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ALTGELD, John Peter (1847-1902)

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ALTGELD, John Peter (1847-1902)

Born in Nieder Selters in Hesse on December 30, 1847, he was the son of an illiterate and indigent German immigrant.  He was 3 months old when he arrived in America with his parents who went to work on a farm near Mansfield, Ohio.  Altgeld volunteered for the Civil War at the tender age of sixteen.  He received a little formal education while serving as a private in the Union Army (1864/65).  Afterwards, he continued his education while wandering through Missouri and Arkansas as an itinerant worker.  Later, he worked as a schoolteacher in Missouri.  He subsequently began to study and practice law as an attorney for poor people in Chicago.  In 1874, he was elected district attorney of Andrew County, Missouri, and later served as a judge. 

Moving to Chicago in 1875, Altgeld soon became an active Democrat.  He made himself reasonably wealthy in real estate deals and developed political aspirations with the encouragement of Mrs. Potter Palmer, who was not only Chicago society's most glittering personage, but a woman whose interest in social justice matched his own.  He was judge of the Superior Court of Cook County from 1886 to 1891, and was its chief justice when he retired.  At that time, his influence among Illinois Democrats was such that he was nominated for governor by an alliance of Democrats and the United Labor Party in 1892. 

In 1884, he published a book on prison reform, which demonstrates evidence of Altgeld's belief that the poor and unfortunate had a less than fair chance in American life.  Accordingly, now as governor, he embarked on a program of reform, which included the improvement of prison conditions, education, and working conditions in factories.  His attempt to prohibit child labor, and his draft bill requiring inspection of sanitary conditions in factories, made him an unpopular Governor among the city's powerful industrialists. 

His first act was pardoning the three anarchists Micheal Schwab, Samuel Fielden and Oskar Neebe (four others had already been executed) who had been sentenced to life in prison for the Haymarket bombing in 1886.  Altgeld was discussed and condemned with whole-hearted bitterness in the daily press, especially in 1893.  Although many people had demanded the pardon, by granting it, Altgeld branded the trial, the prosecution, judge, and jury as biased.  Altgeld's action produced strong protest.  The press vented its feelings, and the New York Sun wrote:

Oh wild Chicago...
Lift up your weak and guilty hands
From out of the wreck of states
and as the crumbling towers fall down
Write ALTGELD on your gates!

After that he became known as John "Pardon" Altgeld.

In 1894 there was a militant strike against the Pullman factories in Chicago.  President Cleveland, at the instigation of the Attorney General Richard Olney, responded by sending in federal troops.  Governor Altgeld protested sharply against this violation of state's rights.  He knew that Cleveland might not have known that Olney, one of the founders of the General Managers' Association, wanted to make an example of this case, which resulted in the death of more than twelve persons.  J.T Adams writes in The Epic of America that (unconsciously) "Cleveland played into the hands of the railroad owners.  "

This action and his protest to President Cleveland regarding the use of federal troops in the Pullman strike aroused considerable opposition among conservative elements, and Altgeld was not reelected in 1896.  With his political career over he returned to being a defender of the poor.  He died on March 11, 1902, shortly after he had lost the large fortune that he had accumulated through speculation in Chicago real estate.

The famous defense lawyer, Clarence Darrow, eulogized him as follows: "Even his admirers have probably never understood the true nature of this great humanist.  …Like all great souls, he was a solitary man.  …For him life was an endless tragedy-the earth was a great hospital full of the sick, the wounded and the suffering, and he devoted himself to them like a dedicated surgeon. ..."


Albert B. Faust, The German Element in the United States II, Houghton Mifflin Co. Boston-New York, 1909.
Richard O'Connor, The German-Americans, Little, Brown and Company Boston-Toronto, 1968.
Howard Fast, THE AMERICAN: A Middle Western Legend, Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1946.
Joseph Wandel, The German Dimension of American History, Nelson-Hall Chicago, 1979.
Gerard Wilk, Americans from Germany, German Information Center New York, 1976.
Klaus Wurst and Heinz Moos, Three Hundred Years of German Immigrants in North America, 300 Jahre Deutsche in America Verlags GmbH, 1983.

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