Posted Sunday morning, October 14, 2018.
Striking Pullman workers in a stand-off with troops from the Illinois National Guard outside the Arcade in the company town of Pullman, 1894. These strikers might have had stoked up on free bread and baked goods donated by Eliot Ness’ immigrant baker father Peter, a supporter of the strike who was always willing to provide free food to customers who couldn’t afford to pay and make small loans he never expected to be repaid.
Started a new book last Tuesday night. Yes, I’m still reading “Football for a Buck”. And “Young Benjamin Franklin”. And “Fear”. Also “Disney War”, “Rogue Heroes”, “The Fifth Risk”, “Lake Success”. Several others. I’ve also got “Playing With Fire”, “Big Game”, “These Truths”, “The Improbable Wendell Wilke”,and “The Disordered Mind” lined up. And I plan to get back to “President Carter” real soon. What? Don’t you read ten, eleven, or twelve books at once?
To each his own, I guess.
Book I started listening to is “Scarface and the Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness, and the Battle for Chicago” by Max Allan Collins and A. Brad Schwartz. I fell asleep before I got very far. I knew I would. I was very tired and probably should have waited until another night. But I was hoping it would give me good dreams. I figured, they got Capone, maybe they’ll get Trump.
I tweeted that sentiment. Brad Schwartz saw the tweet and replied.
“That’s a pretty bloody bedtime story,” he wrote. “But it does have a happy(-ish) ending.”
It’s true. Collins and Schwartz’s accounts of the St Valentine’s Day Massacre makes for harrowing listening. Their account of the Pullman Strike offers the bonus of being infuriating. But it was uplifting to hear the story of the Untouchable Eliot Ness’ father.
Peter Ness was an immigrant baker from Norway. Born in 1850, orphaned at 13, he became an apprentice baker at 16, mastered his craft before he was 20, and spent the next decade working in Oslo, apparently making up his mind to open his own bakery in America. At 31, set off for the United States, where no family, no friends, and no connections waited to welcome him and help him get a start. He had little money in his pocket, he didn’t speak English, and had only the roughest idea of the geography. He’d heard Chicago was booming, filling up with people who made good wages and needed and could afford good food to eat. “Work was plentiful in the factories and stockyards of the South Side...The city was growing with the hunger of an unruly child,” Collins and Schwartz write, “a baker could do well feeding that appetite.” He set his sights on that city of the broad shoulders, bypassed New York City, and headed west. But first he detoured to a Mississippi River town in Iowa and got work there in a lumberyard. It was cheaper to live there and he could put his money away faster as he stored up the capital to open his bakery. After two years of saving, he had the money he needed and moved to Illinois.
Peter established himself in a small community on Chicago’s far southern outskirts called Kensington---the last stop on the Illinois on the Illinois Central, where rail-riding hoboes hopped off, giving it the nickname “Bumtown.” “Little more than a swamp,” as one local paper put it, Kensington was a cluster of boarding houses and saloons around a rail yard with scant to recommend it to an aspiring baker. The roads were rutted, muddy, and often impassable, especially for the heavy wagons used by wholesale bakers.
He opened a small stand in the market house of the next town over. The stand made enough money that he and a partner were able to build their own wholesale bakery back in Kensington. They a prime location, “at the intersection of three expanding communities bursting with steady paychecks and mouths to feed. Business was so good that by 1892, Peter and his partner opened a second bakery in South Chicago.”
A fire destroyed the Kensington bakery in 1893. But they rebuilt and were back in business. Just in time for the economy to collapse into a nation-wide depression. The Nesses weathered that. The business grew again. By the turn of the century, Peter had a workforce of eight and operated five bakery wagons. The business grew some more and...
By 1910, Peter’s business had grown into an impressive operation, employing twenty-four bakers, ten wagon drivers (each with his own team of of horses), and nine shop clerks.
Besides the original Kensington bakery, Peter now operated two storefronts on Michigan Avenue and contracted with a third independent operator to sell his goods exclusively.”
But he was over-extended. A baker’s strike knocked the pins out from under the enterprise and the business came crashing down.
He was in his late 60s, but he started again, opening a new bakery that didn’t make him rich but allowed him to send his youngest son to college as a commuter student at the University of Chicago.
