Friday, February 29, 2008

Burying the Destroyer

No, I don't mean Gravity Head, which starts today, or even spending the morning watching our Senior Editor on television with WHAS's Terry Mieners, kicking off the nationally recognized 10th annual festival with a 5:00 A.M. tailgating party.

Longtime readers will remember our references to Ted Fulmore's excellent three part historic series on local business college professor Ira Strunk and his murder of Charles Hoover published on his Our History in New Albany blog. Ira gunned down Charles and his father after rumors of an affair between the younger Hoover and Ira's wife, Myra, became too much for a respectable Gilded Age gent to bear.

Desperate Housewives - 1886 style
Ira and Myra – the descent
Ira vs. Myra - the end

Given that the brutal killings occurred in broad daylight on Market Street downtown, it's a bit of a puzzler that Ira was acquitted of the crime.

Enter Lawrence Lipin, author of Producers, Proletarians, and Politicians: Workers and Party Politics in Evansville and New Albany, Indiana, 1850-87, and the Journal of Social History.

Lipin's essay, Burying the "destroyer of one happy home": manhood, industrial authority, and political alliance building in the murder trial of Ira Strunk, first published in the Journal in 1995 and excerpted below, exposes the class warfare that took center stage in a trial that often had more to do with the shots fired by workers at a domineering upper class than it did with those fired by Ira at Charles.

For Strunk's trial to make this visible, timing and context are everything. Since the War of 1812, New Albany had been a busy manufacturing town on the Indiana bank of the Ohio river. There a large and prosperous group of native-born steamboat carpenters and joiners engaged in fraternal organizations, in reform, and in local politics, bequeathing the community with the kind of active and cantankerous public life that was not uncommon in the antebellum era.

However, the Civil War changed all that, economically decimating the shipyards while encouraging merchants to move their capital into the construction of large iron, glass and woolen mills. While important connections were made between the new industrial workers and the remaining ship carpenters in churches, temperance organization, and in politics, working-class power would prove to be short-lived in the postwar era. During the depression of the 1870s all the major factories came under the control of Washington Charles DePauw. Described by an early member of the Knights of Labor as "the greatest tyrant and labor-crusher on earth," DePauw imposed his will on the city time and time again.(7) Doing his bidding, the city council vacated streets without compensation handing them over to DePauw - redrew city boundaries to exclude his glass works from taxation, and created special police forces to patrol his works in times of industrial conflict.(8) During strikes, the local press - regardless of party - defended him and printed threats to "communistic" foreign-born workers.(9) In this new and hostile environment, the labor movement became increasingly inert. Since few politicians were willing to antagonize the city's most prominent citizen - who often threatened to move his plants elsewhere - Gilded Age workers in New Albany were increasingly isolated from the support of the local community. And they would remain so until 1886.

The full paper is well worth a read if you find time between beers this weekend.

No comments: