By 1920, the name Eugene Debs represented different things to different groups. For some, he was a visionary union leader and politician who rose to the national stage to unite American workers under the banner of socialism. To others, he was a dangerous traitor who sought to discredit the nation’s war effort and undo the tremendous progress the country’s economy had made in the beginning of the 20th century. And to the employees at the Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, he was inmate number 9653.

The first two viewpoints depend solely on a person's political leanings, but the third was an indisputable fact. Debs was indeed an imprisoned man—who also happened to be running for President of the United States from his cell.

Who was Eugene Debs?

Eugene Victor Debs was born on November 5, 1855, in Terre Haute, Indiana, to Marguerite Bettrich and Jean Daniel Debs, two immigrants from Alsace, France. They came to the U.S. in 1849 and worked in the grocery business. At age 14, Eugene took a job as a paint scraper at Vandalia Railroad, where he earned just $.50 a day. He soon moved up to become a railroad fireman, shoveling piles of coal into the locomotive’s firebox for more than $1 each night [PDF]. This was at a time when workers toiled for 16 hours a day, six days a week. 

In 1875, Debs was elected secretary of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and was an editor for the organization’s monthly magazine. Seeing the dangers firemen faced firsthand, Debs said his brotherhood would fight to “provide for the widows and orphans who are daily left penniless and at the mercy of public charity by the death of a brother.” His growing interest in social and economic issues also led to a two-term stint as Terre Haute City Clerk from 1879 to 1883, and a term serving as a Democrat in the Indiana General Assembly in 1884.

On June 20, 1893, Debs's ambitions grew when he founded the American Railway Union (ARU) to protect all workers throughout the railroad industry, not just firemen. The union was soon one of the country’s largest, with 125 local chapters nationwide; at one point, enrollments hit 2000 a day.

The Pullman Strikes: Eugene Debs's First Arrest

For a brief moment, the American Railway Union was the most powerful labor union in the country.Historica Graphica Collection/Heritage Images/Getty Images

In May 1894, after suffering a series of salary cuts, workers at the Pullman Palace Car Company walked off the job. In response, Debs and the ARU organized a massive sympathy boycott of any trains and railroads using Pullman cars, and by June, 125,000 ARU workers had joined the cause. A nation that thrived on cross-country train commerce was now being stopped in its tracks.

The workers' defiance soon turned to anger. After Debs made a speech to workers on June 29 in Blue Island, Illinois, some in the crowd broke off and began a riot. By day's end, buildings had been burned to the ground and a locomotive with a mail train attached to it lay topped over.

With the U.S. mail system affected by the strike, and vital rail service crippled, President Grover Cleveland now considered the unruliness to be a federal matter. In early July, Attorney General Richard Olney issued an injunction against Debs and other ARU leaders that forbid them from communicating with their union members. The press at the time turned on Debs, too, claiming the strike he organized around the Pullman situation was a power grab. One political cartoon in the Chicago Tribune portrayed “Dictator Debs” as a cigar-chomping would-be king who liked to rest his feet on the U.S. Constitution [PDF].

President Cleveland deployed troops to Chicago to quell the ongoing demonstrations, but on July 7, the conflicts turned violent. Members of the National Guard killed anywhere from four to 30 strikers in the clash. Debs, who was no longer legally allowed to communicate with his members, could do nothing to calm tensions.

That same month, Debs was arrested and charged with contempt of court and conspiracy to interfere with U.S. mail, and spent six months behind bars. The ARU crumbled soon after, and while many Pullman workers were eventually rehired, they had to agree in writing to never form a union.

The four-time presidential candidate

Behind bars, Debs read Karl Marx’s Das Kapital and converted to socialism. In 1897, two years after leaving prison, he established the Social Democratic Party of America.

Under this banner, Debs made his first run for president in 1900 on a platform revolving around workers’ equality and better wages. William McKinley won the race with a total of 7,207,923 votes, while Debs garnered just 86,935. Still, it was a start.

Debs ran again in 1904, this time as a member of the next political party he helped establish: the Socialist Party of America. His totals jumped to around 402,000 votes; in 1908, he returned with 420,000 votes, losing to Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft, respectively.

