The New York World/July 17, 1894
Nellie Bly Asked Gov. Altgeld That Question and He Said, “Pshaw.”
Finally a Smile Won an Answer
She Interviewed Illinois’s Chief Magistrate on the Great Strike and He Told Her of His Life
Her Word-Photograph of the Man
“Workingmen,” He Said, “Must Stand Together, Even as Capital Does, But Keep Within the Law as a Matter of Self-Preservation.”
Springfield, Ill., July 16.—Gov. Altgeld is not an Anarchist. He told me so. I have been to interview him.
I arrived in town early this morning and drove at once to the executive mansion. I went in fear and trembling, for I had heard hair-raising tales of the governor’s hatred of all things and persons journalistic; that the sight of a newspaper man was to him what the toreador and his mantle are to a bull. Still, I wanted to see him. I rather enjoy an encounter with fierce people. I rang the bell and a large colored man in a white jacket came to the inside of the screen door and, peeping out at me, said, with a broad grin: “What yo’ want, miss?”
“I want to see the governor,” I answered, meekly.
“I’ll see if he’s home, miss,” was the reply. I waited with my heart in a frequent but unnatural position—way up in my throat—until he reappeared and, unlocking the door, said simply:
“The governor’s in there, miss.”
“In there” was a room directly leading off the hall, a large room with a high ceiling and many windows overlooking a handsome lawn, with shade trees of age and beauty. The room was softly carpeted, containing upholstered chairs of an antique style, and by the centre-table stood a man. He was looking at me intently, curiously. I could not tell from the expression of his face whether he was annoyed or simply wondering what my business could be. He held out his hand to me. No word had been spoken by us, but I think he wanted to help me along. At least I grasped his hand as a sinking victim grasps a straw, and blurted forth, frankly but breathlessly:
“Don’t be cross. I belong to a newspaper, and I’ve come to interview you.”
He motioned to a chair as he sank into one himself, a sight expression of annoyance crossing his pale forehead.
I don’t know anything interesting I can say to you.” He spoke slowly and coldly.
Stirred Up by the Governor
“Tell me,” I blurted forth, expecting to be banished for it, “are you an Anarchist?”
“What!” he ejaculated, in tones of intense amazement. I drew a long and labored breath and repeated.
“Are you an Anarchist?”
“Nonsense,” he ejaculated, in utter disgust, adding, with increased emphasis,
“All right, then,” I went on. “Tell me something about yourself, your life and your ideas. First of all, do you read the newspapers?”
“I read the headlines, not much else,” he answered.
“What, then, do you read?” I insisted. “Do you read the latest novels?”
“Not often. I read some few, I’ve just finished ‘Ships that Pass in the Night.’ I think it is a pathetic story and remarkably well told. It is so true to life, every sentence of it, and has withal a philosophy in it we are not accustomed to meet. Fifteen years ago I used to read all the time, both ancient and modern authors, and I think I can say above all writers Victor Hugo is my favorite, with Dickens and Thackeray next.”
“What do you think of woman’s suffrage?” I asked, hoping by talking of different things to pave a way for introducing more important topics.
“I believe,” he began slowly and thoughtfully, “in doing, exact justice to women as well as men, and as women are obliged to work for a living I believe in throwing every field of industry open to them. I am the first governor in this state or any state in the country, I guess, who has appointed a number of women on important boards, such as the Board of Health, Board of Charities, Factory Inspection, &c.”
“Do you think they fill the position better than men?”
“No, but equally as well,” he replied; “and as yet, being more free from political influences, are as a rule a little more energetic and earnest in their work.
“It was poor politics from both a personal and a party standpoint,” he added “to appoint these women, but I believed it to be just and eternally right.”
Let Workingmen Stand Together
“What hope do you think there is for the workingman?” I inquired, approaching the main subject.
Gov. Altgeld looked at me with steady and earnest blue eyes as he replied thoughtfully:
“Their only hope is to stand together, but at the same time keep within the law. Since capital stands together it is a mere matter of self-preservation to the workmen. An individual workman in the presence of these great concentrations of capital and of the haughty men who very often control corporations, can expect no consideration whatever.”
“Did you know the condition of the working people in Pullman before the strike?”
“I had a general idea of the state of the Pullman working-people.”
“Do you think any workmen elsewhere in the United States are treated so badly as at Pullman?”
