see in the failure of the Workingmen's party an excellent example of the tendency of workers to distrust any threat to freedom of enterprise, even though the entrepreneurial group benefiting from working class disunity is at that time opposed to any improvement in conditions, pay, or employee morale.

A contribution of considerable significance is evidence indicating that the real reason for the railway strike's failure was the clever use, by management, government officials, and the conservative press, of charges that the whole uproar was inspired by Communists. This further emphasizes the fact that public opinion in 1877 was characterized by fear of organized labor, distrust of urban employees, and reverence for financial power.

This reviewer has two complaints about Bruce's volume, the first of which is minor. The author sets forth such a mass of detail that at times chronology becomes confused. Second, the presentation of the notes is little short of useless. Notes are arranged at the end of the book by page and by paragraph with no indication whatsoever as to which statement in the text the reference supports. No footnote numbers are used in the text. Therefore, in a given paragraph there may be a half-dozen facts worthy of footnotes, but there is no earthly way the reader can determine which facts are supported by which citations. The bibliography gives ample evidence of the wide range of the author's studies.

Indiana State Teachws College Richard H. Gemmecke

Published by the Indiana University Department of History.