Apr/May 2012 Nonfiction

Jeremiad (Mill Girls of 1912)

by Stanley Jenkins

That's the Rebel Girl, That's the Rebel Girl.
To the working class, she's a precious pearl.
She brings Courage, Pride and Joy
To the fighting Rebel Boy.

       —Joe Hill, "Rebel Girl," 1915

I dream the women of Lawrence, marching arm in arm, beneath the Stars and Stripes, singing Joe Hill songs just like everything is jake. 1912. Massachusetts. Wobblies. One Big Union. I dream the mill girls of Lawrence, mothers and daughters that someone loved and needed, marching the picket lines, joyous, triumphant, free. Strike! Strike! Damn fat cats—damn Billy Wood and his ilk—want to cut wages by 32 cents a week in the textile mills in Lawrence in 1912. Something about the tariff. Something about the 54-hour work week. "Short pay! Short pay!" Four loaves of bread.

That's what 32 cents bought you in Lawrence, Massachusetts, in 1912, when they walked out of the mills and said, "I just ain't going to take it no more"; when they said, "My baby needs milk"; when they decided that this time it was going to matter—yessir—this one's for all the pretty girls with missing fingers; this one's for all the beatings at the hands of men you love who have been brought to their knees like dogs—preach it!—this one's for every mill girl knocked up by a supervisor who does it because he can—O my sweet Jesus, he just can—this one's for every old-country family root ripped out in the long passage across the Atlantic—O the mothers! O the fathers!—because, well, you know, gotta get a job; this one's for every miscarriage and infant death by starvation in this the land of opportunity and Horatio Alger—every disappointment swallowed, every promise broken, every fucking lifelong humiliation as if your very birth were a curse. Yessir. This one's for you, they said. Women of Lawrence. 1912. The eyes of the world are upon you.

They walked out. They stood up. For two months and two days. Fucking immigrants. Kikes and wops and bohunks. They were Americans. And we've all but forgotten them in our republic of images.

And Jesus, didn't we want to stop them in 1912? We, Americans. Didn't we want to bring out the militia, the soldiers, the guns? Got a good thing going in this America. Got a bona fide middle class. We got farmers who can read. We got merchants and local shop owners. We got Main Street and elm trees. We got shareholders. In this proper America. But you ain't going to see that in Lawrence. And you ain't going to see that in no mining camp in Idaho.

Man, get with the program. It's 1912 and the niggers down south are in their place. Lynch law rules. Jim Crow surely done good after Reconstruction. Got it under control. We got new troubles now. It's a new day in America, children. 1912. We got the Catholics. We got the corporations. We got the immigrants. We got all that cheap labor that makes the world go round. And don't you forget, we're a world power, baby. Great White Fleet. It's an industrial revolution. You don't mess with success. You don't mess with Capital.

Oh, they built the ship Titanic to sail the ocean blue,
And they thought they had a ship that the water would never leak through,
But the Lord's almighty hand knew that ship would never stand.
It was sad when the great ship went down.

Oh, it was sad, so sad; it was sad, so sad;
It was sad when the great ship went down, to the bottom of the ...
Husbands and wives, little children lost their lives,
It was sad when that great ship went down.

Oh, they sailed away from England, and were almost to the shore,
When the rich refused to associate with the poor,
So they put them down below, where they were the first to go.
It was sad when the great ship went down.

Oh they built another ship they called, "Titanic II."
They were sure this time that the water would never leak through.
So they launched it with a cheer, and it sank right off the pier.
It was sad when the great ship went down.

       —William and Versey Smith, "The Titanic," 1927

And Big Bill Haywood. I dream that old son of a bitch, too, that old cowboy, old homesteader, miner, rabble rouser, labor agitator, head breaker—Wobbly—true American!—born in Salt Lake City, 1869. His daddy was a Pony Express rider, rode fast across an ancient landscape that did not acknowledge his presence even on moonlit nights when it was just him and the horse and all those cold stars like eyes that don't see you. You better believe it. Big Bill was the real thing, genuine article. Rootin' tootin' American from the Old Time West where fed up Mormons killed settlers in Mountain Meadows and blamed it on the Indians, and Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce said, "I will fight no more forever," after the soldiers caught him and his small band, before they could slip across the Canadian border to freedom in 1887. Manifest destiny.

