Eugene V. (Eugene Victor) Debs.

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question of amnesty for political prisoners in the
United States, and we talked at some length upon
that subject.

The casual visitors who came to Atlanta Prison
to see the institution itself almost never failed to
ask the guards to permit them to see me. Many
of them must have thought I was some sort of
curiosity, and I was told that not infrequently
guards and even trusties were offered small
sums of money by these prison tourists if they
would point me out to them. In almost every
case they were disappointed, for my quarters
were in the hospital to which visitors were not
usually admitted.

One of the rules of the prison forbids a con-
vict from addressing himself to a person from
the outside unless he is specially permitted so
to do. One day I was ordered to go to the war-


den's office, and as I passed through the maiD
corridor an Atlanta friend saw me and got np
to greet me. I extended my hand to him, when
suddenly a guard screamed at the person, seized
him roughly and threatened to eject him from the
prison. By the same token, I had also violated
a solemn rule, hut no punishment was inflicted
for the infraction.


My 1920 Campaign for President.

It may or may not, according to the point of
view, be an enviable distinction to be nominated
for the high office of President of the United
States while in the garb of a felon and serving a
term as such in one of its penitentiaries.

I am reminded of an editorial paragraph ap-
pearing in one of the eastern dailies at the time
of my imprisonment at Moundsville which read
something like this : * ^ Debs started for the White
House, but he only got as far as the federal
prison''. I was not the least perturbed by this
comment for I knew in advance that my course
led, not to the presidential mansion, but through
the prison gates. I had already been the candidate
of the socialist party in four previous campaigns
for President— 1900, 1904, 1908 and 1912.

Having had almost a million votes cast for me
in the latter campaign and as many more that
were not counted, and feeling that I had been
more than sufficiently honored, I concluded not
to be a presidential candidate again, and in the
national political contest of 1916 I did not per-
mit the use of my name in the nominations.
However, in the congressional convention of nay
district (the fifth Indiana), which followed a lit-


tie later, dnring my absence on a speaking tour,
I was nnanimoiisly chosen as the candidate for
Congress and stood as the nominee in that cam-
paign, my supporters refusing to permit me to
withdraw my name from the ticket.

When the time came for making the nomina-
tions for President in 1920 I was serving my
sentence in Atlanta prison, and in response to
urgent solicitations from the membership at first
positively declined to be considered a candidate.
Later, however, when I was assured that the
nomination would be made irrespective of my
views in the matter, and that it would be unani-
mous, I yielded to the wishes of the delegates.
The nomination followed and, as predicted, was
made by acclamation in the convention held in
New York City.

During the year previous to the convention
many of the party papers carried the slogan,
^^From the Prison to the White House '^ and I
was told by many of my visitors and correspon-
dents that I would be the choice of the rank and
file of the party for President. This was an
honor which I had never sought; in fact, I had
my own personal reasons for not wishing to be
the standard bearer, reasons which dated back to
the time when I was a member of the Indiana
legislature. I made a resolution to myself that
I would never again be a candidate for a public
office, preferring to devote my energies to tasks
immediately identified with the industrial side of


the labor movement The party to which I gave
allegiance chose otherwise, thus setting aside my
personal wishes.

Men had been nominated for President who
were bom in log cabins to testify to their lowly
origin, but never before had such a nomination
been conferred upon an imprisoned convict. It
was indeed an unprecedented distinction which
had been bestowed upon me, and the reader may
place his own interpretation upon its significance.

Next in order was the visit to the prison of the
committee on notification, the department at
Washington having granted the necessary per-
mission for such a committee to call upon me.
In due time the committee arrived, consisting of
both men and women, and the ceremony occurred
in the warden's office, Mr. Zerbst and other offi-
cials of the institution being interested spectators.

The nomination address was in the nature of
a most complimentary tribute to which I re-
sponded in an expression of my thanks and ap-
preciation. The occasion was altogether as im-
pressive as it was unique and created a lively in-
terest throughout the prison.