Fairly typical immigrant success story. But there’s this…
The next town over where Peter ran the stand that set him up was Pullman, the “model town” George Pullman built for workers in the factory where he built his famous railroad sleeper cars. Pullman had the town designed as a “kind of workers’ uptopia…Stately brick homes lined clean, orderly streets, the modern marvels of gas lighting and indoor plumbing standard.” Pullman, the industrialist, wasn’t a utopianist or even much of an altruist. Pullman, the town, he said, was “‘a strictly business proposition.’”
Which made it something else.
“Pullman selected this spot for its isolation on the low prairie, away from Chicago’s ‘evil influences’”, among which were labor organizers. The town was an attempt to protect Pullman, the company, from unions.
Wrapped in the trappings of wealth, employees supposedly wouldn’t feel the ‘discontent and desire for change’ that gave birth to labor unions.
And if he wasn’t a utopian or an altruist, he was, by necessity, as he saw it, a social engineer. He was engaged in “self-interested social experiment to mass-produce workers as ‘elevated and refined’ as the cars they made.”
Residents of Pullman had to live up to standards of comportment, personal behavior, morality, and housekeeping set by their exacting, puritanical, and authoritarian boss.
Without notice, Pullman inspectors could invade a worker’s home and redecorate, automatically taking the costs from wages.
And if workers weren’t living up to Pullman’s standards, they could be kicked out on ten days’ notice.
Nobody owned their own home. They rented from the company and Pullman wasn’t a generous landlord. They were also expected to shop at the Market House for meat and groceries and Pullman offered shoppers no bargains. Pullman even charged a fee to hold services in the company-owned church. Not surprisingly, many of his workers declined to live in Pullman, and chose to live in Kensington instead, and many residents of Pullman went over to Kensington to shop, drink---there were no bars in allowed in Pullman---“raise hell”--- “Saturday night was Pullman’s payday, the ‘busy season’ in Kensington, when police could count on twenty arrests for drunken brawling. George Pullman hadn’t escaped the ‘evil influences’ of the big city---he’d brought them south.”---and to buy bread and baked goods from Peter Ness.
The depression, which persisted into 1894, hit the Pullman Company hard and Pullman dealt with his losses by slashing wages and laying off thousands of workers. He refused to lower rents in Pullman. “That winter found many starving families unable to heat their beautiful rented homes.” In May, his workers had enough. They walked out. The infamous Pullman Strike was underway.
In June, the American Railway Union announced a boycott of all railroads handling Pullman cars, bringing much of the country screeching to a halt. Trains could no longer deliver the mail and food into Chicago; prices shot up. The strike divided the city---you were either with the workers or management.
Peter Ness chose workers.
Like George Pullman, Peter was neither a utopian nor an altruist. What he was was good, decent-hearted, and generous. He was already in the habit of giving customers who couldn’t afford it free bread and making small loans he didn’t expect to be repaid. When the workers went on strike, he gave them his support by feeding them for free. Which allowed the strikers to hold out a lot longer than Pullman expected.”
They held out until July. Eventually, President Grover Cleveland sent troops to restore order---that is, to break the strike and put the strikers back in their places as George Pullman’s wage slaves.
“The strike,” write Collins and Schwartz, “was a calamitous defeat for organized labor”:
Workers gradually returned to the town of Pullman, by now officially part of Chicago, but they never forgot their anger. When George Pullman died in 1897, his will wisely stipulated his grave be lined with asphalt, concrete, and steel, to protect his remains from vengeful employees.
But while Pullman’s actions damned his memory forever on the South Side, Peter’s generosity made the baker one of the community’s most respected citizens. Perhaps he was too soft a touch, loaning money to those in need and never seeking repayment. [Editor’s note: Warning: title-drop ahead: If his son Eliot Ness is known as the Untouchable, maybe Peter Ness should be known as the Soft-Touchable. No, I’m not sorry.] His “reputation for integrity and philanthropy,” as one one local biographer put it, was “unexcelled by that of any citizen of that suburb.”
Listening to “Scarface and the Untouchable” didn’t give me good dreams. Didn’t give me bad dreams either. It hasn’t every night I’ve listened since. It has given me a good deal of enjoyment. And you can see why I find the story of Peter Ness inspiring and maybe understand why I’d think that in his own way he was as much a hero as his son.
“Scarface and the Untouchable: Al Capone, Eliot Ness, and the Battle for Chicago” by Max Allan Collins and A. Brad Schwartz is available in hardcover and for kindle at Amazon and as an audiobook from Audible.