Yessir. I dream Big Bill Haywood in 1912. He came to Lawrence. He came by train sometime after the mill bosses planted dynamite in tenements and tried to get the coppers to believe that it was the I.W.W.—Industrial Workers of the World—Wobblies—cuz everybody knows those bastards are dynamite crazy—sabotage!—ride the rails—ain't got no home—buncha vags—buncha layabouts—lying, thieving bastards wouldn't do a days work if you paid them—always going on about their rights and free speech and taking over the means of production for the ones that actually do the work—always blaspheming against Jesus, property, and apple pie—against everything that makes a manful man tear up when Old Glory passes in parade, and we sure as hell whipped those greasy Spaniards in Cuba in 1898—those monkeys in the Philippines—when our soldiers—our brave boys in blue—roamed the islands in 1899 and just fucking slaughtered them in numbers you wouldn't believe.

McKinley called for volunteers,
Then I got my gun,
First Spaniard I saw coming
I dropped my gun and run,
It was all about that Battleship of Maine.

At war with that great nation Spain,
When I get back to Spain I want to honor my name,
It was all about that Battleship of Maine.

Why are you running?
Are you afraid to die?
The reason that I'm running
Is because I cannot fly,
It was all about that Battleship of Maine.

When they were a-chasing me,
I fell down on my knees,
First thing I cast my eyes upon
Was a great big pot of peas,
It was all about that Battleship of Maine.

The peas they were greasy,
The meat it was fat,
The boys was fighting Spaniards
While I was fighting that,
It was all about that Battleship of Maine.

       —Traditional, "The Battleship of Maine"

Yessir. Big Bill came to Lawrence in 1912 to help organize because they arrested Giovannitti and Ettor—leaders of the strike—arrested them for murder when a girl got shot in some melee with the militia, even though they were both a mile a way and didn't have a damned thing to do with it. Conspiracy or some such hogwash. Inciting violence. I don't know. They just wanted to break the strike, wanted to cut it off at the head—the bosses and the shareholders and all those law and order types who got fat on the backs of labor, decent men like you and me and Big Bill Haywood...

Well, maybe not like Big Bill. Wasn't he a terrorist? Wasn't he some kind of Red? I mean, he was banging his sister-in-law when the cops nabbed him in 1906—I mean, he was actually in the act when they nabbed him—and took him back to Idaho under cover of night in a special train arranged for just this caper so it wouldn't have to stop at all and give the Wobblies a chance to spring him—cuz it wasn't exactly legal kidnapping him like that without an extradition hearing, but you just don't play nicey nice with terrorists, boys. You just don't.

Yeah, they arrested Big Bill in 1906 because ole Harry Orchard turned stool pigeon when he got nabbed for planting a bomb in the former governor of Idaho's mailbox. Blew the shit out of him, right there in front of his wife and daughter. Frank Steunenberg was his name. Guy who got offed for messing with the Western Federation of Miners. Yessir. Harry Orchard fingered Big Bill—said the order came down from the bosses of the WFM—so they took Big Bill back to Idaho and he was a hero to many. To the Other Half. Better believe it.

Clarence Darrow himself came out west and defended him in court in the Trial of the Century in 1906—and you're not going to believe this, but even got him off! Got him off, so Big Bill could get back out there and Organize, Organize—don't mourn, boys!—get in the game, torch up the night—lead the Children home to the Promised Land.

Did he do it? Did he do it? Did he order the hit on Governor Steunenberg in America at the turn of the century after Haymarket, after Homestead, after Pullman? Hell yeah, he did it. And plenty more.

I dream Big Bill Haywood with his one blind, milky-dead eye, towering over the people, singing slogans—talking bull—telling tales.