To have a presidential candidate in their midst
was a thing the nearly three thousand prisoners
had never experienced before and they seemed to
feel a thrill of pride as if they, too, shared in
whatever distinction was bestowed upon me,
] which indeed they did, for I can say in all sin-
cerity that there is among men in prison a fel-


low-feeling that in some respects is less selfish
and more refined and generous than that which
commonly prevails in the outer world.

The representatives of the press were in the
prison at the time of the notification ceremonies
and gave good accounts to their readers of the
very unusual proceedings at the prison. The film
photographers were also in eager evidence, as
is their wont, to pictorialize the event, and a few
days later the scenes were reproduced on screens
in thousands of motion picture theaters through-
out the country. The warden permitted me to
be escorted by the committee outside the prison
gates where informal conversations were held,
more pictures taken, and where a group of At-
lanta children presented me with a bouquet of
red roses caught at the stems by a splash of scar-
let ribbon. In this instance, as in a number of
others, Warden Zerbst exhibited toward me per-
sonally a friendliness for which I am grateful to

Never in all of my experience as a presidential
candidate had I been so deeply touched and so
profoundly impressed by the congratulations of
friends as I was by those I received that day and
in the days that followed from the inmates of
the Atlanta federal prison. The hands, black
and white, were extended to me from the cells
and from all directions, while faces beamed with
a warmth and sincerity that found expression
from eager lips.


The little speeches made by some of these poor
broken brothers of mine to whom no nomination
had ever come, save that issued by the judge who
pronounced their doom, voiced genuine pride and
joy in the honor which had come to me, evincing
a beautiful and generous human spirit that, in
spite of its hardening and degrading conditions,
the prison could not extinguish.

To be perfectly candid, I felt more highly hon-
ored by these manifestations of my fellow con-
victs, on account of their obvious unselfishness,
their spontaneous and generous enthusiasm, than
any congratulatory occasion I had ever before
experienced. Many were the convicts of the
various hues and shades of intelligence that made
up the prison population who actually believed
from the enthusiasm at the moment surrounded
them, augmented by the items appearing from
time to time in the daily press about me, that my
election was at least probable, and that with my in-
duction into the "White House a new era would
dawn for them and other prisoners confined in
penitentiaries and jails in the United States.

My fellow prisoners were not only much im-
pressed by the political delegations that came to
see me, but they followed closely the daily papers
seeking for items that might have some reference
to me. When these appeared they seemed to
have the effect of an affirmation of the simple
belief held by many of the prisoners that I was
due to be inaugurated President in the March


following the election. Not a few of the more
naive convicts came to look upon their liberty
as being restored to them, not when their sen-
tences would have been completed, but when I
should be placed in the executive mansion.

Among the colored prisoners it was current
that they were to share equally with the white
convicts in whatever beneficial change that was
to take place under my administration.

One of the popular comments heard in the
course of the prison campaign was that I was cer-
tain to sweep every precinct in the penitentiary,
and that neither Mr. Harding nor Mr. Cox, my
political adversaries, would receive a single
prison electoral vote.

It seems, and to my mind it certainly is, a
pathetic commentary upon our social life that a
faith so simple and child-like as was here mani-
fested should have been sealed and crowned by
a cruel and debasing prison sentence.

I was amused by the wit of a newspaper wag
who said at the beginning of the campaign that
Cox would make his speeches from the tail end
of a train, Harding would appeal for votes from
his front porch, while I would make my bid for
the support of the electorate from a front cell.
To this it was added that my political conferees
would have the advantage of knowing where I
stood, and that they would always find me in
when they wanted to confer with me.

I was certainly saved from one embarrassment


to which other presidential candidates are uni-
formly subjected ; I was not called upon to prom-
ise a postoffice to each of several candidates of
rival factions. Neither did the matter of a presi-
dential candidate's political expenses cause me
any annoyance, for under the rules of the prison
to which my campaign activities were confined, a
chap, even though a nominee for the highest
office, caught with so little as a dime in his
pockets is ruthlessly pounced upon by a guard
and the culprit haled before the prison magistrate
in the person of the deputy warden and punished
as if he had robbed a bank.

