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Sunday, August 05, 2012

COXEY'S ARMY Pt. Two FIRST STEPS


I am glad I was not there on that Easter Sunday, March 26th, 1894, when what the press would call “Coxey’s Army” set out from Massillon, Ohio. It would have been depressing. It was raining and it was cold, and only 86 men showed up to begin a march which was intended to change the course of American democracy. On the plus side, they were joined by 42 reporters from various newspapers, just about one reporter for every two marchers. The press corps was further augmented by four Western Union telegraphers and two line men. At any time or place they could tap into a telegraph line, and begin sending urgent dispatches about the progress of the army. William Stead, from the magazine Review of Reviews, noted that “Never in the annals of insurrection has so small a company of soldiers been accompanied by such a phalanx of recording angels.” It would quickly develop that he was one of the more sympathetic angles.
"The road to the City of Emeralds is paved with yellow brick," said the Witch, "so you cannot miss it. When you get to Oz do not be afraid of him, but tell your story and ask him to help you. "
1900  L. Frank Baum  "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz"
History records that they were singing new words (written by Carl Browne) and set to the tune sung as Sherman’s Army burned its way across Georgia. “Hurrah, Hurrah, we’ll sing the jubilee, Hurrah, Hurrah, for the flag that makes you free, So we sing the chorus now, Wherever we may be, While we go marching to Congress.” But if they did sing,it was not for long. At least they waited until after noon for it to warm up before they even began their trek.
First there came a man on foot carrying an American flag, who the press dutifully identified as a “negro”, thus mocking Coxey’s determination to treat all races in his army with equal respect. He was followed by Carl Browne, mounted on a white stallion, and bedecked in his buckskin jacket and a huge western hat. Behind him came the financial supporter and ideological inspiration for the march, Jacob Coxey, ridding in a Pheaton buggy, drawn by a matched pair of magnificent white horses. And behind him came the “army”, all 86 of them on foot or bicycle. But who were “them” really?
Professor Hourwitch from the University of Chicago actually tried to find out. Later, when the marchers had grown in number and in fame, he polled 290 of them. Their average age was 31 years old and on average they had been unemployed for five months. Almost two thirds were skilled mechanics, but less than half of those were union members. There were 88 Democrats in the army, 39 Republicans and 10 who declared themselves to be members of the Populist party. One in four had needed charity to survive the winter just passed. The study also noted that five or six were of “questionable character”. 
"After a few hours the road began to be rough, and the walking grew so difficult...The farms were not nearly so well cared for here as they were farther back. There were fewer houses and fewer fruit trees, and the farther they went the more dismal and lonesome the country became." 
1900  L. Frank Baum  "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz"
The New York Times noted in their dispatch that by the end of the first day’s march of just eight miles, ending outside of Canton, Ohio, twenty-five men had “dropped out”. Another paper noted that of the “seventy-five stragglers” who had begun the march, several had spent the previous night in the local jail, and were released just before the march had begun. And calling the marchers “stragglers” was one of the kinder characterizations. Routinely they were identified as “bums”, or “tramps”. 
But four days before the march began the magazine “The Coming Nation” noted, “There is to be a presidential election this year; in view of which it may be well to remark-- That workingmen will not be taxed less under a Republican president than they have been under a Democrat. That there will be no more opportunities open to labor in the next four years than there have been in the past four…That there will be no more flour in the bin with a McKinley in the White House than there has been with a Cleveland….We admit that this is rather a gloomy forecast; but experience warrants it and events will justify it.” They certainly did.
What Coxey wanted from the Federal government was not charity. He wanted half a billion dollars to be spent on building and improving roads. We know today, as the beneficiaries of the interstate highway system, that the investment in infrastructure Coxey was promoting would improve the nation, would create new wealth by creating new opportunities for business and in the short run provide honest work for the unemployed. But the tired, old, plaintive ideological repetitions were heard just as loudly in 1894 as they are today - that surface roads built by the government were somehow less “moral” than the railroads, privately owned but each built and run as government endorsed monopolies, and usually funded by government backed bonds; that somehow the sweat expended building a government owned road was less moral than that produced building a privately owned railroad. One was moral, but the other was not, in the eyes of the wealthy, who, of course, owned and had invested in the current technology - the railroads.
Put in such stark black and white imperatives the argument may seem absurd to us today, and, in fact there are indications it seemed just as absurd to the citizens of 1894. But at issue was not what the average American thought, but what the bought and paid for politicians in Washington and the various state capitals were willing to publicly consider. For, much as they are today, the press and the politicians, to their mutual advantage, avoided any honest and open discussion of middle ground, preferring instead to debate positions that most people considered absurdest extremism. 
But the cause of the common man, championed by Coxey and Browne, was not helped by the men Browne had brought in to be his Marshals, the second tier leaders of the group. David McCullaum was an economic author who, under the no de plume of “One of the Dogs”, a supposed Cherokee Indian, had written a pamphlet entitled “Dogs and Fleas”. Mr. One also claimed to subsist only on oatmeal. Then there was Cyclone Kirtland, an astrologer who predicted the army would be “invisible in war, invincible in peace.” Beside him loomed Christopher Columbus Jones, who always wore a silk top hat, which merely accented his five foot tall frame. There was also the trumpeter named “Windy” Oliver. Together they all more closely resembled a circus side show than a political movement.
But the most disturbing of all them all was a man known only as “The Great Unknown”. It was not a name chosen at random, but self promoted. “The Great” was always followed about by a woman who always wore a veil and never spoke. But the catch was that Carl Browne knew who the Great Unknown was. He was an ex-circus barker and a current patent medicine “faker” named A.B.P. Bazarro. 
Before the march, The Great (and his wife) had concocted their “blood purifyer” in a makeshift lab and mass production line on the near West side of Chicago. In this earlier life, like a traveling infomercial, Bazarro had  made his living providing a show, featuring testimonials and a protracted sales pitch. And once the crowd was captured, and while they were resting their buying muscles, Browne would make his appearance and pitch his ideas of going off the gold and silver standards, and union organizing. Bazarro knew the monetary possibilities of mixing politics with a sales pitch. He was also the self elected “Great Wizardo” of the “American Patriots”, a self created political organization. But politics seems to have been, to “The Great Unknown”, much as it is to FOX News, just another marketing ploy.
Oh; and to make it easier for the newsmen, The Great Unknown let it be known that he would also answer to the name of “Smith”. So he became known as the Great Unknown Smith. The newspaper men might be forgiven then, for treating these desperate men as if they were members of a sideshow confidence game. Some of them had been, and recently.
Except. of course, that required that at the same time they belittle and dismiss the millions of their desperate fellow citizens whose plight the march was trying to publicize.The crime was that the news media of 1894, like the media of today, were perfectly willing to ignore the drama, and instead portray the march as a joke.
"Am I really wonderful?" asked the Scarecrow. 
"You are unusual," replied Glinda"
1900  L. Frank Baum "The Wonderful Wizard of Oz"
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