Turn-of-the-century progressive reformer John Peter Altgeld was born in Germany on December 30, 1847. Despite his humble origins and a father who saw no benefit in education, Altgeld read law and was admitted to the bar. He committed himself to politics and served as city attorney (1872-73) and county prosecutor (1874-75). Altgeld next was elected to the Cook County Superior Court (1886-91). He won the Democratic Party’s nomination for governor in 1892.
As governor, Altgeld made improvements in state institutions and passed reforms in the penal and legal systems, as well as in early child and women’s labor legislation. However, he is most famous for his June 1893 pardon of the three surviving bombers involved in the May 1886 Haymarket Riot, a labor protest in support of the eight-hour day. The protest had escalated into a violent confrontation in which seven policemen were killed. Altgeld, whose law partner was Clarence Darrow, argued that the trial had been unfair because the judge was prejudiced and the jury stacked.
A year later, in May 1894, Altgeld refused to order the militia to intervene in the Pullman railroad strike the American Railway Union protested a reduction in salary without an accompanying reduction in the cost of company-owned housing and other expenses. Ultimately, President Grover Cleveland sent federal troops to Chicago to suppress the strike, exercising his authority to protect mail and interstate commerce. Altgeld’s Progressive Era-legislation and commitment to the laboring classes made him a hero to activists, workers, and farmers, and an enemy of big business.
Using income derived from his legal work, Altgeld had successfully amassed a small fortune by investing in real estate and construction in Chicago in the second half of the nineteenth century. However, he suffered financial disaster in the late nineteenth century and lost almost his entire estate in 1900.
- For more information about the history of American reform, labor, and politics, see these collections:
- African American Perspectives: Pamphlets from the Daniel A. P. Murray Collection, 1818-1907
- American Leaders Speak: Recordings from World War I and the 1920 Election, 1918-1920
- A Century of Lawmaking for a new Nation: U.S. Congressional Documents and Debates, 1774-1875
- Votes for Women: Selections from the National American Woman Suffrage Association Collection, 1848-1921
- By Popular Demand: “Votes for Women” Suffrage Pictures, 1850-1920
- See interior and exterior views of a variety of Pullman railroad cars. Search on the term Pullman in History of the American West, 1860-1920: Photographs from the Collection of the Denver Public Library Externalto see, for example, the interior of the Denver & Salt Lake, railroad cars of about 1913, and the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad’s “Tryphosa” Pullman of 1906. Also see the uniform of a Pullman railroad conductor.
- Search on the term Pullman in Touring Turn-of-the-Century America: Photographs from the Detroit Publishing Company, 1880-1920 for additional images.
- Search on terms such as Altgeld, Chicago, or police in Chicago Anarchists on Trial: Evidence from the Haymarket Affair 1886-1887 External to learn more about that event. Also examine trial evidence External related to the Haymarket Affair.