Voltairine de Cleyre, “Pennsylvania Conventions and Ohio Workers” (1888)

Pennsylvania Conventions and Ohio Workers

After a long, tiresome jolt over that paragon of bad roads, the L. S. & M. S., your correspondent arrived at Girard station on the forenoon of the 24th of January. The day was cold, the station-house was cold, the baggage-master was cold, very cold, as I asked him, in my most persuasiv accents, when the Erie and Pittsburgh train left for Louisville. “Five hours, miss,” and he wiped the young and budding icicles from his mustache. Five hours! and only one weary, forlorn passenger with which to while away the time. It looked dubious, but, in sheer desperation, I determined to “face the music,” and, marching boldly up to the lady—thanking my stars she was a lady, as I could discuss draperies and plaitings, on a pinch, rather better than the latest Prince Albert style or toothpick-toed pumps—and disclosing my destination, inquired if I was to hav the pleasure of her company during “the wait.” She lifted a pair of glorious brown eyes to mine and said, with a smile, that she was going down to report the Linesville Paine celebration. “Aha!” said I to myself, “I’m in luck; I’ll get on the right side of the reporter.” A few moment’s conversation brought out the fact that my new friend was as radical a Liberalist as the country afforded, and as there is always much pleasure in the commerce of kindred ideas, the five hours were passed away most agreeably. At Linesville we were met by our good Liberal friend, Mr. E. B. Brooks, who escorted us to the Arnold House, and bade me be ready to greet the audience as soon as possible, since neither of the other speakers had yet arrived.

The evening’s address was “Secular Education;” as it has already been printed in The Truth Seeker, I need not outline its argument. The audience was as fine an assemblage of intelligent men and women as one often meets, and, perhaps I might add, as sympathetic. Many of them came and shook hands with me, as evidence, I presume, that they held no ill-will against me for punishing them so ruthlessly in the infliction of the address.

The following morning our gifted and merry logician, Charles Watts, arrived, at it was a fine address which the Linesville Liberals heard that morning—finely delivered, and finely received.

The afternoon train brought the delinquent Mr. Darrow, together with Dewitt T. Root, the wide-awake president of the Farmdale Secular Union. Our company had now its full complement, and many were the bright flashes of wit, the scorings of repartee, the quaint stories, the real, earnest thoughts and sentiments exchanged during the remainder of our stay.

Mr. Darrow’s lection on “The Industrial Problem” was unique, and as pleasing as it was unexpected. As an orator Mr. Darrow is at first disappointing; he appears strange, diffident, and slightly awkward, but as he warms to his subject, as ideas begin to glow, and daring thoughts gleam across the dome of the mental firmament like meteors, his strangeness becomes almost grandeur, his diffidence melts into a masterful ease, and as the inexorable logic of facts, the mournful eloquence of pitiful lives, grows up and out of the dark statistics of the crimes and sufferings of poverty, his former lack of grace is lost, his very personality seems sunk into the immeasurable profundity, the limitless hight, of the idea of economic liberty he advocates; he ceases to be a man; he becomes a principle.

The lecture met with the unqualified approval of a large audience. Mr. Watts supplemented the discourse by a few well-timed remarks, calling the attention of his listeners to that higher question upon which the settlement of the industrial problem hinges—namely, the necessity of ridding the world of a divine monopolist before the competiv system on earth can giv place to a better state.

The following morning the same speakers entertained an attentiv audience by a clear and comprehensiv review of the “Evidences of Christianity.”

A short intermission was followed by some witty remarks from Mr. Root, which put the audience in good humor with themselvs, and in a mood to listen to the Paine oration, delivered by your humble servant. Its reception proved that there are many true and noble men and women in the Linesville League who revere and honor that generous man who said, “The world is my country, to do good my religion.”

The evening lecture, on “Materialism and Spiritualism,” given by Mr. Watts, was marked, as usual, by a strong logic, elegant periods, and powerful elocution. The festivities were concluded with a ball, much enjoyed by the young people of Linesville; and the general opinion was that this was one of the pleasantest reunions ever held by the League. Five dollars and fifty cents was donated to the Campaign Fund of the national Union, and the subscription list to Secular Thought added several names from Linesville and vicinity.