Long-haired preachers come out every night,
Try to tell you what's wrong and what's right;
But when asked how 'bout something to eat
They will answer in voices so sweet:
You will eat, bye and bye,
In that glorious land above the sky;
Work and pray, live on hay,
You'll get pie in the sky when you die
Workingmen of all countries, unite
Side by side we for freedom will fight
When the world and it's wealth we have gained
To the grafters we'll sing this refrain:
You will eat, bye and bye,
When you've learned how to cook and how to fry;
Chop some wood, 'twill do you good
Then you'll eat in the sweet bye and bye

       —Joe Hill, "The Preacher and the Slave," 1911

I dream the women of Lawrence. I dream the winter of 1912. Coldest winter in memory. I dream the fire hoses turned on the women without mink stoles and furs. Frigid water and your hair freezes. I dream the hunger and the want—the fact of mothers weighing the need to stand up, to claim their right to be here—because no one is going to hand it to you, sister—claim their worthiness of both bread and roses—O give me roses, give me roses—weigh it against the starving of the children, the waning and wasting of the children. It's grim, my fellow Americans. I'm telling you. It's grim. Every day they march the picket lines—can't arrest you for vagrancy if you are moving on, always moving on—and every day they face the bayonets of the militia. Local boys, farm boys, boys out on a lark, pressed into duty that is not clear or clean. They do not hate you so much as play the cards dealt.

"Hey baby, baby. Won't you make an appointment with me?"

"I'm sorry, dear sir, but I only date men."

The women, some of them young, smitten and in love. Defiant and alive. Pregnant in their shirtwaists. They are the backbone of the strike. They do not falter when their men crumple in weakness and rage. They stand up. The women of Lawrence. They pool resources. Peel donated potatoes for the great soup kitchens sustaining the strikers. Bake pizzas for the neighborhood. Bread for the people. I dream the women, their gut-level determination. Their sacrifice and their guilt. The tenderness. The giddiness. The fact of their children not having enough to eat.

If you all will shut your trap,
I will tell you 'bout a chap,
That was broke and up against it too, for fair;
He was not the kind to shirk,
He was looking hard for work,
But he heard the same old story everywhere:

Tramp, tramp, tramp, keep on a-tramping,
Nothing doing here for you;
If I catch you 'round again,
You will wear the ball and chain,
Keep on tramping, that's the best thing you can do.
Down the street he met a cop,
And the copper made him stop,
And he asked him, "When did you blow into town?
Come with me up to the judge,"
But the judge he said, "Oh fudge,
Bums that have no money needn't come around."
Finally came that happy day
When his life did pass away,
He was sure he'd go to heaven when he died,
When he reached the pearly gate,
Santa Peter, mean old skate,
Slammed the gate right in his face and loudly cried.

       —Joe Hill, "The Tramp," 1913

I dream the women of Lawrence. And the desperation. What to do about the children? Everyday, it's the same. They march the pickets, they take their shift. And then they come home and take their turn at caring for the babes. Neighborhood babes. Little ones. Wee ones. The babes... but they don't look like babes. Do they? The little ones. They look like tiny old men. Miniature old women. The mills take away your youth, your innocence. Make you old. The little ones. With eyes that seem to look right through you. Jesus gonna make up my dyin' bed. Jesus gonna make up my dyin' bed. And they are so hungry. Just ain't ever enough to eat. I don't care how many bowls of thin charity soup you get down at Franco-Belgian Hall. Hunger prowls like a wild beast. Hunger walks on two feet like a man. Lawlessness and bloodlust just a flashing eye away.

So the Wobblies. They figured they had a plan. Advertised in all the Socialist papers. All the Anarchist papers. Looking for good folks to take the kids the duration of the strike. Send them out of harm's way. And the response is overwhelming. Offers came from all over. The eyes of America are upon you, Lawrence.

The eyes are upon you, mothers of Lawrence, as you march your children to the train station. And it's breaking your hearts. And you are having second thoughts. And you are just sure that this ache is going to kill you. It hurts. It hurts. More than any bayonet or insolent bossman. To surrender your babes. To send them off to the care of strangers. One Big Union. We are all brothers. All sisters. We must be brave, mothers of Lawrence. We must be brave.

Aw jeeze. Not a dry eye at the station. Make a grown man turn his face. To see the courage of the mothers. The sacrifice of the mothers. One last hug. Clutch to the breast. And then gone. Gone. Onto trains bound to places where they can't hurt you now. They can't hurt you now. Boston! New York! O my children, you are going on a great adventure. Great Rock Candy Mountain. All you can eat and the streets are paved with butter. Soon. Soon...

