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“The Greatest Tyrant in the State of Pennsylvania”: A Late Nineteenth-Century Rail Worker Describes Management

by Joseph P. Cahill

Although publicists for the Gilded Age corporations celebrated efficiency and the science of management, their employees did not always join the celebration. What looked like careful and disciplined management from one perspective was often viewed as petty tyranny from below. While some workers assailed upper management for this abuse others experienced the tyranny more directly in their day-to-day work lives. In this transcript taken from testimony before the U. S. House of Representatives in the late 1880s, Joseph P. Cahill, a worker in the freight department of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company, described the petty tyrannies inflicted on workingmen by the company dispatcher.

Q. What is your age? - A. Thirty-one years.

Q. Are you a native of this State? - A. Yes, Sir.

Q. Born in this State? - A. Yes, sir; in the city of Philadelphia.

Q. What has been your occupation? - A. I have been in the employ of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad Company for the past ten years.

Q. In what capacities? - A. In the freight department.

Q. Holding the same position all the time? - A. No, sir, holding different positions.

Q. Name them. - A. I was first a laboring man, doing laboring work; next a checker.

Q. About when was this? Give us about the periods. - A. I did laboring work about three months in the employ of the company. Finally I got to be checker, from checker to receiving clerk, from receiving clerk to deliver clerk, from delivery clerk to manifest clerk, in charge of the wholesale department of the inward-bound freight.

Q. During the past three or four years what positions have you occupied? - A. In the delivery department. I left the employ of the company for about fifteen days and went back again in the same position.

Q. When was that return? - A. About two or three years ago.

Q. Where were you employed when the receivership existing previous to December, 1887, commenced? - A. At the freight station in the delivery department.

Q. At what point? - A. Philadelphia; Front and Noble.

Q. And remained in that employment until when? - A. I was always considered an employé of the company working at the station until about six or seven months ago.

Q. Has all your employment for the railroad been in Philadelphia? - A. Yes, sir.

Q. What did you do then? - A. I was elected the secretary of the executive board of the entire system of the Reading Railroad employés belonging to the Knights of Labor to attend to the grievances among the men.

Q. Were you disconnected from the service of the railroad at that time? - A. No, sir.

Q. Did you remain in the same position you held before? - A. Yes, sir; my position was always open for me.

Q. Did you remain in it? - A. No, sir.

Q. I want to know whether your employment under the railroad continued in the same position it was before? - A. No, sir; if I had any cases to settle along the line of the road, and I had one or two or three dayĖs work there, the other three days I would go back to my position and work for the road.

Q. When did you become a Knight of Labor? - A. I became a Knight of Labor about thirteen months ago.

Q. And still remain one? - A. And still remain one. . . .

Q. When did you begin to investigate and adjust the grievances between the employés and employers of the railroad company? - A. From the formation of our convention.

Q. About what date? - A. About fifteen months ago.

Q. Now you may give us instances of the arising of grievances and what they were, and what was done with them. Commence at that date and come along down. - A. There is a great many; I will take up too much time. I can give you the most important.

Q. That is all we want; the petty ones we do not want. - A. The main grievance of our men at this end of the line was with officials of the company. William Dotts, dispatcher of the company, was a man who was considered the greatest tyrant in the State of Pennsylvania working upon a railroad.

Q. Who considered him so? - A. The employés of the company who were under him. We held a case over for at least six months, but finally we asked them to make an investigation. We went to the Fourth-street office and saw Mr. Sweigard. We told Mr. Sweigard about Mr. Dotts and what we intended to prove; that he was one of the greatest tyrants who ever worked on a railroad having charge of men; that we would also prove that he was a man who would not work to the interests of the company; that we would also prove that he was a man who was taking the companyĖs employés to perform work upon properties that he was agent for, while he was general dispatcher of the company; that the Reading Railroad tools and property were used to perform the work; and that we would also prove that the Reading Railroad Company was paying for the labor performed, and different other counts; that he had imposed upon the business community, from Pottsville to Palo Alto, through the place he held as general dispatcher. We heard over one hundred and thirty-five witnesses, to the best of my knowledge, in the case.

Q. Where were these witnesses from? - A. Palo Alto, Pottsville, Saint Clair, Frackville.

Q. Who examined them? - A. Mr. Stackhouse, representing the company, was chief detective. I conducted the examination on behalf of the men.

Q. Was there but you two, or some one else associated with you? - A. There was a committee of three Knights of Labor present.

Q. What were the duties and work of a general dispatcher? - A. They have charge of the hiring and discharging of men, and general supervision over them, and the regulation of trains.

Q. In supplying coal cars to shippers? - A. Yes, sir; sends cars to the different mines.

Q. Who occupies that position now with the road here? - A. Mr. Priest.

Q. Go on now and state concerning this investigation. - A. We would also prove, we told Mr. Sweigard, that Mr. Dotts was allowing thieves in the employ of the company who were collecting fares upon freight trains. That is one of the grievances, I believe, sir, Mr. Sweigard alluded to in the testimony that covered so many sheets of paper. He stated to the committee that under the charges he would grant an investigation, and that he was to be the judge of the evidence; that if we did not substantiate our charges some one was to suffer. We told him all right; we would substantiate them, and that we thought it our duty to do it as employés of the company. We opened the case, and, as I said, we had these witnesses.