The following morning we bade our generous friends good-bye and separated, on various missions bent. Mine was to clamber aboard the Erie and Pittsburgh train and for more than five weary hours want fleeting skies and clouds and rock and mining villages, and streams glassed over with Winter’s congealing breath, and winding railroads along which a fiery snake now and then dragged its hissing length. Notwithstanding all this jumbled in upon the sight, and a corresponding jumble of ideas in my brain, there was on very well-determined wonderment, withal, which stood out sharply defined against the horizon of my mental vision. This wonderment assumed gigantic proportions as I approached the city of iron and steel and beheld the grimed and sooted chimneys of monster furnaces standing out like swarthy Vulcans before a giant forge. This wonderment was not poetical, nor profoundly logical, nor was it in regard to anything I hav heretofore mentioned very relevant; but, considering the fact that I had eaten nothing since the evening previous, and God never sheds manna upon the unbeliever, it was nevertheless important. I was hungry, and I wondered whether Pittsburgh people ate dinner in the middle of the afternoon. This thought was in my mind as I stepped upon the platform at the Union depot, and looked anxiously about for a tall gentleman with a plug hat and long whiskers whom I had last seen at the Chicago Congress. Alas! there were plenty of tall gentlemen, but either the hat or the whiskers, or both, were missing, and the tide of humanity continued to surge around and past me as the swirl of waters on our lakes breaks, and parts, and rushes past a sand-bar on an island.

I consulted a hackman, and, having made my bargain with him before starting, settled down among my valises with an unswerving resolution to storm the fates if need be, but that I would find the fort of liberty garrisoned by the Pittsburgh Secular Union.

Regarding the Paine celebration I need say nothing, as Mr. Barker has already described it better than I am able to do; but of the Pittsburgh Secular Union let me say that I never met a nobler or more generous band of earnest men and women, devoting themselvs with the high enthusiasm of a glorious purpose to that end for which we all are struggling: the complete emancipation of mankind from mental slavery. Persecuted by the remorseless bigotry of Presbyterianism from its very birth, maligned by a subsidized press, misrepresented, misconstrued, misunderstood, it has, with a dauntless courage born of its very sense of right, born of the indomitable desire to overthrow the tyranny of church and state union, born of its glowing, daring, irresistible principle of liberty that will not down, fought the hard battle with a faithfulness that should put to blush those pusillanimous Liberals, of which “the woods are full,” who for the fawning flatteries of society eschew their principles, and kiss the popish toe of Solomon’s amour! Not one coward in their ranks! Every gunner stands to his piece, every bayonet flashes back the burnished glory of the sun of Freethought, every soldier stands ready to defend his fort, and high over all floats the fair banner of the free—the flag of truth—not one spot upon its folds, that stream out on the breeze so purely. And there may they gleam forever, kissed by the stars and bathed in the sunshine!

During the week following the Paine celebration I visited the Alleghany penitentiary, where 690 men were wearing prison stripes and working at prison tasks. We were shown through the various departments, the clock-work regularity and oppressiv stillness of the place reminding me strongly of the long, tedious years I myself once spent in worse than prison walls. Many of the inmates were engaged in picking oakum, cleaning it, and weaving it into mats; others in tending to the culinary department, and others still watching the huge engins. On visiting the library I glanced through the catalog of books, and though the list was in some departments excellent, I failed to find any of the advanced works upon new lines of thought. No Darwins, Spencers, or Ingersolls, but plenty of Christs, Gods, and Bibles. The institution is well provided with church accommodations, as there are two chapels, one Presbyterian, the other Catholic. On inquiring if attendance was compulsory, the keeper informed me that it was not, and added nonchalantly, “This chapel [Catholic] is always crowded; you know those who fill these institutions are mostly Catholics”—a remark which I did not fail to utilize in my Sunday lecture on “Convent Life Unveiled.” A packed house greeted me, it being the largest meeting the Secular Society has had in three years. Numbers of “good Catholics” were sitting in the best seats, and, with a sovereign contempt for good manners, would hav allowed our Secular ladies to stand, had not the real gentlemen of the society practiced a virtue of courtesy—one on which Christianity was supposed to hav a patent-right, but which evidently ran out some time ago. These minions of the pope were not overly pleased, I fancy, with the discourse; in fact, it was not delivered with that intention, and, to be honest, if it really hurt their pious beliefs in the virtues of mummeries, if it really shocked them to see the veil of Catholic hypocrisy torn asunder, I am heartily glad of it, and the more they curse me the better I shall be pleased.

After the lecture a donation of $35 was collected for the benefit of the American Secular Union fund—a substantial indorsement of the present administration and plan of campaign.