And then the return from the station. The return to cold tenements. Tenements without the children. The women of Lawrence. The helplessness of your man. And the humiliation of having to witness it. A good man. A good man. Shouldn't be this way. O my sweet Mother of God. It just fucking hurts. Grim. Aw jeeze. Resolve. There are strikers to be fed. Scabs to be jeered. We shall overcome. We shall overcome. Our love is greater than your guns. It just is.

I dream the mothers of Lawrence.

Thus says the LORD:
"For three transgressions of Judah, and for four,
I will not turn away its punishment,
Because they have despised the law of the LORD,
And have not kept His commandments.
Their lies lead them astray,
Lies which their fathers followed.
But I will send a fire upon Judah,
And it shall devour the palaces of Jerusalem."

Thus says the LORD:
"For three transgressions of Israel, and for four,
I will not turn away its punishment,
Because they sell the righteous for silver,
And the poor for a pair of sandals.
They pant after the dust of the earth which is on the head of the poor,
And pervert the way of the humble.
A man and his father go in to the same girl,
To defile My holy name.
They lie down by every altar on clothes taken in pledge,
And drink the wine of the condemned in the house of their god."

       —Amos 2:4-8 (NKJV)

I dream the women of Lawrence and their outside agitators: foreign element, nosey, no-good Reds like Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, original Rebel Girl, blue-eyed Irish dazzler, the face of the strike—Lord, how that woman could talk—and didn't she look smart up there on a podium?—tiny compared to Big Bill, but with a heart the size of Texas, the size of the twentieth century, the size of America. She escorted the children of Lawrence on their great adventure. Took them to New York where they were greeted with cheers, with jeers. Led them on a march down Fifth Avenue, the little kiddies holding signs:

"A Little Child Shall Lead Them."

"They Asked for Bread, They Received Bayonets."

"We Never Forget."

Fifth Avenue is lined with cheering supporters, factory workers, sympathetic mothers, wealthy socialites with bad consciences and a grudge against father. With jeers. Fifth Avenue is lined with enraged capitalists and shop clerks just a paycheck away from poverty—meanness, millwork, screaming at the kiddies, spit flying. The battle lines are drawn. The fault lines are exposed. We are cracking up in America. We are coming apart. And the eyes of the world are upon us.

And Margaret Sanger, rebel of the female body, author of "What every Girl Should Know," scourge of that old puritan Anthony Comstock, is there too—New York City—working as a nurse, examining the children when they arrive at the station. And what does she see? And what does she find? There is malnutrition in our America—there is rickets. Premature aging. A little girl with a bald spot from when her hair was caught in the works and her scalp ripped off and they rushed her to the hospital and were able to sew it back on so she would live, but would never be pretty again, never let down her hair again, never flip her hair again, when alone among the mill girls after the men have all gone—without remembering. Home of the brave. The eyes of the world are upon you, Lawrence, and they see your children. They see what the industrial revolution does to children. Your wizened, starving children. And they hate you for it, Lawrence. They blame you for it, Lawrence.

As we go marching, marching, in the beauty of the day,
A million darkened kitchens, a thousand mill lofts gray,
Are touched with all the radiance that a sudden sun discloses,
For the people hear us singing: Bread and Roses! Bread and Roses!

As we go marching, marching, we battle too for men,
For they are women's children, and we mother them again.
Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; give us bread, but give us roses.

As we go marching, marching, we bring the greater days,
The rising of the women means the rising of the race.
No more the drudge and idler, ten that toil where one reposes,
But a sharing of life's glories: Bread and roses, bread and roses.

Our lives shall not be sweated from birth until life closes;
Hearts starve as well as bodies; bread and roses, bread and roses.

       —James Oppenheim, "Bread and Roses," 1911

The city fathers are enraged. The city fathers are appalled. The city fathers will not stand for this. Boosters of Lawrence. All this bad publicity. They are portraying our fair city as if it were Tsarist Russia. Our American city. Lawrence is a model city. City on a hill. This is just anarchist propaganda. The papers, the rags, sensationalist journalism! God damn Wobblies must be stopped. The eyes of the world are upon us. The eyes of the world are upon us.