“I am not prepared to talk about that. Those people in Pullman were absolutely in Mr. Pullman’s power. They were dependent entirely upon him for support, and notwithstanding the fact that they were industrious and frugal, most of them were too poor to seek employment elsewhere. Generally the wages were low, and they appeared to be largely eaten up with charges for rent and water.”
“Do you believe in arbitration?”
“Why, yes! But unless the working people stand together bravely and submit proof of the injustice done them they can expect but little even from arbitration.”
“What do you think about the federal troops being sent to Chicago?”
“They were not needed, and instead of doing good they did harm.” The governor said emphatically. “They added an element of bitterness to the conditions there which did not exist before, and the troops were brought there in pursuance of a general plan to get the federal government to take the great corporations of the country under its immediate protection.”
“Do you think the strike taught anything to capital and labor?”
The Governor looked at me thoughtfully as he said: “No strike in the country has ever yet settled a principle or benefited the employer where he won the strike.”
“Then you think Pullman has hurt himself in this affair?”
“I think in the long run Pullman will be hurt by the strike. The public’s attention has been drawn to Mr. Pullman in rather an unfavorable way, and in the end I think he will be very seriously affected.”
A Photograph in Words
While asking questions and listening I had been making a study of the man. I guessed his height at 6 feet 9 inches, and later on he told me I guessed right. He is not a fleshy man, nor is he bony. He is just of the proper weight, to my mind, for fat men can’t think and bony men cannot be trusted. It is the man who has just enough flesh to barely cover sharp points that usually amounts to something. The governor wears his brown heard trimmed closely to a point. His mustache is also closely trimmed. He has no gray hairs on his head and but few in his beard.
I never saw hair worn just in Gov. Altgeld’s style, except by boys who had gone swimming and had no comb when they came out. There is no part, front or back. The hair is closely trimmed and is brushed from the crown of the head straight front and back, so that if his hair was at all long he would have a bang. But it isn’t long, remember that. His forehead is broad, and there are two long wrinkles across it and two wrinkles running up and down, just as if he thought a great deal and his thoughts were of serious topics. His nose is straight and strong, and there is a squareness to his jaw that tells one that he will never give in. His eyelashes and eyebrows are heavy, and his eyes are a deep indigo blue; they are truly the windows of his soul. When they are invisible the face is cold, masterful and stern, and I never saw eyes so change a face as his do. They are liquid, then steady and as bright as a girl’s. They twinkle and dance, are sympathetic, stern, grave or thoughtful, as suits the words he speaks or listens to.
I should not say the governor of Illinois is well dressed compared to the modish man of New York, but I venture to assert he is better dressed than the majority of men in Springfield. He wore gray trousers, a black coat and vest, and though the morning was melting he wore a white starched shirt, the kind made with separate collars and cuffs. His vest was cut to a point, showing almost if not fully half his shirt-front, in which rested a small pearl stud. His cravat was black silk and tied in a small flat bow. He wore a plain gold ring on the little finger of his left hand.
The governor wore no flower, but I should judge he was fond of them; most men with blue eyes are. A vase filled with bright-colored flowers stood upon a table near me and I saw the governor’s eyes turn to them unconsciously time after time and reset upon them as he replied to some question of mine.
“Are you superstitious?” I asked, for no reason except that I wanted to know all I could about him. He took the question quite seriously.
Thinks Praise Will Come
“I am superstitious to this extent,” was his reply: “I have observed that a brilliant beginning promises a bad ending, and troubles at the beginning promise a peaceful and glorious ending. I feel that I am getting all the abuse in the beginning of my administration. If I can live to finish it the same people who now abuse me will laud me.”
Will he live to finish his term as governor? He has now the pallor of ill-health and the extremely exhausted look which comes upon the faces of brain-worried people. He claims to be in good health with the exception of his nerves. He says he is nerve-exhausted and nerve-wearied.
“What have you to say now about the pardoning of the Anarchists?” I asked, for this act called down more abuse upon him than anything else he could possibly have done.
“Simply this, that the evidence failed absolutely to show that they had committed any crime whatever. The police had never shown nor found out who threw that bomb, and, of course, could not connect anybody with it. In addition to that, the record of the trial showed that they had been tried by a packed jury, and convicted on public clamor; and third, the Supreme Court of the state had laid down a rule of law in relation to the competency of jurors that was just the opposite of that laid down in the so-called Anarchist case. There were, therefore, these grounds, any one of which made it imperative for the executive to interfere. So I found that I either had to take the step I did, or shrink a duty, and while I have been badly whipped at different times in my life for holding my ground, I never ran away from anything, and I could see no reason for running, and I could see no reason for running away from my duty in this case.
