America is a land of interchangeable parts.
Eli Whitney, celebrated inventor of the cotton gin, is often credited with introducing the concept and practice of interchangeable parts to the United States. Working for a military armory, Whitney worked to make parts or components to identical specifications. They then could be easily assembled by almost anyone, regardless of skill. Prior to that, each gun was unique and painstakingly made by talented gunsmiths. That took time, and was expensive. If one could provide interchangeable parts, then in essence any old pair of hands could do it. Thus manufacturing products became easier and cheaper, and more profitable. In the early twentieth century Henry Ford married interchangeable with the assembly line and a new industrial revolution began.
Those parts were made of metal or wood, but long before that, centuries before the birth of the United States, there had always been interchangeable parts. These parts were made of flesh and bone. They were called workers. If your job called more for brawn than brains, hard labor more than advanced skills, then you were merely a human interchangeable part to business owners. A coal miner killed in a slate fall or explosion could easily be replaced by another human interchangeable part. Work would continue with your replacement part. If you were a laborer on a construction site, or laying track for a railroad, and you fell to your death or were crushed, well, a new part would soon be seamlessly fitted into your place.
And if you did die, or lost and arm or leg, good luck to your family. They might be offered a pittance in compensation (how much was that guy’s leg worth, again?) Then again, they might not. I have spent years combing through newspapers from the area. From 1890 to 1920, in particular, seldom a week went by without a story, or stories, about industrial accidents. Usually followed by notices of the families of the victims having to sue owners to get some sort of compensation. How much was that human part worth was the calculation.
I offer the following, the story of the Larimer Hill Shootout, as an example.
The Railway Shopmen’s strike of 1922 spread across the nation, ultimately involving over 400,000 railroad workers. It was the largest strike against the incredibly powerful railroad owners since the great Pullman Strike of 1894. It was the outgrowth of railroad workers growing anger about wage cuts following WWI (during which the government actually nationalized the country’s railroads). In addition, railroad owners increasingly “hired” outside “contractors” to circumvent legally negotiated labor contracts and their provisions that protected the workers, rights. The final blow was the owners demanding a second pay cut in less than two years. That pay cut of seven cents an hour may seem paltry today, but in 1922 it meant a loss of 12 % of the workers income. And, said the owners, if they don’t like it we can always replace them.
So, the shopmen called a strike. Shopmen were the boilermakers, machinists and laborers who maintained the rolling stock of railroads. They were the men who kept the rails humming. A union report after the strike summed up the workers’ view:
Brotherhood leadership had hoped to hold fast to standards of wages, hours and working conditions as stipulated in the National Agreement, in a belief that somewhat decreased living costs would result in that agreement providing fair remuneration . But the first wage reduction was followed by a decision on August 11, 1921, dealing with overtime, eliminating time-and-one-half for Sunday and holiday work and modifying other sections of the overtime agreements.
The effect of this decision was electrifying. To the Brotherhood membership it was a piecemeal decision on one part of the National Agreement indicating what was to come as other decisions were handed down. Moreover, these actions in Washington were directly responsible for an increasingly hostile attitude toward workers on the part of railroad management, particularly local subordinates, who appeared to adopt a manner of treatment calculated to stir the workers to drastic action.
The Pennsy Yard in Terre Haute was then one of the largest repair sites in the country. The workers there joined in the strike on June 30, 1922. The management decided they could then replace the union workers with non-union men. After all, they would work cheaper and did not have the benefits prescribed for the union workers under their contract.
This use of “replacement workers” was an insidious part of management’s treatment of workers. They knew that interchangeable human parts were available and eager for work. In effect they were setting worker against worker. There were always men who would be “scabs.” I use scabs because it was the accepted term in those days. Others might say “strikebreakers.” But strikebreakers were really those who were brought in the physically break the strikers. Owners hired private armies of desperate men who thuggishly arrived on the scene to break a few strikers’ heads, or backs or knees. But often owners did not have to resort to that. The governments, particular state governors, feared that strikes. Often beholden to owners for their political support, and fearful of damaging the economy, governors would call out the state militia, supposedly to maintain order. Often the militia’s guns were turned on the strikers.
