Altgeld, John P. (1847–1902)

John Peter Altgeld served as governor of Illinois during a tumultuous period of labor history. He supported the rights of workers against the large corporations, even while he tried to keep law and order. Altgeld also supported a progressive social agenda, including an increased money supply, more government support for public education, and anti-imperialism.

Altgeld was born on December 30, 1847, in the village of Nieder Selters in Nassau in southern Germany. When he was less than a year old, his parents immigrated to the United States and settled near Mansfield, Ohio. Altgeld received little formal education before working full time on the family farm when he was 12 years old. When Altgeld was 16, he lied about his age and joined the 64th Ohio Infantry Regiment and fought in the Civil War. Like many of his fellow soldiers, Altgeld caught malaria and nearly died. Although

John Peter Altgeld was the outspoken reform governor of Illinois in the 1890s.

John Peter Altgeld was the outspoken reform governor of Illinois in the 1890s. (Library of Congress)

he survived and fought until the end of the war, the illness affected him the rest of his life. Altgeld returned to the family farm but also studied at a neighbor's private library and at a private school in Lexington, Ohio. He received a teaching certificate and taught school for two years.

In 1869, Altgeld proposed to a fellow teacher, but her father thought he was too poor to marry her. He moved west, literally to seek his fortune. After working on a railroad crew in Arkansas and southern Kansas, Altgeld settled in northwest Missouri. He read law and set up a practice in Savannah, Missouri, in 1871. Three years later, voters recognized his abilities by electing him county prosecutor. In 1875, Altgeld resigned to move to Chicago, where greater opportunities were available. He set up a successful law practice and also made a fortune in buying and selling real estate and investing in street railways. He married his former fellow teacher in 1877 after achieving prosperity. Altgeld considered his most satisfying real estate accomplishment the construction of the Unity Building in 1891. The 16-story building was Chicago's tallest building at the time, located in the heart of the city. Mistakes and cost overruns drained much of Altgeld's personal fortune, but the building became a local landmark for years.

Altgeld's struggles gave him a sympathy for the underdog and for the downtrodden, which influenced the course of his life. His law firm hired talented lawyers with radical views, such as Clarence Darrow. Altgeld was a supporter of institutions that tried to better the conditions of the poor, such as Hull House, founded by Jane Addams. In 1875, he published Our Penal Machinery and Its Victims, which argued that the U.S. criminal system favored the rich over the poor. It also claimed that prisons failed to reform inmates but turned them into career criminals instead. Altgeld called for speedier trials and an end to paying prosecutors according to the number of convictions they obtained.

A lifelong Democrat, Altgeld was interested in politics as a way to improve society. In 1884, he ran for the Congress in Illinois's Fourth Congressional District. Although the district was heavily Republican, Altgeld received more than 45 percent of the votes, better than other Democratic candidates. Two years later, he was successfully elected to a Cook County Superior Court judgeship, with backing from both labor and the Democrats. In 1890, Altgeld became the chief judge of the court. He resigned in 1891 to concentrate on his business activities.

In 1892, the Democrats nominated Altgeld for governor at their state convention. He spoke all over the state and narrowly defeated the Republican incumbent, Joseph W. Fifer. Altgeld became the first Democrat to be elected governor of Illinois since 1856, but his health suffered from the strain of the campaign. He suffered a nervous breakdown after the victory, and then his malaria returned. Altgeld was only able to deliver a part of his inauguration speech before being forced to leave.

Altgeld may be best remembered for several incidents involving violence related to labor unrest. In the spring of 1886, a national effort calling for eight-hour days was underway. A strike at the McCormick Harvest Works took place to force the company to accept this measure. On May 4, a demonstration took place in support of the strikers at Haymarket Square in Chicago. As the rally was breaking up, policemen ordered the crowd to disperse. An unknown person threw a bomb at the police, killing one and wounding others. The police fired into the crowd, killing at least four. A round-up of anarchists followed. Eight men were convicted of murder. Four were executed, one committed suicide, and three were sentenced to long prison terms. The trial was widely seen as a miscarriage of justice, with evidence against the men being questionable. When Altgeld became governor, he was approached by those who wanted pardons for the three remaining Haymarket conspirators. After studying the trial transcripts and the evidence, Altgeld issued pardons for all three on June 26, 1893. He stressed the need to preserve law and order, but he condemned the trial as unfair. Officials had manufactured evidence and invented conspiracies to obtain the glory of discovering them, according to Altgeld's pardon. Although conservative and business interests condemned Altgeld's decision, workers were firmly on his side.

A year later, business and conservative leaders again condemned Altgeld for allegedly siding with workers. On May 11, 1894, the workers at the Pullman Corporation went on strike to protest a cut in wages. The company manufactured railroad sleeping cars and related equipment. Altgeld refused to call out the militia to break the strike, as long as it was peaceful. The company turned to the federal government. Attorney General Richard Olney obtained an injunction against the strikers forbidding them from interfering with railroad operations because the railroads carried the U.S. mail. Without Altgeld's permission, President Grover Cleveland ordered several thousand federal soldiers into the Chicago area. Altgeld was incensed at this breach of his authority over his state. He did call out the militia when violence broke out and Chicago's mayor asked for help. The strike collapsed several days later when the leaders were arrested under the terms of Olney's injunction.

At the 1896 Democratic National Convention, Altgeld was a leader of the silver forces. The convention passed a free-silver plank, a prolabor plank, an anti-injunction plank, a pro–income tax plank, a plank on personal and civil liberties, and a plank reaffirming the principles of federalism, a direct repudiation of Cleveland's dispatch of troops to the Pullman strike. The party's nominee was William Jennings Bryan, best known for his support of silver currency. Although Bryan was not Altgeld's first choice, he supported the candidate and campaigned for him. Republicans attacked Bryan through Altgeld, calling the governor an anarchist and a murderer. In the general election of 1896, Bryan was defeated. Altgeld himself ran for reelection as governor, but was also defeated.

Altgeld's defeat marked the end of his political success. He ran for mayor of Chicago in 1899. Although an early favorite, he finished a poor third. The defeat was symptomatic of a general decline. He had been in poor health since the Civil War and had suffered from locomotor ataxia from the early 1890s. This condition made it hard for him to walk. Altgeld lost most of his personal fortune in the Panic of 1893 and would have been completely ruined if not for Clarence Darrow. Darrow gave Altgeld a position in his law firm and allowed him to continue to speak out for the underdog. On March 12, 1902, Altgeld traveled to Joliet after a day in court. While speaking to a crowd on behalf of the Boers, then fighting against a British invasion, Altgeld collapsed on stage. He suffered a cerebral hemorrhage and died later that evening. His funeral was held at the Chicago Public Library after thousands had filed past his body. Jane Addams and Clarence Darrow spoke at the services.

Tim J Watts

See also: Addams, Jane (1860–1935) ; Bryan, William Jennings (1860–1925) ; Cleveland, Grover (1837–1908) ; Darrow, Clarence (1857–1938) ; Democratic Party ; Gold Standard/Free Silver ; Haymarket Riot (1886) ; Pullman Strike (1894)


Altgeld, John Peter. The Mind and Spirit of John Peter Altgeld: Selected Writings and Addresses. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1960.

Barnard, Harry. Eagle Forgotten: The Life of John Peter Altgeld. Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1938.

Ginger, Ray. Altgeld's America: The Lincoln Ideal versus Changing Realities. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1958.