Not a penny is a prisoner permitted to have
in his possession, and I wondered about the con-
sternation there would be among my rival candi-
dates for office in the outer world if they were
deprived of the use of money at election time.

During the campaign the attorney general per-
mitted me to issue a weekly statement in limited
form discussing the political issues. I wrote
these statements in my room in the hospital, and
each week mailed them to my home in Terre
Haute where they were typed and sent to the
national office of the party in Chicago from
whence they were distributed to the press asso-
ciations and party newspapers. In this manner
the convict candidate's messages were given a
wide and ofttimes sympathetic readins:.

Strange as it may appear, I received but two
or three uncomplimentary letters during the en-


tire campaign. The mail of nearly every candi-
date for an important office is burdened during
his campaign with all sorts of insulting and
threatening letters. One of my correspondents
said that I should be shot, and the other wrote
that I was at last where I belonged, and he hoped
I would not leave there alive; he concluded with
the hope that the warden would have my naked
back lashed until it bled every day I was there.
This benevolent writer also advised me in the
same letter that he had written to the warden
to the same effect.

Of course all these mercifully-inspired epistles
were from anonymous writers who declared their
implacable hatred of all things un-American, and
vouchsafed their red-blooded loyalty to American

There was no attempt made at any time either
by the prison officials or the department at Wash-
ington to restrict my little campaign messages.
As the weeks lengthened into months I became
more than ever a curiosity to casual visitors to
the prison, and they employed every ruse and
subterfuge with the attaches to get a glimpse of
the man who had converted a federal iDcnitentiary
into his campaign headquarters.

Notwithstanding that I was clothed in the faded
and frayed garb of a felon, I felt aware of a cer-
tain dignity that my peculiar position as a candi-
date imposed, expressive as it was of a confidence
that remained unshaken in the face of all the de-


nial it had encountered. Certainly no candidate
could have been shown more respect or treated
with greater courtesy than was I by the prison
population and all others with whom I incidentally
came into contact.

Election night is vividly recalled as a pleasant
and interesting special occasion. Soon after the
supper hour I was sent for and received by the
deputy warden who conducted me to the warden's
office to hear the returns that were being received
by telephone and in the form of special mes-
sages. The warden and his wife were present as
were representatives of the press. The bulletins
came in rapidly and the table was soon covered
with these returns.

Early in the evening I conceded the election of
"Warren G. Harding and my own defeat, which
apparently excited no surprise among those in
the office and beyond the walls ; the only surprise,
if not chagrin, that was felt came from the prison
cells. An interesting question arose while we sat
there in the warden's office as to a pardon to
myself in the event of my election, and we all
found some mirth in debating it. I am sure the
question did not disturb my slumber in the nights
preceding this particular one.

We remained in the office of the warden until
the election of Harding was assured, when I once
more breathed a sigh of relief as a defeated
presidential candidate. I was not in the least
downcast that I had not been elected President


of the United States. In the next hour I was in
dreamland sailing the seven seas in quest of new
worlds to conquer.

The sincere regret expressed the following day
by my prison mates that I had not been trans-
ferred from Atlanta to Washington by the Ameri-
can people would have compensated me for any
disappointment I might have felt over the con-
duct of the campaign and its final results.


'A Chkistmas Eve Reception.

There are certain occasions in my prison ex-
perience that are vividly preserved as beautiful
pictures. One of these v^as the celebration of
Christmas Eve, 1920, in the basement of the
prison hospital.

