April 8: Jail Yawning for Gen. Coxey

Headline from The New York Times, Monday, April 9, 1894

Note the change of tone in the news coverage of (and government response to) the Coxey movement, as compared to that at the beginning of the march: from crackpot, to harmless, to drama. And now, perceived as a threat.

Plans are being put into motion which will ultimately thwart the efforts of citizens to exercise their First Amendment right to free speech. And to provide a distraction from the purpose of the march: to make the case for good roads and for public investment in the nation’s infrastructure, which will result in reduced unemployment.

From The New York Times, Monday, April 9, 1894:

WASHINGTON, April 8 — The burlesque features of the Coxey tramp march on Washington disappeared as more or less trustworthy accounts reach the capital that bodies of men, called into existence by the Coxey manifesto and the publicity given it, are actually likely to arrive here within the next few days, some of them having, in fact, already arrived, and now cumbering the vagrant wards of the respective police stations.

The gross iniquity of the proposition to precipitate a body of probably lawless and irresponsible men on the national Capital without the remotest prospect of any beneficial results to the men themselves, and with the risk of grave disturbances, is fully appreciated. Whether the tramps to be turned loose here number hundreds or thousands, the dangerous feature of the movement is recognized by the authorities, and measures commensurate with the emergency will be taken.

A demonstration of a similar kind was attempted about 15 years ago by an Illinois labor agitator or walking delicate, who then carried on his operations in the capital. There were large bodies of unemployed men in and around the city whom he endeavored to excite into a demonstration like that which Coxey is making.

Gen. John A. Logan suggested, and Gen. Raum, then Commissioner of Internal Revenue, carried out a plan which at that time relieved anxiety as to what was credibly reported to be a plan in contemplation of making a sudden descent upon the open vaults of the Treasury in business hours, overpowering the guard, and “looting” the contents.

All the numerous old army men in the various departments, but especially in the Treasury, were taken into confidence, and were formed into companies with designated telephone and other signals and places of assembly. Army revolvers, quietly issued by the ward apartment, were served to them, each man giving his individual receipt for his weapon, and a number of rifles, issued for Internal Revenue Service against “moonshiners,” were kept in readiness for use in emergency. By one or two trial alarms it was demonstrated that 300 veterans, fully armed, could be concentrated at any given point in the Treasury Building at a few minutes’ notice. A revival of this plan may be suggested if the prospect of disturbance becomes greater then now seems apparent.

The prompt arrest of what is taken to be the advance guard of the Coxey movement last night, and their possible committal to the workhouse farm by the police court tomorrow, may serve to stop the movement, but it is of course admitted to be impossible for the District of Columbia to take charge of and support several thousand tramps, and in case the army shall be so numerous as that, the efforts of the authorities will be directed to securing the leaders, and giving them doses of District law which fully reaches their cases, leaving their misguided followers to be dealt with as leniently as circumstances will allow.

Whether the tramps to be turned loose here number hundreds or thousands, the dangerous feature of the movement is recognized by the authorities, and measures commensurate with the emergency will be taken…

…In addition to the very broad vagrancy law of the District, and another law which will effectually prevent the Commonwealers from holding their proposed meeting on the steps of the Capital Building, Major Moore has found two more statutes which apply to the case…

…The penalty imposed for violations of the law is small, but its imposition would be sufficient to keep the chief Commonwealer and his lieutenants in durance until his soldiers should be disposed of in a manner that would relieve apprehension as to their danger to the city and citizens…

Major W. G. Moore, who fills the position of Chief of Police, and will have control of the operations against the Coxey forces, has been busy looking up laws which will enable him to seize the Commonweal soldiers just as soon as they shall enter the District. In addition to the very broad vagrancy law of the District, and another law which will effectually prevent the Commonwealers from holding their proposed meeting on the steps of the Capital Building, Major Moore has found two more statutes which apply to the case.

Under the provisions of the one of these, Citizen Coxey, despite his alleged affluence, can be arrested, as he undoubtedly will be, and fined or imprisoned. This law makes it an offense for any person or persons to bring into the District of Columbia any person or persons likely to become a charge on the community, and it clearly covers Coxey’s case. The penalty imposed for violations of the law is small, but its imposition would be sufficient to keep the chief Commonwealer and his lieutenants in durance until his soldiers should be disposed of in a manner that would relieve apprehension as to their danger to the city and citizens.

“Capt.” George Primrose, who was arrested at the city limits last night at the head of forty unemployed men from San Antonia, Texas, is locked up on the charge of violating this law, and he will have his trial – the first under the statute – in the police court tomorrow morning.

Primrose’s forty companions are in various police stations, charged with vagrancy. Primrose says that his contingent has no connection whatever with Coxey’s idea, and that he does not believe in Coxey, but the evidence runs the other way.

The other law which Major Moore thinks he may be called on to enforce, provides that no person shall congregate on the public highways, nor around the Executive Mansion, the Capital, nor the other public buildings in Washington.

For several days the police force of the district has been put through the riot and baton drills and these drills will be continued through the month. The district militia has been very active since Coxey started, and has already had an emergency assemblage.

The Chief of Police commands the First Regiment of District Militia, and he appreciates the advantage of the training his soldiers to support his policeman.

Major Moore said tonight that he had not made any definite plans for receiving the Coxeyites.

“I will not make any,” he said, “until Coxey is within four or five days of Washington. Then I shall be able to estimate just what force will be necessary to care for his army. Undoubtedly, the police will have their hands full in any event, and particularly so if the army scatters throughout the city. I cannot say just what will be done, but we are fortunate in having ample authority of the law to arrest every man in the Coxey brigade, and I shall certainly endeavor to carry out my duty.”

Coxey's Army, 1894--school children watching the procession Ray Stannard Baker https://www.loc.gov/item/93508608/
Coxey’s Army, 1894–School children watching the procession
From the Ray Stannard Baker Collection at the Library of Congress.

See also Bad Lookout for Coxey’s Army, The Chicago Post, April 9, 1894:

The same charge may be brought against General Coxey if disaster does not overtake the army of the commonweal before it completes its march. The vagrancy act may be brought into application against his followers, and besides there are two other laws which it is the avowed and advertised purpose of the Coxeyites to break. One is the act of Congress regulating the use of the Capitol grounds, which forbids any gathering, demonstration, or parade, the making of any oration, or use of threatening language, the display of any banner or device to attract attention. The other is a local law which forbids men to congregate on the steps of any public or private building. It rest within the discretion of the Vice-President and Speaker of the House to suspend the Capitol regulations for any proper purpose, and perhaps Coxey’s agents will apply to them for permission to carry out their program…

…The details of the police movement against Coxey are kept a secret. No doubt he will be met at the District limits, and if the numbers of his army are too great for the police to cope with the local militia will be called to their aid. What to do with the army when it arrives and is taken into custody, if it should be, is a difficult question, because the jails and station houses of Washington will not accommodate such a crowd. To merely repulse the men and forbid them to enter the District would be to turn them loose on the suburban residents of Virginia and Maryland, and this is an aspect of the matter which gives rise to much uneasiness here…

In addition, see Coxey’s Rocky Road, from The Chicago Tribune, Monday, April 9, 1894.

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