Sunday, June 4, 2017

Who Killed John Paul Busch?

The family story that spurred me to research and write Darkness Visible is a story of industrial sabotage--of radical unionists intentionally causing an explosion around an industrial boiler, an explosion that killed my great-grandfather and two other men. One of the questions I've been asked most often about my research is whether I found any reports of sabotage within the Homestead Works during the strike, that is, during the period from July to November 1892. With the exception of the poisoning case (more about that later), I found nothing about sabotage within the walls of Fort Frick.

Idled workers watching the Works before the Battle, July 1892. Photo: Library of Congress

At the suggestion of researchers with the Battle of Homestead Foundation, I decided to look up the coroner's report on my great-grandfather's death. I have his death certificate, showing his death from burn injuries on September 14, 1892. Would the coroner's report make any mention of sabotage? I had to find out.

The report turned out to be fascinating reading. It consists of three parts: The testimony of mill doctor E.E. Stribler (obviously not a native speaker of English), my grandfather's brother, John Paul Busch, Jr., and "Wm. H. McBroom, Chief of Police for Steel Wrks."

Dr. Stribler says that he was called to attend to John Paul Bush [sic] after he suffered burns in a gas explosion on the afternoon of Sunday, September 4th. Stribler sent John to West Penn Hospital for treatment. For some unknown reason, the family moved John to their home in East Liberty. Stribler concludes, "This was not right, he should have staid [sic] in hospital as moving him in air was bad as skin surface might be exposed." We can only conjecture why the doctor reached this conclusion. Was air quality THAT bad? Or was this an attempt to suggest that John would not have died had the family not taken him home?
Smoke belching from mill stacks.

John's son simply states that John was burned in the Homestead Works and that on the Saturday following the incident,  he was brought home from the hospital to 625 Achilles Street (no longer in existence). John died at 4 p.m. on September 14th, ten days after he sustained the burns.

The sworn statements of  Stribler and John, Jr. are pretty much in line with the family story. However, McBroom's testimony is where the story gets interesting: "deceased told me that he was injured by the gas exploding near the boilers. . . Another man was present but I did not know his name. Dr Wible [the 'Stribler' of the first part?] examined Deceased and sent him to the West Penn Hosp. Gas was turned on and he [John] threw a piece of lighted waste, causing the explosion." End of statement.

I had to read McBroom's statement several times before the full force of his allegations sunk in. McBroom is claiming that the gas was turned on (although we don't know where or by whom) and that John threw a piece of burning trash (although we don't know what it was, why it was on fire, nor why he threw it), and that therefore, John was responsible for his own death.

John Paul Busch, late 1880s
Whoa. Next liar stand up. Would a man who had fired boilers on Union gunboats in the heat of battle be so careless? Would a man who had worked in dangerous conditions all his adult life be so foolish? Why didn't the police get the name of the witness and interview him? Why didn't they investigate why the gas was turned on and escaping into the air around the boiler? This statement clearly consists of "alternative facts," designed to blame the victim. Company man McBroom, Chief of Police for Carnegie Steel, is throwing his own metaphorical piece of waste at the coroner.
McBroom's statement

Let's return now to the only documented incident of sabotage during the strike: the poisoning of non-union workers in the Works. As contemporary chronicler Arthur Gordon Burgoyne reports, the months of September and October 1892, saw an "alarming increase" in deaths of non-union workers  from acute diarrhea and gastric distress inside the mill. "It was not until December that the first intimation of a criminal cause for the species of epidemic which struck down man after man and baffled expert physicians and chemists reached the public. The Carnegie Company concealed the truth as far as possible, endeavoring from the first to counteract the statements sent abroad by the Amalgamated Association to the effect that bad food, bad water, and bad sanitary arrangements were killing off the 'blacksheep.'" (Chapter 19, The Homestead Strike of 1892)

As it turned out, the workers had been indeed been poisoned with croton oil. Robert Beatty, a cook who had been arrested, pointed the finger at "master workman" Hugh Dempsey of the Knights of Labor as the leader of the conspiracy. To make a long and complicated story short, Beatty and Dempsey were indicted, and their separate trials were held in January and February 1893. After days of testimony from poison victims, doctors, company employees, Pinkerton agents, friends of the accused, and the exchange of mutual recriminations by union and company, the trials ended with a swift guilty verdict for both defendants. Dempsey's attorneys fought the verdict all the way to the Supreme Court--and lost. The other two men who had confessed and become witnesses for the prosecution, were sentenced to shorter terms.

The family story blames the explosion on radical Irish unionists. Tales of Irish unionists condoning violence--like the Molly Maguires--are legion. I introduced Irish characters into Darkness Visible to show their perspective on the injustices perpetrated by the company. It struck me that the surnames of the defendants in the poisoning case were all Irish. Who knows that whether this is because they actually belonged to radicalized groups, or if they were targeted as a "problem" faction.
The structural mill at Homestead Works. This photo by Benjamin Lomax Horsley Dabbs was taken shortly after the structural mill was completed in 1893.
So, was John Paul's death the work of union saboteurs, as the family story claims? We'll never know for sure. However, I'd like to note these facts:

--The explosion that killed John-Paul Busch took place in early September, about the time non-union workers began to get sick and die from poisoning.
--Carnegie Steel covered up the poisoning deaths, later claiming that they had checked the water supply and found it pure, and therefore had no need to report them. The deaths were not reported until December, after the Pinkerton investigation and after the cook was arrested. One of  the others arrested turned witness for the prosecution and was allowed to walk free until February 1893--a fact that the defense attorneys brought up during the trial.
--The union tried to spin the reports of sickness inside the Works their way, claiming that the company was serving tainted food and water.
--After the strike, Carnegie Steel bought the local newspaper. So much for a free press.

 Now, 125 years later, as during the turbulent days during and after the Strike, it's been difficult to sort through the testimony of the dissonant voices giving conflicting versions of events. But from what evidence we do have, I must conclude that the official version by the company Chief of Police is ridiculous. The other pieces of the story of what was going on inside the mill in the fall of 1892 fit well into the version told by my grandfather and his brothers.

Who killed John Paul Busch? Did he kill himself in an incredibly stupid move, or was he killed by saboteurs? I know not what course others may take, but as for me, I'm sticking to the family story.

Homestead steel workers, 1890. Photo: Historical Society of Western Pennsylvania.  According to Captain Jones of the Edgar Thomson Works, "Germans, Irish, Swedes, and ‘buckwheats,' [young American country boys] judiciously mixed, make the most effective, tractable force you can find. Scotsmen do very well, are honest and faithful, Welsh can be used in limited quantities. But Englishmen have been the worst class of men–sticklers for high wages, small production and strikes." I love that the Welsh can be used in limited quantities. Too many Welsh spoil the workforce apparently.

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