Frequently Asked Questions
Who is the Howling Mob Society?
The Howling Mob Society is a Pittsburgh-based group of artists, activists, and amateur historians with a keen interest in the oft-buried radical history of the United States. We have been working for almost a year on researching and realizing this project: a series of ten historical markers illustrating the events of the Great Railroad Strike of 1877 as they unfolded in Pittsburgh, PA.
The origin of the term "howling mob" comes from an article in Harper's Weekly, which was published in the aftermath of the Railroad Strike on August 11, 1877. Illustrating a popular working-class insurrection as a terrifying nightmare (which, to the ruling class, it was), they wrote: "The sixth and seventh days of the revolution, July 21 and 22, were the darkest and bloodiest of all. The city of Pittsburgh was completely controlled by a howling mob, whose deeds of violence were written in fire and blood." Such overwrought language was commonplace in the media surrounding the events in their day.
Why focus on the Railroad Strike of 1877?
The Railroad Strike of 1877 was not a strike alone, and the title itself is less than accurate. Although the insurrection was rooted in the grievances of railroad workers in the Eastern United States, it was by no means limited to the railroad industry. This was not a clearly announced action or strike. It was not originally condoned by any union or political organization. The actions from railroad workers were met with immediate support from coal miners and other industrial workers who saw a clear distinction between themselves and the wealthy magnates they labored under. Workers struck in solidarity across trades, but these frustrations were not limited to the largely male workforce: railroad companies were carving up the land as well as the interior of major cities across the country. Often driving straight through the middle of major pedestrian areas, the railroad disrupted and endangered the lives of the women and children as well. Railroad companies were the first major corporations in America, and they operated largely above the law - the events of 1877 were a broad-based and spontaneous attack against the largest industrial monopolies of the time, and the wealth and power that they wielded.
It can not be ignored that in most cities where the events of 1877 spread, full-scale riots erupted, often resulting in injuries and deaths (the majority of these at the hands of law-enforcement officials and ad-hoc vigilante mobs in the employ of city governors). We are not suggesting the celebration of a riot so much as we are hoping to elaborate on the conditions which led to it, and to comment on the role private property plays in our capitalist society. Historians are largely reluctant to address the story of the Strike, since it is difficult to point to stated grievances, motivations, figureheads or leaders. Many accounts of the events end up harping on the property destruction that occurred, paying little attention to the conditions leading up to the strike or the desperation and exhilaration people must have felt as the situation unfolded.
Frustrated by the "official" accounts, and the lack of local understanding of a massive event which took hold of our hometown 130 years ago, we felt the need to tell the story again: this time, from the perspective of the working class people whose voices are rarely heard.
What happened after the Strike? Was it successful?
It is difficult to define success in terms of the events of 1877, since the "strike" itself was really more of a general uprising against a laundry list of modern ills. In many ways the insurrection was a significant milestone within the labor movement, particularly as it helped to illustrate the solidarity of workers which spanned industries and the power those workers could wield collectively.
In the aftermath, most of the major railroad lines rescinded the particular pay cuts which had sparked much of the striking activity in the spring and summer of 1877. The general consensus seemed to be that settling the specific wage disputes in the short run would at least insure that more property was not destroyed and lines continued to run as scheduled. Many workers who had been identified as having participated in property destruction were not hired back into the railroad. However, across the various rail companies it now became apparent that continued wage cuts would be impossible, as the collective fury of their workers would simply not allow a further slide into poverty. Socialist and Communist currents stirred louder in the Strike's aftermath. Many also saw the great lesson of 1877 as a need for formalized leadership within trade unions. Many major cities decided on the value of beefing up their local militias and fortifying their armories to deflect future uprisings. President Hayes went down on record for having been the first to use federal troops to quell a labor dispute.
Most of the area between Grant Street and 33rd in Pittsburgh was completely destroyed by fire. Within Pittsburgh, the insurrection largely burned itself out as rioters ran out of energy and targets, and looters took home most everything that could be carried off of the stopped trains. As the National Guard rolled into the city, they found that the riots had largely settled. A volunteer force of about 300 armed citizens, organized by the mayor, patrolled the city for the next week, but largely saw no action. Other wage strikes subsequently erupted in surrounding towns such as McKeesport and Braddock, where parading was largely successful in achieving settlements, and disturbances never reached the fever pitch of Pittsburgh.
Although Allegheny County eventually paid the Pennsylvania Railroad Company $1,400,000 plus interest for damages to their property during the strike, Thomas Scott himself, president of the PRR, was ruined. His venture of laying the new Texas Pacific rail line was dead, and he sold the PRR to John D. Rockefeller in October of 1877. He died four years later.
Why make historical markers?
We felt as though a series of public markers would go a long way towards telling the story of 1877, and providing that information in an accessible and public format. The "official" language of historical plaques and other forms of public display can often be curious and troubling, as the tendency is to oversimplify the situation at hand, or omit key details. It can be a tricky balance between telling as much of the story as you can and holding a viewer's attention. We hope that we have accomplished both.
How do these events from 1877 relate to our lives now?
As in 1877, the stories of many contemporary uprisings are often told by corporately owned media outlets whose role is to destabilize and marginalize challenges to power in this country (and others). In our research, we found that the mainstream newspapers of the time often reacted to the events then as they might now - blatantly dodging the root issues by focusing on the more sensational angles. Many mainstream newspaper accounts of the strike were predictably critical of the motivations behind these events, often relying on racist and xenophobic language to parlay blame from the wealthy corporations with a vested interest in these same publications. Looters were demonized as opportunistic criminals, the military was vilified, and careful language was used to obfuscate the true nature of the strikes and the state-sponsored violence that turned a rebellious gathering into a full scale riot.
How do I find out more about the Strike?
Accounts of these events which were published at that time are largely one-sided and critical of the motivations behind this popular rebellion - even though thousands of citizens in dozens of cities participated in them and/or supported them. Determining specific facts became difficult, and accounts vary from paper to paper. It is also important to note that these histories, as we find them, are rarely written by the people who participated in them - if they were, they were not published and archived. This goes a long way towards illustrating how we have come to know the events of 1877, as well as countless other struggles for social justice in this country's history. Most of the details as they have been remembered were set to print by the mainstream papers of the time, whose opinions were guided by the men who owned them - often invested in the same futures that the railroad owners were. Although there is some record of supportive press about the strike in the publications of the trade unions of the time, they are difficult to find and reference. Howard Bruce's book, "1877: Year of Violence" goes a long way towards piecing the story together from the available journals of the period. This book and others are listed in our bibliography. It should be noted that although the events of 1877 spread across the United States, our main focus is on how these events transpired in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where we are based. This is reflected somewhat in our bibliography.