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Broken Spirits: Letters on the Pullman Strike

The American Railway Union’s unsuccessful strike against the Pullman Palace Car Company in 1894 left many workers without jobs. Not only did the company take on hundreds of new workers in place of the strikers, but total employment in the shops dropped. On August 17, 1894, the desperate and destitute strikers appealed to Illinois Governor John P. Altgeld. The sympathetic governor wrote George Pullman a total of three times, asking him to do something about the “great distress” among his former workers. Typically, Pullman blamed the workers for their problems, arguing that if they had not struck they would not be suffering. He rejected the solutions proposed by Altgeld. The strikers’ appeal to Altgeld and the governor’s three letters to Pullman are included here. The public was more sympathetic with the plight of the Pullman workers. Contributions of food eased the distress and many Pullman residents eventually moved to find work elsewhere.

Kensington, Ill.,

August 17, 1894.

To His Excellency, the Governor of the State of Illinois:

We, the people of Pullman, who, by the greed and oppression of George M. Pullman, have been brought to a condition where starvation stares us in the face, do hereby appeal to you for aid in this our hour of need. We have been refused employment and have no means of leaving this vicinity, and our families are starving. Our places have been filled with workmen from all over the United States, brought here by the Pullman Company, and the surplus were turned away to walk the streets and starve also. There are over 1600 families here in destitution and want, and their condition is pitiful. We have exhausted all the means at our command to feed them, and we now make this appeal to you as a last resource. Trusting that God will influence you in our behalf and that you will give this your prompt attention, we remain,

Yours in distress,






August 19, 1894.

To George M. Pullman, President Pullman Palace Car Co., Chicago:

Sir:—I have received numerous reports to the effect that there is great distress at Pullman. To-day I received a formal appeal as Governor from a committee of the Pullman people for aid. They state that sixteen hundred families including women and children, are starving; that they cannot get work and have not the means to go elsewhere; that your company has brought men from all over the United States to fill their places. Now these people live in your town and were your employees. Some of them worked for your company for many years. They must be people of industry and character or you would not have kept them. Many of them have practically given their lives to you. It is claimed they struck because after years of toil their loaves were so reduced that their children went hungry. Assuming that they were wrong and foolish, they had yet served you long and well and you must feel some interest in them. They do not stand on the same footing with you, so that much must be overlooked. The State of Illinois has not the least desire to meddle in the affairs of your company, but it cannot allow a whole community within its borders to perish of hunger. The local overseer of the poor has been appealed to, but there is a limit to what he can do. I cannot help them very much at present. So unless relief comes from some other source I shall either have to call an extra session of the Legislature to make special appropriations, or else issue an appeal to the humane people of the State to give bread to your recent employees. It seems to me that you would prefer to relieve the situation yourself, especially as it has just cost the State upwards of fifty thousand dollars to protect your property, and both the State and the public have suffered enormous loss and expense on account of disturbances that grew out of trouble between your company and its workmen. I am going to Chicago to-night to make a personal investigation before taking any official action. I will be at my office in the Unity block at 10 a.m. to-morrow, and shall be glad to hear from you if you care to make any reply.

JOHN P. ALTGELD, Governor.

August 21st 1894.

Mr. George M. Pullman, President Pullman Car Company, Chicago, Ill.:

Sir:—I have examined the conditions at Pullman yesterday, visited even the kitchens and bedrooms of many of the people. Two representatives of your company were with me and we found the distress as great as it was represented. The men are hungry and the women and children are actually suffering. They have been living on charity for a number of months and it is exhausted. Men who had worked for your company for more than ten years had to apply to the relief society in two weeks after the work stopped.

I learn from your manager that last spring there were 3,260 people on the pay roll; yesterday there were 2,200 at work, but over 600 of these are new men, so that only about 1,600 of the old employees have been taken back, thus leaving over 1600 of the old employees who have not been taken back, a few hundred have left, the remainder have nearly all applied for work, but were told that they were not needed. These are utterly destitute. The relief committee on last Saturday gave out two pounds of oat meal and two pounds of corn meal to each family. But even the relief committee has exhausted its resources.

Something must be done at once. The case differs from instances of destitution found elsewhere, for generally there is somebody in the neighborhood able to give relief; this is not the case at Pullman. Even those who have gone to work are so exhausted that they cannot help their neighbors if they would. I repeat now that it seems to me your company cannot afford to have me appeal to the charity and humanity of the State to save the lives of your old employes. Four-fifths of those people are women and children. No matter what caused this distress, it must be met.

If you will allow me, I will make this suggestion: If you had shut down your works last fall when you say business was poor, you would not have expected to get any rent for your tenements. Now, while a dollar is a large sum to each of these people, all the rent now due you is a comparatively small matter to you. If you would cancel all rent to October 1st, you would be as well off as if you had shut down. This would enable those who are at work to meet their most pressing wants. Then if you cannot give work to all why work some half-time so that all can at least get something to eat for their families. This will give immediate relief to the whole situation. And then by degrees assist as many to go elsewhere as desire to do so, and all to whom you cannot give work. In this way something like a normal condition could be re-established at Pullman before winter and you would not be out any more than you would have been had you shut down a year ago.

I will be at the Unity block for several hours and will be glad to see you if you care to make any reply.

Yours, respectfully,


Chicago, August 21st, 1894.

George M. Pullman, Esq., President Pullman Palace Car Company, City.

Sir:—I have your answer to my communication of this morning. I see by it that your company refuses to do anything toward relieving the situation at Pullman. It is true that Mr. Wickes offered to take me to Pullman and show me around. I told him that I had no objections to his going, but that I doubted the wisdom of my going under anybody’s wing. I was, however, met at the depot by two of your representatives, both able men, who accompanied me everywhere. I took pains to have them present in each case. I also called at your office and got what information they could give me there, so that your company was represented and heard, and no man there questioned either the condition of the extent of the suffering. If you will make the round I made, go into the houses of the people, meet them face to face and talk with them, you will be convinced that none of them had $1,300, or any other some of money only a few weeks ago.

I cannot enter into a discussion with you as to the merits of the controversy between you and your former workmen.

It is not my business to fix the moral responsibility in this case. There are nearly six thousand people suffering for the want of food—they were your employees—four-fifths of them women and children—some of these people have worked for you for more than twelve years. I assumed that even if they were wrong and had been foolish, you would not be willing to see them perish. I also assumed that as the State had just been to a large expense to protect your property you would not want to have the public shoulder the burden of relieving distress in your town.

As you refuse to do anything to relieve suffering in this case, I am compelled to appeal to the humanity of the people of Illinois to do so.

Respectfully yours,


Source: John Altgeld, Live Questions (Chicago: George S. Bowen and Son, 1899).