There are many interesting features about Pittsburgh, and the lover of mechanics, the dreamer in machineries, whose thoughts revolve like wheels, whose ideas crystallize in iron, will find his ideal world here among its magnificent mills, where a thousand furnaces lick up the gleaming ore with white, hot mouths. Here on may see the glowing stream of gold-red metal dripping over the furnace lips, as if from off its panting lungs has risen a scalding hemorrhage. There one ma watch a hissing, glittering ball, which burns upon the retina like rolled-up sheets of imprisoned lightning, borne on a little truck, spitting and fuming as it goes, toward a huge, revolving coffee-mill; once within its jaws there is a rushing, crunching sound, a crash, a slight explosion which sends up a whirl of molten stars, and then a huge red bar come out and is borne away by a band of men who move with the precision of the very machinery itself. Magnificent men they are to look at—magnificent giants! There stands the master of the furnace, peering with keen eyes down the flaming throat, where the seething metal writhes and quivers in its pain. The glare of its glowing glory strikes up and over him; no tableau fire was ever half so brilliant, and the figure, clad in its rough work-clothes, seems vested with the majesty of self-conscious power at rest, force in repose. Ossian, painting the battle of Fingal and the ghost, might so hav imagined the genius of the storm. A study for Michael Angelo is the master furnace-man!

There are saws with teeth that go singing through the hot metal slabs, and saws without teeth which, whirling at the rate of three hundred and twenty revolution per minute, close down upon the cold, rolled iron, and by the terrific friction raise the spot beneath the saw to such a degree of heat that it withers and curls like a piece of tissue-paper on the grate; a fine, gleaning iron worm creeps down across the path of the toothless saw, while iron sparks shoot out in all directions. It is an iron place; a village of iron giants, with iron muscles and iron nerves. Each workman is as much a machine as far as precision and unvarying routine go as the machines themselvs; each man is an iron man; and over all, and above all, and through all rings the grand, deep iron music, like waves of a molten sea striking on an iron-bound shore.

The glass-works also form an attraction to the curious sightseer. The “aristocracy of muscle,” of which Mr. Van Buren Denslow recently wrote in language as sparkling and scintillating as the great glass bubbles themselvs (and, I may say in an aside, presenting arguments about as fragil), is indeed well represented, but the thing which struck me most forcibly was the immense number of little children, boys under ten years of age, working as hard and faithfully as the blowers themselvs. So deeply was I impressed with the appearance of these white-faced, dirt-begrimed mites that I was moved to inquire where the education law of the state of Pennsylvania was keeping itself. They informed me that it was on the state-books at Harrisburg. A good, safe place, by the way, where it is not liable to be disturbed.

I must not, in this description, omit our visit to old Fort Du Quesne. I was quite anxious to see the spot which had so tried my memory and patience, when, several years ago, I was, with the ardent fervor born of fear of the ferule, committing to memory the exploits of the late lamented George. As my friend Mr. Barker (to whose kind escort I comment all curiosity-eaten sojourners in the smokeless city) was casting about to find which specially muddy alleyway would be most likely to reach the desired locality, a wee, small voice out of a wee, small lad at his feet piped out. “Did you want to see the old fort, mister?” Special providence, you see—“and a little child shall lead them.” But, oh, by what dark and devious ways did he conduct us to that monument of a century gone! And what a strange monument it is, half buried in Monongahela mud and smoke, its eight stone faces almost hidden by surrounding buildings, its solid oaken beams pierced here and there by long, narrow portholes, suggesting the eye-sockets in a skull! En effet, it is at once a monument and a corpse; a monument to the heroes who defended it, a corpse of an old idea. Talk about evolution, even in deadly things; and if those old doors were lips that could speak, and those sightless windows eyes that could see, oh, how many a solemn thing could the old fort tell of the progress of destruction since first it stood there in the lonely Alleghany forests, and listened to the low lapping of the waters as they met, and kissed, and swept down past the Ohio banks!

Having explored to our satisfaction, we were about to resume our pilgrimage, when the guileless infant with the powerful voice again made himself heard: “Giv me a cent, mister, for showing you?” This youngster is doing well; his charges are not exorbitant at present, but when he has added a few more years’ experience to his somewhat limited stock, and read the popular guide-books, etc., I am sure he will develop into a full-fledged “Ferguson.” Everything in this part of the city is Du Quesne something. There is Du Quesne Way and Du Quesne Works—I am not sure but there is Du Quesne whisky—and, finally, Du Quesne Heights, up which you are whirled by the Du Quesne Incline Company’s cars, six cents per whirl. From this point, it is said, we may on a clear day count thirteen bridges spanning the Alleghany and Monongahela; and talking about bridges reminds me that this magnificent suspension affair, almost beneath your very feet, not content with taking two cents toll from every man, woman, and child who passes over it six days in a week, also exacts the same on Sunday; yet a poor woman in the city, having been prevailed upon to sell a glass of soda-water or some other similar drink to a representativ of Presbyterian piety bent on enforcing the Sunday laws, who worked upon her sympathies by representing himself to be ill and in need of it, was arrested, tried, and heavily fined. The bridge is a rich corporation; the woman was trying to get her living. I hope you perceive the eternal fitness of Christian justice! Yet it is said Christ stole ears of corn on the Sabbath day!