Permission had been secured by the inmates of
the hospital from the officials to hold a Christmas
Eve communion and spread a banquet to which
the prisoners contributed the gifts that came
from their families and friends. So quietly had
all this been arranged, that I was in blissful
ignorance of it until I was escorted to the spa-
cious and brilliantly illuminated basement where
I beheld with astonishment and delight an ex-
tended table spread with a banquet of delicious
dishes that was equally tempting to the eye and

Every hospital inmate who had received any
gifts at all contributed them to the common lot.
The holly-stamped paper in which the gifts had
been wrapped was carefully preserved by the
prisoners, one of whom fashioned fancy doilies
out of it and spread them under each plate. The
myriad colored ribbons were used as part of the
festoons, and from somewhere flowers had been


obtained for decorating the table. Each prisoner
had brought his own little iron chair from his
room or the wards, and when they were all seated
they held consultation as to who should come to
my room, to escort me to the festive board.

Every prisoner wanted what he considered was
that honor, and since the dispute could be solved
in no other way they decided to hold nominations
and elect an escorting committee of two. It hap-
pened that an Irishman and a Chinese were
chosen. I was sitting in my own room when the
two convicts came to my door and told me that
I was wanted in the basement. The Irishman
tried his best to appear solemn, but the face of
the Mongolian beamed with anticipatory delight
over the surprise that he knew would be mine in
a few moments. Flanked on either side by my
fellow prisoners, I walked through the silent
corridors of the now deserted hospital, and down
the stairs to the basement, where for the first
time I realized the purpose of my being sum-
moned. In every eye there was an expression
of delight and kindness, and if I had never before
understood the meaning of human happiness and
the radiant heights to which it may ascend, I per-
ceived it that night before me in the faces of my
fellow prisoners who had in this loving and sim-
ple way translated the thought of *^good will
among men'^ into kindly deed.

The convict committee escorted me to the head
of the table where I was informed that I was


their guest of honor. Sometimes there come to
all of us feelings that sing in the heart and sigh
for expression when only our silence really reg-
isters the depth of our emotion and our moist
eyes suggest what the world could never reveal.
So I cannot tell you of the deep stirrings within
me as I looked down the lanes of that burdened
board and beheld in the countenances of those
convicts a joyous unselfishness that passes all
understanding in the outer world.

I am sure my eyes never rested upon a more
beautiful and inviting feast. If I had never be-
fore forgotten that I was enclosed in prison walls
it certainly did not occur to me during that ex-
traordinary evening that I was being held in

In all the more than three score years of my
life there had been but two Christmas eves that
I spent away from home. It had been an un-
written rule in our large family to gather under
the rooftree of the old home at Christmas time
and spend the holidays there. It was always the
occasion for a beautiful family reunion, the mem-
ory of which is treasured by me and will be ^* un-
til it empties its urn into forgetfulness.''

The first was in 1897 when I was filling a series
of speaking engagements in Iowa, and had the
detectives of the railroad companies at my heels ;
they followed me from point to point to assist
me in my work in the way peculiar to those func-
tionaries. This was due to my former activities


among railroad men, organizing them into the
American Eailway Union which had sponsored
the great strike of three years before, resulting,
so far as I personally was concerned, in my im-
prisonment in McHenry County Jail, Illinois, for
six months for disregarding an injunction issued
by a federal court which had held me in contempt.
Christmas eve, 1897, found me in Des Moines with-
out money to pay my railroad fare and that ac-
counts for my missing the celebration at home.
The second occasion of my absence was in 1919,
when I was in Atlanta federal prison.

I have mixed feelings as to the compensation
that was awarded me in 1920 for my inability
to be at my own fireside, but I am sure I shall
never forget the manner in which my fellow
prisoners exerted themselves at that prison ban-
quet for my surprise and happiness. The scene
presented aspects so unusual that I felt myself
not only highly honored, but there was a silent
and subtle appeal to my emotions that cannot be
expressed in words.

I had never before been the recipient of
such bounty, nor from such a source, nor more
graciously and tenderly offered. Each had con-
tributed his all for the enjoyment of all.