“My reasons for pardoning the Anarchists have been published, and, notwithstanding the oceans of abuse hurled at me, not a man in America has as yet attempted to show that I was wrong and there is not today an honest lawyer in the United States but what will, after a careful examination of the reasons, as I have given them, say that I was right.”
“Are you religious?” I asked.
“I like the religion of nature,” he replied, and when I begged him to explain to my stupid self what he meant by the religion of nature he merely smiled and said, almost chillingly:
“That will do.”
Farm Boy, Soldier, Lawyer
“What did you do when you were a boy?”
“I worked on a farm in Ohio until I was sixteen years old. Then I soldiered some. I carried a musket along the James River when I was sixteen years old. Indeed,” laughing, “I was a great deal more of a man then than I am now. After the war I worked at different things, mainly teaching school. How did I like it?” with a smile. “Oh, I liked it very much. Then I think, I got $35 a month, and before I stopped had been raised to $50. .
“Then I studied law in Missouri and finally migrated to Chicago. I was a lawyer for a while in Savannah and got along very rapidly. I was city attorney first then sate’s attorney and had about as good a practice as a body could get there, and then my head swelled. I wanted broader fields, so I went to Chicago. That’s all. You know the rest.”
But I wanted to know more about the governor’s views on the strike. So I went back to the old subject.
“Was the strike in Chicago so much more extensive or greater than any other strike that this country has known?” I asked.
“Not at all. They had a strike at Buffalo (New York) a little over a year ago that was as violent in its character and almost as destructive to property as the riot in Chicago. There have been numerous strikes in Pennsylvania that were very, very much worse than this one. The truth is that out over the state of Illinois there was scarcely any violence. Troops were promptly stationed at all railway centers, and all the roads that could get men to operate their trains experienced scarcely any trouble.
“In Chicago itself, up to the time that the federal troops were put there, the strike was not nearly as threatening and had not assumed anything like the proportion that strikes had in former years, when it was found that the police force alone could easily handle any disturbance. Both the mayor of the city and the sheriff of the county felt that this time they could very easily take care of the situation and protect property and enforce the law and, as I am advised, it was not until after the federal troops had been put on the ground that there was any destruction of property to speak of. Then the mayor called for the state troops, and we at once put six regiments of infantry, two troops of cavalry and two batteries, with eight Gatling guns, into Chicago. The order was given about noon and nearly all the troops were on the ground doing duty by night, although some of them had to come nearly two hundred miles. The situation was at once relieved. The state troops, the city policemen and the sheriff’s deputies were able to control the entire field, and there was after that time no further destruction of property and no serious trouble of any kind.”
His Objections to Federal Troops
“Did you object in the President sending troops to Chicago on the ground that it was a violation of state rights?”
“Not at all. There was no question of state’s rights involved. The old doctrine of state’s rights was that the state was the sovereign government into which the president could, under no circumstances, order troops without its consent, and that the state could, if it chose to, withdraw from the Union because it was sovereign. Instead of acting on this theory, I stated to the press in my first protest that nobody for a moment questioned federal supremacy, and that there was no question about the propriety of federal interference in case the state or local authorities were unable or failed to uphold the law and protect property and life. But that home rule or local self-government was also a fundamental principle in our constitution, and that this must go hand in hand with the principle of federal supremacy; and that so long as both the local and state authorities were able and ready to enforce the law and protect life and property, and see to it that the processes of the courts were duly executed, just so long the federal government should not interfere; and that for the federal government to absolutely ignore both local and state governments and send federal troops into Chicago in the first instance was a violation of a principle that was fundamental in our constitution. I insisted that in the first place the conditions did not exist there which brought the case within the federal statute under which the president claimed to act, and, in the second place, that, even if they did, that statute having been passed during the war as a war measure, the president ought not to interfere so long as both the local and state authorities stood ready and were amply able to enforce the law.”
“Do you think it was necessary to order troops before you did?”