So the Pennsy yard began to hire scabs. Many men were eager to hire on.
Frank Easterday was a thirty-year man from Marshall, Illinois, with a wife and young son to support. He had spent most of his life as a farm laborer around Clark County. He knew there might be difficulties take a job at the yard, but working for the railroad was a coveted job. He hired on.
Easterday drove the 20 miles to Terre Haute along the National Road with a fellow laborers including Ralph Beabout and Russel Hill. They could thus share expenses and did not have to travel alone. If trouble happened you always felt a bit safer to have friends with you, and if you carried a little protection under the seat. Each day as they drove into the huge yard they faced a picket of strikers. Jeers were shouted, perhaps stones or decaying vegetables at their car. It was an intimidating scene to start, and end, your workday. But it was worth it to Easterday to have a steady job that paid more working on a farm.
Seeing the scabs take their jobs infuriated the strikers. During long days on the picket line the strikers talked angrily among themselves. Those scabs were taking food out of the strikers’ families mouths. Bastards. Something should be done about them. They were as bad as the big shots that ran the railroad.
On Tuesday, September 5th Easterday and his buddy hurried to their car at the end of their shift. Another day of work over they wanted to get home. They headed south to Wabash Avenue to head home to Marshall.
As Easterday drove out of the yard, five strikers in two cars watched them leave. Let’s follow the bastards. Put a scare in the son-of-a-bitches. In the lead strikers’ car were Lawrence Huffman, Herman Clugston and George Huebel. They tailed Easterday’s car until they reached 14th and Wabash where they passed it. They knew where he lived and the route he would take home. They kept just ahead of Easterday’s car as they drove west on Wabash Avenue and crossed the bridge. At the end of the grade east of West Terre Haute the strikers slowed down and let Easterday pass them. They wound slowly along National Avenue.
Seeing the strikers’ car, Easterday, who must have been suspicious now had his fears realized. Leaving West Terre Haute he hit the accelerator pushing his car up Larimer Hill. Seeing that Huffman also sped up. The cars were abreast as they neared the top of the hill. Shots rang out from both cars. The cars veered off the road in the mayhem. Residents reported they heard at least ten shots. It was like a shootout from the movies.
It was over in minutes. Two strikers, Huffman and Clugston, were slightly wounded. Three bullets pierced Easterday’s side and legs. Blood filled the front seat. His buddies, who were uninjured, watched in horror. The strikers fled, running through a field to reach the tile plant Huffman and Clugston stopped there to get a drink of water and await the police.
Ambulances arrived. Easterday was immediately taken back across the grade to St. Anthony Hospital. It did not look good.
Huffman was taken to Dr. Kunkler’s office in West Terre Haute where the good doctor dressed his wound. Clugston was taken to Terre Haute, was fixed up and went to one of his haunts, a pool room at 15th and Locust. It was there he was later arrested.
One of Easterday’s companions drove his car home to Marshall after talking to the police. Easterday’s wife Cora and 5 year-old Eugene were waiting for Frank to get home, When the car finally pulled up to their rented house and their husband and father did not step out as usual, their world changed. Frank Easterday died the following day.
Six strikers were charged with murder after Easterday’s death. Easterday’s five companions were charged with shooting with intent to kill. Ultimately, with both sides saying the other started the shootout, the Vigo Circuit Court did not bring in indictments. All eleven were set free. The railroad, which had pushed hard for the strikers to be tried and convicted of murder, got a little bit of revenge afterwards. They pushed for a federal judge to charge Huffman, Clugston and the others for violating a court ordering strikers not to harass the replacement workers. They spent a few weeks in Jail in Indianapolis.
There is no evidence that any of the strikers returned to the railroad shop they once worked. They found other jobs. They weren’t missed by the railroad. Like the dead Frank Easterday, who was one of 11 people nationwide to die in the strike, it was easy to find replacement parts.