Eugene V. Debs, the Five-Time Socialist Candidate for President Who Once Campaigned From Prison

Eugene Debs ran for President of the United States five times from 1900 through 1920.
Eugene Debs ran for President of the United States five times from 1900 through 1920.
APIC/Getty Images

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.

Looking to Downsize? You Can Buy a 5-Room DIY Cabin on Amazon for Less Than $33,000

Five rooms of one's own.
Five rooms of one's own.
Allwood/Amazon

If you’ve already mastered DIY houses for birds and dogs, maybe it’s time you built one for yourself.

As Simplemost reports, there are a number of house kits that you can order on Amazon, and the Allwood Avalon Cabin Kit is one of the quaintest—and, at $32,990, most affordable—options. The 540-square-foot structure has enough space for a kitchen, a bathroom, a bedroom, and a sitting room—and there’s an additional 218-square-foot loft with the potential to be the coziest reading nook of all time.

You can opt for three larger rooms if you're willing to skip the kitchen and bathroom.Allwood/Amazon

The construction process might not be a great idea for someone who’s never picked up a hammer, but you don’t need an architectural degree to tackle it. Step-by-step instructions and all materials are included, so it’s a little like a high-level IKEA project. According to the Amazon listing, it takes two adults about a week to complete. Since the Nordic wood walls are reinforced with steel rods, the house can withstand winds up to 120 mph, and you can pay an extra $1000 to upgrade from double-glass windows and doors to triple-glass for added fortification.

Sadly, the cool ceiling lamp is not included.Allwood/Amazon

Though everything you need for the shell of the house comes in the kit, you will need to purchase whatever goes inside it: toilet, shower, sink, stove, insulation, and all other furnishings. You can also customize the blueprint to fit your own plans for the space; maybe, for example, you’re going to use the house as a small event venue, and you’d rather have two or three large, airy rooms and no kitchen or bedroom.

Intrigued? Find out more here.

[h/t Simplemost]

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How 'Rumor Clinics' Fought Fake News 80 Years Ago

Fake news spread fast in 1940s America.
Fake news spread fast in 1940s America.
GraphicaArtis/Getty Images

Strange tales circulated around 1940s America. There was one about a lady whose head exploded at a beauty salon after her perm ignited residue from her job at the munitions factory. Others claimed Japan was planning to spike America's water supply with arsenic, and that a Massachusetts couple reported picking up a hitchhiker who claimed Hitler was on the verge defeat, before vanishing like a ghost from the back of their car.

All of those stories were lies—but that didn't stop people from spreading the rumors. As the United States plunged into the Second World War, newspapers fought fake news amid fears of Nazi propaganda efforts.

The Rumor Clinics

About three months after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, the first rumor clinic was created in Boston on March 1, 1942, under the leadership of Harvard Professors Gordon Allport and Robert Knapp and the Eastern Psychological Association. The Boston Herald worked with the Massachusetts Committee on Public Safety's Division of Propaganda Research and a network of volunteers who hunted down rumors and their origins to dispel misinformation the publishers believed could harm the war effort, civilian defense, or the general morale of the country. A council that included the Boston police commissioner, the state’s attorney general, representatives of local unions, and the chamber of commerce vetted each edition of the column.

The Boston Herald’s weekly rumor clinic column was duplicated across the country, with as many as 40 different newspapers running their own versions, according to a January 24, 1943 New York Times feature. At the time, there was fear that Germany’s propaganda prowess would sow dissent among the U.S. population. “The United States was convinced that the moment war broke out they would be completely bombarded by rumors planted by the Germans. In order to head off these rumors, people who wanted to defend the United States decided to track these down,” Nick Cull, a University of Southern California professor and expert in war time propaganda, tells Mental Floss.

Rumors undercut rationing and industrial war efforts, such as the rumor about a woman whose head exploded at the hair salon. Other tales re-enforced racism and other prejudices already present in the country. Some of those rumors included that Jewish people were not required to serve in the military, or that white soldiers were having Black children after receiving Red Cross blood donations from Black civilians.

“It was stories that Americans told each other,” Cull says. “The rumors were so colorful that you could never forget them once you heard them.”

Nailing a Local Lie

About three months after the first column ran, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt created the Office of War Information through executive order on June 13, 1942. As Sidney Shalett wrote in The New York Times, the OWI looked to local communities as “the best place to nail a local lie.” The OWI began working with the rumor clinics and soon found that despite the assumptions German saboteurs were wreaking havoc on America’s psyche, most of the rumors were race-based lies spread by other Americans, according to Cull.

By the end of the war, the rumor clinics started disbanding, as the OWI adopted a new strategy of spreading facts without repeating rumors. Instead of directly challenging racist rumor mongering, the OWI released materials and information promoting the idea that all Americans were in the fight together against the Axis.

According to Julie Smith, a Webster University instructor and media literacy expert, while debunking rumors can be effective, the repetition of the debunked rumors can also re-enforce them. This became a concern for the OWI, leading it to grow wary of printing rumors just for the sake of denying them. “Misinformation has been around forever," Smith says, "and we have not gotten any smarter."