“Under the laws of Illinois the governor cannot order out troops until they are asked for by the local authorities or until it is clearly shown that the local authorities are unable or unwilling to enforce the law. In this case both the mayor and the sheriff were enforcing the law. The sheriff had applied to the state at the beginning of the strike for arms with which to arm his deputies, and arms were promptly furnished him, and the mayor had, as I was informed, sworn in several thousand extra policemen, and both officers felt that the situation was not nearly so serious as others had been in previous years, when the local authorities had found themselves amply able to control the situation. In this case neither the sheriff nor the mayor applied for troops until within six hours of the time when the state troops were actually on the ground. As they were both doing their best prior thereto and claimed to be able to control the situation, and as nobody from the railroad companies or any other person complained to me or tried to show that any outside assistance was necessary, there was nothing to warrant me in sending troops to Chicago earlier than I did. The moment I was applied to for assistance I not only gave it at once, but put in a sufficient force to absolutely control the whole situation, and at the same time sent the mayor word to take charge of matters himself and to be firm, and that, if necessary, I would raise him 50,000 more men.”
The Cause of the Trouble
“What do you think caused all the trouble? The strikers?”
“No, I think it was the sensational newspaper stories. They both inflamed the rowdy element and frightened moneyed people.”
“What do you think of Mayor Hopkins?”
“I think the Mayor is a very able man.”
“Do you believe the government should own and control all the railroads?”
“I don’t want to answer that,” he replied, petulantly. “Why are you asking me all these questions? Tell me something about yourself and what you learned in Pullman.”
“I’m asking you these questions because I want to know if you are an Anarchist.” I repeated, laughing, for I had lost all fear of him now.
“Pshaw,” he exclaimed in disgust, and I did not press the question.
The Governor is Playful
“What is your favorite joke?”
“I haven’t any.”
“What is the funniest thing you ever heard?”
“I will not tell you,” teasingly.
“Very well then. Don’t you think we have enough of the Democratic Party?”
“You are a little Republican.” He interrupted shaking his hand at me.
“Well, if I am, my father was a Democrat, and so is my newspaper. Now then, what party do you think will elect the next President?”
“Democratic party of course,” emphatically.
“That’s your opinion. Don’t you think a new party may arise out of all this dissatisfaction?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Do you attend the theatres, and what kind of plays do you like?”
“I like tragedy if I can see Irving, otherwise I want some light, jolly performance.”
“Do you think labor agitators help the cause of labor?”
“The question assumes,” he replied gravely, “that an agitator is a cause, whereas he is a product, an effect that grows out of certain conditions of injustice. Wherever you find those conditions you will find unrest, and unrest is the mother of all agitators.”
“What do you think of Mr. Pullman?”
“I think he is a remarkably able and very rich man, who has all the fashionable people on his side.”
“In what man do you think the workman’s hopes rest?”
“Oh, I don’t know. It doesn’t rest in any man; it rests in themselves. Standing together is their only hope.”
“Do you think it possible for labor to so organize as to be enabled by united vote or appeal to procure justice in wages and rent?”
“No question about it whatever,” was the emphatic reply.
“Do you think we will ever have a war again?”
“I refuse to think about it,” as if tired of being interviewed. “Tell me about yourself. What did you do in Pullman? We don’t see New York papers in Springfield.”
I told him all about Pullman and the poor, unfortunate strikers, and the governor listened in breathless silence, his blue eyes growing moist when I told him about it number of pathetic cases.
“Did you write all that you heard and say?” he asked in surprise.
“Certainly; that is what I went there for,” I answered.
“And were your articles published?” wonderingly.
“Then the World is very unlike the Chicago newspapers. I did not believe any paper would publish anything against capital.”
“The proprietor of the World hires people to find out and publish the truth about everything, regardless of all other considerations, and if the truth is not given it is solely the fault of the writer, not the paper.”
This seemed to astonish the governor, who declared that he would hereafter have to subscribe for the World.
The Governor’s Home
Gov. Altgeld spends all his leisure time with his books. He drives a little, but only keeps one horse now. He kept four in Chicago. Books are spread everywhere throughout the executive mansion, which is a fine old house, very large and light, with a handsome lawn surrounding it. The governor’s private library has been collected with care. The library is a handsome room. Its bay window overlooks the lawn, and from it one has a fine view of the capital. A large glass vase, holding some gold fish, stands in the centre of the window. W
ell-filled bookcases line the walls. “This case,” said the governor, pointing to one with a stuffed owl upon it, “is filled with poetry.” On another case was a handsome bust of Abraham Lincoln. The governor left me among the books while he went to call Mrs. Altgeld. She came in very promptly, and greeted me with a cordial welcome.