A noticeable incident that impressed me was
the insistence of the prisoners to serve at the
tables instead of being seated as guests. That
concrete and steel-barred prison basement was
a temple of spiritual fellowship in blessed re-


union that night. Seated around that hospitable
board we were brothers indeed, and I only wish
it had been possible for those who think of in-
mates of prison in terms of crime and degeneracy
to have looked upon that gathering of convicts
and then have been asked in what essential par-
ticular they were inferior to or different from
any similar number of human beings who were
celebrating, in stately edifices dedicated to his
name, the natal day of the Man who was born
in a stable.

It may be a fancy, but I somehow felt that
Jesus Christ was in prison that night.

Some weeks before Christmas a case contain-
ing 500 copies of a book entitled, ^^Debs and the
Poets'', was shipped to the prison. This book
was an anthology of verse and comment collected
by Euth LePrade and published by Upton Sin-
clair at Pasadena, California. It was the desire
of the author and publisher that I autograph the
books which were to be sold by them in the inter-
est of a fund being raised to continue the agita-
tion for general amnesty for political prisoners.
When the books arrived a copy was scrutinized
by Warden Zerbst who decided that the intro-
duction supplied by Upton Sinclair was not par-
ticularly complimentary to the prison idea, nor
was some of the poetry. Now, although prisons
have concrete hides to cover their guilt, like all
guilty creatures they are exceedingly sensitive
as to having that guilt exposed, so a copy of the


book in question was sent to Attorney General
Palmer who ruled there was nothing objection-
able in it, and that I might be permitted to auto-
graph the copies.

At that time David Karsner was in Atlanta as
the correspondent of a New York newspaper,
and he with Samuel M. Castleton, a local attor-
ney, who had been personally friendly to me
while I was in the prison there, asked the war-
den if I might be permitted to inscribe the books
Christmas Eve night. The request was granted
and the hour to begin was fixed at seven o'clock.
After the banquet in the prison hospital base-
ment was over I went to the clerk's office where
I found Karsner and Castleton awaiting my pres-
ence. With them was David H. Clark, an At-
lanta comrade, who, I learned later, had re-
signed his position in the post office that night
so that he might be able to join his friends in
the unusual visit with me. I recall remarking to
my friends that my batteries were all charged,
as indeed they were, for at the basement banquet
I had been called upon to deliver an address for
the occasion. I spoke over half an hour to my
fellow prisoners and I am sure I was never more
inspired to make an address than I was that
night. Several of the prisoners responded to my
remarks and I shall never forget the homely
eloquence that flowed from their honest hearts.

The books which I was to autograph were piled
on either side of me at the clerk's desk and the


work commenced. In the corridor outside a
dozen or more prisoners were assembling the
last of the Christmas packages for the convicts
and there was an atmosphere of fellowship that
pervaded the entire scene. From time to time
prisoners slipped in and out of the room where
I was at work to drop a kindly word, and my
friends from the outside world remarked upon
the amiable manner in which every convict con-
ducted himself. Later that evening it was sug-
gested by one of my visitors that maybe the
prisoners assorting Christmas boxes would like
to have a soft drink, so the matter was put up to
the chief clerk who was superintending the work,
and he agreed to it. Thereupon Karsner and
Clark went out of the prison and down to a little
store outside the gates where they purchased
two dozen bottles of ginger ale.

It happened that when they asked to be read-
mitted to the penitentiary Deputy Warden Greg-
ory was in the main corridor and he came to the
gate to inquire what was in the box that Karsner

He was told of its contents and that permit had
been secured to bring it in the prison for the men
who were at work over the Christmas gifts. The
deputy warden felt that he should have first been
consulted about the matter and he refused to
allow the refreshment given to the convicts. This
is but one indication of how senseless, and need-
lessly harsh, are prison rules. Later the deputy


attempted to explain in a somewliat apologetic
manner to Karsner that "who knows but that
those bottles might contain 'dope' and files '\

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Online LibraryEugene V. (Eugene Victor) DebsWalls and bars → online text (page 6 of 14)