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Why Berkman Shot Frick

Lawrence Bush
July 5, 2017

Nine steelworkers and at least one Pinkerton guard were killed in battles that raged on this date in 1892 at Andrew Carnegie’s Homestead Steel Works in Pittsburgh. The Pinkertons had been brought in to protect scabs imported to replace striking workers; the conflict involved guns and a homemade cannon forged by the strikers. The strike would last for months until the courts crushed the union through injunctions and left America’s steel industry unorganized for years to come. The Homestead conflict inspired anarchists Alexander Berkman and Emma Goldman to plan a revenge assassination of Henry Clay Frick, the aggressive chairman of Carnegie’s company, which Berkman attempted on July 23. The attack seriously wounded Frick, fetched a 22-year prison sentence for Berkman, and created negative publicity that helped force the strike’s collapse, with some 2,500 men losing their jobs and the rest having their wages cut in half. After ten years in prison, Berkman wrote to Goldman: “My youthful ideal of a free humanity in the vague future has become clarified and crystallized into the living truth of Anarchy, as the sustaining elemental force of my everyday existence.” He was released in 1906, and wrote: “I feel like one recovering from a long illness: very weak, but with a touch of joy in life.”

“Frick was known for his anti-union policy and as negotiations were still taking place, he ordered the construction of a solid board fence topped with barbed wire around mill property. . . .With the mill ringed by striking workers, Pinkerton agents planned to access the plant grounds from the river. Three hundred Pinkerton detectives assembled on the Davis Island Dam on the Ohio River about five miles (8 km) below Pittsburgh at 10:30 p.m. on the night of July 5, 1892. They were given Winchester rifles, placed on two specially-equipped barges and towed upriver with the object of removing the workers by force. Upon their landing, a large mêlée between workers and Pinkerton detectives ensued. Ten men were killed, nine of them workers, and there were seventy injuries. The Pinkerton agents were thrown back, and the riot was ultimately quelled only by the intervention of 8,000 armed state militia under the command of Major General George R. Snowden.” --Wikipedia

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.