“Are you the real Nellie Bly who went around the world?” she asked, adding, “I’ve read so much about you.”
Mrs. Altgeld is a handsome woman, tall and slender. She has beautiful iron gray hair, which she combs high off her forehead, and dark, melting eyes. Her manner is quiet, most refined and gracious. She was much interested in the Pullman strikers and in relief for working people.
The governor does not hunt, but he likes to fish, though he has but little opportunity. He is not musical. “Can’t even play a jews harp.” he said in disgust, but he is very fond of music, and Mrs. Altgeld is a fine musician. The governor and his wife have been married seventeen years. The governor is forty-six and he doesn’t mind in the least all the abuse the newspapers heap upon him.
“I don’t care in the least what they say,” he told me; “I plough right straight ahead.”
Gov. Altgeld thinks Jefferson was the biggest man America ever had. He considers him bigger than George Washington, and I didn’t like that.
After my visit at the executive mansion I followed the governor, at his request, to the Capitol. He had left me to talk with Mrs. Altgeld. I offered him my carriage to ride in, but he said he liked the exercise. It was all he got, and he made a habit of walking.
He received me in his private rooms at the Capitol, where he presented me with his two books, “Live Questions” and “Live Questions, Volume II.” In them he treats on all the subjects of the day. “Arbitration of Strikes” is the first topic, which is ably treated, but is too long to introduce here. He speaks his convictions and he is independent enough to hold honestly to them regardless of the effect.
A Smile Did It
“Am I not the softest subject you have ever interviewed?” he asked me as my visit was drawing to a close. I smiled. I had been so afraid to approach him, and I told him so.
“I was dreadfully afraid of you,” I said. “I was told you hated newspaper people.”
“So I do, but it was your smile that did it,” he declared. “You come in and smile, and sweep everything before you. It’s the smile, young lady; it’s worth a million dollars to you.”
“Oh!” I gasped, “How I wish I could sell it.” He laughed with me.
“That’s all right; you keep it, it’s your success. You can get anything you ask for when you smile.”
“I’m smiling now,” I reminded him, “so do tell me, are you an Anarchist.”
“Oh, pshaw, well, then, to anyone familiar with my career this question would seem so monstrously absurd as to more than produce a smile. To begin with, I was raised and worked on a farm. Farmers are not usually anarchists. When I was sixteen years old I carried a musket in support of the American flag. Soldiers, as a rule, are not anarchists. When nineteen years old I taught school. Schoolteachers are not anarchists. Then I became a lawyer. Lawyers are not anarchists. Then I was county attorney. Then I went to Chicago, practiced law and later served five years on the bench as judge of the Supreme Court. Now I am governor of the richest state in America. In short all my life has been spent practically in upholding and enforcing the laws of my country.
“Again, so far as I know, I never met or saw an anarchist, unless this little girl who is here questioning me is one. I have not even had any association or connection with the leaders of the labor people and know very few of them. I never attended a meeting or picnic or other distinctive labor assembly in my life. My affiliations have practically all been with the property-holding and money-making classes of the community. Further, I’ve no occasion to court any particular class of men. While it may seem paradoxical, it is yet true that I do not believe much in office-holding. I do believe in the potency of the private individual. All the money that I have made and all my achievements have been it’s a private individual, and I have resigned heretofore every office I had in order to return to private life and my private affairs.
“But I believe that the toiling masses are entitled to justice, and I have lifted my hand to secure it for them whenever I could. I have never asked anything of them, but have dealt honestly with them to have confidence in me.
“Again in Chicago during the last ten years I built six of the finest business blocks in that city, most of them seven and eight stories high, and one of them a sixteen-story fire-proof office building that is finished the most elegantly of any office building in the world, and which I regard as the finest and best office building on earth. I have done almost as much towards building Chicago and making it a wonder of the world as any other man living, and no man today is prouder of Chicago than I am. I go into ecstasies over her wonderful pest and glorious prospects.
“Now,” with a long breath. “are you answered and satisfied?”
“Yes, thank you,” I said meekly.
We shook hands and parted and I am glad to say that I have met and talked with Gov. Altgeld, who is going to do as he thinks is right every time, if the whole world stands still. I shouldn’t be surprised if he were nominated for president of the United States one day. He says not and laughs at me. He says he doesn’t want it. Everybody says that, but give them a chance.
(Source: Nellie Bly Online, http://www.nellieblyonline.com/herwriting)
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