Q. How long a time did you spend in this investigation? - A. I think about seven or eight days.

Q. Well, go on. - A. We closed our case and took the evidence to Mr. Sweigard. He asked us to give him time to look up the evidence in the case. We told him we would call for the decision. He said“Boys, you have established your case.” If you desire I will give you a little detail of the tyranny of this man and why the men objected to him. We had one man by the name of Rauk, his residence is at the foot of this town. His father was blown up by an explosion and the body went in the air about 50 feet right within 2 or 3 feet of Mr. Dotts. His body was taken to the roundhouse, and his son was working about a square off where he saw his father being killed. He went to the roundhouse and sent for an undertaker, and because he had refused to report off duty in the excitement to go to his own fatherĖs funeral, he was laid off for four weeks afterwards.

Q. By Dotts? - A. By Dotts.

Q. Can you give any other instances? - A. Misfortune followed the family. It seemed Mr. Dotts had personal malice or spite against it. His brother had both legs cut off. It is a rule of our company in case of an accident that two men would go with the person home or at least to bring them to the hospital. The doctors did not deem it advisable to move this young man, who died. This same young man was docked even to a half an hour he was off, which was showed by the companyĖs books. It was such an inhuman act that we brought Mr. Dotts on the witness stand. Mr. Stackhouse, the chief detective, said to him, “This witness makes serious charges against you, Mr. Dotts,” he then repeated the testimony. “What have you to say to this statement?” Mr. Dotts, he wheels around to the witness, “John, do you mean to say that I did anything like that.” "Yes, sir; Mr. Dotts, there is my statement that I swear before God is correct.“ He then said,”I have no recollection of it whatever. I believe you will have to leave it go down as evidence."

Q. Have you any other instances of his tyranny? - A. He left the office the next morning, and sent this witness up the road on his engine. He came in our office where we were holding the investigation, and desired to make a statement and deny the infamous statement which he said Mr. Rauk had made the day previous; that there was not a particle of truth in it. We asked him why he could not deny it while Mr. Rauk were there yesterday, and he stated he was bewildered. We told we would give him every opportunity to deny it, but to bring Mr. Rauk in there, but he said Mr. Rauk went up the road. He sent this man up the road about 15 miles, and then he came in to deny his statement.

Q. Now strike on to some other tyrannical act? - A. We showed where he was a member of two or three churches here in Pottsville and Palo Alto, and if employés owed any member of his church money for bills, they had to pay that money immediately at the store or be suspended a week or ten days according to the offense, no matter how unjust the bill was. They had to pay that money immediately. On the other hand we showed up how well he used to pay his own bills. We drew Mr. Klein in ? he was undertaker in Palo Alto ? who produced his books and showed where Mr. Dotts, while he was a church member, had owed him a bill of $40 for a coffin over his own childĖs body.

Q. Give any complaints from railroad men you wish to give, but these are matters of personal contention between you and him. - A. There was tyranny in the above cases, and where men were treated more like brutes than human beings.

Q. What did he do? - A. He would hollor at the men, and he would discharge a man if he looked cross-eyed at him almost.

Q. Tell us instances in which he treated men in the manner of which you complain. - A. Well in the instance of the Rauk case.

Q. That you have given—that is done with. - A. It is too long to give all the names.

Q. Is there any other instance you wish to give us now? - A. Another tyranny was the discharge of a man named Mather because he had reported a man who was collecting fares upon freight trains, and he reported the man to Mr. Price. He had caught the man who was collecting fares, and he said, “You have done that once too often, and if I catch you collecting fares upon this train I will report you. If ever you are caught at the business all hands will be discharged, and I have a widowed mother to support.” He caught him again at the business and reported the man to Mr. Price. Mr. Price turned the case over to Mr. Dotts to make an investigation. The following week he made it and this young fellow was laid off.

Q. How did he do it? - A. He got one of his men, one of his cronies there, to irritate this young fellow, called him a “son of a bitch,” and young Mather was going to hit him with a pin, although he did not do it. Then the fellow reported him to Mr. Dotts and he laid him off for four months.

Q. What was the effect of the laying off for four months? - A. He did not earn anything.

Q. Did he live without going to work? - A. There is nothing else in this country to do except work on the railroad or in the mines.

Q. Could not he have gone to a private colliery and gone to work? - A. He was not a miner; he was one of the railroad men.

Q. There was no railroad work for him? - A. No, Sir.

Q. Now come to Mr. SweigardĖs action in regard to this. What did he do? - A. Mr. Sweigard stated, “Boys, you have established your case in all its details, but owing to the number of years of service rendered by Mr. Dotts, I propose to give him an engine to run. I do not care to take the bread and butter away from his family. I will strip him of all power of having charge of men. ” He asked if that would satisfy us. We told him no; that the men demanded the final removal of William H. Dotts.

Q. What was done? - A. He was removed.

Q. Where did he go? - A. They put him down at Atlantic City, where we had no organization at all; where we could not reach him.

Q. At some other work? - A. As yard-master.

Source: U.S. Congress, House Report 4147, “Labor Troubles in the Anthracite Region of Pennsylvania, 1887–1888,” 50 Cong., 2d Sess. (Washington D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1889), 331, 338–41.