Anarchist Who Shot Henry Clay Frick Was Aiming For Revolution

Jun 26, 2015

Most days, Henry Clay Frick liked to take a late lunch with friends at the Duquesne Club, just a short distance from his Fifth Avenue office at the Chronicle-Telegraph building. He’d just returned to his desk on Saturday, July 23 1892, when anarchist Alexander Berkman, wearing a brand new black suit, pushed the door open.  

“Berkman rushed in, drew a .38 caliber revolver, and fired two quick shots right at Frick, point blank,” said Andy Masich, president of the Heinz History Center.

The first shot hit Frick in the shoulder, the second in the neck. As Frick’s associates wrestled Berkman to the ground, he fired a third time, hitting the ceiling. Berkman reached for the dagger in his pocket and struck at Frick’s legs. That dagger remains on display at the museum.

Despite what the press said, Berkman’s attempted assassination of Frick wasn’t random or crazed. He believed he was furthering the cause of the striking Homestead workers, said Kenyon Zimmer, assistant professor of history at University of Texas Arlington and author of "Immigrants Against the State: Yiddish and Italian Anarchism In America."

“These audacious actions against representatives of the political and economic power structure were intended to both raise the revolutionary consciousness of workers, and right wrongs perpetrated against working people,” he said. “Which is very much what Berkman was attempting to do when he tried to kill Frick.”  

Berkman and other radically inclined immigrants were, in part, a product of the United States’ rapid transformation from an agrarian to an industrial economy, said Zimmer.   

“Most became anarchists in the United States when they came face to face with American industrial capitalism, with living in largely urban slums and working 12- to 16-hour days,” he said.   

That new reality produced new schools of thought: socialism, anarchism. And unions.

The Battle of Homestead

The Pump House is the last remaining building of the Homestead Steel Works, located just beyond the Waterfront shopping center on the banks of the Monongahela River. In 1892 Homestead was the most technologically advanced mill in the world, said Charles McCollester, president of the Battle of Homestead Foundation. It contributed to Carnegie Steel Company’s then-unheard of annual profits of $4.5 million.

In June of that year, the Amalgamated Association of Iron and Steel Workers was in the midst of renegotiating the contract it won three years before. The union wanted to keep wages tied to production: The more metal they put on the floor, the more they earned.

“The workers felt that they had an ownership stake in it to a certain degree. They had built it, they had worked in it, they had made enormous profits for the company,” said McCollester.   

That an individual should share in the profits he helped create was an idea held by both the Homestead workers and Alexander Berkman. But Frick, CEO, believed even more profit could be squeezed from the mill if he stamped out the union. Andrew Carnegie gave him free rein.

“The bottom line was total managerial control,” said McCollester. “Frick was determined to bust any measure of union or worker voice in the production process.” 

Just 17 days before Berkman rushed into Frick’s office brandishing a revolver, Homestead residents battled the 300 Pinkerton agents Frick hired to take back the mill from the Amalgamated. The standoff began when Frick made a deeply reduced wage offer. The union refused and Frick locked out the entire labor force — 3,800 men.  To prevent him from re-opening the mill with scab labor, the workers stationed themselves inside.

“The workers at Homestead really believed in nonviolent concerted activity. If they all acted together and stayed together they could force negotiation,” said McCollester.  

In the pre-dawn hours of July 6, a tugboat towed two barges full of Pinkertons level with the mill. Scouts had raised the alarm and the men inside waited on high alert. No one knows who fired the first shot, but when Homestead worker Johnny Morris was shot and tumbled into the depths of the Pump House, the residents’ anger fueled a day-long battle. Nine workers and three agents were killed.

To Berkman, it looked like a revolution had begun. By killing Frick he believed he would help the workers win a decisive victory, said Zimmer.

“Very rarely do laws change unless people break the previous laws and compel that change,” he said. “And whether it’s through violence or civil disobedience law breaking is sort of an integral part of American democracy.”

But to the workers, the Battle of Homestead was a last resort. They believed they were protecting what was theirs by right: their jobs and their homes. Berkman’s violence was disavowed by the strikers, said McCollester.  

“I think they had more faith in an American dream of equality and of collective rights,” he said.

Berkman thought he was joining the union’s fight for the well-being of individuals. Neither succeeded. By mid-November, Berkman had begun serving 14 years in prison. Carnegie wrote to a friend: “Oh that Homestead blunder. But it’s fading as all events do.”

He was wrong. Anarchism faded, but the fight for organized labor was just beginning.

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