And Mayor Scanlan. He's up against it, too. You know how much it is costing the city of Lawrence to have the militia here? Who do you think has to pay for that? And the cops—well, the papers are just reaming them. Suggesting they can't cut it. Suggesting that the cops are hiding behind the militia. Something's got to give. Something's got to give.

And the kiddies are sending letters home. Home from New York, home from Boston. Home from the diaspora. And the letters are finding their way into the papers. The kiddies are amazed to be free to play. Free to go to school. Free to go to bed with full stomachs. This isn't good. A regular PR nightmare. Makes it look like the mill owners of Lawrence are a pack of monsters, pack of misers, pack of fatcats grinding the children of Lawrence beneath the heel of the Almighty Dollar—unholy Mammon!—and for all practical purposes, this is Victorian America—this is Christian America—this is the birth of childhood—and advertising—this is still the time when Little Nell makes sense—things can't go on like this anymore. Something's got to give.

So when the Wobblies began to organize another exodus, the die was cast. Moods were grim. The cops had something to prove. They were not going to let those babes get on the train.

No. Not this time.

And I will show wonders in the heavens and in the earth:
Blood and fire and pillars of smoke.
The sun shall be turned into darkness,
And the moon into blood,
Before the coming of the great and awesome day of the LORD.

       —Joel 2:30-31 (NKJV)

I dream the women of Lawrence, clutching their children, parading down the street to the train station. I dream their men walking by their sides, determined, courageous, aggrieved. I dream the cops of Lawrence—they got their billy clubs, they got their guns, they got something to prove. The air is thick with steam and smoke from the train, from the locomotive—coal smoke from the mouth of the iron horse, iron dragon. O turn away! Turn away! But no, there is no turning away. You can smell the blood. I will not back down. I am an American. The women approach. They do not stop. A warning is given. Halt! Halt! They do not stop. Halt! Halt! They do not halt. And all hell breaks loose.

Clubs are swung. Arms. Necks. Heads are cracked. O women of Lawrence! Jack booted thugs. Pregnant women shoved hard and thrown to the ground. Punched. Slapped. Stomped. This will show them! Scum! Immigrants! All the rage of nearly two months released in a bloody spasm. All the rage. The screams! The screams! Children are snatched from loving arms and tossed into paddy wagons like sacks of potatoes. Women cling to their babes. Shelter them with their thin, cold bodies. Claws scratch at cop-eyes. Blood on the street. The men roaring and impotent. You can hear the billy clubs sucking wind. O America! O America!

And the eyes of the world are upon you.

It wasn't supposed to be this way. In the republic of images.

Now the only way to avoid this shipwreck, and to provide for our posterity, is to follow the counsel of Micah, to do justly, to love mercy, to walk humbly with our God. For this end, we must be knit together, in this work, as one man. We must entertain each other in brotherly affection. We must be willing to abridge ourselves of our superfluities, for the supply of other's necessities.... We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, "may the Lord make it like that of New England." For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world.... We shall shame the faces of many of God's worthy servants, and cause their prayers to be turned into curses upon us till we be consumed out of the good land whither we are going.

       —Gov. John Winthrop, "A Model of Christian Charity," 1630

O my America.

Hear this word that the LORD has spoken against you, O children of Israel, against the whole family which I brought up from the land of Egypt, saying:

You only have I known of all the families of the earth;
Therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities."
A lion has roared!
Who will not fear?
The Lord GOD has spoken!
Who can but prophesy?

       —Amos 3:1-2, 8 (NKJV)

I dream the women of Lawrence, and how they kept the peace that day. Love and Self-Control. The men wandered the streets for hours howling in rage and impotence. Shots were fired, but no one was killed. That day. Yeah. For all intents and purposes, they won the strike that day.

Newspaper men were there. Reporters. The eyes of the world. America was brought to her knees. We are not like this. This is not who we are. The mill owners caved. The strikers got their 32 cents and a little more. They stood up.

They just stood up.

I dream the women of Lawrence. They were Americans. I think I smell smoke.


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