One result of the railroad strike in Baltimore was the formation of a Workingmen’s party that spoke to the interests of working people and waged a fall electoral campaign challenging local politicians and businessmen. Meeting on July 30 in Rechabite Hall only eight days after the strike was quelled, workers from around the city unanimously adopted a resolution that began with this accusation: “The authorities of the United States have arrayed themselves on the side of capital against labor.”
At a subsequent meeting on August 6 at the Maryland Institute, those present adopted an 11-point platform that included most of the labor demands of the late nineteenth century: the eight-hour day, improving livinh and working conditions, and the abolition of child labor. It concluded with the radical demand that all industrial enterprises “be placed under the control of the government as fast as practicable, and operated by free-cooperative trades unions for the good of the whole people.
Leading spokesman for the Workingmen’s party and its candidate for mayor was Joseph Thompson, popularly known as the “Blacksmith of Old Towb.” A native Baltimorean, son of Irish immigrants, he and two of his brothers had formed the firm of Thompson Brothers on Centre Street to carry on the work of their father, a wheelwright and blacksmith.
Thompson had already achieved some prominence as one of the principal speakers at a labor meeting held by B & O railroad employees at Hollis Hall during the July strike. He was also recognized throughout the city as “a prominent champion of the working people,” in the words of the Sun papers, particularly known for his opposition to prison contract labor.
Nominated as candidate for mayor by acclamation at the Workingmen’s party meeting at Raine’s Hall on September 6, Thompson opposed the powerful and corrupt Democratic machine. In the previous mayoral election of 1875, bossism and corruption had caused some Democrats to ally with the Republicans under a banner of reform. Their candidate, Henry Warfield, had run a strong but unsuccessful campaign against the Democratic candidate, Ferdinand C. Latrobe.
Warfield was again a candidate in 1877. Mayor Latrobe, however, had angered some of the party bosses, and this time around the party chose George P. Kane as their mayoral candidate. The choice was a shrewd one because Kane had played a leading role in an earlier reform movement in 1860. In addition, he had become well respected as a police marshal.
Thompson proved himself a formidable opponent to both candidates. He spoke frequently in almost every ward in the city to large and enthusiastic crowds. A speech given on September 14 at Hiawatha Hall is typical:
The principlee upon which the workingmen’s party is based…are enduring and vital. They are opposed to all class distinctions or class legislation. Whatsoever tends to make the rich man richer and the poor man poorer is wrong, and must be, if possible, blocked in its action. Land grants to corporations, subsidies and favoritism to railroad and steamship companies are not, except under extraordinary circumstances, conducive to the interests of the poorer classes, and it makes impossible to decide when they should be permitted qnd when nor. Therefore it is better to err on the side of safety, and allow none.”
Desperate to discredit the popular candidate, his opposition labeled Thompson and the Workingmen’s party communistic. Though disawowing communism, Thompson did believe, as he told an audience on October 15, in “law and property being respected, even to the extent of punishing the Mortons and Gilmans of society, where they defraud people of millions, as promptly and by the same mode as poor wretches who steal five dollars.”
Despite his tireless efforts and evident popularity, Thompson finished second to Kane in the October 25 election. Official results gave Kane 33,188 votes, Thompson 17,367, and Warfield a mere 536.
Workingmen’s party members and supporters around the city immediately cried fraud, claiming that Thompson’s votes had been wrongly counted for Kane. Thompson himself said that he could not understand the small botw he received in some wards, given the extraordinary size of the turnouts for his speeches. Many citizens at the time and later historians as well have called the vote fraudulent, but Thompson and his party lacked the funds to contest the results.
Although Thompson failed to bring the Workingmen’s party to power in Baltimore, his campaign had gained working people’s support for radical reforms and strengthened their class consciousness.
This selection is by Sylvia Gillett, and is from chapter 1 of The Baltimore Book which was published in 1991. For background on the labor unrest, read here. The last chapter of the book I also published as well: read it here.