In my last entry I speculated whether events other than the deaths of two of his adult children drove my great- great-grandfather, William John Clarke, to take his own life in October of 1894. A comment from my brother-in-law about the financial panic of 1893 jogged my memory and sent me scurrying back to review Rulers & Rebels, A People’s History of Early California, 1769-1901 by Laurence Shoup. I recently read this book with particular interest in how historical events may have affected my ancestors who farmed north of Sacramento. After more careful review, and getting my dates straight—bingo! Not only was there a panic in 1893—the biggest depression the country had ever faced up until that time—but a railroad strike occurred in the summer of 1894 which had dire effects on the farmers in California who were unable to get their crops to market, or even acquire sacks to harvest the wheat in.
The 1870 census states that William John Clarke’s real estate was worth $124,440 and his personal estate was worth $20,000, so he was quite well off. Although there was also a financial panic and a railroad strike in the mid 1870s, he seems to have weathered those crises. But by the fall of 1894, when he took his life, he may have been wiped out by one-two punch of the depression in 1893 followed by not being able to get his wheat and other crops to market during the summer of 1894. As supporting evidence I offer a line from a letter written by Clarke’s stepdaughter (my great grandmother), Lizzie (Tenney) Clarke Cain, after her stepfather’s death. She states that William John Clarke was once well-to-do but the land was mortgaged and “it all went for bad debt”. I have also been able to read the probate proceedings that occurred after Clarke’s death on the Ancestry.com website. Clarke’s widow, Catherine (Foster) Tenney Clarke, was left only with their home and some personal belongings. It is true that everything else was sold off or repossessed.
The Pullman Strike of 1894 affected the entire country, but was particularly brutal in California. The strike began when the American Railroad Union called for a nation-wide strike against the Pullman Company in Chicago, where workers were being subjected to horrible conditions. It was not a strike against all railroads, only the Pullman Company. All trains were to be allowed passage with the exception of those carrying Pullman cars. Southern Pacific in California reacted by unnecessarily placing Pullman cars on every train, including mail trains, whether they needed them or not.
The strike was largely supported by the populace initially, because it was largely recognized that the railroads had a monopoly while both state and federal governments looked the other way. When Eugene Debs, the leader of the American Railroad Union was testifying before Congress during the strike, he was asked if he believed in government ownership of the railroads. He replied,
“Yes sir; I believe that Government ownership of railroads is decidedly better than railroad ownership of the Government.”
However, as the strike went on and became more violent, and neither side would compromise, public support began to wane.
The governor had called up the National Guard, sending them to Sacramento to guard the Southern Pacific Railroad yard. Hundreds of strikers were also in the area and things were quite tense. The Woodland Daily Democrat ran an editorial on July 2, 1984, that summed up the situation:
It is an anomaly in civilized society in having some of the characteristics of organized warfare in presence of the reign of law and peace. That is the condition that confronts the people of California today.
The opposing forces are the Southern Pacific Company on one side and its employes [sic], swayed and influenced by a powerful labor union, on the other. In such a conflict it is to be presumed that both sides are prepared to make some sacrifices that will involve losses to both of a very serious character. Both seem to fear that if any concessions are made looking to a settlement, precedents will be established that will in the future operate to the disadvantage of whichever party makes the concession.
The corporation contends that the success of the strikers will mean that henceforth the most trifling differences between labor and capital will be arbitrarily settled by the interference of labor organizations, and that every employer in the country will be made a party to any trouble that may exist between every other employer and his help.
On the other hand the labor organizations insist that this is a boycott against Pullman and not a strike against the Southern Pacific, as they have no grievance against that company, and that if Pullman triumps[sic] they will be crushed and labor may as well surrender unconditionally to aggregated capital and organized monopoly, all the rights for which it is now contending.
Between these two contending forces, and in no way responsible for the actions of either, stands the public, the inoffending people, whose losses are infinitely more than the combined losses of both parties to the irrepressible conflict. Business is at a standstill; freight and passenger traffic are blocked; grain cannot be harvested, because the farmer can get no sacks; thousands of tons of fruit are rotting, because transportation is denied; and all this is occurring at a time when the people are least able to withstand the effects of such a disaster. They have not recovered from the effects of the recent panic, and it would be impossible to imagine a greater misfortune to California interests than that these labor troubles should have occurred at this time.
The information I’ve read about William John Clarke’s suicide stated that he was despondent over the deaths of two of his adult children. It’s true he shot himself on the grave of his son Willie. You can’t say he didn’t have a flair for the dramatic. But Willie had been dead for four years. And Celia, his youngest daughter, had died almost a year previously. I can’t say that sadness around the deaths of his children didn’t play into his decision to end his life. But it just didn’t add up for me. In investigating the historical events of the time I found what I submit is a more believable reason for his suicide. The Pullman Strike of 1984 was indeed a disaster for my great-great-grandfather. I believe he was crushed between two contending forces.
3 thoughts on “Between Two Contending Forces”
This is an excellent piece, both personal and informative. Love, Yvonne
It’s not a coincidence that the mental state and economic panic are both called depression. Catastrophic economic losses and suicides were associated long before 1929. And the former, coupled with a state of deep sadness from the loss of loved ones could certainly prove too much for many people to bear. I think your new theory makes a lot of sense. The part about the sacks is interesting, too. I remember studying the history of Washington’s first prison built in Walla Walla in the 1880s. One of the key products of indentured labor there in the 1890s was the production of jute sacks used by the area’s wheat farming industry.
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Holly Holbrook, you’re such a sleuth! You’ve solved the mystery of your great great grandad’s suicide with historical research. Your conclusion makes total sense, and has taught me about this period in California’s history. Of course, I’m totally taking the side of the railroad workers and Eugene Debs. The railroad companies took no prisoners in their quest for profit and power, and they did indeed run the government.
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