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In Re Debs: 1895

Debs Tried For Conspiracy

Unlike the contempt charge, the government had to try Debs for conspiracy before a jury. The ARU retained the famous lawyer Clarence Darrow, who was assisted by S. Gregory and former Illinois Supreme Court Judge Lyman Trumbull. The prosecutors were John C. Black, T. M. Milchrist, and Edwin Walker.

When the trial opened January 26, 1895, from the start Darrow made it clear to the jury that the issue at trial was not Debs' guilt but the government's desire to crush the union movement. Referring to an executive committee of the railroads called the General Managers' Association, Darrow said:

This is an historic case which will count much for liberty or against liberty.… Conspiracy, from the days of tyranny in England down to the day the General Managers' Association used it as a club, has been the favorite weapon of every tyrant. It is an effort to punish the crime of thought.

Darrow cleverly decided to subpoena George Pullman and the members of the General Managers' Association to testify at the trial. While the real opposition to the "Debs Rebellion" was being served with legal process, the prosecutors grilled Debs. They hoped to provoke him into a socialist tirade against American industry and thus alienate the jury. Prosecutor Walker asked Debs how he defined the word "strike." Debs, however, merely responded in a detached manner:

A strike is a stoppage of work at a given time by men acting in concert in order to redress some real or imaginary grievance.

Walker: Mr. Debs, will you define the meaning of the word "scab"?

A scab in labor unions means the same as a traitor to his country. It means a man who betrays his fellow men by taking their places when they go on strike for a principle. It does not apply to non-union men who refuse to quit work.

After Debs' testimony, events took a surprising turn. Judge Grosscup, probably influenced by George Pullman and the General Managers' Association, who were reluctant to testify in open court, stated on the day after Debs's testimony that:

Owing to the sickness of a juror and the certificate of his physician that he will not be able to get out for two or three days, I think it will be necessary to adjourn the further taking of testimony in this case.

Grosscup then adjourned the case. In a remarkable turn of events, the trial never reconvened. In effect, the government dropped the conspiracy charge. It has never been conclusively determined whether this decision was the result of Pullman's influence or the weakness of the government's case.

Darrow and Debs' other lawyers appealed the still-valid contempt conviction. However, on May 27, 1895, the U.S. Supreme Court rejected their pleas and refused to overturn Woods' decision. Debs served his six-month sentence in Illinois' Woodstock Prison with other ARU leaders jailed for contempt. In Re Debs has been cited many times since to demonstrate the sweeping powers of federal judges to punish those who violate court orders.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationNotable Trials and Court Cases - 1883 to 1917In Re Debs: 1895 - The "debs Rebellion", Debs Tried For Conspiracy, Debs' Political Career Continued