Debs's peak came in the election of 1912—one of the great wild cards in U.S. history. It featured the incumbent, Taft, running against Democrat Woodrow Wilson; former president Roosevelt, who was running as a member of the Progressive Party; and Debs, running again as a Socialist on a platform that put an emphasis on workers, women's suffrage, and ending child labor.

Debs fell short once again, but his total ballooned to more than 900,000 votes—6 percent of the popular vote. It's still the highest percentage of the vote a Socialist candidate has ever received in a presidential election, and it’s more than double the amount he earned in 1908. It would be another eight years before his fifth and final presidential campaign—arguably one of the strangest the country has seen.

The Espionage and Sedition Acts: Eugene Debs's Second Arrest

Eugene Debs was known as a prolific orator, with speeches clocking in at over two hours long.Keystone/Getty Images

By 1914, Debs was expressing his ardent opposition to America’s seemingly inevitable involvement in World War I in a series of anti-war editorials in the National Rip-Saw, where he stuck to one main message: “Capitalist nations not only exploit their workers, but ruthlessly invade, plunder, and ravage one another. The profit system is responsible for it all.”

Written words gave way to public rallies. Debs traveled across the Northeast to speak to his base of frustrated workers looking for a unifying voice against war. During one memorable stop in Boston, he asked a packed crowd of workers: “Must we send the workers of one country against those of another because a citizen has been torpedoed on the high seas, while we do nothing about the 600,000 workingmen that are crushed each year needlessly under our industrial machinery?”

Socialist opposition to the military action had little real effect. On April 6, 1917, the United States officially declared war against Germany. Just a few months later, Congress passed the Espionage Act, which targeted “disloyal” citizens who attempted to interfere with military progress during the war. This was followed by the complementary Sedition Act of 1918, giving federal authorities the power to punish anyone using “disloyal, profane, scurrilous, or abusive language” toward the Constitution, the military, or the country.

Debs knew the risks he was taking with his anti-war crusade, but he continued throughout the Midwest, culminating in a speech at a Socialist Party gathering in Canton, Ohio, on June 16, 1918. For two hours, the impassioned orator made his case, criticizing everything from the war to the Sedition Act to the military draft.

“The master class has always declared the wars,” the 62-year-old told the crowd. “The subject class has always fought the battles. The master class has had all to gain and nothing to lose, while the subject class has had nothing to gain and all to lose—especially their lives.”

Days later, Debs was arrested while heading to another party event in Cleveland. The jury found him guilty on three counts of violating the Espionage and Sedition acts. On September 18, 1918, he was sentenced to 10 years in prison.

A convicted man's campaign

A look at Eugene Debs's 1920 presidential campaign, where he ran for office from prison.Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Even prison couldn’t quiet Debs. In fact, by 1920, he was again nominated to be the Socialist Party's candidate for president, his fifth run overall. While he was accustomed to campaigning by train and speaking in front of thousands, in Atlanta Federal Penitentiary, Debs was allowed [PDF] to give one political statement every week, which was then handed over to news wires. Supporters did the campaigning for him on the ground, making posters featuring the slogan “From Atlanta Prison to the White House, 1920” and campaign buttons that showed Debs in a prison jumpsuit with the words “For President: Convict No. 9653” splashed across them. It wasn't so much a campaign as it was a protest against what many thought was Debs's unconstitutional imprisonment.

Amazingly, Debs still captured 3.4 percent of the popular vote, meaning more than 910,000 people chose a socialist in prison over Warren G. Harding or his opponent, James M. Cox.

By December 1921, with the war over, President Harding pardoned Debs and invited him to the White House. “I have heard so damned much about you, Mr. Debs, that I am now very glad to meet you personally,” Harding said upon meeting him. Indeed, Debs had left prison almost as a mythic figure to his followers—50,000 of whom lined up to watch his train pull in upon his return to Terra Haute.

Though the meeting with Harding was as close as he ever got to the White House, Debs proved he didn't need to win an election to make his voice heard.