From this point of observation one may also glance down the Ohio, and see there, resting in its arms, Bruno’s island, so called in honor of Felix R. Bruno, author of the God-in-the-Constitution scheme. It may be an honor to Bruno, but the compliment to the island is very doubtful. It were better to be named after that other Bruno, martyred by the church because he advocated the use of school-books. Farther away up the distant hights one may catch a glimpse of the Alleghany observatory, half hidden by intervening buildings. The two cities lie spread out like a map before you, and but for the black vomit of the river traffic rolling over and obscuring the nearer view, every object stands out sharply defined against the sunlight and the blue wall of the sky—a wonderful cyclorama, built up by the western glory. After all, one cannot wonder at the enthusiasm of these Pittsburgh Secularists; they see so much man-made slavery before their eyes, but nature molded all so gloriously free!

A large house was in attendance at the lecture on the “Rights of Labor,” and an animated discussion on the merits of the ballot followed the discourse.

During the following week I spent several days with the Farmdale Liberalilsts, giving three lectures on “Secular Education,” “Convent Life,” and one on a subject chosen by the audience. Happily, they selected one which I delight to handle—“Woman’s Suffrages.” I think the Christian people of that village, if there were any present must hav had their reverence for Paul and Solomon terribly shocked. I only wish my Teutonian friend, J. G. Hertwig, might hav been there to lead the reply; as it was, that task devolved on Mr. Peter Bethune, who took issue with the speaker on the statement that women were people. Peter assumed that people, being a collectiv noun, could not properly be applied to either men or women distinctivly. It reminded me of a certain occasion when I gravely remarked to my mother that “young Speckle wasn’t a chicken; he was a rooster.”

The Farmdale League is brisk and means business; no room for laziness in their ranks, and President Root is making it a decidedly aggressiv movement. Two dollars and fifty cents was donated to the American Secular Union fund.

From Farmdale I returned to Pittsburgh, to participate in the social given by the society on Sunday, February 19th. Music, recitations, and short speeches were the order of the day, and a very pleasant shake-hands all around at the conclusion of the exercises.

On Wednesday afternoon I bade adieu to my good friends, Messrs. Staley, Pierce, Barker, Hoover, D’Jones, ex-president of the League, now of Cleveland, Ohio, and all the other brave, tried hearts whose names are indelibly engraved on memory’s tablets, and “spreading out my white wings,” set sail for Alliance.

In this lively little place of some six thousand inhabitants there is a very large Liberal element, but owing to divers causes it has heretofore remained unorganized. The morning lecture on “Orthodoxy and Freethought” was devoted chiefly to rousing a sentiment in that direction, and, from the disposition manifested, the writer has reason to hope that her efforts were not in vain; and that through the energy of the three Messrs. Smith, G. W. Thornburg, Messrs. Rockhill, Haynes and other Liberal Spiritualists and Agnostics, an auxiliary local Union will soon be fairly in working order.

Notwithstanding the fearful weather a very large audience came out in the evening to hear how we lived in convents, and my thanks are especially due them for the respectful attention given to the entire discourse; but the prettiest compliment of all was paid by Miss Flossie Smith, the six-year-old daughter of D. W. Smith, who said to her mamma, “I liked it because she said more words that I knew.”

“Here endeth the lesson.” Five pleasant weeks! made pleasant by the companionship of genial minds, and broad Liberal hearts, and brave, true, many and womanly hand—hands the memory of whose touch sends a thrill of gratitude through my being, and calls up the echo of voices which breathed strong, courageous, inspiring words into each fiber of my inner self. It is all past now. I am returned to “Michigan, my Michigan.” No more blue, dim hights down which the cloud tears tremble and rip and fall in hard, gleaning crystals; where the sobbings of the rocks are hushed in frozen music; where hill rises over hill in its mad, steep staircase to the stars, and the sun flashes down its cohorts of golden lancers through the jutting teeth, the cavernous hollows, the darting ravines, of the wild Alleghenies. Here, in our broad, fair, level fields of southern Michigan, hemmed in by the sweet-toned thunder of our deep lakes alone, we lose the grandeur of the mountains. But one sublimer peak which caps them all stands out as clear and bright to us and as fair—the hight of science, over whose majestic brow is bursting the glory of the new day, when all shall be truth seekers, when none shall walk blindfold, and knowledge be the savior of mankind. Adieu!

Voltairine de Cleyre.

Voltairine de Cleyre, “Pennsylvania Conventions and Ohio Workers,” The Truth Seeker 15 no. 12 (March 24, 1888): 179-180.

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Independent scholar, translator and archivist.